My father, who was sixty-years older than me, used to sit and stare off into space quite often. It seemed as though he would stop blinking. As a child I would ask, “Daddy, what are you thinking about?” He would drop his head, then look at me and say with his thick Creole tongue, “I am looking way back.” Sometimes it would take him all day to look way back he said because he had lived a long life. Then he would tell me a story from that long life. It was usually a story about a sharecropper’s life with his mother and thirteen brothers and sisters. They were stories that would give me a new perspective of my own life and therefore new direction. Today, I am old enough to “look way back” like Daddy did so often. At 61 years old, I spend quite of bit of time looking back. Sometimes I end up crying, sometimes I laugh. The mind just happens to reflect in such a way. So, when the path of Dharma appeared to me, I was concerned about the amount of time I spent reflecting on the past. What is the mind doing when it pulls from its collection of stories? As we age, for what reason do we look way back?
Recently, it was said to me in a requested consultation on life, “at your age there is little to no horizon.” I left the session feeling sad and stunned by the words, “no horizon.” Immediately afterwards, I found myself looking for horizons in my life–looking for what’s next. It wasn’t the same as looking way back. At my age, I could only go so far into the future. Perhaps the consult was right. My life did feel to be mostly behind me. For a week this sense of little to no horizon haunted me. Fortunately, what haunts me usually turns into some kind of revelation. In a waking vision, I found myself looking back from a mountain. I stood on the mountain for a long time, with the sun on my face. There was a great amount of joy standing on this mountain looking across to other mountains, looking down over the valley of trees and listening to the shrill of hawks flying overhead. Finally, I began to laugh in this waking vision. I laughed because at my age I realized that I had become the horizon. There was no need to look for one. So, I considered that every step of life is the horizon. From the day we are born we probably began to look back. How else do we remember that mother’s milk is soothing? Every moment presents a peak in our lives from which we eventually develop the capacity to reflect upon. It is quite natural to look back from the mountains we climb in our living everyday. Our every day stories are grooves we make with our feet on the side of the mountains of our lives. Every time my father told his stories my feet touched the grooves he had made so that when I made my own they would lead to my own landings. So, when we are taught to still our minds, to meditate, it does not mean that we are not allowed to reflect upon our lives. However, the reflection is not for dwelling on suffering but rather it can be an act of unburying wisdom from beneath the pain.
All along my father was not just re-visiting pain or joy when he sat all day looking way back. His stories were not re-hashing memories as much as he was transmitting the light of wisdom to his daughter. It was a life-to-life transmission that it is often spoken about in Zen training between a master and a student. I imagined it took him a great amount of meditation or stillness to sift his stories. He had to isolate what was important and useful. He sifted his stories until they were light enough to pass on as light. As a result, his storytelling was never exhausting. Sitting at his feet I could listen to his teachings day in and out. He was standing high on this mountain sharing with me all that he had seen in his life. I bow to you Lawrence Manuel, Jr., wherever you are.