Don’t worry, this will not be a life-changing story, but it will be a story nevertheless, a story that I didn’t make up, which I couldn’t make up, which has happened to me only a week ago, on a weekend in Devonshire of the United Kingdom, where I went for my annual silent meditation retreat. Every year, about the same time in the fall, I descend upon the silence, or rather the silence descends upon me, for a few days of introspection, reflection, and insight, where occasionally I learn a few of the life’s little lessons and discover a few things about myself. In the past, I have struggled with impatience, I still struggle with compassion, and I always get a glimpse into my mind’s own magic trickery, driven by the defilements in the form of desire, fear, and angst. But let’s leave that for later. This is a story about the apple tree, isn’t it?
I arrive at the Gaia house with a bit of trepidation. Afterall, I have left my practice in the States, and my annual escape into mindfulness needs a new comfort home. What should I expect? Here come the expectations. Will it be the same? Here comes the comparing mind. Given all of my past learned lessons, I give up on expecting. And it works. I give up on the contrast. And it works. On the second day of my silent retreat, I feel fear, I feel joy, and then, suddenly, I stop feeling. Again. I take a five-minute walk down the street from the nunnery’s driveway and come upon a farmhouse with a lone apple tree standing still by the road. This is where we first meet.
The tree is not part of an orchard, but just a single tree, boasting with apples, its branches long, full and heavy, holding the red and ripe fruit. The ground is covered with more fallen apples in their various states of decay, and it’s clear that it hasn’t been tended to in a very long time. I want to reach out and grab at all this low hanging fruit, but the precept I took only a few days ago (“don’t take what is not freely offered”) holds me back from this barely classifiable crime. So I stop. It’s a shame, really, I think, because all this fruit will go simply to waste. But holding on to the promise, I turn back, walking back to the center, for another round of Qi Gong.
The next day I wake up to the strong battering wind blowing down through my window, down the hall, down the stairs, and out of the door. The tail end of the hurricane which has bombarded the islands of the Carribean finally has made its way across the Atlantic to the English coast. After the morning practice, I go out into the fields. The wind is plunging across the valley, thrashing the grass, beating the trees, and only cows and sheep seem to be at ease with the weather since the flies are unable to withstand its assault. I go back into the house. Later on, I come out again. If I would have spent a weekend in London I’d be locked behind closed doors, plugged into the net, avoiding this storm. But I’m out in the country, with no reading or music, with no writing or talking, free from tasks and from doing, so I stand in the field, feeling the energy of the gust blow its breath, in and out, like I do every moment, only this time with force.
Eight hours later, after dinner time, I find myself looking over the grasslands, as the lowering sun suddenly looks like a sphere, no longer a bright shiny disk in the distance, but a red gleaming star. I ponder on the cosmos, its relative sizing, and on the completely accidental, beautiful and precious chance of having a life, of being a human, of using a conscious mind to appreciate this moment. Suddenly a thought rips through my very being. The apple tree!!! Surely it must have been shaken off of its gifts throughout the entire day, and the apples must have fallen, lying still on the ground, with no one to save them! Oh, what a shame, if no one would even bake them into a pie, or press into a cider, or dry into chips. With something new to do (aha, a new task!) I rush down the street from the nunnery’s driveway to look at the lone apple tree standing there by the road.
When I arrive it is just as I have already imagined. The branches are naked and beaten and raw. The ground is completely covered with fruit. I kneel to inspect a few fallen apples. Shall I knock on the farmhouse, shall I write them a note, shall I organize something to correct this faux pas? Finally, I get up from the ground and let this devastation absolve me. At this very moment, I give up all control. In my desperate search to accomplish some task, to set things straights, to align the present moment, I have taken a role of the one that advises, of the one that controls. But the apple tree has been there all along before me, and the wind would have come, and the fruit would have fallen. It is not superficial, it’s as simple as that. I take a deep breath, and with my last resort, I decide to let go of a thought that I have ever have had any control in the first place. Pretty much about anything in life. The apple tree seems to agree.
I turn away from the tree and begin my slow ascend back towards the center. But before I am able to make only a few steps, an older couple emerges, seemingly out of nowhere, with baskets and bags in their hands. “Good day,” they say. Unable to speak I only nod. The couple walks straight to the apple tree with determinism and purpose, they kneel down to the ground and pick up all the fruit. And the apple tree smiles.