The night was pitch-black, the empty sky littered with countless stars. I lay silently in bed, my mind churning with thoughts. I was at the end of three-year retreat in solitude, meditating alone in a cabin in the woods, under the guidance of an eminent Buddhist teacher. My retreat’s end was a week away, and for all the heart-opening wisdom I had received over the last several years, the anxiety of uncertainty was gnawing. A summer night, my windows were wide open, the silence of the stars endlessly enveloping.
My cat, Amore, my sole companion, was outside. Her nighttime adventures always made me feel uncomfortable, as I had deep fear of the dark woods, and particularly of the creatures haunting the forest. A couple years earlier in my retreat, I received a note that a mountain lion had made a kill in the meadow at the base of my ridge, and that it wouldn’t be prudent to go outside after dark. I never again felt comfortable outdoors past dusk. I resisted my cat’s relish for the nighttime forest for a good long time, but given her loud feline demands and the inability to remove myself from her company in the one-room cabin, I had no choice but eventually to comply.
On this particular night, with my restless mind and inability to drift into slumber, I thought I heard my cat hovering by the door, wanting to come inside. As sleep seemed somewhat futile, I brushed aside my covers and my neurotic mind. Putting on my headlamp, which I kept wrapped around my wrist, I walked the few feet across the cabin to the glass door.
At the door, peering in at me, with face nearly pressed against the glass, was a mountain lion. She was small, smaller than I imagined a lion would be, and lacked the ferocious malice my fears had conjured. She was not hunting or aggressive, she was curious. Her eyes were gentle, and her demeanor, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, seemed sad, maybe lonely. This was a creature like me, alone in the woods, looking to relate. Yet, having her this close was inappropriate, against the natural order.
Instinctively, I raced to the door, feeling the primal need to protect my abode. As soon as she heard my steps and saw my meager light, she turned and swiftly disappeared into the dark shadows, following the line of the porch. Though her face had been unmistakable, as she turned, her long tail confirmed without doubt that this was indeed a mountain lion, rather than a bobcat or lynx, both of which have bobbed tails. Without thinking, I opened the door and ran outside aggressively after her, slipping into the same darkness, the small pool of light of my headlamp as my sole protection. I chased her fifteen feet or so to the edge of the porch, and screamed at her at the top of my lungs, primal, guttural, screams of protection. I am the fierce creature that lives here, and I will destroy you if you come back.
Our twirling thoughts aren’t true; we are not as dependent on circumstances as we think.
From the edge of the porch I watched her run at full speed away from me, seamlessly gliding through the dark. I was utterly terrified, but in that moment, watching her run with all her might, I was astounded by her grace and ease, her beauty, the dance of her movement. I was amazed at her sheer power, at my own power unleashed that she was running full speed away from.
Once she was gone, I returned to the cabin, my heart beating in my ears. Somehow the intense fright made vanish all the meager worries that had been irritating me. Intense fear rips away the clinging thoughts of comfort. All I could be was present in that moment. I intuitively felt my cat was safe but hiding, which was confirmed the following day. After allowing the adrenaline surge to dissipate, I turned out the lights, and was finally able to get to sleep.
All the stories about mountain lions seemed so frightening, especially the ones I told myself, but when I was there, in that moment, I could act with power I didn’t know I had. Isn’t that just how life is? We spend our time plotting and planning, fearing and avoiding, but those methods simply don’t work. Cultivating our own strength behind that veil of uncertainty is what gives us the power to act in ways that seem impossible to our conceptual mind. Our twirling thoughts aren’t true; we are not as dependent on circumstances as we think. Our strength to act comes from our own inner resources that lie beyond the conceptual mind. Too often, we vastly underestimate ourselves.
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