December 3, 2013
One of the Monteverde Cloud Forest’s hanging bridges.
At the beginning of this year, my spouse and I traveled to the cloud forests of Costa Rica to celebrate his birthday. I didn’t know much about the area before I started researching the trip, which was a Christmas present, but I had taken a class with a Buddhist nun who lived in a Nicaraguan cloud forest, and the descriptions of her home and day-to-day life piqued my interest.
We ended up traveling to Monteverde, an area that was settled in the 1950s by Quakers from Alabama who objected to the military draft for the Korean War. It’s a small, compact town at about 4,200 feet above sea level, set on a mountain ridge just below the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This part of Costa Rica is perhaps best known for two things: the grueling, 90-minute drive up the mountain on a treacherous, winding gravel road to reach Monteverde, and the suspension bridges and zip lines that one finds high above the cloud forest floor once you arrive.
Looking at photos of hanging bridges is a very different experience from actually standing at the base of one. From the very first step, I was forced to deal with my near-paralyzing fear of heights. The steel-grate flooring decks of the bridge tend to move up and down with each step, while the cables that double as handrails move in the opposite direction, so the entire bridge twists as you walk across, and the twisting gets worse the further away from you get from the towers at either end. The experience is made all the more harrowing when you look down to see how high you are above the tree tops.
It took me a few minutes to work my way out on to the first bridge, and as I stood there, I made a rather snap decision: for once in my life, I would force my mind to abandon the fears and anxieties and stories that constantly bombard my consciousness. In short, I decided to simply be present — to accept that the current moment was the only moment I should be concerned with — and to put one foot in front of the other without obsessing about whether I would fall off the bridge and plunge to my death below.
It was an amazing feeling to be free from those feelings, and to simply enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After a few minutes of loosening up, I may have even intentionally bounced on the bridge a few times, much to the chagrin of my spouse.
“Thoughts are like clouds. Even though the clouds sometimes seem to cover the entire sky, if you take a plane you can go beyond them into a vast space that is never even touched by the clouds. The clouds of our ordinary thoughts are just temporary and changing, whilst the deeper nature of our mind is unchanging, like the infinite space of the sky.” -Sogyal Rinpoche
This whole experience came to mind yesterday as I re-listened to a teaching that Sogyal Rinpoche gave at a retreat in New London, Connecticut, in June on buddha nature, the potential for enlightenment that every sentient being possesses. Although the various denominations of Buddhism have differing views on the subject, the path I study has perhaps the most optimistic viewpoint — each and every being not only has buddha nature (which is innate and primordially pure), but, as Rinpoche puts it, “Your buddha nature is as good as any buddha’s buddha nature.”
While contemplating this profound teaching, I was reminded that our limitless potential is obscured by the emotional and cognitive delusions that we have created through lifetimes of bad habits, negative actions and self-grasping. ”Once you recognize that a delusion is just that, it ceases to exist,” Rinpoche said in the teaching. ”Just like turning on a light in a dark room.”
If only it were as easy as flipping a light switch…but the experience of putting my fear of heights aside for a long weekend of hiking in Costa Rica is a tangible example of the point Rinpoche made about delusion, which is one of the biggest roadblocks to my own spiritual practice. If I suddenly found myself on one of those bridges in the cloud forest again, it would only take me a few minutes to come to grips with the situation, shake off my fear and then enjoy the raw now-ness of the present moment, even if I’m swinging back and forth in the treetops of Central America.
It know it would take a great deal of practice to dispel that fear on a permanent basis, just as it will take a great deal of practice before I am able to banish the obscurations that keep my from realizing my own potential buddhahood. But I know it’s possible, and I’m grateful for the masters — including my own — that have shown us the way.