Needles in Haystacks

why read a poem
when I can read the sunrise
on the western hills?


It’s been years since I first saw a series of Monet’s haystack paintings at the Art Institute in Chicago. Even then I was struck by the concept (and, of course, the effect) of a few dozen renderings of the same basic subject from various perspectives at various times of day and year.

The repetition and the variations in these paintings, both subtle and great, are tremendous. And I knew this back in the day, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until very recently.

Whenever my schedule permits I wake up around dawn and meditate for half an hour just as soon as I can get myself out of bed. (A couple years ago I blogged about meditating during sunrise.) Afterwards I sit in a comfy chair facing the Rocky Mountain foothills off to the west, accompanied by a cup of decaf, my journal, and a book or two.

As the sun emerges over the horizon behind me—when I can remember to look up from the pages of my book or journal, that is—I’m able to follow the gradual and rapid transition from night to day, as the light plays on distant hills emerging into visibility out of a deep, deep blue. Repeatedly I’m stunned not simply by this everyday beauty, but in particular by how quickly and seamlessly each of the myriad variations merges into the next. Blink, and the scene is changed utterly.

Finally, a few mornings ago, the thought struck me: Why read poetry when I can read the sunrise? I remembered Monet, and over the past couple mornings I dashed outside multiple times to photograph the play of sunrise on the foothills and the sky above them. Years after first visiting the Art Institute, I think I finally get it. Like those haystacks, these hills are pure Zen: they’re observation and awareness, a reflection of essential flux, transience, and interrelatedness. The totality of what we see and experience in any given moment is impossible to capture in words or paint (or pixels), and it’s ridiculous to try—but as human beings, how can we not make the attempt? How can we not be seized by these intimations of interconnection?

In Buddhism you’ll regularly find admonitions against mistaking a finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself, or mistaking a menu for actual food. And thus it is with profound gratitude that I thank the sun and these foothills—and all the many people who have brought me to this point—for being such incomparable teachers, such faithful reminders of what is there to be learned.


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