Notes on a Buddhist path

I think I am…

December 8, 2013 By | 12 Comments

Being far from home is hard, but you know, at least we are exiled together. ~ David Whyte

2009- In the MistBack in the early 17th century, René Descartes proclaimed the philosophical anthem that would become a fundamental lynchpin of Western thinking: cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am.

Last month I surrendered to retreat, to the place where questions of knowledge and thinking are upended and the insights that arise begin to form a new foundation of knowing. Slipping into the warm bath of quiet contemplation and mindful solitude I found in my 10 day meditation retreat a deepening into my practice and a clearer understanding of how mistaken Mr. Descartes truly was in his edict.

It isn’t that I think therefore I am. A more apt summation of our human condition is I think I am, therefore I think I have form and sensations, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, in sum the Five Aggregates of Buddhism. Our misshapen belief that somewhere inside there is an I who runs our show here on earth leads us to a kind of “Who’s on first?” circular madness of logic. I see and hear and I’m aware of all my senses. I can come up with millions of thoughts and subsequent stories to accompany each one of them. My consciousness culls all my past experiences and with these creates belief systems and judgements about every speck of minutia that I come in contact with in life. But who thinks the thoughts and smells the coffee and decides she likes the colour blue? Who’s asking the question is the same being who is answering it and to add to the madness, the answer is always changing.

Settling into the time and space of retreat allowed me to witness the transient nature of everything, the arising and passing of each sensation in the body, each thought and proliferation that when noted vanished like so much mist on a snow swept lake. Settling into a still landscape of concentration and mindfulness, wisdom took flight and opened for me insights into another way to be in the world. Beyond thinking I am, I was able to catch glimpses of an unrivaled freedom in knowing there is annica (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (the illusion of self) that opens a porthole into a clearer sighting of everything.

Going on retreat is in some ways like returning home from exile. In the silence of the monastery each of us reclaims our language, our culture, our heart ties to the kin of our sangha, our spiritual community. My teacher of past retreats, Ajahn Sona, is himself in a year-long silent retreat, so returning home to Birken Forest Monastery this time allowed me to experience another teacher, Bhante Rahula. I thrived in the fullness of our days and felt my practice enlivened with yoga, Pali chants and guided meditations that furthered my commitment to the path and to the home I’ve found in the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings.

Leaving the enclave of retreat and returning to my home in the city, I’ve found a keener commitment to nurture mindfulness throughout the day, keeping the flame of retreat burning in the recesses of my exiled heart. I try harder to see that whatever I think I am or you are is nothing but mist forming and passing away. I think I am, I think I am, I think I am, and then for an instant everything is clear in a moonless sky. In each breath there’s a chance for a sighting on that dark night of the bonfires of a distant shore and a knowing that one day my foot will know the foot in the touching of that sacred ground and that eternal peace.

To read more about the recent retreat at Birken, visit Bhante Rahula’s blog:

A Boat
by Margaret Atwood

Evening comes on and the hills thicken;
red and yellow bleaching out of the leaves.
The chill pines grow their shadows.

Below them the water stills itself,
a sunset shivering in it.
One more going down to join the others.

Now the lake expands
and closes in, both.

The blackness that keeps itself
under the surface in daytime
emerges from it like mist
or as mist.

Distance vanishes, the absence
of distance pushes against the eyes.

There is no seeing the lake,
only the outlines of the hills
which are almost identical,

familiar to me as sleep,
shores unfolding upon shores
in their contours of slowed breathing.

It is touch I go by,
the boat like a hand feeling
through shoals and among
dead trees, over the boulders
lifting unseen, layer
on layer of drowned time falling away.

This is how I learned to steer
through darkness by no stars.

To be lost is only a failure of memory.

“A Boat” by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems II: 1976-1986. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1987.

 Excerpt from “Revelation Must be Terrible” by David Whyte.

 Image Credit:

2009 – In the Mist by ario Reale via Flickr Creative Commons


  1. great article Tess!

  2. Thank you.

  3. “Going on retreat is in some ways like returning home from exile.”

    Amen to that!

    • Thanks David! I think we’re all emigrants, even if we don’t remember that home is ultimately not returning at all.

  4. I am deeply grateful for your sharing, Tess.
    Yes, Yes, and Yes!

    • Lois, thank you, and I’m so grateful for your beautiful constancy in visiting my words over the years. Blessings in all ways to you.

  5. “and then for an instant everything is clear in a moonless sky” Sadhu… xo

  6. Tess,
    Descartes, we’re told ( postulates that “the mere fact that I am thinking, regardless of whether or not what I am thinking is true or false, implies that there must be something engaged in that activity, namely an I.” Calling it what I will, be it I, ego, me, this being: the “fact” remains that there’s something within that’s doing the thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Who or what sits on the cushion, chants, eats, shits, writes … and suffers? Buddhist teachings provide answers, but that’s all they are, Buddhist answers.

    Thank you for stirring my muddled mind. “Like a fool, like an idiot,” as it says in The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi written by an 11th Century Zen monk in China.

    • It does indeed stir the mind. I believe the “it”, the “I”, the one who thinks, feels, sits and suffers is the being deluded into believing there is any substance to this life. All is impermanent, our contact and clinging to our thoughts, our body, our beliefs (yes, even the belief in a non-self) keeps us trapped in the loop of suffering. In the rare moments when I glimpse the freedom from the tethers of craving I (for lack of a better describer) feel a joyous sense of the non-self and a true lightness of being.

      Thank you, Peter, for the conversation and stirring my muddled mind as well.

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