Week 1

by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship

I was on a Vipassana meditation retreat in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley one spring, looking out over rolling hills. Cherry trees were in bloom, along with other fruit trees, flowers and bushes which provided beauty as far as the eye could see. In all of this beauty, my mind—which was supposed to be centered in my breath—was obsessed with one thing and one thing only. Tent caterpillars. One of the cherry trees had tent caterpillars.

Back home in Washington DC, where I lived at the time, we also had an outbreak of tent caterpillars. I had learned to paint tanglefoot, a sticky substance, around the base of my tree’s trunks so that the caterpillars could not scooch up and make their disgusting nests. There was no tanglefoot on that cherry tree I could see from my meditation perch, and it upset me every time I opened my eyes (which were supposed to focus only on dharma teachings, announcements, or yoga instructions).

Finally, I went up to the groundskeeper, who I saw out working while I was supposed to be doing walking meditation, and hissed, “Tanglefoot.” Did I mention we were supposed to be silent for the whole ten days of the retreat? The groundskeeper, clearly under instructions, did not respond verbally or seem to even register what I had said. No tanglefoot appeared on the tree.

The next day I had a one on one session with my primary teacher at the time, Tara Brach. Tara knew me well from other retreats and events. She had grown up UU and knew that I ran the UUA’s Washington Office at the time, and we frequently talked about our common social justice concerns. In the session, I told her how troubled I was by the tent caterpillars.

She looked at me with compassion. “When you leave here,” she said, “You might want to start a nonprofit with the goal of dealing with tent caterpillars. But now, that’s not what you’re doing. If you can’t stop noticing the tent caterpillars, concentrate on bringing them into your consciousness and into your heart.”

I was appalled. Clearly they were already in my consciousness—way too much—but the idea of bringing these horrible little worms into my heart, on purpose, sounded like a terrible idea. But, I tried. From then on, when my attention turned to the tent caterpillars, I set my intention to welcoming them into my heart. When I finally managed to do this, it’s hard to explain quite what happened, but it was powerful. The closest image I have is that it was like what can happen when you look at an image that might be a young woman or an old witch, depending on how you look at it, and which switches back and forth, changing as you adjust how you fix your eyes, how you hold the picture, how you tilt your head, how you squint.

What happened was that my desire to rid the world of tent caterpillars was still there, but depending on which way I looked at it, it alternated with a different image—the clear knowledge that this desire to eradicate worms was somehow connected to my own sense of shame and inadequacy, which permeated from inside me. As I continued to sit with the shifting between shame (internal) and desire to eradicate the caterpillars (external), another change took place: something in my internal sense of being moved to acceptance. I could see and know, from the inside, that even with worms crawling around in my heart, I was OK. Nothing about me needed to be fixed. Desire to eradicate the worms shifted at that point, too, and I trusted that the groundskeeper could do his job without me.

This experience came back to me when I returned to Washington DC to do my job. We had been trying, with considerable lack of success, to stop a war that was brewing in the Middle East, to keep religious conservatives from imposing their religion on the rest of us, to make elections fair and equitable. None of it was working. After the experience with the worms, the work shifted for me. I allowed all of those horrors, and many more, to take up residence in my heart. Somehow in that shift the desire to change what was going on shifted from desperate hopelessness to radical acceptance. Not acceptance as in might as well stop trying to change this, but rather acceptance as in here is what we have the power to do, and there is where somebody else needs to do something or it will not happen.

Desire of any kind, including desires to be healthy, desires to be loved, and desires to make the world more equitable and beautiful, can be negative forces when they come out of a place of shame and inadequacy. Nothing is ever enough, and grasping becomes a dominant force. I now try to hold in my heart the knowledge that I am fundamentally OK even when things around me are unfair and destructive, even when others are not behaving as I wished they did, even in this broken-hearted aching world.  

My desire for justice will never fade; that desire tells me I am alive and alert. But the desperation in my desire for a better world which was propelled by shame and inadequacy has shifted, and for that I will forever be grateful to tent caterpillars!