By Tom Carroll
Late one rainy afternoon in the parking lot of my bank I dropped a gold nugget. It had been in a wooden box with several old pieces of jewelry. Rings, one raw nugget and a nugget studded stick pen.
There were also tie clasps and cuff links from another era and an assortment of broken chains and other bits and pieces, some solid and others gold plated. They were things that I had no use for but which still held sentimental value and with the rising price of the metal I’d decided to put them all in a safe place.
Getting out of my car and turning to close the door, the box slipped off the top of a stack of papers I carried. Being November and just before closing time, daylight was already slipping away as the little box slid off into the air. I could only watch as it sailed forward and hit the asphalt, its contents flying away from the point of impact.
Quick as I could I picked up all that I could see and then began to look closer for what might be missing. The nugget. One long, thin piece of natural gold the size and shape of a small leaf was gone. I had never thought of it as resembling a leaf. But there before me on the pavement were literally thousands of little golden leaves blown to the ground from nearby bushes. In an instant I realized that my nugget resembled any one of those leaves, each just the size, shape and color of a small piece of gold that now lay among them, hidden in plain sight.
As I stood looking, people hurrying in and out of the bank stopped to ask what I had lost. A wind had picked up making it even more miserable to be standing in a parking lot but in spite of the cold several offered to help. Gold can do amazing things but generating trust is not one of them. I was thankful to see good intentions giving way as, one by one my helpers, realizing the impossibility of the situation, wished me luck and left me alone.
The nugget weighed 3.2 pennyweight or .175 oz. Calculated at the current price, somewhere in front of me lay three hundred dollars. If I simply walked away I could live with the loss of the money. But what really bothered me was knowing that every time I drove into that parking lot I would remember and feel the sting. I knew that I would always regret not having spent the time to find that piece of gold. So I settled on a plan and after depositing the other pieces in the vault I drove away hoping that mine or another car tire would not catch up and carry away a little piece of treasure.
Two hours later it was pitch dark and I was back. The bank was closed and the parking lot deserted. Wearing a heavy coat, gloves and armed with two flashlights taped together and angled so that their light converged to form a single bright beam I began my search among the carpet of little leaves and rain wet pavement.
“How stupid of me to be so clumsy,” I found myself thinking.
“If only I had been more careful.”
“I’ll never find it.”
“What if I never find it!”
As anyone who meditates learns to do, I noticed thoughts as they arose and let them dissolve the same way they had come, each time returning to breath and uninterrupted examination of what was directly in front of me. Only in this way could each leaf be given that one moment of pure attention required to really see and distinguish.
Just as if this was my first hour on a meditation cushion, the stream of distractive thoughts was relentless, each one attempting to seduce with it’s story of what had happened, what I was seeing, all of which would make it harder to find the nugget. Thankfully, by habit of practice I could bring my attention back to the present, each breath creating space between attention and thoughts, giving my eyes over to undistracted seeing.
Breath and look. How long would I stay here? Back to the breath.
My feet and the beam of light moved slowly forward. Ten feet in one direction then over and back the way I had come. As I finished this first grid I shifted ninety degrees, covering the same ground but now my flashlights would illuminate the scene from another angle. A car pulled into the lot, its headlights a glare that made it harder to distinguish single objects on the ground. With its lights facing me I could not tell if it was a police patrol. If so, would the officer confront me? Once again my attention had wondered.
The rain that was falling was cold as ice and the wind on my wet head radiated a chill down my back. And still, each leaf had to be examined. I could not allow my sight to drift casually.
“Do not miss a single breath!” So many times I had heard this injunction on the first day of a Sesshin. This is the standard we attempt to uphold through the week. And though we inevitably find our minds wondering in the wilderness of imagined things… without recrimination we come back to the breath.
Just as if during a practice period I summoned the will to stay present. But this was a money shot. One chance was probably all I would get. If my thoughts were drifting at that critical moment, my eyes might pass, unseeing, over the little piece of gold.
Thirty minutes then another ten, how long could I keep looking? Was my search pattern consistent enough? Had the nugget bounced away on impact, was I even looking in the right place? Again, I had lost my focus.
Unless someone else had found it or a car tire actually had carried the nugget away – short of these two unlikely possibilities that little piece of gold lay waiting somewhere nearby. Fifty minutes, maybe an hour passed without success. Inevitably, feelings of frustration tugged at me. Thankfully, each time a thought rose up I re-opened the space between the subject – the thought story – and the object – the real objective that held me out in the dark and cold.
It was the color of the leaves. And it was the same size as the leaves. But when I saw it no second look was needed. When I saw where it lay, it could not have been more distinct. Gold. There’s nothing like the real thing!
This experience exposed attitudes otherwise unseen. It is true that some people cannot be trusted. But my distrust of the people who offered help came too quickly – was too visceral to be labeled simple caution. And… “The money shot.” Why did a little piece of metal command an extra measure of effort? Would it be too dramatic to suggest that every minute on the cushion is a money shot?
Interesting observations – or just more stuff to be aware of. This extra measure of courage to recognize unflattering truths is not unlike lighting a candle in church. An expression both of gratitude and superstition.
The experience of losing and finding is a timeless tale. We lose things and all too often never see them again. But when we find an important lost thing, emotions combine, creating the most sublime of feelings. After a few moments of exaltation our attention is released and we can move on again without lingering concerns or regret.
If we are fortunate we find our way to meditation practice, inside of which nothing is lost and nothing needs to be found. I often practice to get something. But I also practice to recover from the need to get anything and by the rules of paradox both make sense. But finally, gold is most valuable when appreciated as a metaphor. There is a lost treasure. One lost in plain sight. With practice we begin to see this fact. Those who see continue to practice so as to never lose sight of the truth again. You might say that this is what I was really looking for in that parking lot.