Power Up

I start up the long slow climb from near sea level, just above the bluffs that form a sandy escarpment above Mount Doug beach, towards the summit of Mount Doug, some six hundred feet above. It’s a spectacular trail that weaves its way between sea and sky through a dense, light speckled forest. In the winter it can be very wet, being on the windward side of this coastal hill, and the forest reflects the damper climate: massive Douglas fir trees jut out of the fern cloaked forest. Red cedar and spruce compete for the light. The trails can become brooks during heavy rains, and more than once I’ve found myself calf deep, jumping up the steps of a track turned waterfall.

But in the middle of this drier-than-normal summer, it’s parched and makes for easy running. It’s a good thing too, because once again I have much in common with the banana slugs I labour to avoid as I plod along through the woods.

I come to the place on the trail – or, more accurately, a point in my run — where I always seem to slow down. It’s inexplicable. I’m less than fifteen minutes into my run and I’m feeling tired. It’s the hump; it’s the wall. I look at my watch and allow for 60 seconds of walking and then begin again. I pass one of my favourite trees – a Douglas Fir that is broader than my six foot wingspan. It always gives me a boost of energy to power up the steep hill that rises above this primordial giant. Before long I’m on the trail that circumnavigates the rocky hill near its midpoint, gliding over the undulating terrain.

The sun peeks out from behind high clouds and the woods are momentarily transformed into a living cathedral of light.

I take the cut off that veers upwards again, scrambling over the polished stone that leads out of the dark woods and into an Arbutus pocked ridge that will lead me to the summit.

This is where I struggle.

I think that I’ve run over the summit of Mount Doug a thousand times now. I’ve lived in Victoria since the spring of 2005, and for big chunks of that time I’ve run at Mount Doug at least twice and sometimes three times. Every time I come here I run over the summit at least once. I haven’t been keeping track, but a thousand sounds about right. Despite that, its still hard work, largely because of my lack of consistency. Life is busy and at times several weeks will pass when I don’t run. I realize as I’m running up over the rocky outcrops that I’m also prone to settling for shorter runs, even when I’m feeling good. I’m resolving to run for at least an hour when I’m out, rather than cutting my time in the woods short with 40 minute jogs.

This morning when I started out I set my mind to run for an hour and to run from sea level to the summit twice. But now, two thirds of the way into my first lap up the hill, I’m feeling empty. I stop, chiding myself for my lacklustre effort. I eat an energy bar. That helps. Despite having been running for more than two decades, I often get the nutrition part of the exercise wrong and run out of steam. I need to work on that too.

The food helps, but I know something else is even more important to my running: mindfulness, and the awareness of no-self.

When I run I find that as hard as a trail might be, it’s made all the more difficult by the insistent intrusions of my overactive mind. Serious athletes talk about the “chatter” or the “monkey mind” that they must confront during competitions. I have a friend who is preparing for an Iron Man race this fall and she tells me that during her gruelling 180 km long training rides the chatter can be almost deafening. The voices in our minds can tell us over and over again that we can’t do this. So just stop. Stopping is easier than continuing. Stopping riding, stop running and the discomfort will stop too.

It’s the same voices that I confront when I’m in the empty room of meditation.

On the meditation cushion and on the trail there is no place to hide. There is no escape.

When I’m meditating and confront something dark lurking in the emptiness, my inclination is to run; to actually jump up from the couch or the cushion and blot out the door. So it is with my life; sometimes I run away from things. And that hasn’t served me very well.

But when I’m physically running, my challenge is to find stillness within without grinding to an embarrassing halt half way up a tough hill.

Pushing through the discomfort of the climb, I borrow a trick from my meditation practice to confront the ruckus in my mind. I acknowledge the voices and rather than try to banish them, I make friends with them. “You are just voices. You have no power over me. You speak to me, but I can choose to accept what you are saying or not. I choose not to.”

This mindfulness takes the wind out of the voices’ sails.

I glide over the summit of the hill and begin down the front side. My aim is to run the long, main trail along the leeward side of the hill all the way down, and then turn around and make for the summit again along the sandy, Garry Oak studded slopes.

The second element of mindfulness that matters to me is simply maintaining present moment awareness. I can acknowledge the clatter of voices in my head that pull at my legs and make my movement heavy; I can choose to reject what those voices are saying. And I can shift my awareness to the marvellous experience of gliding through the ancient forests of this tiny island park. I seek out rough, rocky, root strewn, boulder clad trails with plenty of downed trees and stream crossings because when I run on them I have to pay attention. The voices don’t get to have their say if my mind is engaged with the world around me.

Weaving my way back up the 600 feet of elevation gain is hard, but not as hard as I thought it might be (And certainly not as hard as the voices told me it would be). Once again I let go of the concept of self.

No-self is one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, and probably one of the most difficult to grasp. Most of us have come to believe that there is an “I” inhabiting our body, and that this “I” has a soul that is singular and unique. But the harder one searches for the “I” in ourselves, the more likely we come to see that there is no-self home to answer the call.

Gautama Buddha recognized this two thousand years ago. Today we can affirm with science what the Buddha discovered through many years of meditation: No-self is the recognition that we are simply the local manifestation of the soup of energy and information that gives rise to all life, to all matter.

We are at once individual manifestations, and at the same time seamlessly a part of all the rest of creation.

This is very helpful when we’re addressing our suffering. Attachment to the notion of the self can lead to some pretty big hurdles to freedom from suffering. If we’re attached to the notion of the self, then we can lose that which we love. We become entangled with our ego. We can die.

If there is no-self, then there is nothing to become attached to.

How does no-self eclipse the suffering experienced in my leaden thighs as I plod towards the summit of Mount Doug for the second time inside of an hour?

If there is no-self, then there is no separation. If there is no-self, there isn’t a man running along a trail on a hill next to the ocean. There is only nature; there is only the totality of creation. There is only one part of nature moving through itself, upwards.

And when there is no-self, when there is no boundary between “me” and “the hill” and “me” and “the forest” it becomes so much easier to draw on the boundless, effortless energy that nature exudes. In Taoism we would say that nature accomplishes its spectacular existence by “doing little to accomplish much.” Trees don’t struggle to grow: they just grow. They are humming with energy; with bountiful life.

So might we. And we can draw on their energy to fuel ourselves because its all the same thing: we simply must dissolve the illusion of separation in order to make use of the energy freely available to us.

When I am running up a long hill through glades of trees, or over the rocky spine of some ancient mountain, I see myself as not separate from the bounty of life around me, but seamlessly a part of it. I actively invite its energy to flow through me. In my mind, and through my heart, I pull that energy into me and allow it to power me up the trail.

This is what quantum physicists might call “non-local communication.”

It’s not an intellectual exercise. I feel this. It is my experience of the world.

I’m not merely replacing one set of “chattering” voices in my head with another more positive one. When I am moving through the woods, up in the mountains, down in the desert or along the ocean or a creek or river, I let go of the notion that I am separate from that which I am moving through. I surrender.

And of course, there is no “I” to do the surrendering.

During these brief moments, born of necessity, there is no duality: there is just creation and it is in motion through itself. It is powered by the same life giving energy and it exults in itself.

And then “I” am on the “summit” again. I stride out on the run down through the arbutus, spruce and fir. My focus must remain on the trail as there are places where a misstep could cause some damage, but the voices have been cast aside, and I let my mind rove a little. The energy that powered me up the side of the hill can also become a portal to the broader creativity of the universe. Here I can recall that I am also a conduit for the universes desire to express itself. I can make the voices work for me.

Nature abounds in creative energy, and it’s when I am “powering up” a hill and gliding back down, inseparable from the world around me, that I tap into that field of pure potential. I let the ideas come and go as I jump fallen logs and gingerly jump down rocky embankments.

By the time my run has finished, there is an “I” again and he’s getting in the car to navigate his way home for a shower. The moment of no-self, no-illusion and no-separation fades and I become absorbed with what ever comes next in my day. But the practice of powering-up – of drawing on the world around me for what I need by recalling that there is no “I” to separate me from the world of pure love, pure energy and pure possibility, is one of the most important things I am learning in my search for bliss.

Discovering Dharma, Part One

Let’s start with a statement of fact: I recently lost the only real job I’ve ever had.

Another fact: I’m not that upset about it.

Until March of last year I’ve always been self employed, or worked on contract. Landing a job at Royal Roads University as a Senior Development Officer for Sustainability with the school’s Foundation was the first time I’ve ever had a position with an org that had a payroll department, benefits, and an office with chairs that worked and a desk that wasn’t a kitchen table or a door in a previous life.

My professional trajectory has been a little less structured than the career path of my father’s or grandfather’s generation. I’ve had a paper route, mowed lawns, baby sat, worked as a Shift Manger at McDonalds (best leadership training program I had up until well into my time as an Executive Director), a hardware store clerk, and a camera store stock boy; I spent eight months helping to renovate a century old farm house, been a darkroom manager, a teaching assistant at my collage, a consultant to my collage on environmental issues; worked as a park naturalist in Ontario, in Banff National Park, and as a volunteer at Grand Canyon National Park, as a news paper columnist, a freelance writer and a novelist, been a professional pain-in-the-ass environmentalist and semi-registered federal lobbyist, an Executive Director of a small, punch-above-our-weight-class national environmental organization, and most recently the chief cook and bottle washer of my own strategy and communications consulting gig called Highwater Mark Strategy and Communications.

There have been moments in each of these diverse endeavours that I would characterize as enjoyable, even exceptional. Being paid to lead guided hikes into the Plain of Six Glaciers valley above Lake Louise or along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was a pretty amazing way to pay the rent. My work with groups like the Alberta Wilderness Association, UTSB Research and Wildcanada.net made it possible for me to earn a(n often meagre) living defending the wild lands and wild creatures I love.

But as I’ve opined elsewhere, it is writing that allows me to feel the perfect connection between myself and all the rest of the universe in a way I can only describe as blissful.

But my writing has yet to pick up the cheque. And so I’m also searching for “bliss-light” in my work to make sure I can put food on the table and buy the boys the occasional ice-cream cone. Consulting fit that bill.

One of my clients through my work with Highwater was the Royal Roads University Foundation. They asked me to help create a “strategic narrative” for The Bateman Centre for Art and Environmental Education. At the time (nearly 3 years ago now) Mr. Bateman and his wife Birgit had just agreed to donate $10.7 million in art, archival material and cash to the University as seed funding to create and Centre, and spearhead the Universities more ambitious plans for a sustainable campus.

Working with the Foundation team to create a thinly veiled Strategic Plan for the Centre (we couldn’t call it that due to University politics) was very rewarding. At a time when the whole world seemed on the verge of implosion, we were imaging a place where art, nature and community would come together to inspire people to solve some of the planets most pressing problems. I loved the people involved, and was really excited about the project.

About six months after finishing the contract, someone forwarded me a job posting for a fundraising position with the Foundation. The job was directly tied to the creation of the Bateman Centre, and was to be focused on working with green businesses, foundations and major donors who were motivated by environmental causes.

When I was the Executive Director of Wildcanada.net I spent about half of my time looking for money. I didn’t really enjoy it. There were times when I hated it. It was intensely stressful work. I had half a dozen people counting on my success for their pay packs. At times we had less than a month’s worth of cash in the bank; those were the nights I didn’t sleep. When I left Wildcanada.net in 2005 I was deeply relieved not to be fundraising anymore. I swore I’d never do it again.

That same year I wrote a book called Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership (Arsenal, 2006). In it, I dedicated a chapter to what I tongue-in-cheek called “Hot Taoist Tips for Fundraising ,” and then proceeded to state that there were no hot Taoist tips, and half-jokingly suggested readers might look elsewhere for advise.

For me, the best counsel that the Tao had for fundraising was that our anxiety about money, and the tension it creates within us, within our organizations and within the various social justice and environmental movements is a significant barrier to our overall success. As people constantly facing the ruin of things we loved – be it wilderness or justice or freedom – we had developed a scarcity lens through which we viewed the world. Time was scarce; that which we advocated for was obviously growing increasingly scarce; money was scarce.

Shifting our frame of mind to see the world as abundant; advocating with love and compassion rather than fear and anger; these were the couplets that would allow us to create a new paradigm for our efforts.

I think by the end of that chapter, and the penning of that book, I had convinced myself that raising money wasn’t so bad after all.

Around the same time I had started delving more deeply into the ancient Vedic practices of India, as taught by Deepak Chopra, and saw that attracting things like affluence and wealth needn’t be anxiety ridden: that indeed our anxiety keeps true success, whether it is material or spiritual, at bay.

I also learned that finding and following one’s Dharma, or purpose in life, is the secret to lasting fulfillment. When we are living our Dharma in our daily lives, the universe naturally responds by providing us with limitless opportunity.

All of that to say that when I went to the Royal Roads University Foundation office to discuss the position with my friends there, I was ready to step back into a position where supplication – to ask for humbly – would be a key component of the job. I choose to regard raising money as a means to a worthy end: the creation of the Bateman Centre; and as a tool to make the world a better place by involving those donors in the behavioural change work that we might one day undertake on campus. Money after all, I reasoned, was merely a representation of the energy that is constantly in circulation between us as people.

The job came with an attractive salary, which was a bonus, and meant that I wouldn’t have to scramble from time to time to recruit new clients to Highwater Mark. I worked 3 or 4 days at week for RRU, and was able to maintain my consulting practice on the side, working with groups like BC Hydro, The Ministry of Labour and Citizen Services and Communicopia on the side. It seemed pretty ideal.

From the start I recognized the change taking a J-O-B would create: I couldn’t sit around in my jammies all day anymore. Ok, I never really did, but working for a respectable organization, and meeting with respectable people, meant I had to dress respectably. I became suit and tied.

While it was agreed that I could work from home a day a week, I also became a commuter, driving out to the RRU campus two or three days each week. By rights it should only be a twenty-five minute trip, but most days I would drop Jenn off at her office, then Silas and Rio at their respective care facilities, and then finally make my way out to campus. This usually took at hour or more, and then I’d do it all in reverse at the end of the day.

There were many days when Jenn and I would find ourselves rushing out the door, matching computer bags in hand, hurrying the kids along, her in a skirt and pantyhose and me in slacks and a tie. My wife would then apply her “war paint” looking in the mirror; I would try not to brake too hard when she was applying eye liner.

Sometimes we’d laugh at how ridiculous it was. Sometimes we’d cry.

The work itself was promising. The Foundation had a great team, made even stronger as we weathered a first round of global-meltdown-induced budgetary cuts last Christmas. But challenging economic conditions, and rather extraordinary internal hurdles lead to a second round of cuts just a few weeks ago, which my position did not survive.

I think I saw it coming. I frequently joke that I’ve never had a job so good that I couldn’t quit or get fired from it. When I was asked to meet with my boss on the morning the anticipated cuts were to be announced, it dawned on me (five minutes before the meeting; sometimes I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed) that my head was on the block.

Not so much my head, in particular, but the position it filed.

I’m going to miss three things about Royal Roads and the effort to fund the Bateman Centre.

Working with Bob and Birgit Bateman became a highlight, and I’m going to miss working to fulfill a dream that they have had for many years. Bob is a charming, engaging and compelling story-teller: ever the teacher, I could listen to him talk about art, photography, travel and nature all day. Birgit is warm and inviting and lovely. It makes me sad that I won’t be a part of the fulfillment of that dream; at least not as I originally imaged.

I’m going to miss the Royal Roads campus. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place. From the shallow salt water lagoon outside my office door to the lush cedar forests along Colwood Creek; from the manicured Italian and Japanese gardens to the stalwart groves of Douglas Fir’s that number among the largest left on Vancouver Island: the campus is a powerful natural convergence of diverse ecosystems. Nearly every day I was on campus I ran the myriad trails that wove like serpents across the property’s varied landscapes; trails that ten thousand years of Coast Salish peoples likely once trod, and that were followed more recently by sweating officer cadets when Royal Roads was a military collage.

Maybe most importantly, I’m going to miss the RRU Foundation Team. It’s one of the best teams I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. I’ve joked that I could take this group of people and plunk them down in nearly any business or non-profit and we’d be wildly successful.

And in different times, maybe we’d have been wildly successful raising money for the Bateman Centre. Our campaign – built from absolutely nothing to one with hundreds of prospects – was hitting its stride just as the financial systems were collapsing. The challenge isn’t over yet for those few who remain. It is a difficult task they face, and one that will take much longer now to fulfill its vibrant dream.

My view of fundraising has changed through this experience. Despite the turn of events that leaves me watching from the outside again, I believe now more than ever that the best course for attracting wealth and prosperity and success is to believe whole-heartedly in what you are advocating for, and know that the universe will conspire to make it possible.

From the outset of these postings, I’ve been searching for bliss: in work, with my family, and through my loving relationships. Most of us spend forty five or fifty years of our too short lives working. If we can’t find and follow our bliss on the job, as Joseph Campbell advises, then when?

At times my work at Royal Roads was deeply satisfying. Serving Robert Bateman and his vision certainly was, as was my connection with so many amazing, creative and inspiration people. But it wasn’t blissful. Not everything we do can be, I suppose. And while my work there was important, it didn’t provide the experience of connectivity that I have sometimes experienced while writing. It wasn’t my Dharma.

In the end, I wasn’t disappointed that the experience came to an end. I would go back to serve the Foundation, that team, and the Bateman’s in a heart beat if asked, but life is short, and I’ve got so much that I hope to create and accomplish that I’m not going to waste a moment wishing for what isn’t so.

And I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that losing my job is simply another sign that I am on the verge of finding exactly what I am searching for from my life; of discovering my Dharma.

Eating the Sun

I bite into the first home grown tomato of the summer and it’s like biting into the sun.

The fruit is juicy and red and succulent. It tastes like the physical materialization of sunshine. In its simplest form, it is: the sun’s ultraviolet rays are used by the plant to create sugar through the process of photosynthesis. Those sugars are then used as the building blocks for the plants growth.

That it came from our own little garden makes the fruit taste sweeter still.

I’ve grown up around gardens. Some of my first memories stem from the garden my grandfather, Lucien, grew near his northern Ontario home. He and my grandmother Evelyn lived in a squared log cabin on the mine property where they raised five children, my father the second oldest among them. Lucien was a plumber and a tinsmith who worked underground in the Palmour gold mine for forty years. In the winter he made and cared for the ice at the curling rink and hockey arena on the mine site property. It’s my belief that the long winters and a life underground – bringing the air in and the water out of the stopes and shafts of that gold mine – gave my grandfather an urge to foster something green and living.

Lucien grew things that should never have grown in his hard pan soil, where the average frost free period was less than 90 days. Of course, all manner of root vegetable sprang forth from his tilled earth: turnips and carrots, potatoes and beats. But he also grew cucumbers, peas, pole beans and sometimes even the impossible: corn.

I remember sitting on the red-and-white Adirondack chairs in front of his log home’s veranda and biting into a carrot or snap pea or a salted down cucumber. When I eat peas off the vine in my tiny Victoria, BC yard (frost free period: 200 days) I am instantly transported back to Palmour, so intense is that memory.

When I watch Rio and Silas grazing on the vegetables in our yard it makes me feel very happy.

Lucien’s garden obviously inspired my own father, because when we moved into a house at 932 Government Road in Porcupine, about 7 miles from where my father was raised on the Palmour Mine site property, we asked a local farmer to till up a 1000 square foot plot of field, and along with three other families, planted our own garden.

The garden was as much a social experience for my family as it was a source of food. It become a commons where the four families would congregate and labour, and celebrate late into the night.

I recall standing amid a sea of turnips one fall with the hose in my hand washing them off. I was Rio’s age – seven or so.

I also recall the day late one June when my mother, waking to find that there had been a hard frost through the night, had to carry watering cans from our mud-room several hundred yards out to the garden to douse the plants to keep them from freezing. The pipes my father had run out to the garden had frozen, and the fragile plants needed water to shake off the evening’s hard frost.

What makes the story more characteristic of my mom is that she did this in her nighty. Apparently there was no time to lose by changing: just throw on a winter parka and rubber boots over her white nightgown.

We had a reputation on Government Road.

I think that experience left a scar because it was sometime after that before I had a garden of my own. In the early 1990’s I lived in Lake Louise, Alberta, where we joked that the frost free day period was 17 days. But in 1996 I moved to the tiny hamlet of Harvie Heights, Alberta, just four kilometres from Canmore, and a stone’s throw from the Banff National Park boundary. It was still hard country to grow much of anything in, unless it’s an aspen (and they don’t taste very good).

But a sun filed back yard inspired the digging of several raised beds, and I managed to grow a fair mess of vegetables. Of course, salad greens did well, but so did potatoes and peas, all aided by a cold frame to protect the plants from nearly interminable frosts.

When I moved to Victoria the intent was to grow more food; to become part of the food security movement; to have fun preparing for the pending holocaust.

But the events of the last three years intervened, and instead of cultivating my own tiny plot of urban land, I found myself renting again, and without much of a yard to grown things in. But this spring, Jenn and I decided that despite those obstacles, we would make an investment in our tiny patch of earth. So we dug up some of the lawn, added sea soil and compost to the mix, and as the summer days have progressed, our miniature garden has flourished.

On days when I work from home I spend half an hour or so each afternoon tending to the dozen tomato plants, the swish chard and spinach, the peas and beans, and conspiring as to which rectangle of lawn could be dug up next to make way for something more productive than Kentucky blue grass.

Spending those moments in the garden is a form of meditation. It is present moment awareness in action. It is the incarnation of now. Looking at the timid carrot tops struggling to reach the sun, it’s possible to get caught up in what might one day be, but for the most part, caring for this miniature garden is the process of connecting with the current: the current of life, and the current moment of our experience.

Growing food is one of the most important things we can do: It is an antidote to the helplessness that sometimes accompanies talk of the global Armageddon of climate change and loss of biodiversity world wide. The more food we grow, the less we have to rely on global agri-business to supply our nourishment. What we grow in our yards tastes better and is healthier. It is a connection with the sun, that glorious source of all of life’s energy. And it’s a connection with Lucien, who I miss despite these eighteen years since I saw him last.

And for me at least it fills me with delight to simply poke around the tomato plants and marvel at what some half decent soil, a little water and the life inspiring rays of the sun can produce.

And just last week – the last week of July – one ripe and succulent tomato fell off one of the heirloom varieties we had planted into my waiting hand. I hadn’t intended to pick it just yet, but it volunteered. I stood looking at it for the longest time, and then placed it at the centre of a clean white dish in the fridge, like some minimalist plating from Iron Chef America.

When Jenn, Rio and Silas arrived home I took the plate out and cut the tomato in four pieces and we each had a bite. Rio or Silas weren’t really into it. That was fine. There was more for Jenn and me.

And there will be many more in the weeks to come.

Eating that tomato was like eating the sun.