(Author’s note: I began this post on May 22nd. I’m a little behind on a few bits of writing.)
It’s Friday afternoon and the sun has returned. The final patches of snow have disappeared from the matrix of trails through the dark pine benches above Canmore. The sun is a welcome relief. But at the same time I welcome its arrival I say goodbye to something far more precious: my sons.
I’m about to start a frenetic three weeks of travel, almost all of which will see me out of the country, traveling around Montana and Wyoming, and on to Victoria for Bloody Words, and then after just two days back in Alberta, back to Montana once again.
The thought of it makes me dizzy. The prospect of seeing my children for just two days over the next three weeks makes me feel ill.
I drop Rio off at school on Friday morning, and ask him to look at my eyes, and tell him how much I love him. And then he is gone, 9-years-old and confident and already so focused on his own challenges. Next is Silas; I take him to his day-care provider and we spent a moment with him in my arms in her entrance, and then he is gone too, waving and smiling and growing weary of so many “I love you’s.”
Children simply don’t project forward in time the way we do as adults. It’s a trick I’d like to relearn.
I grope my way to my pick-up after departing from Silas and close the door and let the tears momentarily win the battle. After a moment, feeling as if I was in some country-western song, crying in an aging pick-up (no dogs please) I straighten and tell myself to “toughen up.” Others, I remind myself, go months, without seeing their kids. I just need to stay “frosty” about this absence.
By late in the afternoon I’m feeling anything but tough, so I do one of two things I do when I am feeling defeated (The other is drink beer and mope). I head out to run the trails above my home in the Bow Valley to let sweat and bone and muscle work through my dark ennui.
It’s my first snow free run of the year and it feels good. Having been inundated with my new job, and my self-imposed writing schedule of late, I haven’t spent as much time on the trail as I would like, so the first fifteen minutes are predictably horrible. But I push through, and as always, by the time I’ve climbed a few hundred feet up onto the benchlands, my breathing is no longer coming in gasps and my legs don’t feel as if they are coated in wet cement.
Nature has always been my tonic. It’s where I have always turned for solace during difficult times in my life. When the Buddha sought to end suffering in his own life he sat under the Bodhi tree and meditated. There the demon Mara came to temp him with the trappings of attachment and pleasure, and when Gautama Buddha resisted, Mara asked — as his final effort to wrench enlightenment from the man who had been Siddhartha – “who will be your witness?” Who would observe, and thereby validate the Buddha’s freedom from suffering with everlasting enlightenment? The Buddha, his fingers trailing on the soft ground beneath him simply said: “The earth will be my witness.”
And so it was.
So the earth bares witness to my own suffering as I run through the open aspen glades and dark pines along the base of Grotto Mountain. After some time, I come to one of the deep fissures that are the epithet of this mountain; a dell cut into the side of the peak where a seasonal stream courses. Normally I take the long steep trail down along the edge of this grotto, but this day the sound of water floats up through the trees and is like a clarion call.
I run down the path, the temperature dropping as I reach the tiny watercourse, and know exactly what I must do. Once on the water’s edge I weave my way up the tiny creek – just a few feet wide and so clear – to find a set of waterfalls, each dropping four or five feet, and performing the most perfect music of nature.
Sitting on the bank, I draw in a deep, moisture laden breath and breathe out my sadness. I can feel the hardness that I have tried to use to guard myself being eroded. As with the stones in its path, water can work its patient ways against the most stalwart barrier we erect between our hearts and love and compassion.
I realize this tiny waterway has bore on its back another gift: connection.
In Buddhism, the practice of tonglen is a means by which we can connect with others; friends, loved ones and perfect strangers.
The teacher Pema Chödrön says this: “The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.”
The sound of the rivulet fills my ears, and then my heart. For a moment I imagine that I can hear the voices of every other soul who is sad and missing someone. I can hear them saying goodbye, and experiencing the ache of separation and the despair of loss.
I think of my own father, who when I was young, traveled on business for a week at a time and was often away.
I think of soldiers serving overseas, bidding their families goodbye for months – years – at a time. Imagining their children growing up without them; not knowing when, or if, they will ever come home.
And then I am connected to those who have committed some terrible crime, and who are locked away and who leave families behind. They too must miss their children, knowing that they may never get to hold them in their arms again.
Water is the blood of the earth, and the creeks and rivers its circulatory system. Every drop of water that rushes past me on Grotto Mountain is connected to every other drop around the world. This water tripped down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains was once in the Euphrates River in Babylon and in the Great Lakes and somewhere in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. To sit by its side and feel the coolness on the tips of my fingers is to touch everything all at once.
These waters flow past the sadness, the suffering, that everyone else on earth experiences; the loss, the sorrow of saying goodbye, and often, through not always, the bliss of reunion. This water connects me to every other person’s suffering, and I can feel love and compassion for them, as I must for my own temporary sadness. I resolve that over the next three weeks, when I feel the suffering of being apart from my children, I will not build armor around my heart but instead allow myself to remain connected, through the water tonglen, to my own suffering and that of others.
Through the water tonglen I can touch the sadness of everybody all at once, and feel compassion for each person’s separation from those that they love, and in doing so, know that none of us are alone. I know that rather than building a barrier around my heart to protect myself, that real fortification comes from being completely open and vulnerable, and taking solace in the shelter that my connection to every other soul provides.
After a while, my legs stiff with lactic acid, I rise and shake them out and run up the steep hill, the sound of the water still pulsing in my ears. I’m halfway through my run but already I feel better; my armor left in a pile by the tiny creek to melt back into the woods; the earth beneath my feet baring silent witness; my head not so self-obsessed with my own troubles. Another thirty minutes of up and down through the spring forest and I’ll be home. Then I can have a beer and determine not to mope.