Everything Changes

Yesterday Silas turned 9. I’ve found myself of late falling more deeply in love with this boy; he is smart, he is funny, and he has a beautifully developed sense of respect and compassion for other people. Often as not when someone in our household needs some TLC, it’s Silas who is there to offer it.

In the morning we sat on the couch together and looked at the mountains. I asked him what he knew about the world. “A lot,” he said, and it’s true. The boy has a fantastic memory, and repeats what he knows with such confidence that even if you harbor some doubt as to the varsity of his claims, you can’t help but admire the assurance they are delivered with. We talked about how big the world was; not in the physical sense, but in the sense that it’s vast, and has so many people and cultures on it that we might spend our whole lives getting to know them all and still only make a beginning.

I asked him “what do you know to be true?”

He thought about this only for a second and then said: “That Mythbusters is the best TV show.”

Silas wants to be a Mythbuster when he grows up. Taking the boys to see this science-meets-mayhem duo in Calgary was one of Jenn and my highlights of the year.

Then he said something that I’ve come to expect from him, but is no less extraordinary. “You can’t hold on to anything because everything changes. You just have to let go.”

And here’s the thing: he isn’t just repeating something that I’ve told him – and it is true we talk about this sort of thing a lot – but he actually understands this and tries to put it into place in his day-to-day life, as much as anybody could.

Falling asleep last night I was thinking about that statement; I wished I had learned that when I was 9. I wished I had know that when I was 19 or 29. How much of my life has been wasted desperately clinging to something that is fleeting, ephemeral, transient? I’ve spent years of my life morning some loss, some passage that simply marks the natural human progression through time.

I still am, and the thing that I’m holding on to for dear life is this darling little boy and his big brother Rio, who is 12, and also one of the great loves of my life. When Rio was born I penned a piece called The Year of Letting Go; I knew then that from the moment they are born we begin the process of letting go. I know that intellectually, and remind myself of it often, but it doesn’t make it any easier when time is pressing on you and you find yourself unable to hold on but unwilling to just let go.

“Everything changes, Dad.” I can hear my sage nine-year-old remind me as I watch him in his sleep on the eve of his 10th year. Those words remind me of the hours and days after he was born, which seem like they were just yesterday but are separated by nearly nine billion kilometers of travel through space, skinned knees, first and last days of school and innumerable lessons taught about life, not by the father, but by the son. I knew then as I know now that I have always known this beautiful person and that his coming into my life would be one of the greatest gifts I could ever hope to receive. Happy birthday Silas Morgen Legault.

Falling

In a few hours it will be winter. It’s felt like winter here in the Bow Valley for a long time. It almost always feels like winter here at 4,500 feet above sea level. For the last two months it’s been cold and snowy and at times more like winter than it is during a Chinook in the dead of the season.

All autumn I’ve felt like I’ve been falling. It’s hard to believe that it was just three months ago, at the cusp of summer and fall that I spent thirteen days along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, meeting with people with whom I work, trying hard to save what is precious and wild about that romantic landscape, and every morning and evening finding a piece of it to photograph.

Some mornings I’d be up long before the sun to find a place I’d scoped the night before to be rewarded with the most wonderful display of dawn’s early light. More than once I’d be panting, at the top of some hill, setting up my tripod and waiting for the sun, and think: I want this to last forever.

An hour or two later, five hundred frames frozen on a memory card on my camera, I’d be walking back to my truck, craving a cup of tea, a full day ahead, the feeling having passed.

Sunrise on Dog Gun Lake, Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Montana

But that’s why I’m still falling now. It’s so beautiful; it’s so heart breakingingly beautiful that I want it all to last forever, but of course it won’t.

In last days of October the season abruptly changed; the perfect autumn days of golden light and splendor gave way to an early season snow fall, followed close by a hard freeze and one morning all the leaves were gone. Just gone.

I’ve grown to love winter in the twenty-two years – give or take – that I’ve lived in Alberta’s Bow Valley. I don’t always love it, but now that I ski I love it almost always. But it’s still a hard time of year. Recently I’ve been going over essay’s I used to write for various local magazines and newspapers, including a five year stint as a columnist for the Canmore Leader, and every year I’d write the same two or three essays: the melancholy onset of autumn and the long wait for spring.

Some things never change.

This year they seem to have changed even less than usual; but maybe that’s because they have changed even more. Jenn and I lost a parent and a step-parent this year. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in an essay that found its way into Running Toward Stillness. Those losses, coupled with this reflective time of the year, have created a hole that I find myself staring into from time to time.

That hole is well known to us all; it is a void, the darkness, that lay on the periphery of our thoughts and consciousness at all times; seldom acknowledged but always present. It is death; the empty space. I’ve found myself aware of its dispassionate company often on my journey this fall.

Fear of death causes a lot of hardship and makes us do the most outrageous things, like buy life insurance and sport utility vehicles. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to die: I am. I’ve felt at times over the last few months that void open up and for just a few seconds I’ve looked into that empty space. I’ve imagined myself leaving this world and what that might feel like. It’s felt like nothing at all.

The scope of my work left to complete in this life is staggering. I can count forty books that I want to write without half-trying. Now that I’m shooting more seriously for a book of photography on the foothills called Earth and Sky I want to delve so much deeper into that passion I’ve had since I was a kid. And there is still the wild earth to save, if I can spare a few hours here and there.

Most important are Rio, Silas and Jenn. Without wanting to see how things end, I want to know how things turn out for them. Their days are like stories that I don’t want to get to the end of, but want more than anything to know how they surmount the plot twists as they live the most astonishingly beautiful lives I could ever imagine.

In just a few hours it will be winter. The days will get longer, but it won’t feel like it for a while, and the coldest days are still to come. Everything changes at this time of year, and I am changing too. I’m more aware of that empty space just over the horizon now; as if I needed another reminder I’ve got to stay aware of precious every single breath is.

That’s what living so close to the seasons can do for you; you don’t get any slack; every single moment is a wake-up call to keep you from falling and never getting back up.

Early snow over the Bow Valley

Dying for a Deal

Tomorrow is Black Friday, the day when, still tipsy with tryptophan we waddle down to the local Walmart or Best Buy, line up with our countrymen and stampede into the stores to snatch up the latest deals on wide screen televisions or other marked down consumer goods.

Some people aren’t waiting for the Thanksgiving dishes to be done and started lining up a week ago to get a good deal. Some big box chain stores are opening their doors for Black Friday sales early. We may have to change the inconveniently named Thanksgiving to something like beige Thursday if this trend continues. What’s next? Mauve Wednesday?

This trend to supplanting the day of thanks with another day of frantic, panic induced shopping is a disturbing trend. The day traditionally set aside for gratitude for what we have is being usurped by another day of pinning for what we want. Desire is at the root of suffering; gratitude is a doorway to spiritual and social fulfillment. But gratitude doesn’t fill the coffers of the corporations that have learned to manipulate our sense of dissatisfaction and the unquenchable hunger we can’t seem to control.

Sitting at home with our families, sharing a few quiet (or depending on your family, chaotic) hours doesn’t put more cash in the pockets of the shareholders or owners of Best Buy, Walmart, K-Mart or the other big box stores. So Black Friday starts early.

People will be hurt. Some may even be killed. One website tracks the carnage. This video provides stunning insight and a horrific reminder of a time when we had to struggle for survival. But we’re not struggling for survival on Black Friday: we’re acting like wild animals on a kill, or like heroine addicted zombies, just so we can get a deal on a flat screen TV or a set of matching bathroom towels. All over the world there are people struggling for survival and they are better behaved than many Black Friday shoppers.

Why? I think we’re programmed to do whatever we need to do in order to feed our families and ourselves, but in North America – sorry Canada, you’re merrily wading into the Black Friday stupidity too – that survival instinct is no longer about finding food and shelter. Thanks to persistent re-programming by advertisers who are only too happy to take advantage of our fear based instincts, we now are willing to trample each other for a new PS4 that’s 20% off.

I hope nobody gets killed this Black Friday. I expect lots of people will get hurt. I hope it’s worth it.

In-sight

Maybe babies see the world the way it really is.

The highlight of most of my days is my morning walk to school with Silas. These days Rio takes the bus downtown, and I miss having both my boys with me, but Silas – now 8 – makes up for Rio’s quiet demeanor with his unbridled enthusiasm for the world.

Most mornings the talk ranges from the mundane to the mysterious to the philosophical. We’ve talked about helium balloons and the Heisenberg principle; earth quakes and quantum physics and Buddhism and spirituality, all on our fifteen minute walk to school.

This morning somehow we dove deeper than we’ve ever gone before and it’s left me feeling in awe.

Hand in hand, we were strolling up the road, and somehow we got onto the topic of morning greetings. I have this habit of bidding just about everybody that I pass on the street good morning. Silas asked why. I could have said it was just to be friendly, but that’s not the real reason. I told him: sometimes people walk around feeling isolated from one another, scared or alone. When we say hello to them, ask them how their day is, we start to dismantle that loneliness. When I say good morning, or ask about someone’s day, what I’m really saying is “I love you.”

“Really?” His face was scrunched into the question.

You bet. Then I told him that part of my purpose in life was to help people feel less alone and to understand that we’re connected through our hearts. My words might say “how you doing?” but my heart says “I love you; you and I are connected.”

Then I just laid it all out: people feel lonesome or afraid or alone because we don’t see the world the way it really is. I squeezed his hand and said: “You think that this is the beginning and the end of you, but it isn’t.” Every molecule in your body is mostly empty space, protons and electrons swirling around a nucleus-like a cloud, but almost entirely devoid of substance. We don’t end or begin where we think we do. We are passing in and out of one another all the time.

“But our eyes don’t see the world that way. They evolved millions of years ago to process just a tiny fragment of the information that is all around us all the time.” Our eyes evolved to process threats, like the mastodon that is going to step on us, or to find food or a girlfriend, and not to process the fuzzy, undifferentiated haze of energy and information that erases the artificial perception of demarcation between me and the eight year old squeezing my hand. If we could see the world as it really is, I told him, we’d be overwhelmed in an instant.

I stop and bend down and breathe on him. “What am I doing?” I ask.

He looks askance. “Breathing on me?”

“When I breathe on you and you on me, I’m inside you and you in me.”

First he says “that’s kind of creepy,” but then he remembers something from a previous conversation. “Our hearts are like that too!”

“That’s right! Our heart’s give off an electric pulse with every beat.”

“It goes out forty feet!” he exclaims.

It does. “We can’t even measure how far it goes. So right now I’m walking inside your sino-rhythm and you are in mine. When we walk by people on the street we pass through them, not just by them. We only appear separate from one another because our senses haven’t evolved to see the world as it really is. You never have to feel alone, or afraid, or apart from me, or Jennie, or Rio or anybody else because we’re always connected.”

That’s when he hit me with the whopper. “Maybe babies see the world as it really is because their eyes haven’t developed fully. They see the world as blurry and as wavy lines. Maybe they see things properly.”

There are moments in parenthood when you know – you absolutely know – that everything is going work out exactly as it should for your child, and that was one of them.

We speculated: as we grow up and as we develop our vision narrows and starts processing less information. We don’t see the world as it really is, but we can become aware once more of its complexity and beauty and interrelatedness.

We walked the rest of the way to school, talking the entire way about the size of the human brain, and how we process information, and when I left him at school he was immersed in comparisons of Halloween costumes and discussions about candy and trick-or-treating. For a moment I could see him as he really was: love, indistinguishable but completely unique amid the sea of humanity, like a wave; not separate: one.

I can’t wait to walk my son to school again.

The mug is already broken

It’s dangerous to be attached to possessions but I have one thing in my life that means more than most others. It’s not my camera, nor my computer. It’s a mug.

I bought it in a small shop in Smith Falls Ontario in the summer of 1992. I was working at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park at the time; it was my first job in a park. I had just finished my first of two years at Sir Sandford Fleming Collage’s School of Natural Resources and I thought I knew what I was doing. I had no idea. Later I worked in Banff and Grand Canyon National Parks, and while I still didn’t know what I was doing, I’d gotten better at faking it by then.

What I learned that summer at Murphy’s Point was that I wanted a life lived close to nature.

And I wanted to drink a lot of tea.

The mug I bought wasn’t thrown on a wheel by an aging hippie back-to-the-lander working out of a cedar wood shed in the hills of the Frontenac Axis; it was manufactured in China. It’s like ten – maybe a hundred – thousand other mugs emblazed with stylized drawings of wolves, bears and orcas; to me it is singular in every way.

My mug has a loon on it. I love its weight, and shape, and I love the small lip around the rim. It feels good to drink out of it. But that’s not why I love it. That summer I lived in an old Junior Forest Ranger camp on the shores of Loon Lake. Every morning I got up at 5 am and made a cup of tea and walked down a trail through the pines to a granite outcrop that jutted a dozen feet into the lake. I sat there, drank my tea, watched the park awake and fell head over heels in love with the world.

From my perch on “The Rock” I watched small mouthed bass nibble of insects along the short; saw red fox hunt mice in the tall grass; learned the habits of a family of beaver who had a lodge just a few hundred feet from my morning roust; witnessed osprey circling overhead, fish struggling in their talons; learned the language of a mob of turkey vultures that nested in a dead pine; became friends with Ralph the Heron who still-hunted on a small submerged island in the middle of the lake; and gave a wide birth to Igor the snapping turtle whose head was as big as my fist and who would prop himself up on The Rock to watch me watching him.

And I met Herald and Maude and Summer.

Herald and Maude were common loons who resided on Loon Lake and built their low nest three or four hundred meters from The Rock. I had just watched the movie Herald and Maude that past winter and was enamored with the life affirming message, so named these birds after the protagonists. From my position I watched them mate and watched Maude lay her eggs and a month or so later saw their single chick emerge from beneath Maude to climb on its mother’s back for the first time. Born on June 21st, my friend Laurie Belfour and I named the chick Summer.

I bought the mug soon after and drank tea out of it every day for the rest of that season.

I have moved it two dozen times since, and still drink tea from it at least once or twice a week. I have other favourite mugs now, but my loon mug has more meaning than all the other possessions in my house combined.

Someday it will break. It’s 21 years old, and has far exceeded its life expectancy.

So important is this mug that when I was separating from my partner in 2007 and we encountered a particularly rough patch, the one thing she thought to do that might hurt me was to break my mug. She knew that more than anything else this might cause me the kind of pain that I had caused her. Later she told me and we laughed – me a little nervously – about it.

But here’s the thing: the mug is already broken.

My loon mug is symbolic of a period in my life when I lived simply, deeply, passionately, and fully. I was very much in tune with nature, rising early, sleeping outside most of that summer. I paddled a canoe almost every morning and again late at night, slipping around the coves and bays of Loon Lake in complete silence, my paddle slicing the water as barred owls called back and forth across the water. Sometimes I paddled to work.

I thought, that summer, that I had found my own Walden, and that for a short while I was living as Henry David Thoreau had advised: deliberately. I did not want to discover when I came to die, that I had not lived.

The mug is symbolic of one of my first “awakenings.” I woke up a little that summer and discovered how much the world had to offer someone who had his eyes open.

Now the mug represents another such awakening: that nothing lasts forever, and that attachment to anything, especially something material, is foolhardy.

The thing does not contain the experiences it represents; when it’s gone, they won’t be. But even attachment to those experiences can keep us from living fully in the present, and so while I enjoy the memories, I’ve labored to let them go too.

When I look at the mug now I regard it as already broken.

Each of us is born with the absolute incontestable certainty that we will die. Everything in our lives is temporary; even the things we love most of all. Someday I will leave my children, or they will leave me, forever. My wife and I will be parted. My parent’s time will come. All of the things, the people, the places and the experiences we are attached to are ephemeral. They are already gone.

I don’t enjoy the cups of tea I drink from my loon mug any less because I know it’s already broken. I enjoy them more. Every cup of tea is savoured, the rich tapestry of my past and present congealing as if clay spinning into a vessel to be held in the hand. Knowing that at any time the mug might slip from my soapy grip and shatter on the kitchen’s hardwood floor, or be knocked onto the flagstone walk while I sit on the patio steps and enjoy afternoon tea makes me aware of the preciousness of the present moment experience.

Nothing lasts forever; only in the present moment can we celebrate what a thing, a person, a place or an experience brings, and feel the blessing to have been granted another day to live and love life.

And so the mug is at once already gone, and still so much a part of each day, and I am grateful for what a simple possession has taught me.

The Great Uncertainty

The flood of 2013 is now receding. I live at the headwaters of the Bow River, in Canmore, near the border of Banff National Park, and less than 700 meters as the crow flies from the now infamous Cougar Creek. Most days the Bow River along this reach is a swift moving, deep blue vein that pulses between banks of spruce and pine, along aspen meadows and past clutches of willow.

Cougar Creek removing the road to Eagle Terrace

Since Wednesday (June 19) it’s been a wide, brown, and spreading conveyor belt of trees, rock, silt and mud that has enveloped everything in its path. Its feeder streams, like Cougar Creek, are normally ephemeral, rising for a few weeks in the spring to deposit snow melt and spring rain, and a few truck loads of gravel, into the main stem of the river.

Not this spring.

Life is uncertain. This is one of the fundamental tenants of human existence. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that someday we’re going to die, but we don’t know when. We know, in our gut, that everything that is important to us – our children, our partners, our parents, our friends and family, and yes, even those material objects that we clutch at with desperation – will one day vanish, before or at the moment of our own demise.

We know that life is change, but our difficulty accepting that truth causes no end to suffering in our day to day lives.

On Thursday morning many of us in Canmore woke up to learn how real that axiom really is as Cougar Creek, dry for 50 weeks of the year, and usually contained between its engineered banks of trap-rock and fill, had carved a new course through the residential community that bares its name. The creek, ten feet wide during a normal spring, surged to more than two hundred feet wide, carving a wide swath through its historic alluvial fan, and tearing away at people’s back yards, sheds, fences, and eventually foundations. That no homes toppled into the creek is a miracle.

Cougar Creek at the height of the flood.

Cougar Creek, and dozens of others – Exshaw, Heart, Jura, Three-Sisters, Pigeon – all amassed their unprecedented flows into the Bow, and meeting with the Kananaskis, Ghost and Elbow Rivers, it flooded a vast area of downtown Calgary. It is the largest flood ever recorded in Alberta.

And on it went: Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Bragg Creek, Morley; maybe the hardest hit was High River, where the entire town was evacuated and under water. Lives were lost, the financial cost of the damage yet to be calculated.

During the height of the flood we were evacuated from our east-Cougar Creek neighborhood. The flood has given us this new name for where we live. As crews worked valiantly to save the bridge over the Creek, the nine hundred or so residents who live on the eastern bank of the Creek’s alluvial fan were loaded on buses and shipped out over the fragile structure. We watched as all that water, the colour of chocolate pudding pounded against the road, the embankment, and the seemingly too narrow culvert that went under them.

Years ago I hiked up Exshaw Creek, into the South Ghost River, and down Cougar Creek from its headwaters with author and geologist Ben Gadd. Ben lived in Jasper then, and upon seeing the multimillion dollar homes built on the outside bank of Cougar Creek, and the culvert under the road, said something to the effect that they wouldn’t last.

Works crews laboured around the clock to save that bridge. They did. How remains a mystery; and one of the greatest success stories of that first day of the deluge, but on Thursday it looked very much in doubt.

As the water rose that afternoon we shut off the gas, power and water to our house, packed a few bags with everything from our marriage certificate to sleeping bags and left.

Life is uncertain. We had no idea what would happen if officials, as it was rmoured they might, diverted Cougar Creek down Elk Run Boulevard to prevent the creek from breached the bridge. Elk run is long, straight and steep and the velocity of water rushing down it would have been uncontrollable. Our home is just a hundred feet from that spill-way.

Nor did we know when we’d be able to return home, if we had a home to return to, or what condition it might be in if it was still standing. We put everything of value on the third floor, closed the door and walked away.

We spent three days and two nights at Gareth Thomson’s home, ironically just a hundred feet from the flood waters behind the dyke along the banks of the Bow River. We stocked up on groceries, put aside a lot of water, bought beer, wine and Tequila (the latter is listed as a critical item on the list of supplies to have on hand in case of any emergency) and settled in.

Through all of this my mother, who arrived on Wednesday night, and noted as we drove into town that the creek looked awfully wide, and wondered what all the fire trucks and police cars were doing on the Cougar Creek bridge – remained stoic. Sure, she had a few minutes here and there, as we all did, spent in frustration, but in general she went with the flow. So to speak.

Hauling books from flooded "Second Story Books"

Gareth, Jenn and I spent Friday driving around town, offering to help people in need, carrying their stuff (and holy crap do people have a lot of crap, but that’s another story) out of basements and garages at risk of flooding.

Friday afternoon I took a panicked call from someone just a few streets away saying that “a dam had breached and that we had to evacuate immediately.” We threw our gear into the back of Gareth’s car: whatever we had already packed, along with some valuables, computers, my camera, my mom. Someone grabbed a box of granola bars, and I grabbed the beer. We abandoned the tequila to the expected deluge.

Five minutes later we got another call: No dam had breached (more realistic concerns have arisen about the Lake Minniwanka dam since); it was only some rising water along the street. We noted the children still frolicked in the puddles; a surreal scene. We unpacked the beer and set about drinking it.

Saturday we were allowed to return home. Not a drop of water got into our house, the bridge over Cougar Creek remained standing, through the landscape around it will be forever changed, as will the lives of all those who lived along its banks.

Life is uncertain; we don’t know what will happen, or when we will die, and what will happen when we do. But there are foundations on which we build our existence, and for millennia humankind has based how we live on certain assumptions. One assumption is that nature has patterns that can be predicted and that we can shape our lives around.

That is no longer the case.

The aftermath: Cougar Creek, and Canmore, forever changed.

Climate change literally changes the game; all the assumptions we have made about where we live and how we carry out our lives must be thrown into the flood and a new set of assumptions created. The problem for humanity is that we like predictability, even if it is myth. Climate change reveals the hoax of this way of life.

Hurricane Katrina, the floods in Pakistan, Super Storm Sandy, two-kilometer wide tornados; these and a thousand other instances of bizarre, destructive, random and seemingly unpredictable weather events are the new norm, and from the perspective of people trying to live as we always have – where we crave certainty – they are anathema to our sense of security.

In the wake of the floods of 2013 Canmore, Calgary, and every other community affected has come together to work as a family to clean up and rebuild. I’ve got my tools in the back of my car and when I see someone posting they need help, I drop what I’m doing and head out the door. In Calgary a posting for 300 volunteers nets 5,000. That’s how we we’re going to get through the next year or two; working together. We use our hearts and our heads and our skills.

We’re going to need a whole new set of skills, and reinvent some old ones, to cope with that is coming. We’ll need to learn how to build bridges, fortify river banks, build on higher ground, store food, use less, love more, and remember that we’re all living downstream, in nature, surrounded by both the causes and consequences of our actions.

Maybe the most important skill we’ll need to face the Great Uncertainty that climate change presents is to sit with the knowledge that we simply won’t know what’s going to happen next.

To End the Earth’s Suffering

“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

~ Unknown Buddhist Monk

Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.

We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.

No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.

Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.

Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.

As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.

For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.

My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.

Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.

In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.

Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.

Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.

Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”[1]

Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.

Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.

Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.

In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.

All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.

Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.

In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.

The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.

The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.

Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.

Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.

Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration.  Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”[2]

For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.

When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.

My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.

The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.

Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.

My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.

This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.


[1] Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.

[2] From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.

The root of the sickness

“The time to address gun control laws in the United States was Thursday.” This statement, made to a CBC reporter when he asked a question of a Newtown, Connecticut resident yesterday, will almost certainly dominate the debate over the most recent mass shooting in America in the coming days. And while I think this conversation is vital, there is a deeper, more radical question that must be asked.

The predictable and often repeated debate over gun control in that country will once again be replayed in the wake the death of 27 people on Friday, December 15. On one side of that debate will be advocates for gun control arguing that without the easy access to guns, madmen like the one who killed innocent children and their teachers on Friday in a Connecticut school would not be able to take as many lives. On the other will be the zealots from the National Rifle Association and other industry funded “right to bear arms” groups saying that possessing firearms is protected by the US constitution and that Americans should preserve that privilege in order to defend themselves. Never mind that in any one of the twenty mass shootings in the US in 2012 nobody has successfully defended themselves and their fellow citizens with their own weapon.

This debate is bound to reach a fevered pitch in the US, and elsewhere, in the wake of the most recent school shooting. I predict it will reach its apogee just before Christmas, and then, as it always has, will fade from our minds, replaced by more mundane concerns, and by the holiday season.

And if that happens, twenty young children, some as young as five years old, will have been gunned down by a madman in vain. There can be no sense made from such violence; there can be the impetus drawn from such malice to cure what ills us as a society and has, this year alone, claimed sixty-eight lives in mass-shootings (The FBI defines a mass-shooting as one where there are four fatalities, not including the gun man) and 543 since 1982.

If you use the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence’s statistics, the story is even bleaker. They report that since 2005 there have been 431 incidents where more than one person has been shot at a time in the US alone.

The gun law debate aside, we must address another question: what is it about the human condition that makes the sickest among us want to pick up a pair of handguns, walk into a school, shoot your own mother and then proceed to kill her students? What makes someone want to walk into a crowded theatre and randomly shoot strangers?

There is a profound illness that underlies these acts of random violence and has made them the norm, not just in the United States, but here in Canada, in Europe and elsewhere. Psychopathy – the mental illness that renders a person unable to feel empathy for others – must surely be part of the root of this predilection of mass violence. But there must be more.

If our communities are like giant, interactive living organisms, these people who emerge to cause such unspeakable violence are the symptoms of a vast illness that permeates our being. At the root of this illness there is a lack of value for the sacredness of human life, and a fundamental failure to grasp the interconnectedness of all living beings. Every day as a society we cause great violence to one another and the world around us. These gunmen are simply the most obvious – and most disturbing – outward manifestation of our illness.

There is an anger and a fear that lies just beneath the surface of humanity that every now and again finds an outlet through these psychopaths and sociopaths and just-plain deeply disturbed individuals. We live in a way where our desires can never be satisfied, because what we want – more – is never enough. We seek our fulfillment from without – from things, from other people – and not from our own peace and well-being, and that frustration simmers below the surface of our everyday lives like a cancer waiting to metastasise.

When that illness finds the perfect host to express its rage – the utter lack of caring for the holiness of all life, of humanity, of the pure unbridled potential of a child – it can have disastrous results. The combination of a society without an understanding of our interconnectedness, and a mentally ill person with easy access of guns and you get Colorado, Columbine, Connecticut and too many other examples of list, or even make sense of.

We can, and we must, (but likely won’t) address gun control, not just in the United States, but everywhere that firearms are so easily available. But as a society we must also consider the underlying illness that makes it possible for sick individuals to fester up like a lesion and destroy lives so wontedly. Until we view all life as sacred, until we see ourselves not just as individuals who are isolated from one another but as a part of all life, we can justify perpetuating great violence against each other, and against the earth and its creatures. We are not separate, and when we harm our so-called enemies, and when we rip into the earth and poison it, we are slowly killing ourselves too.

The death of so many children and those who loved them and were sworn to their care yesterday is just another deeply painful example of why we must seek to find peace in our own hearts, and teach that peace to one another and our children. It’s for the sake of our future as a species that we must bring an end to this terrible suffering that we have created.

Autumn Trails

NOTE: I’ve been editing my forthcoming book Running Toward Stillness (Rocky Mountain Books, 2013) for the last three or four months, but wasn’t comfortable with the ending. Yesterday something happened that helped me find the words to rewrite the final essay. Feedback, as always, is welcome.

* * *

I went for a run yesterday for the first time in six months. I hadn’t run since April. It’s the second time I’ve taken such a hiatus in the last eighteen months and I was beginning to worry that maybe my days of trail running were coming to a close. But yesterday it was a perfect blue-bird day; the aspen’s that cloak the hillsides above my Canmore home were ablaze in yellows and gold, and I’ve been itching to feel the steady rhythm of motion I’ve come to love.

My knees have been in rough shape of late. In April I woke one morning limping and it persisted for weeks. I took a break. I finished the ski season and then rode my mountain bike three or four times a week and learned to see the world at a very different speed. It was a lot of fun, and I got in decent shape, and my knees didn’t hurt as much.

But yesterday the sun and the colours made me throw caution to the wind. I took it slowly, worried that my knees might protest, or my lungs give out or my legs turn to stone. But none of this happened. I glided up the trail like I hadn’t taken six months off, and after an hour and a half of running on the dazzling aspen benchlands, I felt very good indeed. I didn’t care if it was my first run or my last; I wasn’t running for anything but the sheer joy of being in motion on a stunningly beautiful day. I felt once again the sensation of inseparability between myself and the landscape – between myself and everything else in the universe – and didn’t worry if it would ever happen again. It was enough to be alive, in motion and perfect stillness all at once.

I thought about the months when I hadn’t been running as a prolonged period of stillness, even though I’d been riding my bike and walking nearly every day.

Inside of motion there is stillness, and in stillness, motion. The ancient symbol of Taoism is the Tai Chi:  the black and white swirl with a dot of black in the white and a dot of white in the black. These two halves are not opposites coming together, but parts of the same whole, working in harmony.

There is a still point in motion that occurs when the runner, the rider, the walker, moves in a way that is completely free of effort, and in a manner where the barrier between ourselves and nature evaporates. At this moment we touch the perfection of creation and open a door to the mysterious fabric of the universe to reveal itself in us.

Just so, in stillness – meditation – there is motion. The circle of breathing that creates a rhythm also opens the door to a glimpse into the infinite between our cluttered thoughts.

Motion and stillness, working in harmony, can be a portal through which we glimpse the true nature of the universe, and our beautiful place within it.

The sun was setting as I wove my way home, the bright woods breezing past. I felt the familiar cadence of breath, the steady beat of my feet on the leaf strewn path, the rhythmic pulse of heart and blood and bone as I trotted down familiar trails.

Don’t be afraid to stop, I told myself, and don’t be afraid to start again. That’s all this is, a simple rebirth. Every single day.

Bedtime Stories

One: there is no end

The boys and I read a lot of books at bedtime. Both Rio and Silas are veracious readers; Rio is into Rick Riordan’s various mythology thrillers while Silas can read just about anything Dr. Seuss has ever penned. Most nights at bedtime we read stories; everything from Captain Underpants to Ernest Hemmingway. A little while ago we read The Oldman and the Sea. For a while we were making our way through Watership Down, and more recently we read Richard Bach’s There’s No Such Place as Far Away.

Bach, as you might recall, penned Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which didn’t do much for me, and Illusions, which did. No Such Place as Far Away is about a series of birds in conversation with Rae, who is on his way to celebrate his birthday party. Along the way he receives as gifts a series of oblique life-lessons from his friends. From the seagull Rae learns that “not being known doesn’t stop the truth from being true,” and from the hummingbird, he wonders “can miles truly separate us from friends? If you want to be [together], aren’t you already there?”

All good lessons, but a little obscure. The last lesson, however, was a whopper:

“You have no birthday because you have always lived; you were never born, and never will you die. You are not the child of the people you call mother and father, but their fellow-adventurer on a bright journey to understand the things that are.”

What do you think that means, I asked Silas and Rio as we snuggled together?

Neither boy was certain. I’m not sure they much carried. It dawned on me what Bach was saying: “There is no beginning and no end; not as we have come to believe in them. Life isn’t a linear progression from birth through adulthood to death,” I say, knowing that I’m treading on thin ice. Talk of death is difficult, especially before bed. “What makes you who you are, and what makes me who I am,” I pinch Silas’ cheeks, not to illustrate the point, but just because they are so pinchable, “has always been here. We’re just constantly being rearranged.”

I’m not sure if that made any sense. I still don’t.

Reading bedtime stories

Two: presence is your present

Sometimes one boy or the other has a hard time falling asleep. Not often, but from time to time. One of the things I’ve been teaching my children is the gift of the present moment.

If Rio or Silas is frustrated because they can’t sleep, I remind them of ‘present moment awareness.’ This is one of the most important lessons we can learn; this moment is all the life we will ever know. Both the past and future are illusion. This moment is the only moment we can live in.

How does this help a seven- or a ten-year-old fall asleep? I remind them that in this moment they are safe and have nothing to fear. I remind them that in this moment they are secure in their beds, comfortable, and so deeply loved. Safe in that knowledge, not worrying about tomorrow or contemplating yesterday, they can stay grounded in present moment awareness. I sometimes suggest they focus on their breath, as I try so desperately to do while meditating.

Recently we’ve been reciting something of a mantra, plucked from the final scene of the movie Peaceful Warrior (the book, which I read in high school, helped get me off my ass and started my lifelong passion for running):

What time is it? Now.

Where are you? Here.

What are you? This moment.

So I guess it should come as no surprise when, after reading a story a little while ago, and cuddling up with Silas, that he should remind me of the importance of the present. As I sometimes do, I told him: “I can’t wait to see you in the morning.”

He smirked and in a wry tone said “Stephie, present moment awareness!”

Three: The purpose of life

From time to time all the bedtime stories and the reminders about the present moment don’t help and one boy or the other has a tough time drifting off.

Such was the case a few nights ago. Silas was sad, missing his other household, and probably sore with growing pains. For several hours Jenn and I calmed him down and held him and he would drift off to sleep, only to wake again. Finally we went to bed ourselves, and a little while later I heard chatter from the boys bedroom, but it stopped, so I fell back to sleep.

When I got up to write the next morning, around 5:30, Silas was asleep on the floor. His comforter, not used during the warm summer months, had been bunched up to make a bed there. He was fast asleep.

Later, when Rio got up, he told me the rest of the story. Hoping to be able to fall asleep himself, and unable to because Silas was sad, he had climbed down from the top bunk and made a nest on the floor for his little brother, using extra pillows and the comforter to create a cocoon. Then the two of them had curled up there and fallen asleep together. Sometime in the early morning hours Rio had gone back to his own bed.

It’s the best bedtime story of all; it’s the story of our purpose: to love one another.

We are having a wonderful love affair together.