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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few days ago I finished the first draft of what will be my tenth novel. I took a few hours off and the next morning began work on the story edits of what will be book number nine. Next week I’m going to be reviewing the galleys for book number eight. This is a dream come true; it’s what I’ve spent the last twenty-five years practicing for; to be an author with a steady stream of books being published and people finding enjoyment reading them.
The challenge for me is that all of this writing takes place not in the fictional world where authors retreat to the woods, or to a sea side resort in the Bahamas’ to pen their masterpiece, but amid the chaos and distracts of everyday life.
This morning I was working through the edits on The Glacier Gallows; this will be the fourth book in the Cole Blackwater series. The story edit process is a tough one. I have an amazing editor who knows my work well and helps me craft and hone each story. I write the book, but she keeps me from getting bogged down, repeating myself, or from making some egregious procedural mistakes with my crime fiction.
The Glacier Gallows has been a pretty easy edit so far. I have to re-write a few sections, but for the most part things are moving along well. That said, it does require concentration, and when I’m deep into the story, it’s sometimes hard to extricate myself to deal with the world around me.
So it was this morning. The boys needed supervision and there were logistics to be sorted out and all I really wanted to do was stay absorbed in what I was doing. Returning to the real world from the fictional one didn’t go well. I wasn’t at my best.
But that’s the way it’s got to be. I don’t have the luxury of being able to disappear four or five times a year to pen first drafts and do story edits. And I wouldn’t want to miss my real world for anything. Every morning is a blessing; to wake to find I have a healthy, beautiful family, a full-time job making the world a better place, and the ability to venture out into the surrounding mountains to ride, run or ski. Sure, these things require me to parse out my time transfixed by the imaginary world of my characters, my essays, and my photography, but they are what fuels my creativity, and I couldn’t have one without the other.
The bomb blasts that rocked the City of Boston and its annual marathon were not only an assault on the 24,000 people running the race, and the hundreds of thousands of spectators who cheered them on, but on the human spirit as well.
Anybody who has ever participated in such a race knows that the finish line holds almost magical significance in the heart and soul of a runner. I’ve never run a marathon, but I’ve run shorter races, some of which were very hard, and the finish line is a place of both exhaustion and exuberance, and can signify a triumph over both physical pain and the mental barriers that have been repeating, over and over in the runners mind: “Just give up.”
When you cross the finish line – even if you crawl, on hands and knees – you are telling those voices that you are stronger than they are; that you can persevere. In every race I’ve ever run I always return to the finish line after I’ve crossed it and cheer on the few remaining racers who are still on the course after I’ve completed it. These are personal victories over bad knees, gasping lungs, stitched ribs, thirst, hunger, fatigue, and the pantheon of condemning internal voices that every runner rebels against.
The bomb blasts at the finish line of the Boston Marathon were a direct assault on the human spirit that triumphs over all of these obstacles.
Our challenge now is to rise even higher; to lift our hearts and voices above the madness of a few people who care so little for life, for love, for the story of each and every living soul who has struggled and overcome 42.2 kilometers of elation and adversity, and a life time of hindrances both great and small. Fear is the enemy of love and of life. The new finish line that must be crossed is the one that carriers us over the demarcation between fear and hope; between fear and love. In this race too we must quell the voices of doubt and trust in the indomitable nature of our spirit to see us through difficult times.
“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.”
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.”
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.
 Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.
 From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.
When we were together last September, when in the afternoons we’d sit in the backyard, near the weeping birch, and talk, we discussed the idea of you telling a story. In those warm days of September neither of us could imagine what you would soon face; then we were rebuilding our relationship after so many difficult years, and you were emerging once more, my mother.
We talked then of you writing the story of your childhood; of growing up in a gold mining town in Northern Ontario, and of losing your father at the age of five. Too young to really know him or have much in the way of memories; instead, you were raised by your mother and older brother. It wasn’t an easy upbringing. We talked about how to write that story; without bitterness or guile. People aren’t inspired by resentment; what they want to read is a story of hardship, honest, simple achievement and of what life was like in a very interesting place, and time.
I asked you: what is the story you want to tell about the first chapters of your life?
When I drove you to the airport and said goodbye at the gate, I was filled with hope and love. You and I haven’t had an easy go of it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wasn’t a very good kid when I was a teen: I drank, and snuck out of the house a lot and was moody and angry. You drank too, and didn’t want to let go, or face your own fears. We clashed. For a long time we were at each other’s throats; it wasn’t easy on either of us.
But over the last decade we’ve started to grow back together. We’ve both grown up a little, and time can take the edge off; make it easier to forgive.
He proposed to you when you got off the plane. Who says you don’t get second changes, or third?
Six weeks later you got married. And four weeks after that, the ailment that had forced Ernie to sit during your wedding ceremony was confirmed as cancer.
And now he is gone. And you are alone once more. And it leaves you, and me, heartbroken.
The last year has been hell. There’s no other way to say it. In and out of the hospital during the rapid decline of your third husband, the second to be stolen by cancer in a decade. The last few weeks were more than anybody should have to endure; to lose a soul mate, one you hoped to have in your life for a few more years: just a few more years to love, to debate (and yes, argue), to share tender moments with, to discover what life’s true purpose is.
It would be understandable for you to sink lower, deeper into despair. You’ve spent a lot of your life living with regret, and its made you angry at times, lonely at others, and most of all, bitter about what could have been, but hasn’t become.
And now you have a choice to make: what do you want the next chapter of your life to be?
You can write this chapter any way you want. Yes, there are limitations: you’re struggling with a lot of physical challenges. Some of these there is nothing that we can do anything about. Some we can find treatments for, and some you can control wholly.
But within the confines of these maladies, you still have a choice. You can choose to accept control over your decisions and the consequences of those choices. You can choose to be happy; unreasonably so if you have to. Nobody would blame you if you decided to slip from mourning into a deeper despair, and resentment. But if you’re going to author this next chapter, why not choose to make it about service, about a modicum of joy, about peace?
You have it within you. I know you do. I told you at lunch before I left Hamilton that what I wanted more than anything was to see you smile again; for you to know happiness. You’re not alone; you have Chantel and I and you have friends. But the sort of happiness you must seek now can’t be dependent on others; you’re going to have to find it within. It might be centred on community, or on faith or service, but at the end of the day, you’re the one holding the pen: only you can write the story.
As REM used to sing, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
I’d be okay if the world as we knew it ended today. For clarity, I could do without the earthquakes and tidal waves and the Yellowstone caldera erupting in a tower of molten rock and fire. I’m also fond of the people on the planet – most of them, at least – and the wild critters that we’ve seen fit to leave alone. But if the rest of the world ended today – the human-made parts that, in a spasm of fear and misunderstanding we have crafted to create an ecological, humanitarian and economic crisis, I’d be fine.
Maybe what the Mayan’s intended for the 21st of December 2012 was that the world was going to start anew, and not merely end.
But that’s not going to happen either. It’s equally unlikely that the world will turn some critical page in its history today as it will come to a crashing halt. And let’s face it; it’s not the world that needs a reboot; it’s just us. You and me and the rest of the seven billion of us who are making a catastrophic mess of things.
Maybe the world has already ended and we haven’t noticed? Maybe we’ve living in a slow-motion end of time that the Mayan calendar-makers couldn’t possibly have foreseen.
I think very little is going to come to an end today, and very little will start over. Humankind is too distracted to press the restart button; we’re caught up in our own small, insular experience of the world, busy texting each other pictures of our cats, or playing the latest Xbox 360 game, to notice that things could really use a do-over. Those distractions keep us from both the pain and the joy of life on this planet; we’re slowly weaving a cocoon around ourselves.
So the end time will come to pass today without significant incident. And that’s too bad, because we need a serious kick in the pants if we’re going to end the world we live in, and start building a new one.
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.