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.
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.
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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.
There is a tree on one of the grassy benches above my home that is sacred. It’s a stalwart Douglas fir that rises up just a little taller than the other fir and spruce that surround it. From its base there is a standard tremendous view of the Bow Valley, the Three Sisters, Mount Peter Lougheed and Wind Ridge. It’s both easy to find and a surprise when stumbled upon. It’s like a thousand other Douglas fir that dot the sunny south-eastern side of this deep mountain vale, and singular in every way.
It is a prayer tree. Around its roots are a circle of stones with an entrance that allows access to the tree’s circumference. Approach the tree as I often do from the path that winds by its bottom and soon all manner of offerings appear: beads and glass bobbles scattered in the dust among its roots; hand written notes, an empty vile of homeopathic medicine, coins and a key are wedged in its thick bark; notes and pouches are suspended from its branches by string. A spiral of twigs is laid out in a neat pattern on the bare earth below the spreading limbs.
I found this tree by accident on one of my first runs through the woods above my home more than a year ago. I’ve had other such companions throughout my days on the trail over this lifetime. In high school I named a spreading American Beech ‘Phaedrus’ after a character in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and mourned it’s lose when my precious woods were cut to make way for the 427 toll highway. When I lived in Harvie Heights for six years in the 1990’s I named a massive Engleman Spruce Issrigill, one of the pillars of the earth in Roman mythology.
By the time I worked at Royal Roads University a few years ago I had stopped naming my favourite trees, but found them never the less. On a campus full of extraordinary trees – 16 of the largest Douglas fir left on the Vancouver Island were on the upland slopes of the grounds – there was a massive Norway Maple that at its base was six feet across. I found a way to run by that tree almost every day I was on campus and it never failed to fill me with a sense of magical wonder.
But never have I come across a tree that is so obviously important to so many other people. Despite the conspicuous adoration felt for this particular tree, I’ve yet to meet anybody there on my dozens of runs past it. And that’s just as well, because the sort of druidic reverence I and others evidently feel for this tree is best practiced in private.
A few days ago while running in the warm afternoon sun I came upon the tree as I usually do: by accident. On my circuitous routes through the woods and meadows along the slopes of Grotto Mountain I often let whimsy decide my course, so I’m always pleasantly surprised to find myself at the base of this tree.
I stopped running and walked through the opening in the stones that circled the tree. For some reason I have it in my head that the offerings left at this tree have been done so by young people. I figure most adults have lost the sense of wonder and suspended judgment that is required to leave a prayer in the form of a note, a coin or a key in such a place. I wanted to offer something but didn’t have anything to leave: somehow I didn’t think the wrapper from a Cliff Shot could be interpreted as anything but garbage.
But I did have something I needed to take with me. I circled the tree a few times, trying to quiet my racing mind. There has been a lot of pain in the world of late; a lot of pain in my family too. Several dear family members are sick. Two of the people I love the most in this world are facing the end of the journey. I do not want them to leave just yet. A friend is passing through dark times. And on the same day I was saying my prayers at this tree the father of friends I grew up with – a man whose presence when I was a child seemed like it would last forever – was being put to rest after a massive heart attack.
There were other prayers to offer. Last week a child was born to friends who are love incarnate, and this little boy will grow up deeply cared for and cherished. They named him Isaiah and recalled the Words: Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed. (Isaiah 54:10)
When we need something that we believe is beyond our control we sometimes pray for it.
I do not believe there is a supernatural being to pray to, and nobody will respond to my supplication except the wind and the sun. So why do I find myself praying when I run past this tree?
Because all life is a prayer. Because every moment, every word, every breath is a prayer. Prayer focuses our intent, and calls together the sometimes magical and often mundane coagulation of hope and belief and the power of our thoughts to create reality.
And because sometimes prayer is all we have. And sometimes prayer is all we need.
And so, at the base of the tree where others have left gifts I leave love and courage for my family and friends who are struggling to hold onto life, and offer the gift of hope and peace for baby Isaiah. And then, the afternoon sun warming my face and the wind speeding my steps, I keep running through the prayer filed woods.
(Author’s note: I began this post on May 22nd. I’m a little behind on a few bits of writing.)
It’s Friday afternoon and the sun has returned. The final patches of snow have disappeared from the matrix of trails through the dark pine benches above Canmore. The sun is a welcome relief. But at the same time I welcome its arrival I say goodbye to something far more precious: my sons.
I’m about to start a frenetic three weeks of travel, almost all of which will see me out of the country, traveling around Montana and Wyoming, and on to Victoria for Bloody Words, and then after just two days back in Alberta, back to Montana once again.
The thought of it makes me dizzy. The prospect of seeing my children for just two days over the next three weeks makes me feel ill.
I drop Rio off at school on Friday morning, and ask him to look at my eyes, and tell him how much I love him. And then he is gone, 9-years-old and confident and already so focused on his own challenges. Next is Silas; I take him to his day-care provider and we spent a moment with him in my arms in her entrance, and then he is gone too, waving and smiling and growing weary of so many “I love you’s.”
Children simply don’t project forward in time the way we do as adults. It’s a trick I’d like to relearn.
I grope my way to my pick-up after departing from Silas and close the door and let the tears momentarily win the battle. After a moment, feeling as if I was in some country-western song, crying in an aging pick-up (no dogs please) I straighten and tell myself to “toughen up.” Others, I remind myself, go months, without seeing their kids. I just need to stay “frosty” about this absence.
By late in the afternoon I’m feeling anything but tough, so I do one of two things I do when I am feeling defeated (The other is drink beer and mope). I head out to run the trails above my home in the Bow Valley to let sweat and bone and muscle work through my dark ennui.
It’s my first snow free run of the year and it feels good. Having been inundated with my new job, and my self-imposed writing schedule of late, I haven’t spent as much time on the trail as I would like, so the first fifteen minutes are predictably horrible. But I push through, and as always, by the time I’ve climbed a few hundred feet up onto the benchlands, my breathing is no longer coming in gasps and my legs don’t feel as if they are coated in wet cement.
Nature has always been my tonic. It’s where I have always turned for solace during difficult times in my life. When the Buddha sought to end suffering in his own life he sat under the Bodhi tree and meditated. There the demon Mara came to temp him with the trappings of attachment and pleasure, and when Gautama Buddha resisted, Mara asked — as his final effort to wrench enlightenment from the man who had been Siddhartha – “who will be your witness?” Who would observe, and thereby validate the Buddha’s freedom from suffering with everlasting enlightenment? The Buddha, his fingers trailing on the soft ground beneath him simply said: “The earth will be my witness.”
And so it was.
So the earth bares witness to my own suffering as I run through the open aspen glades and dark pines along the base of Grotto Mountain. After some time, I come to one of the deep fissures that are the epithet of this mountain; a dell cut into the side of the peak where a seasonal stream courses. Normally I take the long steep trail down along the edge of this grotto, but this day the sound of water floats up through the trees and is like a clarion call.
I run down the path, the temperature dropping as I reach the tiny watercourse, and know exactly what I must do. Once on the water’s edge I weave my way up the tiny creek – just a few feet wide and so clear – to find a set of waterfalls, each dropping four or five feet, and performing the most perfect music of nature.
Sitting on the bank, I draw in a deep, moisture laden breath and breathe out my sadness. I can feel the hardness that I have tried to use to guard myself being eroded. As with the stones in its path, water can work its patient ways against the most stalwart barrier we erect between our hearts and love and compassion.
I realize this tiny waterway has bore on its back another gift: connection.
In Buddhism, the practice of tonglen is a means by which we can connect with others; friends, loved ones and perfect strangers.
The teacher Pema Chödrön says this: “The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.”
The sound of the rivulet fills my ears, and then my heart. For a moment I imagine that I can hear the voices of every other soul who is sad and missing someone. I can hear them saying goodbye, and experiencing the ache of separation and the despair of loss.
I think of my own father, who when I was young, traveled on business for a week at a time and was often away.
I think of soldiers serving overseas, bidding their families goodbye for months – years – at a time. Imagining their children growing up without them; not knowing when, or if, they will ever come home.
And then I am connected to those who have committed some terrible crime, and who are locked away and who leave families behind. They too must miss their children, knowing that they may never get to hold them in their arms again.
Water is the blood of the earth, and the creeks and rivers its circulatory system. Every drop of water that rushes past me on Grotto Mountain is connected to every other drop around the world. This water tripped down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains was once in the Euphrates River in Babylon and in the Great Lakes and somewhere in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. To sit by its side and feel the coolness on the tips of my fingers is to touch everything all at once.
These waters flow past the sadness, the suffering, that everyone else on earth experiences; the loss, the sorrow of saying goodbye, and often, through not always, the bliss of reunion. This water connects me to every other person’s suffering, and I can feel love and compassion for them, as I must for my own temporary sadness. I resolve that over the next three weeks, when I feel the suffering of being apart from my children, I will not build armor around my heart but instead allow myself to remain connected, through the water tonglen, to my own suffering and that of others.
Through the water tonglen I can touch the sadness of everybody all at once, and feel compassion for each person’s separation from those that they love, and in doing so, know that none of us are alone. I know that rather than building a barrier around my heart to protect myself, that real fortification comes from being completely open and vulnerable, and taking solace in the shelter that my connection to every other soul provides.
After a while, my legs stiff with lactic acid, I rise and shake them out and run up the steep hill, the sound of the water still pulsing in my ears. I’m halfway through my run but already I feel better; my armor left in a pile by the tiny creek to melt back into the woods; the earth beneath my feet baring silent witness; my head not so self-obsessed with my own troubles. Another thirty minutes of up and down through the spring forest and I’ll be home. Then I can have a beer and determine not to mope.
For almost three years I felt as if I was saying farewell to Victoria. Given that I lived there for five and a half years, that’s a long goodbye. Shortly after Jenn and I realized that our lives were to be intertwined, we decided that they would not be rooted in Victoria, but back in the Rocky Mountains. For the last two years we’ve been actively planning this move. When we lugged the contents of Jenn’s condo over the Great Divide and Roger’s Pass on January 1st, 2009, we did so knowing we’d have to do it all again in the reverse order two years later. Nothing cheers the soul, while driving a U-Haul truck over snow and ice and winding mountain highways like the foreknowledge that you’ll get to do it again in such a short span of time.
The moment finally came and on the last day of November when we began to cram the contents of our Victoria home into the truck, and what seemed like several days later, finally closed the door on that chapter of our lives. I drove the U-Haul and Jenn piloted our aging but trust-worthy Nissan pick-up; the Subaru was left behind for another stage of the complex logistics. We made Canmore in two days of white-knuckle driving – including fishtailing the 45 foot long rental on black-ice on the west side of Golden – that had both of us swearing that we’d never do it again. We arrived in the Rockies under cold, clear skies.
The truck was unloaded with the help of friends working in shifts, and after three nights in our new home, I flew to Bozeman Montana, and then back to Victoria to pick up the kids after their last day of school. Then I did the drive again, this time minus the ass-heavy truck, and with clear and dry roads.
In between there were three days of final farewells in that coastal enclave that for five years we called home. It seemed appropriate that the days were heavy and overcast with rain coming in fits and spurts. On Thursday, however, the day dawned brightly, and after dropping the boys at school I made my way to Mount Doug for what would be my final run over that rocky hill’s forested slopes.
As I’ve said elsewhere, in the time I spent in Victoria, I’ve probably run over Mount Doug a thousand times; in all likelihood many more. As I wove my way up through the dense, perfumed cedar and Douglas fir forest, I recalled that during my first week in Victoria I was so sad for leaving the Mountain wilderness behind, and the discovery of tiny Mount Doug buoyed my flagging spirits. Here was a place that at least was natural, though by no means wild, and certainly not wilderness.
Mount Doug became my sanctuary. Like other urban woodlands before it – and here I think of the unintentional, but often appreciated forests behind my teenage home in Burlington, Ontario – it became a buffer between the madness of city life, and my own wild heart.
On Mount Doug I experienced some of my greatest insights over the last five years. While running through its sun-dappled woods I experienced – not just intellectually, but in actual practice – the dissolution of the boundary between myself and the world around me. I can recall the place on the trail where I first felt the sensation I describe as bliss: where I was no longer a man running through the woods, but merely one part of the universe passing through the other. I could see everything at once, feel everything, taste and hear everything; because, of course, I was everything at once. The feeling of peace washed over me and through me and carried me along the trail in an effortless glide that I’ve become addicted to, and seek to experience again and again. And I do.
Mount Doug was the place where I most often went to run with my best friend Josh. He’d push me as we ran up the steep rocky flanks of the hillside, talking all the way, circling through its Garry Oak forests, and racing down its egresses towards the sea. We covered hundreds of, maybe a thousand, kilometers, over the five years we ran there together, and built a friendship that will, no doubt, last a lifetime. Saying goodbye to Josh and his family the night before this run was, beyond a doubt, the hardest thing about leaving Victoria.
Mount Doug was also where, on a strange day in late July in 2006, that I experienced my darkness moments while in Victoria. It was while running through those woods that I cherish that I had my closest brush with mortality yet: it was there that I realized that I was in mortal danger if I didn’t make changes in my life, and so I did, and still am.
It has been a long trail. And a good one. And sometimes very hard. New life, and old fears and dark anger lay among the salmon and the cedar on the path from the sea to the summit. The discovery that life isn’t necessarily supposed to be sad, and that peace truly is, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, every step was made with each plodding footfall. I discovered too that that peace, in the heart and of the soul, must be rediscovered each day with a commitment to experiencing without fear the steep rises and rocky plunges on this path through the woods we call our sacred, ephemeral lives.
And at last I came once more to the summit of the bald round and looked again over the forested city of Victoria, and beyond it the circling sea and the chains of Mountains. It was a perfect, clear day: even Mount Baker, one hundred miles distant, and often shrouded in cloud on a sunny day, stood in sharp contrast against the azure sky. This place, this hill, these people have served my family well, and we have loved them, and now as we take our leave, I am grateful. I turned and bowed in the four directions, offering my heartfelt thanks to the earth, sea and sky, and to those who have blessed Rio, Silas, Jenn and I with their love and friendship this past half decade.
And lastly I bowed in the direction of my future; towards the east and the Rocky Mountains. I set off down the path at a fair clip, the way ahead unfurling at my feet, the long trail disappearing through the woods and toward a future alight with the promise of hope, of love and of peace.
I start up the long slow climb from near sea level, just above the bluffs that form a sandy escarpment above Mount Doug beach, towards the summit of Mount Doug, some six hundred feet above. It’s a spectacular trail that weaves its way between sea and sky through a dense, light speckled forest. In the winter it can be very wet, being on the windward side of this coastal hill, and the forest reflects the damper climate: massive Douglas fir trees jut out of the fern cloaked forest. Red cedar and spruce compete for the light. The trails can become brooks during heavy rains, and more than once I’ve found myself calf deep, jumping up the steps of a track turned waterfall.
But in the middle of this drier-than-normal summer, it’s parched and makes for easy running. It’s a good thing too, because once again I have much in common with the banana slugs I labour to avoid as I plod along through the woods.
I come to the place on the trail – or, more accurately, a point in my run — where I always seem to slow down. It’s inexplicable. I’m less than fifteen minutes into my run and I’m feeling tired. It’s the hump; it’s the wall. I look at my watch and allow for 60 seconds of walking and then begin again. I pass one of my favourite trees – a Douglas Fir that is broader than my six foot wingspan. It always gives me a boost of energy to power up the steep hill that rises above this primordial giant. Before long I’m on the trail that circumnavigates the rocky hill near its midpoint, gliding over the undulating terrain.
The sun peeks out from behind high clouds and the woods are momentarily transformed into a living cathedral of light.
I take the cut off that veers upwards again, scrambling over the polished stone that leads out of the dark woods and into an Arbutus pocked ridge that will lead me to the summit.
This is where I struggle.
I think that I’ve run over the summit of Mount Doug a thousand times now. I’ve lived in Victoria since the spring of 2005, and for big chunks of that time I’ve run at Mount Doug at least twice and sometimes three times. Every time I come here I run over the summit at least once. I haven’t been keeping track, but a thousand sounds about right. Despite that, its still hard work, largely because of my lack of consistency. Life is busy and at times several weeks will pass when I don’t run. I realize as I’m running up over the rocky outcrops that I’m also prone to settling for shorter runs, even when I’m feeling good. I’m resolving to run for at least an hour when I’m out, rather than cutting my time in the woods short with 40 minute jogs.
This morning when I started out I set my mind to run for an hour and to run from sea level to the summit twice. But now, two thirds of the way into my first lap up the hill, I’m feeling empty. I stop, chiding myself for my lacklustre effort. I eat an energy bar. That helps. Despite having been running for more than two decades, I often get the nutrition part of the exercise wrong and run out of steam. I need to work on that too.
The food helps, but I know something else is even more important to my running: mindfulness, and the awareness of no-self.
When I run I find that as hard as a trail might be, it’s made all the more difficult by the insistent intrusions of my overactive mind. Serious athletes talk about the “chatter” or the “monkey mind” that they must confront during competitions. I have a friend who is preparing for an Iron Man race this fall and she tells me that during her gruelling 180 km long training rides the chatter can be almost deafening. The voices in our minds can tell us over and over again that we can’t do this. So just stop. Stopping is easier than continuing. Stopping riding, stop running and the discomfort will stop too.
It’s the same voices that I confront when I’m in the empty room of meditation.
On the meditation cushion and on the trail there is no place to hide. There is no escape.
When I’m meditating and confront something dark lurking in the emptiness, my inclination is to run; to actually jump up from the couch or the cushion and blot out the door. So it is with my life; sometimes I run away from things. And that hasn’t served me very well.
But when I’m physically running, my challenge is to find stillness within without grinding to an embarrassing halt half way up a tough hill.
Pushing through the discomfort of the climb, I borrow a trick from my meditation practice to confront the ruckus in my mind. I acknowledge the voices and rather than try to banish them, I make friends with them. “You are just voices. You have no power over me. You speak to me, but I can choose to accept what you are saying or not. I choose not to.”
This mindfulness takes the wind out of the voices’ sails.
I glide over the summit of the hill and begin down the front side. My aim is to run the long, main trail along the leeward side of the hill all the way down, and then turn around and make for the summit again along the sandy, Garry Oak studded slopes.
The second element of mindfulness that matters to me is simply maintaining present moment awareness. I can acknowledge the clatter of voices in my head that pull at my legs and make my movement heavy; I can choose to reject what those voices are saying. And I can shift my awareness to the marvellous experience of gliding through the ancient forests of this tiny island park. I seek out rough, rocky, root strewn, boulder clad trails with plenty of downed trees and stream crossings because when I run on them I have to pay attention. The voices don’t get to have their say if my mind is engaged with the world around me.
Weaving my way back up the 600 feet of elevation gain is hard, but not as hard as I thought it might be (And certainly not as hard as the voices told me it would be). Once again I let go of the concept of self.
No-self is one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, and probably one of the most difficult to grasp. Most of us have come to believe that there is an “I” inhabiting our body, and that this “I” has a soul that is singular and unique. But the harder one searches for the “I” in ourselves, the more likely we come to see that there is no-self home to answer the call.
Gautama Buddha recognized this two thousand years ago. Today we can affirm with science what the Buddha discovered through many years of meditation: No-self is the recognition that we are simply the local manifestation of the soup of energy and information that gives rise to all life, to all matter.
We are at once individual manifestations, and at the same time seamlessly a part of all the rest of creation.
This is very helpful when we’re addressing our suffering. Attachment to the notion of the self can lead to some pretty big hurdles to freedom from suffering. If we’re attached to the notion of the self, then we can lose that which we love. We become entangled with our ego. We can die.
If there is no-self, then there is nothing to become attached to.
How does no-self eclipse the suffering experienced in my leaden thighs as I plod towards the summit of Mount Doug for the second time inside of an hour?
If there is no-self, then there is no separation. If there is no-self, there isn’t a man running along a trail on a hill next to the ocean. There is only nature; there is only the totality of creation. There is only one part of nature moving through itself, upwards.
And when there is no-self, when there is no boundary between “me” and “the hill” and “me” and “the forest” it becomes so much easier to draw on the boundless, effortless energy that nature exudes. In Taoism we would say that nature accomplishes its spectacular existence by “doing little to accomplish much.” Trees don’t struggle to grow: they just grow. They are humming with energy; with bountiful life.
So might we. And we can draw on their energy to fuel ourselves because its all the same thing: we simply must dissolve the illusion of separation in order to make use of the energy freely available to us.
When I am running up a long hill through glades of trees, or over the rocky spine of some ancient mountain, I see myself as not separate from the bounty of life around me, but seamlessly a part of it. I actively invite its energy to flow through me. In my mind, and through my heart, I pull that energy into me and allow it to power me up the trail.
This is what quantum physicists might call “non-local communication.”
It’s not an intellectual exercise. I feel this. It is my experience of the world.
I’m not merely replacing one set of “chattering” voices in my head with another more positive one. When I am moving through the woods, up in the mountains, down in the desert or along the ocean or a creek or river, I let go of the notion that I am separate from that which I am moving through. I surrender.
And of course, there is no “I” to do the surrendering.
During these brief moments, born of necessity, there is no duality: there is just creation and it is in motion through itself. It is powered by the same life giving energy and it exults in itself.
And then “I” am on the “summit” again. I stride out on the run down through the arbutus, spruce and fir. My focus must remain on the trail as there are places where a misstep could cause some damage, but the voices have been cast aside, and I let my mind rove a little. The energy that powered me up the side of the hill can also become a portal to the broader creativity of the universe. Here I can recall that I am also a conduit for the universes desire to express itself. I can make the voices work for me.
Nature abounds in creative energy, and it’s when I am “powering up” a hill and gliding back down, inseparable from the world around me, that I tap into that field of pure potential. I let the ideas come and go as I jump fallen logs and gingerly jump down rocky embankments.
By the time my run has finished, there is an “I” again and he’s getting in the car to navigate his way home for a shower. The moment of no-self, no-illusion and no-separation fades and I become absorbed with what ever comes next in my day. But the practice of powering-up – of drawing on the world around me for what I need by recalling that there is no “I” to separate me from the world of pure love, pure energy and pure possibility, is one of the most important things I am learning in my search for bliss.
It’s a welcome sunny day in September, and Josh and I park his car at the Pike Road entrance to East Sooke Park, and then drive mine south to Aylard Farm to start our run. I don’t get nervous at the start of a long run anymore: I know I can do this. I don’t fear the physical discomfort that might come. Instead, I’m exhilarated by the prospect of moving through the coastal landscape at the southern most tip of Vancouver Island on this extraordinary day.
We begin along the path slowly, warming up, falling into a rhythm of conversation, and a easy flow along the gravel path to the beach. We follow along the water’s edge a while, the mid day sunshine gleaming off the swells, the beach strewn with bull kelp. The tide is high, so we scramble up the bank and into the woods and continue along the trail that skirts the water’s edge along some of the most exquisite sea shore on southern Vancouver Island.
The path winds through groves of naked arbutus trees and over rocky outcrops. This is the sort of running where you use your hands a lot, pulling up steep slopes, and dropping down over rocky cliffs. Below us, sometimes a hundred feet or more down sheer cliffs, the surf pounds the exposed southern point of the island, its roar omni-present, filling the space around us with a cacophony of white noise.
We pass Beechey Head, warming up. I can feel my body starting to intuit the trail. Can feel my mind relaxing into the run. Our conversation takes long pauses as we pound up steep sections of the trail that climb high above the sea, where finger inlets poke the rocky bulkheads. Then down again, thick mats of salal. We pass the first clump of black bear dung of the day, itself composed nearly entirely of salal berries, leaves and twigs, most of which have been only minimally digested. The berry crop is so rich that the bears need only draw minimal nutrition from each encouraged bellyful.
Every step forward is a step into joy. Every step forward is a step into bliss.
In the last two or three years, trail running has become the yang component of my body/spirit workout. I’ve been running all of my life, but never like this. I was a skinny kid who was frequently chided for his lack of athletic prowess. In grade four I was on my schools cross country team. I remember a three kilometer race where I placed dead centre of the pack. I didn’t run much through grade school, except through the woods behind my home in Burlington, where second growth maple, pine and beach cast dark pools of cool shadow during the heat of southern Ontario summers. In high school and collage I dated a woman who was a track and field athlete, and she inspired me to run again.
It wasn’t until moving to the Rockies in 1992 that I ran again with any regularity. When I landed at the western edge of the continent two and a half years ago, I replaced Nordic skiing with cross country running as the mainstay of my work out. It brings me to bliss nearly every time I hit a trail.
So now I am a skinny (I prefer slender, svelte, or streamlined) man who can run for hours.
Josh and I race down a long, muddy slope to where the trail crosses a rocky beach and a sheltered cove just south of Cabin Point. From here the trail climbs steeply up through cliffs and a tangled forest again to emerge on a broad, open plateau a few hundred feet above the crashing tide. Its my favorite place on the Coast Trail, a flat expanse of stone and meadow where I can stride out and feel the contentment of a cadence and the flow of land, sea, sky, muscle and heart.
Just a few weeks ago I ran to Cabin Point and back on my own, shaking off a difficult parting from someone I love dearly, and I remember crossing this bench wishing that I was not alone, that she was there to share this miraculous place with me.
Maybe someday. Maybe someday.
Josh and I push ourselves along the trail, feeling the effortless flow that comes at the apex of a run.
I know that soon I’ll touch, however briefly, the stillness that I am seeking in all my efforts.
The yin aspect of my mind/spirit workout is meditation. Every morning I sit for thirty minutes, practicing silence and stillness as best I can. I’m an amateur, and my daily practice is still mostly involves a pattern of inner dialog where memory and prediction emerge; where dreams merge with reality; where sexual fantasy foists itself on the stillness of my body; where fear and vulnerability take an icy grip on the softness of my heart. I’m still practicing tenderness with myself: rather than growing angry or frustrated, I silently say “those are thoughts,” and return to focus on my breathing.
As I have written elsewhere, from time to time I am even jolted from this stillness by an urge to move. To escape my mind. I lurch from my cushion, from the tiny alter, and have to gently remind myself to “sit through” whatever is making me so uncomfortable with stillness.
The urge to run, during these challenging times, is almost overwhelming.
This is where yin and the yang create not opposites playing against one another, but two halves of a whole, becoming one.
When I run, I allow my mind to range over the landscape through which I pass. The technical nature of most of my trails demand sharp focus on my feet or I’d surely trip or fall, in some places almost certainly to my death. But inside of that focus, my mind, and my spirit, are working things out. I let them. I try not to get in the way of my mind, my heart, my soul’s intuitive nature of sort through life’s mysteries.
I run in nature, in part, because in the woods, in the hills and mountains, by the sea shore, I am most able to draw the extraordinary creative abundance of the natural word into me. When I run, I am reminded that I am not separate from the landscape through which I move. I am simply another element of the land moving through a myriad other elements, indistinguishable.
Running awakens my passions, my desires, my vulnerabilities, my creativity. In meditation I touch to the creative void, the field of pure potentiality that exists everywhere around us, and within us, at all times. In meditation I find a stillness where I can allow my soul to touch the place within, and all around me, where this creativity manifests. But as with the Tai Chi — the swirling black and white symbol taken to represent yin and yang — in the black there is white, and the white there is black: in stillness, motion, and in motion stillness.
In meditation, my breathing (and my occasional physical reactions to the really hard, and sometimes dark places my soul stumbles upon) are the movement. In running, in particular on long, challenges runs, I inevitably find a place of stillness: I am not a man running through nature, but nature finding a still point from the motion.
And then, without a doubt, that stillness slips away, and is replaced by burning muscles and panting lungs as the trail winds on and on. On this particular day, I am awe struck by the shear magnificence of the coastal landscape. I keep exclaiming to Josh that I “can’t believe I live here!” Its pure delight to pass through this place, this promise, this life.
We finish our trail on the beach at the end of Pike Road and rest in the sun, on a log, watching the waves pound the islets off shore, watch fishing boats navigate the narrow channels, watch the sky grow mottled with cloud and then clear again. Then another short run out Pike Road, and we reach the car after two and a half hours of on the trial and begin the drive back into Victoria.
Every step is a step into mystery. Every moment an opportunity to touch the both stillness and motion, the abundant creative power of life’s love and energy, its joy and its sorrow, its peace and challenge and beauty. I will spend my life running towards stillness, and then, when I’ve finally reached it, simply keep running.
There’s no place to hide illusions when you’re grinding up seven kilometers of rocky trail.
The number of illusions that I surround myself with every day of my existence is staggering.
The illusion of the past, the innumerable stories I’ve created about who I was, and how I became who I am today. Most of what I remember is erroneous. If something happened more than a year ago, the likelihood of my remembering it with any accuracy is slim. Its illusion.
The illusion of the future, the even more populous scenarios that play out in my head about the days, weeks, and months to come, are even less likely. Tomorrow is a mystery, next week impossible to imagine with precision. And yet I spend vast amounts of time, and huge amounts of emotional energy, allowing the dreamscape of tomorrow to dominate my present.
Jocelyn Hill is a good grind for working through illusions. As I start up the long, steep incline, I look down at my feet, picking their way over stones and roots. Breathing hard, feeling the burn of lactic acid in my legs, I burry myself in illusions, anything to avoid the present. Because the present is sweat, throbbing muscles, tearing lungs.
The day, which only moments ago was threatening rain throughout, has turned to sun, and as legs and lungs fall into a rhythm, I realize I’ve not been actually seeing the green world around me for the last kilometre.
I re-centre myself in present moment awareness.
This is the only reality, this is all that is real. Right now. This world that is before us in this very minute. Even as I write these lines, my run up Jocelyn hill on Friday, two days in the past, is illusion. The muscle fiber it built remains as a testament to its occurrence, as does the remaining stiffness in my knees, but otherwise, its only a bit of neural energy stored somewhere in the recesses of my brain. Or in the wink between electrons.
I remember it was a good run. Hard. Emotionally and physically. I fought the illusions most of the way to the summit, seven kilometers and a thousand feet up from the trailhead. When I made the rocky dome I carried on, circling back via a route that provided inspiring views down, down, down to the Saanich Inlet far below, and to the green hills – many being scrapped clear for the Bear Mountain Resort – in the distance.
On the flight down, shirt off, sweat stinging my eyes, the wet leaves and branches whipping my body, I contemplated again the notion of illusions. I’ve been struggling with the concept of self referral this last month. Staying grounded in self referral is helping me manage my way through a tangle of emotions. Staying centred in self referral is teaching me to be happy regardless of what is happening outside my own centre, my own soul.
Getting lost in the illusion of past and present pulls me from my centre. Illusions distract me from self referral. Illusions create stories about my past, they call my ego to the fore and make it act out scenarios for the future. Staying focused on the present moment, the trail drilling past me, the scent of wet leaves in the air, the crispness of the air on my flesh, the feeling of my feet light on the rocks and bald roots: these things keep me centred. These things keep me aware of my own soul, and its connection to all that surrounds me. Near and far.
Two hours and fifteen minutes after setting out I am back at my car. I have no illusions the lessons learned on Jocelyn Hill will need to be relearned again.