Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought

21 11 2014

Nothing in Heaven functions as it ought:
Peter’s bifocals, blindly sat on, crack;
His gates lurch wide with the cackle of a cock,
Not turn with a hush of gold as Milton had thought;
Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing
The nimbus off the Venerable Bede
Like that of an old dandelion gone to seed;
And the beatific choir keep breaking up, coughing.

But Hell, sleek Hell, hath no freewheeling part:
None takes his own sweet time, none quickens pace.
Ask anyone, “How come you here, poor heart?”—
And he will slot a quarter through his face.
You’ll hear an instant click, a tear will start
Imprinted with an abstract of his case.

– X.J. Kennedy

I’m not much for poetry. I’m a story-driven reader and my preference is for prose. I’m also one of those tiresome people who likes their poems to rhyme. Otherwise, it just seems like flash fiction with lots of line breaks.

This poem hooked me, years ago, when I was still in college. My college years numbered more than most. I could have gotten my PhD for all the time I spent there. But finances dictated that I must go part time. Fortunately, I landed a job at the university, and in those golden days one of the staff benefits was the opportunity to take classes for free. So I browsed the catalog and followed my interests. Nearly eight years later I finally graduated with a BA in Philosophy and English with a minor in Religious Studies. That last one might seem odd for an atheist. I wanted to make sure I understood what it was I didn’t believe in.

I expect it was in an English class that I encountered “Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought.” And it resonated with me. Counter to theistic myth, with its perfect, omniscient and omnipotent god presiding over paradise, the poem presented version of Good that rang true, that reflected the stumbling, imperfect struggle of good people in the real world, their ideals constantly scuttled by circumstances. Good people and institutions, whose very compassion and gentleness, forgiving of weakness, tolerant of imperfection, makes them vulnerable.

Then there’s Hell, pitilessly cranking in well-oiled, dehumanized efficiency, like the machines of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Hell is the Corporation, cutthroat and fiercely competitive, with no patience for the weak or slow, indifferent to suffering, concerned only with results and profit, human needs and frailty be damned. Hell is data points, high-stakes testing, winners rewarded and trap doors opened under the losers.

Many in my circles joke that they must certainly be going to Hell for their sins, but they don’t mind a bit since all the most interesting people must be headed there, too. We feel we’d be in very congenial company, especially if Heaven is populated with the righteously intolerant who are constantly judging the rest of us and finding us wanting. It has also been said many times that a Perfect God who would damn His creations to eternal torment because of the flaws He created them with is not worth our worship. I think most of us find idea of a mysterious God who is to be feared and sacrificed to, who regards us all as wretchedly unworthy sinners who can avoid eternal punishment only through His grace, is jarringly incompatible with what we understand to be the essence of Goodness. Many believers are on board with this, and have re-imagined God into a very different deity from the genocidal maniac of the Old Testament.

I recall my class discussing the X.J. Kennedy poem, speculating that it was a commentary on the industrial revolution and mechanized society, possibly even an indictment of Law or Science, or secular institutions. Good cases can be made for all these assertions. For me the meaning in the poem is much broader. Significant, I think, is the lack of mention of either God or Satan. Heaven and Hell are states of being, not mythological destinations post mortem, ruled by complimentary dieties. They are attitudes, philosophies, ways of looking at the world and judging what matters.

By placing the highest value on success, accomplishment, efficiency, perfection and zero tolerance for any deviation from the path towards the goal, we achieve Hell, sleek, smooth and shining. By placing the highest value on happiness, tolerance, compassion, creative expression and acceptance of humanity, warts and all, we achieve Heaven, where nothing functions as it ought.

I know where I’d rather be.

Being Right

7 11 2014

Seeing things differently

A friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in a while came into the Library. I was horrified to see the terrible swelling and bruises on her face and the bandage on her nose. It seems she had been out working with one of her horses and the animal had bolted, knocking her down and trampling her. This was a big work horse, too. She could easily have been killed. As it was, she got off with relatively minor damage, no broken bones or serious internal injuries.

“God and his angels were looking after me that day!” she declared. My first thought was, If God and his angels had been looking after you, my dear, the horse wouldn’t have bolted in the first place.

It would have been useless, and even rather mean, to point this out to her. She is an earnest and deep believer. To her, God and his angels are a very real force in her life. To me, they are as imaginary as unicorns, dragons, and fairies in the back garden. So who is right? And how can we possibly decide?

A great number of atheists have expended a great deal of energy explaining in lengthy logical detail why God is a delusion. Yet they are unable to convince anyone who wasn’t on the fence anyway. Theists, on the other hand, argue back with equal fervor. All right, some of their arguments are laughably flawed and silly. But there have been some genuinely intelligent and eloquent defenses of the reality of the Divine. Belief is not a matter of faulty thinking. Nor is disbelief a matter of spiritual poverty.

It boils down to this: We cannot help but believe what our experiences and worldview tell us makes sense. Period.

Fortunately, there are a great number of things we can agree on. The reality of the sun and its course through the sky, defining day and night, for example. But there have been and still are people who would laugh with disbelief at the assertion that it is the earth moving and not the sun which creates this experience. If I did not have the benefit of a science education, which has shaped my worldview, I would be among them.

I cannot know what convinces a person to believe in God, or in conspiracy theories for that matter. But I can generalize from examining my own reasons for belief that they, like me, accept what makes sense. And all the logical arguments in the world aren’t going to change their minds if they are certain they are right. They have had experiences of God, or met a ghost, or had some other insight that makes the supernatural real to them. Buddhists, whose wisdom I otherwise respect, believe firmly in rebirth. My Western, scientific worldview keeps me from being able to accept that as truth. Does that mean I’m biased? Wrong?

How arrogant of me to assert that no, I simply have a superior understanding of the world thanks to science. Arrogant, and yet, I can’t help it.

And neither can they. Or my friend with her God and angels. Understanding this helps me to be tolerant, and introduces a degree of humility to my certainties. It also makes me wince when my fellow atheists righteously heap contempt upon theists.

But, I remind myself, they can’t help help it either.

Making your mind a more pleasant place to be

3 11 2014


We walk into a room full of people, and the first thing most of us do is start evaluating them. Much of this is just the mental process of taking stock of our social situation so we know how best to react to it. But a big piece of it is criticism.

That person doesn’t know how to dress; what an awful haircut; she laughs too loud; he’s an ugly slob; what an ignorant remark; how can she think that jewelry is attractive? At some point we realize that others are probably making the same sorts of judgments about us. So we struggle to make certain there is nothing about us to criticize.

We evaluate ourselves, and often come up wanting. Why did I make that stupid comment? I handled that presentation poorly. I drank too much at the reception and acted like a fool. I forgot his birthday. I forgot her name. My makeup looks terrible. My hair won’t behave. I feel like an idiot.

Judgments. Often harsh.

Some judgments are benign: I like the blue shirt more than the pink. I don’t care for Country and Western music. That picture would look better over the couch instead of in the hallway.

Some judgements are helpful: I’d best not have another cookie. It looks like rain; I ought to take my umbrella. That investment seems risky; I’ll pass.

But there’s a point at which judgments slide from sensible and intelligent into the realm of damaging and unhelpful: I am putting on weight. I ought to change some of my habits. Bad habits. I’ve made stupid choices. I can’t control myself. Look at how fat I’ve gotten. What a loser I am. No one is ever going to find me attractive or be able to love me.

Those are terrible things to say about yourself–or another person.

When you let this habit of judging get out of hand, it can make your mind an uncomfortable and unpleasant place to be. From the time you get up in the morning and critically appraise your face in the mirror, to your last waking moments as you lay in bed reliving all the mistakes you made during the day, you nag and worry.

Imagine living with someone who is always telling you what’s wrong with you, how you’ve failed, reminding you of your mistakes and predicting all the ways you might do as badly in the future. That person wouldn’t make you very happy, and your home would be an unpleasant place to be. You wouldn’t want to live there. You’d want to escape from it.

No matter where you go or what you do, your mind is where you live. There’s no escaping from it, although we have lots of temporary distractions and ways to numb ourselves from the noise of our thoughts and the suffering they cause. But no matter what we do, we have to live with ourselves. No divorce is possible. Better to find a way to make your mind a more safe and pleasant place to be.

So the first step is to back up a bit. Start listening to yourself, to the thoughts your busy, judging mind produces. Make yourself aware of it. Notice when it’s happening. Don’t just let it be automatic and business as usual. Realize what you are doing to yourself.

And here’s the tricky part: When you realize you are being judgmental, don’t criticize yourself for it. All that does is create an infinite regress. Instead, practice simply, and perhaps even with a touch of humor, thinking, Ah. I’m judging harshly again. Gee, there I go. Hmm. I’m being critical of myself.

Not beating yourself up for it. Not telling yourself you’re a bad person because of it. Just being aware that you are doing it. Seeing the line you step over when you go from observing that you need to change some of your behaviors to cursing yourself for not being perfect. Recognizing the difference between good judgment and harsh criticism.

That can be all you need to begin breaking out of the habit. That touch of objectivity. That bit of awareness. You can start making your mind a safer and more pleasant place to be.

And in the process, judging others less harshly, too.

The Glue is Holding

26 10 2014


It is sometimes difficult to meditate when you share a house with cats. I am sitting, trying to be mindful of my breath, of what is happening in this moment, of sounds and sensations, of thoughts passing through my mind, and I become aware of it. The soft patter of paws approaching. The purr begins. The weight of a small animal climbing into my lap. The sensation of a cat face pushing against my hands. Human, your attention will be upon me, now.

Like most animals, cats are perpetually in the moment. They spend little time in planning ahead (unless you subscribe to the theory that they are constantly plotting something nefarious, which their narrowed eyes often seem to imply) or dwelling on the past. For the most part, the present moment occupies them fully.

Humans, on the other hand, are constantly obsessing on what we have done and what we are going to do. We burn through our day on autopilot, getting things done and anticipating what to do next. We “multitask”, which psychological tests have proven is actually a frantic toggling of focus between several objects of our attention one moment at a time. At the end of the day we collapse into bed and inventory what we did, how well we did it, and make our list for tomorrow. Or we distract our poor frazzled brains with a book, video, or game. And still, while we watch, play or read, thoughts about what we did and what we need to do intrude, like a cat insistently crawling into our laps and nudging our hands.

I set aside time each day for meditation, at least half an hour, more if I can manage it. I sit and let my breath keep me in the present moment, quietly aware. The thoughts and plans, ideas and worries, come parading into my mind because that’s what human minds do. Busy, busy, busy. But instead of hopping onto these trains of thought and letting them carry me away, I just wave to them as they leave the station. More trains come. Some are happy trains, brightly colored, full of excitement and interest. Some are pretty awful, blowing dark smoke, hauling cargoes of guilt, worry and fear. I let them all go.

The demands and obligations of my life require that I pay attention most of the time. I’ve got to plan, got to evaluate what happened, figure out what to do next, just like everybody else. But meditation, and the habits of mind it encourages, gives my brain and emotions a break. It refreshes my spirit and provides perspective. When I was sick with depression, I couldn’t keep myself anchored in the station; one of those dark trains with its load of anxiety would arrive, pull me on board, and off I’d go. The more I rode them, the worse I got. It exhausted me to tears, because the damn trains never seemed to reach a destination. The problems were never solved, the mournful whistles just kept on blowing as the train rumbled on into the night.

I’m better at choosing the trains I ride, now. Better at climbing aboard the ones that actually take me somewhere useful and interesting. Better at sizing up ones that go nowhere, flashing the conductor a smile, and shaking my head no thank you.

In less metaphorical words, here I am, going into week six of the MBCT therapy course, and I can say with certainty that it’s working. I’ve put myself back together and the glue seems to be holding. So, cats willing, I’ll continue the practice and gradually begin reintegrating myself into the pressures of living that I’d put aside to devote my energy to healing.

For the geeks, here’s a link to an article on what MBCT is, how it works, and why it’s being studied as a possible answer to patients with long-term, treatment-resistant depression. For the less geeky, the gist is this: Mindfulness meditation helps people recognize when their mood is beginning to plummet, and to focus on their present experience rather than on fears of the future or reliving past negative episodes. In one randomized clinical trial, MBCT cut the relapse rate in half for people with recurrent episodes of depression. In another randomized clinical trial published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, people with recurrent depression who participated in an eight-week group course of MBCT were significantly less likely to become depressed again than people who continued on antidepressants without therapy. During the study, people in the mindfulness group reported greater physical well-being and enjoyment in daily life, and 75% were able to discontinue their antidepressant medication.

Asking the right question

12 10 2014

Curious Owl“Are you worth it?”

A challenging question, posed by a therapist, specifically designed to provoke a response. It’s meant to prod the ego, to summon a sense of defiance. Yes, I am worth it. I am worth this deeply painful struggle to recover a strong and healthy sense of self. I am fighting for myself, and I am worth it.

For many patients, this would be a good energizing tactic. But you need to know your audience. It’s not a good question to ask someone whose self-esteem has tanked. Because the response is not a chin-up, fist-shaking, “Yes!” The response is a pause, a frown, a plunge into anxious introspection. Am I worth it? What am I worth? What is my value? Is it found in the service I can be to others? Is it in my work? What I have created? If the sum total is unextraordinary, meaningless, then am I, too, unextraordinary, meaningless? Unworthy of salvation, as the theists might say?

And even presuming that my works have worth to those around me, how does that relate to me? Who am I, apart from what I do? How do I calculate the worth of the “I” in the center, the ultimate Subject, apart from all the verbs and objects?

In other words, here we go again. New material for the Ruination Chorus. Of course I’m not worth it. I can ruminate for hours on all the ways I’m not worth it. “FUBAR!” says the Owl.

Let us rephrase the question: “Is it worth it?”

This not mere rhetorical sleight of hand. There is a critical difference in the two questions, although they might seem to amount to the same thing. In the first, the subject is the person wrestling with the sickness. The second refocuses the attention to the struggle itself. Is the fight worth what might be gained? This requires only a moment’s reflection. The alternatives to continuing the struggle are, quite simply, giving up and living in misery, or ending the whole mess with suicide. The first alternative is unacceptable. No, I most certainly do not want to spend the rest of my existence in joyless despair and self-loathing. The second alternative is equally unacceptable. Not only does it end all possibility of future moments of joy and happiness, but it would leave in its wake profound damage to those I leave behind. I’ll be dead eventually anyway. It makes no sense to rob myself of what opportunities remain for me in the days I have left.

That leaves a firm “Yes” as the only possible answer. Even now, with the Ruination Chorus at my back, the painful memories, the sense of loss and regret, the fear of failure and abandonment, the whole bleak, tear-drenched march through the grey and gloomy forest, I still have moments of joy. I still can laugh. I can take delight in people and things. Slowly, it is getting better as my poor, age-addled brain, creaking with its loss of plasticity, trains itself to respond more skillfully and effectively to old bad habits of thought. In week four, going into week five of Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Meditation practice, I can feel the difference.

I can grin at the Owl and say, “Who you calling fubar?”

Colebrook Journal: Being There

4 10 2014

Curious Owl

I’m ready to go home.

It’s not that my work is done. I feel like I’ve barely started. But I have started.

Hiking the Western side of the Grafton Loop did not begin well. It was chilly and damp, and although it never actually rained, it might as well have. The trail and the campsite where I was headed were within the cloud cover. I hiked six miles in through gloomy, dark forest with mists trailing through the trees. Beards of lichen draped firs beaded with moisture. So I dug out my earbuds and iPod and played Beethoven (The Eroica, to be precise), pretending I was hiking though the Black Forest of Germany. I reached a ledge which my trail description said provided “limited views.” Oh, they were limited, all right. Limited to swirling mists and walls of featureless grey. I reached Sargent Brook Campsite, and in spite of the abundant water in the atmosphere, the brook was dry. Lovely. The three liters of water I’d packed was not going to last me the three days and eighteen miles I had to go.  Nothing to be done about it.  Just had to hope I could find water up the trail.

Next morning I packed up as well as I could in the dry confines of my little one-man tent, and emerged into the world of wet leaves and eye-level clouds. But part of my MBCT practice was learning to accept with equanimity whatever happens, dealing with it, not crying into my cold breakfast that things were not as I wanted them to be. They are what they are. Pack up and get going.

And lo, when I reached the summit of Sunday River Whitecap, the mists thinned and the sun burned through. Clouds still rolled through the valleys, but the tops of the mountains rose above. It was glorious. I found a sunny ledge, stripped off my wet gear, and laid out my tent to dry. Two hikers coming through going in the opposite direction told me that the brooks were running at the next two campsites, so not to worry.  In fact, the next two days were sunny and clear.  (The night got pretty chilly, which made it hard to leave the snug warmth of my sleeping bag in the morning.)

The trail between Sunday River Whitecap and my next planned stop was beautiful, easy to moderate grades through golden forests rich with the smells of autumn.  My goal was six miles away, which would leave me about another six miles to hike out the last day, including four hard miles down the other side of Old Speck. (FYI for hiking readers: besides the brook being dry, the bear box at Sargent Brook campsite was foul and the outhouse was even more foul. Makes me appreciate campsites with caretakers all the more. Bull Run campsite was smaller but cleaner with a lovely rushing brook full of good water.)

But this hike wasn’t so much about the trail as it was about the Practice, the therapy, if you will. More metaphor than exercise. I traveled slowly not because the terrain was difficult (although in spots it was) but because I was stopping frequently just to mind my breath and pull myself fully into the moment, practicing my awareness of what I was feeling and experiencing. Because of that, something happened that would not have, had I been motoring along at full stride, intent on getting somewhere rather than just being where I was.

As I stood, perfectly still, leaning on my staff, I saw out of the corner of my eye something silently come through the trees and settle on a branch. There was a screen of leaves between, so I couldn’t see what it was. I resisted the urge to move to get a better look. I stayed frozen. After a moment or two, a large bird flew to a branch just above me and perched. A barred owl examined me curiously, and inquired, appropriately, “Who? Who?” I looked back into its large, unsettling black eyes, remaining still and silent. It swooped down to get a better look, moving its head up and down, back and forth, scrutinizing this uncharacteristically motionless intruder in its territory, probably accustomed to seeing critters like me tromping along and chattering away to its fellows. Finally it concluded with a hoot which sounded very much like “Fu-bar!” and took off.

“Who you calling ‘fubar’?” I murmured, grinning from ear to ear.

Getting to the summit of Old Speck on the last day was pretty easy. I climbed up the tower at the top to make the requested calls from my cell phone to assure anxious folks at home that I was fine, had not fallen and broken my neck or been mauled by a bear (or psychotic hiker), and admired the breath-taking 360 degree panorama. Then I climbed down and shared my lunch with the inevitable pair of whiskey jacks (a.k.a. Gray Jays, famous for their trail mooching), and finally hoisted my pack and headed down.

Late afternoon. The wind is getting cold and the sunlight is slanting through the trees, rapid disappearing behind the high hills. The wind has taken many of the leaves off the trees and covered the ground, including the trail. It is hard to see what the terrain is like, easy to step wrong, slip or lose your footing. Loose rocks and roots lurk ready to trip the unwary. I had four miles of it, some of it very steep, much of it wet and slick. I was tired after all the miles I’d covered. A recipe for disaster, and boy, I knew it. I crept and crawled and tested each doubtful foothold with my staff. The light was fading but I knew better than to hurry. It was the longest four miles I’ve ever hiked in my life (except for Jefferson, but let’s not go there). At times I was almost in tears, the pack unbalancing me, the trail disappearing in the fallen leaves and fading light and still a long way to go. At times it was beautiful, emerging onto a ledge to see the moon rising over the peak I’d just come down from. (Now, which way does the damn trail go?)

I made it down, found my car unmolested in the parking lot, and headed home in the purple dusk, my leg muscles so tired I could barely drive.


I’ve done hard work here in Colebrook. Good work. But just a start. If I’m not careful and let myself get distracted, I’ll slip into old mental habits. I’ll fall into depression again. Which is not to say I’m going to be happy all the time now. I won’t. Some days I’ll be sad. Some days it’ll hurt so bad I’ll think I can’t stand it. But I’ll keep going, accepting what I must, letting go of what I have to, doing what I can, the best I can, moment by moment.

Hiking the Trail.  Walking the path.

Colebrook Journal: Looking Myself in the I

30 09 2014

The Buddha Approves

There’s a point in any practice, whether it be artistic, athletic, or intellectual, where the beginner, after many sessions of going through the motions, suddenly “gets it”. Something clicks in the brain, some gear shifts, and there is a sudden revelation. “I’m doing it! I get it! This is what the instructor has been trying to teach me!” It all makes sense, the mind or body slides into a mode of doing or being that comes from inside, no longer imposed from outside.

I was waiting for my host, who had business in town that morning. We were to meet at noon and then drive to Evans Notch to camp overnight at the Wild River Campground. Well, noon came and went, and Mary hadn’t come. So I decided to make use of the time by sitting in the sun and practicing.

I’d listened over and over to the guided practice on the audio, the gentle voices of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams teaching me how to understand depression, depressive rumination, and how mindfulness can break the cycle. I understood the theory and how it was supposed to work, and even felt distinct moments of success in dealing with my own Ruination Chorus, tearing back the curtain to reveal the self-destructive habits of mind, furiously whining for my attention: not the bleak truths of my wretched life, but mere events in the mind, thoughts and emotions as insubstantial and fleeting as soap bubbles, with only as much reality as I grant them. As analogy, consider the scene in Labyrinth when Sarah confronts Jareth and says, “You have no power over me.” I imagine the look on the face of the Depression Demon to be much like that of Jareth, knowing he has lost.

But I still suffered the less substantial, insidious effects of negative emotions, the tar pits that I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of. No specific thought patterns to identify and call out. Just a creeping mist of grey melancholy that blocks out the sun. So while I waited for Mary, I sat on the picnic table, struck a proper meditation pose, and talked myself through the steps.

What is in this moment? I asked myself, and began methodically inventorying the sensations in my body, what was going on in my mind, the emotions and thoughts in the mind stream, always gently returning to focus on my breath each time I found my mind starting to leave the station on some train of thought. Not pushing the thought away, or blocking it out, just making note of what it is and letting it evaporate in its own time as I attend to other things. What sounds are coming to my ears? What can be seen from where I am sitting? I can feel the breeze and the sun on my skin. What else is there?  I am reminded of something, I begin to follow that thought, emotions associated with that thought rising up. Then I realize I have begun to be carried away by the mind stream, and I return to the breath. Now. What is in this moment?

And there it was. With sudden clarity I recognized the “I” that is the subject for which everything else is the predicate. Distinct. Aware.

I saw the image of my little Buddha talisman, sitting on the windowsill back at the cabin, smiling, laughing with delighted approval.

Mary was quite late, apologizing profusely as she got out of the car. I told her, very sincerely, that it was all right, I didn’t mind. In fact, I had become quite oblivious to clock time. I had spent over an hour, fascinated by this new perspective, this awareness, this Being distinct from all the Doing, Thinking, and Feeling. This new sense of “I” calmly, curiously, contemplating the content of each moment, the workings of my mind, the busy-ness all around me that I could be aware of, but not a part of. It was astonishing.

But of course, in returning to clock time and the habits of living, I lost that sense of awareness, although I could remember having it. We followed our plans, going to Evans Notch, setting up camp, cooking dinner, enjoying the experience of being outdoors.  We spent the night in our tents.  The next morning Mary told me she had heard a owl hooting in the tree right above us.  Alas, I’d missed it.  The group at the tent site near to us had been partying rather loudly and late, and I’d resorted to earplugs to get to sleep.

We had our breakfast and made our plans for the day.  Mary, who can’t do strenuous hikes right now because of problems with her knees, was going to enjoy the brooks, ponds and autumn woods at ground level.  I would hike up over Basin Ridge and down the other side, where she would meet me with the car at an appointed time that afternoon.

I set out on the trail, pausing now and then, standing still, seeing if I could recover that sense of awareness as I listened to the forest, to the falling leaves, to the woodpecker drumming in the distance, small creatures furtively rustling in the leaves, birds calling and squirrels scolding. I observed the light, the colors of the foliage, noted the scent of decay from ferns killed by frost, the richness of dried leaves crushed underfoot. And my own interior landscape. As inevitably happens, sad memories, regrets and unpleasant thoughts emerged in the mind stream. There you are, I thought, I know you. Say what you have to say, and then disappear downstream. I will not follow you.

But somehow melancholy caught up with me as I toiled up the rough path to the top of the ridge. This is a wilderness area, so the paths are not maintained. One hikes them at one’s own risk. There are signs at intersections to keep the hiker from getting lost, but one cannot count on blazes, or bridges, or walkways, or any of the other niceties. I am an experienced hiker, and this is a fairly well-trodden trail, so I had no difficulty finding my way, exercising the special care essential when hiking alone. I made it to the top of the ridge. But I felt sad, not exultant. It was a beautiful day, a splendid view, I had achieve my goal. Why wasn’t I happy? What was wrong with me?

And so I sat down. Don’t start with that business. There is nothing wrong with me. Nothing at all.

Breathe. What is in this moment? The beauty around me. The amazing view of the pond below and the distant mountains, ablaze with autumn color. The breeze on my skin, evaporating sweat, cooling. The small creatures around me, doing their thing. And sadness. Vague, amorphous sadness. It could pull me down, engulf me, rule me, if I let it. But I see it for what it is: a state of the mind, created in a conspiracy of mind and body. It is as impermanent as the weather. I am aware of it, but it is not me.

And it has no power over me.

I am not sure how long I was up there; I guess about an hour. It would be my turn to apologize to Mary for being late. But when I packed up my things and took up my hiking stick for the tricky, steep and treacherous descent, the melancholy was gone. With good humor I negotiated the loose dirt and fallen leaves, erosion, logs and dislodged rocks, and got to the bottom. I bathed in the pond, splashing the salt and dirt from my face and arms, relishing the delicious, cool sensation of water.

Grinning like my little Buddha.


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