Lost? Walk next to the river

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I got lost in the woods last week. Four tornados had gone through the Hudson Valley a few weeks earlier and downed hemlocks and pines repeatedly obscured the trail I was hiking on. I wandered for a while, trying to get my bearing. The sky was overcast, the leaves where in place obscuring any distant views, the trail had been winding in a way that had made me lose my sense of direction. And I forgot to bring my compass.

So I wandered, bushwhacking in the general direction I thought was where I began. I passed through a beautiful bank of skunk cabbage until I came to a river. I followed the river downstream, keeping to it where I could. I knew ‘down’ was the general direction I wanted to go and the stream helped me chart a fairly straight course. In the distance I saw a farm’s rail fencing. Civilization! I crossed through an old pasture and found a road. Right or left? I chose left and walked the mile back to the car.

Daily life is not easy. We’re all a bundle of emotions, many of them unpleasant. We can panic, get scared, get angry, feel lonely, hopeless. And when the emotions get tough…we try to get away. It’s part of the human predicament. We seem wired to try to squirm away from the ‘bad’ and cling to the ‘good’. And when we can’t do either we get hijacked and lost in a swirl of intense emotion. We jump into the river of rage and get swept away by the amygdalain the brain. That’s what the Buddhists call ‘suffering’.

The middle way will see us through. It’ll help us find our way. We walk next to the river, observing what we’re feeling that’s so scary. We walk next to the raging river that others are in. We don’t ignore the river. And we don’t jump in. Or we try jumping in, then walking along side, again and again, in and out of the water.

Like the Mr. Potato Head story, if we want to be the change in the world, we begin – with kindness – where we and other people are at right here and right now, in moments of vulnerability, what Yeats called, “The rag and bone shop of the heart.”

[Thanks to Tim Olmsted for the river analogy]

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