My wife attended the Compassion Festival in Telluride last week.
I didn’t go. My mother’s maiden name is Cross. Enough said?
We Crosses are a critical bunch. We renamed a maiden aunt Grumpy Mae because she was so caustic. (With her gravelly laugh, waving her ever-present cigarette, she went along; she knew the name fit.) She was very funny in a Dorothy Parker, black-humor way, even to a 10-year-old. But very dark. Unforgiving.
And that’s what Ellen came home from Telluride talking about, forgiveness and empathy. These things, when you can muster them, are good for your brain, good for everyone, they said. And one way to foster compassion, to open the door to it, is to meditate. The audience at the Opera House was even led in a guided meditation. Ellen said she could see, with her eyes closed, that it could lead to good places.
My meditation is movement through space. I suspect a lot of people who have chosen to live in the mountains do the same. I’m talking about skiing and hiking and my current summertime favorite, boulder-hopping up nearby dry arroyos.
I suppose one could get a related benefit from tennis or hockey. But the best out-of-body experiences, in my experience, happen beyond the courts, in the natural world with its surprising terrain and infinite patterns underfoot. These things are not games; they don’t have winners and losers. But they do have consequences. You don't want to fall down out there in the wilderness.
So you pay attention, you give the task at hand – ascending this ridge, jumping this creek – the full engagement it deserves. The action itself wipes clean the chalkboard of verbal clutter. The combination of hyper-focus and ecstatic, continuous movement creates the blank mind. Or, as the Buddhists say, the mindfulness.
I like another Buddhist term I’ve heard: liberating discernment. You’re not just going through the motions out there. I haven’t talked to Hilaree O’Neill about walking on the edge at 28,000 feet, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, but I’ll bet she feels pretty darned discerning while she’s doing it. And pretty liberated.
I went up the third arroyo today, and it was extra focusing thanks to the recent rains. Some of the streambed boulders had been loosened by the brief, violent flows; they weren’t as trustworthy as they might have been. Others wore a frosting of beige adobe mud. If you stepped on wet adobe, that sole was greasy slick until it wore off. Not good when you’re jumping from rock to rock and trusting your feet to stick.
The object is to hop from boulder to boulder without touching the ground in between. Licketysplit when possible, in tai chi slo-mo where necessary. Sometimes I can go a hundred yards without touching dirt. And on the best stretches, the bounding flows without stops, syncopated by the spacing of the spilled, gully-bottom boulders. My job is to keep going, unconscious, like water – water flowing uphill.
There are always awkward moments, balance gaffs, but the best sections move like a guitar riff that has no gaps in it, nothing extra and not a note out of place. Afterwards, I think about riffles in a river. Do the words have a common root?
Does meditating – sitting or bounding – make you a better person? I don’t know. Does it work to take selfish time in order to become a less selfish person? I’m not sure it works that way. Ellen does say, when I come back from carving on skis or rock-hopping on the hill, that I am a happier husband.
It may lead to addiction. Look at those nutcases in the Arizona desert, on silent retreat for three years, three months and three days. One of them murdered. The world left behind.
The Compassion Festival wants, I think, for us to be in the world, to try to improve our communities, and the planet, through listening and empathy and altruism. Their program listed an event called “Bodywork as Compassionate Service to Humanity.” The speaker was a Rolfer, so I’m pretty sure they meant that bodywork on other people’s bodies is compassionate, even noble work.
So, does bodywork on one’s own body count? Given that we know the mind and body are one? And that endorphins, born of pointless, graceful movement, make me feel magnanimous and mellow? Even though I am a Cross?