Running In Circles

It is six in the morning and I am running in circles around my neighborhood. The front few streets are full of single family suburban homes with sidewalks and satellite dishes. In the back it’s still mostly undeveloped vacant lots with trees and grass and empty bottles.

I have run this circle enough that it has become as familiar as the sun that will soon raise the temperature by ten degrees in as many minutes. On this morning I have begun earlier than usual to avoid the impending heat. It is just dark enough to make the unoccupied streets in the back of my neighborhood vaguely foreboding.

Under the last few moments of street lights and summer moon I notice a scattered parade of doodle bugs slowly making their way from one side of the street to the other. Along a stretch of about a hundred yards I take care to step over them in respect for their relatively epic journey.

I’ve seen them before—the doodle bugs. And I’ve often contemplated their curious behavior as I jog morning after morning through the quiet houses and the whisper of sprinkler heads. 

What could be so great about the other side of the street that would make them bother with such tedious effort? Why not stay where they are? Is it so much better over there? Is it so much worse where they came from? How could they even know? They’re just bugs. Maybe some instinct tells them to strive for something better, or if not better, something… different.

These thoughts enter and exit my brain as I wipe the sweat and humidity from my forehead. I am thirsty and my left shin has started to cramp but I’ve only got another mile and then I can quit for the day. I listen to my breath and watch an SUV up the block backing out of the driveway.

I have been in training since April for a race set sometime in the future. In reality I am only doing this because I have literally run out of excuses. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade taking care of my family, taking care of my parents, taking care of my career. And now, by some twist of fate, I have avoided calamity long enough to find some spare time and motivation to take care of myself.

It’s about a half a mile around the loop, and by the time I return to the uncivilized part of the neighborhood the sun has risen. Around the bend where I first spotted the doodle bugs I now see birds hopping back and forth enjoying an easy feast. At this point I realize that my careful efforts to protect the bugs has made me an unwitting, albeit compassionate, accomplice to their demise.

As I pass the scene my presence only bothers the birds enough to fly a few feet away and then reconvene their morning meal behind me. My pace slows slightly but not entirely as I absorb the moment of futility I have just witnessed.

Next week I will add another mile to my run and I will likely get up even earlier than I did today. I know I will see more bugs then. I look at my watch and calculate how much further I must run until I can return to the comfort of home.


The Unfamiliar Now

We are all so plagued by our constant thoughts about tomorrow and yesterday that we often meet the present moment as a stranger in the crowd.

All morning I have been watching my mind work on some pretty heavy family issues. We are seeing our elders grow old and ill and at this very moment making life and death decisions. My family is juxtaposed between our lifelong history and our uncertain future. I am tempted to be swept into the emotions of this, but my inner self is finding it easier to detach from those old patterns and observe the situation with new eyes.

There is a part of me (not the real me of course, but my ego) that keeps trying to recall the past emotions and cognitions of my childhood and make that my reality. As I see this happen I am practicing meditation that reminds me that I am not physically, mentally or emotionally the same person I was thirty years ago, and neither are those in my family. At times I feel like holding grudges, or giving in to an overwhelming sense of obligation. But my true self knows these feelings are just delusions of my ego that will only cause frustration and pain. I am remembering that I am whole and complete and infinitely loved by God, lacking nothing. From this strength I am able to love without restraint and rise above the drama.

There is a part of me that wants to fret about the next week, month and year - imagining potential threats, gearing up for unforeseen calamity. If I pay attention I can feel my stomach actually wrenching tighter as I contemplate the unknown disasters that await. My practice is to accept those disasters as the inevitible results of impermanence. How dare I think I am above calamity. Those fears have no power over me when I choose to embrace them with humility. They dissolve into gratitude for the beauty of the present moment.

We are always in this moment whether we recognize it or not. But our ego is convinced that emotional burdens are a necessary evil. They aren't! The first step - the only step - toward freedom is questioning this belief.

I have spoken so much about responding to pain with meditation, and this past few weeks have put that to the test. The contrast between my old perspective and new enlightenment is still fresh and raw. I suspect it would be easy to regress into my former anxious ways, but I also know I can never fully go back. I have become too acquainted with that stranger in the crowd - the unfamiliar now. Lately I find myself looking for him more than ever, hoping to one day be the closest of friends.


A New Toy

It occurred to me this evening as I was watching my boys play with their toys in such creative ways - ways I could never have guessed - that enlightenment must feel much like that. It is like a powerful new toy that has so many fascinating capabilities that we can barely comprehend its awesome potential. Alan Watts describes this way of zen consciousness as having a "beginner's mind" clear of judgement and full of wonder.

Within them is so much raw creatve energy that their entire being is focused on becoming the next something. Their bodies are constantly replacing cells to such an extent that they are literally transforming physically, cognitively and spiritually into entirely new people overnight.

For them the world is untainted by culture and tradition and of course ego. But that doesn't mean they are a clean slate. They come into this world endowed with the wisdom of the Universe preloaded into their spiritual hard drives. Only time will tell how their journey through the quagmire of life will shape the content of their mind. Before long the software/mind will come to believe it is the computer itself, but that only limits its capabilities.

Enlightenment is very much like the feeling you get when you discover a button on your boring old toy that you have never noticed before and it makes it do something wonderful. It may still be the same old toy, but your discovery has made it new again. Life is like that. Over and over again we reach a point where it seems there is nothing new to discover, and then a curious discovery changes everything and enlightenment makes everything new again.