‘This Is Just To Say’/ For The Love Of A Kōan

I was thinking, which always makes trouble, and my body wasn’t having any of it. I was thinking about pain and making it go away, about cool rivers and big snacks and how much I wanted them both; about being tired, being uncomfortable in my skin, and I was thinking it was all just utterly, absurdly pointless. I was not at all in my right mind.

In Buddhism these things are called ‘the five hindrances,’ nasty and nefarious demons that come to roost in your brain, feeding on all your insecurities and doing everything in their powers to keep you from waking up to the moment. Blameless, they are without motivation, which makes them all that much worse–like terrorist splinter cells they have no head, no leader, and only exist to wreak havoc. They are the original Iago, the first bad seed: craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth, and skeptical doubt, they are the arch enemy of that ‘most powerful weapon on earth’ and that which every endurance athlete aspires to–the ‘human soul on fire.’

So I was thinking and the demons were tucking in. You hate this, they were saying, wouldn’t you rather be resting? The pain is horrible, why are you doing this? What is the point? What do you have to prove? Geezer. The more I thought–you know the drill–the more I slowed. The more I slowed, the further away my ambition and the finishing line were getting. The race–a 44k out and back, up and down the spine of the highest peak in eastern Canada–had been a brutal combination of steep and muddy singletrack, boulder fields, a snow-filled pass, and an exposed stretch of scree. “Take your usual marathon time,” the website had said, “double it and then add some”– they had not been kidding and the more I thought about how much was left to go, the less my body was having any of it. The demons were winning: emotional bonk was immanent.

***

Tenting is good for you, that’s clear. Being away from cell signals and bills, traffic and shopping malls, and all other forms of consumerism camouflaged as convenience is good for you. And this is especially true when you have kids.

That being said, it takes a while to unplug. We’re less like lights that can be switched on and off, and a lot more like fires that flame up and slowly simmer, cool, reignite, blaze, flame out, burn down. Stress doesn’t easily leave and similarly kids need time to adjust to not having their devices (being, as we all are, afraid of the dark, which you can take as you will). So, we bluster around the campsite, arrange and plan, sort and straighten, the kids freak out and fight with each other and then get bored. Sitting in boredom is good, too. We settle down, let go, and this takes some time. Quality boredom takes time to nurture.

Our good man of forest and field trip Henry Thoreau correctly said that “we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us. We can never have enough nature,” which is to say that we are what we eat, literally and otherwise. Old Buddhist smart mouth Thích Nhất Hạnh once made the profound observation that just as we wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) eat junk food all the time, because even though it tastes good it’ll make us sick, we probably shouldn’t feed our minds junk food for exactly the same reason. Be careful, he therefore counseled, to offer your heart good things to eat–less the candy bars and french fries of YouTube videos and Facebook updates, less the whiskey shots of news reports and the six packs of sitcoms, and more the fruits and vegetables of, well, trees and sky and, quite frankly, rocks and roots and mountain views. We definitely get sick of cruddy TV, but “we can never have enough of nature.”

It’s hard to settle down, to get over the withdrawal of such busy, mediated lives, but once the campfire is going and sticks are cut for marshmallows, once it gets dark and all the boisterousness we brought with us from the city streets drains and the stars come out, we start to listen again. The forest speaks and, as Annie Dillard says, “in our humility, we attend.” It’s an awesome experience to watch nature work her magic on an agitated 12 year old’s mind. What better medicine is there? The stars, after all, have been paying attention to us for a long time. Again, as Dillard so sadly and poignantly points out, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it;” that onus is, as they say, on us.

***

Around 30k things start to shake down. The boulder field on the way up (and then again down), the (count ‘em) two peaks, mud, heat, and the vertical kilometre I raced the day before are all catching up and the demons are storming the hold. I drink but I am still thirsty (I think), the pack is making my neck and back hurt (it seems), I eat but my stomach doesn’t like it (does it?). And then I get passed. Twice. Things aren’t looking good (are they?).

And then, when things seem most dark, when all the tricks have failed and even the drive to crush some skulls isn’t working, my son’s voice comes to me. Just in the nick of time; it blinks in the total darkness, just like the star he is.

***

“Hey dad,” my son’s voice comes through the dark. I’m trying to get to sleep–the next day is the long race and the huge powerhike/run up the vertical kilometre has me wiped. “Yes?” “Do you want to hear a story?” “Sure. Lay it on me.” I close my eyes.

“Once there was a mouse who really wanted to fly. His friends all knew it so one day one of them went to him and told him about a hang-gliding event that was going on nearby and that this was probably his chance. So the mouse went over, climbed into a man’s backpack and, the next thing he knew, he was flying! At first he thought it was really exciting, but then he got kind of scared and started missing his family and friends and wishing he was back on the ground with them. But then he thought, No, this is what I wanted all along! And he really enjoyed the rest of the flight, landed safely, and had great stories for everyone.”

“That’s a great story, thanks.”

“When you’re out there in the mountains tomorrow, Dad, and when it’s really not fun anymore, remember the mouse, okay? Just enjoy it.”

He’s 12. I honestly have no idea how he has become so wise.

***

As Jimi Hendrix did with guitar playing, so too has Kilian Jornet done with mountain running; that is, founded a school from which no one has graduated. As such, the rest of us are left lumbering up and over boulders or slipping as sloppily down a scree field as an adolescent learning scales. The rocks, very clearly and seemingly intentionally, were killing me; or, more like, I had lost all nerve and focus and was horribly giving in to all the things that were hindering me from enjoying this amazing run and finishing well: I was craving the comfort of being back with everyone, vehemently trying to avoid the pain in my quads, restlessly wrestling with the frustrations burning up my brain, steadily giving in to my perceived exhaustion, and, worst of all, doubting what the hell I was doing out there.

And then my son’s voice: “…when it’s really not fun anymore, remember the mouse, okay?” The mouse! How sweet this race? “Mountains, man,” I said out loud, “you’re in the MOUNTAINS, man!” as I cracked out one of those exhausted, haunted, alone cackles and then proceeded to turn up the engine, righteously drowning all the voices and head on to finish strong, happy, and well.

Back home, I tell a good friend this story. “How did that kid ever get to be so smart?”

My son’s name is Koan; a kind of Zen riddle which, while stripping away all rational explanations and understandings of the world, brings the practitioner into direct experience with reality, with nature, just as she is. If you’re into it, and the requisite ‘staring at the wall, listening to the breath’ that goes with it, it’s like a combination existential punch in the gut and slapstick comedy smack across the jowls. A really good one goes something like this: “A man was being chased by a tiger. He ran toward a cliff, saw a vine hanging over the edge, grabbed hold, and swung down. The tiger stayed at the top, looking at him and growling. As he hung there, two small mice, one black and one white, started nibbling their way through the vine. The man saw a lone strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff–he held the vine with one hand and with the other reached out and picked the strawberry. How delicious it tasted!” Ha! Hilarious!

Trust me, if I explained it, it wouldn’t be funny; kōans are like that.

***

Sitting in the freezing river after the race and way better than okay, I tell Koan how much his story helped, how much I may not have made it without his help. He offers me a banana and a swill of Gatorade. They are amazing; I tell him they are like William Carlos Williams’s plums that he stole from the fridge, like something forbidden to mortals, “so sweet/ and so cold.” He’s 12 and looking at me like I’m the lunatic, but the mountains are all around us so huge and the sky so blue and this river extends from winter through summer and back and so I leave it at that. If I explained it, it wouldn’t be funny and, besides, I like the look on his face and this moment is more than enough as is.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Does trail running ever lead you to a sort of existential crisis of self? If so, can you describe what has happened?
  • Has such intangible wanderings of your mind–something like your very own kōan–led you to a more tangible understanding of who you are and how the pieces of your life fit together?
Andrew Titus

lives, raises his family, runs like an animal, and bikes like a beast in the forests and valley of the St. John River in New Brunswick, Canada. Surprise winner of the 2013 Wascally Wabbit 50k, he has found himself in this ultra-distance family among some of the finest folk this big, old world has to offer. Father of three awesome and explosive kids and husband to one remarkable lady, he intends to live this life for some time to come.

There are 7 comments

  1. gretchenbrugman

    Beautiful. This is my favorite kind of writing – the philosophical musings that spring from the places running, nature, and suffering bring us. Peppering it with words from some of my favorite authors along with those of a sagacious 12-year-old …well, it doesn't get much better. Thanks for this!

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