How far ahead can you see in your life? How far ahead do we think we know? Perhaps it is not as far as we would wish. It’s all right: we take our headlights with us wherever we go.
It can feel uncomfortable, not knowing. So much in life we wish we knew, but we don’t. We think we know, but we are wrong. We plan; things change. Do we ever really know where we are going or why? Part of the human experience is that there are things we see and things we don’t. What lies beyond our field of view?
In those times in our lives when we can't see what direction we're headed, it can be good to remember: we don’t need to see past our headlights. We take our headlights with us wherever we go.
I have lovely memories of a place called Gampo Abbey which is the Buddhist monastery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, about a three-hour drive away from where I live. One of the founders of Gampo Abbey is the well-known Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. I have been family to the Abbey for over 10 years. From time to time, I take groups of people there on retreat.
The first time I visited Gampo Abbey, I was invited by a friend who was a monk. It was close to the time of the winter solstice. My university students were in their final exam period. I spent a mid-winter Saturday at the abbey.
Towards the end of the day, my friend and I went for a walk together up the mountain at the back of the Abbey. It has a cave shrine about two thirds distance from the top of the mountain; there is another shrine at the very top.
It was a magical Canadian December day. It was the kind of day that reminds you of the children’s toy that is a glass ball, which you shake, and the snowflakes gently fall to the ground. It was a winter wonderland day, walking through the forest on the way up to the top of the mountain.
We had just arrived at the shrine at the very top of the mountain, when, suddenly - both of us felt it - the winds changed. What had been a magical, gentle snowfall suddenly became really quite a strong winter storm.
My companion was essentially born a half mountain goat. He had scampered in those mountains a thousand times. He knew the way down that particular mountain with his eyes closed. It’s a good thing, because effectively they were. The snow fall was so intense that all I could see was the space between my eye and my glasses which functioned a bit like a goggle. It was just enough that I could put my footprints in the footprints my friend, which he left in the snow as we made our way down this mountain.
It did not take long, however, for me to realise that it was not that my foot that was touching the ground. It was rather that the ground was coming up to meet my foot. The earth was coming up to meet me.
Consider this next time you go for a walk. Is it that your foot touches the ground? Is it that the ground comes up to meet your foot? We don’t hold ourselves up. We are held by the earth, by gravity. We are held all the time.
We made our way down that mountain just fine. We had a hot cup of coffee and perhaps some toast. Darkness fell quite early. It was close to the longest night of the year.
As night fell, it came time to have the conversation: would this guest who had come for a first time unexpectedly stay overnight? Would it be better for her to follow the original plan and head back? Was the snow clearing? Was it not?
The decision was that it would be better for this guest, who had come for the day, to make her way back. It seemed the storm had calmed.
So off I went. The monastery is a very intentionally placed in quite an isolated area. One goes away on retreat. It is built far enough to give a strong sense of being “away”. It is 45 minutes from its closest gas station and closest grocery store, just off the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada.
I believe the National Geographic considers the Cabot Trail one of the most beautiful places in the world because mountains, and ocean and forest come together quite abruptly. t is a very dramatic landscape.
So, off I went on my journey through the mountains, immediately beside that stormy ocean, and through the woods. It was a challenging drive home. At one point, I very much considered getting off the road and finding somewhere to stay. I concluded that some journeys are worth continuing, even if they are difficult.
My hands clenched on the wheel as I strained to see through the intensity of the storm, with its winds, and I realized I could not see past my headlights. It was uncomfortable and uncertain. It was not long, however, before I felt a similar sense of being protected and held up.
We never see past our headlights. We never need to see past our headlights. We take our headlights with us wherever we go.
It was a safe – if slow going – journey. The road was cleared just ahead of me. For a time, I drove behind the snow plough that was making the roads clear.
Somehow, the roads do always seem to clear, although sometimes the going is hard. Sometimes we need to make our way through the storms.
The earth really does rise up to meet our feet. We do take our headlights with us wherever we go.
Copyright © 2018, Adela Sandness