“Summer’s almost over.”
Each time that dreadful, pointless line punched me in the gut this August, I tried to apply Tara Brach’s words: “When you feel fear, lean into it, and allow the universe to hold your suffering.” Sadly, each time I tried Tara’s technique in the wake of those three words, the universe proved too small to hold my troubles.
So instead of leaning on the universe, I turned to grit, my old standby. I was, and I still am, determined to milk this month. In that spirit of that determination I booked a last minute trip to Acadia National Park in Maine; and as teachers sometimes have to do in the midst of summer when they book a trip to a place five hours from home away in the middle of a workweek, I decided to go solo.
At first this frightened me. I am not very open to talking to strangers, and I figured that over the course of a few days, I’d have to talk to a few. Even in the comforts of my home neighborhood, I have never been one to say hello to a passer-by. I am not sure why this is. Possibly, it is because I am from New England, where the harsh winters, I believe, have helped to shape a culture of fast, unfriendly walkers. People on the streets of Boston, where I live now, don’t have time for breezy hellos: They have work to do. Possibly, I am fearful of smiling at strangers because I learned at an all-too-early age that sometimes, this “engaging smile” behavior can elicit responses that are, um, a little creepy.
Whatever the reason, my recent exploration of mindfulness has made me think that maybe, just maybe, I could be a little less restrained with strangers. Solo hikes cradled in the arms of Maine’s natural splendor seemed like the perfect time to try to be more open and warm.
In reading Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, one of the practices she suggested struck me. She said that while walking down a crowded street, it is be useful to pass strangers with a smile, and, regardless of their reaction to you, say to them, “May you be happy.” You say this in your mind, not aloud, so as not to scare people. In Tara’s experience, regardless of others’ reactions to you, the simple act of sending this loving message fills you with peace.
Sounds strange, but I tried it while hiking the trails. The results were overwhelmingly positive. So many fellow hikers would receive my smile with the glow of a long-lost relative, causing my heart to swell for sweet moment. For some of them, particularly moms and dads hiking with kids, their smile was one of relief. (Not sure why, but it was nice.) Many people, upon seeing my smile, blurted out an encouraging phrase like, “Almost there!” or “Beautiful day for a hike!” It was very easy to wish these people well as I passed them.
Still for others, the reaction was odd. In some people, I noticed an aura of worry or tension in them before we even made eye contact. They hiked with their eyes downcast, shoulders stiff, neck muscles tightened, brows furrowed. Usually with these people, their reaction to my friendliness was non-existent or even prickly, as though they had an aversion to warmth. Their glance would dart away, or ahead, and they did not seem to appreciate me. With these people, the “may you be happy” part was more difficult. However, I found that when I mentally said it, I was able to feel a great deal of compassion for these uptight hikers. After all, as a former unfriendly walker, I could understand their reaction to me. The compassionate feelings did, as Tara predicted, bring me some peace. Or maybe the views of the ocean brought that? Not sure. Either way, I found that the aftermath of wishing a worried person well was somehow sweeter and more joyful. I almost felt that my wishing them well, if only for a moment, really could help them feel a little lighter. In my head I turned into Glinda the Good Witch, waving my magic wand of kindness at whoever needed it most. Ok, so I got a little carried away…
All of this happened, of course, in the midst of some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in my life. Being up there, and especially being up there alone, filled me to the brim with the realization that this moment, the one right in front of us, is as ephemeral as it is glorious. The ancient trees, the pine-scented air, the wild ocean, and the jagged pink rocks all begged me not to blink.
Who knows if the “may you be happy” practice will go over as well in the big city. I am curious to find out. I’ll let you know what the results are. Until then, may you be happy, and may you enjoy some of these pictures. 🙂
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