Stepping in a simile

Buddhist teachings often include similes meant to illustrate a truth. Some stick with me more than others. One stuck so well it took a garden hose and a pointy stick to scrape it off. mud

A recent run found me on a hilly section of trail carved out with mountain bikes. My hometown has some fine places to run, but most are pancake flat. So two weeks ago I decided to sneak into cyclist country, near the old Robin Hood flour mill, and tackle a few miles of jagged, technically-challenging switchbacks.

The zigzags had my head spinning, and the path dropped from under my feet so suddenly in spots it was like falling through a trap door. And it was fun. I felt fast and light, and the spikes on my new shoes bit into the dirt and rock with ease.

But my soles started losing their taste for the trail about two miles in, as the consistency of the path changed to that of stale chewing gum. Everything, everywhere was mud – not the kind that just gets you dirty, but the sort that seems sentient in the way it latches on and refuses to let go. After a quarter of a mile, I was running at half the speed and my shoes had doubled their weight, with more sediment than rubber on the soles.

I slipped out of my shoes and banged them against a big rock to try to shake off the hardened slop, but the mud had set between the spikes like mortar between bricks. Digging out the crud was a project that would have to wait until I got home.

I started back up the hill for the return run. My legs were turning over, but my body wasn’t moving forward. After two seconds of running on the spot – the way Fred Flintstone does when starting his car – I slid backward down the slope, and punctuated this bit of slapstick with a faceplant.

That’s when I realized the added weight wasn’t the worst part of running home with mud caked on my soles – it was the loss of traction. With gunk packed solid between the spikes, my shoes had lost all their grip. So those last few miles were all sluggish strides and nasty spills, making for one of the most exhausting and uncomfortable runs I’ve ever experienced.

It was also one of the most valuable, as it drove home the heaviness and instability that come with clinging.

I’ve heard many dharma talks address the unhelpfulness of holding onto the past too tightly. In a translation of the Bhaddekaratta Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaaya, the Buddha says:

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.

My romp through the muck, frustrating as it was, served as a helpful simile: Carrying the dirt from ground you’ve already covered can weigh you down. What’s more, it can be a barrier that stops you from coming in direct contact with the present.

That run wasn’t a revelation, as the lesson it imparted is rooted in teachings going back millennia, and I’d heard them recounted several times.

But to struggle with tired legs weighed down by hardened mud, and to slip and fall and scrape my knees because the dirt from two miles back was coming between me and the trail, added another dimension to the teaching and helped me penetrate it in a new way.

Buddhist practice isn’t simply academic. To read that there’s freedom in loosening your grip on the things you cling to is fine. But to actually feel the pain of grasping too tightly, and the sense of peace that can come from softening your hold, paves the way for a more complete understanding.

This is one reason I consider running such an important part of my spiritual practice. There are moments when the physical experience helps me perceive the dharma in a different light, and allows intellectual insight to become something I can feel deep in my bones.