Crossing paths

pathnewOne sportswear brand’s size 12 is another’s size 10, which makes buying their stuff online a gamble. It also helps explain why my son has so many gym shoes in my favourite colour.

Specs and photos from a website can’t convey the true fit and feel of footwear. It took a few thousand blisters to beat that truth into me, but I now know to keep my shoe shopping to brick-and-mortar stores.

As much as I’ve struggled with shoe sizes, I’ve had a harder time getting a handle on hellos – that is, figuring out how to greet other people I see while I’m on a run.

It’s a topic that seems especially relevant to small-town folk.

My big-city brother and I crossed paths with another runner while out on a trail some years back. I gave the stranger a quick wave, which was neither returned nor acknowledged.

I took a swig from my water bottle and spit, trying to rinse out the taste of rejection.

“So what do you usually do?” I asked my brother. “Do runners in Victoria usually say ‘hi’ or just wave to each other?”

“Neither,” he answered. “There’s too many people. You’d spend all your time talking and waving – nobody’d get any running done.”

As trail traffic is much sparser in my neck of the woods, opting to ignore other people struck me more as an intentional slight than a product of population density. And when someone snubbed me, I’d snub them right back.

My experiences with those who greeted or ignored me helped shape a string of strange protocols I put into practice when encountering others.

For a while it seemed most other runners would wave hello to me, but cyclists wouldn’t, so I refused to acknowledge anyone on a bike.

Then an injury kept me from running, and I was stuck with exercising on a bicycle. Most cyclists would wave, most runners wouldn’t, so I reversed my earlier policy.

Softening my stance, I decided it would be OK to wave to both cyclists and runners, but only if they waved first.

And then came the blacklisting of the black-lunged. How dare they puff away on their cigarettes when people are out here busting their humps to better their health, I thought. So smokers were summarily snubbed.

As I was about to expand the greetings embargo to include jugglers, unicyclists, and people piping Coldplay through their earbuds, I was introduced to Buddhism.

The deeper I got into the teachings, the sillier my take on trail diplomacy seemed.

It soon became clear that I had it all backwards. Instead of using greetings to spread a bit of genuine goodwill to others, I was withholding them as some sort of juvenile punishment for people who pissed me off.

I also started to see that respectful acknowledgment of anyone – everyone – I pass on the trail isn’t just a matter of etiquette; here is an opportunity to engage in spiritual practice, to cultivate inner qualities that are in need of some serious work.

One of the reasons I’ve stuck with running over the years is that it’s helped me hone skills that are transferable to other parts of my life. It’s trained me to deal more effectively with pain, push past the limits of what I thought I was capable of, and develop a greater awareness and appreciation of what’s happening around me.

But the most important thing it’s allowed me to develop, as an extension Buddhist practice, is how I relate to other people.

Brief as they are, encounters during runs help lay bare my intentions toward others. When I wave and smile at someone, is it for their sake or my own? Do I see this interaction as a chance to give something – however small – to that person, or am I simply doing it with the expectation of getting something in return?

Crossing paths with others also presents opportunities to practise metta, or loving-kindness, the wishing of safety, happiness and ease upon others. I’ve found saying a short wish for whomever I meet on the trail – a very short wish if they’re particularly fast – makes me feel more connected to them. I don’t say it aloud – unless I see they’re about to trip over an exposed tree root, in wish case I wish them to watch where they’re going. It’s usually just something quick, simple and silent, like “be safe,” that helps turn my attention to others, and usually adds to my own happiness.

The more I practice this out on the trails, the more it carries over to other areas of my life. I still might not have the sunniest outward disposition, the warmest handshake or the friendliest smile you’ve ever seen. But I’m smiling much more, to be sure, thanks in large part to the runners, smokers and cyclists I cross paths with on my runs. And with any luck, I’m helping them smile just a little bit more too.