Confidence

Pooping into a hole in the ground probably isn’t a big deal for most people who feel nature’s call while out in the woods, but outhouses have always scared the shit out of me. Or rather, they haven’t, which is the crux of the issue.

mapAs I was setting out on an early-morning run at Short Hills Provincial Park last weekend, I felt a stab in my side and my guts start to bubble up. Were there a chance of making it to a flushable toilet in time, I would have jumped in the car and zoomed off. But my bowels were at DEFCON 1; my only hope was to make a mad dash to the nearby outhouse.

I won’t bore you with the details, other to say that 10 minutes later I felt light and fresh and ready to run. I found that the outhouse experience, which I had fought to avoid for so many years, was almost refreshing.

While there’s probably a Dharma lesson in this about the freedom of letting go or the perils of aversion, I prefer keeping the poop talk to four paragraphs or less.

I mention it, really, as just one of two firsts I chalked up on last Saturday’s run at Short Hills. The second was even more surprising.

It was the only time I’ve finished a run at that park without getting lost somewhere along the way.

Short Hills has several entrances and intersecting trail systems. Not once had I run there with the feeling I was actually where the map said I should be. Those rare times I thought I’d figured things out, I’d try to complete a second lap and end up getting lost all over again.

A few days ago, things finally changed.

I checked the map posted in the parking lot, took a gamble on a section of trail I’d never run before, and set off on a hilly four-mile loop. Although I wasn’t sure whether to veer left or right at some points, I took my best guess and kept going.

Some 40 minutes later, I found myself back where I had started. For the first time at Short Hills, I had run the course I had intended to run. What’s more, I was able to finish the loop two more times without losing my way.

Saturday runs are usually pretty sloppy. Between getting home late from work and rising early to drive our daughter to band practice, I’m often running on a few hours’ sleep.

I could feel the fatigue Saturday. Despite my post-poop euphoria and my excitement over not getting lost, I could sense myself become increasingly sluggish in the second and third loops.

I was surprised then, when checking my watch after the run, to see that my second loop was about five minutes faster than my first, and my last loop was a few minutes faster still.

Perhaps this says something about the value of confidence.

When people ask me why I became a Buddhist, I usually tell the story of how I sucked hard at a marathon, decided to pick up a book on meditation to help improve my mental game, and started reading more about the Buddha’s teachings from there.

That’s not the whole answer, though. Choosing to orient one’s life by a certain practice or philosophy isn’t something that’s done once, but every day, maybe every moment.

And the reason I continue to turn toward the Dharma is that I’ve seen the truth of its teachings reflected in my own experience.

I liken faith to putting complete trust in one of the maps posted at Short Hills. Someone has outlined a course for others to follow. There’s a chance the map is accurate. There’s also a chance it’ll give you bad information (apparently one of the older maps posted at Short Hills shows a trail route that no longer exists).

For some, faith seems to work. They’ll trust in the map, start off on the trail, and get where they had hoped to go.

Confidence, meanwhile, comes from checking that map against what you actually encounter on your run.

The map I consulted before my last run was a helpful guide, but true confidence in the path came from travelling it, navigating the small twists and turns, avoiding the exposed roots and slippery rocks that aren’t apparent on a chart. When my experience confirmed I was on a path that wouldn’t cause me to get hurt or lost, that’s when I really started to move.

The Buddha figured this out some 2,600 years ago, when he suggested that those looking to find their way in life not rely on blind faith.

As recounted in the Kalama Sutta, a group of villagers once asked the Buddha which teachings they should follow, when the views of philosophers and spiritual leaders seemed to be at odds with each other.

The Buddha advised them not to follow someone’s teachings simply because those teachings are popular or espoused by those who seem to be wise.

To know if a teaching is worth putting into practice, test it against your own experience, he said. If the teaching leads to harm, it should be rejected; it is beneficial to you and others, it’s worth following.

My own experience has shown me there is truth in the Dharma. It has also pointed to truths in the Bible, the Quran, the Tao Te Ching, and writings by Joseph Campbell, Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Hitchens.

I love the spirit of the Buddha’s message in the Kalama Sutta, because it doesn’t dismiss other teachings or faiths.

It leaves room for many philosophies, many points of view, many maps, many trails.

But it does remind us not to sell our own experiences short, so that we can navigate whichever path we choose to follow more wisely.