“The goal of the spiritual path is to be flexible, courageous and exploratory in the face of life’s joys and paradoxes, while never parting from a connection to its deepest meaning.”
-Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche-
This past summer I was blessed with a journey that connected me with the vastness of our country, and gave me an opportunity to explore the hidden parts of my inner landscape…the unconscious parts…the shadows. To celebrate 50 years on this planet, a group of us went for a two week long canoe trip on the Wind River in northern Yukon. The Wind is part of the Peel Watershed and is one of North America’s largest intact ecosystems–a region of mountains, deep canyons, plateaus, wetlands and rolling hills.
Over 14 days, we paddled 190 km on the Wind River and another 90 km on the Peel River. I have never witnessed such immense terrain, clear translucent water and mesmerizing vistas. Our journey began with a long drive to a town five hours north of Whitehorse caled Mayo. From here we flew in a bush plane for an hour to get to the access point which would take us to the Wind. At this point you are hundreds of kilometers from any roads and instead you are in the depths of the Peel Watershed which contains a staggering 77,000 square kilometers of boreal forest -an immense area the size of Scotland. It was unbelievable to begin our trip paddling through this phenomenally remote landscape to then head further north to the tundra just south of the Arctic Circle.
We were blessed with unusually warm, sunny weather, perfect river conditions, with visits from cariboo, bear, moose, dall sheep, eagles and osprey. We were in bliss…or were we? I remember for the first days of the trip that it was hard to take it all in. It was challenging to adjust to the scale, like you couldn’t fully compute and digest the reality around you. Yes, we could look, but could we really have a clear experience of this land?
On day two, as we were traveling in the upper stretches of this 280 km water slide of turquoise rapids, and rambling mountainous terrain, I was overwhelmed by the desire to go slower. I felt that we were traveling too fast for me to take it in, to savor and sink into the land. I was reminded of traveling through Tibet in 1988. It was my second trip there and we decided to travel from Lhasa to Kathmandu in a Jeep. The first time I was in Tibet, I had travelled in slow rickety buses and trucks, weaving between Lhasa and Shigatse many times, stopping frequently, eating tsampa with the locals, waiting at roadsides and tea houses. With the Jeep, we could travel fast, and we whizzed by the truck stops, the yak herds, the terrain unfolding, the boundless land disappearing as quickly it appeared.
And here I was 25 years later, feeling the same frustration, wanting to shift the course of events, in conflict with “what is”. I was in bliss, and I was also in a place of resistance, wanting our group to stop and smell the mosses and the lichens, to wander in the plateau-scape that reminded me of Tibet. I paddled chanting invocations to the mother goddess to clear the dust from my eyes. I reminded myself of the ultimate practice of “Chöd”- to go beyond hope and fear and to look directly at our emotional states- to reject nothing, either good or bad, to face our demons and to follow the path of bare-naked pristine awareness.
Carl Jung says: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”.
Yes, in this resistance there were moments of conflict, of irritation. Nothing that got in the way of the poignancy of the trip, but enough to allow me to confront my shadow. According to Carl Jung, the shadow lies in your unconscious – it is your murkier, unconscious self. It is believed that the shadow contains the parts of yourself that you do not like, and that you try to suppress. Jung believed we project these qualities onto others, that we have difficulty with people who exhibit traits that we ourselves have suppressed.
Well, what an opportunity to practice. It reminded of being on retreat at Gampo Abbey years ago. One of the monks there called it “a house of mirrors”. There was no escape from the close proximity that you had with other practitioners. So, it was an inescapable opportunity to see our patterns, to turn the mirror to our self. Or as Buddha said when he awakened- to see the builder of the house. We have spent our life building our notion of self according to our strategies, our hopes and fears, our likes and dislikes. And, on this canoe trip, it was like being in that monastery.
So here I was in this vastness, the largest space I had ever inhabited, to make even more space- space for the joys and the paradoxes…the beauty and the difficulty, the bliss and the sorrow, and all the dispossessed aspects of myself. As I remember the unparalleled beauty, the purity and perfection of the landscape, I try to figure out what I can do…what I can do to hang out in the translucence of my own inner landscape, to illuminate my ignorance, to find the source of my well-being.
“Large intact wilderness is disappearing. We are facing an unprecedented crisis on this planet. So at this point what is a hedge against the uncertainty of the future (is that) we have got to leave as much of nature as intact as possible because THAT IS THE SOURCE Of OUR WELL-BEING. This is what we need- large intact areas as a hedge against our ignorance and I believe the Peel represents that.” -David Suzuki
That and so much more…