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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

Metta on the Trail

June 10, 2014
We're vacationing in the Virgin Islands, and my older son is finally big enough for some real adventure. I reluctantly agree to take him down the Cinnamon Bay Trail, which starts high up on the island of St. John and winds precipitously downward through the forest to the ocean below. I'm wary of the sharp rocks and scorpions, but I'm doing my best to model faith and fearlessness for my son, who is far hardier than I am when it comes to the natural world.

He dashes ahead down the path like a baby mountain goat, stumbling but staying upright. I lag behind, calling out reminders to be careful, to slow down, to watch his step, to steer clear of wasps and webs. My mind is filled with phantoms and fears, wondering what we'll do if he stumbles and breaks his arm, or if trip and sprain an ankle, or if we're bitten by bugs or get lost or wilt from heat and exhaustion.

I'm a yoga teacher and so I offer myself the first instructions I give my students when they're anxious: breathe, relax, soften into the moment. I've already tipped too far toward panic, though, for these words to do much good. I try telling myself that everything will be just fine, and though I know that's likely, I can't be one hundred percent sure it will be true. I rummage through my brain, looking for some deep wisdom to carry us to the trailhead below.

A few breaths pass. And then up from the depths of my belly I hear a voice whispering words I heard long ago: "Rest the fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness."

I sigh and I soften. Yes. Of course. I can do that!

I offer loving-kindness toward myself, a mother filled with love but rocked by fear. "May I be safe and protected from harm," I whisper. "May I be peaceful and at ease." I realize this hike may be manageable after all.

I can't guarantee my son will be free of pain and suffering - on this trail or in the life that lies ahead - but I can send him my love and my wishes for wellbeing. "May you be well," I whisper, sending my thoughts toward his skinny body still bounding down the trail. "May you be happy."

My feet grow steadier still, and words and wishes spill from my brain in tune with my steps. May I be brave. May you be strong. May our lives be filled with beauty and adventure. May we manage with grace whatever we find ahead.

We round a corner and the trail tumbles steeply before us. Hikers appear, heading in the opposite direction. They look tired and sweaty. I send goodwill their way, too. May your legs be strong, I offer. May your breath be steady. May your lives, too, unfold with ease.

And so our hike passes without trauma - no slips and no scorpions. Step after step, my son chirps his happy thoughts and I whisper my loving wishes. By the time we near the end of the trail. I am happy, I realize, despite my fears.

I am so happy, in fact, that by last few steps of our hike I send out wishes for peace and safety not just for us and our fellow hikers, but to everyone and everything around us. I even send goodwill toward the trees and the rocks and, yes, even the scary, scuttling creatures that have thankfully left us alone.

I smile when I realize that without intending to, I've worked my way through all of the traditional phases of Buddhist metta - or lovingkindness -  meditation. Somehow on that rocky trail downward - filled with fears that never materialized in the end - I remembered that even when all else fails, there is always love.