Following yesterday’s footsteps while hiking through the snowy woods, Peter Moretzsohn contemplates how our actions and thoughts shape the present and future.
I make my way into the snowbound woods behind our yurt. The forest is dense, made of young hemlock, poplar, maple and birch trees. These woods cover a west-facing slope that climbs up to a modest ridgeline of a few scattered hilltops all around 1,800 feet. It’s perfectly quiet. I walk these woods almost every day, following almost the same trail. I know the loop well now —well enough to find my way in fresh untracked snow through leafless trees.
Yesterday, I did just that. My first walk in the woods in a foot of heavy snow was hard going. The trail follows old, steep logging roads along frozen stream beds, and up over dramatic shelves of mossy granite tied up in thick birch roots. Yesterday, I trudged along in the quiet forest, lifting each foot out of deep powder and burying it again one step ahead. I found myself panting and cursing, furiously shedding layers. Whenever I stopped to scan the woods, catching my breath, I felt a faint sense of embarrassment, like I was the perfect representative for our species. A creature laboring under my own delusion of progress.
I wonder if there’s a way to live with the person I’ve been and so often am, instead of being bound to him.
This morning, however, the going is a little easier. As I set out into the trees, whistling to my dog to keep him on course, I find I have a choice: I can step in the tracks I made yesterday, and not work so hard, or I can trudge in the fresh powder between my old tracks, making something of an evenly packed trail for others to use after me. I try both approaches to get a sense of its ease or difficulty. As I walk, I see my day-old tracks, steady and true up the hillside. In a way, it feels like I’m following a ghost, the evidence of my former self. I can recall my thoughts from yesterday when I made those tracks, the persistent agitation, the vague fear that I’m not making the most of my life, not doing enough for others, the gentle voice reminding me to return to the walking body, cold breath, cold feet, attention fraying again into vacillation. My walk this morning is much the same; but whose tracks am I following? Are today’s thoughts the same movements of yesterday’s mind?”
As I walk, I think of the way the Buddha spoke of karma. In simple terms, karma is the way one thing leads to another. It’s how the past creates the present and, perhaps more importantly, how the present creates the future. It’s the way we create our own experience in this moment. The Buddha metaphorized the movement of karma with the image of a river: when water flows in a certain direction, its movement makes a channel in the earth, making it easier and easier for water to continue flowing in exactly the same way. Our actions of body, speech and thought are like this. Whatever I do, say, or think, it becomes easier to do, say, and think the same things again and again, like flowing water. I have laid down the path. I have made tracks in the snow.
This is how I come to form an identity, how I validate my own ideas of who I am, by continually acting, speaking and thinking in deeply-ingrained and familiar ways, all of which I’ve come to cherish, for better or worse, as “my personality.” But when this self meets an uncertain world full of other complex people carving out their own channels of identity, things get unpredictable. Self-image shifts with the shifting circumstances of life. All the while, the restless mind seeks old patterns and familiar grooves. It yearns to walk yesterday’s footprints.
Somewhere near the end of the trail, as I descend the snowy hill, I notice I’ve given up looking for my old tracks in the powder. I’m gliding between the trees, cold air on my face, my feet beginning to feel cold in my wet socks. I stop to listen to a soft thumping from above, a bird somewhere pecking at the bark of a rotting tree. I look up, my eyes scanning the branches against the bright sky. I see a small bird overhead in the uppermost limbs of the lanky young poplar tree standing in front of me. The bird resumes its rhythmic work. Placing my cold hand on the bark, I can feel the vibration of her powerful beak in the wood, traveling all the way down the length of the trunk and into my palm.
Smiling, I turn to continue down the hill. Looking at my old tracks in front and ahead of me, I wonder if there’s a way to live with the person I’ve been and so often am, instead of being bound to him. I can try stepping out of my old footprints, placing my feet in new places. But I think there is another way to live. When I’m walking — just walking — entirely engaged in the activity of the moment, I can trust my own feet without calculation. When I walk this way, I see that yesterday’s walking was perfect as it was, and today’s walking is perfect as it is. The unfolding of each moment is its own authenticity, never following in the footsteps of another. I am not one person, nor am I many. I am a constant flowing, always searching for the true direction.