Most of us are familiar with rock cairns, those impermanent piles of stones that serve as markers for points of reference where the trail doesn’t yet clearly exist or is easily lost. I remember being especially vulnerable while hiking when I had become reliant on them but suddenly realized I couldn’t find the next one and felt dislocated and confused. Was I going the right direction? Where is the next cairn? Have I really lost my way this time?
I want to offer the idea that rock cairns are metaphors for how we might be guided through these challenging and uncertain times. Cairns are considered impermanent and transitory while also providing the most permanent source of stability often available in wilderness. Cairns also represent, especially in the Buddhist tradition, a source of worship, a way to ask for good fortune and an effort to balance energies; an inspiration for prayer and peace.
What precepts and principles might be considered modern “cairns” to guide us through this contemporary wilderness, models that can serve both for direction and for spiritual centering? As I contemplated that question I imagined how the stone cairns are considered reliable and trustworthy, carefully assembled by those with deep knowledge of the terrain who built them in good faith to support the well-being and survival for all who follow who need guidance. As such I can imagine them being constructed out of love and respect for those who would need their wisdom and experience.
And so I am deeply grateful for the vast cumulation of the “cairns” of support in our lives: internet libraries, immediately available to most of the world through our computers; “cairns” of literature, scientific knowledge, religious insight, and the heritage of deep wisdom from our familial and beloved elders who have walked before us. These “cairns” of reliable guidance are actually always available to us, especially when we loose our way. We need only to pay attention and to become aware when we have strayed from the path.
And, yes, like much of our world today, it is difficult to find and heed the moral “cairns” that will be reliable guides as we bushwhack our way though the materialism and lies that we must endure and overcome if we are to stay true to our own path, to each other, and to the demands of the natural world. Similarly we also need to transverse the wilderness that is especially so difficult for many of our young people who need help in finding meaning in a world increasingly besieged with the vacuousness of technology and artificiality that leads away from warm community and close relationships.
For me personally the “cairns” in my life are my Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship that are touchstones that help me stay on the moral path I aspire to follow. From a larger perspective I am grateful for my grounding in the Judeo-Christian teaching that emphasizes compassion and mutual responsibility for the “alien, widow and stranger” that ultimately establishes the "beloved community" of peace and justice. And finally, the prophetic traditions provide the warning that when we as a people are lost in a perilous wilderness we need to “reorient” and come back to the path and the “cairns” of shalom and right living with each other and the planetary life upon which we are so intricately interdependent. What are the primary “cairns” of guidance in your life?
Individually we are unlikely to provide life-guiding “cairns” beyond our immediate lives and culture, but we all can build life-assisting and life-affirming “cairns" along each of our paths to provide for the well-being and survival of all who follow.