Iron Mountain is a temple for wildflower lovers. Situated in the “Old Cascades” of central Oregon, this area may offer 60 to 100 flower species blooming any given time throughout the late spring and summer months. It uniquely hosts flora from both dry and wet eco-zones. No wonder the trail can be quite busy. On this mid-July morning we encounter many of the usual hikers but with one significant difference: most folks are wearing masks.

Hiking mountain trails during the Covid-19 pandemic changes the experience somewhat. Many trekkers we encounter use bandanas and look like they are preparing to rob a bank (in an old ‘cowboy movie’ sense). One hiker humorously said, “Stick’em up,” as she lifted her bandana to cover her mouth and nose. I was surprised by the grace and humor expressed by most people. The “new normal” has climbed the mountain.

An interesting side effect of the mask is not being able to recognize people. I find myself thinking, “Do I know you? You seem familiar.” Everyone I meet seems to blend into the next one. Only the sparking eyes of a human animal peek out over the mask and it is startling to recognize the gaze. “The eyes are the window of the soul,” an observation attributed to many sources, is an apt description and indicates the importance of looking into the eyes of everyone we face.

It is easy to become distracted by the mask and not take the opportunity to gaze into each other’s souls. Our masks are changeable but the essence of soul, “no-self” or “no-separateness” in Buddhist jargon, is where we find interconnection: our essential unchanging sameness. Maybe a positive outcome of the pandemic is an invitation to recognize ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. Even those who choose not to wear a face covering are wearing a mask.

Our metaphorical masks change with experience. We experiment with ways of being as reflected in our relative personalities. But our eyes always reveal the light of our true selves. The eyes are the last thing  painted on sacred thangka images because of their importance in bringing the figure to life. Maybe, as those windows into our soul become our primary communication, we will all come alive with renewed compassion for each other and all life.