I haven’t always loved hiking. I have tried to at various points in my life. I spent some time in Denver back in the 90s, and I remember buying boots to hike in, but I mostly just wore them as part of the Colorado uniform. I think I loved the idea of hiking, but wasn’t so much into the actual reality of hiking. A few years ago, that slowly started to change, and I now find getting out on the trail to be one of my favorite ways to reconnect with myself and with the world around me.
I first started hiking the trails around Spokane about three years ago as a part of a big exercise kick. I liked it more than running, and there are an amazing amount of trails nearby. I wouldn’t say that I initially got much connection to nature out of hiking. I mean, there was always something about the views that I would connect to, but I would always have my headphones in when I would hike, always listening to a book or a podcast. In fact, I just went for a hike on a trail yesterday that I can remember listening to my first book about meditation on a little over a year ago. During this period, I began to really enjoy hiking, but it wasn’t until I began my mindfulness practice that I took the headphones out and developed a true love for being in nature.
Prior to discovering meditation and mindfulness, I obsessively avoided moments that were free of stimulation. I always had to be listening to something, watching something, playing something, reading something, or doing something. In fact, most of the time, I refused to limit myself to a single thing. In hindsight, I can see that I was afraid to be alone with silence, because that would be the moment that I would have to deal with my thoughts. In meditation, I found that I actually could sit in silent stillness and be okay. As I dug deeper into mindfulness, I found that I could actually experience a lot of joy in doing one thing at a time, and engaging fully with that one thing. This discovery was so revelatory to me that I wanted to keep following the path deeper to see what I would find.
One of my favorite local trails is about a nine mile loop that has an amazing variety of scenery, and culminates in a beautiful waterfall at the top of the trail. When I first decided to hike this trail without my headphones, I was actually a little worried that I would freak out about the silence over the course of the relatively long hike. Instead, I found that the combination of my recent mindfulness practice and the lack of superfluous stimuli helped me to experience things that I hadn’t noticed on my previous times on the trail. I heard the songs of numerous bird species, smelled the various aromas of the forest, and observed little white butterflies flitting around the floor of the trail. Not only that, but my practice of mindful breathing was helping me to take the initial steps toward a presence in my body that I had never had (On first hearing the James Joyce line, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body,” I was sure that it had been written specifically about me.)
There is a quote from meditation and Dharma teacher, Mark Coleman, that really resonates with what I experienced as I opened myself to being more present in my time outdoors. Coleman says, “Nature teaches us simplicity, because in its presence we realize we need very little to be happy.” We have so many tools that we use to distance ourselves from the natural world. There are many benefits that we get from our technology, but we have also learned to cling to it as a mechanism for our happiness. The problem is, whatever happiness we derive from our various distractions is fleeting, a hungry ghost that requires that we constantly consume more and more to keep the buzz going. Being in nature strips that away and shows us that, however nice our modern technologies are, they are not essential for our happiness.
Yesterday, as I walked the trail, I allowed my awareness to open to whatever was arising around me. The field of sensation was so rich, and I thought back to how much of this I would have missed in the past. It made me feel grateful to truly be there in that moment, hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, and simply being.