Wednesday, August 5, 2009
This photo is of me hiking in Patagonia in January. I find that hiking can be a deeply spiritual experience. Yesterday, I took a 2 hour hike in Westmoreland Sanctuary in Bedford, NY. This Westchester County gem features mature forest with oaks, ash, cedar, norway spruce and sassafras. There are ponds, streams and swamps. There are some dramatic rock outcroppings as well as grassy meadows. In short, this is a place of great natural beauty.
There are several ways to hike. A hike can be a race against other hikers where the goal is to finish as quickly as possible. A hike can become a time trial where the goal is to do your best time over a specific distance. A hike can also be done purely for exercise—to burn calories. A hike can also be done for spiritual nourishment. I call this kind of hiking "mindful walking."
When hiking mindfully, I am more aware of the natural beauty surrounding me. I notice the pattern of sunlight on the ground that filters through the branches of trees. I breathe in the musty forest air, rich with aromas of earth: decaying leaves, pine needles and evergreen cones. I look at the sky above the canopy of tree tops and marvel at the varying hues of blue and the puffy white clouds floating effortlessly. When hiking with this kind of awareness, I feel connected to the aliveness around me and feel more alert and alive within.
Walking mindfully isn’t only about awareness of the outside world—it is also of what is happening within. Borrowing from Buddhist meditation, you can focus on your breathing. Are you breathing rhythmically, in tune with the amount of energy you are exerting? How hard is your heart beating? What concerns, anxieties and worries are you carrying within you? Are you feeling a sense of freedom and joy in being in a place of natural beauty?
My spiritual goal in hiking is to shed the anxieties and concerns I carry with me and free myself from them for that time. Since most of our anxieties and worries come from focusing on an unknown future, being fully present in the present moment can liberate us from such concerns and make us receptive to the glory and grandeur of God’s creation. To be mindful is to live fully in the present moment without allowing the burdens of the past or our fears of the future to dominate our consciousness. Mindfulness places us firmly in the here and now.
I admit that I don’t achieve this goal of mindful walking on every hike. Sometimes, thoughts dart and in out of my mind like electric currents and I pay more attention to them than I do to the beauty of my surroundings. At other times, when hiking on a trail littered with rocks or tree roots, I focus my attention on not tripping and falling. During yesterday's hike, several small insects were attacking my eyes, making it difficult to focus on anything else.
Yet, when mindful walking does happen, it's a soul-nourishing experience.