Watching the Mind Settle
This past weekend my husband and I went on a much anticipated short backpacking trip; only 18 miles in three days, in the Anaconda Pintler mountains. It was a wonderful trip filled with calm, high mountain lakes, silent companionship, waterfalls, and long walks through evergreen and deciduous forests. Nature has a way of teaching us lessons that apply to our everyday life. I came away from this trip reminded of some lessons it has taught me over and over again, but that I somehow forget in-between trips. But, the most important thing nature did for me on this trip was give me a personal viewing into the workings of my mind. It can be hard for us to nonjudgmentally settle enough to really just watch what is going on in the mind. Even when doing a Mindfulness of Thought meditation practice, it’s easy to get caught up in the judgement of thought. But here I will tell you the story of my mind on the first day of our trip. A mind that was lulled by the combination of nature and walking meditation. It was fascinating.
One might think otherwise, but swinging that pack around and up onto my back felt good. It felt familiar and comfortable. We checked in at the trailhead and began putting one foot in front of the other headed down the trail. I’d read the info on the trail and I knew it was 6 miles to where we hoped to camp that night and I knew it was mostly uphill. But that was to be expected, how else do you get into the good stuff? The high mountain lakes with the views?
It’s been two years since our last backpacking trip. We’ve hiked and car camped, but it’s not the same. Thirty pounds doesn’t seem like much, but it changes your gate, affects your every move, and there is something about fitting everything you need in that pack. It feels good – like your leaving the weight of life, job, worries, house, all that stuff behind and only moving forward with the essentials.
Then there’s the simple fact that it’s nature. With each step down the trail as you get further away from your vehicle, it surrounds you, envelopes you. I’ve always known it’s good for me and I’ve viscerally missed it these last 2 years. I’ve always felt like it resets my mind and body.
Body wise, it hurts. My only advice is go out for as long as possible. Three days isn’t enough for the hips, knees, and shoulders to stop being angry at you. Trust me, I’ve had long conversations with these body parts during hikes. But, sometime between day 5 and day 7 my body decides, “Well, she’s not stopping.” And it goes into survival mode. I’m a fan of survival mode because it usually involves the hips, right where that hip belt is cinched around me, going numb. As I say that, perhaps it's not very nice for me to wish a part of my body to go numb - doesn't sound very mindful... But it's good for me to be aware, that is how my body in that location has chosen to deal with the hip belt. Sometime after day 10, the body rests in strength. With the knowledge of what you are doing a whole new trust in yourself and your body arises and settles calmly over you. This confidence and trust in self carries over into the non-backpacking world with a quiet strength.
The mind – backpacking is an interesting exercise for the mind. It eventually takes a rest. It realizes life is simple. It’s about eating, walking and sleeping. In between there are activities like pumping water, watching for animals, setting up and taking down shelter every day, and basic, very basic, cleanliness. This calming of the mind has always just eventually happened for me. I count on it, but don’t pay much attention to how or when it happens. The fact that it’s been two years since I hit the trail and in those two years my meditation and mindfulness practice has hit a whole new level, added new awareness to this trip. It made the mind part of this trip especially interesting.
It was like being in the front row of a movie about someone that couldn’t let go and that someone was my mind. The mind relaxed and settled into the breath and the body fairly quickly. It recognized the practice of a walking meditation. But all of a sudden it was like, “Wait! We need to be thinking about something! It’s the middle of the day on a Friday, we can’t just be walking!” and I’d start thinking about news, politics, upsetting things going on in the world, etc. A few times I initiated a conversation about these things with Joe. But each time, with one foot in front of the other, the mind would be lulled into present moment calm again. Then like a two year old who is resisting sleep with everything he has, the mind would raise its head and come roaring back. “Oh you should think about the visit to your parents, or an upcoming training, or what you could have done differently in a client meeting last week, or …” But each time there would be longer periods of breath and body, in between delirious periods of grasping for thought, grasping for the outside world, the past and the future.
Finally the mind realized it could settle. Nothing bad would happen. Settling didn’t mean it, ‘the mind’, wasn’t needed. We still needed to be aware of dangers as we walked. We had to pay attention so we didn’t trip over roots and rocks or fall off the edge of the trail. Being me – my mind knew that was a distinct possibility! We had to listen for noises and identify the harmless coo’s of the Ruffed Grouse as different from the noises of a bear moving through the woods. We paid attention to the different tracks and signs of deer, elk, moose, and bear, so we were aware of our surroundings. It was as if with each step, I connected a little more with the earth and became a part of my surroundings, a part of the present moment along with the Ponderosa Pines, Spruce, and Tamarak trees; along with the Huckleberry and other bushes beginning to fade into shades of yellows, oranges, and reds; and along with the last wilting Indian Paintbrush, Bluebell, and Aster flowers.
This ability to really watch my mind as if it were separate, with no judgement - although I admit to mild amusement at times - this was really special.
For some of my clients, I’ve encouraged you to really give walking meditation a try for this exact reason, it seems that by entering into meditation with the body, the mind follows a little easier. Even if you can’t find a trailhead this week, I encourage you to take a walk out to your garden or through a local park and just put one foot in front of the other. Connect with your breath and bring your attention into your feet and legs. From that vantage point allow thoughts to pass by as if they were the clouds above you and just keep bringing your attention back to your feet and your breath. Allow yourself to be taken in by the nature around you. Stop to appreciate a tree beginning to change into fall colors or the rough bark of the tree. Stop to use your senses and smell the earth, whether damp or dry. Allow the symphony of sound around you to enter your conscious, with no need to identify, hear the different bird songs and the breeze as it moves through the trees and grasses. Feel your shoulders release back and down into your back and feel yourself relax more deeply into the earth with each step.
For those that are interested, I’ve recorded a short Walking Meditation for Beginners guided audio that you can use to get the feel for what a walking meditation might be like. You can find it here, under Resources/Guided Meditations on this website. Scroll down to Walking Meditation. After listening to it and practicing, take your practice outside! Let me know what piece of nature you took in this week.