On Hiking as a Moving Meditation

“Let the body do what the body is capable of doing.”

Wim Hof repeats this several times throughout his guided breathing exercise.

Let the body do what the body is capable of doing.

Stop fighting. Stop thinking. Stop resisting.

Let the body take over, and simply do.

Adriene Mishler, of Yoga with Adriene, says it a little differently.

“Give the thinking mind a break.”

Both of them refer to the tool of the breath to release our anxious monkey minds.

This has always been a challenge for me. I spend much of my time wrapped up in my head, following the spiral of my thoughts down, down, down. It is easy to get lost and forget that I am not my thoughts.

The first time I felt my mind quiet, really quiet, and my body take over was the first time I did high yoga. For once, my body took over, and I flowed effortlessly, all attention on the breath and not the movement. The second time was when I hiked high.

Hiking high, like high yoga, is a kind of moving meditation for me. A way to drop the busy mind, give myself a break and simply let the body take over. This doesn’t mean it is easy per se, but that I am able to lean into the difficulty without resistance. I trust that my body is capable of what I’m asking it to do, and it is.

I often underestimate my own capability, mentally and physically. I don’t like doing hard things and typically bow out when I start to struggle. That simply isn’t possible when hiking. Once you start, you’re started. The first mile or two is easier and exciting, but the novelty has worn off after that and when things start to get hard it’s already too late to turn around. The hardest part of the hike is always the last part before the summit or the end, the part where it’s just a sheer force of will that keeps you going because you literally have no other choice. You’re in the middle of nowhere in terrain that is not conducive to vehicles, so you just have to keep going.

It is painful and it is frustrating. And you have no choice but to sit in whatever you’re feeling. Hiking high helps me focus on the breath while a range of emotions swirl through my mind and demand my attention, demand to be felt.

To hike high is to rage

To hike high is to grieve

It is to scream into the void and face your limits

It is finding that your limits are further away than you thought they were.

I am often angry when I hike. It is an interesting thing to sit with, this seemingly inexplicable rage at the trail and the mountain and my hiking partner and myself. But it is reflective; I often get angry when things are hard for me. My instinct is to shut down and walk away. But you can’t do that with hiking. You have to finish what you started. You have to push through and see the end, because otherwise you’re just stuck. And being stuck is only prolonging the experience.

Let the body do what the body is capable of doing.

It may surprise you.

In February, my fiancé and I did an 8-mile snowshoe at a local nature preserve. The day was colder than we intended, and sunlight was flickering in and out behind low gray clouds. It wasn’t brutal in the sun or in the woods, but if you hit an open marsh area when the sun disappeared, frigid winds swept across the open land and assaulted your bones. We took turns leading and breaking trail where necessary. When I was leading, I marched with purpose, the only thought in my head to warm up my core temperature and stop shivering for two blessed seconds.

Towards the end we came to an open, flat stretch that lasted over 2 miles, and by that point I was already wiped. I had seriously underestimated how long 8 miles is. I also hadn’t considered the wind, the clouds, or the sheer amount of energy it took to break trail in fresh powder. Though it was the home stretch, the last 2 miles to get us to the trailhead and back to our car took us well over an hour. I thought it would never end.

At that point, I entered a headspace I had only been in once before, on the trail of Sawtooth Mountain last summer. It’s a robotic state of mind, where the only thing you’re capable of doing is picking one foot up and putting it down over and over and over again. We pushed until we needed a break, rested for a minute, and started up again because the wind was too vicious to rest longer. I was in abject misery; my legs shaking with pain and my face numb with cold. I remember fantasizing about letting my fiancé get the car and drive back to get me, only to be shaken to the core by a blast of arctic wind and resolve to keep going.

The last 200 feet of the trail was stupidly challenging, where all markers of a beaten trail had disappeared under the fresh layer of snow, and we were left to navigate an open field of short sharp bushes on our own. It was made even worse by the fact that we could see the car at the other end of the field, but we couldn’t just go straight through.

Nothing feels as good as sitting down in the car for the first time after a long hike. It is near bliss to know that the trail is behind you and the heat is blasting. We drove home in a kind of stupefied silence, thawing from the inside out from an unexpectedly hard trail.

I cannot tell you how many times on the trail I thought to myself “I can’t do this.” But I did not have a choice and I did. I let the body do what the body is capable of doing.

As I progress with meditation, I’ve returned to the Wim Hof method. For one, his unique breath retention gives me a rush of focused energy like nothing else, and I like his style of teaching.

At this point, let the body do what the body is capable of doing resonates deeply with me. The season is changing, the daylight hours are getting longer, and being outside for extended periods of time is more pleasant ad requires fewer layers. Hiking season is upon us, and I find myself anxious to get back outside.

After all, what better place to smoke a joint in the sun than at the end of a long trail?

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