One Step, One Breath

I could sense that it was time to leave the trail. I had been sensing this for some time, and  it was not easy to accept. The realization was composed of more than just reaching another “wall”. Many times on this journey, along the Appalachian Trail, I had reached the “wall”. It was the point where every ounce of my energy, physical, mental, emotional, and psychic, was tested and focused only on taking one step, then one breath. The “wall” was the point where I could not see continuing, yet I could not conceive not continuing. At that point, one takes one step, one breath, and pauses. I had many important realizations on the trail, but the realization I was facing was different.

One of the most important realizations I had came early in the hike, and it was as difficult as it was simple. I realized that my hike was not to be compared to anyone else’s hike. To release myself from this comparison, and the consequent evaluation and judgement, was a huge and important lesson. My hike was about myself, and no one else. The saying, often heard along the trail, is so apropos: “Hike your own hike!” A young person I had met summed up hiking styles well: “On the days I walk 20 miles, all I remember is walking. On the days I walk 8 miles, I remember where and what I had for lunch, I remember the views, I remember the fire I built in the evening.” One of my most important realizations was that I’m an 8-mile-per-day type hiker, and I wasn’t going to be – nor should I compare myself to – a 20-mile-per-day hiker.

It was true, I was burned out. I was hungry, tired, cold, wet, lonely, and generally weary. But the realization to leave the trail was more than all those challenges. I was losing heart for the trail. I was losing heart because I had fulfilled my purpose for the hike, at least for the season. The hike had been challenging, most of all it was an internal journey, a probing of my psyche. It was a mindful exercise in getting to know, and make peace with, myself and my own limits.

The following quote sums up well all the season’s realizations:

“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.

“This question is one that only a very old person asks. ‘Does this path have a heart?’ All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths; but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

“Before you embark on any path ask the question: ‘Does this path have a heart?’ If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a person finally realizes that they have taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill them. At that point very few people can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.”
― Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge

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