Leonard

As I’ve adjusted to retirement, it’s been yet another opportunity for personal growth and coming to know myself. I’ve become more aware of my need for connection and interaction with others. Also, I need a reason to get up in the morning – I need to interact with other living beings on a regular basis. This may sound odd for a person who’s been divorced for 33 years, and often described as a “fringe personality”, but it’s true. Fortunately, in the last few years I’ve come to interact with dogs well, especially my German Shepherd, Bella. In the process, I’ve come to enjoy other dog people. Given this segway, I decided to embark on training dogs as a retirement adventure. I found a school for dog trainers close to my house, that was accessible and affordable, and eagerly waited for several months to begin the 12 week intensive course in an Academy for Dog Trainers.

The course was divided into three main segments of four weeks each. The first was Basic Obedience, next was Intermediate Obedience, and the last was Advanced Topics. My initial intention, and enrollment, was for the entire course. I was committed for the “whole enchilada”. I was told, and it was clearly stated, that the course was demanding. This became a reality quickly as 32 of us, some from as far distant as India and the Bahamas, came to the Academy with a common love of dogs. As my days settled into a pattern synchronous with the Academy, I quickly found myself putting in 12 to 14 hours each day, about 70 to 80 hours per week. It can be amazing to fall into a routine where one’s heart is the driving force. However, these demands, no matter how hearty, can become overwhelming to the point of imbalance at best, perhaps dangerous to personal safety or well being.

Initially, Bella was given a pre-course assessment and deemed unsuitable for the first session of the course. She had already been trained, and was proficient at Basic Obedience. I was then assigned two rescue dogs, each of different temperaments, in order that I experience as much of a variety as possible in terms of dog training. The dogs that I was assigned, that I would get to know intimately, were purely a roll of the dice. And so it was that one of the dogs was a maniac, the other a neurotic. My maniac, estimated to be 10 to 14 months, appeared to be a Husky/Chow mix, and was incredibly outgoing, confident, and full of himself. He was extremely curious, driven, playful, and loveable. He was a handful at every turn. The second dog I was assigned, Leonard, was a neurotic, shy, and fearful character. The cards in the hand that I was dealt were from two polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

I was initially told that Leonard was a “fence jumper”, an escape artist. He had raw sores across his front legs. I was told that the sores were probably from someone putting a cone on him backward, in order to keep him from getting out of the fence. Eventually, as I got to know him, I realized that he was extremely frightful. The slightest shift in the environment could startle him, and in that state of excitement he was capable of jumping and running. I figured that the frightful element was probably part of what had determined his plight as a rescue.

It’s easy to cap, or redirect, an exuberant dog that is highly motivated, such as my maniac. It’s difficult, and can be nearly impossible, to generate drive in a dog where there is little or none. Taken a step further, when the shy and nervous dog has been “shut down”, their life force repressed and abused, they may never come out of it fully. It was obvious that Leonard was of the latter ilk. As I came to know him, I realized that he had been “shut down”. His effort at life had been quashed to the point that he was in a deep shell, hesitant to experience or try anything new. I decided to take a different approach with him, over and above simple training. I decided to focus on our relationship, I wanted to engage and encourage him. I put most, at times all, of my effort into pulling him out of that shell. I probed the course of chiseling away at, and opening up, the core of who he really was.

His name wasn’t initially Leonard. But we changed it. It happened one day while waiting to go out onto the Agility field. We were sitting around, several of us with our dogs, and the remark was made that he was starting to look better. I shared a few details about what we’d been doing together. We had walked in the field, and he started to run. In the field was the only time I ever saw him take interest in a toy. He was, for a few brief moments, playful and capricious. It was true, there was a brilliant side to him at times. It was in stark contrast to the side of him that seemed to take over any time we entered the Training Building. I could tell that he hated the Training Building. He became his old self, the one that was shut down. He did obedience when asked, mostly. Actually, obedience training was something he endured. At any rate, several of the girls noted that he had changed, and was starting to shine. They decided that his name should be Leonard. And so it was, from that moment forward, that we called him Leonard.

There are many approaches to dog training. Each approach becomes a school of thought for the trainers that embody the methods therein. There is the “old school” of “yank and crank“, which is becoming outdated due to it’s use of pure force and pressure, seen as inhumane by evolving standards. There is the purely positive approach, which has its place, albeit limited in certain situations. Then there is the balanced approach, or “Balanced Trainers”, supposedly somewhere in the middle, incorporating a variety of tools from rewards to corrective measures. The Academy where I was enrolled was of the Balanced Trainer approach. However, when considering that there was a rank and file of novice trainers, matched with a full spectrum of rescue dogs that were thoroughly green and raw, then given four weeks to bring all of the above into the harmonious rhythm of a marching band, one can surmise that there would be disharmonious moments.

Leonard had a knack for creating disharmonious moments. It wasn’t that he was unruly, much to the contrary. He was always personable and connectable. However, he came to dislike being trained in Basic Obedience. In fact, as I stated above, he hated it. He was resistant to some of the commands, and as he came to trust me his position of choice was at my feet. I continued with the approach of gaining his confidence and trust, hoping that he’d continue to emerge from his shell. We walked in the woods, and he slowly came to prance and dance. I took him onto the Agility field, where I was able to coax him into negotiating each and every obstacle. Agility is an excellent sport for dogs, it engages them and builds confidence. Leonard had a difficult time with the tunnel at first, but soon came to like it. In fact, he would go in and refuse to come out. Finally, in a moment of exasperation, I crawled into the tunnel with him. From that moment on, we were BFF, best friends forever.

One of the training tools, a method of communication with the dog, is pressure. They are systematically taught that forms of pressure on the collar can be released and removed by their compliance with the request being made. Leonard did not respond well to pressure, in fact it tended to push him further into his shell. Therefore my use of pressure had to be very judicious and compassionate. I took extreme care in this balance of coaxing him out of his shell, using rewards, and the light punishment of pressure that he would respond to when necessary. This was the most difficult part of our relationship.

Dogs are inherent gamblers. Their wager, in any interaction, is “how much can I get away with?”, “what’s in it for me?”, or “how far can I push it?”. I came to realize this syndrome with Leonard. I realized that he was playing me as far as he could in some of the obedience commands, particularly the “down”. Granted, it’s a difficult position for most dogs, it is a position of vulnerability. In all this, dogs also crave, demand, and respond to certainty, routine, and authority. And so it was between Leonard and I with regards to the “down”. He pushed me to my limit, and I finally pushed back. Given all of the above, I came up with a plan. My plan was to take Leonard for a walk in the field behind the Training Building and “generalize” the down command. So, one bright and sunny morning, away we went. We walked for about a quarter mile across the field, reinforcing the mechanics of the down command, about every 10 paces. I would command “down”, then mold him into position. When we were all the way across, we turned around, and repeated the entire process for the full quarter mile back to the kennel. Finally, at the end of this process, his resistance to this command faded and he performed on cue. We had “come to Jesus” on the “down”.

And so we came to the day of reckoning, the four week Obedience Test. I arrived at the Academy at my usual 5 AM. After my typical roll out, I worked each dog lightly, more of an effort to review, reinforce, and connect with them. I decided to test Leonard in the morning while he was still fresh. I rationalized that my more energetic “maniac” would still have plenty of steam for the afternoon test. If all went well, this would be a light day, and we’d spend the weekend celebrating our triumph after all the effort and grind that we’d endured. It had not been an easy trek. Indeed, the long days and mountain of information had brought us into many difficult moments. At any rate, I felt confident that I had done my best, that I was well connected to my dogs, and that we would do well.

The beginning of the test seemed to go well. There was a slight hiccup in the “place” routine, but Leonard sat upon command and stayed for the duration of the trial. Then came the “down” part of the test. Leonard was in a sit at my left side, in the standard heel position. Upon request, I authoritatively issued the “down” command. I could see from the corner of my eye that he did not move. I was told to “down” him again. I turned in his direction, and our eyes met. More authoritatively, I said “DOWN”. Neither his eyes nor his body moved, we remained with our eyes locked for a brief moment. He simply refused to “down” upon demand. I was told to remove Leonard and myself from the training area. We stood contritely on the sideline, and watched in disbelief as the test proceeded for those who were more successful.

I could tell, when the test was finished and we were at the moment of Final Reckoning, that something was terribly wrong. I had gone over the math in my head, and had calculated – on the edge of panic – that we were sure to have passed with enough points garnered from our stronger sections of the test. However, when the assistant tester took us aside for a conference, I knew that we were doomed. We had scored 52 points out of 100. We needed at least 60 to pass. Both Leonard and I were now members in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. I was told that we could retest in 48 hours. I was too shocked to have a reaction other than quietly leaving the Training Building and finding a reclusive place for the both of us to cower.

Life has a way of periodically shaking and shocking us out of our comfort and predetermined expectations. I had just been forced into one of those moments. I was in a complete state of exhaustion from all the effort I had put into this failing endeavor. My entire world had been rocked. I was at the point where I could only think of what to do next, within the framework of the immediate moment. I managed to put Leonard back into his run in the kennel. I then made it to my truck. I took Bella out of her crate, and the only thing I could think of was to go down to the creek. I had previouysly found a remote and refreshing place down by the creek that had become my sanctuary. I often took Bella down there to grab a moment of solitude and communion. I was now direly in need of one of those moments, so away we went to the creek.

Some decisions make themselves. One’s position within a set of options becomes more and more limited based upon seeing clearly those options that are not workable. So it was for me at this particular moment. I was fixed in clear memory of the moment that Leonard and I had locked eyes, and he had refused to down. I didn’t realize it at that specific moment, but he was showing me the clear path forward. It was as if the entire Force of the Universe was embodied within his 52 pound frame, and melding into me that we were of One Mind and Heart. He was telling me that, no matter how I approached it, he did not like, nor could he be forced, to do Basic Obedience. As I weighed my options, I realized that there was no amount of force, or pressure – nor coercion of any type – that I could apply to him within the next 48 hours that would change our position in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. Further, I realized that if I went that route, it would be OVER AND ABOVE the 70 to 80 hours per week that I was already enduring. All these conclusions came effortlessly within about 10 minutes of clarity by the creek. I was on a hell-bound burn out course, and I could not bring myself to force Leonard to crash and burn with me.

Still in a state of shock, and capable of making only one single decision or three minutes of action, whichever was smaller, I put Bella back into her crate in the bed of my truck. I then walked directly into the front office of the Academy and requested to withdraw. I filled out the paperwork, and returned to my truck. Bella and I drove home, and I took a nap. It was WONDERFUL to relax. It took days to decompress from the pressure cooker that I endured at the Academy. I have not looked back, but I have thought about the dogs and my classmates. I can only hope that they fare better than Leonard and I. Or should I hope that they fare as well as we have?

This is Who We Are

What a shock to return to city life in Austin, Texas. Things quickly became complicated. It was wise to take a couple of weeks to make the 2000 mile journey back.

I was gone for seven months. Most of that time I was either on the Appalachian Trail, or camping in the woods. Life had become very simple. On the trail, I had honed my pack to a lean 20-22 pounds, not including food and water. That included more than everything I needed: shelter, bedding, clothing, kitchen, toiletry and first aid. Suddenly, with my truck and house, I was surrounded by all this “stuff”. Oddly, I wasn’t any happier.

For the first time in months, I checked the national headline news. I was hoping for hope itself. Yet I was greeted by the sparring and conflict between Greta Thunberg and President Trump. One, a young teen mature well beyond her years. The other a seasoned and chafe con artist struggling for the civil maturity of a middle school bully. The young lady was looking for ways to raise awareness about the future of our global environment. The president was looking for ways to bullishly and usuriously obliterate it. Conflict was inevitable.

I wonder why so many people go about in such a hurry. We’re never happier anywhere else than we are wherever we are, and hurrying to get somewhere else doesn’t seem to help. Also, I wonder why so many people need so much “stuff”. We’re never any happier with “more” than we are with “less”. I wonder if anyone ever looks deeply at the blind rat mazes of hurrying and consuming.

While on the trail, there were periods, sometimes days at a time, when I did not hear any man-made sounds. The prominence of Nature was overwhelming. In the city, I struggle to hear the sounds of Nature, it’s drowned by traffic, sirens, air conditioners, and construction. I get the sense that we’re on a run away hell-bound train that has a certain and inevitable consequence looming just around the turn. On the trail, I was fortunate to participate in the interconnectedness of Nature and Life. From the beauty of the mountains and rivers, to the blessing of my own physical limitations of hunger, and weariness, I felt connected to all that was around me. In this city, as we speed hastily in the roulette of traffic encased in flimsy tin and plastic projectiles with wheels and airbags, we depend on being separate from each other to justify our aggression.

Through it all, I will admit that I’m part of it, I’m not separate from any of it. At this point in our collective history, more than ever before, we’re being called to come together. It’s true for each and every one of the inhabitants of this planet: we’re either part of the solution, or we’re the problem itself. There was a popular TV series called Millenium in the late ’90s that had a tag line I come back to in times of duress: “This is who we are.

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

The Prison of Self

Along the Appalachian Trail, there are many hostels and other places for hikers to resupply, shower, recharge electronics, eat, rest, and more. Most of these businesses are owner operated, and run on the “honor system”. That means that, when a hiker arrives, a “tab”, typically a sheet or card, is initiated and maintained with a list of all the services and products that the hiker consumes. The tab is often maintained by the hiker, hence the honor system. My first few experiences with this system left me a little uncomfortable, it’s not what I’m used to. The system stands in stark contrast to many of our current establishments, which demand a “credit card number on file”. Many medical establishments ask first, and before the nature of ones ailment, “how will you be paying today?”

I asked about the nature of this system, I received the same answer from more than one hostel owner. First, the honor system is simpler than multiple individual – credit card or cash – transactions. Also, it makes a bit of mathematical sense because, for the percentage of slippage or bills not paid that the owner sustains, it’s still cheaper than dedicating all that effort to engaging each and every candy bar, pint of ice cream, etc. Finally, there’s a continuity within the hiker community such that one’s reputation follows the person up and down the trail. If Joe Quickwalker skips on his bill in Virginia, it’s likely that word of his misdeed will precede him to Vermont. It may seem odd, but I actually saw it happen.

I’ve given a lot of thought to honesty. Where did it originate within human history? How did it develop, and why? In contrast to some trains of thought, I don’t believe that Truth – ergo honesty – is tied to a Divine Law or Ecclesiastical Imposition. I believe that honesty can be traced to tribal roots. Honesty within a tribe was, and still is, key to survival. If one of the scouts came back to camp and said there was a herd of buffalo two hills over, it’s best that they’re really there. This principle isn’t hard to follow. If everyone is leaning, to the best of their ability, toward a common, shared reality life is workable, survivable. If everyone took license to make up their own reality, chaos would pervade human interaction.

Each of the hostels along the trail, while sharing some qualities and traits, is unique to itself. Some are more attractive to young hikers, others to the older crowd. Some insist on no smoking – of any substance. Some are warm and relaxed, others have more rigid rules and controls. One particular hostel, that catered to long distance as well as local hikers, was very well maintained by a set of rules that were well beyond the norm. It was run by a young lady who was very much a “take charge” person.

When I first met the gal, I had an odd sense about her. Upon our first interaction, as she introduced me to the place, I got the sense that she was not telling me the full truth, that I could not trust her word. As we continued to interact, that sense continued to grow. I had arrived on Friday, and I was tired, dirty, and hungry. I had explicitly told her over the phone that I wanted to stay for the entire weekend. I was led to believe, at the time, that it would not be a problem. However, after I arrived, she told me that I could only stay for one night. This contradicted what I had been led to believe over the phone. Her apology rang hollow and her reasoning was weak with no personal consideration. After a while, I realized that I had been lied to by omission. For me, from the hiker viewpoint, this was extremely inconvenient. The situation had been controlled and manipulated by half truth to her advantage, at my personal expense. There was something inside me that decided to not resist, and I knew that an argument would not change anything. I decided to challenge her, gently, and it became obvious immediately that she was going to shut me down at any cost. I finally realized that, although inconvenient, leaving the place was to my advantage; more so than staying around to be further controlled and manipulated.

Through my experience, I had an interesting insight into her world. Although she couldn’t see it, she was locked inside her own little world of manipulation, control, and half truth, and it was her world alone. She was bound by her own fabrications of reality to maintaining a construct of reality that must be constantly recreated and asserted, it could not be truly shared with others because it was hers and hers alone, carefully created to manipulate the world to her advantage. She was locked in the prison of herself. Although her business had all the external appearance of success and attractiveness, to one who looked deeper into the resonation of interaction, trust was difficult to establish. I realized, through this interaction, a profound aspectof and the deeper meaning of the saying “The Truth shall set you Free.

 

Alone

Being alone never felt as alone as it did on the Sunday afternoon that I arrived at the Tucker-Johnson shelter on the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail. It was late September, well past the peak hiker season, and the leaves were starting to fall. The shelter was about a half mile off the main trail, which meant that even weekend and local hikers would be few. Typically, I took refuge in knowing that other hikers would be staying at the shelter. Even if we didn’t connect, there was a sense of safety in having other eyes, ears, feet, and hands around. The place was desserted when I arrived.

I had recently slowed the pace of our hike to savor the colorful change of the season in Vermont. The red, orange, yellow, rust, and brown hues of the leaves had been slowly creeping into the summer greens making the transition to Fall beautiful and dramatic. The wind was washing through the trees sending them swaying to and fro, shaking loose waves of leaves that slowly floated to the ground. Birdsong was sparse, not like the vocal dominance that is typical in the Spring, when the earth comes to life. Fall is the season of decline, gateway to the silent dormancy of Winter.

There had been copious warnings of bears in the vicinity. Typically, Fall sends them into heavy feeding in preparation for hibernation. After an early dinner, I sat for a few moments and watched Bella keenly tuning her senses to the area. Her ears were erect like dish antennae. I’ve come to rely on her senses of acute hearing, smell and sight. I had come to read her various postures of awareness, with her moans, groans, and growls. As the sunset faded toward darkness, I stuck with established bear protocol by hanging our food with a PCT style bear hang.

On the one hand, I was glad to be away from the sound of cars and other intrusions to the natural order. The forest is a welcome refuge from the imposition of aggressive drivers, the ubiquity of capitalism and advertisements, and other plagues of modern civilization. However, on this particular afternoon, I was visited by a sense of aloneness, one not touched by loneliness and not blessed by the wekcome sense of solitude. I simply felt alone.

Through that aloneness, I looked ahead to the dark uncertainty of nightfall. I struggled to not think of the night as a long eternity, with hours of anticipation of dawn and the safety of daylight. I knew I could depend on Bella and her keen senses to help allay any overwhelming threats. I turned on the phone and switched it out of airplane mode. There was about half a bar of signal, and not even the dreaded 1X roaming network was available. This further drove home the sense of aloneness, bordering on isolation. So I sat, alone, and listened to the overwhelming silence of the deep Vermont forest.

Later, lying in the hammock waiting for the blessing of sleep to arrive, I realized that with the onset of Fall, our hike for the season would soon end.  Faintly I heard, in the distance, beyond the safety of the mountain, the rumble of trucks on the Interstate. They were, at best, two miles away. I wasn’t sure if I should be comforted, or if it was the imminence of a system of life that I’ve forever struggled to accept and call home.

Emotional Freedom

My previous post on Freedom left me feeling short, like there was something misssing. When I realized what it was, I conceived this post on Emotional Freedom.

We, as humans, are distinct within Creation with our faculty of rational thought. This faculty brings us many wonderful qualities, some which bring good and some which don’t. Among these qualities is a rich and varied emotional life. We can, and do, experience a range, or spectrum, of emotions that others in the animal kingdom don’t, or can’t. I’ve learned a lot about my own emotions by watching the animals that I’ve cared for. Currently, my teacher in this way is my dog, Bella.

There are a couple of things I find when watching Bella and her emotions. First is that she doesn’t appear to have as rich an emotional life as I do. Her emotions are simpler and limited, they aren’t of the same scale or spectrum as mine. Next is that, typically, she feels something based solely on immediate circumstance. Typically, the stimulus is directly perceptible in her world. Her feelings seem to last for only as long as that stimulus is present. Once the emotional stimulant is removed from her sphere of perception, she stops feeling that way. I attribute both of these to her lack of rational thought, which leaves her incapable of creating the “extras” around emotion that we humans can and do. I’ve also noticed these differences with other animals, such as goats, snakes, etc.

As with True Freedom and relative freedom, there can be true or relative freedom within the emotional realm. Freedom from an emotion, such as anger or sadness, implies moving away from those less desireable emotions to the more desireable ones of love or joy. However, True Freedom of the emotions is freedom from being bound to either side of an emotion. It doesn’t mean we don’t experience any emotion. It means that we are not bound to that emotion, either permanently or for an unreasonable amount of time.

The key to being truly emotionally free is to feel the feeling that is current, to not resist it, and to not act on it. Don’t try to stop or minimize it, don’t try to change it into something else, don’t cover it up. Just feel it, and hang out with the feeling. Notice the physical sensations. Watch the mental movement. Slowly, it will pass – whether it is a good feeling or a bad feeling, it’s temporal and it will pass. If it is a habitual feeling, the strength and force of the habit will slowly give way and leave a sense of Freedom.

There is no doubt that certain feelings are pleasant, and others unpleasant. However, attaching oneself to one side of a feeling implies a bond to that feeling, which implies the denial or evasion of the other side of the feeling. Remaining free to feel each feeling as it arises brings the freedom to move about with feelings, lets them process completely and more fully, and brings the perspective that feelings alone are not ultimate reality. They’re real, to the person who feels them, for the moment that they’re felt. But feelings alone are not the ultimate summation of reality. Realizing this brings True Emotional Freedom.

For me, on the Appalachian Trail, there have been many days when I felt like I was ready to throw in the towel, call it quits, and end the hike. However, I came to see that this portion of my feeling spectrum toward the trail was the opposite end of my attraction to the trail, the joy that it brings. Over all, within the spectrum of both ends of these opposites, there is the part of me that loves the trail and all that goes with it. Keeping the overall perspective in mind helps me through the down times, and permits me to fully enjoy the more positive moments.

Freedom

There’s a classic conundrum, sometimes used as a test, perhaps for employment or as a psychological evaluation. On the table in front of you is a glass that has some water in it. You are asked whether you think the glass is half full or half empty. Supposedly, theoretically, your choice – or viewpoint – tells of your predisposing attitude. If you respond that the glass is half full, you are optimistic and see things in terms of abundance. If you respond that the glass is half empty, you are predisposed to pessimism and see things in terms of what’s lacking. I first saw this question when I was a child, it was posed as a TV commercial for the Peace Corps. The point was that if you were an optimistic type person, the Peace Corps was for you.

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to put a person into a “box” based upon this type of evaluation. We all, at different times in our lives, will view the glass and water differently. When a hard-coded evaluation is made, it binds us to a personal judgement, puts us into a “box”, so to speak. It takes away a piece of our freedom. Once we’re labeled, or label, one way or another, we’re thought of, or we think of ourselves, as being predisposed to that trait. Few people, once in that “box”, learn to escape it.

If we look deeply, deeper than the labels we’re accustomed to, we will see that there is a vessel of some type on the table. That vessel has a certain amount of clear liquid inside. Those are the basic facts that we’re facing. The vessel is obviously man made, we call it a glass for convenience. The liquid, being clear, could be any number of types, straight from Nature or not. Beyond these most basic facts, and without further examination, all the rest is contained within our thoughts. The conclusions we come to are typically projections based upon previous experience.

These evaluations, judgements, and conclusions are what we – our psychological selves – are made of. Oftentimes they’re inherited, or learned behaviors, of some sort. We often work diligently to free ourselves of the ones that we don’t want, those which cause us pain or distress. We seek to be free from something. This is relative freedom. I’ve always had a difficult time accepting the limitations implied in relative freedom. Accordingly, if we look deeper, at the entire cycle and interaction of these opposites, we can see that there is another form of freedom, one that is to not be bound to the cycle itself. True Freedom is to be unbound. Freedom from one side of something, typically in moving to a different vantage point, is different, and it can often be an entry point to another form of being bound.

Looking at things deeply, in terms of only the basic elements or objects involved, can be an existential rabbit hole. Indeed, existential philosophy has the proclivity to put one into a sad and dire frame of mind. However, a more wholesome viewpoint of life itself, and most of what is contained therein, shows that Ultimate Good is possible, even prevalent. Whether I look at any or each of the pieces, and label them as good or bad, is a personal affair. However, that Life is, and what it is to us, is ultimately Good. It’s best to not fall into the darkness and obscurity of mere objects as they appear before us. It’s more wholesome to remain with the larger picture, the Totality of Life itself. This has been called Peacefulness, Serenity, and equanimity.

Sometimes, even often, the movement into true Freedom involves looking deeply into, and being patient and persistent with, that which binds and enslaves us to one side of an interaction. In other words, say I want to quit smoking, or any other form of destructive habit. In wanting to be free of the smoking habit, some people just switch to another habit, perhaps gambling or over-eating. This is not true freedom, it’s relative freedom. True Freedom is to not be bound to any of these habits. Depending on how deeply entrenched the habit has become, it may take some time, patience, and consistent effort to look into the deeper roots of the habit. However, once done, there comes an awareness of the point at which engaging the habit is seen as a conscious choice. At that point, it’s possible to not make the choice, or to make a different choice, hopefully one more healthy and constructive. It may take quite some time and effort to free the energy that’s been invested in the habit to see why it’s there and change the choice.

How does this apply to my current endeavor, hiking the Appalachian Trail? Perhaps you’re wondering if I have too much time to think while on this journey. That part is true. However, common among hikers, one of the challenges of the trail, is to maintain a focused state of mind. Many hikers let thoughts of home dominate them while they’re out here. When they get home, they let thoughts of the trail seep back in, and they wonder if they did the right thing by quitting the hike. I don’t like to let either of these “rabbit holes” win. The truth for me is that every morning I wake up, before me are a pair of boots and a pack. The trail stretches onward, upward over mountains and downward into bogs. I exercise the freedom of choice to don the boots, load and hoist the pack, and step into the trail. I’m free in making those choices, despite challenges or setbacks, because I’ve stepped toward a life long dream. I’ve always wanted to spend an extended time in Nature. And by renewing that choice, I remain unbound by that which is not on my path today.

In a given situation, True Freedom is not dependent on whether you can move into or out of that situation or not, it’s about what you make that situation into with your thoughts. The old saying “One person’s ceiling is another person’s floor” fits, in that what one person sees as freedom another sees as slavery. That would be relative freedom in action. True Freedom sees either approach as an equally valid choice.

In a second post on this topic, I’ll address emotional freedom. I’ll close with a quote from the late Krishnamurti: “The ability to observe without evaluation or judgement  is the highest form of intelligence.”

The Zone

Stop complaining about all that. Just ‘get into the zone and walk‘”. This was a chastisement that I overheard one hiker give to his buddy. It’s not uncommon to hear something like this, as it’s easy to focus on the difficulty of the trail and let it overwhelm the pleasure. However, what is this “zone”, how does one get into it, and why?

For the purpose of this article, I’d like to define this zone as “a mind state wherein an activity or involvement seems to move or flow automatically, without undue stress or effort“. There are benefits to being in this zone. I once did a study of several athletes and musicians who were extremely good at what they did. They were artists of creativity in their respective field. They could make their effort seem to be easy, free, and distinct. Knowing how difficult it is to do what they did, one was left to wonder at the hours of preparation and practice that they had put into their craft.

The “zone” that’s being referred to is a mind state, or a shift, that everyone makes at one point or another. Some become aware of it, even familiar, and can call upon it at will. Others never learn what it is, what it’s good for, nor how to summon it and use it to advantage. Like most mind states and/or emotions, it’s hard to describe or map, but I’d like to take a stab at it.

Within the zone, the mind works differently, especially with regards to the rational thought process. The focus of the mind shifts, and the activity that has been engaged seems to go into auto-pilot. If you’ve ever watched a dog engaged in chasing a ball, you’ve seen the zone in action. If you’ve ever been absorbed into watching a movie, or reading a book, to the exclusion of where you are physically within present time and space, you’ve experienced a zone (of sorts).

What is this “zone” good for? It’s helpful to know that the zone exists for the task at hand, to have experienced it, and to be able to repeat it. My experience in walking the Appalachian Trail was made much easier by being aware of, and being able to go into, the “walking zone”, and to stay there. Walking, day after day, for weeks or months on end, becomes the sole focus during an extended hike. Consciously entering the zone, and using that awareness and what it opens, to ones advantage, helps with planning, preparation, prevention of injury, and many other aspects of the hike. The enhanced awareness of my surroundings helped me spot and identify many animals, plants, other hikers, etc.

Is the zone a meditative state? It can be. That’s what I used it for. The mental process is what makes the shift, and using this shift as a doorway to meditation is possible. Some people choose to “zone out” as they enter the “walking zone” by plugging in their ear buds and listening to podcasts or music on an electronic device. Others choose to be stoned on marijuana, which provides its own meditative-like state and zone, complete with the drugged side- and after-effects. I chose to use the “walking zone” to expand my awareness into the surrounding environment, learning the language of the birds, the forest, the rivers and streams. Within “the zone” the forest opened up to reveal a deeper meaning, a communion with Nature. It was my doorway to mindful walking meditation.

How does one get into the zone? Can it be repeated upon demand? The process that got me into the “walking zone” was to put my breath into cadence with my steps. I’d take an inbreath with a certain number of steps, perhaps two, or four – or maybe one. Then an equal number of steps to the outbreath. Yes, it can be repeated upon demand. The key is to pay close attention to the activity, learn the subtleties involved. Use the rational thought process to advantage, don’t let thoughts of before and after the activity dominate the thought process. Stay focused upon the activity. Remain open to what is happening in the moment, and learn from it. Learn more from the activity in each moment, and each time the activity is repeated.

The interesting part about the interaction that I overheard is that tomorrow, or perhaps later in the same day, the person who did the chastizing may well become the person who receives it.

Difficulty, Part 4

Thick fog hung in the air like a sponge when I awoke at 4 AM. That was good news and bad news. The bad news was that the trail would be covered with moisture. The good news was that it hadn’t rained. Rain was in the forecast, but had not fallen. There was 30% chance of rain for the night before, and 40% chance of rain for the day. I thought of the “mountain of the day”, my hiking goal was to ascend and descend Baldpate Mountain. A sense of dread descended on me as I thought of the upcoming task.

The day before, when I asked about Baldpate, the hiker who had just come off it said it would “suck” for me, it would be more difficult in the direction we would be negotiating the climb and descent. His words were what started the sense of dread that had now freshly arisen. The Appalachian Trail in Maine has been described as rugged and remote. The only thing I would add to that is that it is raw. It’s Nature on Nature’s terms. There have been people who have met their demise on this trail. Others have had to be air lifted out to safety. My entire goal in hiking the trail was to do it safely, and to live to tell about it.

I had analyzed the mountain as best I could. I studied the topographic maps. I looked at the elevation profile. The elevation showed a particularly steep ascent and descent, more than those we’d encountered so far. Also, I had noticed that any time there’s a shelter at either end of a mountain, they’re typically there because the mountain is unusually difficult. You can spend a night at one foot of the mountain, spend a day up and over it, and spend the next night recovering. This rationalization further fed my fear and paranoia.

I read the online reviews of the mountain. There were warnings to not attempt this mountain if it was wet or raining. I could go for that. However, I certainly had no control over whether it would rain or not on this particular day. Further, waiting or turning back was not an option. So, with full sense of trepidation and extra measures of caution, Bella and I packed up camp and engaged the trail slightly later than usual.

It was true, the mountain presented difficulty beyond what we had encountered so far. There were long, barren rock climbs at about 50 degree angles. There were crevices to traverse. There were several vertical ladders to deal with. However, I continued to notice, as we approached and engaged each and every obstacle, there was always a safe option for getting through, or around, or over it. One by one, we climbed, crawled, pushed, pulled, and puffed our way up the mountain. We were like the childhood story of “The Little Choo Choo Train”, with the mantra “I think I can, I think I can” at every breath.

Finally, as we approached the top, we climbed up and out of the fog. We were above the clouds. We could see in all directions, and there was sun light at the top. The fog, as dense as our fear had been, was below us and had given way to a sense of triumph. We made it up, fully engaging one challenge at a time. I began to have confidence that we would make our way down safely in exactly the same manner.

We got a shuttle into town, and another hiker in the truck was bemoaning how difficult his terrain had been. He had just come from the direction we were to head in a few days. He asked us how we felt about the next section of trail. I said, off the cuff, “I keep hearing bad and fearful things about lots of stuff. I’m tired of thinking about it. We’ll deal with it when we get there.”

And so it is, so it was, and so I hope it to be. How much of my own trouble do I create by overthinking what’s ahead of me? How much of my own trouble do I borrow from the opinions of others? Too much. I’d rather just show up in the moment and deal with it.

The Woodsman

I stayed at The Woodsman’s place twice. Both times I stayed in one of his log cabins. There was a memorable sense of peacefulness in the cabin, and to this day I can still picture the insides of it. It was a peacefulness born of a sense of safety. I felt insulated from any turmoil that may lay beyond the thick logs. There was no electricity, no cell phone service, no running water or bathroom. There was nothing but the single room with a bed, a table and chair, and a wood stove. And light, if you wanted it after sunset or before sunrise, was by kerosene lamp. It felt rustic and simple. It was peaceful and safe.

Word was that The Woodsman was once married and had children. But his wife had left years before. Word was that she didn’t like the lifestyle, or what it took to maintain it. I didn’t ask him, it didn’t seem appropriate or necessary. He had greeted me with familiarity, he welcomed me as if he already knew me. I think he was more attracted to Bella. He said, as others have said, “I always wanted a dog like that.” He was very fond of his dog, Frances. There was a miniature log cabin with toys and a porch, made for children, across from the main house. It was prominent, the kind of place I would have loved to play as a kid.

I asked The Woodsman how long he had been living out in the woods. He responded, cheerfully, that he was “living his dream” for 35 years. I could see the truth in that statement. Everything about him was rustic, deeply entrenched in outdoor lore. Word was that his place had once been a thriving hunting camp. That seemed to not be the case today. The place was now in a state of disrepair, having fallen to the forces of entropy and lack of enthusiastic maintenance. The main house, made of logs, had a large room with bear skins, moose antlers, deer heads, and fish. He had shelves of books about fishing and birds and other outdoor subjects. Even though the place was dilapidated and leaning in many directions, there was a pool table in the center of the main room that appeared to be level and ready for the balls to be racked.

The Woodsman offered a “Hiker Special”, breakfast of 12 pancakes, eggs, and sausage for $12. His dining room was often filled to capacity. For $40, you could get a night in one of the log cabins with breakfast. That’s what I had treated myself to. In the morning, I watched him as he served the hikers. There was nothing pretentious or special about any of the proceedings. He was a straight shooter. He was a person of integrity.

The second time I stayed with The Woodsman, he had a hard time recognizing me. He finally remembered me when he saw Bella, it’s often like that. People don’t remember other people as much as they remember their dogs. He said he had been in the hospital for several days. Said he had some kind of internal problem, they were running tests to figure it out. It was true, he looked pale and weak, he had lost weight. He settled me into my cabin, and I retreated to the shower. When I finished, as I walked back to my cabin past the main house, I heard music. I wondered where could such beautiful music come from this far out in the woods. Then I saw, through the window of the main house, that The Woodsman was playing the music himself. It was beautiful. He could have been a concert pianist. I entered the main house through the front door, which squeaked and banged, but he didn’t hear me. I settled into a chair and listened deeply, and tears ran down my face at the beauty of the music that The Woodsman played.

There was a plaque in the main house. It seems that The Woodsman had a son who was once a Marine. Behind the place was a memorial stone, apparently his son was a fallen warrior. I didn’t ask about it. I did ask him, though, after he served breakfast, “You’re running this place alone? You can keep up with all this by yourself?” He replied “I’m not alone, I have my dog, Frances.” It seemed odd that the name on the plaque and memorial was also Frances. The Woodsman lived alone with his dog, named after his fallen son. He was very close to the dog.

I wondered, how many people live life without a dream? How many people in life have a dream, and never step toward or into it? Yet here, in front of me, was a person who had been abandoned and left to only his dream, who was in failing health, yet his dream sustained him. He whistled happily when he cooked our breakfast. And he was capable of incredibly beautiful music.