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.

 

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 Psychology of Quitting Sense

I once had a friend who headed up a very popular Bluegrass band for several years. He was a musician all his life, and he was very successful. During the time that his band was at its peak of success, the personnel changed a lot. This bothered him, to a degree, and one day when we were talking about the people he had in the band and why they left, he said “Everyone pretty much does what they want to do, all the rest is just the excuses.” I’ve thought about this quite a bit since the day he said it.

I’ve thought of all the things I’ve started and not finished. It leads me to a conclusion: there are real reasons to quit an endeavor, and there are trivial reasons to quit an endeavor. As I write about my process, it may seem cognitive, or overly thought out, but I find this analysis necessary in order to reach wise decisions. Therefore, I’ll focus on my current undertaking, which is hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Sometimes we dream. Sometimes those dreams are big, perhaps bigger than what we think we can achieve or accomplish. However, when we find ourselves taking steps, practical and tangible actions, toward realizing those dreams the dreams take on a life of their own. It’s in dreaming, and stepping into the realization of those dreams, that we find purpose and connection. When we stop stepping into those dreams, the dreams don’t go away, we go to sleep. As I look back on the times I’ve stopped stepping into my dreams, I’ve become numb. Therefore, as I step into this dream of walking the Appalachian Trail, when the temptation to just throw the pack away and return to comfort and safety of my ordinary life, I tend to remember all the times in my life that I’ve gone numb. Therefore, I’ve concluded that if I’m going to quit, it needs to be for a real reason.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll list what I consider to be the trivial temptations that I face:

  1. I’m sweating, it’s too hot.
  2. I’m too cold.
  3. I’m sore and tired of walking up and down mountains.
  4. I’m tired of being rained on.
  5. There are too many bugs.
  6. I’m tired of carrying this heavy pack.
  7. I miss my loved ones.
  8. It’s Friday evening, I should be somewhere other than deep in the forest.
  9. I’m tired of eating trail food, I want real meals.
  10. Why did I ever think up this absurd undertaking?

I’ve only listed 10, and there are many more, but you can begin to see what the diversions are.  I consider these reasons to be trivial because if I want to make my dream come true, if I really want to realize this dream, I will deal with these reasons and give my dream priority over them.

In contrast, I’ll list what I consider real reasons to quit:

  1. I’m sick or injured to the point of jeopardizing my health.
  2. There’s a family matter that requires my attention.
  3. I have, or there has come up, a situation that requires my presence.
  4. I have given the endeavor adequate effort and attention, and realized that it is truly not for me.

Continue reading “The Psychology of Quitting Sense”

More About Zero

It rained today, all day. I’d checked the forecast last time I had phone connectivity, and – once again – the weatherman was incredibly accurate. The rain started about 5 AM, and continued all day. The forecast called for 5-8 inches, and while I don’t have a way to measure it, I’m sure that was accurate, too.

I didn’t regret the rain, not in the least. It gave me a chance to catch up on writing about some ideas I had. I tried to write last time we stayed in town. Although the hostel where we stayed was incredibly nice, it didn’t provide a place to focus on what I wanted to say. The rain gave me the opportunity, and I siezed it. I stayed under the tarp most of the day with Bella, while she slept. Somehow, she understood perfectly what a rainy day was for. I took a nap, too. I made a second round of coffee and enjoyed the lake, the fog moved in gusts as the wind blew. I did yoga to stretch out the kinks in my back that came from carrying a heavy pack. I realized, and fully enjoyed, the rain and the water. I don’t have a way to measure or know with any sense of accuracy, but I’ve had the sense that I’ve seen more water in three weeks in Maine than I saw in 10 years in Texas.

The Appalachian Trail is a world class trail. Not only for the terrain it occupies, but also for how it’s managed and maintained. There are shelters every few miles that are havens in times of need. Sometimes Bella and I stay in the shelter, sometimes we stay under the tarp. When we arrived at the Moxie Bald shelter, there was already someone inside, so we didn’t stay there. I don’t feel like it’s fair to expose others to sleeping with Bella and her habits. Also, I’m addicted to my hammock for the comfort it provides, and hanging it across the shelter unnecessarily intrudes on others. So we spent the rainy day under the tarp, it was a “Zero Day”, no mileage gained.

A friend I made on the trail and hiked with for several days introduced me to a practice that I’ve continued to embrace. Even though we didn’t stay in the shelter, in the evening we took our cook kit and food up there at dinner time to enjoy the company. It’s a nice practice, a wonderful time for conversation and exchanging information about the trail.

Last night, when we went over there, I found the conversation difficult. It was lively, and everyone was talking, but I couldn’t join in. The topics weren’t anything I cared to embrace or comment upon, and the points of humor weren’t my style. So I listened, cooked, and ate in a personal silence.

Hikers come in all shapes, sizes, and demeanors. There are young and old, short and tall, heavy and thin, fast and slow, etc. There are “gear heads” who have the latest, greatest gadgets. There are ultra-light weight types who brag about how light their packs are. There are those who carry lawn chairs and super duper mattresses for comfort. There are those who measure their time on the trail by how much mileage they cover per day. I’m somewhere in the middle of all this, having honed my approach to compromise for as little weight as possible, but not over-compensating for comfort, safety, or necessity. Also, I’m of the old, slow sort. I’ve found myself at times in a comparison mode, but when I lapse into that attitude I lose sight of why I’m here.

The truth is that I’m not trying to get anywhere. I already am where I’m going, I’ve arrived at the destination of where I want to be. I’m deep in the forest in Maine, someplace I’ve never been and – likely – never to have the opportunity to be again. It’s an enchanted place, with pine trees of so many sizes that there are thousands of acres of Christmas trees in all directions. There are birds in all directions, many of which I’ve never heard before. Yesterday, while filtering water by the lake, a snake crawled slowly between my legs. And I embraced it’s presence. That, too, was a sacred experience.

It’s not easy to stay out of the comparison mode. But there is a personal freedom to being true to myself, and to be grateful for who I am. For the first time in my life, I’ve embarked on a journey that I just show up for and participate in, one piece at a time, and watch closely where it leads me. I’m very eager to follow the inner process. My final comment at dinner last night was “This entire thing for me is a gigantic retirement party, and I’m not about to turn it into a competition of any sort.”

The Wind, the Water, and the Whippoorwill

I once officed next to a man who was an outdoor enthusiast. Our “Holy Grail” was to find a place, or places, where there were no man-made sounds. We often shared our experiences along this line, the pursuit is not an easy one in this day and age.

Having endured and survived 10 days in the 100 mile wilderness, I came close to this ideal several times. The sound of a distant airplane was often the only intrusion to be found. However, it occurred to me that there is a parallel pursuit that may be just as worthy. Is it possible that, no matter what the external noise may be, there is a part of the human psyche that can remmmmain undisturbed?

This is an interesting question which begs a bit of clarification. The pursuit of an environment or location that is void of man-made sound is an external endeavor. The search for a mind space that is free and undisturbed is an internal undertaking. For a very brief few seconds, the two came together in a memorable moment that I’d like to share.

When I’m out backpacking, I like to get an early start on the day. Usually I get up at the first light of dawn, perhaps before. This is a habit that I inherited, I’ve often wondered if it’s genetic. My best walking for any given day happens before noon. During the early morning hours it’s a true blessing to listen to the forest come alive, from the sound of the first bird to the chorus that follows.

On one particular morning, while making coffee, I noticed that – externally – it was a clear moment when there were no man-made sounds. The moment was delightful, and I savored it, but then something happened that made it even more remarkable. A whippoorwill flew into a tree near me, and started her song. To those who have never heard a whippoorwill, it’s something that – once heard – is never forgotten. These remarkable birds have been part of my outdoor experience since early childhood.

At the moment the whippoorwill started to sing, I sank deeply into the present moment. I felt the cyclical spinning and grinding of the thought process of my mind come to a halt. When the internal chatter stopped, and I focused fully on the whippoorwill, I felt like I was swirling and submerged into a deep inner stillness. In that stillness, I heard the wind gently brushing past my ears, and the water of the stream flowing behind me. The song of the whippoorwill was before me, and – for a brief moment – I was able to completely and thoroughly match my inner world with the outer. It was a precious moment of clarity, a profoundly peaceful and sacred experience. I’m convinced that this internal space is in each of us, our birthright, the door to who we are.

As I’ve moved on from that moment, I’ve come to understand more fully what it means to let go of the inner chatter and remain in the present moment. While I know that I can’t always have the wind, the water, and the whippoorwill with me in every moment, I can have the clarity of what they showed me. Access to the experience isn’t always readily accessible, sometimes I must consciously make the effort. However, I know where it is and how to get there. A path, once trodden, is then known. Also, I don’t need to go back and retrace the 100 mile wilderness to find the still, peaceful place inside myself.