The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Goal of Hiking

by Christopher Ives
October 30, 2018
Tue, 10/30/2018 - 16:27 -- Christopher Ives

Ideally, my focus is not on how close I'm getting to my destination up the trail but on how close I'm getting to what's around me.

The simple act of being fully in a place. That, not a summit, is my goal. To go slow, feel my acing body, and pay attention to what I'm seeing, smelling and hearing. I may not get more than a mile up the path. I may spend most of the day just sitting on one rock, or gazing at a single sight. Ideally, my focus is not on how close I'm getting to my destination up the trail but on how close I'm getting to what's around me. It's about tapping in, not topping off. 

So when I manage to approach an outing as a way to serve my spirit rather than my ego, I'm not striving to reach a summit. Insofar as I may have a geographical goal on the hike, it's an exceptional place to meditate, and when backpacking, a beautiful spot to roll out my sleeping bag. The site may lie only three or four miles up the trail. I may spend much of the day there. I may linger through the morning rather than carbo-load quickly with oatmeal and bound up the trail to click off some early morning miles.

This approach accords well with my sixty-year-old body. As I walk slowly along the Appalachian Trail on the sloping crest of Mount Pierce, I feel myself expanding with the view, and at the same time I start doubting the ability of my knees to support me. Will one of them snap or crumple, sending me crashing down and rendering me unable to hike out? Like many of its cousins throughout the White Mountains, my route since the hut has been a jumbled staircase of rocks with a few switchbacks. When I got home after a recent hike, I referred to the ranges as "a pile of rocks with a couple of trees." Non-technical hiking in the Rockies and Cascades, even in higher elevations, is easier on arthritic joints, for the maintained trails there more likely consist of switchbacks with smoother surfaces. Insofar as I stick to trails, I'd rather hike twenty miles with a 4,000-foot elevation gain in the Cascades than ten miles with a 2,000-foot gain in the Whites.

By directing our attention to how we hike as opposed to where we're headed, and taking as our goal sitting quietly in a beautiful spot rather than summiting a gnarly peak, we can begin to shift from ego-driven doing mode to spirit-filled being mode, from proving something in nature to exploring how we are nature. In this way we can complement views out across the landscape with views of what's going on inside.

This is, of course, a way of pilgrimage that steers clear of trying to get to the 1000 Places to See Before You Die, an approach that slips into check-list consumer tourism with a hefty carbon price tag, not to mention the stress of scurrying around the globe in cramped airplanes. Granted, travelling to appreciate amazing places and in the process becoming more inclined to protect them are preferable to flying to Scotland simply for a round of golf and a shot of Glenfiddich. But the path is about how to be in a place, any place, fully present and in and as nature. 

An excerpt from Zen on the Trail by Christopher Ives

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