Recently, I was doing an at home meditation week-long intensive with a Zen monastery I am affiliated with in Upstate NY. Normally, these intensives would be at the monastery but with the current climate of times, it was virtual via livestream and Zoom. We were sitting in meditation a number of hours throughout the day.
It was the first sunny 60-degree weather day of spring and I needed to be outside. I needed to commune with the woods; with the wild, but mostly, I needed to stretch my legs. I asked my friend if she wanted to go on a small hike with me, to which she obliged. I had hiked the mile and long half trail numerous times up to the summit that overlooked Groton State Forest in Vermont.
For me, hiking has always served as a mysterious and immersive experience. Getting lost is not an issue for when I am out there, really out there, on those trails I become intertwined with the phenomenal world. Like a small animal on their turf, I let my feet propel me forward, listening for rustles and woodpeckers carrying on. Smiling and shaking my head at how life naturally unravels here without shame or hubris.
Three hours and 7.4 miles later, it was obvious that I had veered us off the trail. We hiked mostly in silence. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. My curly hair felt untethered with each trek. It was not until hours later that I would realize that the scarf on my head was not the only thing coming undone during the strange, long hike.
Hiking is like this for me. If an eager nettle pierces my leg, I do not mind. When my ears ring and my breath quickens, that’s okay. Sometimes, when I get very absorbed in the act, it is hard to disassociate myself from my surroundings. Naturally, I forget where I am headed.
This is not a navigational hazard. I do not relish going off trail. In fact, in some areas, it is quite dangerous to do so. Instead, I trust my body and just go. There is no purpose. No steps to count. Nowhere to be. Hiking is a truly meditative experience when getting lost in the moment.
There was a clearing in the trail. By now, I had known that we had taken the wrong trail, even if I did not explicitly say it. “Does it feel like there is a summit in sight?” I asked my friend.
“Yeah, it does”, my friend replied earnestly. I could feel my ears still ringing and a bit of disorientation that felt comfortable. I stopped to look around. It had been nearly two hours at this point and I had the rest of my meditation intensive awaiting me at home. We stayed like this for a while, surveying our surroundings.
The trail seemed to be heading downhill and the trees were beginning to look different. They were pale and it was clear that most of them were dead. I felt my breath enter a calm, familiar rhythm again. I had been waiting on my unemployment claim for about a month. I had not seen my family in two years. It was hard to say what my future would like after my house-sitting gig was up in mid-June. I wondered if we would still be in quarantine. Ramadan had started. There were surges of text messages on my phone. “Ramadan Mubarak!”, they all said. I imagined a billion Muslims breaking fast together and praying in their homes.
As a kid, I marveled at going to the mosque for Isha prayer. My fellow dharma friends were at the monastery practicing their own prayers. This influx of thoughts all came at once, like a vision. I glanced over at my gentle friend. I was grateful she shared my love for mountains. Deep breath in, and out. “We should probably head back now”, I said. She nodded.
It was then I realized, what I often seek with meditation, I found with hiking.