About a half-mile from the trailhead, walking under oaks on the west side of the Dry River in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I realize that since I left the car I’ve been obsessing about how to defend the liberal arts in the face of narrowly vocational approaches to higher education. Long ago the Zen master Yunmen (864–949) purportedly admonished his disciples: “If you sit, just sit; if you walk, just walk—but don’t wobble.” When I hike, I try to focus on each breath, and each step, one at a time. If I notice that I’m worrying about work or daydreaming, I bring my attention back to what I’m doing with my body. Just this breath, just this step. I twist fewer ankles this way.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s hard not to be scattered, especially in lives that are way too busy. Some of us may even wear our scurrying as a badge, as if it indicates that we’re important and doing impactful cutting-edge things in the world. When busyness becomes a virtue, we’re in deep trouble.
Those of us caught up in frenetic living require strategies to guide us to an alternative. On a hike or a walk in a park, when you sense yourself hurrying or tangled in thought as you clomp along, walk slowly for a few minutes. Better yet, stop for a minute. Take a few breaths. Listen. Do you hear any birds? What is this place saying to you? Is a breeze hitting your face? Can you smell the ground or any of the vegetation around you? What’s the taste in your mouth? Take a few slow steps and really feel your shoe contacting the ground, your weight shifting, your back foot rising and swinging forward into the next step. If going steeply uphill, take a rest step by locking your back leg with most of your weight on it, pause, then step forward onto the front foot. This can be a form of walking meditation, what Japanese Zen practitioners call kinhin.
Checking in with each of your senses can enhance your awareness of your body and everything that’s happening around you there in the forest or in your garden. It may even help you begin to slow down and generate what psychiatrist and theologian Gerald May (1940–2005) called “the power of the slowing,” a slowing of both the body and the mind.
As I hike along the Dry River, I direct my attention away from education debates and toward the rocks on the trail and sensations in my legs. My quads are swelling, my feet are starting to get hot, and I give myself to the act of walking. In this way, hiking provides an opportunity to practice what Dogen (1200–1253), the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, calls gujin (“thoroughly and exhaustively”): the act of pouring yourself completely into what you’re doing, whether breathing in meditation or sweeping, raking, wiping verandas with wet rags, or other forms of samu, labor around the monastery. On the trail, give yourself to the physicality of hiking: to breathing, to taking steps with full attention, to maintaining a slow and steady pace. As I do this along a gently rising section of the trail, my act of walking becomes my destination, not Mount Pierce, not the munchies waiting in the car, not a cold beer in nearby Lincoln.
The trail I’m on leaves the river to wind around a cliff that rises 30 feet above. As I hike up the steep incline, my lungs remind me that breathing is our most basic life activity. Each day we inhale and exhale over 15,000 times. “Respiration” derives from spiritus, Latin for “breath,” similar to the Greek word pneuma: “breath,” “spirit,” and in some cases, “soul.” While we live, we respire. When we die, we expire—we stop breathing, and the spiritus leaves the body. If we are spiritual, we may be lucky enough to gain inspiration, a breath of creative air that is breathed into us by the Great Spirit or some other form of the divine. Hindus situate prana, the breath, at the center of yoga, which shares an Indo-European root with “yoke,” as in yoking a horse or yoking one’s untamed breath, body, and mind while on a mat in an ashram or yoga studio.
Most Buddhist meditation teachers tell us to focus on the breath. Inhaling and exhaling, we feel how our body is always breathing, a primal spontaneous activity that keeps us alive as we go about our business. But with our monkey minds cackling and swinging from thought to thought, we may find that focusing on the breath isn’t easy. One suggestion is to count our exhalations, from one to ten, and then from one again. This can facilitate absorption in the act of breathing, what Zen calls susokkan, literally, “the contemplation that consists of counting one’s breath.”
Whether on a trail or a city street, walk at a pace where you can keep your breath settled. Move slowly enough that you don’t get out of breath and fall into rapid, shallow breathing in your chest. In other words, keep your pace one notch lower than your enthusiasm desires. Gradually you may find yourself flowing across the landscape like the breeze.
From Zen on the Trail: Hiking as Pilgrimage, by Christopher Ives © 2018. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications. www.wisdompubs.org.
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