What the path taught me

I went on a hike this past weekend at Mount Diablo. It was my first time, and I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was the name of the trailhead (where to park the car) and the name of the peak we were headed toward. No idea about elevation change, or what the path might look like.

But I learned something about walking the path by….well, walking the path.

The beginning...and the mystery of what the path would bring.

The beginning...and the mystery of what the path would bring.

The hike starts out at elevation 538 feet, and stays flat for about two miles.

Then, there is a steep path to the first mini-summit of Deer Flat, at 2120 feet.

The steepness of that first climb really surprised me. Because it was a misty day, the tops of the summits were obscured from view as we hiked down at the creek level. Then came the switchbacks. Each was probably 50 feet per length before it turned the corner.

What I noticed was for the first five or so switchbacks, I would look ahead to the top of the mini-hill, and think, “Oh no, another uphill climb! Won’t it ever stop? When do we get a break? When is the next flat section?” My lungs burned, my heart was pounding, and my legs were making their presence known to me. I tried to just “get through” each climb, telling myself that the reward would be to get to the top of this little section. And then…

Well, that was the problem. And then what? I would turn the corner, and look up again, and there would be ANOTHER uphill climb! After about the fifth time this happened, I was really mad. My lungs weren’t feeling any better, my heart was still pounding in my chest, and it was as if my legs were saying, “Are you trying to tease us by telling us if we just get to the top of the next hill, everything will suddenly be different? It hasn’t gotten any easier for us!”

And so I stopped. I mean, I didn’t stop hiking. I stopped thinking about just “getting there” or “getting through this little climb” and hoping that this would be the last. I let go of the thought that somehow the limits of my vision – what I was able to see was the “top” of the climb – meant anything significant for my heart, lungs, or legs. I had a sun visor on (which served no sun-shielding purpose since it was drizzling and there was no sunshine on this part of the trail), so it made it easy for me to focus directly on the path in front of me.

At the start of the next switchback, I said to myself, “I’m not going to look at the top of this one, I’m just going to breathe steadily, in and out, and put one foot in front of the other steadily, with strides no bigger than I can do with that steady breath.” I looked only about one to two feet in front of me at the path. I immediately noticed that I couldn’t tell how steep it was! I just focused on my breath, and moving my feet in steady small strides.

Before I knew it, the path was turning a corner. I had reached the top of another switchback! Yet, my breathing was the same, my legs were just going one in front of the other, and I felt no protest from my body. I kept going. Same system. Never looking for the “top” of the switchback, never letting the steepness of the path enter my consciousness, I focused directly on the path in front of me. The next step. And my breath. I allowed my breath and my legs to get into a rhythm. And I focused on the maintenance of that rhythm, rather than relying on the ground beneath my legs to propel my body. I enjoyed the breath, and in return my lungs didn’t burn. They just kept going in and out. My legs didn’t resist the path. Like my gaze, they just knew what to do when the next step was right in front of them.

View from the beginning of the switchback climbs up to Deer Flat.

View from the beginning of the switchback climbs up to Deer Flat.

I felt like I could have done this forever. It was that close to a “peak flow” experience for me that I wondered if I was in fact doing a walking meditation without even knowing it! It didn’t matter what it was called. But before I knew it, I had reached the clearing at the top of that climb called “Deer Flat.” I had done a 1500 foot elevation change, one step at a time. And my body had coordinated itself into beautiful alignment and rhythm, instead of resisting the idea of a climb.

Finally, a respite from the string of steep switchbacks leading up from the creek.

Finally, a respite from the string of steep switchbacks leading up from the creek.

Bob  Harper, one of the personal trainers on NBC’s reality weight-loss show, The Biggest Loser, has a mantra that is posted in the gym on The Biggest Loser campus:

“Believe in yourself,

Trust the process,

Change forever.”

I’ve always loved that, because it really does encapsulate the essential elements of all personal transformation and learning. Learning is accepting and embracing change. Sometimes it is the inevitability of change in your environment. Sometimes it is the need to change yourself to adapt to those changes. Regardless of where change occurs, we must be prepared to face it. To go within ourselves and believe. And to trust the process of change.

The change in steepness of the trail surprised me. The duration of the steepness surprised me even more. But then I changed. And then it was my body’s  ability to soar above the steepness that surprised me, just through a small change in my thinking and my vision.

Instead of resisting the changes that we observe or experience in our lives, how can we make adjustments in our focus, that will help us make the very next step, instead of wondering when we will “get through” the hard part and find relief at the top? What if the top really isn’t the top? What if there are even more challenges ahead? Our bodies and minds will protest if we delude ourselves into thinking that the walk is really about “fighting through” the steep parts. We’ll be filled with disappointment if we round the bend and just see one more hill.

But what if we trust the path, with all of its climbs, flats, and dips? What if we don’t think about “how many more” steep parts there are before we come to a flat area? What if we believe in the amazing apparatus of our heart and lungs, and their rhythmic work for us every single day, and the nourishment of oxygen and blood to our leg muscles? What if we notice that no matter what the path looks like, it is still traversed one step at a time? Can we make our walk more graceful, less resistant, and still enjoy the view from the top?

The Top (of this trail)

The Top (of this trail)

These are all things that the path taught me.

Today, maybe it’s time to ask yourself, “What is my path teaching me?”

Another steep climb on the same path, after the one mentioned in this post.

Another steep climb on the same path, after the one mentioned in this post.

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