Growing up in Northern California, I found myself running for the hills often--literally. I was lucky enough to be able to decide on a whim that I wanted to be within nature, hop in the car, and be at four different trailheads within 15 minutes. Hiking was an integral part of how I came into my own as a teenager, as I found myself trailside constantly. It was a chance to leave my worries and the buzzing in my head behind and focus on my breath and how it felt for my body to work hard to help me get up the switchbacks of the trail. It was a way to track my progress, marvelling when I reached the peak no matter how many times I’d hiked the trail before. It was a chance to exist amongst redwood forests, surrounded by trees so old and tall that they were practically sacred. There was something so magical about growing up in the middle of a very developed civilization but never being very far from silent, green rolling hills and shaded forests. For a teenager whose solitary activities mostly resided within the screen of the family room computer, hiking was my chance to work up a sweat, unplug, and breathe.
While I didn’t realize it at the time, hiking was also important to me for another reason--it was my first foray into regularly meditating. Meditation can be a difficult practice, and a downright intimidating one to break into. A common misconception is that meditation has to be done seated, cross-legged, eyes closed and in total stillness. While this style is a great way to enjoy a mediation, it’s simply one of many. I call myself a regular meditator and I rarely find myself in this common style of mediation, unless it’s at the beginning or end of a yoga class as an integrated part of the practice. I gravitate towards less conventional methods.
Hiking still remains one of my favourite forms of mediation. It’s a great way to separate yourself from outside stimuli in an effort to become entirely present in your body. When I hike, I pay attention to the slow burn in my legs as they repeat step after step propelling up up a steep incline. I feel the sweat on my forehead, relishing the breeze as it gives me a brief respite from my growing internal body temperature as I build my inner fire. I pay attention to my breath, a metronome tracking my steady progress onwards and upwards. When I reach the peak, I quickly turn my eyes to take in the view and the magic happens. For as I look out into the distance, it appears as if the view below is slowly rippling away from me. After carefully studying my feet as I climb to make sure I don’t trip, changing my vision quickly to the far off distance leads to a beautiful optical illusion as my brain is confused by the quick change from steady forward movement to stillness. After a while the slow rippling gives way to total stillness. That is the practice of meditation: leaving behind the buzz and the steady momentum of your daily life for a moment of stillness. That moment of stillness doesn’t have to mean physically stillness though; you can find meditation anywhere.
If you live somewhere nearby to nature, I’d encourage you to consider treating your next hike as a meditation. Go by yourself. Remain present in your body and don’t shy away from the sensations. Consider leaving your phone in your bag, especially if you habitually listen to music while hiking or can’t help stopping to snap a photo for instagram later and see what happens when you lean into the experience that you are having in the moment. Don’t rely on your distractions--you are having an intimate connection with a wide expanse of beautiful nature. Embrace it.