Yesterday my husband, our dog and I went for a “nice short little hike” to Mount Swansea in the Invermere, BC area. We read in the guide that it was a 3-4 hour hike, 10k round-trip with a pretty substantial elevation gain. We thought “no problem”; we’ll be up and down by lunchtime and have the rest of the day to get some yard work done.
Being mindful during the hike was an interesting experience.
Just to set the stage a bit more for this hike. In 3 weeks we’re going on a family trip to hike Machu Picchu in Peru and although we’ve been working out, we haven’t been doing any hiking. So we thought we better put on our hiking boots and get out there and do some hikes.
We set out with a few snacks; lots of water and up we went. I always have this vision of hiking that it’s supposed to be this glorious, rejuvenating experience in nature and what often happens is that it’s a lot of physically demanding work, requiring a lot of focus in terms of footing and wondering half the time if you’re lost and whether there will be a bear around the next corner.
Yesterday was no exception and I found myself with the opportunity to practice my mindfulness skills. As we hiked up the mountain, the temperature steadily rose. By the time we were descending, it was 34 degrees Celsius and we were on the sunny and very hot side of the mountain. I had developed a blister on my heel from the steep ascent and became acutely aware of how uncomfortable I was feeling with the heat and the blister.
It was at this point that my mind seemed to kick in and I was saying all sorts of things to myself like, “if you can’t do this without struggling, you won’t be able to do Machu Picchu. What were you thinking not leaving earlier to avoid the heat? Now you’ve got a blister and you should have started preparing a lot sooner. Why didn’t I bring more food? Do we have enough water? Is the dog going to be okay? Are we lost?”
Halfway through our ascent we met up with another couple and carried on hiking together. The couple was very fit and as I was struggling to catch my breath, they were cheerily chatting and remarking how they loved hiking in the heat of the day and the hotter the better. This gave my mind endless entertainment about what they were thinking of me and my skills, how I could keep up without killing myself, why, I was so heat-sensitive and so on. I realized that I cared a lot about what these “strangers” thought of me.
I was very mindful of my discomfort and my thoughts and noticed how I was drawing all sorts of conclusions and worrying a great deal about the “what if’s.” I was also reminded that mindfulness is about being aware and present for the full range of our emotions and not just the pleasant ones. I noticed when I was trying to push the feelings away that I created further discomfort within myself. I was so tempted to start complaining but knew that complaining would not be helpful and would actually allow my feelings to be more firmly entrenched as opposed to observing them, accepting them and allowing them to move through.
I realized that my body was in fight or flight mode the majority of the time and I was holding on tight to try and stay in “control”. As David R. Hawkins describes in his book, Letting Go: The Pathway Of Surrender, “as we become more familiar with letting go, it will be noticed that all negative feelings are associated with our basic fear related to survival and that all feelings are merely survival programs that the mind believes are necessary.”
It was a powerful example of our desire to hold on to the comfortable, pleasant feelings and to avoid the uncomfortable, unpleasant feelings. When we’re in those times in our lives that feel uncomfortable and that are painful, our natural tendency is to do everything we can to avoid, suppress and ultimately get rid of the feelings. Mindfulness gives us tools to deal with our feelings in a way that respects the feelings without creating an opportunity for them to take up permanent residence within us.
Letting go has never been one of my strong suits and I know life will continue to give me opportunities to practice being mindful at times of discomfort as well as learning to surrender. We’re setting out in a few days for another hike and another opportunity to practice mindfulness, letting go of expectations and learning to surrender to what is.