My partner of 28 years is obsessed with hiking. David hikes seven days a week. Unlike the rest of us, the harder he hikes, the faster he bounces back, craving a more challenging hike. But David likes to hike with me, and so on rest days, he agrees to a lighter hike – say three hours, six miles, a twelve-hundred-foot climb.
Don’t get me wrong. I like to hike too, but it wasn’t something I grew up with. In my suburban neighborhood, we were sent outside to play with orders not to come home until later. We were allowed to roam, provided we didn’t cross the avenue at each end of our street. We biked, we roller skated, we threw a ball, we kicked a ball, we rolled around in the grass – but we didn’t hike. I do remember hiking in camp; it is an altogether unpleasant memory of heat, discomfort, boredom. Out of my comfort zone.
So, my mother was taken aback when I went hiking with David soon after meeting him. He loved adventure. I don’t. Bravely, I trudged through strange forests, up and down mountains. challenging my fear of straying too far from home.
Over the years, I improved at hiking somewhat. A wide brim hat shut off the view of the precipice. A hiking stick stabilized me; two hiking sticks were more than twice as good as one. Drinking water helped. When I thought I could not take another step, I went a few more miles. I walked in the pouring rain. I walked in the snow. Military training taught David that limits were largely a fiction of the mind; he passed that on to me.
Hiking’s life lessons didn’t turn me into a physical adventurer exactly, but my horizons expanded in essential ways. Take mindfulness, for example. I’d read the books, learned from experts, practiced on my own, introduced others to it. And yet, hiking taught me how mindfulness could help me with the scary bits—scrambling over precipices, up steep inclines (and down steep declines), through patches of loose rock. My code for it was Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments on drinking tea,[i] “You must be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea. Only in the awareness of the present, can your hands feel the pleasant warmth of the cup. Only in the present, can you savor the aroma, taste the sweetness, appreciate the delicacy. If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea. You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone. Life is like that.”
Step by step, I concentrated on drinking my tea, enjoying the rocks and thanking my nimble feet, practicing presence. As I drank my tea, each step became a journey and each journey a series of steps. Three hours became a lifetime; time passed very quickly.
Hiking got me to some places where nature is unparalleled. I learned to sip the tiny flowers blooming in the desert. I learned to drink in the mountain ranges behind mountain ranges. I used to think of deserts as monotone, whited out by the harsh sun. Now I saw brilliant colors that dazzled. Drinking tea (figuratively) increased my appreciation of hiking’s physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions.
Emotional too. Hiking helped me better understand the person I love, a man who could not be more different from me. As hiking pushed me to the limit, it increased his capacity for everything—in particular, his capacity to feel happiness and joy.
And as if that were not enough, hiking also brought me face to face with my reality. It happened a week or so ago.
We had gone out the night before. David woke up at dawn ready to go. I dragged myself out of bed, hung over, to hike with him. It was the perfect morning for it. We walked on a graceful path through a hilly area, weaving through the mountain. White flowers, yellow ones, purple, fuchsia, and light pink ones opened in the sun. Even after a dry fall and winter, they doggedly persevered.
On our return, I felt the warm sun beating down. My feet seemed to dance from rock to rock, taking little effort from me. Seeing the road below and happy for the end, I walked in a daze, in the zone, maybe dreaming. I hardly heard David chattering behind me.
I cannot report what happened next in detail.
I only recall this: diving forward, body outstretched, forehead hitting the rocky ground, protected minimally by a pair of sunglasses. I hear a thunk and a crack. My poles are askew, caught. The rocks have me. I cannot move. I feel pain. David comes running, yelling, “Don’t move!!” and I force myself to move (I’m counter-dependent). All I can think of are my beautiful sunglasses, mangled. I know that rocks are hard; I am not.
Hiking and mindfulness help me understand my reality. I am a beginner hiker. I am a beginner tea drinker. I teach, but I learn. For all I’ve achieved in my work and in my life, a small rock can bring me to my knees. I accept my vulnerability; I start to cry.
Maybe you’re not a klutz like me! That said, you’re like me in other ways. I am imperfect. You’re imperfect, too. We’ve got so much to learn, so much growing to do, and it never has to end. Because we’ll always be imperfect until life is done. That’s wonderful.
Drinking tea is a daily practice, not a milestone to be achieved. Drinking tea helps us experience the color in our world. Drinking tea helps us love ourselves, the people around us, and even the rocks that cradle us, hurting only when we hurl ourselves at them.
[i] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation (Beacon Press, 1999)