Part of my practice is walking in nature. While living in Santa Fe I made it a habit to go on contemplative hikes on Thursday mornings before work. Chamisa Trail, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was easily accessible from my home. The one-hour loop has a lot to offer: a meandering trail, Chamisa, a small creek, usually dry but occasionally gurgling its way down through the thirsty reddish earth, young fir trees, a narrow valley with the intermittent call of a crow, steep slopes – and two neighboring trees near the highest point of my hike, very different in character, which I always visited: an old, crouching piñon and a tall Ponderosa Pine. I would usually sit under the Ponderosa pine for a while and then stop by the Piñon to say hello with my hands, with my back, with my cheeks.
The intention of these walks is to reconnect with a world larger than the thinking mind, to ground myself in the presence of other than human beings, to be with and learn from creatures who seem to have found a simpler answer to what some of us think the question is here. Some time last year I started to write about these walks. Here are two walks from about a year ago.
Walk 1: I’m an Asshole
A couple of minutes into the trail, past the Chamisas, when I walk by the first of the taller trees, I stop by a young Douglas Fir to see it clearly, to be present with it. My thoughts are scattered, I have little concentration. It soon becomes clear that I want to be present but that I am not – that I want to see clearly but that I am basically blind to the tree. All I’m really here for is my desire to be present, to be quiet, to be at peace. I am such an experienced meditator, why can I not simply be present and let go of this stupid wanting? Have I learned nothing in all these years? Is it still all about me? I’m afraid it is.
And suddenly it slips out, loud and clear: I’m such an asshole!
I always want and want more, I am never satisfied, I’m completely self-centered – in short: I’m a total failure. It’s no use to try to be present with a tree, even that is just another expression of my narcissism. I pretend to wanting to be there with the tree, for the tree, but really I just want something from the tree, namely to feel good. I’m a hungry ghost! How pitiful. I walk on, anger welling up more and more, and this time I don’t hold back. I really do not like myself! I hate myself! And I’ve had it with having to love myself – I do not!
For the next hour or so I go on, listing all the ways in which I am worthless. This is the truth. I’m fucked up and nobody should tell me otherwise. I’m a failure, I’m a narcissist, and despicable. On and on I go, finding a wealth of material to confirm that I am indeed a hopeless case. But finally I settle on simply calling myself an asshole, over and over again. It seems sinful – I ought to love myself – but what the heck: this is truly how I feel about myself and I will no longer pretend otherwise.
Curiously, this ranting brings me to an odd kind of peace: as I no longer fight the self-hatred that has always been there, I feel relieved. I have arrived at a place of honesty where the struggle against these feelings has ended and I feel I can simply be myself, even though just an asshole. The self-hatred doesn’t go away with that but by removing the taboo I have more space to breath, I have given myself permission to be as I am rather than as I am supposed to be.
By the end of the walk I’m in a somber mood but quiet. I realize that there is gravity to this self-hatred but I feel relieved to not kid myself about it any longer. I feel balanced and grounded.
Walk 2: A Best Friend
Two weeks later on the same trail. I seem to fall into the same trap over and again: The wanting trap / the lacking trap. I go on a hike and the sense of disconnect becomes so apparent. Here in this lovely valley, here are these beautiful trees – and I feel like a foreign object, a visitor, but not a part. I want to be embraced by the forest, acknowledged, but I feel tremendously lonely. It is as though the trees couldn’t care less about my presence, the birds have no interest in me – if anything I’m probably just a bother. I talk to the trees but what am I thinking: they can’t hear me or understand me and even if they could they probably wouldn’t have much interest in my human spouting. Worse: I would not understand their language. And so I go on, feeling sad and lonely, floating through a universe indifferent to my existence. I’m in distress but there is no one to hear me.
But, wait! Suddenly I notice that someone is listening. As I keep thinking about the many things that are difficult and overwhelming in my life, about how hard it is not to be heard or understood, how agonizing it is not to know and understand what this existence is about – suddenly I realize that I am listening, that I am understanding. I know exactly what I’m talking about! I continue my walk. I can talk with myself about anything and everything and I am completely understanding.
I have a friend!
Whatever I share is heard and understood, no questions, no criticism. I share my experiences with someone who has had the exact same experiences, has the same questions. How amazing it is to be fully understood, not to have to explain myself, to speak freely and to be listened to fully. Happily, I walk with myself and can now also share all the good things, point out the beautiful other presences I notice as I walk and rejoice in the beauty of life. Gone is the sense of separation.
My best friend quietly listens.
Shortly after the first walk I went to see my occasional therapist. I told her about my experience and the staggering amount of self-hatred in me. She quietly listened and then only said: “Yes”. We didn’t discuss the matter much, she didn’t analyze it, she didn’t judge it, she didn’t try to make it better. She simply acknowledged what was there. How wonderful it is to be received.