How was it possible to feel such immense joy while hiking 24 miles of mountainous terrain carrying 40 pounds on the back of my 105 pound body? But that is exactly what happened. Joy happened. Gratitude. Love. Peace. Clarity.
The purpose of this four day backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail was to practice Dhamma. And so, I made every step my practice. Every thought, every word, every activity – under the microscope of Dhamma, of mindfulness, of the way it is.
About halfway into the second day, a hike of about 11 miles, I realized that 15 years ago, even though I had a younger and stronger body then, I would have bitched and complained the whole way. I would have taken seriously the complaints that came to mind. It would have stressed me out and I probably would have become sick and miserable. But when complaints (too hot, too tired, too sore, “I can’t do this”) came into my mind under the mindfulness microscope, I looked at them; I smiled, breathed and continued on.
This is the practice of endurance. When doing long periods of sitting meditation, a challenging mental activity just like any challenging physical activity, many of us reach a point where we feel like we can’t take it anymore. The pain, boredom, or emotions become very intense and we want to get up and run away. But when we stick it out and stay with it, we get to the top of the mountain. We break free from the things that hold us back and we can stand at the top with a fantastic view. When we experience this breakthrough, there really is no going back. We now know what is actually possible and can never take those complaints as seriously ever again. The next time the pain starts up, we can clearly see how it isn’t as solid as we thought before.
Our thoughts do form our reality, but only so much as the power we give them. When we identify thoughts that are limiting, we don’t have to believe them. We should always question limiting thoughts and consider the alternative possibilities. I can see now how different my life would be now if I had discovered this earlier in my life. Still, I am benefiting now from practicing in this way now. And it can only set positive things in motion for my future.
When things get tough, we just have to keep our heads down and put one foot in front of the other. As I climbed steep hills with a load on my back, I found the best way to stay calm was not to look too far ahead. I was mindful of each place where my foot landed and the pace in which I moved. I listened to my body and if it needed a break, I slowed or stopped. When feeling energized, I moved more quickly. When hungry, I ate. When thirsty, I drank. Such simple things make such a big difference. Sometimes we get so busy and distracted in life that we don’t pay enough attention to the simple needs of our bodies. That is so important.
Listening to a talk by James Baraz in the car on the way up north really helped set the tone of this trip for me. The talk is located here:Awakening Joy – Talk by James Baraz at Common Ground Meditation Center 3-3-10. For some of us perfectionists, it can be really easy to get into a very austere mode of practice, thinking practice has to be a certain way or thinking that we have to act in a certain way in order to become “enlightened.” For me, my thinking went that I must deny myself of pleasures in order to become pure and this is simply just not true. It is good to remember that we really can just live our lives and experience joy and pleasure when it comes to us. We had pleasures before we practiced and we have pleasures now when we practice. Just the experience of it changes. Before practice, we cling to pleasure, thinking we could make it stay somehow. After practice, we may still cling, but we just can’t cling for as long as we used to – because we understand that clinging is the cause of suffering. We may not give up that clinging right away, but certainly when we are mindful, we are able to let it go more quickly than when we are not mindful. As a result, we actually do suffer less. And more and more over time, it isn’t even that we are able to let go, we just do, naturally. We don’t have to make it happen. It just happens.
The practice James teaches is very simple; when hearing a complaint in the mind or finding that one has already popped out of your mouth, simply add the statement: “But my life is really very blessed.” It is just one simple statement that stops the cycle of negativity in its tracks. Even if we don’t fully believe that simple statement to begin with, the more we say it, the more it pokes holes into our very serious story lines.
My body is tired and achey today, but my life is really very blessed!