Putting my phone away, even for an hour, can be excruciating for me. It's the last thing I look at when I go to bed and the first thing I check when I wake up (love that moment when I lay down and night and say "Set alarm for 5:45am" and Siri says "Ok!" ). I use my phone to meditate, listening to Omvana tracks through headphones to center myself and the Equanimity app to time how long I sit. I use my phone to hike, using RunKeeper to track my distance.
But when I hike and meditate? Then I put the phone away (or turn it to airplane mode), because I don't want anything to come between me and the orange-sherbet glow of a winter sunset or the quiet whisper of the wind through the trees. Those are the moments where I get to practice “aimless wandering” (and it doesn't even involve a Target store).
Still, I'm not just in it for the peace and tranquility: as a dyed-in-the-wool multi-tasker, hiking meditation can kill two birds with one stone: exercise and meditation. (If only I could also write - I'd hit all three of my daily goals at once).
What is hiking meditation?
You might have heard of walking meditation, which is where you walk and meditate at the same time (eyes open!), paying attention to how your body feels as you focus on the present. So hiking meditation is simply a variation of walking meditation - easier because hiking is a little bit more physically demanding than walking, but as is often the case, higher physical demands makes it easier to focus.
How hiking meditation works
Walking meditation starts when you begin walking, focusing your mind on your breath and the way your feet feel against the ground. Thoughts and anxieties might show up and start knocking around your psyche, like how you’re going to get that project at work finished or why your teenager won't say more than five words to you, but your only job is to detach from any judgment of those thoughts. Hold them up like an interesting stone or strange-looking toadstool you come across: “Huh, that’s interesting.” Your next move is to then simply release those thoughts out into the breeze, like a dandelion seed that floats up among the tree branches and away from this exact present moment.
Stay in the moment.
It can be hard to hold yourself there, but when you’re hiking, somehow it's much easier to watch how each moment folds into the next. It still takes practice, but it's hard to worry about your finances at the same time as admiring the exact way the sun breaks through clouds or how the woods smell after fresh snow.
Hiking meditation script
Some of us just need to know exactly how exactly hiking meditation works so that we can secretly be the the valedictorian of hiking meditation. I suggest you use the following script either by reading it one or two times before you set out on your hike, or record your voice reading it into your phone's memo function, and listen to it as you hike. You probably only need to do this once or twice, and then you'll remember how it works.
First, find the spot on the path where your hike will begin. Center yourself. Take a few cleansing breaths. Simply notice how the weight of your body is transferred down the soles of your hiking boots into the ground. Take a moment just to notice all the small little acts of balance that allow you to stand upright -- realize how often you take this amazing ability for granted.
After you're centered and quiet, step forward and begin to walk at a normal pace. You don't need to walk in any special way, just notice the way you walk. If your body starts to fall into a funny gait once you become aware of your walking, don't worry. This is totally natural.
Keep focusing on the soles of your feet, noticing the repeating motions of how it feels to plant your foot, then lift it into the next motion. How does your foot feel as your heel first makes contact, then the as the foot then rolls forward towards the ball. Be aware of how your foot then lifts and moves forward again. Visualize how your feet move over and over through this pattern as you walk.
As you walk, notice all the different sensations in your feet. Move from feeling the soles of your feet...to the spaces between your toes...to how your feet feel inside of your shoes, noticing the fabric of your socks. Relax your feet as much as possible. Notice your ankles; become aware of the inner workings of your joints and how they feel when you move. Stay there for awhile, just noticing. Now move up your legs: feel your shins, calves and knees.
Notice how your skin feels where it comes in contact with your clothes. What does the temperature feel like? How do your muscles push, pull and contract under your skin?
Now move up into your quadriceps (the front of your thighs), then notice your hamstrings, and your glutes (butt muscles). Feel how they push off and work together. Notice how your hips move in a certain rhythm: one first, then the other, moving back and forth.
Focus on your stomach, your gut, and its temperature. Notice how it's the center of your body, and how it is the very center of you and where the walking motion gets its power. Then move up into your chest and just notice your breathing. Again, focus on how your clothes feel on your skin, the temperature. Stay here for just a few minutes. If any interrupting thoughts come up, simply think to yourself "Thinking, thinking" and let them go.
Now become aware of your shoulders and take note of how they move with your body - opposite the rhythm of your hips. Let your arms swing naturally with the rhythm of your gait. Take a moment to wonder at the motion of your arms, the muscles, nerves and blood vessels that are all working inside to move together. Notice the sensitive parts, like the inside of your wrist or the crook of your elbow. Feel how the breeze moves across these places and the sensations that wash over you.
Now notice your neck and how the muscles hold up your head. What about the angle of your skull? How does it feel? This part is important: let your jaw relax. Then relax your eyes, softly focusing on whatever is in front of you, picking something on the horizon.
Keep moving. Keep noticing. Whenever your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath. Some people like to focus on the nostrils, feeling the air move in and out there; others prefer to notice how their lungs feel as the breath fills them up. Try both.
Finally, when you're at the end of your hike/meditation, simply stop naturally and quietly, and just feel yourself standing.
You'll come off the hike feeling mentally and physically refreshed — like a raw kale salad for your soul. Now, feel free to pull out your phone and check Facebook. You've earned it.
A book doesn’t have to be about hiking, camping or surviving an intense experience in order to be enjoyed outdoors, but here at the Outdoor Book Club, I have a few favorites that specifically are about nature and the outdoors (and a few that are on my to-read list). Next time you’re headed out into the woods, make sure you grab (or download) one of these favorites and throw it in your pack.
Wild: From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
This was one of the first books I read in my book club from work, and we all loved it: A painfully honest memoir that recounts the solo trip up eleven-hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a story of failure, and redemption, and one of the first books to really inspire me to get outdoors in a completely different way. From Amazon:
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State “and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise. But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.
Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl
This one is on my to-read list – described as a “lively and lyrical account of one woman’s unlikely apprenticeship on a national-park trail crew,” it details Byl’s adventure and lessons learned about the outdoors, being a woman and how dedication and hard work can make all the difference. From Amazon:
Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding—more real—than she ever imagined.
During her first season, Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works—the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life—along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar. As she invests herself deeply in new work, the mountains, rivers, animals, and weather become teachers as well. While Byl expected that her tenure at the parks would be temporary, she ends up turning this summer gig into a decades-long job, moving from Montana to Alaska, breaking expectations—including her own—that she would follow a “professional” career path.
Returning season after season, she eventually leads her own crews, mentoring other trail dogs along the way. In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, “women’s work” and “men’s work,” white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers her an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures of labor, the challenges of apprenticeship, and the way a place becomes a home.
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
I’ve loved Kingslover ever since I read The Poisonwood Bible when I was high school. She’s since written a lot more nonfiction, and this essay collection is an ode to the natural world. From Amazon:
From its opening parable gleaned from recent news about a lost child saved in an astonishing way, the book moves on to consider a world of surprising and hopeful prospects, ranging from an inventive conservation scheme in a remote jungle to the backyard flock of chickens tended by the author’s small daughter.
Whether she is contemplating the Grand Canyon, her vegetable garden, motherhood, adolescence, genetic engineering, TV-watching, the history of civil rights, or the future of a nation founded on the best of all human impulses, these essays are grounded in the author’s belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth’s remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in those places, too. In the voice Kingsolver’s readers have come to rely on—sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive—Small Wonder is a hopeful examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.
Into The Forest by Jean Hegland
And now we come to our first novel, and another book that I haven’t read, but it’s at the top of my Wish List. From Amazon:
Set in the near-future, Into the Forest is a powerfully imagined novel that focuses on the relationship between two teenage sisters living alone in their Northern California forest home.
Over 30 miles from the nearest town, and several miles away from their nearest neighbor, Nell and Eva struggle to survive as society begins to decay and collapse around them. No single event precedes society’s fall. There is talk of a war overseas and upheaval in Congress, but it still comes as a shock when the electricity runs out and gas is nowhere to be found. The sisters consume the resources left in the house, waiting for the power to return. Their arrival into adulthood, however, forces them to reexamine their place in the world and their relationship to the land and each other.
Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Into the Forest is a mesmerizing and thought-provoking novel of hope and despair set in a frighteningly plausible near-future America.
Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range by Margaret Emerson
This is a book I want to base my first trip on – even thought it’s about the Colorado Front Range, its lessons in contemplative hiking are applicable to any outdoor setting. A must-read for the spiritually-minded outdoorswoman. From Amazon:
More than just a hiking guide, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range is for those who want to experience a new appreciation of the land and nature. Learn how to read nature s omens for deeper insights, cultivate your inner wisdom, and develop a keener awareness of the nuances of flora and fauna in every season along the Front Range. The trails described in this book are located along the foothills and mountain areas north of Ft. Collins to southwest of Denver s suburbs. Ecopsychologist Margaret Emerson offers detailed contemplative activities and practices for each specific trail to enable you to feel more grounded, more present, and more in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. This book contains dozens of beautiful black and white photos taken from the featured hikes. You can write your impressions and answer the questions posed in each chapter directly in the book, as it is set up “journal-style”. This books makes a wonderful gift for the nature-lover or hiker in your life. Among the themes and activities are: Spring Equinox Meditation, Landscape and Mood, The Value and Sacredness of Land Pawnee Buttes, Feeling Your Place in Time, The Spirit of a Place, How to Do a Medicine Walk, You and the New Cosmology, Autumn Equinox Non-Attachment and Letting G, Art, Nature, and the Subconscious, and much, much more…
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Another book I read as a young adult, and influenced me as a writer. From Goodreads:
An exhilarating meditation on nature and its seasons—a personal narrative highlighting one year’s exploration on foot in the author’s own neighborhood in Tinker Creek, Virginia. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. She tries to con a coot; she collects pond water and examines it under a microscope. She unties a snake skin, witnesses a flood, and plays ‘King of the Meadow’ with a field of grasshoppers.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
I first heard about this book from my good friend and co-worker Lynne, who describes it as “one of my most favorite books.” Hemmingway called Markham one of his most favorite writers – read this memoir to find out why. From Amazon:
Markham’s West with the Night was originally published in the early 1940s and disappeared, only to be rediscovered and reprinted in the 1980s when it became a smash hit. This latest incarnation is a lavishly illustrated edition. Though Markham is known for setting an aviation record for a solo flight across the Atlantic from East to West-hence the title-she was also a bush pilot in Africa, sharing adventures with Blor Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton of Out of Africa fame. Hemingway, who met Markham during his safari days, dubbed the book “bloody wonderful.”
What are some of your favorite books about/by women, set in the great outdoors? Leave your answers in the comments below – because I can never have too many books on my nightstand or wishlist.
Jill Hinton Wolfe