Meditation wasn’t for me until I tried it on a hike

May 11, 2023 0 Comments

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About a year ago, in the midst of an existential crisis, I signed up for a three-day silent meditation retreat. It sucked. It has also changed the way I interact with the natural world, but not in the way I expected.

If you’re already raising your eyebrows, I don’t blame you. When I say the words “meditation retreat” to most people, they either look blank or start grinding their teeth. Rarity leans over to them and asks how the retreat went. All these people are raging hippies.

I personally consider myself a hippie. I’m not into crystals or hard drugs, but I’ll happily go a few days without a shower and wear paisley when the occasion calls for it. Still, I suspect that my decision to sit silently on a lumpy pillow for three days had more to do with a temporary delirium caused by too many emails and not enough direction in life. I had never been on a meditation retreat before. My record of silence in solo hikes was about five hours. At this point I usually started talking to myself.

However, I have heard some good words about mindfulness. Allegedly, sitting in the forest, listening to birdsong (i.e. “forest bathing”) can lower blood pressure and even boost your immune system. And meditation in general is known to alleviate anxiety and depression reduce chronic pain. It all sounded good to me.

Also, the retreat looked nice. The temple was nestled in the Colorado Rockies, and the website said the food in the cafeteria was delicious. Also, the temple administrator said that I could save money on overnight accommodation by sleeping in the car in the parking lot.

So I spent three days in socks and sandals listening to a bunch of sad people breathing through their mouths in a tiny room with a hard wooden floor. I was supposed to be focused on “letting go of the intrusive thoughts”, but most of the time I was focused on my left leg being asleep and planning how to move it so our instructor wouldn’t notice me. Hours passed. Three days were painful.

I am fully convinced that regular meditation is an effective tool for millions of people. I also know that there is great power in real estate. But for me, sitting meditation seemed to increase my anxiety rather than reduce it. I found physical immobility unbearable. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get into the habit. I haven’t sat down to meditate since the retreat ended over a year ago. But I took away one thing that more or less changed my life.

During the retreat, our instructor told us that very few people can sit on a hard floor for hours without experiencing at least some physiological effects. So, she broke up our pillow time with intermittent walking meditations.

We would get up and walk around the room with our eyes downcast but open, watching our feet glisten in the rays of sunlight streaming in through the tall windows. She told us to feel our feet gripping the floor, to listen for the rustle of clothing moving, and to focus on the subtle changes in pressure from the heel to the forefoot and toes. It was the only time all weekend that I really felt present.

Although I gave up meditation entirely, I have since started using some of these little tricks on my hikes. And I’m not kidding, I felt time slow down.

If you don’t like sitting meditation, try it with one foot in front of the other. (Photo: Marco Bottigelli/Moment via Getty Images)

As life gets busier, the time I spend outdoors becomes more precious. I can’t tell you how many hikes I’ve finished looking back at the trailhead wishing I had a few more minutes. Benefit from a careful hike is that you don’t get so lost in thought that you miss whole miles. By being present every step of the way, you can squeeze more out of every hike.

Research suggests there may be other benefits. IN a recent Brazilian studyparticipants were assigned to either a mindful meditation hike or a “mindlessness meditation” hike.

Those who took a mindful hike were told to pay attention to their surroundings and sense of movement. Those who took the mindless hike were told to think about future tasks and life events.

Tourists who completed the mindfulness task experienced an “upward spiral” in mood. In fact, hiking made them happier, and because they were paying attention, they noticed that they were becoming happier. This created a positive feedback loop. Those who thoughtlessly walked ended the hike in a worse mood than at the beginning.

Another benefit of mindful hiking is that it can be much easier, esp for new meditators and people who consider themselves restless. Because it’s easier to enter, it’s easier to keep the habit. This means that people who engage in mindful walking are more likely to reap the long-term benefits of mindfulness than those who engage in solitary sitting meditation.

So what exactly does mindful hiking mean? On your next backpacking trip, walking the dog, or strolling around the block, try these five tricks.

Mindful hiking 101

Get more out of every mile with these tips for mindful hiking.

  1. Walk at a natural pace, hands free and shoulders relaxed. Take a moment to make your clothes and backpack cozy and comfortable.
  2. Now tune in to what your body feels. Do a quick check-in by going over your mind from head to toe. As you walk, try to focus on feeling the strength of your muscles as they contract and lengthen. Focus on the speed of your feet and ankles as they carry your weight over uneven terrain.
  3. When you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the feeling of power in your body and the feeling of your feet touching the ground.
  4. Periodically tune in to your environment: try to count the sights, sounds, and smells around you. See if you can identify five different sights, four different sounds and three smells.
  5. Be kind to yourself. If you find yourself getting tired or moody, take a moment to reset, take a deep breath, and name three specific things in this moment that you are grateful for.

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