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Hiking and Meditation

Mohonk Preserve

Hiking is meditation, for me at least. It’s one of the main reasons I run off into the mountains and  woods whenever I can.

I first learned about meditation about 10 years ago when I took some classes and workshops on sitting and walking meditation at the Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you’re in the Boston area, this is a great place to learn about meditation and buddhist philosophy, without any religious pressure.

Learning meditation taught me how to control my thoughts so I could focus on things that were in front of me, not things that had happened during the day, or that might happen in the future.

All too often, people experience anxiety about work, replaying the events of their day or dreading tasks that they have on their to-do list. Meditation helps to quell these feelings, eliminating the suffering that comes from focusing too much on the past or the future, by training the mind to focus on what’s present.

A Daily Meditation Practice

I meditate each morning for 15-20 minutes in a kneeling meditation posture. I sit quietly and concentrate on my breathing, fully experiencing each inhale and exhale I take, feeling the way in which my breath expands my chest and back, and listening to the sound the air makes as it flows through my body. There is nothing more present than the breadth.

When my attention wanders, and it still does, I gently bring my it back to my breathing. Learning how to focus and control your thoughts is difficult, which is why it’s called a meditation practice.

Walking Meditation

There is another style of meditation called walking meditation, where you listen to your breadth and attend to the sensations of your body when walking. There is a stylized way of walking that people practice, that looks like they’re walking in slow motion. I don’t particularly care for it myself, but many people interleave it with sitting meditation sessions on day long retreats.

Hiking Meditation

I consider all of my hikes, at least when I’m alone, as meditative, because I focus on the sensations of breathing and walking when I hike. I suppose my style of hiking meditation is just a more active variant of walking meditation. While I am attentive to other things around me, I’m not concentrating about much of anything except the sensations of my body: feeling the ground under my feet and my arms as they swing my trekking poles forward, feeling the passage of my breath through my body and the sound it makes.

Earlier today, I was describing to my wife how switching from boots to to trail runners, this year, helped me with my hiking meditation practice: the reduced amount of ankle support means that I need to really need to focus on taking deliberate steps, to avoid twisting my ankles. When I don’t pay attention closely enough, I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to fall more.

When she heard that I meditate when I hike, she said, “oh, so like a dial tone.”

I explained, that meditation is not about feeling nothing. It’s about focusing your mind on a few things that you are experiencing in the moment, not emptying it. My senses are still alert to my surroundings. The only difference is that I’m controlling my thoughts and what I attend to, not letting external stimuli and interruptions control my what I’m attending too.

Focusing ones mind like this makes it possible for you to control your attention and become a better observer. It’s like a mental tune-up, letting you clean out the gunk and emotional baggage that you carry around with you, so that you can lead an intentional life that is more open to new experiences and feelings.

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22 comments

  1. Good to see I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Now if I can find a way to pull this off while hiking through a major snow squall or 50 mph ridge line jaunts I'll achieve true Nirvana. Thank you for writing about this, most of my friends treat hiking like an athletic event. It can be, and is, so much deeper. Spiritual comes to mind.

  2. Does this ever happen to you: After a long solo hike to pitch up the tent and have a little sit in it before sorting gear, making food etc. Suddenly you find you have been sitting / laying there for an hour or so with a completely blank mind, not quite asleep but in some weird zone.

    I need to practice meditation as my mind is always rushing about causing unecessary anxiety. I may go to the local Buddhist centre and sign up for a course.

  3. I've been reading you blog for a long time and didn't know you were into meditation also! I often find that with hikers and backpackers.

    Nice to know.

  4. I don't practice meditation at home but I do find myself in meditative states while walking/hiking and quite enjoy. Thanks for a good post with info I can use.

  5. A couple times a year I go hiking/camping for two or three days without any food. Since the brain uses a lot of calories just keeping itself buzzing, losing that energy calms it down and I find I can shut it up for a while and reconnect with myself and my life. Needless to say I don't make much mileage but I plan for that and get home feeling a whole lot better than any regular hike.

  6. This sounds like something I could do. How does one get started? A big reason I like to backpack is to get away from all of the noise and stress of everyday life. Mental detoxification.

  7. Absolutely. On occasion I've lost all sense of myself. Especially when I'm climbing at night, through snow. Those moments are precious.

  8. I first read about walking mediation on your site. I often really struggle mentally/emotionally towards the end of the day on a long hike. This year I've been trying to get myself into that zone where I can quiet my mind and be present in the moment. Not easy as I always seem to have a racing mind.

    So far, as a first step, I've found that counting steps (such as 1 to 100, then starting over) allows me to stop the constant "traffic" in my head. Eventually the numbers tick off on autopilot without thinking and my mind becomes free to feel and observe what is going on around me, instead of thinking how difficult a hike, climb, or whatever is–before I know it I've hiked another couple of hours or a couple of thousand feet.

  9. I'm not really into meditation, but I do find that hiking and backpacking are 'my' meditative practises. I find getting into the zonal pace of walking, or sitting on a rock and quietly feeling, sensing everything around you very calming. I guess that is what drives me to get out into nature.

  10. Just got back from a big hike – took 8 hours to drive home kind-of hike – and I was thinking some more about the whole meditation thing on this trip, partly because a friend has asked me to lead a "mindful hiking" walk at a zen institute in Western Massachusetts in a few weeks.

    During this trip, I found that carrying a backpack really accentuates the need to pay attention to the walking experience. Wearing trail runners also helps as I mention above, especially on the AT which is full of rocks, roots, and mud. I also found that wearing a billed cap, pulled down to limit one's vision helps reduce the field of view, so you can not look to far forward in the future.

    When I'm walking, I also try to concentrate on minimizing the effort of my walking, by picking the route of least effort. I walk mostly up and down mountains, so this means not talking a big step, where 2 or 3 little ones will let me cover the same distance, and picking routes carefully between boulders, down rock faces, etc.

    As a white water kayaker, I imagine how water would behave (the mechanics of rapids) if it was flowing over the rocks in front of me. To run rapids, kayakers need to read the water and take the least dangerous and most energy saving route, which is often one that that breaks a big drop into smaller steps, rather than jumping down a high waterfall/drop. I imagine the route that water would take flowing over the rocks (even calf high rocks) and follow the easy path that the water would take. It seems to work as a visualization technique for me when I'm walking on rocky ground, which is most of the time.

  11. DaniLou – counting is a well known technique for quieting the mind in meditation. When I do it, I count to 3, but then again I'm kneeling not walking. Racing mind – often called monkey mind (jumping) is very common – everyone experiences some form of it.

  12. Mark – I hope I don't sound too evangelistic about meditation. It's just the one thing I've experienced that come closest to describing my mental experience when hiking. That and swimming 2000 yards in a pool :-)

  13. James – yes. It's happening to me more and more lately. A feeling of pure contentment and joy, a warm glow, without really thinking about anything except the astonishing absence of anxiety and fear, and it only happens when I'm backpacking…

  14. Joey – stay tune for a post I'll be writing soon about summiting Mt Bigelow, a knife-end peak, just before sundown. Pure joy, fear, high wind, and awe. Not meditative at all, but definitely in the moment!

  15. George – it's hard to say what the best way for you to get started is. My advice would be to sample a few approaches by going to some free sittings or lectures at zen/buddhist centers near you, or even yoga classes, which end with a corpse pose (lying meditation) posture. That might work or might not. I can imagine people finding all kinds of ways to get there that have nothing to do with eastern influences at all. Feel free to contact me offline if you want more suggestions.

  16. I've been going to the woods for many years to help me keep in touch with my spirituality.I find hiking itself creates its own breathing rhythym that empties my mind after maybe the first mile, and I can focus on the experience surrounding me. This summer I hiked through the Mahoosuc mtns in Maine, and was a bit intimidated by Mahoosuc Notch, notoriously the toughest mile of the entire AT.Unlike the thru-hikers I met, I had plenty of time, and when I realized thiss, actually had a lot of fun, couldnt understand others trepidation.Just breathe, and focus back to your breath when thoughts begin to intrude. "its not the destination, but the journey". You'll find you'll notice a lot more going on around you, even an abundance of life where you thought all was dead! Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn has many books on the subject, but one of the best is Miracle of Mindfulness. Just Be Here Now.

  17. While I tend not to wander far from *my* Giant (Sleeping Giant SP in Hamden, CT), I hike often, for the sheer joy of 'noticing' – leaving the day behind, and walking in the 'here and now' has brought a perspective and peace into my life that I never thought possible five years ago. Namaste!

  18. hey joey h, check out aikido or look into bushido. Then u can learn to have a zen mind even in the face of death like samurai!

  19. Thanks for an article that addresses our spiritual selves. Unlike religion, spirituality is what you do on the inside, not on the outside, and for me, and so many others, the woods and mountains provide us with the perfect place to connect with our higher selves, get in tune with nature and to just BE.

  20. I haven’t taken any classes, or knew what to call it, but if being in “tune” with my body and surroundings is meditation I guess I’m there. The recharge I get from hiking is phenomenal.

  21. This is my first hit by googling “hiking” and “meditation.” A nice review…I guess I should not be surprised that so many people are not able to get into mediation. For me, it is the beginning of my hiking practice, since my basic “training backpack” is done with my 7.5lb zafu and camera, plus waterproof back for essentials. I do this in this in the US Virgin Islands

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