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.
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.
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.