Mindful Backpacking

I love mountains.  I love the challenge of steep and challenging trails that take me to beautiful summits and down into the valleys below. 

Five years ago I decided to do my first solo backpacking trip on the Long Trail in Vermont.  The oldest foot path in the country, this 270 mile trail begins at the Massachusetts border and continues north through the Green Mountains to its terminus at the Canada border. 

Difficult trail requires a mindful state.  It is a matter for safety to be fully focused on the present moment ... one step at a time.  The mind wanders and I trip.  The mind wanders and I could fall.  The mind wanders at a steep and slippery descent and I could break a leg or worse.  

Rain is another mindful challenge.  The mind, yours and mine, easily evaluates and judges, and it certainly tends to do this when backpacking in bad weather.  My recent six day trip had two days of all-day rain, with torrential downpours in each afternoon that lasted 3-4 hours.  

When I was mindful, the rain was just rain and the sensations on my body were just wet.  When my thoughts and feelings drifted to judging, complaining, and fear mode, the experience would become unbearable.  My experience of the actual rain was distorted and exaggerated by thoughts and feelings of the rain of the past and the rain of the future.   

I found that I was at my best when I was thoughtless - when I was having pure experience without mental narration or evaluation.  And it was easier for me to be present when the rain was gentle and I felt comfortable and warm.  When the rain became torrential, it was more difficult for me to be mindful.  

And so it is off the trail. Regret is fueled by thoughts and feelings of the past and anxiety is a future fantasy with negativity. The mind can spin up a tornado of regret and anxiety, leaving little room for awareness of what's actually going on in the moment.  

My experience of hours of waterfall-like rain was a bit like this: I was annoyed, I am annoyed, I will be annoyed.  

I noticed an opportunity to practice present moment awareness in a very challenging situation.  I kept re-anchoring my attention on the present moment, again and again.  And I watched my resistance to doing so.  My thoughts and feelings about the rain wanted to take center stage.  

My experiences on the trail are significant learnings in mindfulness.  As the challenges of my life unfold off the trail, I have significant learning and wisdom that I can call upon.  When my thoughts and feelings create the tornado of past and future, I can settle into the same felt sense of presence that was life critical on the trail.  It's life-critical off the trail too! 

The power of presence is always there for us, we just have to turn toward it ... again and again.