This past Memorial Day weekend I was blessed to go on a spectacular 6 mile hike in the Mt. Charleston wilderness about 25 miles north of Las Vegas with my younger daughter and two friends. The trail we took began at an elevation of 8,600 feet and went up to 9,400 feet, alternately skirting mountain sides and immersing us in deep forest under a blanket of blue sky with a perfect juxtaposition of abundant warm sunshine and cool alpine air. It was just the treatment that, as Timothy Egan of the New York Times has characterized it, my “nature deficit disorder” needed.
As I wrote in Some Assembly Required, certain experiences and environments create direct links to present-centeredness, gifting me with a heightened connection to the here and now. Like many people, I have special places in my heart for the ocean and the mountains—special places whose immensity and grandeur hypnotizes and humbles, catalyzing conscious awareness of that which is beyond oneself; with God as I understand that concept. I adore the beach and the ocean, but increasingly my spirit is drawn to the mountains (the fact that I live 300 miles from the nearest ocean is probably coincidental). In the mountain wilderness, the mental and spiritual separation between me and the rest of nature dissolves. Hiking is a walking meditation for me. My mind quiets and my breathing becomes more focused as my attention alternates between the long-range views across canyons studded with big trees and massive rock formations, and the immediacy of where to place my feet on the very next step on the trail.
I make it a point to touch (caress, really) rocks and trees along the way, connecting kinesthetically with boulders of limestone, sandstone, and granite, as well as the rough-hewn gun-metal gray bark of Douglas Firs, the flaky light-brown-amber bark of Ponderosa Pines, and the gnarled trunks and corkscrew branches of Bristlecone Pines that only grow above 9,000 feet. For long moments, all else disappears. In the wilderness, my mind, heart, and spirit become one, and merge with everything around me. John Muir, who cofounded the Sierra Club on this very date (May 28) in 1892 expressed it best: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” “Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.”
I make it a priority to spend time in such places—practically and spiritually—even with my chronic pain, though I do make certain concessions. I hike with a trekking pole to provide additional stability and shock absorption. I hike at a steady and deliberate pace, but I give myself the flexibility of taking brief breaks at intervals consistent with the grade of the trail, the elevation, and my physical status. The trade-off for participating in activities such as hiking and the joy they bring me is an invariable temporary increase in my pain level. I accept this exchange consciously and gratefully.
My physical capacity is a dynamic entity, shifting from day-to-day, and even moment-to-moment. Guided by a wide range of painful experiences I have learned to be attuned to it and make adjustments in my schedule and participation in specific activities as necessary based on the signals my body sends. Originally, I had planned to go hiking again the following day. However, the degree of stiffness and soreness that greeted me the next morning (even after my usual regime of stretching and Chi Kung), strongly suggested I change plans. And so I did. A balanced approach to addiction and chronic pain involves pushing myself . . . up to a point. Increasingly, as my awareness and skill grows, I am able to identify where that point lies, and respect it.