Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mental landmines

Hiking thousands of miles takes thousands of hours. That may seem obvious, but the reality of long-distance hiking surprised me. I thought it would be a great adventure, and it was. I thought it would be interesting to see new places every day, and it was. But it was also very monotonous. What happens during all those thousands of hours?

My recent blog posts have been about various thoughts that form in my brain as I hike. The reason I can do this is because my brain gets detached from my body and my life when I hike. Some would call this boredom, but that isn't really the right word because it feels more like an awakening. I think my brain gets freed up from the normal duties of life and can focus on one thing for a while.

I've come to understand that this mental phenomenon is what some people call meditation. Before I came to this realization, I didn't understand meditation at all. I'd heard that it involves "clearing your mind," but the few times I tried to do this, I just fell asleep. So I figured meditation was something I wasn't good at, or that I just didn't have the aptitude for. Like playing guitar, it was something others could do, but not me.

Imagine my surprise when after hundreds of hours of doing this mental thing, I realized what it was! It was as natural as dreaming. And over the years I've learned that like those who can direct their dreams, a practice called "lucid dreaming," I can sometimes direct my meditation to a subject of my own choosing.

That may seem strange at first. Can't we all direct our thoughts? To some extent we certainly can. If I want to think of a pink elephant, I can. But meditation involves relaxed focus. It's not adding the pink elephant to the mix that's hard; it's eliminating all the other competing thoughts that's hard.

More often than not, what comes into focus is not of my choosing, but something out of my subconscious. In fact, this effect is one of the things that drew me to longer distances after discovering by accident that I always felt much better after a backpacking trip than before. At first I assumed that the great outdoors made me feel better, but eventually I realized hiking was like psychotherapy for me. For instance, what did I do with the week that I set aside for my honeymoon when my fiance called off our wedding three days before the event?  I went backpacking! At the time I didn't know why I made the choice, it just felt like the right thing to do.

With hindsight I can see that the reason I felt better was because the feelings that I couldn't deal with in person came back to me while hiking in a form that I COULD deal with. And processing the negative emotions made me feel much better.

Only on my longest hikes did I realize how far this could go. Thoughts and feelings that I had buried for YEARS came back after weeks on the trail. This was not a pleasant process. Seemingly out of the blue, some nasty negative feeling would invade my conscious mind. If I'd been able to distract myself with the TV or something, I would have "controlled" the thought and avoided the pain. But I came to realize that's what I'd already done, and the pain hadn't gone away; it was still there, hiding. Given the introspective opportunity of a long hike, these feelings spontaneously bubbled up out of my own subconscious.

Although this scared me at first, and was certainly unpleasant, I soon realized that once processed, these feelings lost their power over me. For example, I had become passive-aggressive in my relationships. This was a state where I would try to "be nice" and act accordingly, but I kept acting in ways that surprised me. Anger that I wasn't even consciously aware of was sabotaging my life! The bubbling-up process had at least two positive effects. First, I could get rid of some of the anger without doing damage to people around me. Second, I learned the truth about my own feelings and made some changes for the better. Even if these changes hurt other people, they came from my heart. Better to tell the truth than to try to live a lie.

As the mental landmines were defused, my subconscious became a much quieter place. Now if I want to focus on a pink elephant, there's a chance that I can do so.