“WE ALREADY HAVE everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”~ Pema Chödrön
Saturday morning I left my house just after 5 am to head to Annapolis to meet Maria. We hoped to get to Old Rag Mountain before the crowds, knowing that a nice day near peak foliage would bring a lot of people out. That part of Virginia is about three hours from my house, and I knew that I would be tired for the rest of the weekend between not getting a second morning to sleep in and six hours of driving. I hadn’t hiked with Maria without my kids in some time, and I missed our ecotherapy sessions where I don’t have to have my kid filter on. We met her friend Gene, who flew out from Minnesota around 8 am and hiked a total of 10.51 miles in around four and a half hours with an elevation gain of 2,728 feet. Old Rag has some good technical parts, some tight squeezes, and on this Saturday there were also some long lines and wrong turns.
It was still dark as Maria and I left the parking lot in Annapolis where we met. The last time we hiked Old Rag was in March of 2021, and we were all giddy and I was a little nervous. This time we were both tired, but the feeling of anticipation was still there – not one of giddy nervousness, but an expectancy of calm and clarification that would come from this hike. Before we caught up on our lives, recent trips and the school year, we both decided that we needed to detach from something, so we set that intention. We turned left at a light out of the parking lot, and a mass of brown crossed in front of the windshield. Immediately Maria stopped (she told people she pulled over, but she really just stopped on the road) and said “holy shit that was a fucking owl Liz!” For the time I’ve known Maria she has always loved owls, talked about hearing them at night, and often using them as a sign for things she wants clarification on. Sure enough, a barred owl had flown over her car and landed on a sign post and let us gawk and photograph it for at least a few minutes. Fittingly, “If you have an owl as a totem or spirit animal, you probably like to explore the unknown. The mysteries of life are a fascinating field of interest. As the owl guides your steps, you are likely to develop an appreciation for life’s magic.” source
The initial climb up Old Rag is fairly steep, and there is about two miles up through the woods with switchbacks to help break up the ascent. We were out a few days before the peak foliage, but there were a lot of softer greens, yellow leaves and bright spots of orange and red. As we climbed we talked about ecotherapy, shinrin-yoki, and detachment. There is about a mile of more technical hiking, which I love. The crowds slowed us down a bit where there was a drop that was tricky to navigate. During the wait, there were some people who wanted to skip the line, a handful that went around another way, but most people out there just started talking and took in the views as we waited. During this time we met Heather, a hiker who had thru-hiked the AT and who also hikes weekends. Both Heather and another woman I talked with during the hike are former teachers who left the profession before the pandemic. In the past few weeks I tend to have really bad days or really good days at school, and there is little in between. At the top of the mountain, I took a few deep inhales with my eyes closed and then opened them to try to capture every detail to have a mental image for when bad moments come up. I meditate almost every morning, and I often choose cord-cutting meditations to help me let go of old patterns, feelings and situations with people. When I am overwhelmed by emotions I think about these hikes, but also about the ecotherapy conversations Maria and I have. A study by Stanford has found quantifiable evidence that ecotherapy works, and provides a buffer against depression. I decided to interview Maria for this blog post to highlight detachment and how nature has helped her spiritual growth as well.
Maria on detachment: To me detachment is a mental state where total peace reigns without the help of anything external to me. It is just a thought that takes me inwards instead of outwards, it is an instant of crystal clear vision, it is just a breath. Detaching from my mental story is the most helpful practice, every time I let go of what I think I should be doing, should be thinking, should be spending my time doing, should be saying, when I let go of that story in my mind then I find the joy of just being, and then I am free to be and make mistakes and laugh and who cares…..Then I can share with everyone that I encounter in my path with ease and joy and that is my purpose.
To me the most difficult thing to detach from is the “wanting to know what is next.” It is the need to control every situation, every word, every action. Detach myself from that self portrait that my mind has created already. The more I practice detachment the less I expect from the world. I always know that life is taking care of me, and, in many instances that, that I think I need, would just show up without effort. The practice of detachment is nothing but staying in the present moment. No thought to what has happened or to what is going to happen. The more I stay present I expect less from conversations, I expect less from people. I stop being a needy human being. I start being a self sufficient being with only one purpose, that of extending peace and joy.
Detachment helps me daily, and my frustrations help me redirect my thoughts to the present moment, inwards, so to speak. Without grievances I would not be able to go back to me, they are my street signs. My emotions guide me through. If a situation feels right, I go ahead as if there was a big green light ahead of me. Sometimes when I do not pay attention, I crash. I pick up the pieces and I keep moving, but I am not moving, I am just collecting my thoughts, observing the way I think and not buying into the mental story and when I do this…the road seems smooth even if it’s bumpy, I just expanded the mind with new thoughts and new possibilities.
Maria on nature: Connecting to nature is so important because when I am immersed in nature. I feel I have less distractions from the world, people, conversations, work, relationships, and it is in this silence when I can watch my thinking better. I am practicing the act of thought observation in the midst of chaos but I am still not at that level, so I think I need the silence of nature to get in alignment. I also find nature fascinating, everything works, everything and every being is in harmony with the environment, nature is a big example of trust, everything happens without making it happen, easily, effortlessly. It is the best teacher I have ever had.
“There is a gulf between being alive and dead, but this gulf is not the same size for everybody. John Burroughs, an American writer and naturalist in the late nineteenth century, was ahead of the game when he wrote, ‘There is nothing people differ in more than in their powers of observation. Some are only half alive.'” (Tristan Gooley How to Read Nature) I love that quote by the way, and I agree to some extent. We are all alive, we are all life, so to speak. Sleepiness or the unconsciousness is a matter of not knowing what is our true nature. I did not always pay attention to the small details in my life, I have lived asleep for many years, I still sometimes go back to sleep, now it is easier to wake myself up, especially if I am connected to how I feel…All I need to remember is to follow the signs and go inwards.
Nature brings me to the present moment, It brings me to the only dimension that matters right at that moment. I have not always felt in-tune with nature, I have always felt attracted by the natural world but perhaps unconsciously, a few years back I started more nature walks and hikes and back then is where I found how helpful it is for me.
I feel alive when I bring my attention to what is in front of me, and let go of my story.