First Hike of 2022: What an Earthworm (and the Dalai Lama) Can Teach Us

The first hike of 2022 brought me back to Patapsco Valley State Park on a freakishly warm day in January the day before I was supposed to return back to work from winter break.  I had gone back and forth about hiking Harpers Ferry, but Maria and I decided on Patapsco so that we could sleep in on the last day of break.  It’s crazy to think that just yesterday I was hiking in capris and a t-shirt and wondering if we were really going to get snow, because today there is already several inches of snow on the ground and my winter break has been extended by at least one extra day.  For yesterday’s hike Ken and I both added weight to the hike since the elevation gain isn’t much there, and we aren’t going to be backpacking this month, so adding weight helps keep training up for future AT sections.  We met up with Maria and Billy in the late morning and set off for what turned out to be a little over 8 miles of hiking.  We didn’t see many animals; a few birds, some squirrels, but the one plump earthworm that sat in the middle of the trail piqued all of our interests and became the spirit animal of the hike.  “When Earthworm comes into your life as a Spirit Animal, it may be time to look at your emotions with a critical eye. Earthworm challenges you to dig deep within yourself for truth. The creature also encourages you to remain grounded when on any quest, whether exploring the inner realm, the physical world, or engaging in astral travel.” (source)  

The second half of 2021, I really focused a lot on cord cutting meditations, letting go of certain people, patterns or stories which no longer served me.  Beginning in December I began shifting my meditations to joy.  I purchased and started reading The Book of Joy (a collaboration between the Saliai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams) and really wanted to focus on being more of the “summer Liz” (who is emotionally lighter, happier and carefree) year round.  One of the meditations I do suggests that joy can only be found in the present moment, not in the past or future.  When I experience moments of joy, I try to screenshot them, taking mental note of where I am, who I am with and what I am doing – and I will draw on these when I am upset.  Recently I was about to spend a few days apart from someone, and I was getting a little sad about that.  Instead of dwelling on it, I stopped myself and thanked the universe for the moment I was in.  I took a mental screenshot of that moment, so that when I did miss him when we were apart, I could evoke that moment clearly and I felt residual comfort from that memory.  I’m not too far into The Book of Joy, but in the first few pages I came across this passage, which discusses the opposite of what I did.  When you are in pain, or going through discomfort, the “‘ … ordinary person sorrows, grieves and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught.  So he feels two pains, physical and mental.  Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow, and right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he feels the pain of two arrows.’ It seems that the Dala Lama was suggesting that by shifting our perspective to a broader, more compassionate one, we can avoid the worry and suffering that is the second arrow.” 

Early into the hike there is a river crossing.  I have crossed this river several times without incident, yet yesterday I slipped and I felt the weight of my pack lean towards the left and I fell into the river.  I sat there stunned, and laughed for a bit before getting up and finishing the crossing.  It was warm, I was damp, and I had no intention of stopping the hike there because of a slight discomfort.  In fact, it was entertaining that I fell.  As we continued on the hike, the wet leaves and mud created very slippery conditions, and we all slid around a bit (I ended up falling a second time), and our conversation meandered.  At the Cascade Falls, we stopped to take in the view of the waterfall and talked about times we have had to do the hard things first.  I told a story about having to apologize on the first day of the new year.  Admitting fault and apologizing for it is hard.  It requires the ego to step aside.  I contemplated not doing so and pretending that I wasn’t at fault, but I remembered what my dad said when we talked about Sisu – do the hard things first.  Maria and Billy also added in stories about when you put off communicating with someone and suddenly you’re creating these stories in your head and getting all worked up about something that might not even exist.  My nature is to be defensive, protective of my feelings and shut people out the minute I think they are going to hurt me.  But with age, maturity and making sure that I nurture the right kinds of relationships, it is easier to proceed with an open, loving heart.  This does mean that I have to be vulnerable, and willing to apologize. 

First hike of 2022, warm and muddy!

So how do we maintain joy, despite sorrow, hardships and the everyday challenges of life?  Matthew McConaughey gave a graduation speech where he suggested that, “joy is always in process. It’s under construction. It is a constant approach. Alive and well in the doing of what we’re fashioned to do and enjoying.” His speech has been edited into this moving video on YouTube that I watch fairly frequently, and have likely linked at least once before in this blog.  He suggests that there is a difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is goal-oriented and therefore nearly impossible to attain because as humans, we often raise the bar as soon as we meet a goal.  Joy, on the other hand, comes from a place of contentment, gratitude and acceptance.  I asked several people if they knew anyone they would describe as joyful, and if so, why would they use that adjective.  The responses I got all had these things in common: the joyful people were elderly, always smiling, enjoyed helping others and all were facing declining health yet maintained a positive attitude about life. As I continue to read The Book of Joy I hope to gain even more insight into how to adopt a more joyful disposition.

As the hike neared the end, I was sweaty, my back was causing my back to ache and my lower half was covered in mud.  Despite the discomfort, I took joy in walking through the familiar woods, across the meadow and past the few leaves still clinging to trees.  I needed an eco-therapy adventure before work (and surprise no work today!).  After we made it back to our cars at Landing Road, we all wished each other a happy new year again, and Maria and Billy set off towards Baltimore, while Ken and I went to the historic district of Ellicott City.  I love the old stone buildings, railway station, river and slope of the hill where the main strip runs down.  The downtown reminds me of the railroad model towns.  We stopped into several small stores, and at one they had a fortune telling machine à la film Big with Tom Hanks.  We paid a dollar and got this fortune : “Recently you have made a mistake that you are dwelling on.  I am here to tell you that no amount of guilt can change the past and no amount of anxiety can change the future.  Carrying around the weight of your mistakes does not serve you or the people around you.  Stop punishing yourself.  It’s time to jump off the endless hamster wheel of guilt, forgive yourself and move on.” (Characters Unlimited Inc)  Once again I was reminded to let the old story go.  Live in the present moment, and be grateful for all that I have in life.  My divorce will be finalized in less than a month.  The earthworm, though not at all glamourous or boastful, is a great one to have for 2022.  “As a Spirit Animal, this creature arrives when you need to shake off the dirt from the past so you can move on to your next heartfelt project or relationship.” (More on the earthworm spirit animal). 


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