I went into the woods because I wanted to spend a weekend in contemplative Zen practice. Also, I went into the woods because that’s where the retreat was being held so I didn’t really have a choice. When one is on a Zen retreat, habits, attachments and motivations are challenged. This weekend reminded me that I am indeed a city person and not a “get connected to the wilderness” kind of guy. Seriously, given the choice between a beautiful mountain vista or going to a gallery opening and a show at the theater, I’ll be sucking back the free wine and discussing the motivations of the artist and how they reflect on contemporary life in a heartbeat. It’s not that I have anything against the outdoors, it’s just not where I find myself being drawn when I want to relax. I saw some amazing and beautiful things this weekend. The colors and the birds and the amazing view of Mt. Washington covered in snow reflecting light in every direction were breathtaking. However, the blisters on my feet and hands and the sore and aching muscles in my body were equally impressive. The cold and the rain didn’t help much either.
If I’m going to trip when I’m walking, I’d rather trip over the brick sidewalks we have in Portland instead of over loose rocks or branches or holes that have been hidden by leaves. Slipping on acorns is a job hazard squirrels have to face, not humans. It amazes me how something that is as beautiful as the scenery that surrounded me the past two days can feel so foreign. It’s like having the worlds greatest cake in front of you and learning you’re allergic to it. I’m just not that into the wilderness I guess.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great weekend. Don’t get the wrong impression from the above paragraphs. I had a great weekend and I’d do it again if I had the chance. In fact, I didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. I wanted to stay and sit more. I experienced a deeper level of practice than I’ve ever had before this weekend. I got to know members of my Sangha better and had a lot of fun with them sharing this experience. There was a lot of laughter this weekend as we experienced the joys of connecting with one another and sharing a deeper practice. Personally, I’d rather have had this experience in an urban environment instead of on a mountain side. Everyone else was walking around in awe as they felt this great connection and oneness with nature. Meanwhile, I’m walking around just trying to keep from slipping in the mud.
Slipping on acorns is a job hazard squirrels have to face, not humans.
I think my biggest issues came from having to deal with sore muscles and an aching body coupled with an intense feeling of I-don’t-belong-here-edness. The first few periods of walking meditation we were on had been a little hard on my body. My feet weren’t used to the type of exertion I was subjecting them to. They began to blister up and my hands also began to hurt from having my walking stick rub against them. As one who grew up raised by a pack of geeks running wild over the plains and mountainsides of a role-playing game designed universe or traversing the cliffs and crags of the on-line world, I was totally unprepared for the physical aspect of walking meditation in the great outdoors. My mind was on just about everything else other than focusing on being calm.
These do not prepare you for life in the woods.
On our third walk of the day, we got lost. Yes, I said we got lost. In the woods. In Maine. In the middle of nowhere. Lost. At this point, my body was feeling worn out and my mind was trying to figure out just what the anchor person on the news would say about the party of hikers whose bodies had finally been recovered after a three-day search. As the fat man on the retreat, I knew I’d be the first to go. I’ve seen the movies. I’ve read the books. There’s a reason Steven King sets all of his novels in this part of Maine: people go there to get lost and eaten by animals. It’s always the funny fat guy who goes first: usually mauled by a bear shortly after saying something witty and ironic considering his feet are about to get chewed off by an animal with a bad attitude and claws the size of whatever is comparable to a bear claw. It wasn’t as bad as my mind made it out to be and we weren’t really lost too badly. The leader of the retreat knew the area pretty well and guided us back to a path that we took to our campsite. However, I went on record as only wanting to hike on the paths after that. I didn’t think it was polite of the other members of the Sangha to laugh at me while we were on a Zen retreat but I guess I was wrong because they had no problem doing it.
Eventually, the day was over and it was time for bed. Did I mention that we were in the middle of nowhere? I think I did. If you ever visit the mystical land of nowhere and find yourself in the middle of it, be warned that modern conveniences like electricity are not always available. For most people this is a quaint and charming trait. If, though, you are like me and have gained so much weight that your throat closes up at night and stops you from breathing, it is a major problem. I had no power source for a CPAP and despite my best efforts going into the trip could find no good way to power it for the evening. This meant that my night was spent gasping for air every minute or so and my body never got the deep restorative sleep it so desperately needed. Of all the nights to go without oxygen, this was not the night where I could afford to do it. I did it anyway. When we woke up at 5 A.M. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My throat was raw from snoring and my head ached from oxygen deprivation. Another great day was about to get started.
The second day of the retreat consisted of some meditation but was mostly dedicated to a “five-mile hike” we would be taking to the top of Frost Mountain. I saw with my own eyes the brochure that stated the walk was “easy” and consisted of “mostly level paths”. Bullshit. First of all, the “five miles” was one way. When you go on a hike, whatever distance you travel out, you have to travel back. Do the math. That’s ten miles of hiking. I didn’t sign up for a ten-mile hike. Other people kept using the phrase “good hike” to describe what we were doing. I’m still not sure how those two words go together in a sentence. Secondly, we were walking up something called “Frost Mountain”. This should have been a red flag to me. When something has the word “Mountain” in its name, that pretty much excludes using the words “flat” or “level” to describe the route going up it. So, I find myself pushing as hard as I can, lungs heaving and heart racing at 170 beats per minute at minimum to make my way up one hill after another. I’m slowing down and keeping the entire group from moving ahead as they stop every so often to let me catch my breath and allow my heart rate to come back down to a more normal level. In all of my workouts at the gym, I’ve never felt this exhausted. I’m not sure about the appropriateness of using profanity on a Zen retreat when the idea is to do these things in as much silence as possible but I believe I uttered the phrase, “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” at one point as we rounded a bend and looked up at a hill that just kept going and going until we lost sight of it behind the trees.
Halfway up this hill as the others were waiting for me to regain my composure, I mentioned that I was really happy I could be doing this, and I was. The fact remains that I would never have been able to do this hike 55 pounds ago. There’s just no way my body would have handled it. Sure, I was tired but I was physically fit enough to do the hike and I wasn’t about to let some hill stop me from making it to the top. I was too determined to win this struggle. I mentioned that it’s not easy to pull 275 pounds up a big hill and that’s when I found that two of the members of the retreat only weighed 120 pounds each. I told the male skinny vegetarian Buddhist with an overly zealous and joyful attitude to put the female skinny vegetarian Buddhist on his back and then grab about 30 pounds of rocks and I’d race him to the top. It was a little sad for me to realize that I weighed as much as two of my group combined plus the legs of the third member of our four person team. Then, I focused on the positives and renewed my passion to reach the top of this hill from hell and began to climb again.
Once we reached the summit, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the surrounding landscape. We could see all the way into New Hampshire and standing tall over everything was Mt. Washington. It was covered in snow and whiter than the clouds. It really was an amazing view. We sat there on the mountain top and had lunch. It was completely vegetarian so I had some veggies stuffed into a sub bun and it was the best tasting sandwich I think I’ve ever had. I did get to have a little bit of meat though. My apple had a worm in it. Actually, I only saw half of the worm. But, at least it was protein.
Did I mention that half way up the mountain it started to rain? Oh yeah, I think I left that part out. It was cold, I was tired and now, I was getting wet. For the most part, our heads were kept dry because the leaves on the trees were still stopping most of the rain from hitting us but it wasn’t perfect. When I put the hoods up from the coat and the hoodie I was wearing underneath that, I started to get so hot and sweaty that I couldn’t stand it. I ended up choosing rain over heat and accepted the rain as nature’s way of reflecting my mood back to me. By the time I got back to the camp site, I was moving at a snail’s pace and my feet were throbbing in pain. The other three members of the retreat were standing outside the yurt waiting for me as I slowly approached. As I got up to them, they all started to clap and cheer for me as it was obvious that I had accomplished something big. It was nice to know that they were just as happy for me as I was for myself. I kicked that mountain’s butt and I came back down alive. I’m so sore now I can’t put it into words but I made it. So, I went into the woods and came back out the next day. I went in rushed and hurried with a cluttered mind and I came out tired and sore and with a clear mind having pushed myself to the limit and beyond. Next year when I go back to do this again, I’ll be even more prepared and able to (maybe) enjoy the experience.
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