Recently I went on a hike with my family through a beautiful and hilly stretch of woods, up a small mountain leading to a cliff overlooking the valley below. The view from the top is gratifying after a difficult trek through the woodlands, but that’s only the cherry on top for me. The real reward is the journey. Nature has a way of teaching us about our own humanity and the relationships between us, the created order, and the God who created it all. And I love when class is in session!
Being the only experienced hiker in my tribe, I had to push and encourage my family to press on when they felt too tired or uninterested to go on. A good teacher can also be a tough master (am I talking about myself or nature?). But the experience presented a valuable opportunity to teach my children a few things about hiking and—unbeknownst to them—about spirituality and metaphysics.
If you don’t mind, the pain doesn’t matter! Most of the pain and stress associated with the physical exertion of a hike is in our minds, not our bodies. Discomfort makes an undisciplined mind panic, causing it to prompt the will—and the body—to stop the activity causing the pain. Unless there’s a real physical impediment or disability, the only thing making you stop is yourself—your will and your choice to act against your good intentions.
Enduring physical or spiritual exertion, then, requires disciplining the mind. By disciplining the mind, we remove its impediment to the will, better subjecting the will to its authority.
“You’ll find the climb is a lot easier when your body respects the landscape…”
This was wisdom I tried to impart to my kids during the hike by teaching them things like awareness, sensitivity to their surroundings, and disciplining their minds through “mind tricks” that get them not to mind the pain and strain their bodies were experiencing, and to move the mind from “panic” to persistence and peace. I told them to look at the ground instead of gawking defeatedly at the steep hill ahead; to watch their footsteps, not the path; to count the birds they see along the way or note interesting and out-of-the-ordinary trees or patterns.
Other mind tricks involve heightened awareness of the body, the flexion, tension, and extension of the muscles and joints.You’ll find the climb is a lot easier when your body respects the landscape and the nature of its own engineering (thank you, God!) that enables you to overcome it.
In the life of a spiritual person, mental discipline is essential, and little mental exercises that aid in that discipline can be helpful. Look beyond the obvious. See small things that might redefine or recharacterize the big picture. Turn your attention away from things that cause interior “panic.” An undisciplined mind will never be able to subject the will to its authority. Discipline the mind, and you will discipline your will over time.
Be Amongst it
This is the most valuable lesson. “Don’t just walk through the woods,” I told my children, “be amongst it all.” Don’t just walk to get to the end. Be in the moment. Stop occasionally to catch your breath and look around you, observing the beauty surrounding you. Look for something interesting that would be overlooked by someone just mindlessly walking through the woods. Look at the small things that hug the ground and the tall and high things that scrape the sky. Appreciate them. Analyze them. Close your eyes and listen to the birds. Imagine them. Listen to the breeze and the sway of the trees and branches. Be lost in that sound for a moment.
And in general, pay attention. Don’t just walk through it all, but be amongst it all. Be a part of it, not apart from it. After a minute of this rest and reflection, continue the hike and pay attention to everything as you walk. Every step should be “a moment,” Not just another step closer to the destination, but a destination in itself, oriented toward the ultimate end. Every moment has meaning. If you let it pass without recognizing it, you’ll miss something important.
“[My daughter] was doing what her daddy taught her to do. There she was, in the zone, in the moment, being amongst it all.”
My daughter especially took this lesson to heart. At a point along the hike, she was quite a bit ahead of me because I took a few moments to do my own resting and reflecting. When I caught up to her, I found her silent and still, her eyes closed, resting her hands on top of her little hiking stick. Appearing totally relaxed and contemplative, she was doing what her daddy taught her. There she was, in the zone, in the moment, being amongst it all. “What are you thinking about, sweetheart?” I asked. “I was just listening to the birds.” she said, pointing toward a tree line, “There’s one over there and one over there, and there’s a woodpecker behind me.” I hadn’t noticed the woodpecker in the distance until she pointed out that there was one there. Mission accomplished!
Pride Before a Fall
My oldest son had to learn a different lesson; that there’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence, and neither one leaves room for prudence. I noticed he was being careless on his feet, running or jogging even along the most unforgiving terrain. “Don’t run or jog through the woods,” I told him. “Don’t be careless. Walk, pay attention, go slow, and think. If you don’t respect the landscape by choice, it’ll teach you to respect it by force.”
After two or three hard trips-and-falls, my son learned to respect the order of creation and his own limitations, and he stopped jogging carelessly through the hike. Not bad, when you think about it. How many trips and falls did you or I have to suffer before we learned to respect what God has made perfect? And we’re still learning.
I learned a very long time ago that nature has a way of teaching us how to be more human. The more we harmonize with the created order, the more we understand our own nature and, by extension, the more we see how much we need God. God created the perfect order and beauty of the natural world. His mighty hand created us and our human nature—both greater than the natural world. But our nature is unfulfilled. We don’t enjoy the completion of beauty and goodness we observe in the natural order. Without God, we will never achieve the perfection and beauty that recruits our awe and wonder for the natural world. We can never be all that we were made to be without the God who created us.
I close with a line from one of my favorite poems.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,The Tyger by William Blake
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”