by Kay Peterson
While leading a mindful hiking retreat through the mountains last weekend, I was reminded of a line from the J. R. R. Tolkien poem in The Lord of the Rings —“Not all those who wander are lost.” As we paused in a meadow for an intentional “aimless wandering” practice, we gleefully explored our surroundings and noticed the details—the blue-eyed grasses beginning to bloom and the lady bugs swinging on the tall grass. How liberating it feels to stop and just look up at the sky without worrying what other people might think.
Of course, Tolkien was also referring to the powers of perception. Sometimes we forget that things are not always as they first seem and rarely remain as they first appear. For me, there is no more powerful way to remind myself of this than by wandering in nature. In the course of a summer day at Shambhala Mountain Center, I can wake up to the birdsong signaling the promise of a warm, sunny day. As that day unfolds, I watch the clouds build over the mountains in the west. I feel the weather change and I brace myself for a storm. Then by late afternoon, anticipation lets go to showers so sweet that the fresh scent of wet sage lingering in the valley reminds me that the earth’s thirst has been once again quenched.
Nature gently highlights the opportunities I miss when I’m quick to judge a person or situation based on first appearances or familiar assumptions. Like that supposedly sunny day, I can unintentionally make my world very small with limited possibilities.
When I woke up that day, I immediately felt the excitement and anticipation of the hike I planned to take to the top of the mountain overlooking the continental divide. As I followed each switch back up the mountain, I marveled at the diversity of vegetation and relished the vast span of open space that I could call home, if only for a short time. As I clamored up the last section of rocks toward the vista I could feel my heart beat with eagerness. I looked up and there it was—the grandeur of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains spilling out across the horizon as far as the eye could see. It stopped my mind and a sense of stillness and calm washed over me. Suddenly, my eye caught a small patch of lighter green on the distant mountainside and my mind locked on. I could feel myself search for explanations,”Must have been a clear cut from the seventies or so. What a shame. This pristine forest marred by consumption.” I turned and looked over my shoulder toward the dark clouds building and started to plan my journey back down to shelter.
Emotions are a natural part of being human, but they can also capture and blind us. In a flash, I can go from feeling a sense of awe at a spectacular vista to remembering something I need to do and worrying about the future. One moment I’m enjoying the dynamic mountain sky and the next I’m worrying that I’ll get soaked in a rainstorm. The good news is that this bigger, sacred world remains all the while just waiting for me to stop, see and appreciate that all that I need is already there.
The name of Tolkien’s famous poem is “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter.” In our fast-paced and high-tech world, we’ve learned to pay attention to the sound bytes, the flashy buttons, the clever speech and all too often miss the deeper message. Not that one is better than the other—I learn a lot from my urban life as well—but I can easily get swept into a virtual world that leaves me feeling like something’s missing. Then I know it’s time to refresh my connection to the natural world, slow down, rest in the simplicity of the moment and gain some perspective on my life and place in the universe by laying on my back looking up at the vast, starry sky.
As I look out over the continental divide from my favorite vista at Shambhala Mountain Center, I realize that I too can relax into the natural flow of the Rocky Mountain streams meandering toward the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. I giggle like I did the very first time I saw this view. With this kind of awareness, I can continue my journey into the unknown with confidence, curiosity and maybe even a little sense of humor.
Kay Peterson will lead two retreats at Shambhala Mountain Center this summer. Waking-up to the Wild: Hiking as Meditation June 28-30 and Waking-up to the Wild: Mindful Hiking on August 1-4
Photos by Doug Hamilton