The 5 Rules for Doing a Contemplative Hike

lone hiker crested butteThere are many reasons why people go hiking in Colorado. They want to experience the scenery and get some exercise. They want to spend time in a quiet, natural setting and get away from city pollution and noise. They want to go for a walk with a friend, a pet, a lover or a child in a pleasant environment. They want to test their athletic acumen by “bagging” a Fourteener (a 14,000 ft. mountain) or enduring a particularly long and grueling trail.

Some want to hike for a slightly different reason—to allow for the mental and physical space to introspect about their life or to experience a spiritual connection to nature. This is the reason I’m writing my book, “Contemplative Hiking Along the Front Range”—to offer those seeking a more introspective, spiritual and mindful experience in nature ideas on exactly how to do so and to guide them with specific activities to do when they embark on the trail.

When I was younger, hiking meant exploring new landscapes and getting a good dose of cardiovascular exercise at the same time. I moved to Denver, Colorado in 1994 and couldn’t wait to see what lie west of the Front Range. I would drive up I-70 on the weekends looking for places to park and go walking, but I wasn’t very sophisticated about it, not knowing what a topo map was or how to find a trailhead. I’d end up doing more driving than hiking, and when I did discover a popular trail I usually went at the most popular time—on a summer weekend morning. I took my dog, I went with my family, and I talked about problems, politics and gossip. I got a lot of good exercise, but most of the time my mind didn’t feel more relaxed for the experience.

I remember one day in particular many years ago when I was feeling in despair about my life. I was overwhelmed with responsibility and felt claustrophobic with mental chatter and worry. My clients were being difficult and my personal life was unraveling. I knew I needed to take a break, even for a day, and I needed to go somewhere by myself where I could just breathe and BE.

I drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park and used the park map I received for my entry fee to find a trail close to the road within a few miles of the entrance. I ended up on the Deer Mountain Trail, a gradually ascending south-facing trail that wove through stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine. Before the trail turned north and encircled the west slope of Deer Mountain, there was a treeless stretch of trail with an expansive and glorious view of the 12,000 – 14,000 foot mountains to the south and west. I remember that day being clear and sunny, and there was just a little bit of snow left on the peaks.

I stood there, doing what I intended to do before I even stepped on the trail, which was to breathe and just be. I took in the view and a feeling washed over me, unlike any I had before. I was no longer seeing a mountain range. I was seeing backwards and forwards through time. These mountains that I was seeing would be here long after I was gone. They’ve already been here for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years before they appeared in my awareness. No matter what my problems were, they were just a spec, a dot, a grain of sand on a beach compared to the solidity and magnitude of these arrangements of minerals and soil. No matter what was going on in my life, these mountains were constant and unmoving.

This felt comforting to me. It was something for my mind to hold onto, something permanent I knew I could rely on. If all else failed, these mountains that felt so comforting and looked so beautiful would be here for me to visit any time. I could count on that permanence in a way I couldn’t count on anything or anyone else in my life.

The things I had been worrying about before my journey that day felt almost silly. The mountains didn’t care about such trivialities. What’s one or even several “bad days” when you stand tall and firm despite millennia of wind, blizzard, scorching sun and rain? I knew at that moment that there was something in me that stood tall and firm, too. I knew that there was something in me that was as timeless and sacred as the mountains and forest.

That was the very first contemplative hike I went on, but it was that was by accident. It was probably not an accident that ten years later, I remembered that moment when I decided to change careers and embark on a graduate program in ecopsychology. I was going to learn how human mental health was dependent on a connection to a healthy environment, but I already knew about the healing aspects of a simple walk in the mountains. I already knew how the trees could make me feel soothed and whole in a way that no T.V. show, no mall, no purchase could make me feel. I already knew how one afternoon looking at a mountain range from a trail in the woods could change my life.

A contemplative hike can be healing and invigorating, or it can simply be calming and restorative. It can bring about a revelation. It can connect you to the wisdom of the Universe and provide surprising answers to personal or existential questions. It can help you find your purpose. It can help you get unstuck from a destructive thought or worry. All these things are possible, and I’ve experienced each benefit more than once.

There is no right way or wrong way to do a contemplative hike, but there are certain ground rules to follow. The purpose of these rules is to open your mind to the experience and allow you to tap into your own wisdom and natural healing ability that’s usually hidden by everyday chatter and distractions.

1. Set an intention before you start.

Why are you on the hike? Do you want to calm your mind and relax? Do you want to reflect on the loss of a loved one? Do you want to become more present and grounded? Do you want to have the answer to a difficult question? Setting an intention is stating the reason you’re there and asking the forest or mountain or meadow for insight or permission to use its energy for that expressed purpose.

An example of an intention may be, “I want to let go of the fear I’m feeling around my future somehow. Mountain, please allow me to see that I have nothing to be afraid of and that everything is going to be O.K.”

Or it could be as simple as, “I intend to let go of any judgment or expectations about this hike and open up to whatever happens.”

The purpose of setting an intention is to subconsciously prepare your mind to receive any feelings, thoughts and insights from your hike. I’m always amazed at how different my experience is when I go hiking without intention (just for exercise or for fun) and when I’m fully present to what I’m doing from the first moment I’m doing it.

2. Cross an imaginary or real threshold into sacred time.

After setting an intention, you want to imagine crossing a real or imaginary threshold that delineates “regular” time (your everyday, profane life) with “sacred” time (open to otherworldly or spiritual experiences). This also flips a subconscious switch that allows you to experience what many ecopsychologists call “dream time.” It’s a period of time when unusual events become omens and communication between species can happen through symbols and telepathy.

When you’re in sacred time or dream time, a dead chipmunk means something to your narrative. A hawk flying overhead is the answer to the question you came with. An elk’s bugle is a reflection of your own wildness. In a profane, linear worldview these things would not have deeper meaning, but from a spiritual view these are all ways you’re connected to all living things, and the world is constantly trying to tell you something about yourself.

3. Be silent.

This is by far the most important thing about doing a contemplative hike. You may forget to set an intention, or maybe you chose not to imagine a threshold. Despite that, you may still have a good experience if you’re silent on your hike. That’s because silence allows you to be mindful and present in a way that can’t happen when you’re chattering away with your companion about what happened an hour ago, what you want to do next weekend, and how a particular person gets on your nerves. I would have to say that 98% of the time we’re having a conversation with another person it’s about the past or the future and it’s hardly ever about what’s happening now, unless you specifically make it a point to observe the now.

Have you ever been walking on a beautiful trail and passed a group of hikers who were so absorbed in their conversation you wondered if they were even aware of their surroundings? It’s even worse when their conversation is so animated that their proclamations and laughter boom and echo out as if they’re on a playground at recess.

Being silent is an easy rule to follow if you’re hiking alone, unless you have a habit of talking to yourself. But when you’re with a hiking companion, be sure to agree ahead of time to hike in complete silence, except when it’s absolutely necessary or unless your intention is to reflect on something in the moment or perform a contemplative activity together that requires asking and answering questions.

4. Watch your monkey mind.

You can tell your mouth to be silent, but you’ll never silence the mental chatter in your mind. Unless you’re a lifetime meditation practitioner or a professional yogi or something, you’re going to have a hard time shutting up the constant narrative in your head.

You’ll be walking along and thinking about all the things you need to do when you get home. Or you’ll get hungry and mull over what you want to eat after the hike. Or you’ll have judgments about the hikers that just passed by, or the person you’re with. You’ll think back to that nasty little exchange you had with your boss or client the other day and obsess about it for a good chunk of time before you even realize what you’re doing.

It’s normal and unavoidable – you will have a loop of meandering thoughts or “monkey mind” on a hike or any time you’re trying to be silent and meditative. The way to handle this is a technique that’s used in mindfulness meditation. When you recognize that your thoughts are pulling you away from the present moment, focus on your breath. The reason for this technique is that whatever is happening, wherever you are, you always have your breath with you. It’s steady, unfailing, and brings you back to the present moment. It’s a visceral reminder of what you’re doing right this second to stay alive.

Once you come back to your breath, look around and experience what you see, feel and smell around you. It probably won’t be long before your thoughts stray again or go off on a tangent about why the trees have dead branches or what’s going on with the wacky weather that day. Which will lead you to remember something you forgot to do at home…like, close a window.

It’s impossible to avoid having monkey mind. When you start noticing that fact, you’ll be amazed at the kinds of things you tell yourself minute after minute, day after day. Usually it’s the same stuff, over and over. It can be an enlightening experience in and of itself.

Don’t try to control your thoughts or punish yourself for having monkey mind. Just be sure to check back in every once in a while and come back to the breath and to the trail.

stand of aspens

5. Don’t try too hard.

One of the mistakes I used to make early on when I first started doing contemplative hikes on a regular basis is that I would simply take it too seriously and try too hard to get “answers” or “signs” from nature.

I would look at a small stand of aspens that had snapped and toppled from an early autumn snowfall and wonder what it meant to my situation. Was it a sign of being caught unaware? Being too confident? Being inexperienced? I would analyze what it could possibly mean, but nothing at all was resonating with me. I was trying too hard.

What I learned was that the most powerful omens and insights come when you least expect it. When you’re tired from hiking for three hours and suddenly you hear a voice in your head that seems to come from nowhere, makes a profound and simple statement and suddenly you have an “aha!” moment. Or, the moment you give up trying to get a sign a raven suddenly flies overhead and drops something from its beak onto the ground in front of you. You’re enjoying a beautiful, clear day up the mountain and for some odd reason you get a really bad and dark feeling and turn back. Then later, you realize that if you hadn’t turned back when you did, you would have been caught in a dangerous lightening storm at the summit.

Insights, omens and revelations happen when you least expect them. So don’t think too much or try too hard to see meaning in things. Just tap into your heart and what it’s feeling. That’s where the best experiences come from anyway.

I’ve heard and read about people in all walks of life—doctors, corporate professionals, students—who were feeling stuck and out of touch with their soul’s desire have moments of intense clarity and understanding about some critical aspect of their life because of contemplative time they spent in nature. It’s hard to have these kinds of insights in our normally busy, distracted lives filled with cellphones, internet, television, and just the normal day-to-day communication we have to have with others. We could go years working jobs we tolerate, staying in relationships that are destroying our soul, and we don’t even know how bad it is until we are suddenly forced to spend an hour, a day, a week alone somewhere and it all hits us at once: We’ve been asleep in our life and have missed out on so much that’s possible, beautiful and liberating.