One of my favorite things about backpacking is the amount of time I have to think with such little distraction. One of the things that can get really annoying when backpacking is what I can say to myself – over and over, and over, again – with all that time to think… [up next, Part III: ”How to Continue a Relationship with Your Dad After He Dies…”]
Add in some pain and discomfort … or a LOT of pain and discomfort – like when my good buddy Dan O’Brien and I recently hiked the Halo Ridge route to the top of Mount of the Holy Cross – and you could find yourself spending several hours riding the fine line between pain and suffering.
That was me, dropping 3,000′ in 3 hours from the 14,005′ summit to our campsite below. With an arthritic foot and degenerating back, the pain actually started 5 hours before as we were leaving our first camp that morning. We had estimated the 3-mile ridge route to the summit would take about 3 hours. An hour in and only three-quarters of a mile covered, we knew it was going to be a very long day. That’s when my pain jumped the rail to suffering. Then I told my Ego to shut the ‘F’ up and just leave me with my pain. But he’s a tricky bastard so the dance began…
I tend to think of myself somewhat as a mindfulness expert. Heck, my consulting and coaching practice is based on it! I understand how we use thought to make meaning of our experiences. I understand that I can take the role of observer and choose how seriously to take my thoughts. From this perspective – and in this instance – I understand that suffering is the meaning I make out of the physical pain I’m experiencing and that if I don’t want to get on that train to Sufferville, I don’t have to. Pain and suffering are two different things. I don’t have to let the pain get to me.
I understand that pain is the result of my body – my meat bag – signaling to my brain that it has sensed something has gone awry. If that signal is significant enough to attract my attention, my intellect grabs hold of it. This amazing analytical and computational tool we always have at our disposal then does its job and tries to make meaning of it. I’m presented with a thought: “Ouch!”
It’s at this point that you have an option.
Imagine the Present Moment (i.e., now) is a train station and that every train coming through is a thought your intellect is creating. In this case, the destination on the train’s placard says, “Your Back Hurts.” If you get on that train, you begin a conversation with yourself about how your back hurts. Maybe you’re taking a trip down Memory Lane and remembering prior experiences with back pain. Maybe you’re reminding yourself what an idiot you’ve been not taking care of it before and then promising yourself to make a doctor’s appointment the instant you get home. Regardless of the particular route you’re taking to Your Back Hurts, the energy of this conversation intensifies your pain. This will continue until you get off that train. This is suffering.
What many of us are unaware of is that we don’t have to get on that train at all. We can simply remain in the Present Moment Station and let that pain train go on without us. We have this option with any of the thoughts our mind creates. All of our thoughts show up as trains in the station and we always have the choice to get on or let it go. When that train door opens, we get a sense of what’s waiting for us inside. If we haven’t paid much attention to the thought destination on the placard, we can feel what we’re in for because the thought we didn’t acknowledge gets insistent by triggering a somatic reaction to gain our attention. We can welcome that feeling in, see what it does for us, and then decide whether we want to actually get on the train and go there.
The empowering beauty of it is, if we do happen to get on the train, we can get off whenever we want. Another station will appear and we can let the train go on without us. When we realize that this is how it works, we can get curious about riding trains. We have an all-access pass so we can actually play with the various trains our thoughts bring into the station. Ride for a bit, see if you like the conversation, get off if you don’t.
Living life from this perspective is the key to experiencing joy and contentment.
On the rocky traverse leading to the summit of Holy Cross, I am so preoccupied with each step moving through the boulders, loose talus and scree that I barely notice my pain. Don’t get me wrong, it bubbles to the surface regularly but is typically displaced by, “Watch your step!” The climb down is different. There is a meticulously maintained trail leading down to our next camp for the masses who take the standard route. I no longer have unstable rocks and trail finding to focus on, my path is clear in front of me. All I have to do at this point is deal with the pain…
I take the role of observer. I can see and feel the meaning I’m making out of my experience through thought and decide how to engage. It’s not a matter of pushing things aside, ignoring, or stuffing feelings. It’s being open to whatever comes and understanding that the nature of life, thought, and experience is fluid.
On the way down from the summit, I did exactly that. I’d let the pain in, get a sense of what was hurting, when. Maybe make a change to my stride or readjust my pack, and then take a breath and look out to see what would catch my attention next. I remember enjoying the view, listening to the wind, wondering which patch of trees below hid our camp, and marveling at the trail construction. I found that if I lingered in the pain too long, the suffering would begin. The pain would intensify, my breath would shorten, my head would tighten, and I’d start telling myself that maybe I couldn’t go on, I wasn’t in shape for this, this trip was a mistake. I found that when I first became aware of the pain, I could just take a breath and look around, get curious about something, and the pain would end. Not intensify and lead into self-defeating self-talk, but just fade away from my awareness.
Once I got back into the forest below tree line, the air cooled and the scenery changed dramatically. There was so much more to look at, hear, smell and feel. The final mile flew by on the gentle breeze and I soon heard voices, a sure sign that camp was near and I’d finally be able to stop, drop my pack, and change into my comfy camp shoes.
If you would like to fully enjoy life and minimize suffering of all kinds, I can help … it’s what I do. You can message me here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.