Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday, I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another. To follow, please leave your email address.

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Hiking Through Grief

Men who are grieving often need to do something physical to help them work their way through grief. Since I don’t build things, I went hiking.

In the beginning, when I’m hiking, my goal is to get to the scenic viewpoint at the top of the long, hard climb because I need to accomplish something, to take some control back over my life. Later on it’s not to get somewhere, it’s to exist somewhere, to feel grounded in something solid.

When I’m in the midst of a traumatic situation, everything feels fluid, and I’m unable to focus on anything for very long. This is what Buddhism calls “monkey mind,” where hundreds of thoughts are screeching, chattering, and jumping around, all wanting my attention.

When I’m hiking alone on a backcountry trail through territory where bears and mountain lions live, I need to be attentive to the present, and aware of my surroundings if I want to survive the hike. I don’t want to be preoccupied with what happened yesterday but to focus on the here and now. I can handle this one thing, this present moment, and what I am feeling right now.

As the hours go on of putting one foot in front of the other, I begin to remember who I am. Hiking moves me out of the jumbled rush of thoughts in my head and into the wisdom of the body. Slowly my battered heart shows up.

What we discover on the journey is what matters, because this is where we grow. If we listen closely to the guidance of nature, our lives can be transformed.

While we love the scenic viewpoints because they take our breath away and inspire us, it’s during the step-by-step journey of traveling there that we do the hard work of making adjustments to our lives and preparing ourselves to have the ah-hah moments.

In wilderness areas like Yosemite in California, the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, and the Tetons in Wyoming, we can stop on any trail, look around, and see a view, animal, plant, or natural formation that leaves us amazed that such a thing could exist.

In Yosemite, for example, there is a natural pillar of quartz by Sentinel Dome. By the Indian Caves, a large, flat slab of rock has grinding holes in it that the Ahwahnechees used to grind acorns, one of their main sources of food. On the wall near the Three Brothers rock formation, there are long grooves that glaciers made as they chugged by.

When I take my time and linger on the trail to North Dome, I learn the details of its environment, and how the terrain builds up to the dome. When I see an abandoned path, I push through the brush, find a small meadow, and explore its landscape — the wildflowers, chipmunks, and the specific birds that live there. Knowing the details begins a relationship with the land.

The hours on the trail help me work my way though the Big Questions. When I reach the scenic viewpoint, I often have the beginning of an answer.

Yet the wilderness is not just a place of raw beauty. It’s also a place where life struggles with death and animals and birds are trying to survive. Along the trail I notice the bones of squirrel, a pile of feathers that used to be a bird, and a habitat that once supported a community of wildlife that was destroyed by a forest fire.

Even the beauty of Yosemite Valley exists because of massive trauma. It was a gentle mountain glen before the glaciers came through, broke it apart, ground up its rock, and left a mile-deep valley with sheer vertical granite walls.

Trauma in the lives of many people has also ripped away their dreams and redirected the course of their lives.

If we are grieving, spending time on the trail gives us hours for the flurry of surface thoughts to settle so that we can hear what is going on inside us. In the deepening solitude, feelings rise to where we can deal with them. We remember who we are, and our spirits re-ignite. Hiking becomes a walking meditation.

If we are concerned about others who are grieving, it’s necessary for us to listen to their journey, and as we linger with them, we come to understand their struggles. Our compassion helps bring life back into their lives.

The grief of others becomes real when we listen to their details.

I want to be open to this moment, to everything it is. I want to laugh with people when they are happy, and cry when they are in the midst of sorrow. Every day I want to notice the wonders that appear on the side of the trail and linger in their mystery.

Grief is not a problem to be solved. It’s a journey of reclamation and discovery.

One of my essays was published this week by The Manifest Station. It's about the parallels between grief and being hard of hearing. You can read it here: