Hiking as Mindfulness

Today I went for a hike in the Gatineaus (Quebec). I’m on holidays for a couple of weeks and I just wanted to be by myself in the woods for a bit.

I headed out of Ottawa and up to the National Capital Commission and Lac-Phillipe, the Lusk Cave Trail. I left my ipod behind and headed out on the 12 km trail with just my own thoughts. It was a cool day, a welcome relief from so many of the hot and humid days that we’ve had. The sky was largely overcast and there was (thankfully) not many people on the trails. I also planned my trip to be there as soon as the gate was opened for day visitors, so there weren’t even that many cars in the parking lot.

I headed out onto the trail. I soaked in my surroundings, taking time to just listen to the crunch of my hiking boots on the gravel.  For several minutes I focused my attention on how each foot step sounded on the gravel. As the texture of the path changed, so did the sound of my footsteps. I enjoyed the transition from gravel to sand, to the branch covered paths.

After a while, I let my attention move from my footsteps and take in all the sounds around me. The wind blowing gently on the tree tops.  I opened my ears to the chatter of the birds, and the sound of a flock of crows taking off in a cackling hurry. I let my senses fully opened and smelt the fresh air, the mud on the ground, the rotting of some of the dead foliage and trees. I soaked it in and connected those sensations deeply into my body.

For a little over four hours I hiked all on my own. I alternatively focused my attention on my surroundings, taking in the details of the forest and then on just letting my mind wander wherever it wanted to go. I enjoyed not numbing myself out with music as I typically do when I run or walk on the streets of my town. I enjoyed sometimes focusing on the exertion of my body up an incline, paying attention to my breathing, my muscles and the feeling of joy of making my body move.

At one point on the hike, a mother and daughter entered the trail from another path. They were chatting and wanted to talk to me. I really just wanted to sink into my own meditative hike.  After several efforts to separate myself from them by either trying to speed ahead of them, or stop and let them get far enough ahead of me, and somehow we kept bumping into one another over and over, I indicated to them that I appreciated their friendliness but I just wanted to be on my own for the hike. They were offended and told me that they were just trying to be friendly.  It was clear to me that it was hard for them to understand why I just wanted to be alone.  They were determined to ensure that I was not alone as if this could not possibly be what I wanted.

I decided to strike off onto another part of the trail, away from their need to connect with me because what I needed more than anything was to continue to connect with my inner thoughts and the awareness of the nature around me.

Fortunately for the remainder of my hike as I meandered down another path, I was left to myself.  It was easy to return my attention into my own body, into the awareness of the forest around me.

Returning to my car, I took a few moments on the park bench and closed my eyes. I practiced some deep breath and started at my head. Each breath I breathed in, I focused on a part of my body. The crown of my head, the tips of my ears, my cheekbones, my neck, my shoulders, and all the way down to my toes. I breathed in and out awareness of my body and its stillness. I breathed in and out contentment and joy at the time spent on the trail. I gathered my senses back into myself and just held that moment for a second longer.

When I got in the car and headed back to my friend’s house, I felt an amazing sense of calm and gratitude.  It was a powerful reminder of how much I depend on time alone and in the bush to re-calibrate and ground myself.


One of the practices that stuck from the workshop was a new way of thinking about gratitude. During the session the leader spoke to some teachings of Buddha. I might have this all wrong, but the teaching that stuck was that if you have a headache, be grateful you have a head.

I’m not why sure that was so profound, but it was.  I had this realization that I was pretty stuck in a BMW (bitching, moaning and whining) in my head – and maybe outside of my head too.  I felt like I needed to shift where I was spending my focus.  Like driving a car, I realized that as you steer the car in the direction your eyes go, then maybe the direction of your life is directed by whether you practice gratitude for the head, or BMWs for the headache.

I started a gratitude list on my facebook page. I committed that every day I would write five things that I was grateful for each and every day.  Some days the gratitude was easy. On other days, I reverted to the basic needs that were met in my life in appreciation that many people did not even have those with any sense of security. Some days my gratitude was for the roof over my head, the food in my fridge, the warm water in my shower, the general good health of my family members, and my comfy bed. Even writing that now, I feel deep gratitude for those deceptively simple things.

I learned that over time and I let the daily practice slip, I was crankier and less tolerant of things and people.  I was surprised to learn how much some people on my facebook friends list looked forward to the list. It touched me to learn that my gratitude list prompted others to start their own gratitude list in a myriad of different ways.  The spread of this simple practice was evident. 

The gratitude list was written solely for me. On the toughest days, it was often the most important to find the head in the headache and express gratitude for it.  But what I learned from practicing gratitude was that it had an impact on other people in my life. It shifted my focus and where I looked in my life.

I had yet to be consistent in meditation, but I was consistent in practicing gratitude. It felt like a good step in the right direction. 

Starting with mindfulness

Leaving the workshop with a friend, I confined this awareness of how disconnected I had become from my body.  I relayed how much my body hurt and received a referral to a massage therapist (RMT).  I called the massage therapist immediately and got an appointment for a week later.  In the meantime I struggled to do the meditation on a daily basis. I managed 5 minutes instead of the suggested 10 minutes.  I told myself it was something better than nothing.

 My first appointment with the RMT – let’s call him J – was another eye opener of how much stress I was carrying in my body… and how much denial I was in about it.  His hands met nothing but resistance in my muscles. I was solid as a rock and not in a good way. My shoulder blades had so many knots in the overlaying muscles that they felt as bumpy as my spine.  He spent the entire hour just trying to get my back to release.  He recommended weekly appointments to just try and get the muscles to a state where they were not in a state of constant knots. A recommendation for meditation and yoga was also made.

I love a deep tissue massage and myofascial release. I can tolerate a great deal of pressure and it might have something to do with the fact that I am often so disconnected from my body.  I am also a predominantly a kinesthetic learner.  I believe it is because I am a kinesthetic learner, I hold emotions tightly in the tissues of my body – joy, sorrow, grief, laughter.  With all the tension I had been holding in my body – an accumulation of years of grief, loss, stress, uncertainty – the myofascial release during the massage released a torrent of grief into my consciousness.  All I wanted when I got home from the massage was a hot shower.

As soon as that water hit my skin, I burst into great body wrenching tears. I sobbed under that hot steaming water for almost half an hour.  I cried for a lost relationship from two years ago that I had been holding on to in some way. I cried out my frustration of everything that I was struggling with at work. I cried out the exhaustion of being a single 24/7 parent to a child with significant learning disabilities and some mild mental health struggles.  I cried until there was nothing less and climbed out of the shower.

I slept that night better than I had in months and months.  And I returned the following week for more massage.  I was learning to connect my body, my heart and my brain together again.  They had been out of synch for so long. 

In the beginning

About a year ago I signed up for a workshop called like “Mindfulness as a Leadership Practice”.  It signaled the “opportunity to learn the practice of mindfulness, the power of being present and open, working with creativity, challenges and fear in a positive and effective way.”  Mainly I was draw into the promise of working with uncertainty, complexity and negativity – three things that dominated my work environment, internally and externally. I thought I might walk away with a couple of tools I might use.

The environment was a beautiful retreat space in the middle of downtown Toronto. It was serine, and peaceful. There were meaningful conversations, humour and authentic discussions. I met some wonderful people and heard inspiring stories of people working with change.  I’m not sure why I was surprised with something entitled “mindfulness”, but there was also meditation. I didn’t practice meditation.  I doubted my brain (or my body) was still for more than 3 minutes at a time. That was about to change.

The leader of the group lead us through our first meditation.  I struggled to stay connected to the process,  having to tell myself several times that I was “thinking” as the stray thoughts popped constantly  into my head. “Thinking” was what we were supposed to say to “shoo” those thoughts away.  At the end of 10 minutes my body felt different as if something was released. I thought to myself that I could maybe do that on a daily basis. It wasn’t so bad.

And then we did more meditations.  By the end of the day, I think we had done 6 meditations in total. However, the thing about meditation is that it connects your brain into your body.  After the third meditation, I knew I did not want to be connected to my body. It was tired, so very tired. And it HURT. There was so much tension and tightness held all over my body that I had been shutting out as my brain and body ignored each other.  Meditating brought me into my body and created an awareness of how neglected it had been.  I could hardly hold it together to finish the meditations.

Leaving the workshop, I knew something in my life had to change. I started to do a few things differently.