Zen on the Trail – Psychology Today

As we round the corner into spring, many of us will be eager to get out on the trails to hike and enjoy time in nature. Alongside our physical restlessness, we may also feel a need for exercise and challenge. A new book by Zen Buddhism scholar and avid hiker, Christopher Ives, offers us a fascinating and accessible look at traditions of Japanese Zen Buddhism in which long-distance hiking or running is part of spiritual practice of monks, interwoven with and a practical guide to making our own experiences on the trail more meditative and potentially transformative.

Dr. Ives kindly agreed to a (written) conversation about his book, Zen on the Trail: Hiking As Pilgrimage

Source: Wisdom Publications

The basic message of your book is that hiking can serve as a form of spiritual pilgrimage. Going out onto a trail can be—if we open ourselves to experiencing the hike in this way—a journey inward. The actual destination isn’t important; what matters is how we hike, not where we’re headed. Would you elaborate on this?

I find myself concerned about the driven-ness that some people bring to outdoor activities like hiking—the to reaching the summit of a mountain, walking a large number of miles in a day, or doing something extreme.  In the book I’m trying to sketch an approach to hiking that is more about slowing down, paying , and being fully in nature as nature. 

Can you talk about the meaning of “pilgrimage” and how this might apply to what we experience on the trail?

In the book I define it as “journeying from one’s home to a distant sacred site, with encounters and challenges along the way, for the purpose of getting close to something powerful and gaining a benefit, whether a experience, peace of mind, healing, a solution to a problem, or even salvation itself.”  When hiking is done mindfully as a kind of spiritual practice, it can be a form of pilgrimage, for the person is unplugging, getting away, clearing one’s head, walking in nature as a kind of sacred place, encountering power if not mystery, and coming home transformed.

One often thinks of and “going inward” as something that we do when seated and quiet. How does the physicality of hiking help awaken us to spiritual reflection or growth?

Zen meditation is quite physical, and it is usually taught as a pouring of oneself in the action at hand, whether breathing in seated meditation, chanting, doing chores around the monastery, or engaging in artistic pursuits. Similarly, the physicality of hiking, especially when we pour ourselves into each step on the trail and fall into a rhythm, takes on a meditative quality.  Moreover, fully embracing our embodiedness as we breathe, walk, and sweat (and perhaps groan!) on the trail is one path to the realization of our embeddedness in a larger world.

What experiences from your own life prompted you to think of hiking as a form of pilgrimage? Was there a particular hike that felt to you like a pilgrimage?

In my I spent a lot of time in the woods, and though at that time I didn’t know anything about Buddhism or contemplative practices, my jaunts were spiritual journeys insofar as I would lose myself in concentrating on the act of fishing, feel calm as I settled into the rhythm of walking, and stand in awe of I encountered outdoors.  After I started practicing Zen in college and then went off to Japan for a number of years, I realized how similar certain aspects of backpacking were to Zen life and how my practice of Zen was coloring what I did when out on the trail.  There was no one particular hike that triggered this realization, and in recent years I’ve tried to make each of my hikes a kind of spiritual outing and hence a pilgrimage.

In Zen on the Trail, you write, “When transformation does occur, it may derive less from the sacred destination than from the time spend in the liminal state, away from ordinary life in society.” Can you talk about what you mean by “the liminal state”?

The concept of liminality comes from anthropologist Victor Turner’s discussion of how rites of passage (and pilgrimages) consist of three phases: 1. separation from normal life in society, 2. a marginal or liminal state that is a kind of sacred bubble in which normal social markers and statuses do not apply, and 3. the return to society. We see these features in pilgrimages like the Hajj, and Turner’s theory applies to hiking insofar as we leave normal life with all of the roles, responsibilities, busyness, and and take a break, reflect, recharge, and perhaps even change.

Does one have to go on strenuous multi-day hikes to experience hiking as a pilgrimage? Or can we apply this concept even to a walk around the block?

If approached with , attentiveness, and curiosity, even a walk around the block or simply out to the garden can be a pilgrimage.  When I started writing the book I was thinking my audience would be fellow hikers, but the more I wrote the more I realized I wanted the book to speak to all people who like to head outside or yearn to connect more deeply with nature. 

One description I’ve seen of your book says that you help readers learn how to walk on trails. Could you give people a few quick ideas about how to walk on trails more mindfully? 

Source: Adam Bautz/Flickr

Practices that I find helpful are taking a few deep breaths and collecting oneself at the trailhead before starting to hike, pausing after a few minutes of walking to check in with each of one’s senses as a way to attune to what is happening in and around oneself, slowing down to about 80% of the pace at which one might normally walk, pouring oneself into the act of walking (similar to how people pour themselves into the act of breathing when doing seated meditation or yoga), stopping from time to time to take in one’s surroundings and be fully present, finding a beautiful spot along the way to meditate or simply rest, and taking as one’s goal for the walk the act of being fully in a place as opposed to getting to a summit or completing the walk quickly.  In short, this is about shifting from ego-driven doing to spirit-filled being.

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