(This article is by guest writer Leigh Anderson. For a short bio, see below.)
Lately I become distracted often. This tendency has only increased in a world where people read and write in 140 characters or less. I’m old enough to know that living life in brief bursts of activity doesn’t help develop wisdom. Shouldn’t increasing our wisdom be a major goal in our life? If I plan to become wiser I should attempt to make better use of my time. At least that’s what I thought I should do.
Several years ago, I began a morning meditation practice for ten minutes each day to slow myself and my life down a bit. It’s a small amount of time but that makes it easy to develop into a daily habit. Ten minutes of focus a day might be viewed as a brief burst, but the long-term benefits start adding up quickly. After a year I found myself able to handle stressful situations easier. Stuck in morning traffic? Count your breaths for a moment. Waiting on lunch delivery expected 20 minutes ago? Practice a loving kindness meditation and all will seem better. The results of the ten-minute daily habit appeared in my life without much extra action on my part.
Still, I felt I wasn’t bringing enough awareness to the remainder of the day. I felt I should be living more of an attentive spiritual life. I live in a rural Texas area and am lucky to be able to walk out my front door and immediately envelop myself in nature. I walk regularly, but at some stage the same route becomes so familiar you lose the ability to see things that aren’t uncommon. As Alexandre Horowitz points out in On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation, “With less to notice, time speeds up.” This is most obvious when you’re driving and find yourself several miles down the road and don’t remember how you arrived there. You stop observing the familiar and time seems to pass you by.
I thought my walking routine would be more effective if I listened to audiobooks or podcasts. At least then I would learn something while I was getting some healthy exercise. What could be more effective than multi-tasking? (Yes, I see the humor in that question now.) I recently started reading Rebecca Solnit’s masterpiece on walking, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Each time I sat down to read the book, though, I would feel the impulse to stand up and join her cast of walkers. It was shiny object syndrome through reading. I purchased the audiobook version so I could listen to the tales as I took my daily walk. As Solnit went through the lives of historical figures, for whom long walks were an essential part of their day, I walked along. My walks were only 20 – 30 minutes compared to their days long journeys, but I felt as if I was walking with them. With my headphones on I walked with a purpose.
I was surrounded with Solnit’s voice and the stories of her band of travelers. But wearing noise cancelling headphones cost me the ability to hear birds singing and other sounds of nature. I was paying more attention to the voices in my head than to my surroundings.
My walks are short and I walk the same route every day. Despite that, I felt as if I was on the same spiritual path as Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Wordsworth and others who blazed day long walking trails. My path takes me through several large fields connected by barbed-wire fences. A mostly untouched forest of tall pine trees, large oak and sycamore trees, and plentiful yaupon bushes border the path. It’s dark in the forest because of the thick undergrowth. Sunlight has a difficult time finding space on the ground. I see no further than ten to twelve feet inside the forest boundary. It’s a good habitat for white-tailed deer, and assorted predators such as bobcats, foxes, and coyotes.
One day I listened to Solnit discuss Thoreau’s views on walking. Thoreau believed the intent behind walking is sauntering, which derives from people who roved in the Middle Ages looking for ‘Saint Terre’, the Holy Land. For Thoreau each walk became its own crusade.
This was something to ponder. Maybe that meant I should walk slower. Maybe that meant I should walk in a more spiritual frame of mind. Maybe that meant…
I could hear twigs and branches breaking in the forest. My mind moved to the smallest culprit, a squirrel. As I continued walking, I thought about how large an animal would need to be to break sticks that I could hear through my headphones.
Solnit’s words kept playing, and I kept up my pace. I heard more branches breaking. The sounds came from behind, but they seemed to keep pace with my walking speed. This was too loud to be a squirrel. The next option was a deer, but a deer wouldn’t have pursued me. It would watch silently or run the other direction.
My thoughts raced to memories of the barking sounds of dogs I hear in the mornings. On pleasant days I open my window when I journal. I listen to the forest as it wakes. I don’t know where the dogs come from, or whether they are tame or wild. Only that they seem to roam somewhere in the forest each morning and bark incessantly at something. As I looked across the field, I realized I was halfway through my route. It was the worst place to be if I needed to find shelter or a safe space. As plentiful as the trees in the forest are, none of them are easy to climb.
I considered that I might be letting my imagination get the better of me. I walked further with my headphones on, but my concerns had already tuned out the audiobook. A few more strides and more crunching noises followed me.
I stopped and removed the headphones. The cool air on my ears amplified the muffled noises. Birds were singing, and there was a light breeze. Crickets and cicadas were droning. And yes, now it was clear. There was something heavy walking in the woodland and it was still moving. It wasn’t running, but it was following me.
I peered into the thick forest but could barely make out a few small patches of sunlight in the dark shadows. The noises stopped parallel to where I stood, but in the dark, I could see nothing. A shape moved about twelve feet away. A large, dark quarter circle shape about waist height that moved a few inches. That was all I could see. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what to do. I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I only knew that I had no escape if I needed one.
I heard a quick grunting sound and my heart beat faster. My breaths became shorter. Before this I considered that whatever it might be, it was curious, and unless it was a wild dog, it didn’t pose a danger. A wild dog would have run after me, though, and not walked through the forest. This wasn’t a dog. It was a feral hog. This was a creature for which my memory came up with blanks while I tried to think what to do.
There are approximately 2.6 million feral hogs in Texas. Solitary hogs are more likely to be males. They are omnivores, and can be predators. I knew none of this at the time. I knew only that someone once told me to stay out of the way of feral hogs because they will “go after you”.
In seconds my brain went through several escape scenarios and discarded them all. This creature was unpredictable and I knew nothing about it. I was left with only my instincts. My fight-or-flight instinct suggested that flight wasn’t the correct choice. At that point a primal urge took over, and I mimicked the animal and grunted back. Time seemed to stand still, but in a few seconds I heard the animal retreating a few steps from where it had come.
My heart raced faster and I could feel heat rising in my ears even though the beast was now gone. The incident had taken place while I was completely visible in the sunny field as my unseen opponent hid in the dark forest just a few feet away. I didn’t want to take the chance of it following me again. I couldn’t continue on the same path. I wanted to be back in my warm, safe home as soon as I could get there. I cut across the field through the high grasses at a fast pace. The morning dew clung to my pants and when I arrived home my pants and shoes were as wet as my sweat-soaked shirt.
I know now that walking in Solnit’s view is less about exercise and more about observation and reflection. The first time I encountered something unexpected it was frightening because I wasn’t paying attention to my environment. As Horowitz states in her opening, “Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you.”
Meditation isn’t about getting rid of all the thoughts in your head. It’s about learning to be attentive to what is going on at this moment and ignoring distractions. A meditative walk is about paying attention to your surroundings and observing the ordinary rather than overlooking it. My ill-advised attempt at trying to gain wisdom by doing too many things at one time offered me a new, more enlightened view of walking, and for living life.
I was trying so hard to find wisdom in other people’s journeys that I hadn’t realized how much wisdom I had picked up from my own brief morning meditations, and short purposeful walks. Even my writing is often done in short spurts when I can find the time. But it all adds up. It adds up to a body of wisdom created over a lifetime and not in one day.
I can’t say anything would have been different when I encountered the feral hog if I had been more attentive, but it wouldn’t have come as such a surprise. I no longer tune out my environment with headphones as I walk. Instead, I pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells of the world around me. I make an effort to look at both small sedentary objects and bright-colored birds when I am outdoors. I don’t walk at a fast pace, I saunter. I’m learning to discern the signs on the ground and in the trees of the animals that may have been on my path but have since moved on.
Or they may still lurk in the forest somewhere, watching and waiting because they’re just as curious about me as I am about them. Maybe we’re both learning to increase our wisdom as we get older. One brief moment at a time.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.