Lessons learned from the Coastal Path : a summer update
Hiking, or rambling as they call it here in England, has always been a favourite outdoor activity. I was in the Outing Club in university; I hiked through swaths of the western US as a younger woman… I even participated in Outward Bound as a teen. But it hasn’t been until this summer that some of the more subtle aspects of long distance walking have been so clearly highlighted. Lessons that I have learned at other times in my life through various movement practices — namely yoga, marathon running (hard to believe there was once a runner inhabiting this 48 year old body!) and even the practice of Rolfing, seemed embedded into every step.

In plain terms, this summer I feel my body aging. As I set off along the Cornish coast, rather than commencing with a spring in my step and a whistle on my lips, I felt my bones, my muscles…my aches. In my mind, I heard my fear. My knee, broken 4 years ago in a flook running accident, connected to more recent hip tenderness which said ‘hello’ to the spinal surgery of 2 years ago. Quite frankly, I set off feeling broken.
Despite this, set off I did, and step by step I shuffled up the slippery incline from the humid, cool stone cottage by the quay at the river’s head. After 10 minutes, I was winded, but having adjusted my step a few minutes in, to address my weak right knee, I no longer was fixated on the sensations down my right side. I almost felt…pain free! With plenty of breaks to admire the kestrels, buzzards, yellow hammers and goldfinches, and with a 10 year old son who lingered behind assessing every new wildflower, insect and berry, I had plenty of pauses in the rhythm to tune into my body and reset my mind.

Day by day, the terrain became more challenging, but my confidence grew stronger, too. As I walked I remembered all the months of waiting in agony to receive my liver, taking it day by day, remaining hopeful, choosing to be with my diseased body rather than escaping it. I reminisced about the 4 years spent afterwards intent on getting a diagnosis for my son’s atypical behaviour which seemed for most professionals to be beyond a label.

Memories of darker times as well as brighter days threaded through my mind as I walked, clearing them out like cobwebs hidden in the depths of a forgotten closet. Memories, shined bright with the flame of yoga and a respect for the journey unfolding.

The thing is, there is a time in our lives when the way forward is clear; it seems like life has almost been decided for us. Other times, though, a part of the path feels hidden…murky. Our minds get caught up in the need to see the path, to need to know where we are going, and that mental fixation causes anxiety, insecurity and doubt. In those times, the mind usually attaches itself to a story based on fear, and protection. ‘I’m scared of needing a knee replacement, let me walk very cautiously’, for example. The problem is, when operating from a place of fear, whether it is physical or emotional, secondary patterns start to emerge. Secondary physical patterns might then lead the hip to cling on to the spine, and all of a sudden the whole body becomes involved in a physio-emotional pursuit of guarding. Psychological secondary patterns are not different, they deepen the groove of projecting into the future based on experiences – triumphs and shortcomings, or trauma of the past.
Long distance walking, taking one step at a time, enables the path to reveal itself at the appropriate moment. Walking slow means there is the delight in the landscape; the symphony of one’s surroundings unfold in real time. The kestrel hoovers and glides before swooping in for its prey. A burst of wind drives a charm of goldfinches out of a tree and into the underbrush whilst pushing the small white butterfly up and over the hedge. A dog chases after its ball and almost nosedives over a steep cliff…all that would be missed if the preoccuptation with the storyline, the citta vrittis (mental fluctuations) were at play. These little details and glory of nature highlight my own faith in the universe, my own understanding that as humans, we are only a part of that grand design. Like everything, the right conditions give rise to berries ripening and birds singing, the wrong conditions lead to an early demise.

Like running, so much of travelling over distance by foot is in the mental attitude of the rambler. More than once I heard the conversations of fellow hikers;  nervous that they would not be able to get down, or back up due to wearing the wrong shoes, the heat, or a bad knee. Many times the partner of the one with concerns were abrasive and harsh rather than patient and supportive. Of course it can be frustrating to have to be patient or encouraging with a nervous walking partner, but when that partner is yourself (which it always is), it is invaluable to stay with what’s good. A few words of praise and enthusiasm go a long way, whatever the path, whomever you’re with, because of, and in spite of, the fear. As with yoga, playing an instrument, or learning to cook, learning to understand what is in the realm of possible, and what is probably out of limits, is a part of the learned self-awareness. This year, I chose not to hang off rock faces, and my body helped me to understand that one full day of walking meant the next day would be more restful.

Any challenge, taken step by step with awareness and inner listening, prepares us for other challenges in life. They act as reminders of what is possible, when the path is allowed to emerge organically with a balance of effort and surrender; discipline and grace. More than once I smiled, feeling the presence of a divine design. The power of faith can never be underestimated.

Today I feel grateful for my body, with all its scars, experiences and yes, even pain. I’m happy to have eyes to see and ears to hear, and a heart that beats with all of the natural world.