When men grieve, they often need to do something physical to help them along. Some men build things. I go hiking for a week in Yosemite.
My goal each day is to reach a scenic viewpoint, but I also want to find a place along the way where I connect to something solid and real.
Hiking is a walking meditation.
In the months after my wife’s death, home was an unending flurry of details, doubts and despair, and I was unable to focus on anything for very long. Buddhism calls this “monkey mind,” when hundreds of thoughts are screeching, chattering, and jumping around, each wanting my attention.
When I’m alone on a backcountry trail, my mind quiets. Hiking where bears and mountain lions live keeps my senses focused on the present. I don’t want to be thinking about what happened last month and miss the slight movement in the bushes.
As the hours drag on of putting one foot in front of the other, I begin to remember who I am. The rhythm of hiking moves me out of the labyrinth of thoughts and into the wisdom of the body. My mind clears, my battered heart shows up, and my spirits rise.
I remember what is important, come to understand what has happened, and make necessary adjustments to my life.
Nature puts my grief in perspective and reminds me that I am part of something much greater.
While I relish the scenic viewpoints because they take my breath away, it’s the long hours on the trail climbing up a mountain, and finding my way through thick forests, that prepare me to have those ah-hah moments.
In the wilderness areas of Yosemite, and in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana and the Tetons of Wyoming, I can stop on any trail, look around, and see a view, an animal or a natural formation that leaves me amazed. This is why I go hiking.
Grief becomes so encompassing, so intense, that it binds me into a tight ball. As I watch and listen to nature, and notice what wildflowers, chipmunks, and birds live here, my closed-up life opens again.
When I linger on the trail to North Dome, I see how the terrain falls away from the dome. On the dome’s top, I witness its process of exfoliation as foot-thick layers of the dome’s granite skin continue to pop up and peel off, releasing the pressure stored within, much as the fresh air at 8000 feet releases the pressure I feel inside.
The wilderness is not just a place of astounding beauty. It’s also a place where its creatures struggle against death. I find the carcass of a squirrel, a pile of blue feathers, and a habitat that once supported an entire community of wildlife that was destroyed by a forest fire.
What I learn about grief by hiking I share with others, and they talk about their own adventures with grief. As we linger with each other, we hear the details and come to understand the power and grace in our struggles.
The grief of others becomes real when we listen.
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 immersed in sorrow. And when I see wonders on the side of the trail, I want to linger and explore their mystery.
Grief is not a problem to be solved. Nor is life. They are journeys we take together.
Originally published in the Huffington Post as “Hiking Through Grief.”