Encountering God in the Green Tunnel
Lollygag here. I’ve had a hard time describing the spiritual aspect of my hike to friends and family since we finished. I took the hike for what it was and didn’t try to compare it to life before, so I couldn’t relate to normal life very well. During the hike, I didn’t really want to think about life off the trail; I just loved being on it! Now that I’ve been off the trail for 3 months, I can better appreciate the experience.
One of my goals for the hike was to explore “Seeing others how God sees them.” I took along several texts to guide me in this aspect of the journey and let them, the trail, and fellow hikers be my teachers. I’ll share three things that impacted me most during the hike. These spiritual formation practices helped me get through some tough days during the hike, and added significance to otherwise boring days.
The first book I read was The Naked Now by Richard Rohr. In it he describes the third eye way of seeing and how it compares to our normal viewpoint. There are three levels/eyes from which you can observe the world.
Let’s look at a sunset. Through the first way of viewing/first eye, one can see and appreciate the beauty of the sunset. Hey look at the pretty colors! With the second eye, the eye of reason, one might look at the sunset and see its beauty, and go one step further to explain the sunset. The sun isn’t setting, the earth is going around it! The sun is orbiting around in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is just one of ONE HUNDRED BILLION GALAXIES! That is the way I liked to view the sunset before our hike. Rohr describes the third eye as the “eye of true understanding (Contemplation).” A person viewing the sunset through the third eye “tastes” the sunset, and remains “in awe before an underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connected him with everything else.”
I tend to have a systematic, scientific mind, so the third eye way of seeing did not come easily for me. For the first month of our hike, I was kicking myself for not learning to identify more tree species from their bark patterns, or birds from their calls. I felt like even though I was seeing all of these things, I was missing out because I couldn’t name them.
By practicing contemplation and the third eye way of seeing, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the trail without needing to name it, own it, or explain it. I could see a beautiful bird or sunset, and appreciate the nuances of the experience rather than rack my brain. The world is a beautiful place. God gave us so many wonderful things to contemplate, but our minds can be bogged down by our need to explain them. It is fun to name and explain things, but names and explanations take you out of the moment. Through these more contemplative times, God taught me to see the world as it is.
Think of Me When You See a Tree
Even though Little Rhino and I hiked together every day, I still had more time alone with my thoughts than I knew what to do with. There are hundreds of wild yet unremarkable miles on the AT. Much of my religious experience has focused on teaching the mind. I’m glad for everything I’ve learned, but the trail quickly showed me I haven’t had much alone time with God. I hadn’t put my spirituality into practice. Along the way, I realized I needed to see myself the way God sees me, or even see God period! Had I taken time to just “be” with God and let Him accept me?
I tried several techniques to use this time to contemplate, listen, and ultimately just feel God’s presence. One of my favorites came from a joke from our Pastor in Little Rock. As he said goodbye, he said every time we saw a tree we should think of him and our congregation, and sent us off with a line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
When I thought about this, I was lead to appreciate every limb in the Green tunnel. Every tree is alive. Every tree is unique. I was constantly walking past trees, but when I stopped to appreciate and single out just one tree and all of it’s features, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it. With the right mindset, this appreciation extended to everything I encountered- other hikers, animals, even Lichens! We are all living monuments to God. These moments of clarity were rare, fleeting, and some of my best memories from the trail. And in the Green Tunnel no less!
Climb the Mountain to Climb the Mountain!
The AT is full of mountains. There is one 13 mile flat stretch near Carlisle, PA, and other than that you’re hauling yourself uphill or pounding your knees downhill. Some climbs reward you with a spectacular view, while others give you nothing but more ‘green tunnel’. Hikers refer to theses climbs as PUDS, or pointless up and downs. I have always resented that term. I didn’t want to think of any of my steps as pointless! While reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, I found a new way to experience PUDS.
“While washing the dishes, you might be thinking about tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means that you are incapable of living during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. When you’re using the toilet, let that be the most important thing in your life”- The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation -Thich Nhat Hanh
I read this nugget when we were hiking through Vermont, preparing to climb mountains, the White Mountains! These are not PUDS. The Whites have some of the most rewarding views on the trail. I realized that, even though they were rewarding on top, we usually spend hours climbing and at most 30 minutes on top enjoying the view. What a waste of time! If I didn’t live during the climb, I’m wouldn’t be living much at all. Climbing became the most important thing in my life! Instead of resenting that I had to pull myself and my pack up to 5,000 feet to enjoy a view, I looked for things to enjoy on the way up. The rocks are covered in Lichens of all colors. I appreciated things that go unnoticed: I could feel and hear my own breath. On a steep climb I could feel my heart!
Don’t be misled by these spiritual highlights. I spent most of the hike thinking about food, wondering where we might end up that day, entertaining the possibility of trail magic, talking to Little Rhino and others, and least of all, engaged in meditation or contemplation. The mind wanders so easily. With a little focus and a few spiritual formation tools, however, it can be directed to encounter something bigger. I made progress towards my goal of seeing others people how God sees them. I’m not there yet, but I can see the path. I’m struggling to use these practices in daily life (turns out washing the dishes is not as meditative as hiking).
Roads, power lines, and cement buildings don’t exactly inspire me to reflect on the nature of God. Looking back, it was easy to see God in the green tunnel! It’s different in civilization. You don’t feel dependent on anything when all the necessities of life are imminently available. It’s been hard to relate my ‘Aha’ moments to folks living in the great indoors because we don’t have a shared point of reference. I’ll give you an example:
I can tell you about the time I encountered God while hiking at night. I wasn’t using any spiritual practices. I was focused on a goal. I started at 6AM that day. After hiking for 15 hours I popped out to the shore of a lake and lay down in the sand. The Milky Way was painted clear across the sky, surrounded by stars. I was tired, hungry, low on food and water, and had a blister forming on my heel. After a moment I hiked on. I passed a perfectly good shelter with tent sites, passed a dry creek, and somehow passed the spring where I was supposed to get water. When I was finally ready to stop, I found myself on a steep hill covered with sharp rocks. I hiked on. At 11:30 PM, after hiking for over 17 hours and covering 32 miles I found a flat piece of ground covered in leaves. I have never been so thankful for a piece of flat ground! I didn’t care anymore that I was out of water or didn’t know where I was. I was satisfied to lay down and worry about those things tomorrow. I thanked God for the day and the flat spot and fell asleep without a care. Trials like this gave me a serenity that was complete.
Want to know what it was like to encounter God in the green tunnel? Head to your local trail-head and take a long walk!
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