Journeys, Meditation, and Answers
While I was living in Shanghai a year ago, though I had tried it before, I started to read some books and take meditation seriously. I started a practice in which I would meditate 20 minutes in the morning and evening, switching it up at times to 30 minutes once a day, and usually for periods of a couple weeks I would be consistent and then drop it off for a similar amount of time, but I would always pick it up again. As soon as I knew I was doing the AT I was excited about meditating while hiking. I thought that meditation would help me complete my journey and that nature would be a supportive environment.
Back then, in my meditation reading, I learned that an essential difference between serious and ordinary practitioners is accepting the practice as a journey rather than seeking a result. Meditation is said to have many practical benefits such as stress relief and improved focus, and it’s true that meditation can have these benefits and is worth doing for them alone, but if you’re meditating only for immediate rewards then you’re not meditating in any serious sense. That’s a different kind of process.
These benefits can be found in many ways, one of them being meditation, but meditation also has more unique benefits available to those who commit to its journey. What this means for the committed meditator is that not every session is going to be a success, it’s going to be part of a trial, it’s going to be one step forward, a bit of effort every time you sit down to practice. Recognizing the hard times as part of the journey helps you get past those times when the meditation doesn’t work, because a lot of the time you sit down and you just can’t do it. It’s just not a good day. There’s no focus or relaxation. But the very practice of sitting down and trying to meditate, that, for the journeyer, becomes a benefit in itself.
It was a bit hard to meditate for the first part of my journey hiking with my brother. It’s a bit too much to say, “hey, wait up another thirty minutes while I sit down in silence,” every morning. That’s just not a great way to go when you’re with a partner. But once I was on my own and had gathered the motivation—granted it took me a while—I again started a regular practice. Eventually I just sat down and did it.
And while I was meditating one of those first few times I had a bit of an insight. I recalled that aspect I had encountered in my reading that related meditation to a journey, and something clicked in my head that made me understand more deeply than before. I started to match things up. I realized that meditation is a journey I am on; I have accepted this journey. And I realized the Appalachian Trail is a journey that I am on, a journey that I have accepted. And I also connected my writing, my pursuit of art and literature; this is also a journey I am on. And I realized that my life is made up of these journeys that I have taken on. And I also realized that these journeys aren’t clearly defined. The AT is a journey that I am on, but did it start when I started the trail? Does it end the moment I get off? I don’t think so. I think it’s part of a longer journey that I began long ago and that will end perhaps only when I die. It’s perhaps part of the journey of my pursuit of meaning in life, perhaps the journey of my career, but regardless it’s a journey I am on. And though there are no clear boundaries there’s a sense of an area. I can identify these as separate journeys. My meditation and my writing and the Appalachian Trail: blurred yet distinct, as is the nature of all boundaries in life for those who can soften their eyes.
In light of these journeys I returned to thinking about my brother getting off the trail. The Appalachian Trail was perhaps not one of or part of his journeys, at least not a journey he had accepted into himself. But I began to think, not just for the AT but for all journeys, how essential it is not to quit. To never end a journey prematurely. Because the nature of an accepted journey has nothing to do with how well it’s going, nothing to do with the rewards. There will be low points. There will be terrible moments, times when you feel like quitting, times when it seems not worth it, but the point of a journey is that you are on it and nothing more. It’s a matter of faith that this path you have chosen is your path and that you as a mere person are incapable of perceiving its ultimate ends.
Looking at journeys this way is spiritual, but I also think it’s necessary. This is how great things are achieved; this is how lives are entirely wasted from one perspective and entirely validated from another. A journey is a commitment to something within ourselves, perhaps to the very nature of ourselves. Because we’re born into this world with no idea of what we’ve gotten into. We don’t know why or how we started or why or how we end, if we end. We can only move forward. In a way life itself is this type of journey. Which is no new statement—we hear a million times that life is a journey—but the important thing here is to recognize the similarity between the simple faith that is required to continue being alive with the faith that is required to continue on an endeavor.
What it comes down to is that the state of the journey becomes irrelevant, at least the perceived state of the journey, because one thing we can’t trust once we’ve committed to a path is our perception of that path. That perception is inadequate; the path becomes greater than the person. What really motivated me was applying this faith to these paths in my life. I came to a conclusion to a question I had long been dealing with, that is, which direction does my life go? What will I do after the trail?
There are many things I am interested in. Do I pursue counseling or clinical psychology? Do I get a PhD in something to become a professor in film studies, literature, theology, semiotics? Do I throw myself into more adventures and traveling and hiking for experience? Or do I continue to pursue writing? After it had occurred to me that writing was one of my paths the question disappeared. I had decided what I will do after the trail long ago. It’s the same pattern of development that happened when I arrived in college. I thought, well, I know I want to write, but I could be studying some other major to inspire my writing while opening up safer careers. So I did some math and psychology and philosophy and film, throwing myself around, leaning towards different majors, theater as well, until in the end I came back to literature and writing. No other major really fit, and after all, it was what I wanted to do. And I think a similar thing has happened to me now with all this time spent throwing my fate around in my head on the trail. I’ve jabbed off in a few different directions but have now ultimately returned to writing. Writing in particular is a craft that requires faith. Gratification is few and far between and the rewards are small. The perception of the state of the journey is often rather dismal or confused. Writing was already a journey that I never could have left. Why? Because I’m on it. Because that is the nature of journeys.
There were a couple points from my musing that I wrote in trail journals. One of them was, “A journey is not the perception of progress but the perception of effort,” and another I wrote was, “Nothing matters but the forward spark.” Those are both thoughts I hold very true now. And, interesting enough, since then my meditation has been the best and most consistent it’s ever been.
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