Baden-Powell: Night-Hike, 1

Backcountry hiking plays into the satisfaction I gain from completing things on schedule. I plan the meals, I plan the mileage, I plan the timing, and I love it when we hike into a campsite about when I thought we would.

One reliable spring, endearingly called Little Jimmy, has survived the drought and lies within ten miles of Baden-Powell, the second-highest peak in the San Gabriels, an impressive 9406 feet. We planned to pick the kids up from school on Friday, drive up past La Canada into the San Gabriels, hit the trail by approximately 16:30 and do a short hike in to the Little Jimmy campsite. We’d top off the water bottles the next morning, bag Baden-Powell, and dry-camp somewhere between BP and Jimmy. We’d have just enough water to get us to midmorning or lunch the third day, by which time we were pretty certain we could make it back to the spring. I had an ambitious program to which I could make us all masterfully stick.

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Son the Elder looks out over the southern face of the San Gabriels on the way to Baden-Powell.

I realize that my compulsion to stick with the program is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I have the ability to be ruthlessly efficient and goal-oriented. On the other hand, it has the potential to tip out of control and be self-defeating, especially when it comes to goals that are qualitative and nuanced. Meditating provides an apt example, if difficult to describe. My meditation practice asks you to meditate two hours a day, once in the morning and once at night. At ten-day-courses, the necessity and benefits of this much meditation are explained forcefully. You’re trying to change the habits of your mind at the level of sensation. The only chance you have to make any headway is to put in time during which you’re at least observing honestly what your mind is actually doing.

The demands of this meditation practice is sort of a disaster with my compulsion to stick with programs, because I want to sit the two hours, but it gets hard to tell if I’m doing it because it’s the program or because I’m genuinely, fervently motivated to change my mind’s habits. And that uncertainty causes fallout in my mind about not being a good enough meditator, about not doing it right, which in turn creates all sorts of reactions of craving and aversion. I crave the feeling of completion, of having stuck with the program, of having made progress even when it’s clear that sticking to the program has infuriatingly interfered with the desired results of having stuck to the program. Although even that happens in shades and degrees – sometimes I’m kind of sticking to the program and kind of doing the meditation (or whatever else it might be) for itself. And this in-betweenness, this “kind of” in relation to my programs, when the programs and the doing-the-thing-for-itself aren’t quite in sync, make me feel, for lack of a better word, yucky. Like sticky junk is circulating through my inner spaces and clinging to the walls of whatever tubes my awareness and words flow through.

I get a little relief from this from Son the Younger. I used to think that this tension between sticking to the program and being in sync with my higher goals and the moment in a natural, effortless way was a character failing of mine. Now I think it’s actually set from birth in our personality makeups, wherever that might come from, because Son the Younger distinctly has this issue whereas Son the Elder doesn’t (implying that simply being raised by me doesn’t condemn you to it). Seeing the poor little guy turn all blotch-faced and weepy because he gets a tardy slip makes me feel compassion for him and me. I understand that he’s sad not because he’s ruined his attendance record but because he has failed to do what is expected of him. He has not stuck with the program. He can’t help having these strong feelings and compulsions, which suggests that I can’t either.

Part of the program for me on that hike became maximizing our mileage, because this hike was a stand-in for a longer and more ambitious hike in the Sierras we’d had to abort due to the Rough Fire. Both The Husband and I were keen to do a side-hike to the peak of Mt. Islip after setting up camp in Little Jimmy. By the time we started the hike, the sun was sinking and the sky smudging up with shadows and tropical colors.

This didn’t bother The Husband or me; we’d done our fair share of night hiking. In fact, in a situation that could be construed as extravagantly romantic or embarrassingly juvenile, we’d spent our honeymoon as counsellors at the Scout ranch, Philmont, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico (The Husband had been an Eagle Scout). So absolutely insufferable were the Scouts (this was before the organization’s grudging acceptance of homosexuality), that they didn’t want a married couple serving at the same trail camp. The gig was already humiliatingly puerile: trail camps were themed stopovers for troops doing ten day hikes, and mine was a cowboy-slash-dude camp with a musical campfire routine. We were under the authority of a Camp Director from Arkansas who hung a confederate flag in his bunk and told me I sang like Julie Andrews (meant as a crushing insult). While I worked in this paradise, my husband worked upcountry about four miles, at a resupply station called Ute Gulch. Sometimes he’d hike over for dinner and hike back in the dark. Sometimes I hiked there. More than once, we’d met halfway at a place called Window Rock for breakfast. I’d bring a thermos of cowboy coffee, made every morning in a huge blue-speckled stovetop coffeepot by boiling a tied-off knee-high pantyhose (pantyhoe?) stuffed with coffee grounds in a gallon of creek water. We’d watch the sun drain the purple-shadowed ravines and turn the mountains a crystalline blue and then troop off, he going north and I going south, to our truly pointless contractual obligations.

Hiking at night always made me a little nervous, but because of Philmont I learned to like it. The Husband pointed out to me a phenomenon he called a “Floridian,” a patch of inexplicably warm air. Deprived of visual input, the body becomes more aware of slight changes in temperature, and the Floridian suddenly jolts you into an awareness of how much your skin is feeling. I grew to know the curves in the trail, the patches of moon-white mushrooms. I could sense about when I should be passing over the grassy knoll after which the supply shack would come into view, a weather-greyed plywood box at the base of the Ute Mesa.

Because of this experience, I wasn’t too worried about the pack-free, 2.2 mile round trip to the top of Mt. Islip, a completely doable 700 foot elevation gain. But Son the Younger was just not into it. My guess is he was a little scared and a little tired, and frankly hiking after dark just didn’t fit into his program of what humans were supposed to do, especially given that I had upon our most recent hike which had also bled into the dusk hours expressed great concern about mountain lions, who hunt at twilight and target short people. But we hiked on. And next time you can see how my program panned out against Son the Younger’s.

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Mission Statement 2: A Walk on the Spiritual Side

I practice a kind of meditation called “Vipassana,” which translates as “awareness.” It is practiced as moment-to-moment engagement with the sensations on and in the body.

The idea goes like this: a stimulus comes in contact with one of the sense doors, and a sensation, or vedana, arises. Our habituated perceptive apparatuses instantaneously evaluate that sense perception on the basis of previous experiences, acculturated assumptions, etc. This perception is called sanya. Next comes the crucial link, the sankara. The sankara is craving or aversion in response to our perception of the sensation. In the most basic terms, something that we’ve coded as good (like the taste of our favorite ice cream or the kiss of a lover), we want more of. We want the sensation to last. Something we’ve coded as bad (embarrassment, physical pain), we develop aversion to: we want it to end, we want to get away from it, we want to master or change it.

These sankaras are bouncing around all the time beneath the threshold of awareness, and they form the topography of the fourth link in this chain reaction the vinyana, or consciousness. This part of us is (or seems to be) our selves, our drives and volitions. Buddha figured out that the only link in this chain (vedena/sensation, sanya/perception, sankara/reaction, vinyana/consciousness) over which we have any control is actually the sankara, and we paradoxically get that control through close but non-interventionary observation of it. In other words, we learn to lower the threshold of our awareness so that those sankaras register in our conscious minds, where we can at least try not to act upon them (under normal conditions, we act upon these reactions, feeding them with thought, vocalization, or physical action). We can become aware of our cravings and aversions and learn to observe them instead of building mental or physical dramas with them. In fact, through observation, our vinyana learns to countenance the fact that these cravings and aversions are impermanent. They always pass away. They will pass away more quickly if we don’t make them the basis of mental, vocal, or physical actions.

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major source of attachment-suffering for me: wishing the boys had never stopped being babies

The reason we would want to weaken the hold of craving and aversion in the first place is that all craving and aversion are the sources of suffering. Aversion seems pretty obvious, but how can the satisfaction of craving be the source of suffering? The answer is that impermanence we just went over. Whether or not we want to accept it and whether or not we are able to observe it on a moment-to-moment basis, everything changes, everything is changing constantly. Therefore, when we have and are holding something we really want and want to last, that thing inevitably changes. The piece of cake ends. The baby grows up. The son leaves home. The fortune needs to be preserved and extended through careful management. The house needs to be maintained. The property becomes a source of conflict and division between family members. The career demands more time, more accomplishment. The monsters need to be fed, and we can feed them only with our time/attention/energy. We hold on to versions of our identities that we want other people to see and crave, and it takes a lot of energy to maintain the public faces of those identities. We get locked into those patterns of being and lose our abilities to respond to reality as it is, preferring instead to struggle with reality to get it to conform to what we had planned for the day. We lose the ability to respond to possible new selves that are emerging in the moment.

Which brings me back to material, and getting into the dirt, and hiking through it. Vipassana as I’ve begun to practice it in the last year or so involves trying to engage with reality as it is evolving around me in real time, as my body is enmeshed in its immediate physical circumstances. I try to be aware of what’s really happening – not what I’d like to happen, not what I’ve planned on happening – and think about what it’s asking of me, how I’m in relation with it in the moment. That means putting some of my plans and ideas on hold sometimes (when I can do it, which isn’t as often as I’d like). I’ve seen people who do this well, who engage deeply in every interaction, who are open to the reality of the moment and not the glittering mechanisms of their aspirations, and it is truly a joy and inspiration to be around them. They remind me of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement Speech, “This is Water,” in which he argues that our default minds (the ones in which the sankaras are bouncing around unchecked, like a hall of mirrors) will have us worshiping what it seems like everyone around us worships. Fame. Money. Power. Beauty. Desirability. Status. These gods, Wallace says, will “eat you alive,” precisely because things change. Bodies grow old, money gets spent, pride in an accomplishment quickly fades and needs to be shored up by yet more accomplishment. What he offers in their place is awareness, the choice of what to concentrate on, which he suggests a liberal arts education seeks to cultivate in its students. I think DFW is talking about something like Vipassana: the awareness of the sensations, the longings, the perceptions that are always directing our consciousness and actions just below the surface. So let’s peel back that surface, let’s get into the material of our bodies and its instructive, practical wisdom.

And in case you’re interested in taking a course in Vipassana meditation; it’s not for the faint of heart, but you’ll be a different person on Day 11!