We’re in Colorado now for the summer, and last weekend, we took our first hike. Because my mind is prone to chatter at such times, I try to turn these hikes into a kind of walking meditation: focusing on my breath, my bodily sensations and the natural beauty here in the Rockies. I would say that I was successful in reaching silence about 5-10% of the time, and not for sustained periods. In part, this is just the way my mind works; “thinking” has always been one of my primary defense mechanisms, and it’s deeply ingrained in my neural pathways. Also, because I’m so focused on writing this blog, in my thoughts I’m continually composing descriptions of what I notice, putting my observations into words that I can later post. Last week’s hike was no different.
At the same time, those brief periods of quiet during the hike helped to calm me, after the stresses of the week. I also made some interesting observations about why and when I found it more difficult to achieve quiet. It gave me some insight into the origins of defenses and their connection to pain. While in my case, it had to do with physical pain, there’s also a relationship between defense mechanisms and emotional/psychic pain. These ideas connect to some thoughts concerning helpless I put forward in my post about post-traumatic stress disorder.
If any of you are familiar with Grand Lake and the surrounding areas, our hike began at Monarch Lake, a pristine, motor boat-free lake about half an hour from our home.
From the trail head, we followed the north shore until we met Cascade Creek, then followed it as we climbed toward two sets of spectacular falls. Because this part of the Rockies had record snowfall this year, the spring snow melt has been unusually profuse; the creeks are swollen, swift and loud. Here’s a photo of the second of the falls:
At this point, a couple hours from the trail head, I’m able to bring my mind to quiet. What I feel under these conditions — still, in the presence of great natural beauty — is something akin to ecstasy. My body feels whole, healthy and intensely present; a kind of elation rises through my chest. I consider this a spiritual event; I’m sure some of you must have similar experiences. It has nothing to do with God or religion, but it feels … transcendent, for lack of a better word. I feel part of something larger than me, something beautiful and “good”. I’m at peace with myself and my world.
On the way back from those falls — about seven miles and four hours from the beginning of the hike, I began to feel tired. Although I stay fit year-round, hiking brings different muscles into play and a moderately strenuous hike at 9,000 feet is a lot different from the elliptical trainer near sea level. No matter how well-conditioned you are, your body tires after several hours. Your lower back may begin to ache from carrying a pack; your feet and thighs start to hurt. I always find the last hour of any hike the most difficult.
At that point, I began to notice that my mind was racing. The word-flow had picked up steam and it wasn’t anchored to any constructive ideas about my writing. My mind was all over the place. With great effort, I tried repeatedly to bring myself back to my body and my breath; again and again, I found that I did not want to! I didn’t want to pay attention to my body because it hurt. It became clear to me that my “thinking” — my primary defense mechanism, was distracting me from physical pain. The words absorbed my attention so fully that my focus was elsewhere — in that busy thought-world of racing ideas and facile inter-connections between them — rather than upon my body. The defense helped me avoid pain.
Expand that idea to include all psychic or emotional pain. I can imagine a very cerebral person who lives in his or her mind, disconnected from grief or depression; verbal thoughts and ideas are the defense against that pain. Enlarge this connection to include other defenses — splitting and projection, denial or idealization. Each one of those defense mechanisms diverts attention from pain, by disconnecting that pain from awareness, denying its existence or locating it outside. When pain is intolerable because we feel helpless to do anything about it, we will resort to the defense that works best for us to evade that pain. Until we reached the trail head and I could get off my feet, I was helpless to do anything about my physical discomfort … and so I turned to my thoughts instead.
A simple idea, but it feels profound to me to see it actually at work. So much of what we talk about in psychology can sound entirely conceptual: ideas that we bandy around with facility but that rarely become pertinent in the actual moment of defense. Often, I notice other defenses at work and try to step back from them, shift from the defense to the feeling in my body. In other posts, I’ve discussed grouchiness, the way that physical or emotional pain is projected outside so that other people then become incredibly irritating. Some of my family members (who shall go nameless) often get grouchy toward the end of a hike. I think it’s actually a very common reaction to fatigue and physical discomfort, a defensive maneuver when we feel helpless to do anything about them.
Finding Your Own Way:
Next time you’re engaged in some strenuous and unpleasant physical activity, watch yourself to see how you’ll defend against the awareness of pain. Maybe you’re a thinker, like me. Or you might feel persecuted by the experience; you might start to blame someone for something, a process that would surely involve projection. Some people would start to come to pieces. At some point, I’ll need to talk about dissociation and depersonalization as defense mechanisms.
During those times when you find your thoughts racing more than usual, or when you feel particularly distracted and out of focus, make a special effort to bring attention to your breathing and your body. I find that I register different emotions in different places, so I direct attention to those spots: my eyes and throat (sadness), upper back/neck or temples (stress), my jaws (anger). Make a habit of checking those places in your body on a regular basis. You may register your emotions in different places from mine.
Find the time and place for the kind of spiritual experience I’ve described, in whatever place of beauty and tranquility that means the most to you. I find that the more frequently I’m able to have such experiences, the better I feel in the rest of my life. It has a soothing effect and makes the pain, frustration and hardship of everyday life easier to bear. I am never more content than during our summers in Colorado.