A Hiking Meditation

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.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Enjoyed this post and could relate as I backpacked a lot in my 20s (now late 50s) so really enjoyed the photos too, and how the images supported your thoughts. I think I do this a lot. I’m so introspective that sometimes my daughter says, “STOP!” as I am overthinking something, flip-flopping back and forth when decision-making…”but then again, maybe I should…”Never thought of it as a defense mechanism. But I do have significant physical pain, and also stuffed emotional pain, and the chatter may indeed be a distraction. Something I will be more aware of in the moment.

  2. Your blog is so interesting to me for 2 big reasons. The obvious one is that you convey so much information in a caring, easy to read and understand way. The other is that at least some of your defenses are so very different from mine. It’s an eye opener for me to know about those defenses from someone who can articulate so well things that many people aren’t even aware of.

    Over active thinking isn’t one of my defenses. When I’m engaged in a ‘strenuous and unpleasant physical activity’ I tend to focus on my breathing, my surroundings, my technique if that’s relevant. Basically I put my focus on something other than my discomfort. I know it’s there of course, but it’s in the background. With pain from migraines (ugh!), if I can get away, close my eyes and relax I can usually reduce the pain enough to sleep. What I do then is probably biofeedback or meditation, though I didn’t know that when I started doing it as a young kid. Interestingly, when I broke a bone a few years ago, that technique didn’t help much with the deep ache of bone pain.

    1. Sometimes when I’m in the kind of pain or discomfort you describe, I find myself in this odd state of mind where I can *perceive* the pain, but at a kind of distance. I know it’s there but it doesn’t overwhelm me, nor does it force me into one of my typical defenses. If I focus on it, I can feel the pain more intensely but instead, I keep it at a manageable remove. This doesn’t feel like denial or any kind of harmful defense; it feels like a really useful skill to have at those times because I can go on functioning. Is this what you mean?

      1. Joe, I do what you described too, though in my post I was talking about distraction and you were describing dissociation. They can work together though, since distraction breaks down in high stress/pain situations unless dissociation is at work too.

        Though I don’t like it, I want to feel the physical pain of damage to my body, if that’s what is going on. Otherwise I won’t know if it’s normal I’m-working-hard-but-it’ll-be-okay-when-I-rest or stop-now-or-I’ll-injury-myself-seriously. Pain killers have a place, but not while the potential injury is actually happening or can be exacerbated.

        There is an analogy to emotional pain there I think. Some defenses allow me to feel, but turn down the intensity. Others (like projection and repression) can seemingly eliminate the pain entirely, like a strong narcotic with physical pain. Sometimes that’s okay even necessary, but sometimes it’s terrible. Who would take pain killers to walk on a broken leg? The emotional equivalent is no better, even if the damage can be hidden longer.

        1. Very nicely put. In our world of omnipresent pain relief, psychiatric medication and rampant escapism, it’s easy to forget that pain is the body’s message, telling us that something is wrong and we need to pay attention.

  3. What a great way to track your process.
    After reading your post, I was struck in a way by the “beauty” of our defenses…that they really do mean the best for us with their protective impulses. I know for myself that sometimes it’s not about getting the defenses to drop but to examine what is paining me, and sometimes even to consciously “allow” the defense (for example, two of my favorites are withdrawal or busyness) in moments of intense triggering (as in, “this is way too much for me just now, I need to find a way to back off a bit”). Somehow using them more as a conscious choice feels like a form of self-care. Does this make sense?

    1. It makes great sense. Defenses really are there for our benefit; it’s when they take on an uncontrollable life of their own that they become harmful. I love your idea of choice. I think that’s what we all need to strive for, and the best possible outcome — not that the defenses go away but that we have the ability to choose when to resort to one of them.

  4. Nice Post. I have been paying more attention to my thoughts of late in addressing some personal and marital issues. Its astounding how our minds can run rampant at times and be quieted during others. I visited Colorado in March and found it beautiful (I want to go back) and recall how quiet my mind was when seeing Estes Park for the first time. I, too, am a water person, so visiting any type of falls for me is meditative and transcendent. I visited the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon/Washington and the Hwy 30 series of waterfalls – including Snoqualmie — absolutely made my vacation. That’s why hiking and the scenery we mention is so restorative.

  5. Enjoyed this post that is inspired by your trip to colorado. It is nice location to get your thoughts together. Enjoy your stay here.

  6. What a great following of commenters you have here – love the topic – and I agree with your other post that Freud is often misrepresented. I feel as though you are describing your wonderful hike (which I looked up as I wanted to go – I’m a Coloradan) with a nice mix of mindfulness and Freudian terminology… I think this is helpful as Freud was an expert at isolating unconscious drives and mindfulness practice is the best way of overcoming automaticity (in my humble opinion). I believe that there is somewhat of an irony in relation to the subject of defense mechanisms as we seem to have even less conscious defense mechanisms which inhibit our ability to truly overcome or to be aware of the dynamics of our ‘a bit more’ conscious defense mechanisms (sorry for the semantics – basically I am suggesting that there is a deep set of defense mechanisms which protects our surface level defense mechanisms.) I am a practicing psychotherapist and I too have had years of therapy to help on my own personal journey of self-awareness (always humbled in therapy just so other readers know… just because we read the books doesn’t mean that a therapist isn’t going to help another therapist in magnificent and wonderful unforeseen ways). I have begun to engage in daily mindfulness practices (about 6 month now with consistency) and I have to say that my chatty mind is finally beginning to quiet down… allowing myself to actually live in the moment (as opposed to living within my thoughts) has been a blessing for me… I believe that on the topic of pain we are talking about attention… mindfulness practice can give us an improved ability to consciously select what holds our attention… I have found that my defense mechanisms are relatively good at distracting or avoiding, but often the distraction inhibits my ability to attend to the euphoria in the moment (such as the feeling which surface in the presence of a waterfall) I am still far too young to comment on physical pain with any authority and yet I am left wondering about pain, suffering, resistance, and the brain. Pain is a product of the mind… I wonder how our cognitive interaction with the brain’s interpretation of pain signals affects our suffering in the moment. I am left believing that defense mechanisms turn physical pain into a deeper state of suffering, and yet I am humbled by my inability to offer an easy solution as speaking of the acceptance of physical pain can very often sound insensitive or perhaps apathetic. What if we did the opposite of defense? What if we allowed our pain? thank you for you lovely post – best to you all

    1. I agree that mindfulness is the best way to overcome automaticity. I agree that therapy is a humbling experience. I agree about how mindfulness can allow us to be more selective in what holds our attention. I agree entirely!

      The problem with defenses, as you point out, is that they’re not usually selective — say, blocking out the bad feelings and letting in the good ones. They often tend to shut down emotion across the board. And I am all in favor of “allowing” our pain, or “suffering” it, to use a slightly quaint expression. Not a popular point-of-view these days. People are always surprised when they ask me, “What am I supposed to do with all these painful feelings,” and I answer, “Have them.”

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