Since I literally drive around in parking lots several times before finding my way out, my family has always been worried about how frequently I hike in the mountains and elsewhere. Once, I was hiking in a state park with unfamiliar trails, so I chose the easiest one: one that wove around in an almost perfect circle with one way in and one way out, three-quarters of a mile long, and no connecting trails. No way I could get lost.
After nearly three hours, however, I realized I had probably walked by the exit 40 times. I was lost on a circle trail in which a person simply cannot get lost - except for me.
Since I lived in Texas at the time, my first plan of action was to sit down and wait for armadillos to attack and eat me. After a good cry filled with terror and despair, however, I got up and walked the circular trail again much more slowly, looking for the path out, and I found it.
Loving to hike as I do, I frequently think about how the paths I take seem similar to the spiritual paths I walk in life. Here are some of the lessons I've learned:
Lesson #1: Blissfully unaware, I sometimes follow a path that leads me nowhere. I become spiritually unconscious. Plowing through my days, I fail to apprehend the many moments of beauty and wonder offered to me. I'm wound up and running on automatic: Robo-Meri. My prayers circulate inside me and never ascend.
When I finally realize I'm not getting anywhere, I despair. Poor me. I'm such a screw-up. I stop trying for awhile. What's the use? A spiritual leader? Sure, follow me around the circle where I'm bound to get you lost. Whine, whine.
Then I stop and take one of those deep, cleansing breaths we're told to take all the time within my rabbinical program, ALEPH, Alliance for Jewish Renewal. I spot my way out of the endless cycle. I head towards a different path.
One mountain hike I took years ago looked relatively easy from the bottom of the mountain. In fact, it was easy at the beginning. Winding gently upwards, I walked quickly and took pride in the fact that a trail marked “moderate to difficult” was so easy for me. I was 40 with the agility and energy of a 20-year-old.
Then I turned a corner and saw that the trail curved sharply upwards, narrowed, became rockier and less stable. I was 40 with the agility and energy, now, of a 60-year-old. People walked quickly around me and I thought about shoving them off the side of the mountain. After less than two hours, I stopped and decided to head back. I couldn't make it to the peak.
Lesson #2: Spirituality isn't one big leap. It's a bunch of slow steps. If I don't try and rush ahead of where I'm supposed to be at the moment, I'll better be able to manage and maneuver through what lies ahead. I have to be okay with people who are ahead of me, and I have to remember, also, that I'm not at the end of the line. Some people never even head to the trail, some look at it and never start the journey, and some tire out even more quickly than do I.
Also, if I look too far ahead, I'm going to be discouraged and will never attempt the journey. If I look behind me, I'll see how far I've come and will be encouraged. It's also okay if I don't reach the peak. It's mostly about the journey and that I set out on it, that I made progress. Lots of beauty and challenges and successes and growth accumulated within me along that path.
When I'm hiking, I tend to pass the parking lots where all the cars sit, and find a path that no one else is walking. Usually I need the quiet and the solitude – and the adventure. In the nature center where I used to walk in Texas, the path to the pond was the most popular. The idea of hiking to a pond appealed to a lot of people and the first half of the hike was beautiful.
After that, I knew that the path opened up to a treeless field where the summer sun blazed down on you. Rattlesnakes hid in the tall grass alongside the narrow path and I knew two people who had been bitten. In addition, the trail sloped down, making the way to the pond extremely easy, but it was the only one-way trail in the preserve, making the way back up excruciating.
Lesson #3: I've been enticed by “spiritual” paths, both large and small, that fascinated me because of the apparent beauty. As I became deeply entrenched, though, the spirituality seemed to mostly a veneer. Once, on a literal, spiritually-oriented trip to a country in Asia, I came bounding up the stairs of the hotel and announced I was packed and ready to go. One of the leaders took me aside and told me harshly that I was behaving pridefully, bragging that I was packed when others were still putting clothes in their suitcases. Another leader in this group had had an extramarital affair so he could birth, through another woman, a son. Many people in this group told me he shouldn't be criticized, and that God had led him down this path.
In retrospect, I still find aspects of that spiritual path, which was once a huge part of my life, lovely. New doors in my life opened. I had more transcendent experiences than I've ever had, and they were ones that had a lasting, positive effect on my life. My heart burst open to the Divine in ways that seemed surreal, and this opening I know was authentic and propelled me forward in my connection to God.
On the other hand, I had to be careful and aware because snakes definitely existed on that path, as they undoubtedly do on every path, and I could have been fatally bitten had I not been watching out. And yes, the climb out was a bit brutal.
Here is why my family and friends are terrified and think I'm crazy for hiking by myself: once I was hiking an unfamiliar and secluded trail in the Rockies when the trail suddenly seemed to wind through massive boulders. It appeared someone had forged a trail in between the boulders so off I went. About halfway up, the trail suddenly bolted to the right, out of the rocks and onto a beautiful overlook. Off I went. As the path became narrower and narrower, I suddenly realized it wasn't a trail at all. It was a ledge, now too narrow for me to turn around and walk back.
So yes, of course I went through my routine: crying, imaging someone finding my skeleton glued to the ledge months later, being dragged away by a mountain lion, falling to my death in slow motion. Then I pulled myself together and slowly inched my way back to the rocks, walking backwards, not looking down. When I made it to the boulders, I didn't see any path there, either, so I slid on my butt back down until I found the real trail.
Lesson #4: Others have carved out spiritual paths that help keep us safe. They show us where the dangers lie, in what ways we can become lost during the journey, and why – even when we want to be alone – it's usually good to be in community.
Walking a path that others have walked doesn't mean my path isn't individual. What I see along the way is entirely different. I can veer off the path if I'm careful and watchful and still remain safe. What I bring to the path with all of my senses, reflections, pace, observance, feelings – everything about my individual walk – differs from everyone who has walked what seems to be the same path. It isn't the same one, though. Each footprint creates something vibrantly new.
On my way back to my car that day, I spread out my jacket on the ground, several yards off the trail, on a rock that looked out over a breathtaking vista. As soon as I sat down, though, I became nervous. I couldn't see the trail. Yes, it was only about 10 yards way, but could I be sure that when I got ready to leave, I'd walk in the right direction? I walked back to the trail to make sure it was still where I remembered it to be. Then I went back again and put my backpack about three yards from the trail, and a book another three yards, creating my own trail back to the “real” trail.
As I hike, I have always and will always stop to journal, to read, to take in the vistas, to rest, to veer off the path, to climb, to inspect glistening stones, to hold my breath when I glimpse a deer, elk, moose (a bear twice!) in the distance, to do my own thing. I always keep the well-worn path in sight, however, because the people who have walked it before me know the way. They are my teachers, my spiritual guides, and they're teaching me the song of the peaks of Judaism, created by each of us as we walk a path that is both shared and individual.