An encounter with nature, dharma and neuroscience in the Grand Canyon
“Wilderness begins in the mind”
Intention and offerings
“If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
I looked one last time at my backpack, satisfied, it seemed complete enough. I left the books behind because at this point, there was nothing else they could add except pounds. 2:45 am I looked at my watch and called Liza one last time before entering 14 hours of hiking in mobile phone silence, text silence, off-the-grid silence. Like spaceships traveling behind the moon, in the canyon we would have no reception, a bar-less desert, “I’ll call you when we surface… I love you, send my love to the kids and…thank you for supporting me.”
I sat to meditate and proceeded to offer the hike.*
May we all be filled with love and kindness,
free from internal and external harm,
happy and free in this life as it is.
South Rim, Grand Canyon, AZ.
Janell Kaliefe, friend and colleague, meditation teacher and marathon runner, once said that she offers different sections of a marathon to different causes, much like we offer the efforts of meditation or yoga practice. Thinking of my patients and countless others with mental health problems and addictions, my first South to North rim hike was dedicated to you, may you be free from the slavery of substance use, may you be free from mental illness and suffering, may you be healthy and happy. Thinking of a harder effort coming back North rim to South rim after already walking it once, I offered the hike to the liberation, safety, and happiness of all beings.
Offerings in Buddhism are related to Dana, a Pali word meaning generosity or giving. Dana, writes Buddhist scholar, author and teacher Andrew Olendzki, “is the most fundamental of all Buddhist practices. It is the first topic in the Buddha’s graduated talks, the first step on the Bodhisattva’s path to perfection, and the first of the ten paramitas (perfections) in the Mahayana tradition. It therefore sets the tone for all that follows in the spiritual journey” (Olendzki 2003). “It is a way of opening to the world and making it just a little bit kinder,” adds Paul Farmer, “of breaking the bonds of isolation and strengthening our connection with others” (Farmer 2012).
An offering is a way of exercising our intentions. There are external offerings you may see in altars: water, money, food, flowers; and then there are internal, mental, or behavioral offerings. We can offer our effort, our time, and our care. These small acts are deeply spiritual, for in the act of giving, we let go. One may argue, what good is it to mentally ill people if I walk the Canyon or not? Is the offering of a practice a feel-good exercise, just another form of ego-aggrandizing? This argument may have a point, however, offering one’s efforts waters the seeds of generosity. It is a recognition of others, our deep interconnection with the needs of others, a recognition of suffering, and the need of all beings to be free from suffering. It is also another way in which we practice letting go of clinging and attachment. A walk, one’s daily labor, an hour of sitting practice, Qi Gong or Yoga can of course be for one’s own benefit, but these practices can also serve to align our heart’s intentions towards the benefit of all. Offering resets the direction of the heart. In every act, there is a hidden “I” behind the motivation. Offering the practice helps discern the intention from the act.
Meditation allows us to see our motivations clearly, a kind of letting go of imaginary things, illusions and delusions, and to commit to the cultivation of desirable human attributes: kindness, forgiveness and compassion for all beings. Every action thus becomes an opportunity to manifest our true nature, the untarnished heart: forgiving, compassionate, connected, caring and selfless, our Bodhicitta nature. The American nun Pema Chödron speaks of Bodhicitta not only as an act of caring towards others in a compassionate and generous way, but also as a longing to be free from habitual ways, desires, fears and hopes, so that we may contribute fully to the enlightenment of all beings (Chödron 2007).
Not that the Grand Canyon cared, “the universe does not care about your purpose,” writes philosopher and New York Times contributor Joseph P. Carter in his piece on July 21st, 2017. We live in a universe filled with entropy, filled with the tendency to break into homogeneous disorder, into simpler organized forms, from boulder to sand, and from embodied heartmind earthlings to disintegrating corpses. In this careless universe, we find ourselves swimming against the proverbial cosmic current of entropy, and when our body cannot keep a positive balance on entropy for whatever reason, we die. Human purpose and intention, however, set the direction of our actions, making us important to each other and to all beings. Quoting “The Big Picture,” by Caltech cosmologist, author and physicist Sean Carroll, “meaning and purpose aren’t built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment.” (Carter 2017)
After offering the hike, I bowed, stood up, picked up my backpack and closed the door of the room to meet the others.
Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
a thousand regions of your mind
yet undiscovered. Travel them and be
expert in home-cosmography.
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
The further one goes,
The less one knows.
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The night before setting off into the Canyon, we dined and carefully avoided calling it “the last supper.” Toasted with wine and went to sleep at 9 pm. I slept poorly, a shallow and fidgety sleep. The same sleep before board exams, the same sleep before moving to the US, the same sleep before a 10-day Vipassana silent retreat, the same sleep that precedes the crossing of borders, rituals, and canyons. What is known of our lives is left behind for uncharted causes and consequences.
We descended into the void at 4 am. There was an ink black dark sea before us, a black hole where no star shone, a quiet where no sound called. Headlamps on, we could only see one step at a time in the 4 and half feet-wide path ahead of us.
We had 25 miles in front of us to walk the “rim to rim” hike at the Grand Canyon, twice in four days.
Five of us, mostly in good physical and mental shape for the hike, came together for the event, and the group would dissolve, like all things do, five days later. Three of us just met each other. We had trained and prepared for this event for months. If all went well, only pictures, future memories and some knowledge would remain from the experience.
The South Kaibab trailhead is located at 7260 feet and descends rapidly 4780 feet to the Colorado River, eventually leading to the Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch.
“Do not attempt the rim to rim hike in one day, especially between May and September,” reads the National Park Service official brochure on the South Kaibab Trail. It was late August…
On the south rim, at the head of the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, there are clear warnings posted. One calls like Shelley’s Ozymandias, “Special note to the young, strong and invincible…” ending with “do not attempt to hike the rim to rim…permanent brain damage, cardiac arrest, death.”
I had a mix of excitement and anxiety. My superstitious mind, like an ancient voice from a pre-scientific era suggested not to take a picture of the warning posters for fear of carrying a bad omen during the hike, my scientific mind thought it was a good idea and obeyed.
I left warnings and mind-stories behind the moment I took the first step down. I recalled hearing about astronauts and explorers leaving all sorts of imaginary things behind to focus on the task at hand. “What was it like?!” A friend asked me about the first delivery of a baby I did many years ago in medical school. I could not tell, for all my attention was on the technical aspects of the event.
At 4 am in the silent darkness of the canyon, my attention rested in this step, this hiking pole, and then the next one, narrowed mindfully by our headlamps shining LED white light unto the trail like a third eye.
Space and time: impermanence (annica) and not-self (anatta)
“Looking deeply into a flower we see that the flower is made of non-flower elements. We can describe the flower as being full of everything. There is nothing that is not present in the flower. We see sunshine, we see the rain, we see clouds, we see the earth, and we also see time and space in the flower. A flower, like everything else, is made entirely of non-flower elements. The whole cosmos has come together in order to help the flower manifest herself.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Practice of Looking Deeply Using the Three Dharma Seals (2017)
Impermanence (anicca-Pali): Nothing remains the same, everything changes in the time continuum. Change is the seed ofpossibility and life itself. Because everything changes moment to moment, it has no fixed identity or permanent self.
Not-self (anatta-Pali): Because all things are anicca, changing, all things and beings are made of impermanent, interdependent elements. Rather than unique I‘s or selves, the body is a composite of non-body elements. The self emerges from the composite interactions of neurons. Where nothing stays the same along the time continuum, there is no seat for self in the material space. A not-self perspective, Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, is a useful way of perceiving oneself as a composite of many non-self elements. Who is perceiving? Who and what are we? Neuroscientists explain what Buddhism described 2500 years ago: that the brain creates our sense of self and makes sense of our moment-to-moment experience every microsecond, creating an illusion of continuity and that of a solid self-first-person experience (Damasio 2000; Nunez 2016).
Cultivating the ability to experience a non-self perspective, in which we recognize that nothing is solid or permanent, is a skill that can free us from the tyranny of emotions and deeds that create an endless chain of reactions. My mind and body are like a committee, demanding and dictating, sometimes a military junta. This awareness can help find the right measure of action.
Non-self elements: we are a committee, a gathering, a village
There are wormholes in the universe. Wormholes exist, here, now.
There are places on earth where you can move in three dimensions of space, but travel back in time, all the while the clock ticks forward consuming the future, and where the only trace of the present is the breath.
There are pantheons vast enough to show our future interred; places where billions of our ancestors lie, calcium carbonate and all, silently whispering, “we were once like you, and cared not for sun and moon passing, as we went about our days.”
Here the earth ripped open 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and over 1 mile deep. A gash that left a 1.2 billion year old wound we called the Grand Canyon. We were descending the South Kaibab trail over ancient sand and rocks, on a trail that today is holding the steps of us, earth’s buds, newly born in the vast timeline of the earth’s age, 8000 generations of Homo Sapiens. I hold a fossilized trilobite 515 million years old; a great-great13 grandmother or grandfather, and look carefully for any resemblance.
The earth stood humbly on two feet to look at itself, conscious, with a heart, and smiled.
If there is place of tremendous effort and awe, inspiring beauty, we are here.
It is a place where life so resilient can be seen as plants or cacti between desert rocks, reaching towards the sun, and where death is ever present. Dry tree limbs, bones, bare land.
We are at the place where the planet opened like a book.
Earth is over 4.5 billion years old. First life arose as single-cell self-replicating organisms 3.7 billion years ago. Six hundred million years ago, cells gathered in numbers, cooperatively forming multicellular organisms, our first organic communities, our ancestors. About the same time, the dark Vishnu Schist magma at the Grand Canyon was being pushed up from the depths, solidified, and can be walked on here. This was our relatives’ old neighborhood before they migrated in time, towards us.
From the bottom, a mile up to the rim, the canyon has multiple layers laid on top of each other of different colors, marking events that happened millions of years ago. Expansions, ascendance, waters coming and receding; swamps coming alive and disappearing; crustaceans, plants, shells, trilobites, came and went in this tale of impermanence.
Our ancestors stare from the rocks as we walk by. Their silence tells our story, and our future.
I looked up in the dark as we descended, each step a million years back. Above us, the night sky sprinkled with stars, the Milky Way spilled crossing the celestial cupule, telling an even older story.
It is thought that life came to be on this rock we call earth because our solar system had the right number of planets along with a sun, tugging at each other with gravity and placing our planet at the perfect distance. Earth’s position in the solar system permits water and air to be without freezing, evaporating, or fizzling-off into space. In a cosmic middle way, if we were too close to the sun, the atmosphere and the water in it would have evaporated and we would resemble the desolated rocky desert of Mercury. Too far away, and the earth would have been a deserted ice rock like Jupiter’s moons. Millions of those lights in the sky are suns, supernovas and nebulae, furnaces where the elements of the earth and our bodies were forged billions of years ago. Hydrogen, calcium, carbon, nitrogen, sodium, potassium, and heavier elements like iron were born in that way. Quoting meditation teacher Wes Nisker, we are earth sprouts , and star stuff, these bodies are made of non-body elements and birthed by impersonal chance, impermanence, and violent cosmic and earthly forces. In the midst of such titanic events, one cannot help but to feel reverence and tenderness towards all life, so precious and perhaps improbable.
Time is relative. Walking at 3 miles per hour but traveling on earth’s surface at 1,000 miles per hour, the earth’s rotation brings us face to face to our closest star. The sun appears over the rim of the canyon, bathing the place with light and heat. Now we sweat. I have a 5-liter Camelbak, two additional liters of water, and electrolyte tablets to sustain the right input and output of vital fluid, a life allowing state we call homeostasis. Homeostasis comes from the Greek word for “steady,” and refers to any process that living beings use to actively maintain the fairly stable internal conditions necessary for survival. The term was coined in 1930 by the physician Walter Cannon. In his book, The Wisdom of the Body, Cannon describes how the human body maintains temperature and other vital elements such as water, salt, sugar, protein, fat, calcium and oxygen contents of the blood within a very narrow range. Similar processes dynamically maintain steady-state conditions in the Earth’s environment. Planetary homeostasis refers to that constant challenge and re-calibration of earth’s systems that support life in the face of constant terrestrial and external menace (Lovelock 2009). Besides the Camelback, my body is carrying millions and trillions of tiny bags of “sea water,” our tiny cells containing sodium, a remainder and souvenir of our past in the oceans where life emerged 3.7 billion years ago. Homeostasis is a middle way process that shows up everywhere, inside us, and around us, in small cellular ways and in large planetary cycles. We are mirror extensions of each other.
As we descend deeper into the canyon, the landscape, the earth, the sky, and the body converse as old friends reacquainted after millions of years. It is a happy gathering of life-giving causes and conditions, while entropy and death watch silently from the side.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s, there are few.”
-Shinryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Clive, in his late 20’s, was the youngest of the group and allegedly the most physically and mentally apt for the hike. I foundit reassuring to learn the he was joining the group. Clive, although not a navy or army man, practices “Navy Seal-like” trainings, submitting his body and mind to what most of us will consider out of the ordinary challenges: sleep deprivation, extraneous physical exercise, cold temperatures and so on. He is like a modern Saddhu, an ascetic like those Gautama encountered before he chose the middle path. So, when the sun greeted us 3 hours into the South Kaibab trail near the Bright Angel shell platform, I thought nothing of Clive’s laissez faire choice of clothing, his light packing and his few accessories. Construction steel-toe boots, thick cotton pants, brown; cotton short-sleeve shirt, brown; small brim Fedora hat, 30 SPF sunscreen, bear repellent, large mosquito repellent, 1.8 liters of water (64 ounces), and vegan cookies for food. I thought my amateur middle age mind might have overpacked! The rest of us were carrying 5 liters of water each, electrolytes, protein and carbohydrate rich foods, and were nearly covered head-to-toe to protect ourselves from the sun.
The Grand Canyon in late August is expected to reach temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the shade. Because the inner canyon air is so dry and hot, sweat evaporates instantly making water loss almost imperceptible. In addition, walking speed drops by half under such extreme conditions so if you hike at 4 miles per hour, the amateur hiker in the canyon can expect a maximum speed of 1-2 miles per hour, particularly uphill and under direct sun. At such temperatures and during such significant exertion, fluid loss can exceed two quarts per hour (close to two liters). The recommendation thus is to cover exposed skin as much as possible (large brim hat, UV protection, long sleeves, like Bedouins in the desert!), carry enough water to drink up to a quart (1 liter) of water every hour, and electrolyte tablets, or sports drinks to avoid hyponatremia, a potentially lethal condition where one dilutes the body by taking too much water without replenishing lost salt. It is also necessary to maintain an adequate intake of protein and carbohydrates. Under extreme conditions, the body needs these foods to regulate temperature.
By the time we reached Phantom Ranch five hours into the hike, Clive had all of his toes bruised, had torn a muscle in his calf, his feet were in pain, and was mildly dehydrated. He said nothing.
Phantom Ranch is a tranquil area nested between two canyons that hosts the National Park Service (NPS) station, a campground, rustic stables, several small cabins, and a common dining room. Humans gathering, animals running around, shady trees, and the pleasant murmur of water running from the Bright Angel creek provide all the ingredients of an oasis.
We stopped for refreshments, we ate and refilled our water supplies. Hikers came and went, compared notes, stories, and news from the trail ahead. The confluence of North-South Kaibab trail hikers makes Phantom ranch feel like the last civilized post before entering the beauty and danger of deeper canyon. For those coming North rim to South rim, this place marks the beginning of a 4780 foot ascent via the sun-exposed “Devil’s Corkscrew,” up 7 miles to the rim. For those going South rim to North rim, this is the entrance to the infamous “box,” a segment of the Bright Angel Canyon, a 7.2 mile long gradual ascent in the depth of the inner canyon, where for at least 3 of those miles, hikers are also under full exposure to the sun. The low altitude between canyon walls radiates heat in all directions, like walking inside an oven. The box has no potable water stations, although the Bright Angel creeks runs through it, sometimes accessible, sometimes not. The gentle slope is deceitfully dangerous, for temperatures between 10 am and 4 pm reach above 100 degrees. The potable water stations 7 miles up at Cottonwood and Manzanita rest place are seasonal.
We packed up and began walking into the beauty of the inner gorge, a segment of the Bright Angel canyon, where the trail is narrowly boxed in on either side by 1.7-million-year-old Vishnu Schist, volcanic magma protrusions carved out and exposed to the elements. The beauty of the initial 2 miles following the Bright Angel creek inside the canyon is almost a trap, a geographical beauty alluring a person into a more dangerous situation, like a Siren’s call.
Mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz described the accumulation of karmic causes and consequences in his famous “Butterfly effect” metaphor, where small and seemingly insignificant events like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can produce, in time, a hurricane. In our daily lives, mindfulness can allow us to witness some of the multiple thresholds we cross moment-to-moment into the rest of our lives. Past and present, causes and consequences encircle every moment potentially sending us into a different mental, physical or spiritual path.
I was reminded of the words of the late great Mythologist Joseph Campbell as we “crossed the threshold” into deeper canyon, and away from what was known.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”
-Edward Abbey, Author and National Park Ranger
The first sign was silence, then his slow pace. Then came the nausea, and then the third and certain symptom of heat stroke: confusion, which made him feel cold in the midst of 104 degree heat. Clive grew quieter, a significant change from his cheerful go-lucky self who set off singing one song after another earlier in the hike. His exposed neck and ears were red iron hot. We stopped under the sliver of shade cast by a boulder and laid him down, offering him water and electrolytes. Unbeknown to us, he’d been underfeeding himself and he was out of water.
From then onward, we slowed down, often stopping for him to cool off under the partial shade of a tree or a generous boulder. But as we slowed, we also increased our exposure to the pressing heat. Unplanned, we soon found ourselves on the hottest and most dangerous segment of the trail at midday. Our initial expectations were to have an uneventful hike in this 7 mile long slow ascent, but as we slowed down to care for Clive, it was only a matter of time until the heat began to claim us one by one. Soon, two more of our team had to stop to cool off. A small creek crossing the trail was welcomed. We wetted shirts, hats, bandanas, and ate, but now we were all running short on drinking water. We began to hike again with greater enthusiasms that promptly fizzled out into a sluggish, hopeless pace that continued for two miles on the meandering trail towards Cottonwood, nearly 1500 feet above Phantom Ranch. Fear began to creep into my mind; restlessness, impatience, and dualistic thoughts of me and them, us and Clive, we and them, were zooming like bees inside my head.
Outwardly however, the landscape remained hot, magnificent, and impersonal. “I breath in- I am happy, I breathe out- I smile,” I began to silently repeat Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s staple basic meditation instructions. After a short while, only the sound of steps on gravel remained, repeating rhythmically like a mantra, and for some time, everything was perfect as it was.
Cottonwood campground is a scattered space with camping grounds on each side of the trail close to the creek. If you don’t see the campers, it resembles an abandoned old post. A camper promptly informed us that the potable water fountain was not working, as of a few hours ago.
Fellow travelers have for each other an unspoken oath or, perhaps, a basic humanity that easily manifests when you are out there on the road or the trail and there is no “top down” help that can get you out of trouble; it is a bottom up camaraderie that spontaneously emerges, a natural Sangha. They offered to filter some water from the creek to help us out. We crossed another threshold when we declined the water offer. Perhaps it was the mental pressure to keep going until the next post and not wait any longer, our feeble minds’ delusional attempts to beat the sun and heat, after all, another mile or two did not seem long. Under stress, our minds tilted forward to grasp at the future and forgo the present offer, another course of action that was walking us further from safety. We were warned that 3 pm was the hottest time of the day should we decide to walk. I looked at my watch; it was 2:45 pm. A couple, hiking down on the trail from the Manzanita rest area 1.4 miles away north, confirmed that there was no potable water there either.
Tired, hot, and nearly out of water we decided to push for Manzanita, and then maybe to the next NPS potable water tank at Roaring Springs another 1100 feet up. We began to walk again, with three members of the team in and out of heat stroke. A mile under normal conditions could take 15 minutes, but, weakened as we were, we were advancing at merely 1-2 miles an hour with frequent stops. The sun was relentless, yet the landscape and the moment continued to slip into awareness between the worried and fearful thoughts. The beauty of the canyon now expanding wide on either side of the trail was awe inspiring. Large boulders that had crumbled off the cliffs, brought down by erosion, were like gigantic children’s toys scrambled around. I could imagine the pounding sound they had made when they dislodged and the tremble of the earth. Here and there, a dry seasonal creek-bed, smoothly carved and polished from the rock with large loose boulders in the middle, told the history of abundant water and powerful flash floods. The sea bed had been there before. We were at the right place, seeding with abundant life and water, but 500 million years late.
The place is still being carved from the surface, sculpted violently by scarring forces of elements: form the titanic crashes of tectonic plates that gave ascendance to the Colorado Plateau Province, to the sometimes small and persistent dripping of water; from the rushing roaring flash floods, to hot wind and sand piercing rock, and the rock-cracking ice and snow. The place, as recently discovered, is also being chipped away from beneath by a rising fist of magmatic material.
There is nothing personal in the landscape of entropy.
Suffering and the possibility of suffering (Dukkha)
We were walking from shade to shade, scantily pouring every couple of hundred feet, otherwise we were mostly exposed to the sun, which was chipping away at our strength and more. “I feel well, for now,” I kept checking in with myself, or perhaps convincing myself, while knowing that my situation could suddenly change. As our pace slowed down from heat exhaustion, I quietly recited the Maka Hannya Haramita Shingyo (Heart Sutra), which evoked in my mind the presence and equanimity of many in zazen sitting meditation in a large compassionate Sangha, and the multitude of monks facing hardship, atrocities and war shielded only by their heart. Even in the hardest of difficulties, we can choose our disposition. In the Haramita I found an inner shelter, a Zendo that invigorated the body to keep going, cool and shady while outwardly, the dry heat was raging on. The Sutra is first and foremost a kind reminder to realign our attitudinal disposition, to embrace any difficult moment with compassion. A gentle settling into discomfort and fear, called calm abiding, allows the difficulty to pass by its true nature, moving out of reactivity to choose the wisest choice for the moment. My heart softened, holding the pleasant and unpleasant of the moment, the coexisting worrying and the honor to be in such place.
Then, a hill sucked the rest of energy out of many in the group.
Buddhism teaches that the mind’s relationship to all conditioned experiences is marked by three characteristics (tilakkhana-Pali): suffering (dukkha-Pali), impermanence (anicca-Pali), and not-self (anatta-Pali).
Dukkha is part of the first noble truth: the possibility and truth of pain and suffering that are contained in all conditioned experiences. A constant search for satisfaction, a constant trying in vain to prevent discomfort.
All suffering has a cause, teaches the Second Noble truth: grasping, attachment, aversion, are common examples of our unskilful relation to interdependent, impermanent events and conditions. Our Grand Canyon hike was full of joy, excitement and humbleness, as well as fear and anxiety. To love my family so deeply as you may love your loved one/s, makes the heart vulnerable to immense pain in the face of a loss. Every great love carries the seed of suffering. There were moments when I feared not making it out of the canyon to see my family again. Despite the teachings and all the cognitive behavioral skills I have, I still don’t know how to love without grasping, to hold that being without co-dependent arising: “I am well when you are well, I am uneasy, when you are not well.” in its extreme forms, this grasping can take the form of -co-dependence. In the anxious mind, my kids grew up without a father who did not make it back and my wife was widowed; seen from a larger perspective, a meta-awareness, all outcomes were ok, this was just another story in the vastness of co-arising conditions and fading chapters. Decentering is the cognitive term to denote our ability to look at moment to moment experiences outside a self referential narrow perspective. Is the landscape where a threatening moment in the canyon could deconstruct into heat, sweat, shade, light, plants, blue sky, sound of sand, and steps. Decentering is cultivated by mindfulness practices and is considered a fundamental mechanism associated with the easing of suffering, a moment when things just happen without a protagonist to suffer them.
The third noble truth however, announces a way out of suffering: the Eightfold path, qualities and or dispositions of mind-heart to liberate from suffering.
I sensed my steps in mindful walking, heard the sound of earth’s dust under the soles of boots, and the dry sun, in a hot and worrying embrace. Could I ease into this situation?
We sat under partial shade. Two of my colleagues laid down next to the trail, nearly asleep from heat exhaustion. Two others were trailing a hundred feet behind.
The creek was 200 feet away, downhill and off the trail and into a ravine. So close and yet hard to reach.
I tried to sit recumbent to rest while my colleagues were half asleep, but I felt dizzy anytime I reclined my head. I thought these were early signs of heat stroke, although I did not feel dehydrated and I was still sweating. It was anxiety, the great impersonator, not heat stroke, at least for now, and the thought gave me a new sense of urgent motivation and relief. Looking at three of my colleagues, I knew they were having mild or moderate symptoms of heat stroke. I did not know, but began to wonder, how crippling it could get. Would it stop us completely from advancing to safety and away from the sun? Or could we carry on slowly but steadily? And if we couldn’t walk, how long would it take to recover once heat stroke settled?
We pondered our options: we could try to make it to the creek off the trail with tremendous exertion and risk; we could wait there for other hikers and ask them for help (but, in doing so, potentially place them at risk too); we could wait out the heat, sitting another two to three hours until it cooled down a few degrees and then try to walk; or we could try to push ahead, no matter how slowly, and be proactive. At 104 degrees, even the shade continues to dehydrate you, slowly sucking precious water out of your body. I thought of our families and friends, great motivators. We agreed that remaining sitting would only continue to dehydrate us, and put us in an even more dangerous position, one of which we could not recover from. Walking off trail to the creek would pose a different danger and exertion, but one we would take if absolutely necessary. Mark’s way of speaking truth and seeing things as they are, and rationally assess our odds and options without the reactivity of emotional mind helped us decide. It is in difficult emotional states when reaching out to borrow somebody else’s’ wise and balanced mind can change your path in a meaningful way.
Survivors become proactive, says author and scholar Lawrence Gonzales, in his best seller Deep Survival (Gonzales 2003). Upon reviewing the stories of individuals who survived dangerous situations, many took upon themselves to find a way out of their predicament, as opposed to waiting to be rescued. Furthermore, survivors develop a deep conviction that they will live despite the difficulties. Surrendering is a necessary skill, of letting go of our fear of dying and being able to put away pain in the service of a greater task, all the while we continue to see the beauty.
We decided to push forward and not wait. To make things easier for those in our group who were faring worse, some of us were carrying our teammates backpacks, which itself was wearing me down faster. We pushed slowly through a 45-minute arduous walk until, once again, we huddled under a partial sliver of shade, this time near Manzanita point. I had a renewed sense of urgency and determination. I felt energized and focused and decided to go ahead faster towards Manzanita looking to access the creek more easily and bring water. Clive unexpectedly produced a manual water filter which he offered to the group. I packed the water filter and left my colleagues the remaining half liter of water I had and ventured ahead for Manzanita with empty bottles to fill. Twenty minutes later the trail turned and was immediately sheltered from the sun as the canyon wall leaned over the trail.
Manzanita had no potable water, but it did have some vegetation scattered around, and at that time of day, it functioned like a shelter from the beating sun and dropped the temperature several degrees. I rushed to the same creek, now safely accessible, and began to filter water to carry back to the trail for the others. Fifteen minutes later, as I began to walk back to my colleagues, I saw them slowly coming into the cover of the canyon. I greeted them with a few bottles of water. We were going to be ok.
Some slept, we ate, and all rested for an hour, and prepared for the steep 4500 feet hike to the North rim. Incidentally, it had been the ill-prepared member of our group, Clive, who had saved the day by producing the water filter! This was big teaching where all members, like all beings, are necessary and have a function even though it may not be clear at first. Like fingers on a hand, we are interdependent even when those connections and functions are hidden from apparent view. There is a time and day for all of us when destiny calls to step up. We all did in small but meaningful ways.
Seeing things as they are is one of the great benefits of mindfulness. But seeing is not sufficient when it does not inform right or skillful action. Failing to act in the presence of warnings brought about suffering and danger: not calling out Clive’s inappropriate clothing, food, water and gear hindered our ability to care for each other as a team and him individually. Yet, during the critical hours when Clive and others were experiencing some degree of heat stroke, we took care of each other. One of our team members, Jim, carried Clive’s backpack for 5 miles in the heat to ease him from the burden, and I carried Shelly’s backpack for a short while; Mark encouraged me the night before the hike to purchase a long sleeve UV protected shirt and was our clear minded soundboard when I was clouded by fear, offering reassurance and gentle suggestions towards action. We were like the many voices in our head when we sit in meditation: a council that arose, earlier we were individuals, separate, now we were one.
“Just sitting” is the basic instruction in Zazen. What do we mean by “just sitting?” asks the American Psychoanalyst and Zen teacher Barry Magid for Tricycle magazine (Uselessness Fall 2013). “Sitting” means sitting, walking, working, eating, speaking, and being silent. “Just” means that there is nothing in the world that is not sitting. When we speak of just sitting, we are not limiting ourselves to describing a particular posture or practice. We are describing a way of being in the world in which everything we encounter is fully and completely itself… Perhaps as we sit we will realize that everything in the world, from myself to the morning star, is equally useless and has no justification, no reason or meaning outside of itself.
I can see the uselessness of it all, walking on this rock circling the sun, somewhere in the milky way. I can see the rising waves of stress and urgency from the mind-body-spirit embodiment under entropy’s threat, and I can see how in the human landscape, the connections with loved ones, the love, the care, all of it, while useless, mattered.
This is the paradigm of being body and mind and spirit, we get to see it all unfold, our paradoxical nature of being wave and particle, attached and unattached, yin and yang, the useless paradox of being two, one, many, and none. The pain and the suffering makes sense only in the context of love and compassion, timeless, boundless, Bodhicitta nature, Jesus nature, Buddha nature, Mohammed nature, God-like nature, loving parent nature, spouse nature, friend nature, sentient being nature. Relationships mattered. And yet, there is the potential to form a wiser relationship to that which is treasured. Meditation teacher and author Noah Levine calls to appreciate the beauty and comfort of the moment with nonattached appreciation (Levine 2014).
Those moments, filled with urgency and fear, also held the beauty of the rocks, the sound of one foot in the air, and the fingers of dry tree limbs pointing at the sun.
Mindfulness-informed cognitive skills
All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
-Siddhartha Gautama, Dhammapada. Trans. Gil Fonsdal. Chapter 1, Dichotomies.
“…to alleviate psychological stresses [one needs to correct] faulty conceptions and self-signals. By correcting erroneous beliefs, we can lower excessive reactions.”
-Aaron Beck, Cognitive Therapy
Hours later, we left the white and greenish sloped rocks of the 570 million-year-old Bright Angel shale to enter the Muav and Redwall limestone layers, red and copper-colored vertical cliff sediments. About 450-400 million-years ago, a shallow sea was retreating. For the next 1000 feet, the hard limestone makes cliffs, and the trail, 5 feet wide, is carved into the rock. This is the beginning of a fast ascent to the North rim. Here you can also be sheltered from the pounding sun as you veer off the Bright Angel canyon. As we climbed, the temperature dropped and the earth’s spinning set the sun over the West behind the cliffs.
I was still shaken by the experience in “the box.” My fight or flight was still pretty active and kept knocking the door of my attention from the depths of the limbic system. Because one of the limbic system’s functions is to sustain survival of the living being, its danger-calls, real or imaginary, are hard to dismiss. I could feel the I, the sense of self, continually rising, awakened by fear like an armor around the body, once fluid, now viscous, thicker, almost solid.
One school of thought in neurosciences understands awareness of self as a mind-body construct that emerges as a property of the brain’s neural interactions. Emergence is the formation of something, a property or a state (a mind-state) that is not present in the individual elements of the original system. In other words, individual neurons may lack awareness of self, but the interaction of these individual neurons produce one (Nunez, 2016). Fear, anger, and fight-or-flight strongly foster the emergence of self as a property of living creatures to support their survival. “Fear, I see you,” I noted mentally many times. There was something else however, deep down, quiet, imperceptible almost, a caring compassion for this struggling mind-heart-body nested in the clutches of fear.
The trail was bordered on one side by massive red rock half a mile high, and by deep cliffs on the other. Tired and still shaken, I had intrusive obsessive thoughts that I was going to fall into the void backpack and all; family, wife, kids, profession and all. These were not peaceful images but dreadful intrusive obsessions we call ego dystonic, that is, the psychological term to denote that the thoughts are not in synchrony with our psychological, moral or spiritual makeup. I could not shake them, I could only see them coming and going like harsh waves crashing at rocks. I had to repeat to myself that they were passing, one now, then another. I thought of countless patients who described cravings for drugs in the same way. Thoughts may be passing events, but when they trigger the fight or flight fear response, they churn deeper emotions and physical sensations. It is easy to see how these forces could paralyze somebody, or, in an impulse, make them do the unthinkable. I quickly turned to Zen masters Thich Nhat Hanh’s recitation mantra I had used earlier in the hike, “breathing in I am happy, I breathing out I smile,” or, “breathing in, present moment, breathing out, beautiful moment.” This time however, to no avail. In the midst of such fear, it was hard to smile, or to be happy for the moment. So, I turned to the body for grounding, to feel greater Yin (earth) and found small respite for my head in the body. I began again to notice the sensations in my feet. Walking meditation came easy and allowed me to place one step in front of the other, while fearsome “200 foot drop” thoughts kept pounding my head. I decided that if I could not make my head stop thinking those thoughts, wherever they were coming from, then I could still co-exist with them. They continued all the hike up, but stepping out of the struggle with them, they became less bothersome background noise. Five hours later, the trail came to a clearing at the top of the north rim. It was 10 pm, 18 hours after our first steps, under a sheet of stars.
The North rim: Turning towards
We were embodied alright. Discomfort and pain are powerful motivators to grasp the mind’s attention. Sitting on the patio of the North Rim’s lodge, bruised, thirsty, mildly dehydrated, and in pain, there was room still to appreciate the enormous beauty of the moment. The Canyon spread magnificently and vastly around us.
That night I had a fidgety sleep. Mostly in discomfort, easily awakened by physical pain. Interrupted bursts of deep sleep with half asleep transitions. Through the cabin window, I could appreciate the sounds of animals and the almost breathing blackness of the canyon.
The next morning, though my body felt much better, unlike my companions I was worried again; a fearful brooding mind state had settled in like a cloudy day. Western psychology would diagnose me as having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a hypertrophy of the anticipatory survival response that thinks of possible dangers lurking in the future. Most of the time, I keep this GAD dormant and manageable though meditation, therapy, humor, and physical activity, but not that day. That day I was worried about those cliffs, as we would have to encounter them twice on the way back, once going down, then up again. In my mind’s eye, the trail grew narrower and the cliffs grew deeper. What was the right antidote for the suffering when distraction, a drink, some walking and beautiful vistas were not enough? Exposure therapy is one of the great discoveries of the 20th century to deal with anxiety-related conditions, although 2,500 years ago, Buddhism, in a similar way, invited a “turning towards” that which is pressing, even when painful.
Exposure therapy is summarized by the old adage, “if you fall from the horse, best to get back on it.” Avoidance, as we now know, feeds and reinforces delusional fearsome thoughts, making them bigger and stronger, creating greater grooves in the fear neurocircuitry of our mind. Avoidance of non life-threatening situations that need to be endured is not right action. I decided to train my mind by using the tourist observing points around the North rim. I walked towards the rock protrusions shooting into the air away from the rim, and, from the safety of the handrail, watched the incredible immense void unfolding around me. Many interesting things came up. I experienced, for example, a sense of disorientation when standing close to the edge that inhibited my ability to tell how far away it was, an experience that I later read occurs when the eyes, lacking a fixed reference point close enough to settle on, sends one signal to the brain, while the proprioception and the inner ear send different signals, which can cause passing lightheadedness and dizziness. This phenomenon has been blamed for people’s fall from the canyon’s rim to their deaths.
Turning towards that which is present allows us to look deeply, while avoiding reactive behaviors around pleasant or unpleasant. As I stepped close to the cliff (safely surrounded by handrails), I allowed my gaze to look down. The experience produced immediately exhilarating fear as my body tensed in waves from my stomach up, my heartbeat rose and my gaze became unfocused. Stomach tension and mild nausea crept in, produced by a defense mechanism that lays deep in our brainstem, millions of years old, that we share with squids: squirting body fluids can ward off predators. Every cell in unison yelled to walk back, to turn back away from the precipice or drop to the floor of the rocky protrusion, but I stayed there breathing and sensing my feet grounded.
I discovered that this intense fear was coming in waves, and that all I had to do was to ground myself and allow the experience to pass. Perhaps equally or even more important was the mental spaciousness that mindfulness opens up. When we are caught by an intense experience, with its army of emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations, our awareness narrows as the world around us loses its spaciousness and impermanence, and instead it seems solid and eternally caught in thorns. Quoting Naomi Shihab Nye, “the future dissolves like a weakened broth.” In contrast, the gentle allowing, the breath and its parasympathetic activation, engage the prefrontal cortex, which, in turn, soothes the limbic system and calms the amygdala that triggers the fear-danger response. I imagine it calming the wild beast of our reptilian brain. Then, what was once a zero focused attention, can ease into a vast space-time horizon of prefrontal cortex activation.
Ven. Thanissaru Bhikkhu proposes a not-self cognitive strategy (anatta) (Bhikkhu 1996). As mindful awareness de-centered my experience of I and expanded my awareness of many things passing, I could notice that besides fear, muscle tension, and rapid heartbeats, there was also an observer, and compassion, and reverence for the beauty of the place, and humility, and happiness for my life and those whom I loved around me.
At the same time, I began to gain an awareness of the ancestors in the genetic and cultural karma that I was carrying in the moment, and I realized that, though fear was pervasive within me, I was much more than that fear. Who was experiencing fear? It was no longer clear.
This realization, the embodied experience of the many elements present, causes and conditions, that form this body-mind-spirit construct was crucial when walking back. So later, when fear came to visit during my experience, I would say “we see you fear,” the many non-me elements. Never again for the remainder of the hike did I feel alone, the company of the heartfelt qualities (the Brahma Viharas), the many parts of the body, the many emotions in space, and the many presences in the continuum of time, my ancestors and loved ones, patients and colleagues hiked back home. ”I am large, I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman; once solo, we were now a one-man caravan, a Sangha.
Three of the initial five members of our group hiked back to the South rim. The remaining two thought it would be wiser not to hike but rather to take the shuttle to the South rim.
On the third day after our arrival, we entered the North Kaibab trail heading back south through “the box” to Phantom Ranch. We crossed the Colorado river and ascended 4460 feet on the Bright Angel trail to the south rim. The hike was not without its difficulties, though the sense of mindful connectedness I had experienced persisted through these challenges, and, 14 hours later, we arrived at the rim.
We all have canyons in our lives that call for us to descend inward, albeit, they are called by different names: divorce, cancer, trauma, heart attack, or death of a loved one.
Then there are the forces that challenge our individual and planetary homeostasis, we can simultaneously descend inward and outward to tend to both environments by cultivating restoring practices. Concentration, kind awareness, compassion, forgiveness, joy for others, clarity, effort, kindness, community, advocacy, education, and cognitive science tend to and enrich both environments.
We are born into this mystery without instructions on how to live life. We have no manual for this latest model of mind-heart-body that we inhabit, and live under the delusion of individuality, driven by what is pleasant and avoiding what is painful. We study, train, and prepare for a career on what to do in our lives, but are left to figure out how to live skillfully. But there is an alternative way of living: moment-by-moment with clearer understanding, and greater freedom from our condition, and for the benefit of all beings including our planetary home. The interwoven wisdom of Buddhist practice, mindfulness, philosophy, religion and neuroscience can be that manual for skillful living, asking not what to do, but how to be. These are the many fingers pointing at the moon.
We have an immense responsibility to all, and no option in the path of mindfulness and compassion but hiking out.
May all beings be well,
May all beings be at ease,
May all beings be free from suffering.
South Rim, Arizona. September 2017.
Thank you to all my team members, teachers, patients, family and friends for coming along, and to Tessa Barkan and Dori Langevin for their comments. Special gratitude to the NPS staff for tending such beautiful landscapes.
Mother earth, guard our steps.
Father heaven, guard our souls.
We thank you for your care and immense benevolence.
Thank you for guarding us and allow us to go in peace,
and to return home like the river to the sea.
Mother earth, guard our steps.
Father heaven, guard our souls.
Night sky, hold us in your starry embrace.
Mother earth, guard our steps.
Father heaven, guard our souls.
Sun, our star and seed to all life,
be gentle for you give and take life,
care for us as you pass above us in your bright arch.
Mother earth, guard our steps.
Father heaven, guard our souls.
Road to the North, may you be open in kindness.
May you take us peacefully towards you, step by step.
To all spirits of Native American ancestors,
we ask your permission to enter this sacred Canyon.
We ask for your protection.
Brother eagle, vulture, mountain lion,
sister squirrel, snake, scorpion, chipmunk, ant, we come to you in peace,
Please protect us.
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