March 21, 2017 – The Best Retreat Is In Here, Not Out There

“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul – especially if on close inspection it is filled with ease, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat, and be renewed.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.1

Just a brief observation on this meditation.

My wife is a beach person. I am a mountains person. We go to these locations because the environment affords us greater access to that peacefulness we seek. But are these environments required, or are we playing to a bias? When discussing religious belief with someone who is dogmatically committed to a specific system I will inevitably ask them what makes their belief better than others. They usually reply with the specifics of their system as being superior, but what they can’t claim as their own is the feeling others get from different systems that mirror their own.

I fully admit that my love for the mountains is primarily a desire to not be in hot, humid weather. But it’s a true statement that being on my paddle board as the sun rises gives me a feeling much like watching the sunrise over snow capped mountains. What I’m looking for is not the peacefulness of the mountains, but peacefulness itself. I must be aware that such a state has nothing to do with where I am but rather how I think.

February 12, 2017 – Protect Your Piece of Mind

“Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.3.6b-8 

Acadia National Park is one of the great protected natural resources America has to offer. One of its draws is a 1.6-mile hike along the famous Precipice Trail. With narrow ledges, and many iron rungs and handholds, this 850 ft ascent is more about mental confidence than physical endurance. When I was in Acadia a few years ago the trail was closed due to the nesting of the Peregrine Falcons in the area, but it was a trail that was recommended to my friend and me.

Today I watched four YouTube videos of hikers that made the trek. Having already experienced Katahdin’s Knife Edge I was surprised that while watching the videos my hands began to sweat. Those on the video could assure me the rungs are stable, but when that camera looks down and we get to see the straight drop below the fear of falling was well translated. There is no future I can see where I would ever hike that trail. As much as I love to hike, why would I subject myself to such fear? I can experience views above tree line from much more stable locations.

Where do we spend our time? Work, sporting events, church, athletic teams or other social settings occupy our lives by choice. We are not bound by some natural, or man-made law, to social institutions, yet how often will we remain somewhere that serves to wear us down?

In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis wrote:

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

Epictetus is reminding us that our very character is something we must protect. The meditation is asking us to consider those environments that we allow ourselves to be in, and whether they are more provoking us rather than inspiring us. Are we constantly on that emotional edge, and in doing so is it distracting you from the life you want, and the person you want to be? Sometimes the hard decision is to change jobs, move to a different location, admit a friendship is pernicious or adjust to a different social group, but isn’t that a small price for the freedom Epictetus speaks of?


February 7, 2017 – Fear is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

“Many are harmed by fear itself, and many have come to their fate while dreading fate.” – Seneca, Oedipus, 992

Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? I have. Two summers ago I traveled to Maine with my friend Chris. Our hope was to get the perfect weather day that would allow us a hike up Mt. Katahdin, and a traverse of its knife edge. The rub…I have a very serious fear of falling. Chris left our campsite at the Roaring Brook Campground in Baxter State Park as the sun was finding its place above the ridge. I’d never seen him with so much energy to spare. Per the trailhead check-in sheet, I was 30 minutes behind him, but he somehow managed to separate by another hour as we hiked.

We both took the Saddle Trail, spent time at Chimney Pond, soaking in the beauty of a day beyond expectations. I was fine until the last .2 miles of Saddle. The Slide lacked solid footing and presented itself as close to an 180-degree ascent as I ever experienced. I shook with every movement, fearing any loss of balance would find me cascading backward with no hope of avoiding injury.

But I continued on.

Pulling myself up to Tableland (the flat area at trails end) I felt an incredible sense of relief, and I knew full well I would not be hiking down the way I came. On my way up I was passed by a 20-something hiker moving across the very same Slide like a well-traveled mountain goat. I envied that confidence.

By the time I found myself at the sign marking my success in reaching Katahdin’s peak I was shaking. My options of getting down the mountain were all terrifying. The Saddle Trail is the least demanding of those which I could take with the time left in the day. The Knife Edge Trail to the Helon Taylor Trail was the goal. Chris had waited an hour and a half for me to complete our first task. A new friend I met along the way up, Larry, (who I would hike the Presidential Traverse with the following summer) and Chris patiently waited as I worked through this crisis. For 30 minutes I sat at 5,267 feet, waiting for my mind to settle, while my two friends assured me I could this. The hike from Katahdin to Pamola Peak (where the Helon Taylor Trail meets) is only 1.1 miles long, but there are sections where you’re free climbing with nothing below you but a 4,000-foot drop. There are blind climbs to find the blazes.

It was the most focused I had ever been in my entire life. The only time fear made itself felt was when we stopped to rest. For a brief moment I could take in the majesty of my surroundings, but my mind would inevitably focus on my elevation and task still before me.

When I finally pulled myself up to Pamola Peak the joy I experienced at completing this dream made every bit of fear I experienced meaningless. Hiking the Southeast cannot prepare you for the challenges of Maines rugged terrain. But I was more ready than I realized. Instead of letting fear make me an unstable hiker, I allowed it to make me a more focused one. True, I could not have done it alone, and that’s what makes the experience even more inspirational. It will always remind me how important it is to prepare. That it’s important to accept that you may need help.

Fear is not something that should stop you. Instead, understand how you can use it gain your footing.