The Mark of Truth on a Hike
In part to celebrate my recovery from the heart attack, I took a few days off last week to hike the Appalacian Trail. It is such a joy to have a body that works again! I had no idea how much I had slowed down!
Aside from the “Hey there’s”, on my hike I had only about half a dozen conversations. Most are of the “have you been to such and such a mountain” or the “how can you tell the turnoff to the …” variety.
Except for one. When a thirty something overtook me, he asked me how long I’d been out. “I'm on my second day." I told him. "I hike for an hour or two, then I write, then hike another hour or so,” I said happily. I was enjoying the rhythm I'd discovered.
“Oh, what are you writing?” he asked.
“Ruminations, mostly. Like a journal. Mostly I find myself thinking about how to bring something of the depths of life into the everyday.”
He focused in on me with a nearly imperceptable shudder, recognizing, I think, that I had just offered out something real, like a gift. With a querulous smile, he looked me in the eye.
“Now, how do you do that?”
“I’m not sure I know, really,” I told him with more honesty than either of us probably expected. “Its why I’m writing I suppose, to figure it out.”
“Its why I walk too, I suppose”, he said, tears suddenly in his eyes. “To find some level of connection I can’t seem to find at home, with my wife.”
“I’m sorry for that,” I said, and meant it. “This can be hard!”
“So come on,” he chided with a light hearted, knowing smile, “so what’s the answer? You must have some idea!”
“Yeah, I guess I do. The trick has something to do with telling the real truth, but I’m not sure quite what. I know that there’s a quality I get in meditation or from my spiritual work in general. I think of it as a sense of effortlessness, what Daoism calls wu wei. When I’m working to hide some truth from myself, I have to work to not allow myself to recognize it. This is not wu wei. But if I own up to whatever truth I’m hiding from myself, if I tell the real truth at least to myself, I gets effortless. There’s no work when there’s nothing to protect. That I know. But what more I want to say, I really don’t get yet.”
“I think I have a sense for what you’re pointing to,” he said hopefully. “My wife and I haven’t been doing well. I think I may be hiding in there a little. There's something I'm not saying. Maybe that's why I work so hard, go on these hikes alone…Something I'm avoiding telling, maybe? I wonder what I’m not admitting to her – or maybe to me?”
“Yeah, sounds like there's something worth looking at in there.”
That seemed to be enough for him. He said, somewhat suddenly, “listen, you walk slower than me. I’m going to go on. But what’s your name? I’ll look for your book when it comes out.” I told him; we shook hands, and he smiled that smile that's a cross between sadness and the relief that is touching, however briefly, another soul. He took off, a flash of calves and socks.
This brief interchange – probably no longer than a “have you seen the Chim Chum Falls?” conversation – was the sudden interruption of honesty. Both mine and his. I could have given him an easy one liner about the "secret" or a quippy answer. But just at that moment, I really didn’t know an answer. I was very aware of not knowing and where I was actually struggling, and that I wanted to write about just that. Not knowing felt just then surprisingly true.
His answer too was a suddent dose of honesty. So honest that he probably felt a little embarrassed as he strode off.
We can always answer such a question in one of two ways. We can say something we already know or to what we don't yet know. Generally its an easy answer or one that actually true. I'm not sure why, but I chose to speak into what was really so at that moment: that really I don't know.
Dropping into the real always makes me a little anxious, frankly. To admit that I don’t know, not really, or that I think something most people don't, is anxiety- making.
When we talk about the “how far is …” or “have you been to the …. “ we’re talking in ways that are easy. They're customary conversations, well concocted by our culture and our habits. We know the kind of conversation, the tone of the answers, roughly how to do it. We pretend that we know or play an easy role. There’s nothing of our real soul in the conversation, not really. And because we're in the dance, we are what the other, and we ourselves, expect. We don't risk a damn thing.
There's also a kind of showing off implicit in the concocted conversation. We or they are saying in effect, “I’ve been to more places” or “I’m a good (or committed) hiker.” Though its not about wealth or status per se, such a display of our hiker’s knowledge are not unconnected with the status dance.
So it made me just a little anxious to say to my young friend that I did not know, that I was actually wondering. Because I was not showing how much I know. I was not making a claim (except, to be honest, the bass ackwards claim of “I’m into not knowing,” if you can call it that).
I felt anxious because I was taking a risk. Daring to share where I actually was at that moment. I was putting myself at risk, actually, venturing out of the customary and already known, and sharing that I was a little confused and afraid.
I was offering something of myself, putting myself at risk by showing what was, at that moment, actually me.
He could have gone two ways as well. He could have made a little joke (at my expense, perhaps?) or claimed to know something of "the" answer. In effect, ridicule or bravado: both tools for distancing. Or he could come with me, entering for the moment into our mutual space of truth telling. Which he did.
I think we are always a little nervous when we share what’s really true for us. For we are at risk, just then. Reaching out for himan contact, for real exchange, can always be met with either contact or rebuffing, and its scary.
Intellectual analysis is one way — the academic's fav — of avoiding contact. Humor at the other’s expense is too. So too is “fixing” the other, offering solutions.
Real contact is …. well, I get ahead of myself.
The point I’m making is that you can tell when you’re doing real work, touching into soul as it were, because you’re anxious as you say or think it. If you feel vulnerable or anxious or a little nervous, that’s the mark of soul.
I have a friend who says—with an ooh—"I’m scared of saying something here, so let me go there." I love that phrase!
Its an "existential anxiety," according to my friend and colleague in the Soul Jazz program, Kerry Gordon. Not the anxiety we feel when we're about to take a test or call someone we want to date, but the anxiety we feel when we drop into what we actually are, often what we don't yet know. Anxiety comes when we drop into what is not how we like to present ourselves. We're about to discover or reveal something that’s not yet us, so we're facing a little death of the self. In such an "existential" moment, anxiety — or the giddyness of discovery that also is present — may be the only right feeling.
In short, in general, and even on a hike, we can use anxiety as the sign that we're telling a real truth. How cool is that?