Hiking Towards Humility

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Every spiritual tradition I know of says that the greatest obstacle between God and me is my ego. The Bible warns of what happened to Adam and Eve after the serpent tempted them into believing that they could become like God simply by eating a certain fruit. (A little, come to think of it, like the guru I just read who tells me I can live practically forever if I drink a glass of kale juice every morning.) Ralph Waldo Emerson called egotism a disease. Thomas Merton wrote that we tend to worship the ego instead of God, while the Dalai Lama says that ego is the number one enemy of compassion. An acronym for ego—“Easing God Out”— is included in the Alcoholics’ Anonymous Handbook.

So what do I do to stop listening to my ego, become more humble, start focusing on God? A woman in the spiritual writing group I facilitate has begun a book on incorporating the Zen Buddhist principal of “wabi sabi”—which she describes as “the celebration of the incomplete, impermanent, and imperfect”—into her pottery-making and into her life as a way to counter her competitive perfectionism, her ego.

Hiking also works.

For example, my wife and I are walking St. Cuthbert’s Way, the 62-mile hike from Melrose on the Scottish Border to the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland Coast, and I’m admiring views, trying to achieve a walking meditation (“Breathe through your feet … move your attention slowly to your ankles, the calf muscles, the thighs … relax … now focus on the chakras … feel the wind, the sun, the way your clothes touch your skin … become one with your surroundings …”), and then ahead of me is one of those damn hills. Jaws clench. Hands tighten around hiking poles. Head goes down. I’m seventeen years old, diving for a loose ball in the 1961 State Basketball Championship; I’m twenty-one, arm-wrestling a smoke jumper after a few beers; I’m forty, hefting a boulder out of my new garden. I can do this! I charge up the hill. Until about halfway up, my chest is pounding, my lungs are burning, I can’t see from the sweat in my eyes, and I have to stop or die.

Or, later into the hike, I’m trying to become Emerson’s Transparent Eye-ball: becoming nothing; seeing all. I hear voices growing louder and clearer as two hikers catch up with us. It was okay on Maine’s Bold Coast to be overtaken by twenty-year-old anorexics in microfiber, but not in the UK by 75-year-old women in wool hats bounding by us while talking about a new chowder recipe. I try to quicken my pace, become irritated at Mary Lee for stopping to look at the wildflowers, and then, as the women go by us saying, “Cheerio, lovely day for a ramble.” I paste on a smile while my pride hangs its head in shame.

I know—I knew it then—I was being ridiculous, but as my wife and I walked on, I started to make sense out of something I’d never understood before, something more serious: how embarrassing grief can be. Embarrassment explains why, after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I refused to put her obituary in the local paper. I told my family, upset by my decision, that nobody knew Laurie in this part of the state, but the real reason was because I imagined former classmates looking up from their newspapers and Cheerios and saying, “Too bad about old Ricky. He always was a loser.” For years, I answered the question, “How many children do you have?” by saying that I had two stepsons, before trying to change the subject. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, I told myself. No, the truth was I didn’t want to feel embarrassed myself. I’m still not sure I fully understand where this embarrassment came from, but I think it had to do with feeling like a failure as a father for not being able to keep my daughter alive. In other words, ego.

Some three days into walking St. Cuthbert’s Way, I began to experience discomfort in one of my Achilles tendons. Of course, I obsessed—“Will I rupture it? Need to be helicoptered out of here?” I finally realized, however, that every time I’d charged up one of those hills, I wound up waiting for Mary Lee, putting all of my weight on that ankle, cooling it off prior to heating it up again. It also dawned on me (if you can call something that takes you three days to recognize a “dawn”) that we weren’t going to get to our next stop any faster than the slower of us could go. So I slowed to a steadier pace, practiced my walking meditation, noticed more birds and flowers and trees, gave my best “Jolly fine day” the next day when the same two goddamned women bounced by us on the trail again, and still made better time.

I wish getting over the embarrassment of grieving were that easy.  I do feel, however, that the slowing down and paying attention I’ve learned in contemplative prayer has helped, watching my feelings and not trying to judge them—“I shouldn’t be feeling: (pick one) a. embarrassed; b. sad; c. angry; d. all of the above”—and realizing that the most egotistical thing I can do is think I can stop being egotistical through my own efforts.

But it’s hard, especially perhaps for us adult children of alcoholics. One of the slogans I often sit in front of once a week is “Let go and Let God.” I find that easier said than done. I’ll sit with some obsessive thought, thinking, “Let go … Let go … Let it go … LET GO … LET IT GO, GODDAMN IT!”

Recently, I’ve found it more beneficial not to think in terms of letting go, but of surrendering. Tucked into the blotter on my desk these days is a poem, “The Man Watching,” by Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by Robert Bly, which ends, “This is how …[one] grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.”

Like one of those hills along St. Cuthbert’s Way.

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