5 Reasons to Keep the Status Quo

Status quo is Latin for “existing state.”

When my marriage came to a screeching halt over a year ago, I wanted to escape. I looked at flights to Copenhagen, I checked out apartment rentals in Durham, and I even looked into qualifications to teach English in South America. I was grasping at anything that would get me out of my current state, figuratively and literally. I also looked locally for other avenues to pursue new interests. Luckily, I stayed put. I didn’t want the status quo. I didn’t think I needed the status quo. But looking back, it was the best thing I could have done.

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There is a rule of thumb that you shouldn’t make a major life decision such as moving for one year after a loss like a divorce or a death. I wasn’t thinking about this rule of thumb when I stayed put. I stayed put due to financial reasons. Initially, I wasn’t happy about that. I wanted to escape. I wanted to be on a beach drinking massive amounts of fruity rum drinks with umbrellas in them. I wanted to turn my life upside down and move the hell on. In retrospect, l am happy I didn’t. I’m glad I stuck with the status quo.

Here are five reasons to keep the status quo:

  1. Internal locus of control. I needed to take stock in feeling like I had control over my own well-being. Getting on an airplane or throwing out all my furniture was not going to bring about inner peace. Staying right where I was, in my job, in my house, with my beloved dog, that made me understand the importance of overseeing me. I am sovereign. There is no one else to blame. There is only me. If I had taken off to parts unknown, I would have been blaming the world instead of taking stock of myself.

 

  1. Getting back to homeostasis. As Annie Grace wrote in a recent newsletter, “Homeostasis is defined as the maintenance of relatively stable internal physiological conditions (such as body temperature or the pH of blood) in higher animals under fluctuating environmental conditions; also: the process of maintaining a stable psychological state in the individual under varying psychological pressures or unstable social conditions.” I realized that my homeostasis was vastly (not dramatically) improved when I didn’t drink anymore. I was in a constant state of equilibrium. I didn’t need the fictitious relief of a sip of wine. After several months, I was free from the pull of numbing out the pain. I felt like the ship I was on was stable and that the waves weren’t as high. Homeostasis is your body’s status quo.

 

  1. Tinkering with what works. By staying put and confronting the reality of the separation, I was able to make small adjustments. As Stephanie Vozzo wrote for Fast Company, “Instead of trying to be like someone else, appreciate your own qualities. For example, if you’re an introvert, don’t assume life will be better if you transform into an extrovert.” I made small adjustments. I tried Tai Chi. I tried a Body Pump class. I traveled to Assateague island for a weekend. Some things I liked, some things I didn’t.  But I had my own laboratory of “what makes Cathy happy.” Tinkering with small adjustments are on the fringe of status quo.

 

  1. Decluttering is manageable. When my attic was finally completely (yes, completely) empty, I felt an enormous sense of relief. The thing is, that attic took months to empty, organize, sort and pitch. If I had decided to move to Peru, I might have thrown out something irreplaceable and precious like a book my son wrote for his grandfather or my daughter’s artwork. Being able to take time to selectively declutter could only be accomplished in relative status quo.

 

  1. All you have is you. You can be in Copenhagen, Paris or Lima, but it’s still you under it all. Drastic change or a year of adventure would not have changed the pain that was under it all. As Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is through.” The best way through for me was in status quo. Keeping my environment the same helped me feel my way through. Escape into something new and unknown would not have helped and likely would have masked it all. At the end of the day, you still have you. It’s still you in there.

 

I’m not recommending that you never engage in adventure again. That you never test the edges of your status quo. I just know that relaxing into what was known, familiar and comfortable over the last 18 months has been rejuvenating and restorative. Do you need to stay in your status quo?

Resolutions Don’t Work

You’ve told yourself a million times you would start going to the gym. But it’s 7 AM and you still haven’t put your running shoes on. You roll over and hit snooze again. You’ve promised to eat a salad for lunch, but you decide that the drive-through at Hardee’s looks a little bit easier. Double cheeseburger it is! You told yourself three years ago that you were going to start writing that book. But you binge watch Modern Family instead. This is the effect of most resolutions on most people. We fail. Over and over and over again.

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There are many reasons why resolutions don’t work. Here they are:

 

  • It’s just too big. Resolving to lose 20 pounds, write a book, or run a marathon is pretty BIG. It’s daunting. It’s overwhelming. It’s so easy to get discouraged and give up before you even start. You can’t eat a 24-oz Porterhouse in one bite. And when you don’t, you give up your resolve and throw in the towel. You’ve got to break it down into itzy bitzy pieces.

 

  • There are a million distractions. As Beverly Flaxington wrote in Psychology Today, “Even the most minor distractions slow you down, wasting your energy and time – consequently adding more stress to your everyday life – and keep you away from things that you really want. Distractions cause you to miss many opportunities in life. They make you feel busy and tired all the time, and frustrated at the lack of progress despite your best efforts.” These distractions are stressing you out and keeping you from achieving your higher goals.

 

  • You don’t write them down. Believe it or not, keeping your new resolution in your head is not that effective. It’s difficult to keep it at the top of your head all day when you don’t have it memorialized somewhere. In addition, you have a world of distractions (see the bullet above) that are constantly taking you off course. As a coach, I write my clients goals down and then they make a copy themselves, or my clients write down their goals as we talk. Writing them down helps embed it in your head.

 

  • You don’t clarify what is at the heart of the resolution. Resolving to lose weight or quit smoking isn’t really the heart of the issue. It’s probably more about feeling energized, having a more positive outlook, or regaining your confidence. What is at the core of this new resolution? Knowing what is at the core will help you see it through when your willpower is waning.

 

So what do you do about it? It’s the New Year and you have a whole new clean slate. I’ve got the solution for you and it’s free.

Try out my 102 Itzy Bitzy Habits. Just click here to receive your free copy.

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Give Up Waiting as a State of Mind

This is part of a longer quote I read from Eckhart Tolle last week. The entire quote was: “Give up waiting as a state of mind. When you catch yourself slipping into waiting, snap out of it. Come into the present moment. Just be and enjoy being.” Quite the thought-provoking quote. I have spent a lot of time waiting. Countless hours, days, weeks, months, years – just waiting. Red lights, grocery store lines, dial-up (old school internet connection), waiting rooms (heck, it even has the waiting built right in); buying the house; for him to graduate; for her to ask; for the promotion; for him to sign; for her to forgive.

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Waiting is painful, exhausting, a waste. To reframe it as Tolle suggests is very interesting. Instead of looking at your watch or calendar, come back to the present moment. Instead of gnashing your teeth, planning a detour, counting up all the wrongs you are suffering, come back to the present. Engage.

Here are some tips giving up waiting:

Value the time

As Elisha Goldstein writes for Mindful, “Most people believe that waiting is a waste of time and it’s best to fill that time with something…anything.What if this is an investment in the present moment? What if this is a time to be with yourself? Instead of striving to move on, past the traffic jam, or off the detour, you could embrace the extra moment with yourself. Instead of taking out time from your personal time bank account, you are making a time deposit. So, if the doctor is delayed, or the cashier has a price check, you suddenly have more time for you! It’s a windfall! Value the time you have gained for yourself.

Don’t default to distraction

Look around at the DMV, doctor’s office or line for the movie theater (I know…old school): everyone is on their phones. There MUST be something out there on the web, social media or my inbox that’s more interesting than this present moment. I’m guilty of this at a red light. I pick up my phone without a thought to see if I have anything in my inbox or some interaction on social media. One more “like” or comment or useless promotional email. It makes time slip away by just skimming without any value. 99.9% of the time. Looking at your phone is absolutely valueless and it excites your brain to expect the email saying you finally hit the Mega Millions lottery. That email won’t come and expectancy of some kind of windfall depletes you. Stay off your phone and from the pull of distraction.

Find the opportunity

As Goldstein writes, “In those moments, instead of grabbing something to fill the space, you recognized it as an opportunity to be okay with just waiting.” I think this is about reframing it as a positive. An opportunity. Found money in your jeans pocket while doing the wash. Savor it. Relax into it. Again, Goldstein prescribes: “You can soften the muscles in your body that have just tensed due to a mini fight/flight/freeze response and just recognize you’re safe.” I’ve caught myself over the last week when I hit that one red light that seems so much longer than the rest. Take a deep breath and slide into the moment of right now. Everything is OK. As Goldstein says, “You’re safe.” In reality, 99.9% of the time, you are safe. Find the opportunity to be aware that you are just fine.

Practice, practice, practice

So the best part about giving up waiting and snapping back into the present is that there are endless ways to practice. As Goldstein wrote:

There are so many opportunities to practice.

  • You can do this while waiting for the bread to toast,
  • waiting for someone to get out of the shower,
  • waiting for a certain report at work,
  • waiting for a screen to load,
  • waiting for your partner to clean the dishes,
  • waiting on hold on the phone, or
  • even while waiting for your newborn to settle down as you’re doing your best as a parent to soothe your baby.

There is a treasure trove of opportunity to practice! I have noticed that, since reading Tolle’s quote, I have practiced this over the last week and just noticing my reaction to waiting has been a good start. The moment I say, “Ugh, I can’t believe there is a line of six cars,” I reframe it. I can catch myself and come back into the present moment. It’s just a practice of self-control.

It’s difficult to control our brain’s negative bias towards catastrophe. I found that awareness alone has helped release the tension of those anxious moments when I feel I am needlessly waiting. The first thing is to notice that you are doing it. How can you reframe waiting?

Lost in the Woods

Before I headed out with my boyfriend Roy on our short but steep section hike on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), I had read a few books and listened to several YouTube videos about hiking the A.T. Between going off-trail to relieve yourself to heading down the wrong trail to just not paying attention, you can end up getting lost in all the information. So many options! I figured that the odds of getting lost on our journey were slim to none since Roy was a veteran, having hiked 531 miles of the A.T. (yes, he is a bad ass). We were also only going to be on the trail for two days, so how lost could we possibly get?

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Being lost is relative. Being lost is not being sure of where you are in relation to either your hiking partner, your pack, or the trail you “thought” you were on. I can’t tell you I was ever actually lost on the trip, but I know I definitely felt lost several times. Perception is reality and there were many moments where I wasn’t sure where I was.

This is what I learned about being lost in the woods:

Plain sight

Water is essential for life. On day one of our hike, I was clambering across a slide of fallen trees grabbing onto roots above for dear life, when one of my two water bottles fell out of my pack. It slid down about 10 feet off the trail into the slide area. Roy and I looked at it for a bit. Roy thought about taking off his pack and going after it. We weighed our options and, although it was in plain sight, the downside of retrieving it was too great. We had three bottles of water remaining between the two of us. Although it was in plain sight, it was lost.

Wrong trail

After we found the shelter we were going to camp nearby for the night, we hung our packs in the shelter and went off to look for water. Before arriving at the shelter, there were some double blue blazes indicating a trail to either water or another destination. There was a sign at the top that read: “Wesser Creek Trail.” The guide book had indicated that there was a water source within a tenth of a mile of the shelter. Somehow, I had confused “creek” and “water”. We headed down what seemed like a six-inch-wide trail. I was glad we didn’t have backpacks on as the trail was precarious. There were several switchbacks and a few blue blazes, but no indication of water. I was exhausted and just wanted to get into my sleeping bag. I felt guilty for having lost a full bottle of water earlier. Roy soldiered on for a few more switchbacks, but by now, we had gone at least a half mile more and the shadows from the trees were lengthening. We gave up and started hiking back up to the shelter. As I contemplated not being able to find water and what that might mean, we ran into a young guy running (yes, jogging shorts, t-shirt and no pack) on the narrow trail. We asked about the water source and it was down the main trail (white blazes) about a tenth of a mile. We may have been on a trail, but it was the wrong trail. Creek and water are not the same.

Naked

No. I was never naked. Meaning, I was never without clothes. But when we went down the Wesser Creek Trail, I felt lost from my belongings. When I thought we were venturing off for 10 minutes to find water, I wasn’t concerned about being without the pack. As we went down our precarious detour, I started getting nervous about our packs hanging in the shelter. They were hanging so that mice would not get into them. There was a warning about bears in the area. I started to get anxious and concerned that when we arrived back at the shelter, that there would be a full-on party of bears and mice tearing our packs apart. Had I left anything uneaten in my pack that would attract bears? After carrying all my earthy things all day, I felt naked without the pack and nervous that we would be stuck in the woods overnight without our things. We arrived back to the shelter to find everything intact. I felt lost from my essentials.

Separation

As we descended down the mountain on the second day, we started to get warm as the sun came out. We stopped to take off some of our layers and Roy decided to change into shorts. About a quarter mile down the trail, Roy realized he didn’t know where his cell phone was. He headed back up the trail to see if he dropped it when he changed. I stood and waited. He returned. No phone. He realized that it might be in his sleeping bag located in the bottom of his pack. I decided to head down the trail while he unpacked. I knew his pace was much faster than mine and I didn’t want to slow us down. I soldiered on down the trail. Pretty soon, I couldn’t see any white blazes marking the trail. I started to panic. I turned around to walk back up the trail. I started yelling for Roy. I figured that he should have caught up by then. As he arrived down the trail, the white blaze appeared again. He confirmed that I should have turned back to make sure I was on the trail. For those five to ten minutes of separation, I felt lost. Without my hiking partner and white blaze to guide me, I felt lost.

The hike is a great metaphor for life. Things may be in plain sight, but you can still be lost. You may be temporarily lost, on a detour, down the wrong path, but you can still find your way home. You may feel lost from something you feel is essential, but you still have you. You may be separated and unsure of your next step; it just might require doubling back. The greatest gift from the experience is that regardless of where I thought I was or wasn’t, I could rely on myself to find my way out.

Tonglen: To Let Go and To Accept

I’ve been listening to the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Pema is an American Tibetan Buddhist and has written and taught extensively. She speaks of Tonglen, a foreign concept to me as I listened to the book. I decided to investigate further. As defined by Dhaval Patel for Zenful spirit, “Tonglen is a Tibetan word that is contrived of two terms tong, which means to let go and len, which means to accept. So Tonglen means To Let Go and To Accept.

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As Pema writes in Lion’s Roar magazine, “Pema Chödrön teaches us sending and taking an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.” I practice meditation every day and have used the Loving Kindness meditation frequently, but this awakening of compassion was a new concept to me and I found it very intriguing. It is one thing to wish others love and kindness; it is quite another to take on their suffering and send relief. It’s so easy to steer clear of pain and suffering to keep ourselves safe.

Here is what I learned about Tonglen:

Be imperfect

I was talking about meditation with my daughter a few weeks ago and she stated that she wasn’t any good at it because she kept thinking. I’ve been meditating for over seven years and I still continue to have thoughts. It’s easy to think: “Whelp…I had a thought so I guess this isn’t working.” My current mediation from the Art of Living is about of series of breathing techniques. While I think about my breath, I still have thoughts. I am not perfect. You won’t be perfect. Being perfect is not the point. My first attempts at Tonglen were imperfect. That’s OK. Embrace imperfection.

Be open and still

The first step to Tonglen is to be still and open. I envision coming out of my head and the whirlwind of thoughts going out and back into my body. Take a few deep breaths. Relax your shoulders and focus on your big toe or on opening your heart.

Close your eyes

Bring someone into mind who is suffering. Many suggest focusing on someone close who you know is suffering. If your dog is lame, or your daughter is being bullied, or your parent is hospitalized, these are assessable. I think of this as low hanging fruit and easier to identify with. In other words, don’t bring to mind a large event like an earthquake, war, or refugees during your first few attempts. In addition, don’t focus on your arch enemy or ex-girlfriend on your first few attempts either. Bring to mind someone you can identify with and want the best for. As Dhaval wrote, “Imagine someone that you want to help. Perhaps it is a friend or a loved one. Focus intently on this person and on their struggle.”

Breathe in

As Pema writes, “Work with texture. Breathe in feelings of heat, darkness, and heaviness—a sense of claustrophobia.” I imagine colors of red and black. Pema says, “Breathe in completely, taking in negative energy through all the pores of your body.” This visually is very powerful for me. Taking the energy through the pores of your entire body illustrates complete openness and compassion for me. As Dhaval writes, “As you do focus on the heaviness of their negative energy and of the things that ail them, imagine yourself breathing in their condition or suffering. As you do this, picture that you are breathing in their pain so you remove it from their bodies, giving them room for comfort, healing and positivity.” I imagine it as taking someone’s burden so that they can be free. I visualized a friend who recently gave up alcohol. I imagined taking in the anxiety and burden of finding that next drink. I swallowed the poison so that she could be free. It’s a powerful experience to embrace the suffering instead of ignoring it or hoping it will go away.

Breathe out

As Dhaval writes, “As you breathe out, breathe happiness and peace out into the world. Think about what you believe would bring them comfort or joy. Focus on that and breathe it out into the world. Imagine that breath traveling to those you want to help and having it fill that empty space with what they need.” I find that the colors of blue and purple work best for me. I imagine filling up the hearts and minds of those suffering with a fog of blue and purple. I also imagine them being lifted up. Perhaps even held up with renewed strength and love. Pema espouses, “Breathe out feelings of coolness, brightness, and light—a sense of freshness.” Breathe out sunshine and unicorns. Breathe out hope and happiness. With my newly sober friend, I imagine freedom, lightness, and courage. This is the letting go.

Repeat and expand

I meditate for 20 minutes. That is lot of suffering and happiness. Dhaval wrote, “Continue this practice of breathing in pain and breathing out peace over and over again until your session is over. Remember, this doesn’t just apply to others either. If you are in pain, you can breathe in and out your own suffering.” When I focus on my own pain or suffering, I can incorporate others in similar pain. I have had some knee pain recently and I breathe in for others suffering physical pain. As Pema says, “Make it bigger than just that one person. You can do Tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies—those who hurt you or hurt others.” Start small and close and then expand out as you practice.

Pema wrote, “Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, your compassion naturally expands over time, and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought, which is a glimpse of emptiness.” In practicing this over the last week, I feel a sense of oneness and belonging. I don’t have to tell someone that I took on their suffering last Friday morning. I just know that I feel like I relieved someone else’s suffering and gifted them happiness back. It feels powerfully unselfish and loving. Whose suffering could you let go and accept?

Hike Your Own Hike

Hike your own hike (HYOH) is a term used frequently in thru-hiker and section-hiker circles. It was a new term for me, up until I actually got out on the trail in late October. Until about six months ago, I had no idea what thru-hiking, white blazing, or yellow blazing was. It was all foreign to me. By the time I was on the trail, I understood it all much better. To actually meet some thru-hikers and section-hikers on the trail gave more clarity to the whole experience. It also brought into focus that I needed to HYOH.

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There are three main thru-hikes in the United States. The Pacific Crest Trail (from Mexico to Canada on the west coast), the Continental Divide Trail (along the Continental Divide from New Mexico to Montana) and the Appalachian Trail (from Georgia to Maine). To complete all three hikes is called the Triple Crown. You can head northbound or southbound on the trail (most people head northbound) and there is something called a flip-flop, when you get off the AT in Harper’s Ferry and head the opposite direction, so maybe Georgia to Harper’s Ferry and then Maine back to Harper’s Ferry. There are all sorts of variations on the flip-flop as well. White blazes are the markings found on the AT and blue blazes mark either scenic bypasses to denote a waterfall or occasional detours around bear-infested areas, fires, or other torrential weather. To yellow blaze is to “cheat” and take a ride via a vehicle to bypass part of the trail. These are examples of basic terminology used by the community of thru-hikers and section-hikers out there on the trail.

This is what I learned about HYOH:

Do not compare

This is the essence of HYOH and it is SO hard to get your arms (er…) head around. On the day my boyfriend Roy and I headed out on the AT to Wesser Bald Shelter, I was constantly comparing myself to those we met on the trail. At about 3 miles in, we met a group of guys, with maybe nine of them coming down the trail in the opposite direction. They were affable, stopping to chat, everyone seemed in lock step; as if they were on a Sunday stroll. I was panting. Out of breath. And hoping I wouldn’t fall off the trail and that they could squeeze by me on the switch back. Later, there were what looked like twin eight-year-old girls bopping down the trail in matching fuzzy jackets with two women in their mid-thirties, presumably one being their mother. I was thinking, what Hampton Inn did they roll out of this morning and how the heck are they going to navigate that slide down the trail that I lost my water bottle on. As you can imagine, this was completely unproductive. Comparison is soul crushing. It just doesn’t matter where you are on the trail compared to others. Let them hike their own hike and you can hike your own hike.

Do not envy

I’m guessing that we met about five groups of people hiking the opposite direction on a Sunday. Odds are that their end destination was the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). Our endpoint was a shelter no where close to civilization. No running water, no king size mattress, no heater. They were most likely headed to a car or to a room at the NOC. I was headed into the great unknown of sleeping outside in a tent and in a sleeping bag; this coming from someone who had never been out in the elements. I was starting to envy these folks headed back to a known reality. They were all headed downhill. We were headed uphill. In reality, I had absolutely no idea what those folks were up to or where they were headed. Envying them of a warm bed had nothing to do with my hike. It was just a buzz kill. It was deflating. Don’t envy others. You don’t know what their destination really is, let alone their journey.

Lift up your head

Initially, I was surprised that I had to be completely present for the entire hike. Every step mattered. In fact, you have to be hypervigilant. All I would focus on, outside of the random passerby and Roy, was the trail beneath my feet. Every root, rock, leaf, and branch. Every white blaze. Walking through what is referred to as the Green Tunnel, I had to actually stop and lift my head to take a look around. To look at the autumnal foliage, to take a picture of flowers alongside the trail, to look out at the view from the knife’s edge of a ridge. This gave me renewed gratitude for walking in my neighborhood. I don’t need to be vigilant for a random root or slippery rock. There were countless times when my hiking shoe got hooked on a random root. The struggle to stay upright was life-affirming; it shines a light on stopping to lift up your head and look around. Observe the beauty that is the trail.

You are where you are

Roy told me, during what felt like a two-mile plus journey during the last mile of our first day, the last mile is always the longest. There were no mileposts. On places where I had day hiked, like Fort Macon, there were mileposts every .2 miles. I was used to knowing where I was and the progress I have made. It is reassuring. On the A.T.? No such luck. We may have scrambled on rocks for 20 minutes and I would feel like we had made a half mile of progress. However, scrambling over rocks only moves you a few feet forward. Not all portions of the trail are created equal! Some are smooth, wide and straight forward (which is rare); some are narrow, winding and covered in boulders, meant to be scrambled over with your hands and knees. At one point, on the second day, I had been going downhill and I was exasperated. I knew that there was a landmark shelter somewhere on the trail. I asked Roy, “Where is the f$%#ing shelter?” I am not proud of my exasperation. My knees were aching from all the downhill, I was past all the challenging parts we had dealt with on the way up, and I had camped outside and peed in the woods. I was sweaty and tired and all I wanted was to have a sign we were close to our destination, the NOC. I wanted a chair and a hot cup of coffee. The thing is, there was no escalator, moving sidewalk or Uber to pick me up. Regardless of where you are, you are where you are. Relax and take one step at a time. One stiff foot in front of the other. Anticipating where you want to be isn’t helpful. Be OK with where you are right now.

Backpacking on the A.T. is life-affirming. To complete a section is an accomplishment, regardless of whether or not one thru-hikes the whole thing. Experiencing hoisting everything I need on my back, and looking only three feet in front of me brought me back to myself. It didn’t matter what was going on in the world. What mattered was right in front of me and I had renewed self-assurance that I could accomplish whatever I wanted to take on. The key to it all? Hike your own hike.

Discoveries from My Walk in the Woods

Taking a casual walk in the woods can seem mundane enough. There shouldn’t be much to it, one would think. Simply put: one foot in front of the other. When it comes to walking in the woods on the Appalachian Trail, you might think it’s pretty easy. The trail extends from Georgia to Maine and crosses 14 states. More than 2 million folks hike a portion of the trail each year; a much smaller percentage complete the approximately 5,000,000 steps required to complete the entire trek. Well, if 2 million folks can survive a piece of the A.T., so can I.

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I haven’t backpacked since I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire. Deciding to leave the comforts of a Hampton Inn and venture out overnight into the woods was nausea inspiring. I was nervous. Thoughts rushed through my head. Maybe I was too old. Maybe I was just too klutzy. Maybe I didn’t have the staying power to make it back to the starting point. Maybe we needed someone to meet us at the end with the car and refreshments. I am obviously writing this, so we all know I survived. But the venture educated me as to my abilities. And it truly was a life affirming challenge.

Here are my discoveries from my walk in the woods:

Roots

I have hiked in Utah, New Hampshire, California, New Mexico, and Oregon. I have never seen so many roots in my life while on the A.T. In lower elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, the entire trial felt like a web of roots. When we started off on our 6-mile trek up to Wesser Bald Shelter from the Nantahala Outdoor Center, I was immediately struck how lumpy and bumpy the entire trail seemed. This was in stark contrast to my training ventures on the sandy trail Roy & I hiked out at Fort Macon, North Carolina. The problem you ask? Roots get wet. Roots are slippery.  Roots catch the toe of your shoe. Roots blend in under a coating of fallen leaves.  Roots are uncomfortable to sleep on. And roots can be handy when the trail evaporates to rocks for places to grab onto. There are roots on the A.T. Roots can be obstacles but sometimes they are the way only through. Grab hold.

Rocks

I have seen rocks before on a trail.  In Arizona and New Mexico, there is a lot of scrambling on rocks when you hike. I did not expect to be scrambling on rocks on the southern A.T.  I had seen enough Youtube’s on the White Mountains and the 100-mile wilderness in Maine to know that the Northeast had plenty of rocks to scramble.  I did not expect them on my hike to Wesser Bald Shelter. When you see a white blaze on a rock (there are approximately 165,000 over the entire A.T.), you know you will be scrambling. I managed to scramble down on my hands and knees. I drug my butt down steep slabs. I adapted body movements to what I believed would help me survive. Rocks on the A.T. are not just in New England. It’s best to embrace them as a challenge. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

Dirty

You are likely thinking I am naïve….or nuts when I say my next statement. I did not expect to get dirty while on my walk in the woods. I planned on staying upright and strolling through the autumnal trees. You know, an afternoon stroll. When we came upon a section of the trail that seemed to disappear under a slide of fallen trees, leaving only roots and a slab of rock visible, Roy made his way across by holding onto the roots of the trees above. There was a sliver of footing for Roy. I had no idea how I planned on getting across. I remember thinking, “I’m not grabbing onto a root; it’s covered in dirt.” I remember Roy telling me to grab the root. I reached out grabbed ahold. There will be dirt. In retrospect, this was completely irrational to think I would not get dirty on the A.T. or that I wouldn’t have to grab onto a dusty, muddy, dirty surface. Or even that the rain pants I wore on the first day wouldn’t have mud splashed on them. I’m sure you won’t make this mistake, but I did. You will get dirty on the A.T. It’s like stomping in mud puddles as a kid. It’s freeing to let go and get dirty. There will be a faucet, eventually.

Leaves

We were on the trail the last week of October. The leaves were about to peak in color. There was a ton of leaves on the ground. There’s a lot to be said about observing the Fall beauty from a distance as opposed to being an active participant. The first day of the hike, they were soggy and wet. This is an optimum surface for sliding regardless of your shoes. I slipped. I would catch my breath and slow my pace. The leaves are a mask for what lies beneath. It’s a handy cover for the roots and rocks that lurk beneath. You never know what is lurking below the surface. Day two of the hike, brought wind and sunshine and the leaves mounded up higher. They were beautiful but still camouflage for what lies beneath. If you hike in the Fall, there will be leaves and hidden scary things.

Animals

I could not believe that as we were four miles into our hike, I saw a tiny orange snake skitter into the leaves as I was scrambling up rocks. That I didn’t panic, and backtrack ten yards is beyond me. I don’t like snakes. I’ve had an irrational (OK, maybe it is rational) fear of snakes my entire life. Somehow, I just kept going on. I was amazingly calm. “Roy, there is an orange snake.” He wanted to see but it had slithered beneath some leaves. I guess it could be a copperhead, but I kept on my walk in the woods. Later at the shelter, there was a warning about black bears. Roy suggested I not read the warning. I didn’t. He later told me that the warning was about bears foraging in the area. Roy put all our food in a bag and put it up on the cables provided. I kept imagining those bears grabbing our bear bag and taking all our food as I recalled Roy recounting a story about a couple who lost all their food to a bear. I started “catastrophizing” about losing all our food and praying I didn’t smell delicious as I tried to sleep in our tent. It’s amazing what you can hike and sleep through, if need be.

Wind

The wind was howling through the night as we camped. The moon was glowing and all I could see were the leaves’ shadows from the tree branches swaying in the wind. I imagined a branch breaking and landing on top of us in our tent. The trail the next day was covered in small branches and leaves that took flight. I was just thankful it wasn’t rain. I’d rather be hiking in wind and sunshine than rain and lightning. It’s amazing what you are thankful for when walking in the woods.

The elements dictate the outcome. You have no control over the elements. Surrendering to control over what surrounds you is the way. I discovered that on this journey. It may have only been twelve miles but learning to let go is transformational. It sure was for me!

Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail

This is actually the over fifty’s guide to backpacking on the AT. For me it’s actually a guide to returning to the woods after forty plus years. I have hiked a multitude of places, from Mount Saint Helena in Napa, California, Tent Rocks in New Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru. None of those hikes were with a twenty-pound backpack. They were all day hikes; rather like a scenery stroll. And they all ended where I was sleeping comfortably in a cushy bed with running water, a flush toilet, and a solid roof over my head. The last time I had a backpack on was when I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire and I was sixteen years old. Things have changed. More importantly, I have changed.

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My boyfriend Roy attempted hiking the entire Appalachian trail in 2015. If you are unfamiliar, this is no small task. It can take upwards of five to seven months to complete the 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Roy made it 531 miles before a medical issue derailed his attempt. This brought me to wanting to experience the allure of the trail.

Here are my findings:

Water

This is a whole different ball game when it comes to backpacking versus day hiking. Though towns are close to the trail, it isn’t the point to hike and drop back into civilization. There aren’t handy convenience stores, faucets, or water fountains out on the trail. Carrying five to ten days of water is not feasible. Roy bought me a Sawyer Mini Water filter about a month before we went backpacking. I threw it in my closet and figured I’d be carrying my water with me. Nope. Water is the heaviest item you are carrying, so you should try and keep enough for one day. Make sure you know where the springs or water sources are along the trail. It’s not like a road trip, where you can stop off at the next exit to refill on water and use the restrooms! We had several empty water bottles to help filter from our bladder bags when we refilled at a water source on the trail. We were fortunate that the water source was a cistern on the trail versus a spring along the trail. It would have been a process and a lot more time consuming to retrieve water from a natural source. Sawyer filtration systems are very easy to use and are highly recommended by practically every A.T. thru-hiker. Don’t leave home without a water system at the ready and located water sources.

Guide

I was fortunate to be guided by a seasoned hiker like Roy. He knew that we needed the most recent A.T. Guide Northbound 2018. Roy had ripped out the page we needed for our hike. It showed the elevation, the location of the shelters, and water sources along the route we were taking. If we didn’t have the guide, it would have been impossible to know where the next water source or shelter might have been. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a GPS or paper map. Make sure you have one that is most up-to-date before you head out. On the A.T., the white blazes on the trees and rocks are your guide. However, there are blue blazes (indicating a trail to a water source or shelter) and double white blazes (indicating some type of change coming up, such as a fire road crossing) as well. These indicate when you are off the main trail or if there is a change coming up. You might wonder why you need the most updated guide for the trail, but there are changes each year as trails become rerouted due to damage or are remeasured by volunteers. In contrast, my previous day hikes were trails that were heavily marked with frequent mileage indicators. The A.T. has very few signs, so the guide is invaluable when heading out. I found it frustrating, in retrospect, that I didn’t know whether I had walked a half mile or not. Most day hikes have a lot more signage with progress indicated along the way. It would be very easy to get lost rather quickly if we didn’t stick to the white blazes.

Clothing

My daughter Natalie is an experienced backpacker, as is Roy. Both kept warning me about not having ANY cotton clothing on the trip. Cotton will absorb sweat like a sponge and will not properly insulate. Boy, am I glad I listened. I opted for everything to be nylon or polyester, except for my wool socks. I tried a few shirts on that were merino wool but that particular material irritated my skin. In my practice hikes, I tested out several sets of shirts and pants to make sure nothing rubbed against my backpack. I cut every tag off every piece of clothing that I took with me. I get aggravated by anything rubbing against my skin. I didn’t want to be looking for a pair of scissors two miles in. I had a total of three (yes, three) jackets. One rain jacket for rain and wind. I started off the hike wearing a jacket since it was 40 degrees and windy at the start. I also brought a fleece jacket, which I changed into once the wind died down, as it was still cold. Finally, I wrapped myself in a puffy down jacket at the actual campsite since I was no longer exerting myself as much and needed to retain my body heat. I had a base layer under my hiking pants, which I kept on the entire trip to stay warm. The only thing I didn’t wear that was stored in my pack was my extra underwear. So my entire list was three pairs of wool socks (one for each day hiking and one pair to sleep in), two pairs of underwear, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain paints, convertible hiking pants, base layer pants (long johns), sports bra, bandana, buff, wool hat, cap, fleece jacket, rain jacket and down jacket. My advice is to try them all out with your backpack in different temperatures and weather conditions. Being as comfortable as possible is key.

Food

I figured that I would be starving the whole time we were backpacking. I’m not sure if it was nerves or exhaustion, but I ended up not eating that much. We had some peanut butter crackers, trail mix, and oatmeal bars. I think it’s easy to overthink and over-carry on food. We probably brought back about half as much as we started with. But gratefully, nothing went wrong on the trip. If we had been stranded for some reason due to injury, we would have needed all the food. We cooked a rice package for our only dinner on the trail and didn’t even bother cooking the ramen we brought. Having a hot cup of tea at the end of a daylong hike in our campsite was restorative. Coffee, the next morning, when it was 38 degrees was important as well. There is something about a warm beverage that makes everything feel better. Before you head out, make sure you’ve tested your burner and cookware. I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out on my own in the waning light of day. Warm food makes a huge difference out on the trail.

Light

I had a light attached to the end of a cap for my entire trip. I knew where that hat was whether it was in the tent, in my pack or on my head. We hiked at the end of October and the sun was setting around 6:30 PM. I did not want to be stuck hiking, eating, finding water, or unpacking my sleeping bag without a light. It was critical to be able to see at night, especially when trying to go to relieve yourself. There were warnings about black bears in the area and being aware of my surroundings was critical. Have a light and know where it is always.

There are more must-haves like a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress. Trekking polls were invaluable as well. If you take anything away from this at all, test out everything you are planning to take with you in as many ways possible. You don’t want to find out five miles into your trip that your hiking shoes are uncomfortable, your backpack is too small, or that the tags on your clothes won’t stop rubbing your skin. When you head out backpacking, you have your entire life on your back. Thankfully, we only went out for a two-day hike, but getting the right combination of necessities can make the difference between a miserable and wonderful hike. Make sure you have the right basics for you.

Decide on Happiness

I have struggled over the last two years with finding happiness. I have strained, pushed, and worked on finally arriving at the railroad station, boarding the rail car called Happiness. Having taken this very circuitous route, I’ve come to realize: it’s not a destination; it’s not arriving or departing. It’s not being on standby. The thing is that it’s always been in me. It can be in me right now. It’s funny because as I write this, my dog Baci just relaxed into my lap as I wrote that sentence. She isn’t struggling any more; she is just deciding that laying next to me is perfect. And that is just perfect with me.

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I recently read Michael Neill’s The Space Within. It’s a thought-provoking book about just letting things be. About giving up control and focusing on what is. To letting go of your thinking and worrying and just letting things be. I think this is about just deciding to be happy right now. Just let life work itself out and yet embrace happiness now. It doesn’t take a milestone like buying a house or the divorce to be final or for you to complete the marathon; be happy right now. The key is to decide. So go ahead and decide on happiness right now.

Here is how to decide on happiness:

Happiness is not the goal

This seems counterintuitive. If you view happiness as the goal, you never find it.  There is always one more hurdle to jump over. One more thing to check off the list.  You never seem to arrive. I have the new car but I won’t be happy until it’s paid off.  Once the car is paid off, then I’ll need to get new tires. Once I get new tires, then the brakes will need replacing. There is always one more thing before happiness is ours, right? The finish line keeps getting extended. We never achieve satisfaction. We never ever arrive. Quit focusing on happiness being the goal.

Happiness is not dependent on others

I can remember thinking as a kid that I would be happy when I found the love of my life or when I had children. Basing your happiness on someone outside of yourself will lead to disappointment. It all starts with you. When it’s dependent upon others, others disappoint. They let you down and then your happiness evaporates. When you can find it in yourself, there is no disappointment. There is only your mindset. If my dog wants to snuggle next to me or not. If my lover tells me they love me or not. If my child gets the job, or graduates from college or not. Happiness is within me and is self-created.

Happiness is not about getting what you want

As Neill writes, “The secret to happiness is simply this…your happiness does NOT depend on getting what you want.” This means that similar to The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy always had home in her heart. She just needed to tap into it. Happiness is within you right now. You don’t need to get the next thing: The new car, house, jacket or coffee maker. Happiness does not exist in the striving for what you want but rather in you right now. Let go of the wishlist and be happy right now.

Happiness is not in the doing

Neill writes, “If you are doing things in order to be happy…you’re doing them in the wrong order.” For me this means to be happy while doing. It starts with the mindset of being happy right now. Start with being happy. Start between the ears. Doing will follow. Just start with a smile on your face and bliss between the ears. Neill suggests looking for the space between words. It’s difficult to look for the space between words when you start looking for it. It’s in the space. That pause. That moment where the infinite is. For me that is being present. Not multitasking. Not looking at your phone. Just be.

Happiness is not a short cut

Neill espouses, “By taking the time to live life in the slow lane, we quickly experience a deeper, more profound experience of contentment.” I opted for a walking meeting with a coworker of mine. The meeting took at least 30 minutes longer than I had expected. The thing is, I connected with the coworker and found out about some recent health issues she was having. I only had thirty minutes on my schedule but the walk and the conversation led to places I didn’t expect or anticipate. It’s letting go of control and letting the path unfold as it needs to. No need to rush, take short cuts or push through. Take the long way, the slow lane and don’t miss a thing.

I wrote myself a note in the Silence Course I took over a year ago. The first item on the note was to smile more. Several people at the course had told me what a beautiful smile I had and how it lit up my face. We all have beautiful smiles. We all need to smile more often. Don’t wait to smile or be happy. Be happy right now. Smile right now. It’s infectious. Are you happy right now?

It’s not my only line in the play

I heard this quote at a conference in October. It really put things into perspective. We have a lot more shots at a goal than we imagine. I think back to grade school theatrical productions and not wanting to flub the one line I was given. But in reality, we have a ton of lines. For that matter, a ton of plays in life. I can get wrapped up in perfection in the job interview, or the presentation to the board, or the first date. It’s freeing to realize there are a lot of opportunities in life and it’s grand to not get wrapped up in the perfection of your next line in the play.

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I can relive conflicts in my life where I have an epiphany about what I should have said. The perfect comeback. The perfect redress. The perfect reparation. Finally putting someone in their place, and yet, the opportunity is long past. I can live in a loop in my head about how I should have played the situation differently. It takes energy. It zaps me. It’s completely unproductive. It was only one line.

So here are some ideas on how to move on to the next line in the play:

Piece it out

I facilitate a bunch of different trainings. They can range from Ethics, Sexual Harassment, or Human Resource Certification. Sometimes I present about CRR Global’ s “Lands Work”, Gallup’s Strengthsfinder, or Leadership Retreats. The thing is, when I first started facilitating, I would get completely caught up in the three upcoming events I had scheduled. I’d be worried about the one in three weeks when I was prepping for the one tomorrow. I would be overwhelmed and not sleep well. The secret is to focus on the next project. The next training. The next coaching client. By piecing it out to one project or event or client at a time, I can focus, be calm and better prepared. Focus on the next line in the play.

It’s about them

Delivering a line or a song or a presentation is all about the audience. Moving off of my own ego and onto the group in front of me is lifting an enormous burden off my shoulders. It’s not worrying about if I look fat in this outfit or if I can get a laugh out of the room. It’s delivering one piece that helps someone in their day. When you focus on them, it becomes a service. It makes it easier. I know that can seem like a lot of pressure but if I go into a room of two hundred people wanting to impress them all, it’s overwhelming and sure to fail. If I go into that same room with the intention to impact just one person’s life, it’s much easier. If it helps more than one person, terrific. If everyone gets it and loves the presentation? Even better. But the goal remains all about them.

$hitty first draft

Practically everything I facilitate, coach, or write is a first draft. I try not to overthink things. Granted, I have an editor for my blog, but the rest of what I deliver is on the fly. It’s in the moment. I’ve said some dumb things; I’ve said some witty things; I’ve said things I want to completely forget about (and usually don’t). Aren’t most conversations in life just $hitty first drafts anyway? Let go of perfection and be in the moment. If you mess up this line, there is another line coming up.

Be present in the moment

I’ve spent a lot of time rushing ahead. Planning. Mapping things out. I can be exhausting to be around. I can also spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. The Monday morning quarterbacking type stuff that is just as debilitating. The important thing is this moment right now. I facilitated a new group a few weeks back. I had never worked for this organization before. There were a bunch of unknowns: the audio visual; wall space for flip-charts; seating arrangements for the table. That’s all just flotsam. The real object is being present for the people in that room. It’s being present to tease out the wisdom in the room. It’s letting other folks shine their light for everyone else to benefit. If I’m more worried about the perfect room set up and refreshments, I’m not present for those in the room. So maybe you have to adjust the line in the play to fit the group in the room. Be present so you know it.

Be silent

It’s OK to be quiet. Not everything has to be filled with words. Time for folks to reflect is super important. Time for you to reflect is important as well. I think back to my first date with Roy. There was plenty of silence. I was OK with not filling every moment with language. I remember becoming certified to deliver a Myer’s Briggs facilitation. The instructor told us to wait 20 seconds after asking the group a question. Count out twenty seconds in your head.  Go ahead.                It’s an eternity, right? It’s an adjustment to be OK with silence. You don’t need to have language filling the air at all times. Give everyone time and space to reflect and digest. Some of the most profound moments in a play are when it is silent. Think back to all the pregnant pauses in a Hitchcock film. Rear Window would not be as griping without the silence. Silence can be powerful.

At the heart of all of this is just being authentic and present for as much as you can. Give up the need to know how it’s all going to end up. Every play is going to be different. Every line you deliver will have a different impact. What’s your next line in the play?