An old Latin saying — solvitur ambulando — means “it is solved by walking.” The phrase captures one of the immutable charms of hiking: it makes it easier for the brain to work things out.
I can’t count the number of times that vexing problems melted away as the miles accumulated. Right now my most maddening issue is the yawning chasm between all my skills and the people who should be paying me to make the best use of them. But every hike brings me a little closer to figuring it out.
Staring at a computer screen fuming over unanswered e-mails gets me nowhere because I’m standing too close to the problem. Ever have one of those front-row seats behind home plate at a baseball game where you’re so damn close to the backstop that the chain links block your view of the game? It’s like that. You have to back up till things come into focus.
Finding that distance is the key. Here’s how I’ve been trying to do it:
1) Overcome prejudices
I have to give my brain permission to say “today we’re coming home with at least one practical insight from this hike.” Otherwise I’m trapped by my intuition that walking in nature stands on its own merit and needs no justification. Time spent hiking is time not spent doing work that pays the mortgage. Until I’m independently wealthy or days start having more than 24 hours in them, my hours on the trail must yield practical dividends. I know that’s annoying. Sorry.
2) Get into a mindful state
I blogged the other day about tuning everything out and focusing my senses on everything happening around me. This is the most counterintuitive part of finding mental clarity on the trail: First you have to ignore the problem you came to solve (of course this works only with vexing challenges that have no self-evident solution. If somebody’s bleeding, you apply pressure to the wound).
I start out by just emptying my brain and absorbing everything around me — but only for about 30 seconds; otherwise I risk crashing into something. Then I start focusing only on the trail ahead and pointedly ignoring the impulse to think about anything but walking for the next five minutes or so.
3) Let the good thoughts flow in
Once I’m all immersed in the experience, then I start allowing external thoughts to pour in. It amazes me how well this works — somehow preoccupying one part of my brain with the mechanics of walking frees another part to work more efficiently. I’m sure prominent scientists have invested millions in figuring out why this happens. I just know that it does.
4) Stay positive
Banish thoughts that make you angry, resentful, envious or otherwise negative — no matter how justified, negativity ruins a hike and blocks your brain from finding what you’re really looking for.
5) Find a way to remember your best ideas
The other day the ideas were flowing fast and furious. By the time I got home I’d forgotten them all. My take-away: Spend an extra few minutes memorizing your best ideas. You could also take a miniature tape recorder or notepad along, though both might interrupt the flow of a hike.
6) Don’t get carried away
There’s a risk of becoming the absent-minded professor who bumbles into a patch of poison oak or tramples on a copperhead. You have to keep your head in the game.
As always I’m interested in your reactions. I realize a lot of this seems blindingly obvious, but I never really noticed it till I tried to step outside my hiking bliss, figure out where it was coming from and find practical fringe benefits.