On a well worn trail, roots and rocks seem to rise above the surface at unpredictable intervals and angles. They have been exposed by the compaction of soil caused by footfall and water. By keeping human travelers to one narrow pathway, impact is consolidated into the sacrifice zone that is the trail.
This sacrificial zone is both a challenge and a benefit to the trees and bushes that grow in close proximity to the trail. The trail corridor reduces canopy competition, giving each individual plant increased access to sunlight. However, the roots that get exposed by the trail bed have to work harder to extract water from the compacted soil. They are also more vulnerable to the insects, hooves, and vibram soles of passersby.
The runners and walkers who travel the trail also have a challenge and an opportunity. A single moment of inattention or distraction can send a person rolling downhill when a toe gets caught on a rock or root. As reminders to stay aware and attentive, these obstacles become opportunities. They provide an opportunity to concentrate thoroughly on each moment, movement and place. For today, this rocky, rooty obstacle course is my mindfulness training.
But it’s not really the ground directly underneath or in front of me that matters. Even as I take a step, I need to be anticipating the next one. At a stroll, I can safely look a dozen meters ahead, scanning back to the near ground with each new step. At a slow run, I can only look 2 meters ahead or less. It seems a fitting metaphor for the way that I move through life. When I am moving along at a clip, I can attend only to that which is immediately in front of me. If I am not careful, I am liable to be surprised when I suddenly notice changes in terrain, scenery, or company along the trail. I remain alert and acutely present to the near ground. When I am walking the trail at leisure, I have a little wider perspective. I am inclined to develop expectations and anticipation based on what I have glimpsed up the trail but I am in no hurry to arrive there. I am content in each step. Relaxing into the place and my pace, time and thought dissipate and I feel myself melt into the forest landscape.
Neither the hustle nor the saunter are good — or bad. I am not making a judgement, just noticing that they are different and they require different responses from me. At either pace, the only way forward is one careful step at a time.