Reflections from the John Muir Trail 2020: Part I - Just Five BreathsRead Now
The first few days on the trail are usually filled with some anxiety and many questions: Did I remember to pack the soap? Is there enough food? What about bear activity? What am I supposed to do if I encounter a bear? Do I look them in the eye? Act big and try to scare them off? Did I bring too many pairs of socks? And on. I fiddle with equipment and work to remember where to put things that make the most logical and efficient sense.
For some reason this year, my mind was super activated and super scared. This was my first time solo for 14 days and needing to resupply along the route. My legs were also super antsy at night after hiking five or so miles with 35 pounds on my back. My senses, as always when I'm out in wilderness, were on high alert, particularly listening intently for movement in and around camp in the evenings. I try to arrive at my 'home for the night' early enough in daylight hours so my nervous system can settle into the space before dark. It's something I learned with Shyla, my canine companion, many years before.
I also make an effort to not be right next to running water that is loud enough to block my ability to hear movement around me. It's all survival instinct, I know, and I do my best to make myself as comfortable as I can when I solo hike.
My mind was racing so fast the first few days that I was unable to even notice that my mind was racing so fast! On the second night, it came into my awareness that I needed to do something because not sleeping out of fear and active legs was not going to be helpful the next day on the trail when I was to summit Donohue Pass, a difficult and barren pass reaching 11,044 ft.
When times like this happen--my anxiety and nervous system are on high alert--I can't even remember that I have tools to help me calm down and focus much less know what they are. I tried journaling and the stream of thought was just chaotic, jumbled and jumpy as my mind was, though it offered some relief to the inner ramblings. My body and mind couldn't sit still enough for formal meditation and I didn't feel comfortable being outside around the tent much after dark.
What if I tried to pay attention to one single breath from beginning to end? Oh! That's right, simple exercises. My mind has a tendency to want to complicate things when it gets nervous or aroused. But simple. Mindfulness is simple and in the moment.
I wasn't successful at first, but after a few attempts I could follow a full single breath from beginning to end. Then, I upped the challenge. What if I could pay attention to five breaths in a row? Just five breaths?
Those first five breaths I didn't notice much, except that my mind was getting more focused in the present. My attention was actually becoming oriented to something that was actually happening in the moment--not some perceived threat conjured out of fear of the unknown.
What would happen if I paid attention to just five more breaths? Just five breaths.
I completed the next five and just kept going. Can I be with five more breaths? How about five more?
Within about ten minutes I could notice my heart rate slowing, my attention becoming aware of the soothing night sounds, and fearful and anxious thoughts subsiding. Soon I was able to fall asleep doing this practice. Five breaths at a time.
Each time I awoke that night, which was many, I just turned inward to see, "Can I pay attention to just the next five breaths?"
My ability to tune into the benevolent experience of the night increased each time I turned to this exploration and the practice became a 'go to' anytime I noticed I was reeling with anxious thoughts.
8/23/2020 09:33:51 am
So happy to able to read this, this morning. Just 5 breaths, I can do that.
8/25/2020 10:33:35 am
So inspiring! I am getting back into meditating and this is perfect, just 5 more breaths... thank you for sharing <3
8/25/2020 10:35:09 am
You are so brave. What a wonderful experience. I like the just 5 breaths
8/25/2020 11:27:45 am
Awesome. The just 5 breaths is a great tool, thank you
8/25/2020 04:38:47 pm
Beautiful JoAnn - the 5 thoughts, the scenery and YOU!
8/25/2020 09:32:37 pm
Thanks for sharing, I would think your experience would be normal for many women doing a solo trip. The pictures are beautiful..
Taira St. John
8/26/2020 12:43:11 pm
I wantedd to contact you before you left with an encouraging bon voyage and my sentiments about your courage, but you were gone before I knew it, and then you were back. What a wonderful testimony to your candid conversation and courageous experiment with life, and I want to congratulations on your achievement. You are a true teacher, and I may read parts of your material to ATV class that struggles with self-motivation to stay sober and positive in the face of the pandemic, job loss, and public and private anxieties. You are so brave and a model for all of us,, and I just want to thank you for your story and its truly thrilling outcome. A documentd history of survival and success over oneself. Love and gratitude, Taira
8/27/2020 10:04:39 pm
JoAnn, so happy for you, and I felt I would be nervous too, solo. I'm so glad it all worked out for you!!! A little jealous too, wishing I could have that experience. I could relate though from some backpacking I have done. I do try the 5 breaths at night, when my mind won't settle down. Also, a trick my massage therapist told me: you say affirmatively, " thank you for sharing, now you need to leave" that almost always works for me!!!!
8/30/2020 10:07:52 am
Having done some back-packing in my younger years I can insert myself into your experience. I admire how you put the effort and time to get deep into the natural world, bears and all. And you have to practice what you preach! Inspiring!
9/1/2020 11:22:31 am
I love being able to join you on this journey!
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