Walking the World: The Pause

"Prevent the things you have  
been doing and you're
half way home."  

           F.M. Alexander

There are many ways of getting lost, but all of them
seem to begin with a moment of failed attention.

Some sign, some detail, some relevant difference, is for whatever reason
overlooked or missed, causing us to set off in a mistaken direction. Out
of this failure of attention follows a second state in which, not yet being
aware of the fact of being lost, we simply continue happily along the
wrong way. How many times have I missed a blaze on a rock or tree
which marked a subtle turn or fork of a trail, then only to walk along for
hours until I noticed that the trail was climbing steeply up when the
map clearly indicates that it should have been going down.

The moment of stopping, of the sudden realization that one is wrong,
is of crucial significance here; this is the hiatus or the gap in which
the forward momentum of the past comes to a halt and we are forced
to look at the situation afresh. Sometimes, this comes as a startling
flash, which, like the saying goes, "stops you dead in your tracks."
This is especially true when we see at once both the obviousness
of the mistake and the futility of continuing in the same direction.
Other times, perhaps in more complex terrain or with more difficult
weather conditions, the forward momentum of the confident hiker only
slowly loses its energy. Gradually, as things become more and more
confused, the smooth rhythmic pattern of the walker turns into a broken
series of uncertain stops and starts. Who doesn't know this feeling?
Starting out with all the flare of a new year's rocket, only then to fall
out of our upward trajectory, fizzling about in a random way upon the
ground until—finally—we lock into a tight loop around ourselves and
explode. Remarkably, the more sure one is of where one is, the longer
it will take to realize the mistake and come to a full stop.

One of the wonderful things about walking is that we come repeatedly
into direct contact with the whole of this movement— of failed attention,
continuing doggedly along the wrong path, followed by, we hope, the
sudden realization of error. This is necessarily so for we are exposed
on all sides to the sharp arrows of factuality, much like we are exposed
to the sudden changes of mountain weather, which make it impossible to
sustain illusion for very long. This is true even when we know where we
are: the pass is more difficult, the snow deeper, the glacier more crevassed
than we had thought, all facts which force us to stop and turn back. It is
also especially true when we are lost: there is no arguing with the fact,
when, even after a long and tiring descent, what we thought was the right
trail vanishes unexpectedly at the edge of a cliff. The magic simplicity
of walking is that, in an almost ritual way, these two complementary,
vitally important, functions of thought are in harmony: the positive move-
ment of creating an image or map of the world, together with the essentially
negative movement of correcting the map where it does not fit the terrain.

The pause is then the still, quiet center upon
which their balance depends.

But how difficult it is to sustain this harmony in everyday life. Here,
mistakes and illusions evidently can go on indefinitely without being
noticed. We somehow become very adept at side-stepping even highly
disturbing facts. We make excuses, postpone, wait. We do this alone; and
we do this collectively. (One need only think of a single striking example:
waste. We simply look the other way. Or what we have done to the Earth.
Think of water.) For me, this is one of the primary meanings of walking
the world— to break out of this fixed cycle of personal and cultural deception.
I always feel, as I climb back up into the high country, the pressures of
everyday existence slowly start to drop away. What is there about our
consciousness which longs for such distance? To be able to see a hundred
kilometers in all directions? To know, "Well, yes. There it is. That's
where I'm headed."

Many years ago, I composed a poem about this very thing. It's not much
of a poem, but for those who have never had the opportunity to venture up
into the land far above the trees, perhaps it will help a bit. And for those
who have, forgive me for attempting to say things which are perhaps
better left unsaid. The piece is called,

Moving Up into Mountain Time

Slowly moving up the mountain.

Hard work. Left - right. Mind - in - boots.

All this massiveness makes me small,
   pressing down on me,
but I feel the rhythm of my breathing
pulling the depths within
up into the lighter air.

Moving above treeline,
time slows down
and lets more space flow in.

Opening up into pathless land,
rocks and summer growth
give way
to snow and ice,
two then three breaths
for every step.

Wind still --

   and that sudden
   of  a l l  directions,

as the movement moves into silence.

Tears freeze instantly
gazing out into all this

   airy distance.

At the time I wrote this, I was walking away from a career in music as
a composer, conductor and leader of a small orchestra for new music in
the lowlands of Northern Europe. I felt very strongly about what we might
call a crisis of meaning in the Arts, and indeed—and I still feel—in the whole
of Western culture. I was performing what I thought to be the very best music
of our time, and yet, I knew in my heart that it wasn't right. What meaning
could it possibly have to strive to play music perfectly—perfectly in tune,
as musicians say, if the music itself is so out of tune with our time, with,
one could say, the whole of the Earth itself? At the time, the only thing I
knew for certain, is that I had to stop doing what I was doing if I ever
wished to understand. So I did. And I decided that the right thing to do
was to simply walk. So with each step, I learned more and more to forget
all the things I once thought so important, and, like others have said, die
to the past so that something different and new might emerge.

This then is the subtle beauty of the pause, which, like fasting, is essentially
a movement of taking away, or negation. We make the simplest of all possible
tests, the test of stopping, going without, of not doing. For me, this is what
entering wilderness is all about. For after making the test of turning off the
TV, the radio, the video and all the other noisy machines with which we
have surrounded ourselves, somewhere, in the background, perhaps at
first only dimly audible, we will find that rushing sound that only living
water makes.

| go to Picture/Poems: Central Display | PicturePage: Week V |
see also another Walking the World essays at, Backpack Pilgrim;  The Devil Stands on the other Side | 
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(created: XI.30.1999 ) (Last update: III.7.2002)