Lessons on Mental Health from the Mountains

I love living in Utah, where there are two beautiful mountain ranges that delineate the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. You can reach them in less than a 30-minute drive (I have to say, I was surprised when I first visited Denver—an area well-known for skiing and mountains—and found that from the city, their famous Rocky Mountains are far off in the distance).

Several years ago, when I was going to college an hour south of Salt Lake, I lived especially close to the mountains. Several times a week, I would walk up a steep hill through some neighborhoods to Rock Canyon, continue the steep hike for a ways up the canyon, then run back down. It was a good cardio workout, but it was also when I really started to enjoy hiking. As a child, I associated our family hikes with hot summer sun and being tired and out of breath. When I ventured out to hike on my own, though, I realized I could go exactly as far as I was interested in going, and that I could take a break whenever I wanted. Once more, I really started to appreciate being outside—I would always bring headphones on these forays, but almost always found myself unplugging once I got in the mountains. I loved the trees and cliffs and boulders, like I loved the quiet. I loved seeing the same trail change through the seasons. I love the beauty, and the time to think.

It had been several years since hiking on my own when, on a beautiful Saturday several weeks ago, I asked my husband if he’d want to go on a hike. He wasn’t interested. So I went on my own. I quickly remembered how I loved those solo hikes. I’ve gone back a few times since then. I’m still not the most prolific hiker, but I’ve found my time out on a trail alone, again, to be quiet and beautiful—and good for mental health.

Here’s what I’ve realized while hiking:

Life is hard, but you can do it

Some parts of hiking are hard. Though I’ve always been pretty good at working out regularly, I’ve never been athletic. Some hikes get to tough, steep spots. Sometimes the trail is especially rocky, sometimes your thighs and knees get tired, sometimes you slip. On one hike especially, I started to think about how it was hard—but how I did it. It made me think: I can do hard things.

In meditation (and when feeling down), let things float on past

The mountains got a lot of snow last winter, and the streams in the mountains this year have been full and swift and powerful. I stopped at these mountain streams several times on hikes.

When I first started learning about mindfulness and meditation, the image of a leaf floating down a stream was such a helpful visualization: In the same way, you can let a thought just keep floating on past without focusing on it. In the same way, sitting and watching those streams help me focus on the present. They help me practicing letting thoughts come in, acknowledging them…but then simply letting them pass on by.

All there is is the present moment

Time in the mountains in general has been good for meditation and focusing on the present—and not just when watching flowing water. I remember one hike in particular when my depression had been more severe, and when there were so many things to worry about. Hiking in those mountains alone, I began to think: There is just now. There is just this moment. All I have to focus on is just this moment. Not on the worries, not on the big feelings. Just on this beautiful moment. I still think about that when I start getting overwhelmed: Just focus on right now.

Everything’s connected—and you’re just as much a part of it as anyone else

I have to be honest, sometimes I get annoyed when I’m not the only one out there enjoying a hiking trail (especially when someone is playing music on their phone’s speakers—I guess they’d be surprised that I came hiking to hear nature sounds, not their DJ skills). It gets me thinking, though. Those people have just as much a right to be there as I do. So do the bugs and the trees…we’re all parts of the larger whole.

In one of his many books, the Buddhist monk Ticht Nacht Han writes that we can’t know for sure about reincarnation or heaven, but we know that we are part of each other. Your parents and teachers and friends are a part of who you are, and continue to be, even after they pass away. You’re a part of others, and will continue to be even after your life is over (just like how the people who came before you go on, too, because they were a part of you). The author also argues that there is also no such thing as and independent action—all our actions touch others, too. Ultimately, we are all connected. And we all matter, because we’re all part of the whole. I have just as much right to be there as the other hikers. I’m alive just like the trees and birds. It is a big, beautiful, complex world, and I am a part of it.

Beauty comes when you don’t necessarily expect it—and there is beauty

Like I mentioned, hiking can be hard. Watching where you step, it’s easy to always have your head down. Sometimes, all you see is dirt, and all you feel is tired.

And then, you turn a corner, you look up, and you see the world.

Sometimes, you are granted beautiful vistas because you researched what hike to do, you know how long it is, you know what waterfall or lake or overlook you’ll see when you get there, and you do the work to make it happen. But sometimes when you’re hiking, you don’t see anything but dry brush and rocky dirt—until you turn a corner, and are unexpectedly greeted with something so beautiful.

These hikes make me feel hope for life. There is beauty out there. Even with all that’s terrible and ugly and mundane, there is beauty. Some you can plan for and seek out. But other moments simply come when you don’t expect.

I hope you go out and find that beauty, too.

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