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Retreat | By Chris Malcomb

On a meditation retreat, I walk mindfully. I lift my foot and slowly swing it forward, noticing the bend in my hip, knee, and ankle. I pay attention to the subtle sensations of movement: pulsing, tingling, pressure. Sometimes I wobble mid-stride, my limb dangling. I pause, grounding through the fence post of my anchored leg, then continue, placing my heel, my arch, and then my toes back on solid ground.

Lift, move, place. After 30 feet, I turn around and retrace my path. I feel the texture of the ground. I listen to the sounds of crunching leaves. I move as if each step were my first.

Sometimes, I take longer walks in the woods. The retreat center sits on an expanse of rolling hills speckled with valleys of oak forest. I enjoy the sights, but such journeys stir my worrying mind. I don’t want to get lost, or sprain my ankle, or be late for the next sitting meditation period. I fret about deer ticks, bees, spiders, snakes, and poison oak. Despite my efforts to translate the tenets of walking meditation—letting go of thought, returning to sensation—to these outdoor rambles, the further I stray, the more I stress.

Perhaps this is why I’ve never hiked to the top of the hills. I’ve wanted to—to skim along the highest ridges like the tiny, solitary silhouettes I admire from the flatland benches. People up there look free, unafraid to just go—up, up, up—until there is nothing left but sky. So why don’t I?

The answer is simple: mountain lions. It’s an irrational fear, of course. Lion sightings at the center are rare, and nobody has ever been attacked while on retreat. Still, my mind prefers comfort, and so I always select the safer option: Stay low.

Except once. A bright summer morning when I finally shook some sense into myself, filled my water bottle, slathered on sunscreen, and headed up. I curled through switchbacks, past a barbed-wire fence, and into a stretch of dry, open grassland. My feet bounced off hard-packed path. The muscles in my calves and thighs felt free and loose. My heart pounded steadily and beads of sweat trickled down my back. Ahead of me, the trail was a thin, brown line leading directly to the sky.

Lift, move, place. There were birds, and lizards, and jagged outcroppings of gray rock. Several black turkey vultures floated aimlessly in the blue sky ahead of me. After a half-hour, nearly halfway up the hillside, I stopped for water, sitting on a rock and gazing over miles of rolling hills towards the ocean.

When I rose, however, I was suddenly overcome with doubt. Did I have the stamina to make it? Enough water in my bottle? Did I need to go that far? Several hundred yards ahead, the vultures had descended slightly and were drifting in a slow, lazy circle.

Lift. Move. Place. Five minutes later I came over a small rise, just below the vultures—and stopped cold. In the path directly in front of me were two fawn’s legs, a stiff, two-pronged sculpture of matted brown hair and semi-dry blood, white bone and ebony hoofs reflecting the mid-morning sun.

A flush of adrenaline swept through me. It had likely been several hours since the mountain lion had finished off the fawn, but this rational thought made no difference to me. I was convinced that it was still here—just behind a rock, or crouching in the tall grass beyond my sight. I looked around nervously. Clouds drifted into the sky, casting shadows. The wind picked up, stirring the grass, the hairs on the fawn’s legs.

I tried to rationalize, reattune myself to the sensations in my body, now a whirlwind of indistinguishable commotion. Heart: pounding. Lungs: constricted. Thighs: shaking. Slowly, I turned away from the pair of legs. It was simple. I would steady myself and mindfully retrace my path down the hill. Lift . . . move . . . place.

Yeah, right.

As soon as I saw the thread of tan dirt stretching out before me, winding down through the grass and into the shade of the trees below, I knew just one truth. I wanted off that hill. Now. Before now. My long, heavy strides pounded dust clouds from the trail. The water in my bottle sloshed feverishly. Each stirring in the bushes hastened my descent. Lifting, moving, and placing fused into one simple motion: go.

I reached the main trail just above the meditation hall and began to see people: sitting on rocks, standing still and gazing at the sky, walking back and forth in slow, deliberate steps. My heartbeat slowed. Able to breathe easily again, I took the last stretch of trail at a leisurely pace—lifting, moving, and placing directly to the safety of my meditation cushion.


Chris Malcomb lives in Berkeley, where he teaches creative writing and mindfulness workshops. Learn more and read other essays at:

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Photo by Nolre Lourens.