No, this is not another “benefits of” article. Instead, it’s a personal example of why walking somewhere or even nowhere has come to be my knee-jerk response to just about every stressor in life, positive or negative.
Two weeks ago I was given an experience to voraciously chew on. A little backstory, I am in the middle of a nursing assistant certification program, which requires me to work with the very elderly and with persons in varying stages of illness and disease, some of them dying. Injuries, body fluids, open wounds, needles… none of these things cause any kind of repulsive reaction from me, but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I wouldn’t be emotionally triggered by people who were clearly standing on death’s door and were in fear. It’s a hard door to stand at. I know. I stood there. So before I was to begin a round of clinical hours in a hospital setting, I decided to devote a weekend to do some inner housekeeping around death, making sure I had nothing in my psyche I’d impose upon vulnerable others. I purchased a used copy of Ram Dass’s “Still Here”, a book I highly recommend for getting your head on straight about aging and dying, and dove into it, enjoying one of those perfect Portland days streaming in through my open bedroom window. I wasn’t even an hour into it when I heard an enormous commotion going on in the street outside my window. A man was screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs and there were others screaming back at him. There is a man who lives across the street from me who regularly laments rather loudly every time his girlfriend splits up with him (which is often) and I’ve become accustomed to ignoring some yelling and plea-ing. But I can’t ignore the sound of gunshots. I heard five of them and more screaming. I brought myself to the window in time to see a bloodied man running from 4 or so police officers straight into the side of the house across from me, falling onto his stomach into eventual silence. The police had shot him. He didn’t die, but I didn’t know that at the time. A whole bunch of drama continued from that point onward and I don’t particularly care to relate any of it to you. You can imagine.
Besides the emotional significance of witnessing a man shot and (I had thought) killed, there was a visceral shattering of my own feelings of safety by witnessing police officers shoot a person who merely had a kitchen knife in his hand. I became paranoid. Luckily, I had a friend arriving from Arizona, and she wanted to go backpacking. We loaded up enough to exist on for a few days and headed into the Columbia River Gorge. My friend had never been to the Pacific Northwest and had *gasp* never stepped foot on the Pacific Crest Trail, so we did the mandatory walk up Eagle Creek and up and over the Benson Plateau on the Pacific Crest Trail. The stress began to leave my body as soon as the sun hit my face and the exertion flooded me with hormones. The ground was wet and receiving. Natural shapes and beauty softened my vision. The quiet cleared my mind of abstract stresses and perceptual structures. I felt safe there.
What an unbelievably thorough and rich response I received to a simple intention to understand what lived in my psyche about death. I had naively picked up a book, and instead been given an experience that would ride me through my very deepest reactions and feelings about it. I had already made peace in my life with my own death, and now I was given a real beginning to making peace with the death of others.
Walk. Walk out there. It cures everything.