One of the many gifts of visiting the Sweet Medicine river canyon, in the southwestern part of New Mexico, home of the Animá Wilderness Sanctuary, is being given the opportunity to walk downstream, to the bend in the river. It is at this place, perhaps the very center and most sacred of an ancient people’s world, and quite certainly a place of intense and magnifying energy, where one may pause, reflect, and with purpose and intent, be silent, connected, engaged, alive, and still.
But to get to this place in the river, there is no path. And therein lies the magic, and power, of its gift.
I began my own journey downstream with gentle encouragement and the suggestion to take as long as I needed, to go with intent, and to quiet my mind. As I started out, there was still some semblance of a thin trail, and in front of me were footprints, both barefoot and sandaled, of others who had passed this way before me. Yet hidden under the soft river sand were scatterings of seed pods, potential for life renewed, but protected by prickly spines, sharp corners, and pokey thistles. In this high mountain desert, the need to survive scant rainfall and sometimes adverse conditions, calls for such protection. So off I went, barefoot ~ barely 24 hours after arrival from a place where shoes are taken for granted or used merely for fashion rather than function ~ stepping in places where others had preceded me, my feet, soft and vulnerable, tentatively crept forward one step at a time.
How easy it was, at first, to get lost in my thoughts, a noisy stream (of a very different kind) of consciousness that had nothing to do with this river or this canyon. Until, slowly, the path began to disappear, the footprints left by others were harder to find, or left by someone walking the quickened pace of sandaled feet. The stickers started to seem more prevalent, my pace slowed. Finding the place where someone had stepped before me, a clear patch of smooth sand, more often than not hid a sharp pod barely concealed, ready to embed into my foot, clinging to the hope of being transposed to a new place for germination. In my focused intent to already be downstream at the bend, I realized that I had not been paying attention to where I was currently at. I would take a step, feel no pain, and then hurriedly take the next one, presuming it to be safe as well, only to be jarred into the very present moment with pain shooting through my sole. Balancing precariously on one foot, picking the sticker from my tender flesh, piercing my fingertips in the process, trying not to fall onto that same foot onto another sticker, trying to regain my equilibrium, it felt as if I would never get there, to that bend.
And the lesson of that was not lost on me, not then and not now, that the journey itself was being forsaken for a place, a goal, the reward. I was struggling against myself, resisting the present moment, caught up in an unrealized future. How many times do we live our lives like this? Waiting for weekends and vacations, a better home, more money, less worries? Caught up in the chatter of hopes and dreams, and worries and anxieties, ignoring and denying pain and suffering, rushed and numb through a busy day, oblivious to the glorious sites, sounds and gifts of nature and the present? And so I kept on, feeling at times triumphant for focusing on placing each step carefully, with intent, only to quickly revert to wanting to be there, to the end, wondering if I’d ever get to that final spot.
I realized after a while that I could instead, as suggested, walk in the river itself, calf-high at this time of year, free of prickly pods and scratchy stickers. The moment I stepped onto that cool, smooth, velvety surface of wet river sand, my heart sang, my feet rejoiced and I literally thanked the earth, the soil, the mud, for soothing my sore and tired feet. This reprieve however was short lived, and existed in only small pockets near the edge of the river. In order to move on, and never once did I question moving on to that bend in the river, I had to walk across large pebbles, small stones, uneven surfaces and slippery rocks. I waved my arms around in the air with each step, trying to stay upright, keeping my balance, finding once again not a comfortable linear path, but a slowed pace, pain ~ and awareness ~ with each step, and the necessity of being ever so present.
And then finally, at some point, perhaps half-way, I stopped and looked up stream, and looked downstream, amazed and overwhelmed by the beauty and magnitude of this river canyon, in the far reaches of the southwest, where so few people live compared to where I come from, and wondered, how is it possible, that I have lived 40 years of my life, without ever having walked down the center of a river before, barefoot and alone? What a sheltered life I have led! What a moment of profound awakening. I savored that moment for quite a while, standing in the middle of that river, not at the place I was “supposed to go,” but fully engaged in the present, grateful, alert, relaxed, and in awe of what life can offer.
Eventually I continued on, step by step, with a new sense of appreciation for this venture. And then I had what can only be called a moment of unparalleled discovery, a shift in perspective so jarring and strong that it still leaves me reeling at its implications for all the other areas of my life. I realized that I had been trying to walk with my eyes and not my feet. Both amongst the thistles and in the river, I had been making the decision of where to put my foot for each new step based on what I saw, and not on what my foot felt. Once this dawned on me, this perhaps oh so obvious and very significant detail, the actual way in which I walked changed. I let my feet feel the bottom of the river, the rocks, the moss, the pebbles, and seek out the best possible placement for each step. Where before I had been suffering through pain in order to move forward, now I slowed down and felt each and every step, each moment, ensuring that it was beneficial for my foot. I began to experience the natural world in a way that it is perhaps best experienced ~ by feeling it! Alive and present, fully engaged, forgetting about “getting there,” instead living in the moment, sensing, touching, really connecting to a place, to a moment.
I realized during that walk, and later, at the bend in the river where I sat for a great long time, that so often I go about my days, making choices based not on feeling, or intuition even, but on surface level observations. Now, with this heightened clarity, I seek instead to make sure I know how I feel about something before making decisions, before acting, before moving forward. It doesn’t come naturally by any means, and takes great effort, with some stumbling along the way. But it is after all, the journey itself ~ of learning to be present, engaged, and fully alive, fully feeling and sensing our world ~ that offers us the best gift of all.