Spiritual Nature of Hiking Naked
Associating the words ‘naked’ and ‘spiritual’ in the same sentence evokes a conflict between many people’s spiritual ideals and sensual nature – the epitome of life’s many ironies.
Many embrace one of two poles, revelling in sensuality, or observing spiritual ascetism but are we not more complete when spirit and body work together, instead of being at odds?
I parked the car, took off what little clothing I had, stuffed them, and the car keys into the backpack, and made my way to the entrance of the forest walk. It takes a certain level of courage to strip off the thin protective layer of material. Regardless of how insubstantial, clothing is the shield we raise to protect ourselves. Perhaps the primary defence of the self image, clothing sends the message of who we are (or who we think we are) to the multitudes; multitudes who would scrutinise the outside world before they explore the inner. Taking off your clothes means taking off that image.
It was a crisp summer morning, and the sun was just beginning to filter through the trees. I had chosen to set out as early as possible in order to minimise the chances of encountering other hikers. Though the lodge I was staying at was very private, it was not a naturist resort. Humid air, heavy with the fragrances of December, caressed my bare skin like a thin silken robe – a gentle kiss. Bird calls and the din of beetles mingled with the rushing sound of a nearby waterfall. It was a stark, and welcome, contrast from the canned music of shopping malls.
A small green sign with the symbol of a walking person came into view. An arrow pointed to the left where a series of small embankments made a makeshift staircase of earth and wood into the forest. Of the two forks available, I took the left one, which would take me along the lush river bank, heading downstream.
Naked, barefoot, you immediately become aware of your vulnerability, and are made acutely aware of your dependence – be it psychological or physical – on clothing. You cannot simply stride out, like an armoured Conquistador, for you must be mindful of where you tread; at any minute you might encounter another person who may see you for who you really are; they may run away screaming, or even worse – giggling. But then what would a naked hike be; how would I learn anything if I did not push my personal boundaries, go beyond my ‘safe’ zone; how would it be a spiritual exercise if there was no Risk? No adversity – no adventure. Your ears prick up, heart rate increases, senses prime, and the initiation begins. You are a small entity seeking entrance to the kingdom of nature. In here, with nothing between you and the air you breathe, there are no lies, no pretences, no excuses, no ifs or buts (Okay, maybe my butt). It is what it is. In here the size of your belly, penis and wallet mean nothing; and there is no judgement but your own. The only thing that matters is the only question there is: “Can you conquer yourself?” Can you face your inadequacy without adornments? Can you face your fear without protection? Can you listen to your own thoughts without running for the iPod? In here, Nature sees you with same eyes she sees all her children. And there is no favouritism. No fate but what you make.
Bare feet tread carefully upon the earth, as if taking the first steps in life, but – in the same way – they delight in the soft and crunchy textures they meet, unfettered, free to rejoice in their adventure. With each gentle footfall, the earth rises up to kiss your feet, to send beautiful healing energy into your soul. Heightened awareness: you can see the moss on the trees, the scurrying ants; you hear the birds and beetles as if for the very first time, absorbed deeper and deeper into this exercise in Presence. As a fern slowly stretches out, uncoiling delicate tendrils, your spirit , likewise, begins to stretch and awaken.
As I walked, my lungs filling with the earthy scents of the forest, my ears attuned to the music of the river, I could feel the vestiges of societal concerns being stripped away. Slowly, as my feet negotiated safe passage over the mulchy carpet, and my body flexed, clambering over low-lying branches, around trees and rocks, the veneer of Illusion was replaced by the light sheen of a good workout, and my mind sought out that old familiar place of peaceful contemplation. I found myself being drawn into the wonder of nature, an enchanting journey that beckoned me away from the pressures of everyday life. It was easy to leave behind any sense of lack, when offered such bountiful abundance. I was in the house of The Great Mother; and if I am a child of God why would I ever obsess over proving myself, when my very birthright is Divinity? My God – my God – lives in me; I am greatly loved beyond the human measures of right and wrong.
I made my way out onto a small rocky outcrop where I had a better appreciation of the swirling eddies. I had been cautioned by lodge members against a strong current, the possibility of being swept away, but standing there, feeling like a kid with every passing moment, the opposite bank of the river beckoned. There was no path there. Ferns grew unchecked, but there was sufficient space under the great trees to make my own path. My Own Path. Would I allow the fears of another person to influence me? I put the bag with my material possessions down on the outcrop. If I didn’t try, how would I know?
The river was shallower than expected, and I found my footing quite easily. I was halfway across, within arm’s length of a boulder, when the depth of the river increased; not much, but enough for me to sink into brown water up to my waist. Here the current was indeed stronger, but not stronger than my will. Slowly, steadily, staying present with each step, I moved forward. I reached a boulder, studied how I would hoist myself up without damage, and within minutes was standing on the boulder, looking at the opposite bank, which was now just a few feet away. That’s when things became interesting.
Some part of me said I should turn back, I was heading into unknown, and possibly dangerous territory. What about the things in the bag? In the silence of my contemplation an inner voice spoke to me. It said: “Are you prepared to cross the river, make it to the full objective of the Other Side, leaving behind the familiar?” I pondered the words, sombre, yet thrilled. In front of me the river swirled in a mini-rapid, brown water concealing potentials. My Inner Voice spoke again. “If you don’t cross the river now, you probably never will.”
The exhilaration of standing on firm ground was indescribable. I made it across; I was on the opposite bank. The Other side. There was no forest path, no guided trail. I had nothing but my wits. I was naked. I was barefoot. I was in the Unknown.
I picked my way through the ferns, which were not much taller than knee height, almost giggling like a toddler, and began negotiating a pile of rocks. At the top a butterfly – almost as big as my hand – with black and yellow wings alighted on a small open patch. Slowly the wings fanned up, and down, giving me a brief opportunity to marvel at this miracle of nature; the epitome of metamorphosis; subtle but definitive confirmation of my own journey.
Over more rocks, under branches and through wispy tendrils of grass I sought a way back to the river bank, and by this time, I was some distance downstream. Prompted again to return I found a suitable entry place where the water came up to my knees. I inched forward across the unsure murkiness to a large boulder. I was concerned about clear and safe passage, but once I thought I had figured it out I discovered the river was deep. Sitting on a rock, looking for a foothold below the surface of the water no longer worked. It had taken some exertion to get here and I was growing tired. “Let go,” said the voice, in a gentle whisper. But I continued looking for footing. Not finding any I stood up and attempted to negotiate a way around the sparse rocks, only to find myself a little too close to a wasps’ nest. Seemingly larger than any others I have encountered, and allergic to bees, I resolved they were best left to their home-making. Returning to the Spot Of No Footing I resolved to try again. “Let go,” prompted the inner voice. No! I was going to do this my way. Reaching for a potential handhold, I slipped, fell in, and … found myself gently carried downstream to a place where I could plant my feet firmly, and stand up. “Told you so,” came the whisper.
I made it back to the other side with little incident, plenty of mud, water, and was delighted to find myself on a short outcrop close to the path. Bouncing through the forest, a song in my heart, I felt whole again. Peace reigned supreme.
When I decided to turn back, it was almost with a sense of disappointment. I felt as if I had barely begun this hike. Yet there was a satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment at having been brave enough to take a few steps into the unknown. As I stood with my toes in the stream over which I had originally hopped, I realised that in just this short time I had already evolved. I had not just been on a hike. I had engaged nature. As anybody with some military knowledge will affirm – you cannot engage something without both parties coming away unaltered. Change is inevitable. Pink soles had been replaced by earthclad brown; scrubbed skin was bark-kissed and my hair was covered in fairy dust. I found, when we finish the journey, we realise we only really needed half the things we brought with us.
In this place I may sweat, but I don’t want to wash it off. It’s about carefree clambering over rocks, child-like, pollen in the hair and mud between the toes; it’s about getting somewhere simply because it’s fun to get there, about appreciating all the symphony of life, not least of which is your body, the temple of your god;. It’s about being humble enough to find your place in the Universe; it’s not about being naked, but naked in Consciousness.
(This article first appeared in Odyssey Magazine 2009)
Mark Davies is Author of the book “The Brotherhood of Sfarr,” available as hard copy or download from www.amazon.com