6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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20051006

Do the Hike – A Change in Perspective

October has arrived, and like May and December, it is a month of marked transition. There’s the noticeable change in temperature, the cooler nights, the days that are becoming increasingly shorter, and the pungent, hardwood smell of chimney smoke wafting through the early evening air. The trees are beginning to stop producing chlorophyll, and as they do, the pigments of color that are within the leaves are beginning to show a palate of red, gold, and orange.

With the last of my summer clothes put away, I start breaking out my long sleeve shirts and sweaters. This is a good time of the year to be out and about, and short hikes and forays into the woods should be taken advantage of whenever a good day of clear weather presents itself.

Today was a perfect example. With the temperature in the mid-seventies, it felt like Indian summer. My colleague at work and I decided that instead of having our usual therapy group with our students today, we would instead take them on a hike up Bald Rock that’s part of the Camden Hills. “But do we have to?” one of the kids piped in. “Hiking sucks.”

Mike spoke up. “I know we do group inside, but today’s about the last of any real nice days we’ll have for awhile, and so we’ve decided to get you guys outside for group today.”

Mike and I are responsible for conducting a dialectical behavior therapy group once a week for our eight students who live at the residential facility where we work. What we basically try to do is teach kids how to learn skills that will help them get their needs met in more appropriate, positive ways. For some of them it can be quite a long learning curve until they start using skills to cope with negative emotions or feelings of anxiety and depression. With most of the new kids who come into our program, it’s a pretty simple script: Can’t get what you want right at this minute, fine, yell obscenities, punch the wall, slam the door, and throw something down on the floor. That’s pretty much how most of them try to deal with any given situation that’s contrary to what they think they need or want, or when they’re reminded of an expectation.

“We’re only going to be out for a couple of hours.” Mike continued; “Besides, it will give you guys a chance to practice the skills you’ve learned.” We gathered up what we needed and piled into the van. Fifteen minutes later we were hiking up the trail that led to Bald Rock. No sooner than two hundred yards into it, one of the kids came up to me and said, “This is really stupid.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because I could be back at the house playing my new game on the Play Station."

”You seem to really like playing with the Play Station. What's with that?"

"It's the only thing I like doing," he said as he picked up a rock and threw it into the woods.

Looking at him, I decided to give him a nudge. “But you’re not at the school, are you?”

“No, but I could be if I weren’t on this stupid, boring hike.”

“Yes, but you’re on the hike,” I said calmly.

“Yeah, thanks to you and Mike.”

I slowed my pace down a bit and took a few moments to reflect. “Does thinking about being back at the house and playing with the Play Station change anything?”

“No.”

“If it doesn’t change anything, then why continue to dwell on it?”

At this point I reminded the student to start thinking about his skills. I asked him to think about what he could do to try and make his situation better.

“I could stop being pissed off that I’m on this stupid hike.”

“And how would you do that?”

“By accepting that I’m on this stupid hike?”

“Okay, you could accept the situation for what it is. Good. What else might you try to change the situation?”

“I can stop being pissed off about it because there isn’t anything I can do, so I might as well do the hike, I guess,” he said as he kicked up a rock.

The student may not have realized it, but he had grasped a simple truth. Often times when we are given to any one thing, especially when it’s something that we might not particularly enjoy or want to do, we become scattered and frustrated when we start thinking about other things we could be doing or other places where we could be instead. Sometimes, as with the student, we label or judge what we are committed to in negative terms. But by changing our perspective, we can “do the hike.” Focusing on the one thing we are doing, without labeling or judging, allows us to experience activities more fully, especially activities we may not want to do but have to, either because of duty or necessity. Whether it’s work, or washing dishes, or getting our kid to the dance, we can be in the moment. As Goethe said, “There is nothing worth more than this day!”

After the student walked just ahead of me for a ways, he stopped and asked, “What kind of tree is that?”

“Black birch,” I replied. I walked over to the tree and broke off a couple small twigs. “Here, chew on the end of this,” I said as I took the other twig and gave a demonstration.

He looked at me with a reluctant stare and then smelled the end of the twig. “Kind of smells like a Lifesaver,” he said. He then took the twig and started chewing on it. “Hey, that’s pretty weird. What is that?” he asked.

“Wintergreen,” I replied. “You can also use the sap from the tree to make birch beer from. It’s kind of like root beer.”

As we picked back up the pace, I noticed he was actually looking around and observing. He plodded on ahead of me with heavy, deliberate steps. “If you feel yourself trying to catch a breath, pick a spot to take a sit for awhile,” I reminded him. He didn’t answer, but continued on slow, but sure. After reaching the summit, we sat down with the others and looked out at the ocean. The students were surprised by how high up we were, and marveled at how small the houses looked in the village below. The shore was wrapped snug by a blanket of fog that stretched to the horizon. The students then took different places to sit alone as they looked out over the carpet of trees and beyond. For once they were all quiet. As Mike and I observed them being self-absorbed, I could almost imagine the beauty of what such a view must be like for them to perceive for perhaps their very first time.

By S. L. Cunningham