We’re always trying to lighten the load of our packs, to pack less and keep things simple. But there’s usually one thing that manages to stow away and travel with us without our even knowing. Some people like carrying it and that’s okay, but personally I think it weighs us down and stops us from getting the most of our time out in nature.
That thing is our ego. Legendary spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle describes ego as “any image you have of yourself that gives you a sense of identity.” It’s the voice in your head that says, I am. It might say: I am fit, I am a fast walker, I have the best gear, I’m successful, I have an expensive car/house/toys.
Or it might say something more like: I am slow, I can’t do this, other people are better than me, I’m a failure. Tolle clarifies it further: “Identity derives from the things you tell yourself and the things other people have been saying about you that you’ve decided to accept as truth.”
Ego can get in the way of seeing and experiencing life in its full honest glory. When you’re busy listening to that chatter in your head it distances your soul from where you are in that moment. And when you’ve already decided on the parameters of your life you limit yourself, disconnecting you from the world of possibilities that really exist. Essentially the ego can get in the way of our connection with the rest of the universe.
Ego often rears its head on the trail. It’s there when you’d like to stop and take a photo but you don’t because you’re worried the people ahead of you might think you’re slow. It’s there when you’re walking solo and have found a beautiful spot to break and ponder life but some voice inside you says you ought to ‘push on’ and get a bit further even though there’s no reason to rush. It’s there when you feel the urge to write in a trail book how far or how fast you walked that day rather than wax on about the beautiful flower you saw. It reveals itself in the judgment of other people’s gear or how they choose do things. It reveals itself when someone ignores the alarm bells of altitude sickness – a warning from the body to descend before the brain swells or the lungs drown – because they simply ‘must’ get to the top of that mountain.
Don’t get me wrong, motivation drives us, and our personalities can add colour and joy to life and make things more interesting, but there are also huge benefits to leaving it all behind. Society is a place full of competition and comparison, but imagine a place where none of that pressure and judgment exists. Imagine how peaceful and wonderful it would be not to care what others think or where you fit in the world – to just be. That place exists. It’s out in nature.
I once hiked 3000km through the wilds of New Zealand. I was isolated. For five months I (largely) watched no television and was exposed to very little media and advertising – both of which do their best to keep us on a treadmill of fear, comparison and need – and in that space and silence I found myself losing my identity. It was magical. Peaceful. That peace alone was blissful enough but suddenly there was a massive void where all of that mind-chatter used to live and in it new things began to appear. Insights, clarity, awareness and ideas surfaced. Senses heightened: colours seemed brighter, fragrances richer, sounds clearer, fingertips more tuned to the sensation of touch.
Not only did life become a lot more simple and blissful but I started to question the ‘I am’ story that I’d created for myself over the years. Was I an executive assistant who liked nice clothes and planned to buy a new car and an inner-city house? Actually no I wasn’t. The simplicity of life in nature with one bag of belongings, far from anything to remind me of my place, no props to remind me of who I was (relationships, belongings, etc) stripped me bare, and in the twilight of that ‘in between’ I discovered that I didn’t really want those things after all. What I really wanted was to wear comfy clothes and have less stuff so I could travel more. I didn’t care so much about money as I did about freedom. I wanted simplicity in my life so there was spare capacity in my head to learn new things and ponder life.
Keeping a mind-made creation of myself alive meant there was less space available to welcome the new. It stifled change and possibility. When the cup is already full there is no room for anything more.
So next time you head out, leave your ego at home. It won’t be easy. Your ego will want to come too. It will want to walk with you and chatter on about itself all day but be firm with it. Say, “No! Stay!”
And then walk forward on your path to a whole new world of possibility.