My friend Nicole and I went hiking through the forest one summer morning. We were talking and admiring the many kinds of trees, some of which we recognized and some that were completely foreign to us. I have always been drawn to nature, and once we began walking on the trail, it felt as though I was coming home and coming to life here in this green, lush, beautiful, environment.
I looked around at the overgrown scene, with vines and leaves and every kind of plant imaginable. Shorter trees vied with the taller ones for sunlight. The raspy calls of insects filled the forest. The air was sweet and crisp, and it teased the senses. It was a setting in which I knew I belonged.
My friend Nicole turned to me and said, “I’m glad I decided to go hiking with you. This beats walking in the city, surrounded by the traffic and the smog.”
I replied, “Yes, it does, I love it here. It’s exhilarating!”
We kept walking, silently admiring the various trees and the sunlight dancing through the thick branches and leaves. I didn’t feel like conversing much and I guess Nicole could sense that.
There were many intriguing things in the forest. There was a tiny spot of colour that turned out to be a frog on a tree. There were leaves and small twigs on the forest floor. Flower petals, vines and even a few smaller branches had settled onto the ground. A strange elation swept through me, and felt excitement pulse through my veins. Ferns grew abundantly on the forest floor, carpeting the area in shades of green.
Suddenly, a silence took hold of the forest. The stillness disturbed me and sent a chill down my spine. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled, and I knew my friend and I were in danger. I turned my head from side to side nervously as I continued to walk, my eyes trying to probe the foliage. My friend must have sensed my apprehension, because she looked at me and asked, “What’s the matter?”
My heartbeat accelerated, my mouth was dry, and I could feel my body tremble.
Something moved in the foliage, something large, a shadow in the shadows…something that was pacing alongside us. I couldn’t actually see it, but it was stalking us silently, and it was something wild. I could feel the intent and the focused stare.
Nicole looked at me. “You’re scaring me, what’s the matter!?”
“Don’t look so frightened,” I replied. “The forest went so quiet all of a sudden and it feels kind of dangerous. Like maybe an animal is stalking us.”
“Oh my God! I’m going to pee in my pants!”
“That’s not an option,” I replied. “You’re wearing a dress.”
“How can you joke at a time like this?” She looked tense and frightened.
“Don’t you fall apart on me,” I said. “I need you! If there’s something out there, fear is not going to help us. I plan to walk out of here in one whole piece. Are you with me or not?”
“Of course I’m with you, you idiot! Don’t you dare leave me and run!” She was beginning to panic.
“Somewhere I’ve read that large cats will give chase to anything that starts running,” I said.
I could see the relief sweep through her, and could feel the tension leave her body.
Laughing, she said, “You silly! You’re scared of a cat? Let me see! Where is it?”
“I’m not talking about a house cat or a wild cat, Nicole. I’m talking about a cougar or maybe even a Panther.”
She blinked in shock. ” I think I’m going to be sick!”
“Well, you’d better not. Whatever it is, it’s moving closer. You know, I read in the “Tipitika” that the moment of death is very important.”
She looked puzzled. “What are you talking about?”
“The type of sensation you are experiencing at the moment of death is very important,” I replied. “That moment will carry you into the next life. And if the moment at the time of death is full of fear, then the next life will be full of fear.”
“You’re a fountain of information, Michelle! Are you telling me that if that thing comes out of the bushes and stands in front of you, you’re going to laugh and chuckle!?”
“No,” I whispered. “But at least I will be aware that I am experiencing the sensation of fear. And I won’t be engulfed in it. Being aware and equanimous is the key.”
“But I thought you said we were going to get out of here in one piece!”
“We are,” I said. “I just wanted to share some pertinent information with you, so you would gain some knowledge on the nature of sensations. Experience and wisdom go hand in hand.”
Now she became sarcastic. “Well, stupid me! Thank you! I am feeling sensations of great relief after listening to that piece of knowledge!”
It was suddenly oppressive and hot. I could feel the dampness on my back, and there was a warning rumble. The growl was low, but in the silence of the forest it carried easily. There was no mistaking the sound of a large cat.
Nicole threw down her pack and whispered, “Did you hear that? And it’s close! We should get out of here.”
“Yes!” I whispered back. “That is a large wildcat. And from what I’ve read, running is not going to do a bit of good if it’s made up its mind to make a meal of us.”
“You’re very reassuring aren’t you?” she asked. “Aren’t you scared? I don’t know what made me want to go hiking with you!”
I couldn’t help but grin. “An hour ago you said you were glad to be with me.” I picked up her backpack and handed it to her. “Here take this. Now put it on.”
I waited till she had done so. “Now, hold my hand and turn around, back towards the trail. I’ll keep an eye on whatever it is that is lurking in the foliage while you lead us back on the path. And let me know if there are any obstacles in the way. This way, we’ll have a view of both the front and the back.”
I was watching the foliage warily. Suddenly, my breath caught in my throat. I could have sworn I had seen a pair of green eyes only a few yards away from where we were. But when I blinked, there were only dark shadows and endless ferns. As hard as I tried, I could see nothing, but the impression of danger remained acute. I said to
Nicole, “Keep walking!”
“Do you see anything yet?” she asked.
I told her that I hadn’t seen anything yet.
By this time, I was feeling a bit tired and sticky. My feet hurt and walking backwards was no fun. I tried to walk as quickly as I could, hurrying along the trail, thinking about how I had lost my sense of wonder and homecoming.
Nicole said, suddenly, “I can feel you tremble! Are you scared?”
“Yes, I am.”
She was trembling now. “Do you think we will make it?
I tried to calm myself and reassure Nicole at the same time. “Have I ever told you about how my granddad used to make beer in the bathtub?”
“This isn’t the time to talk about booze!” she hissed.
I kept talking. “I fell in it once, while I was helping him make the beer. I was five years old, and I thought I was going to drown. When my granddad fished me out of the wooden tub, I was shaking like a leaf. Beer was dripping all over the floor, and my granddad could see that I was in shock. He took me into the bathroom and held me in his arms in the hot shower. He kept reassuring me that I would be okay, and that it was going to be the best beer I had helped him make that year.”
“A few days later,” I continued, “my family members were drinking the beer and congratulating me on how clever I was for helping my granddad. They kept saying that it was the best beer they had ever tasted. The thing is, I peed in the beer.”
“You did what?” Nicole couldn’t believe what I had said.
“I peed in it, when I thought I was drowning! When I remembered what I had done, I was too scared to tell him.”
She was laughing now. “Why didn’t you tell him later?”
“Well, they were drinking it and complimenting me on how good it was! I thought it was best not say anything.”
“You crack me up!”
“Well, I told you my secret. You can’t tell anyone okay?” I was grinning at her.
Still laughing, she agreed, “Okay!”
Pointing at the foliage, I said, “I think Mr. Green Eyes is laughing too.”
“You what!? Did you see it? Why didn’t you tell me? What was it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What do you mean you don’t know! You just said ‘Green Eyes!'”
“That’s all I saw,” I told her. “The most incredible, beautiful green eyes. I think I saw them, but I’m not sure.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake! You’re supposed to be watching for danger!”
“Why don’t you watch for it?” I replied. “Turn around and I’ll take your position and lead.”
“No! No! You do it. You’re good at stuff like this!”
We kept walking as I kept my eye on the foliage. At the same time, I was trying to sort through the mental turmoil and find the refuge within. For a moment, I could hear only the beating of my heart, drowning out every other sound. And then a thought came into my mind. “Be still.”
“Is it following us? Do you sense it?”
I tried to ignore all sounds and just observe.
“Are you with me!? What do you see! What are you thinking?”
“I’m not thinking anything, I am observing the Ego.”
“Good Lord!” shouted Nicole. “Forget your ego! Both our lives are at stake, and here you are observing your ego!”
“Shush! Be calm,” I replied. “Being is with you at all times. I am trying to be still.”
“What do you mean, ‘being’?”
“‘Being’ that’s breathing you, digesting your food, making your heart pump, that being. Call it God, Presence, or whatever you want.”
“Fine! Go on.”
“You see, Being is with us at all times. It’s from there that we’ll find a solution to get out of here in one piece.”
“Well, what do I have to do?”
“All you have to do is be calm and be still. Try deep breathing to calm yourself down.”
Taking my own advice, I filled my lungs with the forest air. It was amazing to experience all of the various smells, holding myself within, listening and being. Then, I felt something, something welling up inside, something strong and overwhelming. The emotion was intense and I felt as though I would burst.
Nicole looked concerned. “Are you okay?” she asked.
I squeezed her hand and said “I love you.”
Nicole looked touched. “I didn’t mean to yell at you, I love you too. You’re my best buddy. What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to send it love and comfort,” I replied. “Maybe it needs help.”
“Trust me Michelle! It does not need your help! This is not a dog that you can help, this is a wild animal! I know you think you are nature’s child, but this is different! And I don’t want you to do anything stupid, you hear me!?”
“I’m not going to pet it, Nicole. I’m just going to surround him with affection and comfort, so he thinks we’re his buddies and might change his mind about having you for an appetizer.”
“Look who is talking! I’m six inches taller than you! If it was thinking of having an appetizer, it would choose you, you shrimp!”
I laughed. “Don’t blame me for the fact that you’re tall. It’s not my fault your mom fed you giraffe’s milk! I know panthers don’t like shrimps. You, though, I’m sure he would like you. You’re beautiful, you have gorgeous blue eyes, sexy long legs and meat on your bones!”
“I’m trying to compliment you and you think I am sick!” I was smiling.
“Can you see him?”
I gently replied, “I want you to be quiet. Don’t talk for the next five minutes, okay?”
There was fear in her voice now. “You’re not going near it are you?
“No, we’ll keep walking. Just don’t talk.”
I could still sense the shadow in the foliage, and I sent feelings of warmth and love into the ferns, imagining the beautiful animal receiving it. I sent images of beauty, of clear crystal water soothing his warm skin. Wrapping him in comfort and holding him close to my heart, and surrounding him with compassion and gentleness. I sent it reassurance of its beauty and of what an awesome and powerful spot it held in nature.
“Do you hear it?” asked Nicole. She squeezed my hand.
“Listen!” she said.
I heard a rumble in the distance and felt Nicole walk faster, towards it. A few minutes later we saw a jeep approaching us. There was a man in uniform in the drivers seat, and I could feel the tension leave Nicole’s body. “We’ll be safe soon. We’re going to be okay,” she said.
“What do you mean ‘going to be okay?’ We are okay!”
The jeep pulled to a stop a few meters away from us. The driver called out, “Are you guys okay?”
Nicole let go of my hand and ran towards the jeep. She looked at the man and said, “I think we’re lost!”
The man replied, “You shouldn’t be walking here. Didn’t you read the sign that said, ‘Endangered Wild Life – Stay Away’?”
Relieved that we had been found, I laughed, and said, “I’ve been meaning to get some reading glasses. I just haven’t gotten around to doing it yet!”
Nicole wasn’t amused at my wit. “Oh, shut up! For God’s sake, stop joking!
The man gave us a ride to our car, which was parked a couple of miles away from where we had been hiking. It was an interesting afternoon, walking from solitude, to fear, then towards awareness and ultimately to stillness.
That night in our hotel room, Nicole was in her bed writing in her journal. I was sprawled on my bed, about to drift off to sleep.
Nicole spoke. “Are you asleep?”
She took that as permission to continue. “I think you should tell your granddad what you did. I think he’ll have a great laugh!”
“He passed away when I was twelve years old. I miss him sometimes.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry!”
“I think he heard me, though.”
“What are you talking about, Michelle?
Although my own answer surprised me, I knew that it was true.
“I think he heard me in the forest and had a great laugh…”