Meditation has been part of my self-care routine for quite a few years now. Sometimes, I can find the sweet balance of stillness and quiet and meditate for 20 minutes (maybe). But most of the time, it’s difficult to quiet my mind and stay present in my body for more than a few seconds. Even when I’m feeling great and happy, my mind is constantly wandering. My focus has always been bad. Whether it’s because I’m a millennial raised in the technological age or because I’m just wired strangely, I usually have to be doing 5 things at once to accomplish anything. I read 4 books at a time on a regular basis. My current Netflix rotation has about 6 different shows. At work, I switch between making my schedule, grading, listening to music, responding to emails, and studying Japanese while leaving my desk every few minutes to walk laps around the gym or dance in the bathroom. Even while I write this, I’m in the middle of making dinner, cleaning old pictures off my phone, and rearranging my furniture. It tends to take me a while to finish anything because of this, but I’ve made my peace with the fact that this is just how my brain works. And that’s perfectly fine.
To say the least, meditation is a challenge for me (and most people, I believe). Slowing my mind enough to focus on the present is achingly frustrating. But then I found myself on top of the tallest mountain in Japan forced to focus on the inhale and exhale of my breath and nothing else.
Part 1: A wise man climbs Fuji once; a foolish man climbs Fuji twice.
I climbed Mt. Fuji exactly 3 weeks after arriving in Japan. In the midst of adjusting to a new house, new friends, new job, new language, new food, new culture, I decided to join the annual overnight hike up the great mountain that the JETs in my prefecture host for us newbies.
To be completely honest, I had no idea what I was getting into. At orientation, the older JETs made the hike up Fuji sound like a casual stroll through the park. Plus, I was an avid hiker back home and Fuji is a large mountain, but not as large as Everest, so how hard could it be, right?
Actually, this was likely the most wrong I’ve ever been (and hopefully ever will be…but probably not) in my entire life.
I didn’t find out until I got into the car to drive to Fuji how long the hike was actually going to be. The person I was driving with (who was about to hike Fuji for the third time) nonchalantly told us that the hike was “only 8 hours up” and that the hardest parts were the temperature (which usually reaches somewhere around freezing near the top) and the wind. But no one told us that we would be climbing on all 4s up boulders with aching fingers and legs and too much stuffed into our backpacks. No one told us that we should have spent our 3 weeks in Japan (and probably some time before coming to Japan) training our bodies and minds for what we were about to endure.
We started around 7:45pm (oh, because, did I mention this was an OVERNIGHT hike? Yeah, that part). And at the start, it wasn’t so bad. I hiked the beginning miles up the mild incline thinking, “Hey, I got this. This is nothing. I’ve hiked trails in California worse than this.”
A while later, after my lungs were already stinging and my knees quite swollen, we reached the first station (#6 out of #10). I had no idea how much further we had to go. I figured we were nearing the top after that long hike we just did.
But then someone from our group said, “Okay, now the hike begins….”
I assumed they didn’t know what they were talking about. How could we just be starting when we had already hiked at least 2 hours?
But they were absolutely right. The real hike was just beginning.
If there’s anything I hate more than being ill informed, it’s switchbacks.
Not even close. I lost count of the switchbacks after 25. And some grunts and swears and tears later, we reached station 6A...because, yeah, there’s only 4 stations from the starting point to the summit, but each station has 4-5 sub-stations that are distanced who knows how many kilometers apart (because like what is a kilometer even?) and so when you finally get past 4 stations and think you’re close to the summit, ha! Silly you. You’re actually just at station 6D and have a million more to go…you poor, poor soul. But gambatte because you’ll get there eventually….maybe.
When I finally figured out the station versus sub-station game, I gave up counting and tried to enjoy the freezing cold slapping at my face and the growling in my stomach and the numbness in my toes (because what else would I be doing on a Saturday night but torturing myself?).
And then it was midnight. Most of our group had gone up ahead. I found 2 friends (who I’m now trauma-bonded with, forever and ever amen) who walked at my pace. I am beyond grateful to these humans because despite the temperature and the aching joints and frustration at how much further we had to go and the rage that bubbled in us when we figured out that no one had really told us what we were getting into, they still somehow found a way to make me laugh.
And then it was 2am, and I dropped all my smiles some miles behind me and wasn’t about to find them again any time soon.
And then the bouldering began.
If you’ve never climbed boulders, imagine the path straight up a mountain suddenly has these giant globs of hardened lava blocking the path. And you’re standing there thinking, “What? Did we lose the path? How did that happen? There’s no way I’m supposed to climb over those…am I?” But yes, you absolutely are. And now, since you took so long to stand there to wonder what’s going on, there’s a line of angry foreign hikers behind you who are yelling, “Hurry up” and “Stop blocking the path!” And you want to yell back at them, “What path?,” but you’re too exhausted, so you just scoot over to the side (except there is no side because you’re on a freaking mountain, so you cling to the nearest rock and just wait until everyone grunts their way past you and mumbles some swear word in their native tongue but it doesn’t matter because you don’t understand what they’re saying anyways). On the side (that doesn’t exist…maybe you’re floating on a cloud? No, because they’re actually beneath you at this point), you throw your backpack off and try to sit down gracefully but actually end up almost slipping (oh, because did I mention that hardened lava is incredibly slick and really easy to lose your footing and go tumbling down the side of a mountain that now seems evil and out to get you?).
And you somehow muster the courage to get up and walk a few more feet before crashing back into the slippery lava rocks and repeating the same awkward almost-tumble as before. And then you do it again. And again. And again. And again.
And then it was 3am.
And I wish there were words that could accurately describe what it’s like to have an existential crisis at 12,000 feet in the air at 3am, but there aren’t. So just bear with me.
I found myself 3 weeks into a trip to my motherland, on the side of a mountain, huddled against a slick rock that would never know my name or my story but would most certainly take my life if it caught me slippin’. My breath froze as it exited my aching body. My lips were chapped. My cheeks were red. My entire body was numb with cold and sweat and exhaustion and anger.
And my thoughts went something like this: Why did I come here? What was I thinking? I can’t do this. There’s no way I’m going to survive this. Why didn’t they tell me it was going to be this hard? What awful, awful humans organized this trip? I hate them. I hate this country. I hate myself. I hate this mountain. (And then after cycling through all 5 stages of grief a few times)…why am I alive? What does it even mean to be alive? How do I even know I’m alive? I could very well just be an illusion or a thought…or a dream. What if I close my eyes right now and open them and find that I’m safely tucked in my bed in California that I never should have left? (but then I tried it, and it didn’t work) And again, what am I even doing? Why did I leave California? The world is out to get me. Japan hates me. California doesn’t even care about me anymore. This culture sucks. I feel lied to. I feel ashamed that I can’t even move my body anymore. I wish I was dead instead of here. I wish I never agreed to this. I won’t make it in Japan. As soon as I’m getting off this mountain, I’m getting on a plane and going back home and never leaving again.
And then, I looked down at the path I had already hiked. And I wish I could say seeing how far I had come gave me the strength to keep going, but it didn’t. Seeing that path lined with lamps and flashlights and stations only made me realize that at this point the way down was going to be much, much harder than the way up. There was no way I’d make it down the boulders that I could barely make it up. So I had better keep going.
And the boulders didn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop for a few more hours.
For some reason, there was a lot of hype about reaching the summit before daybreak so we could watch the sunrise, but on a mountain as big as this one, we could see the sunrise no matter where we were. And at 5am, my two friends and I crashed onto the dirty, slimy floor of station 9C (only one more to go and then the summit was just another station beyond that…I think). Sweat was oozing out of places in my skin that I didn’t even know had pores. My muscles throbbed and screamed at me. My mouth was dry regardless of how much water I dumped down my esophagus. The elevation made the air too thin to breathe, and my oxygen starved brain pounded against my skull. One of my friends went and bought miso soup from the station. I couldn’t move, but when she returned and offered me a sip, the warmth dripped down my throat and into the tips of my fingers and toes. For a second, the chill melted before returning twice as cold.
And then the sun rose.
It began as a tiny dot of light against a vast blackness glittered with thousands of stars. It creeped over the horizon in brilliant blues and purples, melting away the awful night we endured. And it continued to rise, slowly, gracefully, as if this is what it does every single morning.
At this point, I snapped a picture of me with the sunrise in the background (pictured below) and texted it to a love back in California (because, yeah, I somehow had cell service that high up in the air). I captioned it, “Me at 5am pissed and half dead and not even done yet.” He (on an opposite time zone and probably getting ready for bed, or work…it’s still hard to count the hours) texted me back, “Yeah, you don’t look happy, but hey, that is a gorgeous view.” And I tried to smile. But I couldn’t.
We hadn’t even reached the top. The sun continued to rise regardless of how far up the mountain we had climbed. There were still more stations to go, not to mention the climb down (which actually lasted about 7 hours on a nearly vertical incline with the fully risen sun burning down on us).
And I know I said I was going to talk about meditation, and at this point, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, girl, stop complaining and tell me about the wonders of meditation you’ve learned in the country that basically perfected zen.” But hey, I’ve been talking about meditation this whole time. Did you miss it?
Let me explain.
Most days I cannot focus at all. Most days my body and mind are living in entirely different worlds. Consciousness is like that for most of us, I think. Most the time when you see other bodies walking around in the world, they’re likely detached from their souls and minds. Unless we’re incredibly lucky or privileged or well-trained at staying present, many of us don’t live in the same world as our bodies. We walk around on our feet, but most the time we don’t feel each footstep connecting with the earth or the cold wind blowing across our cheeks. Most the time, we’re too busy thinking about work or family or maybe we’re processing that one time when that one person pissed us off and god what is wrong with them who on earth would ever do something like that and how unfair and how awful and how disgustingly human of them to ever treat me like that. And maybe if we’re lucky, throughout the day, we may get a few glimpses of the world we all share. Maybe something will be so beautiful or so painful or so incredible or so awful that the present grabs our attention for a moment before we get whisked away back to our daydreams, our nightmares.
And this isn’t to say, “Ya’ll needa get your head out the ground and wake up,” because I’m right here in it too. I am no different. But being aware of the fact that I don’t spend most my time on this planet, present and focused and happily in my body, has been a lesson I’m still trying to absorb. And I honestly wish I could stay here in this beautiful and ugly world, but reality is often hurtful and stressful and cruel and confusing. It’s easier to stay stuck in my own head.
And even though the climb up that mountain was so hard and painful and exhausting, the frustration and the aching brought me out of my thoughts and into my body, and that’s a gift that I don’t often get to experience.
Yeah, the climb was awful. I would never ever do that again, and I am sure going to tell everyone I meet to never brave that mountain unless you’re absolutely crazy. But it was also a gift that jolted me into my body so that I didn`t miss anything. And sometimes meditation is just that, staying in your body long enough to hear what it has to tell you. The whole “clear your mind and recite this mantra” thing never worked for me (although no shade if it works for you). Most of the time, meditation is just letting my mind free enough to take a mental breath before floating back to my whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. And sometimes, I have so many nasty, difficult thoughts lurking in the back of my head that can only come out and be given space and hugged and released when I carve out time for myself to let them breathe.
Sometimes meditation is tears. Sometimes I sit in my little house in the Japanese inaka and just let myself cry it all out. Sometimes meditation is getting so tuned-in to writing poetry that I completely lose all other thoughts and am just this stream of words dumping onto a page. That is meditation. Sometimes cooking is meditation. Sometimes meditation is curling into a ball on my floor and listening to typhoon winds rattle the walls of my house. Sometimes meditation is shaking my booty in a club.
But in all of that, I am present, and I am listening, and I am open to whatever feelings need to come up.
Japan has been a test of my personal strength and ability to survive harsh elements and new challenges while feeling very alone and homesick, and I’m sure this island will continue to test me for as long as I’m here. But I’m here for it. And I’m doing my best to pay attention to it and soak up all the juicy, meaty lessons that I get to learn (often painfully) before moving on to the next growth stage of my life. And I’m doing my best to not check out and, instead, live here in the present where I can feel every heartbreak, every sore joint, every hug, every rib busting laugh, every tear, every late night spoon or kiss on the lips. I’m here to feel it all and embrace it. That is the gift. That is meditation.
And I’m here for it. All of it.
Thanks for reading.