Verso L’alto: Switchbacks and Spirituality

Something I love about my word of the year, Verso L’alto, is that it means upwards, and upwards is a direction but not a specific route. This is something I’ve been meditating on a lot the first part of this year, especially when I get some alone time on the trail.First thing’s first- not all trails lead upwards. Sometimes to get to the top, to go upwards, you have to find a new trail and take a DNF on the trail you started. But much more often, you are on a trail that DOES go toward the top, just not as fast as you’d like. Oftentimes on a mountain trail, in order to move towards the summit (upwards!) you have to do what feels like backtracking- in hiking it is called switchbacks. They lead to moments when you think to yourself: Wasn’t I JUST here?! Didn’t we just pass that cactus? Yes, you did, only now you’re a little bit higher. And that’s a good thing. It would be too steep for most people to go straight up.  I’ve been on trails that suddenly have insane inclines and, for me, those trails are miserable. But I sometimes forget that in the moments where it seems like I’m about to reach the top of my climb and it turns out I still have many switchbacks to go. And if I get frustrated with those moments on the trail, I promise you I get 100x more frustrated with them when they happen to me in day to day life.

I am pretty sure everyone has some sort of challenge in life that seems to revisit them over and over and over again. For me it is several familiar struggles- perfectionism, anxiety, shame over things that are not my fault, all things I have written about before and could write a dozen more posts about (and probably will if I keep blogging for many more years…). And I can get so annoyed and exhausted that it feels like I am revisiting the same issues again and again. It makes it hard to see the progress or feel like I am indeed moving upwards. But maybe those emotional switchbacks we encounter are keeping us safe, are making sure that we don’t rush on to what’s next at the expense of important healing or other necessary moments.

In hiking, it is considered very poor trail etiquette to try and trailblaze your own path to avoid switchbacks. No matter how long and tedious those switchbacks may seem, they were likely built into the trail for a reason. Aside from keeping hikers more safe by making sure the incline isn’t too crazy, it also keeps the mountain safe by preventing erosion and rock slides. I have also found that the more I accept the switchbacks and just keep going on the designated trail, the more they give me a chance to appreciate small changes in scenery. And since I’m less absorbed in crazy new views or rock scrambles, those trails become a more meditative experience. I’m on more or less the same path so my body is distracted and comfortable and my mind is free to decompress and go deeper into thought. (This is also why I have started to love hiking the same trails near where I live l over and over again, but I think that’s a whole other post.) In a way, I have found that the switchbacks are the points on my hike where my mind is free to tackle those spiritual switchbacks I’m struggling with on any given day.

I am learning to embrace switchbacks on the trails, and I am trying very, VERY hard to embrace the metaphorical switchbacks in my life as well. Sometimes it feels like I am getting nowhere, passing the same situations and thought patterns over and over again, sending out the same exact prayers to God, but I am trying hard to have faith that maybe I am coming at them from just a little bit higher a perspective this time around, and that the important part is that I’m moving up, step by step. Verso L’alto.



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