Finding a Foothold on the Mountaintop

I like to hike. Drive 40 minutes out of San Diego and you’re in the mountains, 6,000 feet up amidst whispering pines. So I turned to my favorite guidebook (Afoot and Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad) and picked out a new hike for my day off: Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 850′ elevation gain. That seemed like a lot of elevation for me, but the description said there were switchbacks that made it doable and a magnificent view at the top. I laced up my boots and set off.

On the way there I thought about the mountain metaphor and the mountain/lake meditation I sometimes do. I hoped to find inspiration on my hike and to come back and write a blog post about the qualities of the mountain, that I would easily find steadiness and solidity. But that’s not quite what happened.

Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

I found the trail head and looked up. Oh. Wow. That’s really high up there. I stopped to read an interpretive sign about how the mountain was formed, and cautioning against rattlesnakes and not hiking alone. A family with young children was just coming down the trail, the little boy riding on his father’s shoulders. Well, if they do it, so can I, I tried to convince myself.

The ascent began almost immediately. I could feel my heart beating fast and my skin getting hot. But I stopped to rest now and again, taking in the ever-increasing view, and plodded on. I passed many other hikers, including lots of small children and dogs. This reassured me.

The hike seemed to go on forever, a relentless uphill climb. But then I glimpsed the peak about 100 feet away. My first thought was, “Hallelujah! I’m at the top!” But then a wave of panic spread over me as I saw how I was supposed to get there.

The Final Ascent

The Final Ascent

There were natural rock steps with a handrail, and on one side the face of the mountain, the other side a sheer drop down 850 feet. I began to feel dizzy and very, very afraid (my heart rate has increased just writing about this). It was the same feeling I had at the top of Monument in London, atop the Eiffel Tower, and in the whispering gallery in St. Paul’s cathedral. Acrophobia. Fear of heights.

My first reaction was to get mad at myself. No no no no no! This can’t happen now! I was aware of what was happening, yet I couldn’t seem to stop it. Then I tried denial, and started to march up the steps with determination. Damn you, fear! You’ll not stop me! But then it got even worse. My palms were sweating. My hands shaking and fingers tingling. I began to get tunnel vision. I freaked out.

I had noticed a man in a green shirt already at the top platform when I first arrived. I figured he would come down soon, and I would just ask him to help me down. But I waited, and waited, and the green T-shirt didn’t come. Then I spotted a family lower down the mountain, posing for pictures. They’ll come! They’ll be here any minute! But, then they turned and headed down the trail instead of up. I felt panicked.

I knew I was hyperventilating, and began scanning my mental toolbox. Okay, you need to find a focus. Gripping the rocks with my sweaty hands, I began to stare at the side of the mountain, just one little patch a few inches wide. At the same time I tried to slow my breath. I began to notice all the different colors in the rock, and the little flecks that sparkled in the sunlight. The only thing happening right now is this mountain, I told myself. Be the mountain. Feel your feet. Feel your heaviness. Breathe like a mountain, slow and even.

I felt a little better. I noticed two butterflies dancing along, just above the summit. They seemed okay. A few more breaths and I found the courage to turn my head and look out over the valley. Wow. So spacious. So still. Like meditation, I thought.

For a few minutes I just stood and took it all in: the view, my reaction to the situation, and my ability to respond and adapt. I had basically meditated my way out of my panic. I felt gratitude for my tools, especially the breath. Then I realized I was going to have to get down the mountain by myself, so I scooted down on my butt a few inches at a time, sort of crab walking my way down the steps. At the bottom I stood and brushed myself off. The precipice out of view, I let out a deep sigh.

Just then a couple walked up, about to make their own final ascent. “How is it up there?” the man asked. I hesitated a moment, about to launch into my story, then said simply, “It’s amazing.”

Whether you’re climbing mountains or struggling to keep your focus in meditation, it can be helpful to find a foothold, something to focus on and bring you back to the present moment, and to the steadiness that is your essence. This foothold could be as simple as the breath, or a mantra, or exploring the detail in a patch of rock on a mountainside. It really is amazing.


See a Penny, Pick it Up

See a penny,

pick it up,

and all the day

you’ll have good luck!


I’ve been aware of this little saying for as long as I can remember, at least back to when you could still buy something for a penny (gumballs were a favorite, or your fortune dispensed from an animatronic gypsy in a glass case at the Boardwalk). These days pennies actually cost more to make than their inherent worth. But I still pick them up.

Sometimes I see a penny that’s been really banged up, like some kids probably put it on the railroad tracks, or it got washed with a load of zippers. Some even have a green patina, like they’ve been lurking at the bottom of a junk drawer, mingling with other chemicals. But I pick up the ugly ones, too.

Pennies on the street have become a symbol of abundance to me. Even though on their own they aren’t worth much, they add up. And more importantly, they are representative of the abundant nature of the Universe. God doesn’t care if you find one penny or a hundred dollar bill. Money is energy. And even one cent is a little slice of that energy.

Sometimes I collect so many pennies that my wallet bulges and feels heavy. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s filled with pennies that couldn’t even buy an ice cream; I look at it and say, “Wow, my wallet is overflowing with money!” It’s this gratitude that acts as a magnet and draws more abundance into my life. Maybe later that day I’ll find a nickle. The fact that I believe that the penny is prosperity is what helps me fill my wallet with more than enough.

I actually use my pennies often. I like to keep the energy circulating. I’ve always been an exact change kind of gal, so when the cashier says, “Your total is $12.31,” I reach into my wallet and find one of those pennies. As I hand it over I think, “I’m so glad I found that penny. It was exactly what I needed to buy parsley for the bunnies. Thank you, Universe!” Never do I ask, “why only a penny?”

Your job is not to say how or when abundance comes to you, but simply to say yes to it. When it occurs, become the observer and give thanks for everything. Every time you see a coin on the street, pick it up and recognize it as abundance flowing your way. Receive the energy. Say thank you and be grateful.


Finding the Toolkit Within: An MBSR Teacher Training Experience

Hello Dear Readers,

This week’s blog post is a guest post I wrote for the blog of the University of California at San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness about my experience in their MBSR Teacher Training:

I hope you enjoy it!


Do Yoga Because it’s Stressful

I’m puzzled when people say they can’t do yoga or meditate because they can’t relax, or they aren’t flexible enough. No one is born with the innate ability to relax; the practice itself is what brings increased focus and clarity. By meeting challenging situations again and again with conscious breath, you begin to develop relaxation and serenity. It takes time but research shows that after just six weeks of daily practice, the benefits of yoga and meditation are measurable.

The brain tends to react automatically to sensations of discomfort, triggering the physiological stress response. This might include increased heart and breathing rates, muscle tension, and higher levels of  cortisol and stress hormones. While some stress response is automatic and necessary, it has probably been reinforced by years of negative reactions to stressful situations. Your brain has developed a habit.

The good news is, habits can be changed! Neurons that fire together, wire together. Your thoughts and actions have an effect on the chemical composition of the brain, and the firing pattern of your neurons. A change in posture, relaxing the muscles of your face, and slowing your breathing all affect the brain in a positive, calming way.

In a yoga practice you might experience the stress response when you feel the buildup of lactic acid as muscles strain, or the restricted breathing while twisting your spine. Being upside down or feeling off balance can also produce anxious thoughts. You might suddenly think you’re going to overstretch, or that you’re not strong enough to hold the pose any longer. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to hold warrior pose for one more breath or running away from a sabre toothed tiger, the physiological response is the same: Your muscles tense and your brain reacts with negative thoughts.

But this works both ways. If you relax those muscles, especially in the face, the brain gets a message that says, “oh, time to relax”. Same with deliberately slowing your breathing. Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It’s the practice of staying calm during those stressors that creates a neurobiological benefit. Yoga retrains the brain’s habit so it doesn’t produce the stress response so automatically.

So when you feel the stress response happening in your body, use slow and deep breathing, relax the face, clear your head of anxious thinking, and focus on what’s happening in the present. These are real skills you can apply to your life, on or off the mat.

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