The fall colors had already passed their peak in central New Hampshire when we set out for a half-day hike up to the ledges overlooking Lake Solitude. The ledges sit on the shoulder of Mount Sunapee, almost even in elevation with the summit.
An auto road goes to the Mount Sunapee summit, and from there it is an easy walk to the ledges. As we hiked up from the base of the mountain, we had the trail to the ledges to ourselves. Arriving at the ledges we were met with a crowd of people who had driven to the summit.
Having found a spot to sit, we began to eat our lunch when a party of parents and children arrived. Soon they were shouting boisterously, thrilled with the echoing sounds of their voices and the attention they drew from campers standing on the beach of the lake several hundred feet below. Another hiker politely requested that they be quiet. They continued shouting anyway.
My mind began to react against this intrusion. Trying to act non-judgmentally, I resisted the urge to turn around to see who was shouting. The economist in me began to reflect upon incentives: “That’s the kind of behavior you get,” I told myself, “when you make things too easy for someone. They don’t appreciate the etiquette of hikers because they arrived by automobile. They didn’t earn the view the hard way.”
Yes, I felt superior. And if I was special, those who were shouting were different from me. After all, we had hiked up; they drove up. We were entitled to peace and quiet. They had earned my righteous judgment.
In truth, I was making as much noise as the “offending party.” Although the noise was in my head, I was mentally contributing to the less than peaceful atmosphere on the ledges. When we selected the hike we knew that our viewing place would be accessible to non-traditional hikers. Was I as blameless as I was making myself out to be?
That was just my first mistake. I was not only resisting the humanity of those I was judging, but I was resisting my own humanity. As I felt my judgments coming on, I reacted not only against the noise, but also against my judgments about the noise. “Why wasn’t I past judging others?”I wondered.
I was condemning the shouters and then condemning myself for judging the shouters. It was as though my finger was caught in a Chinese puzzle—the more I judged those who were shouting, the more I judged and resisted myself for my failure to let it go.
As we set out to hike back down the mountain, we were again alone. My mind was still making noise. Turning to my wife, I said, “I can’t believe that those parents allowed their children to make so much noise.” My wife, who judged less but looked more, replied, “It was the parents who were started the shouting, not the kids.”
I chucked at this unexpected new information. How many times had I behaved rudely and yet, was completely oblivious to what I was doing? Even that day, I was as ignorant as the boisterous ones. I was insisting I was superior. The problem was not as I had set it up. I was not the innocent victim that I pretended to be.
Could things have gone differently? Indeed, they could have. I failed, not because I reacted with judgment, but because I judged my judgments. I had failed to let go of my judgments because I skipped a necessary step. I had not been willing to see the humanity in others because I was not willing to see my own humanity.
The way out of my mental misery was to mindfully begin where I was. I had reacted to the noise; it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But I could have chosen to be aware of what my mind was doing and then forgiven myself for feeling special, for focusing on superficial differences.
Clearly, I had erected barriers to interfere with my enjoyment of the day; but I didn’t want to see those barriers. To be more precise, I was looking at my internal barriers; but I was looking with resistance and judgment. And, looking with resistance and judgment is not looking at all.
By not looking at my mind’s antics without judgment, I missed an opportunity to reveal the root cause of what I was feeling. I had given away my power to choose. I had falsely accused those shouting on the ledges of robbing me of my peace. In truth, I robbed myself of my peace by my desire to feel different from those I labeled as “rude hikers.”
By staying stuck I also missed opportunities to be responsive to what the day asked of me. Perhaps I could have genuinely delighted in the enthusiasm of those who may have been looking at a mountain view for the first time. Alternatively, a polite conversation about hiker etiquette may have been in order. Or maybe, it was no big deal at all; if I had dropped my resistance to the noise, it may have faded into the background.
On that day on the ledges, I was invested in seeing differences; in truth, those differences were superficial and made up. The antidote was to look at my antics without judgment and laugh gently at myself.
Reciting a spiritual truth such as “there is a great web of life that connects us all” is not a path to peace as long as I am unwilling to look and realize the truth for myself. A child may go on believing there is a monster under the bed, even when his parents go first to look, if he does not look under the bed for himself. I was not past believing in a monster (reacting to the noise and then condemning myself for doing so), and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.
The real noise at Lake Solitude was in my mind and not in the world. Beyond superficial differences, we on the ledges were all the same that day. They were shouting into the open space; I was shouting in my mind.
There is a lesson for life here—a lesson that I’ve found hard to learn. To get to the peace inside, I had first to look, without judgment, at what was not peaceful in my mind. As with the Chinese finger puzzle, as we take our ego a little less seriously, we remove our mind from its trap.