Askesis in the Catskills
by Kenneth Posner
Saturday evening after dinner, I drove out to the Catskills to make an attempt on the “Nine,” a challenging 19-mile circuit that crosses nine mountain peaks, of which five are accessed off trail, that is, by bushwhacking through the forest. I’d run the Nine twice before during the day and once at night and also bagged eight of the nine during the winter. But this time I’d be going without shoes, part of a quixotic quest to climb all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks barefoot.
Madness perhaps, but not without method. Ancient Greek philosophers advocated the practice of “askesis,” which referred to a rigorous training discipline that was undertaken for both athletic and spiritual development. Especially favored were practices that entailed endurance, resistance to the elements, or going without food and water. The ultimate goal was to achieve a state of mind characterized by tranquility and equanimity, facilitating the operation of the will according to reason rather than driven by fear or unruly emotions.
Diogenes of Sinope (413-323 BCE), the Cynic philosopher whose ideas were widely influential among Stoics, believed that struggling against and overcoming the unruly passions was the key to living a life of tranquility. Inspired by the labors of Hercules, his practice of askesis included exercising on hot sands during summer and walking barefoot in snow during the winter, but arguably his whole life could be considered rigorous training ,as he lived outdoors year round with no possessions but a staff, satchel, and cloak. “Nothing in life has any chance of success without self-discipline,” he once said.
The philosophy of Epicurus (340-271 BCE) is today mistakenly identified with a devotion to sensual pleasures and fine food. But some of his ideas had a Stoic ring to them, for example, when he said “often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure.” What he meant by pleasure was a state of tranquility free from irrational fear, and as for pain, he was an advocate of askesis.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55 BCE – 135 AD) was not a huge proponent of physical exercise, possibly because he was lame. But he believed that the “mind must be exercised both day and night,” and he suggested running, weightlifting, and jumping as efficient ways to tire the body and at the same time “nourish” the mind.
Accordingly, for this adventure in the Catskills, I decided to mix in some elements of askesis, with the goal of not just challenging body but also nourishing mind. In addition to hiking barefoot, I’d carry no food or water, and with the weather forecast calling for a low of 36 F, sleeping outside in the cold sounded like another fun option. After further deliberation, I grabbed a light sleeping bag and tossed it in the pack.
It was already dark when I reached the trailhead. The first objective was a lean-to about six miles in which would provide shelter for the evening and position me for an early start the next morning. I stepped out tentatively onto the chilly trail, which was initially soft dirt but soon turned rocky and was flooded in places. With the temperature falling quickly, the mud and standing puddles on the trail were painfully cold. An owl hooted nearby, and then my flashlight flickered out. I replaced the batteries. After a very long time, I glanced down at my GPS watch to find that I hadn’t covered even three-quarters of a mile. My sense of equanimity began to waiver, but I took a deep breath and kept on.
Now the trail rose steeply, and a full moon was visible hanging just above the far mountain wall, while the wind rushed overhead and then all around me. After four or five hours, I arrived at the lean-to, only to find it occupied. But I had a contingency plan, which was to move another mile along the trail and shelter next to a large sandstone boulder, and when I arrived out came the sleeping bag, as well as hat, gloves, extra shirt, and wool socks. I went to sleep listening to the wind and feeling pleased with my progress, both physical and spiritual.
Sometime later I woke up. Cold was seeping in from the ground. Needless to say, this is why sensible hikers carry insulated sleeping pads. I shivered, shifted position, went back to sleep, and woke up again. A statement from Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), came to mind. He had written in his Meditations, “Take away the complaint, ‘I am harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.” I imagined Marcus Aurelius out on campaign in the 2nd century AD, defending Rome from incursions by Germanic tribes. Undoubtedly he, too, had slept outdoors on the cold ground.
I found that if I concentrated on warming myself, this seemed to keep the shivers at bay, and so I marshalled all my mental focus, tried not to shiver, dozed off, and then woke up shivering again. This pattern repeated itself for the duration of the night.
Eventually I opened my eyes to a blood-red sun hovering above the horizon. It was time to get moving, and it was at first very slow going, with my feet tender from the seven-mile hike the night before, as I stepped over frozen puddles and eyed icicles hanging from nearby rocks.
After a mile on the trail it was time to turn into the woods. The forest floor was covered in dry fir needles and broken branches, and I placed each step thoughtfully. Then the slope turned steeply downhill, and here the ground was covered in moss and dead leaves, which were frozen stiff and thus quite slippery for bare feet. I groped my way slowly, hanging onto tree branches and saplings, trying to maintain my composure and avoid falling on my butt.
Once the slope levelled out, I was able to make better progress, and my mood improved as I recognized the strange-looking leaf and flower buds of the Hobblebush, a common Catskills bush with white spring flowers, big floppy leaves that turn fluorescent colours in the fall, and long stems that tangle up unwary hikers. A familiar sight and a smile on my face – perhaps this was what Epicurus had in mind when he alluded to the pleasure that follows pain.
I continued to slowly bushwhack through the woods and reached the first three pathless summits without issue. So far, so good. With two peaks climbed the night before, the count was now five of the nine done, with four to go. As a bonus, it was a cloudless, crisp day, with cool air and bright sunshine. Occasional breaks in the forest revealed distant peaks along the ridge. I moved down a slope that had been baking in the morning sunlight. What a joy to finally step onto soft warm soil! A few steps later I was back in deep forest, shaded and silent.
And now things started to fall apart. On the way to Friday, the fourth pathless peak, I got stuck in a dense thicket of fir and spruce with young trees growing so close together I couldn’t squeeze through without breaking off sharp branches or catching them in my shirt. Usually these thickets open up after a few yards, you just have to be patient, but sometimes the thicket goes on and on until you find yourself trapped by dead trees that have toppled in crisscross patterns, blocking movement to the front and sides.
Any sense of tranquillity was soon dashed. I began swearing in frustration each time I got stuck on a branch, struggled over deadfall, or stepped on a sharp rock. Part of the problem was I had promised my wife I’d be home by 6 PM, and now I realized I was at risk of being late.
Disappointing a spouse is never a good thing, and now anxiety spread across my mind like a cloud of smoke rising from a burning forest. My attitude darkened, as I raged against perceived injustices — that I wasn’t as fast as other runners – that these thickets could still entangle me despite all my experience — and why was there never enough time to do what I wanted to do?
I marched on underneath a small dark cloud of angst, part of me wallowing in bad attitude, part of me realizing I was being childish, and so I kept moving on through the endless thicket, cursing at each new obstacle.
Marcus Aurelius had written: “If you feel pain from an external object, it is not this object that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement.” This is one of the core ideas of Stoic philosophy, but sometimes it is easier said than done. I suspect that Marcus Aurelius wrote this comment in his journal as a way to remind himself to keep a positive attitude while managing the affairs of the empire, which must have felt on many occasions every bit as entangling as the Catskills forest.
Eventually I emerged from the thicket, only to encounter a wall of cliffs. I moved slowly along the base, stepping carefully over prickly brambles, until I discovered a cleft in the rocks where I could scramble up over steep moss-covered rocks, and then I wandered around in another spruce-fir thicket.
I finally located the summit, but it was now mid-afternoon. The count was six of the Catskills Nine completed barefoot, but time had run out, and my feet had had enough. I aborted the mission, put on a pair of sandals, and moved out as quickly as possible hoping I might somehow still honour my commitment to spouse.
Then I looked down and saw a mound of bright red peat moss. I stared in amazement, having never before seen anything like this, and everything else was momentarily forgotten.
The way back included one last bushwhack, and it took forever to reach the trail. I tried to make up time, but the path was rocky, my feet hurt even with sandals, and the pack kept jostling me in the back and throwing off my balance. Pausing at a spring, I drank a handful of water and then limped down the last two miles to the car.
With this adventure in the Catskills over, it would be a fair question to ask whether the practice of askesis had taught me anything useful that could be applied to managing life in the real world. It would be hard to answer definitively. Epictetus wrote that while wool takes up certain colours immediately, there are others which it will not absorb unless soaked and steeped many times, and in this regard he was referring to the long period it may take to fully develop the practice of Stoic philosophy. Even a wise man may tremble, feel pain, and turn pale, he commented, “therefore let us press on and persevere.” Perhaps this is what the practice of askesis ultimately teaches.
The next day at work, a big project dropped onto my lap without warning, and a last minute conference call scrambled my evening plans. Then I learned that a forest fire was threatening a race I help organize, necessitating last-minute contingency planning. A not-for-profit board meeting left me feeling frustrated with fellow directors who didn’t agree with my point of view. Then it was off to the airport for a one-day business trip to South Dakota with the CEO of the company deciding to attend at the last minute.
All of this was aggravating, but upon reflection, I realized that I had learned something after all: that none of this was as bad as getting stuck in a Catskills spruce-fir thicket!
Kenneth Posner is a financial analyst, runner, and writer. You can find additional articles by him at his blog, The Long Brown Path.