In this Just Melissa episode, I answer one of your most commonly asked questions on Instagram: Why do you call hiking in the mountains “church?” I explain my relationship with God/the Universe/Mother Nature; the moment the Utah mountains became my church; and how everyone can find the same kind of connection and guidance in nature, regardless of your spirituality (or lack thereof). Maintaining this theme, I go on to share a story of a recent hike; a 10-miler in the pouring rain. Not so much church, this time—more like me getting into a giant fight with the Universe. (Spoiler, I lost.) In the second half of this episode, I talk about what it feels like to resist the pull/push/shove into growth, and how sometimes, the best thing to do is turn around.
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Eating Stone, Ellen Meloy
MU: 00:03 Hi, my name is Melissa Urban and you’re listening to Do the Thing, a podcast where we explore what’s been missing every time you’ve tried to make a change, and make it stick
MU: 00:20 Today is a little different than my other episodes. It all started with a story, something I haven’t done here yet. I came home today after a 10 mile hike in the pouring rain, which is normally something I would call church, but not today. No. Today’s hike was more like a temper tantrum with God as the patient parent and me as the stubborn child. When I got home shivering and sore and soaked straight through, I wanted to tell you more about today’s journey. I thought about an Instagram post, but 2200 characters would not have done it justice. So after a very long hot shower, I sat down to record. No notes, no re-dos. Much like on Instagram. I never use these stories to tell you what to do. I’m always just talking to myself here. To preface the tale, I’m answering one of the most common questions I get on Instagram.
MU: 01:13 Why do you call hiking in the mountains church? I’ll give you the backstory, how one fateful hike changed everything in terms of my relationship with God and what I say to those who suggest my version of church isn’t as valid as the brick and mortar. I will say this, I use the word God a lot in this episode, but if you don’t believe in God or don’t have a relationship with him or her, please don’t let that put you off. I spent a lot of years resisting God and not listening to anything that started with or included the words, God or Jesus. I’m betting I missed a ton of good messages because I wasn’t flexible enough to apply it in a way that worked for me. As I say in the episode, whether you believe in God, the universe, Mother Nature, or simply trust in yourself in the idea that your subconscious or gut will steer you in the right direction, there’s a message here for you. The theme of today’s podcast apparently is rain. I spent all morning hiking in it and as I went to record the first section of the podcast later this afternoon, it began to thunder and rain again. I left it in. As I mentioned in the episode, my God is not subtle and I read the message. He’s trying to send me through the rain today. Loud and clear. Maybe you will too. Now onto the episode,
MU: 02:38 So I’m going to answer a question that I get pretty often on Instagram whenever I post a photo or a story of me hiking usually in the Utah mountains, but it could be anywhere. I always call going into the mountains and going on hikes church and I get a lot of questions from people asking why I refer to it as church and what that means me. So I want to set up the story I’m about to tell you with just an explanation of why I call the mountains church. I grew up Catholic. I did all of the CCD classes and first communion and confession all the way up through maybe when I was 16. I left the church after my parents could kind of no longer force me to go because I had a drivers license and a job and for other reasons that we don’t need to go into
MU: 03:27 in this particular podcast. I became pretty, um, resistant to the idea of organized religion. I railed against the idea which Catholicism kind of imparted upon me, that I was unqualified to have my own relationship with God. That the only way I could have a relationship with God is through an intermediary, an old white, straight man who was in the Catholic Church who shared God’s word with me and only through this intermediary would I be able to receive it. Now, I’ll add here that this was just my story about Catholicism. Given the way I was raised, a few experiences I had between the ages of 16 and 20 or 21 involving the church. This might not be your interpretation of Catholicism or your experience going to the church that you go to. So I’m certainly not saying that my story is the definition. I’m just sharing my view of the church based on what I experienced and observed from a very young age.
MU: 04:30 So what was interpreted by me given this context was that the only relationship that I could have with God was one developed and cultivated through the church. I did not like that. I didn’t like the idea and because I was at this point, I’m about to enter into my drug addiction and I had other stuff going on. Thinking about God just Kinda took a back seat. So I left the church, had no relationship with God. I wouldn’t have considered myself to have any spiritual practice whatsoever, even when I was in Rehab and had to go to NA meetings or AA meetings and talk about this idea of a higher power. It still never really like resonated or clicked with me because I had yet to do much work exploring my relationship with God. It wasn’t until maybe 2005 2006 that I started to think a little bit more about what this idea of God might look like for me.
MU: 05:26 I had been in recovery for five or six years, but I felt like, I don’t know, something was missing. I had relationships at the time that prompted me to revisit this idea of not necessarily God, but the universe, this sort of all encompassing energy that sort of guides and steers all of us that connects all of us. And through that exploration, I kind of redeveloped a relationship. I wouldn’t call it God at that point. I was really out by the idea of talking about God, but I would talk about the universe. I would talk about the energy or the current kind of pulling me or pushing me or dragging me into something at times. And that was really where my exploration began. I tried, we tried going to church here in Salt Lake City once I’d been to church, like the physical building a few times with my sister and her husband in San Diego.
MU: 06:22 They are Christian and very devout. And I enjoyed the experience. And as much as I always think it’s wonderful to hear people talk about their faith, but it didn’t really connect with me despite the fact that they were nondenominational Christian churches and they were very progressive, like there were rock bands and PowerPoint presentations, which I also thought was really weird. Growing up Catholic and then seeing like a Saturday night live skit played on a giant screen at church. I just thought that was bizarre, but regardless, there was something about like the uniformity of the worship that again, maybe it was just the, the Catholic kind of shackles. They still really bothered me. I just couldn’t quite get into the church scene. Fast forward to 2014 so there’s a long span in here where I was kind of poking around with the idea of God and spirituality, maybe toying with the idea of church Christianity.
MU: 07:17 I tried reading the Bible. It never really stuck or resonated with me, but in 2014 my son was one and my ex husband and I were already separated. That was a very difficult time in my life. I felt like I had completely lost myself. To this endless litany of compromises that two people make when you’re trying to save a relationship that was ultimately unsalvageable. There was a day here in Utah where I miraculously had an afternoon free, I think maybe his dad was watching the baby and I decided to go out for a hike. We moved to Utah specifically for the mountains, but I hadn’t really been super involved in the hiking scene here. I’d gone out once or twice, but wasn’t an avid hiker at the time. I decided to do this trail up in little cottonwood canyon where you go out to secret lake, it’s called and it’s only about a mile.
MU: 08:13 It’s a short, really kid-friendly trail, but that’s the one I picked. And then from secret lake I could see a peak and I looked up and I saw a little trail kind of heading up towards this peak above the lake and I thought, I feel good. I should go a little bit farther. So I took the trail up and it’s this trail that kind of comes up and over onto a ridge line. And when you get onto this ridge line, you can see over into the other canyon and it is so drop dead gorgeous. It took my breath away. I had never seen a view like this in my whole life and in that moment, for the first time in the middle of this incredibly stressful and difficult situation, the chatter in my head stopped. I experienced this sense of peace, this silence, this calm, this presence.
MU: 08:59 What could only be in my mind, God. And that in that moment is where I christened the mountains church. I communicated on that hike for the very first time with God and I feel like I had created this space to listen. And what it brought me was this sense of clarity and peace and comfort that was so strong I couldn’t ignore it. So that’s where church was born in that moment, on that hike, during that really difficult time, I went on to hike my little butt off. After that I, you couldn’t drag me out of the mountains. I hiked as much as I could, as often as I could. I started planning all of my vacations around hiking and every time I would go out into the mountains I would notice that for the first half hour or so of my hike we’re having a thunderstorm here.
MU: 09:52 I think it’s actually kind of nice. For the first half hour or so of my hike, my head would not stop chattering and like at this point in my life, my head was not saying very nice things to me, so it would just be the constant just voice, the negative voice that I wasn’t doing enough, I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t worthy enough, but after about a half an hour it would calm and it would still and I would feel at peace. I would feel grounded, I would feel connected. It would open up a channel for me to really think about my life and my stressors and how I could handle and process them better. It would provide me with the open kind of bandwidth just to think about other things in my life and not be so hyper focused on this divorce and business split and the situation that I was kind of stuck in at that time and when I got to my destination, whether it be a lake or a mountain top, I really felt like I was closer to God up there than I was on the ground.
MU: 10:51 There was something about being out in nature with the leaves and the green and the air and the sunshine and the sounds. I would never hike with music or listening to podcasts. I almost always hiked by myself. I still do. That’s like my most prized solo time and I use that time specifically to connect with Mother Nature and the universe and God. For a really long time, the mountains were the only place I was able to get my head to stop chattering and to be able to connect with God. So I hiked a lot. I felt like I needed, I craved that feeling of connectedness and faith and support that I’d got. So I spent a lot of time in the mountains, but with practice, the more time I spent in nature communicating to God, the more I was able to bring that connection back home with me and I would have moments when I was home just during a quiet moment at night.
MU: 11:46 I would have moments when I was with my son or I would purposely create moments where I would just be still, I guess you would call it prayer. I never really called it praying. I always just called it talking to God, but with the experience I had in the mountains, I was then able to bring that into every area of my life and because of that, now I feel like I talk to God all the time. We are super tight because of what I’ve learned in the mountains as church he is or she is depending on how I choose to refer, but just always there with me. That is why I call the mountains my church because that’s where I learned to talk to God and to receive him back much like you might worship in four walls with your community. I think you can worship anywhere.
MU: 12:37 I think that you can talk to God and he is super psyched to receive you absolutely anywhere you want to make that connection and if being in a particular place facilitates that connection for you, whether it’s the mountains or the beach or going for a run or playing with your kids, whatever that looks like. I think the important thing is that you’re out there talking and creating space to receive and whether you think it’s God or the universe, whether you think it’s some universal energy that connects us all, whether you’re a complete atheist, I still think this applies to you because in the silence and in the green spaces and in the sunshine and the Open Air Without the distraction, you’re more able to connect to yourself and even if that’s what you believe and even if you believe in yourself, in your intuition and your gut, in your ability to listen closely to your subconscious and the signals your body and your mind are sending you to lead you in the right direction.
MU: 13:41 I think nature is the perfect place to facilitate that kind of conversation. I’ll sometimes get pushback from people who say that me calling the mountains church is somehow blasphemous or somehow takes away from their church, which might be this giant marbles stained glass with an ordained priest and a set schedule. I could not disagree more. Again, I go back to this idea that I think we should all be so pleased when anybody is connecting to God and God I’m guaranteeing is super duper psyched whenever anyone wants to connect with him or her or whatever you want to refer to them as. So, you know, I guess I would say that your um, fear or anxiety around my definition of church doesn’t really say anything about me and I would invite you to ask yourself why the idea of someone worshiping in a way that’s just a little different than yours is threatening to you.
MU: 14:47 I get so much out of my time at Church and I’m not the only one. You are now sending me your photos of your time in church and sometimes that looks like a park. Sometimes it looks like the beach or a lake or a mountain or a Yoga Mat. And I’m always thrilled to hear you embracing the concept and the idea. I didn’t have a relationship with God for such a long time because it was stuck inside my head that I wasn’t qualified to define my own relationship with God and to create it exactly the way I wanted to and make it look the way that I wanted to. I wish someone had told me a long time ago, Hey Melissa, you can make this look any way you want. You can talk to God anywhere, anytime. Anyhow, you can listen anywhere, anytime. Anyhow, you can worship anywhere, anytime.
MU: 15:38 Anyhow, I wish someone had told me that. It took me a lot of years to discover it, but maybe by sharing what my idea of church is with you and all of the various ways that you could approach it based on exactly what you choose to believe and what you want to get out of the relationship with whatever you want to call it might be the thing that you’ve been missing and helping you explore your own version of spirituality or connectedness, whether it’s with God or the universe or mother nature or your fellow humans or just with yourself.
MU: 16:18 So the second part of this episode today I’m going to do something a little bit different. I’m going to tell you a story kind of like I would on Instagram, but without the character limitations. My ego just got back from a 10 and a half mile hike. You could call it church maybe, but it felt more like me being in a fight with the universe and spoiler, I lost because that’s what happens every time I fight with the universe. Back in June I was really struggling with I guess life in general. I was feeling really overwhelmed with work stuff with post-concussion stuff, relationships, my physical fitness. There’s no area of my life that didn’t feel unsettled and topsy turvy after a weekend at Revitalize the retreat with Mindbodygreen, particularly a conversation I had with my friend Kelsey Patel, I was talking to her about how I was feeling really overwhelmed and I had these like stressful things coming up and I didn’t know how I was gonna balance or handle it all.
MU: 17:23 And she looked at me and she said, have you tried giving it up to God? And I immediately thought, oh, of course, because no I hadn’t. And I know from past experience that when I wrestle with God or the universe or my intuition or my gut, whatever force you feel like is leading you towards your highest self and towards growth. Whenever I fight with that force, I experience a lot of pain. Things feel harder than they should. They feel more chaotic than they should. I feel more powerless than I should. This is an experience I’ve had many times. So I feel like I should have recognized it. So during our conversation I thought about why I was kind of continuing to wrestle for control with the universe. And she sent me some Reiki while we were talking and I came home recommitted to giving this up to God.
MU: 18:23 And what I mean by that is just sometimes I feel like there are things in my life that are so big and unknown and scary or anxiety provoking or just so complicated or difficult that I don’t know how to handle it by myself. And I have a lot of faith in God and the universe and Mother Nature, which I will use interchangeably to steer me towards what is in my best interest. So over the course of the first few meditation sessions I had when I got back home, I made a conscious, deliberate pitch to God and said, I’m feeling really overwhelmed. I need help with this. I am going to release this to you, to my spirit guides, to the universe. Help me move my ego out of the way and act in a way that serves my highest self. And after I did that, I felt an enormous sense of peace and relief that lasted for about a month.
MU: 19:22 Everything just felt easier. My schedule hadn’t changed. The issues hadn’t changed. Like nothing was different except that I felt like I had some backup in how I was choosing to handle this and that made a huge difference. I felt so much more centered and grounded and capable and empowered and at peace, but like with many commitments, if you don’t continue to revisit them and recommit to them and remind yourself of why you made the promise in the first place, they can start to kind of trail off. And recently I’ve felt like that giving it up to God has trailed off. I tend to want to just wrestle control back from the universe as much as possible despite knowing that in the past that only leads to pain and suffering. I still try to do it from time to time and I’ve really been feeling like that lately.
MU: 20:15 And last night in particular, I just, I had a really difficult night where I felt like something had to give. And so I decided this morning that I would wake up very early and go to church. I would go to my mountains by myself and I would hike because that’s where I feel the most centered and grounded. That’s where the chatter in my head stops. That’s where I feel like I can connect to mother nature and the universe the easiest. And I thought this is a great opportunity for me to center myself and come back. But I woke up this morning, I got a text as I was prepping in the morning from Brandon saying, hey, it’s kind of raining. Does that change your plans? And I thought, well, I can handle, you know, a little bit of rain. I looked at the weather, it looked like it was in the valley, at least gonna stop raining by about 8:00 AM and it was only about 6:30 so I thought, no, I’ll be fine.
MU: 21:03 I’ll go, I’ll be fine. So I get started on this hike, which is a 10 and a half mile hike. It’s not raining until I get maybe a mile in. And then it starts raining pretty hard. And I thought, okay, I’ve got my, not my shell shell, but I’ve got my like windbreaker. Um, this is, you know, it’s like a long trail, but it’s supposed to stop raining pretty early. I’ll just keep going. So I kept going about, I would say two miles in it started to pour like downpour and I thought this is kind of a sign I should turn around and go back because, um, I’m not going to enjoy this hike and they’re, you know, being super wet on a 10 mile trail. And the temperature also was like 20 degrees chillier than it was when I was in the valley.
MU: 21:50 So I was slightly under prepared, which is not like me, but I had shorts on. I only had this light windbreaker. I had one more layer in my bag, but I didn’t want to pull it out cause I didn’t want it to get wet. I thought I should turn around and go back. And this is where I started to like fight with the universe. I thought to myself, no. I said I was going to hike and I’m going to hike and like this is where my intention of going to church, which involves self love and compassion for the self and grace and a willingness to not just talk to the universe but allow space to listen. This is where all of that went out the door. I was like, nope. I said I was going to hike so I’m going to hike. So I keep going.
MU: 22:33 It starts raining harder and harder, like two, three miles in. It’s super muddy. The trail is really rocky so it’s wet. I’m not happy, I’m soaking wet, I’m starting to get really cold. My fingers are like, I tried to pull my phone out to take a picture at one point cause it was pretty though it was raining and my fingers were not cooperating. They were so cold and frozen that like I couldn’t get my phone to work. So I thought okay. But I kept going. Now I had not seen anybody on this trail except for one person who I happen to know. So on the way up, my friend from the gym passed me. I was like, oh my gosh, hey. She’s like someone that we talk about going hiking together often. And she was like, Hey, I just thought I’d come out for this hike.
MU: 23:17 I almost texted you last night. And I was like, yeah, I was going to do a different hike, but it’s raining. So I picked this one. She was hiking faster than me, so she kinda kept going about a mile and a half from the lake. So this is like three and a half miles into this hike. I see her coming back towards me and it was like too soon for her to have gone to the lake and come all the way back. So I was like, Hey, what’s going? You know, are you done? And she goes, yeah. She’s like, I’m freezing cold. It’s pouring rain. There’s a lot of water rushing up there. Like it just feels like I turn around and go back. This was another side. The only person I had seen on the trail happened to be someone I know and happened to be someone who was turning around hiking back.
MU: 23:54 I could have hiked back with her and had like a really nice, pleasant journey back, but now I’m in a fight with the universe so it’s pouring rain. I’m soaking wet, I’m unprepared. I get an invitation to hike back down the trail with someone I know and like greatly, but did I turn around? Nope. Instead I kept going. Hand to God, not more than like 30 seconds after I left her to go up the trail I hear a giant boom of thunder and a crack of lightning. My God is not subtle. He is like as east coast as they come. Very, very direct. So I get this thunder and lightning and I’m thinking to myself, you should really turn around. This is no longer a like I can toughen the conditions. This is a safety issue. You should not be on a mountain in a thunderstorm.
MU: 24:43 It’s like not a good place to be, but now this feels personal like I am in a pissing contest with God right now and I am not going to back down. It’s, it felt like one of those moments where God was like, really? Do you want to be in control in this moment and I should have just taken the out and said, cool. I hear you loud and clear. I’m going to like check myself and go back down this hill and take this lesson for what it is, which is a gift and recommit to giving this up to you to letting go of control to restoring my faith and seeing this as like a really powerful example of how connecting with the universe serves me in every area of my life. That’s what I should have done. Did I do that? No. I kept going.
MU: 25:31 I have another mile and a half to go. It gets really steep and then it gets wide open. You kind of come around the corner and you’re on this ridge line over this giant bowl, which is gorgeous, but it gets really windy, so I’m in this really thin windbreaker that normally blocks wind pretty well, but it’s now soaked all the way through. My underlayer is totally soaked. My shorts are totally soaked. My shoes are muddy and soaked and now I have this giant blast of cold air coming right through me. I am shivering at this point, but I only have like another maybe half mile to go and I’m going to fight with the universe. So let’s keep going. So I trek on, I get around and then you end up like, I can see the lake, but you have to go down quite a bit to get to the lake.
MU: 26:16 So I get down to the lake, I’m like, okay, I’m here except I can’t enjoy any of it. It started raining again. So now it’s pouring at this lake. It’s still windy. I am breezing cold and as soon as I stop moving, I can’t feel like my hands, my legs are bright red, I’m shivering uncontrollably. And as I start I’m like, okay, well I’m here. I’ll at least go down and take a picture. As I start walking down towards the lake, I realized that it is a field of mud. So everywhere I step, if I’m not on a boulder, I am sinking my shoes into like mud. I am no longer having fun except again I’m in a fight with God. So like now I kinda don’t know whether I want to laugh or cry. I more wanted to cry because mostly I knew that I had another five miles to just get back to my car.
MU: 27:06 So I get to like, I snap like two quick pictures with my frozen claw hands and I start the hike back up. I get back up to the ridge line and I stopped to take one more picture and I look at my phone and my battery’s completely dead. I don’t know how in the span of like 40 minutes, my battery went from fine to completely dead, but my phone is dead. There’s nothing else I can do. And I thought, well played God well played no photos for Instagram. Okay, now I just want to get back down to the bottom of the mountain. This is not restorative. This is not church. This is not me talking to God. This is like me pitching the biggest temper tantrum. I can find ignoring every signal that the universe is sending me to just like stop and surrender. And give up control in this moment and say that there are some things that are just bigger than me, but do I know.
MU: 28:05 So I hiked down the mountain as fast as I can at this point because I am so cold. I pass a c like one or two people on the way up. I’ve asked one guy at one point he looked at me and he was like, are you okay? And I was like, I’m very cold. So I hiked down the mountain as fast as they can. My legs are so cold at this point that I, and it’s a very rocky trail that I’m like tripping and stumbling. At one point I twisted my ankle, like I’ve lost all sense of shore footedness I think at this point because I’m a little bit scared and a little bit panicked and like definitely on the verge of tears and also colder than I’ve ever been in my life. So I hiked down the trail. I’m at the kind of fork where I know there’s less than a mile to go and it starts to hail.
MU: 28:48 It was like just one last little, I dunno, I can sense, I can like hear the universe chuckling at this point. Like, okay, you got back to your car, but how’s that working for you Melissa? How did this work for you? And that’s how I feel through the whole like entire course of this hike. It wasn’t a vengeful God, it wasn’t a petty God. It was like a very parental question to me every step of the way. How’s this working out for you, Melissa? And I gotta tell you by the time I got to my car, I opened the car, I could barely get my backpack off cause my hands were so numb and I just burst into tears. Um, and then I cranked the heat and shivered 45 minutes until I got home and got into a hot shower. And that is literally where I’m talking to you from right now is just fresh out of the shower finally, no longer shivering, wanting to get the story down before I forgot the details, but more important before I forgot how it made me feel.
MU: 29:55 I’ve been to church once since I moved to Salt Lake City 10 years ago. A physical church with a building and a pastor, but I will never forget the sermon that that pastor gave that day. I think it’s called a sermon. Even if you’re not Catholic, right? It was a nondenominational church. During the sermon, the pastor said, we feel like we are moving away from God. We are pushing God away. We are rejecting him. We’re not listening to him. We don’t want to hear what God has to say. We want to like handle it ourselves and we feel like we’re moving further and further away. But any time you are ready to turn around and reconnect with God, you will find he is always right there. And that’s stayed with me because whether you’re talking about God or your spirit guides or the universe or mother nature or you’re just talking about yourself, I think we all feel like there is something in us that guides us to make the right decision to live in our integrity, to move forward into growth.
MU: 31:07 And there will be times where we push that away. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to hear it. I’m not ready for it, but the more we push that away, that intuition, that gut sense, that sensation that like the universe has moving us towards something for our highest self, the more we push that away, the more painful it becomes. It provokes this sense of real like physical, tangible anxiety or unease or discomfort, but still we feel like we want to remain in control. We feel like we’re not ready for that message. We feel like we can handle things all by ourselves and yet eventually I find there comes a breaking point, a moment where I think to myself, this is untenable and I need to go back to my faith because my faith is what holds me up. It is what guides me and it is what serves me and I find it so incredibly comforting to think that in that moment when I am ready, all I have to do is turn around.
Thanks for listening!
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Do the Thing is part of ‘The Onward Project,’ a family of podcasts brought together by Gretchen Rubin—all about how to make your life better. Check out the other Onward Project podcasts– Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Side Hustle School, and Happier in Hollywood.
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