Ilana Kaufman on her recent walk from La Jolla to Mexico (Photo/Ilana Kaufman)
Ilana Kaufman on her recent walk from La Jolla to Mexico (Photo/Ilana Kaufman)

Lessons in mindfulness and leadership on the walk from La Jolla to Mexico

I am passionate about my work in Jewish community relations, with Jewish philanthropic organizations and advancing social justice. My work advocating for Jews of color is in an emerging professional field. In addition I am among a micro-community of non-white Jewish communal professionals. As might be expected, I often find myself in unfamiliar professional territory, and without many professional colleagues whom I can call kin.

This makes my professional context rich, complex, and sometimes isolated. And although I still have some rough edges, I am working on being even more effective at all that I do.

I want to see unanticipated challenges with clarity and in multiple dimensions. I want to navigate new and unknown environments with a light foot and grace. I want to become an even more skilled strategist and decision maker. This is the time to push myself, hard, to become truly excellent.

Excellence requires learning how to quiet my mind, how to slow down, and not metaphorically. I am literally learning to stop moving so fast. How to rest. How to still my spirit. Learning to deeply breathe. Practicing more intentional engagement with gratitude and love. Moving through obstacles and walls with deftness and ease.

To accomplish these goals I very seriously considered a yoga retreat. Seemed too quiet. Too indoors. I have no swagger in tights. I looked at a leaders training at the National Outdoor Leadership School. While I loved the idea of backpacking because it’s sort of like walking, which is my hobby, I’ve never been the type to sleep on the ground and pee in the woods — not by choice, anyway.

And then I found Walkabout California, and decided on a five-day hike from La Jolla to the Mexico border. I built mindfulness components, spiritual activities and reflection on leadership themes into what were supposed to be daily six-to-nine-mile hikes.

(Photo/Ilana Kaufman)
(Photo/Ilana Kaufman)

Day One was not a success. I was cavalier in my approach, more interested in making sure I had coffee than accurately reading the tide tables. An hour into my first hike, like a rookie I turned my back to the ocean. I spent the next several hours hiking in wet shorts, waterlogged shoes, and a damp spirit. The only good decision made on Day One was to change it all up for Day Two.

Wake. Thank God I’m alive. Assume the mileage is 25 percent longer than what my guidebook says. Plan and prep. Organize my backpack and daily supplies. Eat a little. Drink water. Stop everything. Practice my mindfulness activity. Hike. Drink more water. Hike more. Eat more. Rest. Hike. Stop. Stretch. Eat. Drink. Sleep. Do it all over again. By the end of Day Three, I was 35 miles into my hike.

Day Four, I woke up tired and sore. My hips hurt. The ball of my left foot was tender. My shoulder blades were irritated. I had a headache. I was not looking forward to the journey’s longest stretch, a four-mile section along beach and sand dunes. I was slow. Cranky. And one point I let a whimper escape my lips. I hit my wall. And in response I did not try to push through. I let myself rest. I had a snack, and just sat there looking left to the bay, and right to the ocean. Until that moment, I can’t recall the last time I just sat down to rest.

Maybe it was the snack and sand dune sitting. Or maybe it was the realization that even without having yet arrived at my destination I had accomplished something important. For whatever reason, everything was a little easier and hurt a little less between miles seven and 11. And three pollo asado street tacos, one can of Diet Coke and an hour after arriving at Imperial Beach, I was off again, hiking the final three miles down the beach south of Seacoast Drive en route to my ultimate destination — the Tijuana River, with homes and neighbors literally just across the water.

It took four days of solo-hiking 52 unknown-to-me miles with a 29-pound backpack through dozens of towns and cities, down scores of trails, dunes, streets and pathways to move me beyond my walls.

Not being planful, focusing on habits over priorities, putting Peet’s Coffee ahead of the tides of the Pacific Ocean were among terrible decisions and consequential mistakes made during my journey. I also made some new-to-me and at times very strong moves. I learned to hear myself.   To slow down and rest. To confidently and successfully move through the complex and unknown. And I knew that the next day I’d finish my hike from La Jolla to the border.

But the goal was not to finish at any cost, in any form. The goal, like with my work and leadership, was to finish with excellence.

Ilana Kaufman
Ilana Kaufman

Ilana Kaufman is the director of the Jews of Color Initiative. She is a Schusterman senior fellow, public speaker, occasional author, strategic designer and problem solver. Ilana works with Jewish organizations and philanthropic entities navigating the intersection of Jewish community, Jewish identity and racial justice.