“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ―John Muir
As the demands of 21st century life compel people to operate at higher speeds while pulling us in more different directions, we are rendered increasingly susceptible to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. The imperatives of multi-tasking lead most people to drift further away from conscious contact with the present moment and in turn, from the experience of feeling centered/grounded.
While a daily practice of sitting meditation is an ideal method to reduce stress and facilitate inner calm, along with mindful present-centeredness, greater comfort in one’s own skin, and conscious connection with that beyond our burgeoning “to do” lists, there are others ways to get to “that place.” In fact, there are certain places—in the literal, geographic sense—that are portals to the experience of present-centeredness. They have the ability to transport us to a keen awareness of the here and now, capturing our conscious attention, and anchoring us in the moment.
Like many people, I have special places in my heart for the ocean and the mountains—awe-inspiring environments whose immensity and grandeur hypnotizes and humbles, catalyzing conscious awareness of that which is beyond oneself. I adore the beach and the ocean, but increasingly the mountains are where I find my place and my peace (the fact that I live 300 miles from the nearest ocean is probably coincidental). In the mountain wilderness, the mental and spiritual separation between me and the rest of nature dissolves. Hiking becomes a walking meditation, gently but firmly holding my attention as my perspective oscillates between the big-picture panorama of wide canyons extending between sloping ridgelines and angular peaks, and the immediacy of where to place my foot on the very next step on the trail—allowing me to see both the forest and its trees.
The usual cascade of automatic thoughts with its gravitational pull toward the past or the future slows and fades, leaving only presence. For long moments, as all else disappears, I may be aware of nothing more than the muted kaleidoscope of colors embedded in boulders of granite, the well-defined striations in walls of red rock sandstone or white limestone, the rough-hewn charcoal-gray bark of a Douglas Fir, the flaky light-brown-amber trunk of a Ponderosa Pine, or the gnarled corkscrew branches of Bristlecone Pines that live to up to 4,000 years and grow above 9,000 feet in the mountains of southern Nevada, where I hike often. It is the necessary treatment for my recurring, as Timothy Egan of the New York Times has characterized it, “nature deficit disorder.”
John Muir, the legendary naturalist who cofounded the Sierra Club 122 years ago this month expressed it best: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” “Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.” Beauty beyond thought.
In the wilderness, part of us that remains dormant much of the time awakens and reanimates. We slough off layers of psycho-spiritual detritus and become renewed. When we connect with nature, we re-connect—both consciously and unconsciously—with ourselves and expand our capacity to connect with others and the world through a deeper awareness of the commonalities that link us all together. The therapeutic value of such experiences is not to be underestimated.
Of course, accessing these environments requires a degree of exertion and physical capability. For many people, physical capability is a fluid entity, shifting from day-to-day, and even moment-to-moment. Importantly, it is possible to learn to be mindfully attuned to it and make adjustments in schedule and participation in specific activities as necessary based on the signals one’s body sends. Those with chronic pain can develop the skills to balance pushing themselves to walk (or hike as it were) through their initial anxiety, fear, and physical discomfort while honoring their realistic limitations. This balance often includes making certain concessions. For instance, I use a trekking pole to provide additional stability and shock absorption. I hike at a steady and deliberate, but generally slow pace, and give myself the flexibility of taking breaks at intervals consistent with the grade of the trail, the elevation, and my physical status.
A balanced approach to growth and recovery from whatever challenges confront us involves pushing oneself . . . up to a point. As one’s awareness and skills grow, identifying where that point lies and how best to respect it becomes just another facet of negotiating a demanding yet exhilarating trail.
Copyright 2014 Dan Mager, MSW
Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain