Friday, April 22, 2016

Nature Is Not a Panacea

Nature in her green tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions.
~ John Muir

The wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much [time] 
in the air can corrode it to nothing.
~ Helen Macdonald

Gold Hill, Taos, NM. Photo Alan Ellis
Summer 1996, Taos, New Mexico. I’m hiking down toward the trailhead after topping out on 12,700-foot Gold Hill, a quiet peak up near the ski valley.
It’s the home stretch of a hard trek up one side of a mountain and down the other, with a dreamlike siesta in the middle consisting of oxygen-thin skies, dazzling sunlight, and snow-capped, alpine peaks stretching in every direction. I was high as a kite up at the top; now I’m cranky. 

I know that, after a whole day immersed in the wild, getting into the truck and driving it on man-made roads is going to feel really awkward. The thought of rejoining civilization, with its disconnected people, to-do lists, and concrete walls makes me sad and angry,

I don’t want to be cranky. I want to preserve the airy clarity from the peak and the simplicity of having everything I need on my back and in my legs. Being cranky instead makes me even more grouchy.

I’ve had this home-stretch feeling a hundred other times. At the end of day-long bike rides, exhausted but elated, I squeeze in an extra couple miles, ‘cause i just can’t stand the prospect of going inside a building--even my own house. At the end of exotic trips, when it’s time to start thinking about the airport and departure times. 

I always feel like an eight-year-old made to come in the house before dark. “But… there’s so much more fun still out here!”

In my late teens, I read a John Muir collection cover to cover and back again, and felt the mountains calling me just as certainly as he did. He seemed like a long-lost relative. I used his words and example for decades to come. I heeded the call, looking for wholeness. But over and over, there was the disappointment of returning to society. 

Getting away from it all became an addiction. We all know the signs: time online gazing enviously at photos of others’ scenic trips. Time spent fantasizing about our own next epic. Closets full of expensive gear, contrasted with an old and rickety car or truck (that still gets us to the trailhead every time).

It’s only now, in my 52nd year, that it’s dawning on me that what I repeatedly left my house in search of has been inside me all along. I know; it’s a cliché: “The only Zen you find on the top of a mountain is the Zen you bring there.” But clichés become cliché because they have truth in them. Sitting in meditation every morning these days, making gains in knowing my true self, I realize I never felt anything in nature that wasn’t in me all along.

My meditation teacher is very wise in the ways of the heart and of life. But he’s just a guy; he’s not a Big Name on the Mindfulness Scene. I’m glad for that; he doesn’t care to be the authority. Instead, he wants me to come into my own peace and fullness. 

Can you imagine meeting someone who went beyond craving and knowing the wild inside out, in every minute detail? Someone who actually, fully embodied the goodness of nature, exuded it from the inside out? Do you think that person would say, “You just gotta quit your job and do that year in the wild you’ve always wanted”? 

I don’t.

My bet is, that person would be fully invested in making sure that, the next time I came back from nature, I brought home more connection with my own true nature. It’s a gift that might be more easily accessed in the woods, but that can be applied anywhere… and everywhere.

So, whether it’s a day-hike or a week in the mountains, don’t go just for relief. Respite is a beautiful part of life, but it’s only the pause in the music score before the next bar, and the one after that.

Let nature teach you your true nature. Then, when you’re not there, you can still feel your own goodness. You won’t have to spend every hour scheming to get back out there. And you won’t have to feel out of place everywhere except a hundred miles from nowhere.

And, on your next outing, maybe you can show nature a trick or two about beingness. 

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