Immense. Expansive. Transformational.

A few months ago can feel like a lifetime. Settled into a shrine room with sixty other humans to sit in silence for a week. Then comes life. The hassles. The hustle. The micro and macro dramas come up. While we can’t cling to the past we can find a way to connect to the essence of that moment as it repeats itself everyday, now a composite part of our living breathing self. We can make a moment to touch the earth, find that ground and acknowledge our basic goodness. This photo reminds me of my basic goodness, reminds me that in the chaos of the transient life that I am still worthy of my seat. It reminds me to wake up, sit like a mountain, and stay open.

The Wilderness is Not Your Happy Place

What determines our happiness? A sunny day? A good meal? The warm embrace of a close friend? What if I challenged your notion of happiness? What if I told you that allowing the weather, the quality of a meal, or the presence of a friend to control your happiness is a bad habit you should probably break?

Society has this catch phrase I dislike immensely: “Go to your happy place.” When life gets tough, and anxiety increases, just bliss out. Escape. Numb the pain. Just go to your happy place. For many of us we take “mental health days” from work, which see us on mountain tops, jacked up on endorphins, crunching on power bars, running ridges, tackling killer class III rapids, and striking yoga poses on the precipice of infinity.

For many years the wilderness was my happy place. When life conditions got tough and I couldn’t deal the wilderness was there for me. A vast, open green space where I could go lose myself. The problem with this practice was that I always had to come back to my so-called regular life. I had to return to society and inevitably the mirror was always waiting.

One day I woke up and realized I had it all wrong. It took several karmic kicks to the head to hit this point. After slamming myself into a series of metaphorical brick walls I realized what a poor practice this was. “A bad day outside is better than the best day inside”, I’d say with the cocky confidence only the baddest of bad asses can deliver. And I meant it. I could endure whipping winds and driving cold rains in the worst conditions, but I couldn’t deal with the demons inside my mind. I couldn’t deal with the attitudes and wrong perceptions that built resentment in my relationships. The cycle of suffering seemed unending. This mindset created division in my life. Office/home life = shit. Mountain life = utopia. But what about the 75% of my life that I wasn’t on a mountain, or running a river? Whether I knew it or not I was solidly defining the majority of my life as “down time,” creating a spiraling state of depression and suffering. The more I grasped at an idealistic concept of a relationship, or work setting, or home life the more depressed and angry I became. “I can’t be outside, so this moment sucks.” Whoa. Slow down there, son.

One of my teachers, a Tibetan monk and Buddhist teacher named Chögyam Trungpa, would call this habit of running to our happy place a poor practice for living. Any time we place our happiness in external conditions we eliminate a world of possibility. Further, we deny the reality of the moment as it exists before us. We cease to work with our mind in the present moment, and instead escape to a reality that doesn’t exist. We attempt to skirt and escape the emotions that define our life, rather than working mindfully with them.

Or, as Henry Rollins tells us – “There’s no such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time, all you got is life time. Go!”

When we experience that fight or flight response, and choose to run to our happy place what we’re really saying is that “I don’t want to feel the things I’m feeling right now. I don’t want to have this experience.” Just noticing and acknowledging that desire to escape is the first step of waking up, but guess what? This experience that you don’t want is part of your life, and it’s a part of living. Choosing not to face these emotions doesn’t make them go away. Bravery and courage is found in allowing ourselves to experience these moments fully, embracing the things that we might not like about ourselves, and allowing ourselves to look deeply inside.

When we choose escapism over a mindful approach we place our happiness in the hands of flimsy conditions that change moment to moment. This practice creates more confusion rather than clarity. It also shifts the responsibility for our mental state of mind onto other people, and objects. We are responsible for our mind. No one else. The day isn’t bad because it’s rainy. The day isn’t bad because my boss is upset. The day isn’t even bad because I experienced a sad moment. It was simply a sad moment, a rainy day, and an irritated boss. And like all things, these moments pass.

Instead, through sitting meditation, and mindfulness, we can work to address the underlying causes of our anger, or anxiety. By avoiding these perceived negative emotions, we set ourselves up to encounter them again, and again. We cannot run away from ourselves, no matter how achingly those mountains are calling. Sometimes we must simply sit, and not go.

Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that happiness is here, now. We experience it by touching the present moment, removed of our projections, removed from the narratives our minds create, removed of our imposed ideas of what things should be rather than what they are. Slowly we move to see things and experience events simply as they are, as fundamentally okay, freed from our preconceptions. In this practice is the source of true happiness and contentment. Otherwise, we miss the opportunity to truly live every moment of our lives, here and now.

Photo credit: Stefan Thaler

A Moment to Pause

monadnock-pond

Slowing Down Reminds of Us of Our Responsibility in Nature and to Those Around Us

I was raised in the Shunock River watershed of coastal Connecticut before moving to mid- coast Maine in my teens, eventually settling in the Monadnock region during my late twenties, where I’ve now lived for over a decade. No matter where I’ve lived, my life has been defined by a deep connection to nature and the acknowledgement that I am as much a part of the natural landscape as the forests, rivers and wildlife.

North Stonington in Connecticut, where I spent my childhood, used to be a small town, not unlike many towns in the Monadnock region. With the construction of a major casino a few miles from my home, the landscape was altered dramatically. Farms turned into strip malls. Acres of forest, where we would play, hike and camp, were cleared for condos and housing developments. An influx of people, anxious for new jobs, changed the culture of the place as much as the new construction changed the physical face of the place. This was the first major realization of how much we humans make a significant impact, and that we are part of the natural landscape, even as unnatural as some of our actions seem. It also drove home the idea that when we conserve land we not only protect it from future development, but we also ensure our culture and communities remain intact. By conserving and preserving the natural landscape, we preserve and sustain ourselves.

Traveling Route 124 from Jaffrey to Marlborough, one moves along curvy winding roads with an array of stunning scenery of Mount Monadnock and the surrounding region. But at 50 miles per hour, one misses far more than he or she sees. Conservation brings us to a place of slowing down, of seeing the unseen, of understanding our connection to the land more deeply. When we hike the many trails of this region we are presented with the opportunity to slow down, to engage with the environment beyond having a simple destination in mind. Each step is grounded in the present. We focus on the now and the reality that is in front of us. In my time as a volunteer trail steward for the Monadnock Conservancy, it didn’t take long to start appreciating this region on a more profound level.

What became apparent was that when I go out into the forest, whether to camp, hike or to work on trails, I don’t do it to disconnect or “get away from the world.” Conversely, I do it to reconnect and plug in to what really matters. Life fills us with distractions from the truth that we are as much a part of nature as the deer, fox and ancient oaks. We are all made of the same stuff, the same biological matter. When my hands are rooted in the earth, moving stone for a step or grubbing out a new trail, I’m connecting with my past, present and future.

Conservation allows me to see the land and space around me as sacred, whether I’m in a village center, an open field or a young forest still maturing. It allows me to connect to my natural self, my wild mind, and reminds me of my obligations not only to the land, but also to the community and to the future. Through the practice of conservation we take a moment to pause, to stop living consumptively and to feed the element that is feeding us, acknowledging with mindfulness our reciprocal responsibility in nature and to those around us.

Originally Published in the Monadnock Conservancy Quarterly Newsletter, Spring 2014