“John Burroughs once said that if you were to sit under an oak tree for an entire day, you would have enough information to write an entire book.”
-Tom Brown, Jr.
Swimming has always been one of my favorite warm weather activities. Even as a child, I woke up early every summer day, when I could have been sleeping in, to catch a ride to the community pool for swim team practice. And while I am well aware there were many layers to this elemental fascination, I believe that I have always been enthralled by how differently both the body and the mind feel in the water. I always loved to put on goggles and imagined that I could breathe under water, holding my breath for as long as my little lungs would allow while I dabbled in underwater existence. My imagination ran wild in our family pool, while I pretended the vacuum hose was an Amazonian snake that I had to contend with as I braved my way through “the jungle” on my alligator raft. I cherished moments with friends, splashing around with our legs bound together like mermaids, gliding gracefully with a lightness known only by a body submerged in water. To this day, my body still holds memory of the hunger that would surface inside of me after hours of play – lunch being the only thing that could lure me from the water once I was in. And while the wild and carefree nature of these experiences is most instinctually linked to the innocence and unadulterated days of youth, I believe that the healing qualities of water most certainly played a noteworthy role in my joyful experiences…Now if only I could access the threads of my childhood imagination on demand!
Yesterday, as I soaked up the sun along the St. Croix River on a humid mid-summer day, I took my sweet time entering the water. I was unsure. As an adult, there are no guidelines as to how I should interact with my favorite bodies of water – no set ways in which I am expected to commune with my surroundings. It’s like each time I go swimming, I have a choice…a choice about how to indulge the most youthful of instincts. A choice about how to play, how to relax, how to cleanse and so on and so on. Sometimes, I linger on the water’s edge for so long, that I lose daylight and never actually enter…a phenomenon that begs no explanation or affirmation. Other times, I am exhilarated by the icy baptisms of mountain lakes or the inland sea of Lake Superior, an enlivening feeling that may last hours, days or even weeks, depending, I assume, on what I need to heal and nourish my terrestrial existence at the time. As I lapped my way back and forth between the beach and a small peninsula on the St. Croix, I became fascinated by my initial hesitation. Why had it taken me so long to enter when I clearly derive so much joy from the experience? Then it hit me. The last time I had been on that same beach, the waters were still icy from the spring thaw and I had waited so long that the long shadows of the water-loving black willow and ash trees had already been cast. My last swim had been right around my birthday, mid-May, and apparently the experience of cold and discomfort from that day left a lasting impression. My mind remembered and told my body to proceed with caution, the result of carrying the past right along with me into the present moment. Sound familiar?
And while I understand that the hesitation I describe above may be directly related to the same instincts that have kept me safe over the years, and may just be composed of the same substance as our most basic of evolutionary instincts, I would like to practice a bit of discernment here. Bear with me. From a very young age, we all have crucial life lessons to learn: fire is hot, some animals are unpredictable, some plants are unsafe and no matter how hard we try, we simply cannot fly. We all had lessons to learn, of varying degrees of difficulty, so that we could fully come into what it means to be a human on Planet Earth. Chances are, most of us had to get burned, to fall, to get lost at least a time or two before we could fully integrate these insights. So one might easily argue that our concerns, our hesitancy, and the caution in our days serves a much higher purpose for our survival. However…I recently read that the stress response of an American who missed their commuter bus may not be that unlike the stress response of someone being chased by a lion in a more primitive living situation. And while I certainly don’t speak for everyone living in American culture, from all the various walks of life here, I suspect that most of us have very little use for the same instincts that, at one point in time, used to keep us from being eaten, trampled or stranded forever in isolation. Most of us are responsible for our survival in a much more subtle and complex manner, relying much less on our immediate surroundings for our well-being and continuance. Yet, our body’s survival instincts remain. The communication that has evolved between our eyes and our brain and all our other systems, remains intact and beautifully complex. Perhaps these systems must remain heightened in preparation for what future generations will face. Or perhaps we are just now coming into a time where we can scientifically study and share information about these instincts, though they have always taken ages to adapt and shift, and will likely continue to do so in our ever-changing social and ecological environments.
So, if I may flush out this swimming metaphor just a bit further, let’s take a look at the other side of my experience. Does my joyful experience in the water this week mean that I will automatically derive equal or greater joy the next time I swim? Sounds silly when I say it like that, in such sterile scientific terms…but what we are really talking about here is expectation. Both conscious and unconscious. Preconceived notions. If a cold and uncomfortable swim stuck with me in a way that was so consequential, it seems safe to assume that a positive experience will be just as effective. So which instinct will prove more enduring? Which will be most persuasive in guiding my future actions…and does it really matter? Well, there is a loud voice inside me that I will assign to my inner meditation student that would like to believe that I may still have pure experiences in nature, experience that neither affirm or negate the past, but rather stand alone. I mean, what is a “pure experience” anyway? And how does one go about achieving such a thing? In my studies of meditation and Eastern traditions, we talk a lot about how human suffering may be linked to a seemingly constant state of both craving and aversion, specifically due to the infinite and insatiable nature of each of these. We crave more of what we like – directly related to previous experiences no doubt – and we have aversion to that which we don’t – along the same line of reasoning.
Meditation asks us to focus on what is right now, the actual of this moment, to minimize being pulled all over energetically (meant to encompass the physical, mental and emotional here) by our likes and dislikes. Does this mean we should aspire not to have opinions, memories, or judgments? Nope. Of course not. That is simply not a reality. Trust me. In my experience, those things can only be shoved back so far into a dark closet. Rather, meditation asks us to be more aware of how energy moves around our experiences, to acknowledge what comes up, without being drug all over the place smashing into uncontrollable reaction. For example, I live in close proximity with what seems to be a hundred different types of spiders. The stonework around my home is decorated with endless webbing, and all of my plants are interwoven with their handiwork. While, in my mind, I love these magical little creatures, they have always been an unexpected cause of fright for me. When I am not expecting to see one, my reaction can be a bit startling and overdramatic – and at times, has absolutely resulted in untimely and unnecessary death for the spiders. Okay, so I recognize this, now what? What I aspire to is to encounter my arachnid friends without so much fear, to be able to welcome them into my experience calmly, so that I may practice any necessary judgment from that same place. Take a deep breath. Are you okay? Can I co-exist? If not, can I simply relocate my new friend back to a place I am more comfortable with? I want to be able to do that – I want to be able to make those decisions consciously. So how do I get there? Well, I’m no expert on presence of mind (just ask anyone who knows me!), but that is certainly one of the main reasons I meditate regularly. It’s so simple. By choosing to sit quietly in meditation, with no agenda in place, we can watch our thoughts come and go, notice our cravings and aversions rise and pass away. We can literally re-train the brain’s synapses, creating new pathways of reaction, and disrupting the auto-pilot mode so many of us operate in throughout our days. It does not mean I will suddenly be unafraid of spiders, but it can certainly mean that I notice my reaction before it takes a hold of me and lends to unconscious reaction. So I aspire.
I would like to take a moment to clarify that when I talk about meditation in my blog posts, I certainly don’t expect readers to drop everything and begin sitting in lotus pose for 2 hours a day. As a matter of fact, there are days where my bottom never finds the cushion. After all, our lives are often full, just as we like them, and summertime offers no exception. Rather than set ourselves up for failure from the get-go, my hope is that my words will inspire you, and continue to inspire me, to choose conscious moments wherever we may find them in our days. I am a very practical person. I believe that the road to presence of mind is paved with simple intentions and even simpler actions. Our environments vary from person to person, and our circumstances are constantly shifting. So we must be able to apply the principles of mindfulness in whichever situations we find ourselves – free from the limitations of these external circumstances. I have simply found that experiences in nature continue to prove to be the most conducive to doing just that. So perhaps that is a good place to start. Create time in your daily rhythm to be quiet and still in nature – whether it be in your yard, the closest city park, or your favorite hiking trail or swimming hole. And perhaps, like me, you will continually develop a trust that the effects of these moments will carry over into the other moments of your life. Time spent appreciating a beautiful river valley sunset, may end up making it a little easier to appreciate the sunrise the next morning as you drag yourself from bed and head into the new day. Worth a shot, anyway.
Lately, I have been most inspired about how to be present in my environment by reading the works of survivalist, tracker and wilderness writer, Tom Brown, Jr.. In his book, Nature Observation and Tracking, he touches on the evolutionary weakening of our senses as our need to be aware and alert in nature diminishes with modern comforts. He points out how our levels of awareness may become atrophied, while our mind grows more cluttered and overwhelmed by the stimuli of modern existence…hence the reaction to missing one’s commuter bus mentioned at the beginning of this post. Long story short, we trade presence of mind for stress reactions, and observation for desire to control. At the beginning of the book, Brown Jr. offers simple guidelines for fine-tuning the senses and having present moment experiences. I will offer a couple of these below, in hopes you are inspired to read more…or better yet, just step outside and give it a try!
Immerse Yourself in Nature Don’t just let nature be something that you do on the weekends, or take pictures of for social media. When you see something in nature that catches your eye, follow through…stop the car and put your feet in the water. Breathe in the sweet perfume of the flower, rather than just saying “that’s pretty.” Choose experience over spectation. Take one step closer to your nature experience than you might be inclined, in order to commune a bit more and stimulate the senses.
Let Go of Inhibitions Simply put, inhibitions force us to stand still. Choose moments to throw caution to the wind, disregarding what others might think, or whether or not it “makes sense” in order to free yourself from old habits and to allow for genuine forward movement. Yell from the mountain top. Go ahead and check to see if you do still know how to climb trees. No one’s looking, I bet. And if they are, they are probably inspired.
Let Go of Prejudices Just as we flushed out in my swimming example above, preconceived notions tend to paralyze us and keep us from having new and genuine experiences. What if you decided that you have no idea what an experience will actually be like? Wouldn’t that be refreshing? What if you could admit that you have no idea? It seems it would be that much more exciting to dive in. This could be just the thing to transform an action into an adventure.
Don’t Analyze Talking and thinking. Talking and thinking. Can you enjoy nature without critique? Without analysis? It would surprise me if you answered with a quick “Yes!” there, as we live in a society of reason and analysis. But what if you were to take a moment to experience nature beyond words, to observe long enough to allow existing barriers of understanding to melt away? If you stop labeling everything in nature, you make space for it to introduce itself to you.
Become a Child Last, but certainly not least, I want to point to Brown Jr.’s belief that there is “no better teacher of nature observation than a child.” Just as my childhood swimming experiences suggest, there is an excitement and a curiosity available to children that all of us adults could really stand to (re)learn and benefit from. Next time you see children playing outside, put down your phone and join them. Shed those adult inhibitions long enough to let a child help you connect to a realm of possibility that may have been masked by adult responsibilities and obligations.
For more inspiration, check out the many works of Tom Brown Jr., or take a moment to reconnect with your favorite nature writer, photographer, or poet. Summer is the designated season of leisure. Can you really imagine a better time to sit under an oak tree for an entire day?
Enjoy and be happy!
Tom Brown’s Field Guide: Nature Observation and Tracking Berkley Books. 1983.