April in Sedona, Arizona

Red Rocks of SedonaThe two-hour drive north from Phoenix to Sedona, Arizona is like a time-elapsed journey through changing ecosystems. At around 1,500 feet in altitude, Phoenix in April is very warm and dry, brown and yellow, but just at the cusp of blossoming into shades of desert green. For miles I saw dusty looking hillsides covered in familiar and huge saguaro cacti,  along with many other types of cacti I didn’t know the name of: ones with tendrils fuzzy with needles, willowy ones with red flowers at the top of each branch, and short ones with intimidating spikes. From a distance, the saguaros are like stubble on a cheek seen magnified a thousand times. Trees without branches. Bodies without limbs. Upon closer inspection, though, they’re tall and solid and thick, like prickly totem poles of an ancient sun tribe.

After the elevation climbs to 3,000-4,000 feet over dozens of miles, cacti disappear abruptly, to be replaced by small bushes and squat junipers. The junipers become taller, turning into trees. More types of trees and shrubs poke out of the hills and valleys as I approached the Verde Valley and further north, Sedona. From Highway 17, the one that spans straight north from Phoenix to Flagstaff, you can’t see the splendor of Sedona. You don’t see it until you exit, go west, well within a few miles of it.

Then the landscapes explodes into comprehension. Wow, you think, this place is awesome!

cathedral rock and creek
Cathedral Rock and creek below

Sedona is situated at about 4,500 feet, so it’s significantly cooler and more comfortable than the lower altitude Phoenix. Snow can fall there in winter, and recent snow and rain had left the area green and lush. Soft, thick grass was growing around the creeks and washes and cottonwood trees were in full leafed out glory. Along the Oak Creek, which runs through the center of town, the majestic, smooth-barked sycamore trees were still considering leafing out. The various red rock formations, named according to their shapes and sizes, like Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Snoopy Rock, are rich-colored sandstone spires that rise up off the juniper-green valley and focus the attention. I was hungry to see them all, to get up close, to absorb the beauty through my skin and retinas and the bottoms of my feet.

One of the reasons many tourists come to Sedona, besides to see its beauty, is to have a spiritual experience. Apparently, there are mysterious vortexes, or energy fields, that radiate out like an inverted tornado from several places around town. These energy fields are supposed to affect humans and other living creatures in both subtle and varying ways. Junipers are supposed to grow more “twisty” under the influence of the vortex. Certainly, the flora around the vortex areas does seem more lush…but that could be the power of suggestion.

group at Cathedral Rock
Group of spiritual seekers creekside

People are supposed to feel a sense of calm and happiness, or a feeling of uplifting wellbeing, when standing at least a half mile from a vortex. I tried to find out more about the vortexes while I was there—because I was curious about when they were discovered, how they were discovered, how they can be measured and what they are, exactly. I didn’t have much luck finding out anything specific, though. (If you know more about the vortexes please leave a comment below). They are not exactly measurable, and they don’t affect everyone. I guess that if you want to experience them, you have to be okay with mystery.

One of the vortexes is supposed to be located at the base of the Bell Rock, a formation to the south of downtown Sedona. The first evening there, my family and I hiked up from the parking area to where the sandstone rocks stairstep up to a flat shelf from which we could see Courthouse Rock, Cathedral Rock and the entire town of Sedona below.  The first thing I wanted to do was lay down flat with my entire body in contact with the rock, which was radiating warmth and goodness from a full day of sunshine. Despite pebbles and undulations underneath me, I was very comfortable and felt a sense of peace. My body sank deeply into the ground. My back relaxed. My feet tingled. I laid there for a few minutes, then sat up and we smudged ourselves with sage. Afterwards I meditated for a while.

wildflowers
Flowers growing in the desert of Arizona

The rock formations intensified in color with every passing minute as the sun set. At the peak, right before the sun disappeared behind a mountain to the west, the panorama was practically aflame with ochre, orange and deep burgundy. I closed my eyes and saw a blossoming of a deep red growing and glowing unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Someone played a drum nearby, which thumped low like a heartbeat behind us and added to the experience.

Sedona is certainly the contemplative hiking capitol of the country. Here, we saw individual and groups of people come together to do yoga creekside, meditate, drum, and just sit and ponder the spectacle of the desert. Psychics and energy healers set up shop about as often as you’d see a Starbucks in Manhattan. Local stores sell sage smudge sticks, crystals, magnets and copper healing jewelry. Even while hiking, you get a sense for the feeling of how sacred the place is. In one dried up wash at the base of Cathedral Rock, for instance, we walked through a field of cairns—in the creek, in trees, on stumps, on each other. It was an artistic collection of cairns, a sort of playful participation in the spiritual and new age tone of the town, created by those hiking the trail. In Sedona you are given permission to go deeper, connect with your spiritual side, and contemplate the mystery of nature. And if you drop down on the ground in supplication or embrace a juniper, no one will look at you funny. You hope.

One of my favorite hikes during our visit was to a special and sacred cave that the locals have tried to keep secret from the mainstream. It’s off a well-trafficked, marked trail, but the small side trail to the cave isn’t marked or mapped. As a matter of fact, the turn is blocked by tree stumps and branches. If you weren’t looking for it, you would miss it. The cave was where locals say that Native Americans living in the area would go to give birth. When you see the shape of the mouth of the cave, you can understand why they would have picked this place. It’s a steep and slippery scramble to cave’s interior. Once there, your perspective shifts from close and intimate to vast, steep and wide, and you feel as if you’re being expelled into the world as you look out onto the landscape. I have a phobia of steepness, so I literally had to slide back down out of the cave on my butt over rocks and sand, for fear of being flung out into the cacti and juniper a hundred feet below. The cave seemed to tell me that to find her was an exercise in intuition and trust, but to leave I had to get down, down, down on my back and belly and kiss the earth. I had to know the ground, to become intimate with the earth in order to fully experience the cave.

My journey to Sedona left me feeling calm, present, and transformed—if only for a few days. The residual feeling is still with me several days after returning home. I hope to go back again some year, perhaps in late Spring when the trees are fully leafed out or in September when the valley glows with autumn foliage. It’s a place where you can explore all the ancient places in your soul as you contemplate the sublime beauty of the high Arizona desert.

 

 

 

 

3 Mindful Ways to Stop Toxic Thoughts

We’ve all had those days, haven’t we? Something bad happens, someone says something insensitive, and suddenly our good mood is gone. Someone offends us and we feel threatened, angry and resentful. It isn’t long before the toxic thoughts (“what a jerk!”) turn into toxic, body-felt emotions: headache, heartburn, tight shoulders and stomach, nausea and even lethargy. If it’s particularly toxic, we can’t even sleep well at night.

How can you stop those toxic thoughts that are ruining your day? First and foremost, it’s important to take some time and change your environment. Take a “mental health” break from your routine and get out in nature for some exercise. Go on a trail where you feel at home and welcomed by the landscape. Studies like the one from the UK’s Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry have shown that exercise outdoors is better for your mental wellbeing than exercising, say, indoors at the gym.

In addition to the healthful exercise you’re getting hiking in nature, you can also try the following three different techniques to stop toxic thoughts and therefore reduce the negative emotional effect they have on your mind and body. I’ve tried all three of these consistently and found that they’re more effective than anything else—even talking with a friend—in improving my mood. Here they are:

Technique #1: Try a “Purging” Style of Meditation
This is the meditation activity I describe in my book, “Contemplative Hiking,” for the Spring Equinox energy cleansing ritual in nature. It involves meditating and breathing deeply from the belly, and imagining the toxic, black cloud of negative emotions and thoughts being pulled up from your core to your lungs and exhaled through the breath. With each cleansing breath, see your exhalation as first black, then progressing to a gray smoke and eventually coming out completely clear. You are imagining, as you meditate and breathe, that you are inhaling clean, fresh, healing breath and exhaling the negativity, anger, sadness, resentment and despair out into the atmosphere, where the trees and grasses will absorb it and transform it into clean air again.

Do this as long as you feel tense and raw. You will soon start to feel more relaxed and “detoxified.”

Technique #2: Perform EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) on Yourself

EFT is a form of alternative psychotherapy developed by Gary Craig that uses acupressure (meridian) points on the body while focusing on a specific limiting belief, thought, or bad memory. Whether this technique is actually effective because it’s creating a mind/body connection, it’s a placebo or because it distracts you from your negative thoughts, it doesn’t matter if the end result is that you FEEL better after you do it.

I’ve tried this technique at various times and have sensed a lessening of toxic thoughts and emotions as a result. It’s particularly effective to do it while sitting on a rock under a tree, in nature, where it’s quiet and private.

Here’s a video demonstrating how to do EFT:

For toxic thoughts, you might say something like this to yourself: “Even though I feel angry and distracted right now because ______, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

“Even though that person makes me feel ______, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

You repeat this as often as it takes for you to feel more relaxed and de-toxified from the negative thoughts and emotions.

Technique #3: Turn Resentment Into Gratitude

One of the secrets of “The Secret” and attracting abundance to our life is the idea that we should feel gratitude every single day for everything that we have and are experiencing, whether it’s something that we perceive as being “good” or “bad.” The very act of turning a negative event on its head and seeing it as a positive actually lessens the stress caused by the event.

For example, say that you wrecked your car and now you have to take an entire day off of work to deal with the insurance company and take your car to the body shop. You are having toxic thoughts about the situation. You’re angry at the person who hit you. You’re pissed about the $500 deductible you’re going to have to pay to fix your car. You’re even more annoyed at the day you have to take off from work.

How can this event be turned into gratitude and turned on its head? It’s not as difficult as you may think.

You can say to yourself that you’re grateful that you even HAVE a car. You’re grateful that you have a great job that you enjoy so much that you don’t like being away from it. You’re grateful to be employed during a recession. You’re grateful that you’re healthy and unharmed from the accident. You’re grateful that your partner or child weren’t in the car at the time of the accident. You’re grateful to have insurance and that there are talented and hard-working people who can fix your car to look even better than it did before the accident. You’re grateful for the opportunity to stop, take stock, and appreciate your life and health.

With each statement of gratitude, you’ll realize that perhaps the bad thing that happened to you isn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s just a friendly reminder of how GOOD you actually have it. Is that possible? Play around with these questions and see for yourself.

Taking time to apply one or all of these three techniques when you’re feeling stressed, depressed or angry can do wonders for your physical and mental wellbeing, especially when combined with time alone in nature.

Emotional Healing Through Contemplative Time in Nature

Most of the world’s environmental problems can be attributed to one underlying fact: As a culture, we’ve become disconnected from nature. We have lost the sense that our physical and psychological wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of the planet. We’ve forgotten that we can’t live in a bubble or a box and thrive, while the world “out there” withers. Healing of the planet cannot take place separate from the healing of our psyche, which means that we need to learn how to relate to the land and non-human species in a way that’s fundamentally different than the way we’re relating now.

One of the ways we’ve disconnected from nature is we’ve disconnected from our natural, animal self. We don’t consider ourselves part of nature, but above it, separate from it, superior to it. We think that controlling nature, not just on the outside but also controlling our own animal bodies and minds, is progress. Fighting aging is progress. Being able to work at a desk 40 to 60 hours a week without having to worry about what our body needs or wants is progress. Converting resources into wealth so we can live unencumbered by illness or unpleasantness is progress. But this so-called progress is leading us headlong into an systematic collapse.

I wrote my book Contemplative Hiking because I was inspired by the transpersonal and healing aspects of having a contemplative connection with nature. Fifteen years ago I was going through a personal crisis and was feeling overwhelmed by my problems. I took a day off from work and headed up to the mountains to do a little hiking by myself to get away from everything. On that hike, as I looked out at the mountains and felt a quieting of my soul, I realized something about myself and about life—that there was a timelessness that was greater than my small ego, greater than my worries and anxieties. I felt a peace and connectedness I hadn’t felt for years. It was this experience that convinced me that by being present, and by tapping into the sacred aspect of nature, one could have transformative moments of clarity.

Many people achieve that oneness and presence through meditation. I believe in the benefits of meditation, but I’m not one who particularly enjoys sitting for long periods in a quiet room, on a cushion. Cultivating presence and mindfulness, I felt, doesn’t always have to take place on a cushion. It can just as easily take place out in a meadow or forest, as long as you have the right state of mind. It really starts with intention. I hiked hundreds of miles on dozens of trails in my life, but it wasn’t until I went hiking with a solid intention to be open and mindful and actually listen with my soul to what the land had to tell me that I had a moment of profound connectedness and communication. Staying present is challenging in our modern world, with all the distractions of technology and man-made objects and sounds. It’s easier in nature, on the trail. It’s not automatic—you have to work at it—you have to slow down and really LISTEN. You have to go back to the breath, or back to the trees, or the sound of the wind or the birds. In nature, the world around you is your breath. It is your constant to which you return to quiet the mind.

There are emotional and psychological benefits to cultivating a regular contemplative practice in nature. You don’t have to be a hiker to do this. You can cultivate this taking walks in your neighborhood every day. You can do it while gardening. You can do it taking care of animals. It doesn’t take special equipment or any skill. It does take patience (with yourself) and time. When you spend long periods of time, over many months, in the same natural places, being present and mindful, you become attune to not just natural rhythms but you become more familiar with your own rhythms. You can recognize recurring emotions and not get swept up by them, but just ride them out like a boat rides out a storm without falling apart. Your sense of intuition sharpens. You become a keener observer of life, of people, and of patterns. Spending time in nature teaches you about your own resilience and abilities, too. You see how animals survive harsh conditions and manage to lead free and joyful lives, and you reflect on your own values and what you need to be joyful.

The best thing about having a regular contemplative practice in nature is that there’s always a place to go, literally or just in your mind, where you are taken out of your ego self and into a realm that holds beauty and timelessness. It is a way to experience transcendence and peace, and it’s there for you any time of the year at any hour of the day.

NOTE: If you are interested in a career with which you can help people, check out social work online degree.

Getting Your Groove Back with a Change of Scenery

Lovell Gulch view
View west from Lovell Gulch Trail

Featured hike: Lovell Gulch, Woodland Park (near Colorado Springs)

Directions: From the U.S. 24/Cimarron exit, Number 141, on Interstate 25, take U.S. 24 west 17.2 miles to Woodland Park. Turn right on Baldwin Street (3rd light). Proceed 2.1 miles, passing the high school campus. Baldwin Street becomes Rampart Range Road. You’ll see the City of Woodland Park maintenance buildings on your left. Turn onto the street directly before the buildings and park on the south side of the buildings along the fence. You’ll see the trailhead (NFS trail) directly to the west.

Have you been feeling uninspired, unmotivated, downright burned out lately?

Many of us get stuck in a rut in both our work and personal lives and we don’t even know it. We slog through our workdays, the weekends feel too short, and before we know it we’ve lost our groove and our joi de vivre, our joy of living. We don’t care about the things we used to care about. We get snippy and look to blame someone—usually those closest to us—for our troubles. We think our spouses aren’t paying enough attention to us. Our kids are too needy. Our bosses too demanding and our friends too distant. We suspect we might be a little depressed, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it, except that we feel stuck in some kind of rut.

All of this could be symptomatic of what Joan Borysenko calls burnout in her book, Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive. One of the stages of burnout is feeling miserable, but not knowing why. Borysenko advises a change of scenery and a time out of your life to experience some fun and adventure.

Taking the time to sort through what you’re feeling is hard to do in familiar surroundings when you’re moving at the speed of light, out of touch with your body and emotions. The ringing phone, ceaseless e-mails, household chores, work issues, and all your relationships are distractions.

Feeling burn out is a sign that you need time away to do something new and rejuvenating to your mind and body. If you’re a hiker and enjoy being out in nature, it’s a good time to find a trail in a new location—somewhere you’ve always wanted to go or a place with new scenery and landscapes. When even hiking doesn’t sound all that fun any more, you know it’s time to get out of your usual rut and go somewhere unfamiliar.

Get out the map of Colorado (or the state you live in) and start looking at it. What are some places you’ve never been, trails you’ve never experienced? Perhaps there’s a part of the state you’ve always been curious about. You don’t need to drive too far. In my case, I’d never hiked around Pikes Peak. I’ve visited Colorado Springs many times, but had never gone hiking anywhere besides the Garden of the Gods. My husband and I bought a topo map and hiking guide to Colorado Springs and took to the road on a day off from work.

Lovell Gulch, a 5.5 mile loop that winds through the foothills and woods west of Pikes Peak near Woodland Park, looked like a good bet for a day hike. The photo in the guide book showed a view of an expanse of forested valley leading up to the north face of Pikes Peak.

View of Pikes Peak North Face
Pikes Peak from Lovell Gulch Trail

The trail starts in a residential area of Woodland Park, so at first it doesn’t feel very secluded or wild. On the day we went, February 21, the trail was squishy with mud where it was sunny, and where it was shaded from the ponderosas the trail was still packed with snow and ice. After crossing a dirt road and confusing us with forks that led us around the woods and back on itself, the trail finally congealed and began a gradual climb around the southwest of a slope. The views opened up about 1.5 miles into the hike and continued past the beginning of the 3.75 mile loop part of the Lovell Trail. To the west were the distant and snow-covered Buffalo Peaks. To the southeast was Pikes Peak in all its glory. To the south, the lower peaks that wind their way down toward Pueblo.

The vistas were new to us and it was a refreshing change of pace from our usual Front Range hikes. Despite it being a government holiday, there weren’t many people on the trail. We only passed three other hikers the entire 2-1/2 hour trek. The sun was shining brightly and the wind had a chill to it. I found myself getting introspective about how my life and career as a graphic designer has changed in the last 15 years. I was still a designer (and perhaps will always be) but I was also an ecopsychologist and author. Design itself had morphed. I used to do print design but now am doing just as much web design. My tools had changed from fax machine to PDFs and from Dreamweaver to WordPress, from keyboards to hiking boots. But here I was, still working at the same desk, trying to do new things in old environments. No wonder I was feeling stuck!

Away from the computer and away from technology for a few hours, I had an inspiration. I would remove my old, gigantic desk and replacing it with a smaller, more contemporary one. I would clear out the ghosts of the past by literally clearing out my work space and replacing it with something cleaner and fresher. I would move my desk closer to the window. I would open up my work space, and in doing so, maybe I’d open up some possibilities.

After the hike we took at break at the Yerba Mate café in Manitou Springs and then took the last tour of the Cave of the Winds before having some Thai food in town and heading home to Denver. Although the hike was planned, everything else was spontaneous. I felt like my old, adventuresome self again.

A one-day excursion may not cure you of your burnout. Joan Boryshenko suggests scheduling more time away, like at a retreat. If you like nature, hiking, yoga and meditation, I recommend you attend my 3 day “Mindfulness in Nature” retreat this summer. You’ll have an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, get some nourishing food and exercise, and meet some interesting people. And maybe, just  maybe, it’ll be exactly what you need to get your groove back.

Body Mindfulness While Hiking

monarch lake
Monarch Lake, RMNP, January 2011

What kind of hiker are you? Do you plan your hike in advance and know that you want to reach a point on the map, a certain mileage, perhaps hike for a certain amount of time, and you push ahead and achieve your goal regardless of how your body is feeling?

Or are you the kind of hiker who plans an outing based on what you want to see on the trail or how busy or quiet it’ll be, then hike for as long as you start to feel a bit tired, then return to the trailhead with enough energy to spare?

In other words, how mindful are you of your body? Can you tell when your energy tank is half-full, so have just about enough stamina to hike safely back to your car? Or do you become so distracted by the company you’re keeping, by your goal and by the scenery that you exhaust yourself and don’t realize it until it’s too late?

Body mindfulness is a skill that can be ignored or cultivated. Some people aren’t aware of their body most of the time. During a typical day, they slouch, they sit stiffly at their computer all day, they forget to eat regular meals and by the evening they barely have enough energy to hold a conversation, and their body is moaning in agony over bad posture and lack of movement. They don’t get enough sleep because they ignore their sleepiness. These people get sick often—more often then they’d like, but these are also the people who pop pills and try to work through their cold or flu, which ends up making them sicker, longer.

People with more body mindfulness have a relationship with their body that can be described as intimate and aware. They can tell when they need to go to bed early, when they need to take a day off from exercise, or, while hiking, when to turn around on a trail before they get so tired they risk injury. They are the ones who know when to quit, who know when to take a break and who don’t often get sick. So they’re happier and more productive in life.

There are advantages to having body mindfulness, or listening to what your body needs and making sure you provide it. According to the book, The Power of Full Engagement, you can increase your work productivity exponentially simply by following certain rules about how the body and mind function best: you work uninterrupted for about 90 minutes, and take at least 15 minute breaks where you completely disengage, mentally and physically, from your task. The brain has a certain algorhythm and pattern. It can focus on a task effectively for about 60-90 minutes at a time before it starts to wander off-task. You can notice this next time you’ve been working at something for a certain amount of time and then begin to daydream…check your email…surf the internet. Your brain (and body) is trying to tell you something. It’s trying to tell you that it needs a break. If you don’t take a break on purpose, you’ll probably “check out” mentally anyway. And it’ll take you longer to get back on-task.

When it comes to hiking and any physical activity, knowing your body and paying attention to what it’s telling you can keep you from getting injured. Notice how wobbly your legs get after a really, really long hike. How likely are you to sprain your ankle or trip over a tree root if your legs are shaking with exhaustion coming off a mountain? It’s better to shorten your hike and stay strong for the trek back. Knowing your limits can also help you survive: you know you can’t handle an 15-mile hike at a 3-mile per hour pace and you’ll get left behind and lost (like what happened to Ken Killip in the nonfiction book Deep Survival). Or you know you have vertigo on steep sections and you might slip and fall to your death, so you avoid the more precarious route and stick to the longer loop where you’ll be safer.

The next time you’re on a hike of any length, take time to check in with your body before, during and after the hike. How do you feel before embarking? Is your energy level high or low? Can you handle the hike you planned? Will you need to take more frequent breaks or just shorten the distance? Is there soreness or tension that you’re holding in your body at any point in the hike, and does it intensify or disappear as you go? Will the kink in your muscle get better or worse with exercise?

I know a few things about my body. Sometimes I feel the most tired at the start of a hike and get better as I warm up. It takes exactly 20 minutes for my fingers and toes to warm up in winter from a cardio activity. I can set my watch to it! I know what a 2-hour hike feels like to my body as compared to a 4-hour hike, and I can say how long I’ve been hiking without even glancing at my watch. I know I will feel 200% better if I get exercise than if I don’t, so even if I’m feeling lazy on the drive up to the trailhead, I persevere.

I went snowshoeing with some friends this winter on a quiet, 5-mile trail around Monarch Lake in western Rocky Mountain National Park. There was at least three feet of snow on the trail in spots, but fortunately many people had blazed the trail ahead of us the previous weekend and not only was the trail obvious through the woods, the snow was packed enough to offer relative stability. Still, it was much more strenuous than summer hiking, and the altitude intensified the workout. About an hour into the adventure, I announced that I would be turning around in 30 minutes, our goal of reaching a point on the trail be damned. My friend was a bit surprised—maybe disappointed—because she was feeling great at that moment. We did end up turning around at the 90 minute point, and within 15 minutes of returning to our cars my friend admitted that she was glad we did, because she barely had enough energy left to get back and couldn’t have handled another mile.

In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales concludes his study with a few laws of survival, one of which is “be humble.” Know that just because you’re good at one thing (bicycling) doesn’t make you good at other things (snowshoeing). Just because you ran a half marathon last year doesn’t mean you can handle a 15-mile backpack this weekend. The key is body mindfulness. Check in with your body, know how to predict your capabilities and energy level, and make decisions accordingly. It can save your life.

Listening to Nature…for a Change

tracks in snow
Alderfer/Three Sisters trail after a snowstorm

In winter, we spend a lot more time indoors. The prospect of going out into the bitter cold and slipping around on icy or slushy sidewalks isn’t appealing at all. We’d much rather be snuggled with our honey, reading a book and drinking tea. I know I would.

As much as I don’t want to sometimes, I force myself to go out for a morning walk in my neighborhood or a long hike on a trail. It’s never as bad as I imagine. I have good waterproof boots and plenty of layers to pile on when temperatures dip below the teens. There are advantages to hiking in winter. For one thing, it’s quieter on the trails. There aren’t as many people. Parking lots don’t fill up. You can go for a sunrise or sunset hike easily, without getting up at the crack of dawn or staying up past when your energy starts to decline. The best part of winter hiking, though, is how gorgeous a mediocre trail can look the day after a blizzard.

Case in point: I went on a hike the day after a winter storm blew over the Front Range on December 30th. These are photos taken from the Alderfer/Three Sisters Park the next morning. Luckily, since this was the first time we had hiked here, someone else who knew the park hiked before us and left us a set of bootprints to follow. Otherwise, we would have had to bushwack our way around and then follow our own prints back to the parking lot. For this reason, it’s probably best not to hit the trail TOO early in the morning.

In winter, since we don’t spend as much time outdoors, we really cut ourselves off from the sights and (particularly) the sounds of nature. All we listen to most of the time are sounds that come from machines or other humans: the hum of the computer, the blare of television, the rumble of a car motor, the chatter of a co-worker. Our windows are closed, so we don’t hear the birds chirping the way we do in summer. We don’t enjoy the sound of the wind as much as we do when it’s 90 degrees outside and we’re drinking a glass of iced tea while sitting on the porch, appreciating the cooling breeze. In winter, wind is often biting, or here on the Front Range, downright obnoxious. At the head or tail of changing weather fronts, winds can get so crazy they blow down fences and trees. I don’t want to be outside when that’s happening.

It’s good to reconnect with what’s going on in nature this time of year, nonetheless. Black-capped chickadees still hang out in the woods along the foothills and mountains. You can hear their distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Red-winged blackbirds remain in town, as do robins and flickers (a kind of woodpecker). They’re not as vocal as they are in spring, but they still sing. I sometimes hear the hoo-hoo-hoo of an owl in the late evening hours or in the middle of the night from where he or she is perched near my house. My favorite bird is the raven, who is the curious observer on the trail in mountainous areas. The raven seems to speak, not just sing. He complains and criticizes, then jeers and clucks his tongue. I look up and say hello, jeering back.

Winter is a time of protracted silence. It is the sound of nature taking a break. It is the sound of the thread of the cosmos; it’s the underlying, silent dark matter that surrounds everything in the Universe. When it’s dry and sunny in winter, the sounds of nature seem shrill but clear. Wind howls, birds question, a fly buzzes through its short life while temperatures hover above freezing. When you’re hiking in deep snow and it’s still snowing around you, the only sound you hear is again the sound of your own making—your breath, your heartbeat and the muffled footfalls of your boots sinking into the white.

Cultivating a Sense of Place and Love of the Land

I’ve lived in quite a few different places in my life: Poland, Detroit, San Diego and now Colorado. Still, there are those who seem to have a much stronger wanderlust  than I do and for reasons both psychological or economic, and move from place to place on an almost annual or semi-annual basis. I can understand their desire for new adventures and fresh starts. There was a time in my life where I would get in the car in the morning and sit in rush hour traffic, fantasizing about missing my exit and just driving and driving—usually further west into the reaches of some vast, mysterious landscape. Back then, this was a symptom of some unstated unhappiness and an urge to escape my life and find a fresh start, because I felt trapped by circumstances to a box of an existence that offered no more reward than an evening out at a nice restaurant and the hope that someday I’d pay off all my credit cards.

I still have that wanderlust but in a different way. I no longer wish to escape my life. Instead, I dream about exploring new canyons, new mountains, and new valleys. In the last ten years, my life has become the adventure that I used to long for. Every day is an opportunity to start fresh, find a new path, and create a fulfilling and passionate way of being in the world. My desire for travel is more of a curiosity, like a longing for a lover whom I haven’t seen in a few months. That mountain that I can stare at all day and still not find satiation is the lover; the dark, green forests of its flanks the imagined paradise that sparks my curiosity.

I’ve lived in the same ten square mile area for the past sixteen years. I’ve hiked the same trails within a fifty-square mile radius extending west, north and south of my home in that same period of time. I still can’t say I know all the “nooks and crannies” of my favorite places in the woods and meadows around the Front Range. Every time I go on a hike, I notice something new that I hadn’t noticed before: an oddly shaped tree, a bright green and fuzzy patch of moss that’s especially inviting, or a bird or animal that catches my attention. The same river is never the same river twice.

There’s something to be said about cultivating a sense of place and belonging by staying in one area for many years. You learn the rhythms of the land, you look forward to the way the clouds play with light in winter and billow in the summer, you trek out to see the meadow’s first wildflowers in the spring, then the last wildflowers in the fall. You can almost forecast the weather and know exactly when the first buds will appear on the trees that grow in your neighborhood. The rhythms of nature become your rhythms, too. You feel a connectedness and affection with all your neighbors, sentient and non-sentient.

By getting to know the land where you live deeply, you develop a love of something that is eternal and constant. It’s there to surprise you each day. It offers a gift on every visit. It speaks to you about new things but reiterates the same old stuff, much to your heart’s relief. It will never leave, although occasionally it may disappoint you. You appreciate it the way you appreciate an old friend or a life-long spouse, but remain in love like a blushing adolescent, giddy with heady longing and then intoxicated with secret memories of intimacy and connection.

When you do the activities and rituals in my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range, you develop that sense of place and love of the land. You begin to feel that connection and love. This is why I wrote the book—to give a how-to guide on “reconnecting with nature.”

Nature and Spirituality

NOTE: I will be facilitating a 3-day retreat with the theme of “Your Inner/Outer Wild: Nature and Spirituality” June 27-29, 2013 in Ouray, Colorado. Visit http://ourayretreat.eventbrite.com for more information

Have you ever been hiking, backpacking or paddling down a river, enjoying your surroundings, and a feeling of utter peace and expansiveness came over you? Suddenly, all your worries felt far away, almost trivial. You felt a deep relaxation come over you, a desire to remain in that place—that meadow, that forest, that river canyon—and take in all its beauty and majesty and not have to go back to your real life with all its stress and responsibilities.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something even deeper and more profound while in wilderness. Perhaps you quietly sat gazing out at a bank of low clouds wrapping themselves intimately around a mountain peak and something shifted in your soul—as if you had been lifted out of yourself to the mysterious nether reaches of the cold granite escarpment beyond that which you could see.  Or alone on a raft, you sank into the silence and grace of a black river as it cut curves through ancient sandstone canyons, your mind slowing, your senses clarifying.

Wherever you were, in whatever special place that called to you, something happened to you. It’s as if you were at the cusp of learning the answer to a great mystery, a revelation that you could have without feeling as if you were simultaneously losing yourself, without becoming permanently lost in the dark wilderness of it all.

The feeling may have been fleeting. It may have lasted a few hours. It may have even jolted your perception of the world and your place in it. However long it lasted, it affected you. You suspect that for that brief moment in time, you had touched the Divine. Whether you call it God, Spirit, Universe, or simply Nature, you knew that you wanted to experience more of it.

In that moment and maybe for a short time after, your life came into complete and harsh focus. Your worries, your to-do lists, your ambitions—matters that once consumed your thoughts constantly—felt trivial. The weight of your responsibilities were dissolved with an exhale, as you inhaled the timelessness and serenity around you.

If you’ve ever felt anything like this while spending time in nature, you’ve had what’s called a “peak” or a “transpersonal” experience. The pleasurable feelings and impressions these experiences leave make some to want to journey to remote places, to spend long hours, weeks or even years on mountain treks, or to slog up rough terrain on less-traveled paths in order to get the kind of solitude and quiet that moments like this require. Some wilderness enthusiasts don’t just venture out in order to challenge themselves or see new landscapes, but they venture on a quest for the sacred.

In fact, for some, time spent in wilderness settings is not only a way to get away from the stresses of daily life, it can also be a spiritual journey, a search for communion with the “oneness of all being”. What’s beautiful about this experience is that the more you seek it, the easier it is to find that particular kind of peace and self-transcendence. Once you stumble upon that altered state of consciousness, it’s easier to find that space again next time, and the next. Time spent outside in nature becomes more than a hobby or pastime, it becomes a form of spiritual practice. This practice can be as spiritually fulfilling as praying or attending church on Sundays.  It can connect you to your Higher Self and to the Divine, and allows you to feel a sense of wholeness that’s rarely attainable in the midst of a busy, multi-faceted modern life.

Transcending the Self

In conventional psychology, little attention is paid to the reasons people seek out spiritual practice or the benefits of having a regular spiritual practice, whether it’s religious or not. In conventional psychology, the emphasis is on healthy and unhealthy expressions of relating to both oneself and others. The study of how a mentally healthy person relates to their “higher self”, or to aspects beyond the ego that include nature and divinity, is transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology includes and incorporates all disciplines of conventional psychology, but goes beyond to answer the question: Why do human beings long for a form of self-transcendence, and how can self-transcendence take place?

Self-transcendence refers to a state of consciousness that is beyond the normal boundaries of the self. It’s more than what we consider to be our living, breathing body; more than just the job we do or the roles we take on in the world; more than just how we’re feeling or thinking in the moment. Self-transcendence is a connection to those aspects that go beyond the individual self to the concept of oneness or connectedness to the world or universe beyond. It has nothing to do with time, body or place. It has to do with plugging into the mystery of existence and the life force of the universe. It is a sense of harmony with other humans, the world, and all its inhabitants. Immersion in natural environments is one way of achieving a state of self-transcendence.

The psychological effect of time spent in wilderness has been the subject of study by researchers in the past. In one such study, Kaplan and Talbot (1983) and Talbot and Kaplan (1986) write about the psychological effects their Outdoor Challenge Program had on both children and adults who went on these week-long wilderness trips. The participants kept personal journals, which they agreed to have examined at the end of the trip by the researchers. Kaplan and Talbot found the strongest themes that emerged in the journals were feelings that can be described as “transpersonal” or transcending the self.

“For many participants [during the backpacking trips] there is eventually a surprising sense of revelation, as both the environment and the self are newly perceived and seem newly wondrous. The wilderness inspires feelings of awe and wonder, and one’s intimate contact with this environment leads to thoughts about spiritual meanings and eternal processes. Individuals feel better acquainted with their own thoughts and feelings, and they feel “different” in some way—calmer, at peace with themselves, “more beautiful on the inside and unstifled.” (Kaplan and Talbot, 1983, p. 178)

Extended wilderness immersion in the form of long backpacking trips, vision quests or meditation retreats in remote settings can bring about powerful emotional transformation. Eco-therapists and ecopsychologists who take clients out for these types of excursions sometimes report that afterwards their clients decide to leave their unhappy jobs, marriages, relationships or uproot their lives in some way. The reason can be a combination of factors. Hidden and deep pain becomes are exposed, the mind slows to allow more creative and clear thinking, and there is some experience with self-transcendence—sometimes for the first time. This can make quite an impression on an individual, so much so that the fears and blocks they have about their life are eliminated in favor of the strong desire to have more of the “flow” they manifested during the excursion. Simply put, if they’re able to imagine a better, happier life while being connected to the Divine, they’ll find it easier to make the necessary changes to achieve that life.

How to Have a Spiritual Experience in Nature

You can experience self-transcendence simply by being quiet, contemplative and mindful while doing what you most enjoy out of doors in a natural setting. You can be on a walk in your suburban neighborhood and look up to see the tops of the trees swaying in the wind and feel a sense of openness and freedom. But maybe you want to experience more than just a flash of good feelings. Maybe you want to really touch the face of God, so to speak, and transcend time and space and feel the ripple of life and love running through you. If that’s the case, you’ll want to go to a place that would most evoke a transpersonal state of mine for you. It would have to be a place that is special to you and your soul. It may not necessarily be a place you’ve been, or even know. Or it can be a place you like to hike or canoe or walk. Ask yourself what landscapes speak to you most. Are they beaches, mountains, prairies, or meadows? What kinds of nature photography are you most drawn to? What scenes do they depict? What seasons?

I’ve always loved photos of tall, craggy mountains and lush wildflower-filled meadows. I especially like photos of misty or foggy weather in the same kind of landscape, which give me a feeling of mystery and foreboding. Depictions of sunsets and sunrises, a photographer’s secret formula for taking amazing photos, are also fascinating to me. When I imagine having a transpersonal moment in nature, I imagine sitting in the valley of a tall mountain at sunrise, with cold mist rising up its face from a drizzly night, and gold and orange hues reflected off snow fields high up close to the peak. I imagine feeling utterly alone, but not in a lonely way. I would be alone in a spiritual way. It would be an aloneness that would cure all loneliness because I felt so connected to the rocks and animals and plants in that mountain valley. I was a part of everything and completely accepted. I would feel as if I were the only one witnessing the sun rising that morning, the first one awake in the world besides the birds who were just starting to chirp in the sunlight.

Likewise, think about the kind of place near where you live where you would most like to be, where you would feel relaxed and happy and safe. Take some time away from your busy life to go there. It doesn’t have to be far. It can be on established trails near town, close enough to feel safe but remote enough to feel wild. Don’t worry about the weather. Sometimes transpersonal moments come easiest when the weather is unsettled and you have more solitude. Just be diligent, and be careful about being equipped and appropriately dressed.  I’ve had the easiest time with self-transcendent moments when it’s been raining, snowing or when a blizzard was rolling in. If you live along the Front Range in Colorado, try getting up before sunrise and seeing the sun rise over the horizon from a comfortable spot on the side of a hill (Sugarloaf Mountain, Horseshoe Mountain).  Try going for a before-dinner hike on a trail close to the city, such as the Flatirons Vista Trail, White Ranch Open Space or Marshall Mesa, so that you’re enveloped in dusky light and racing the darkness. It can feel thrilling. Allow the beauty and peace of the landscape to wash over you, pull you in, fill you up. Make connecting to the land where you live a regular spiritual practice that’s good for the soul and good for the planet.

Cultivating “Beginner’s Mind” at Centennial Cone

Centennial Cone Park in Jefferson County, Colorado

Note: This activity can be fun for kids, as well.

Location: Jefferson County, near Golden.

Directions: From Highway 93 in Golden, take Golden Gate Canyon Drive west approximately 8 miles. Turn left on Robinson Hill Road. Continue to Camino Perdido, which is the north access road into the park. The trailhead is approximately one mile to the south. You’ll see brown county signs directing you to Centennial Cone shortly after you turn onto Golden Gate Canyon Drive.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours or as long as you’d like it to be.

Route: Take the Travois Trail from the parking lot. After ¼ mile you can take the Evening Sun Loop or continue left—both paths return and continue to the Travois Trail. You will want to make this an out-and-back hike.

Access Notes: Hikers are NOT allowed at Centennial Cone on even numbered weekend days, only odd-numbered days, and certain trails in the park are closed seasonally. Check the Jefferson County Parks and Open Space website for details here. There are pit toilets at the parking lot and space for at least 20 cars. Limited shade exists, which makes this a great hike on cooler or overcast days or in the winter. Dogs are allowed on leash and bicycles are allowed on even-numbered weekend days.  Horses are permitted at any time. This is a multi-use trail on weekdays.

The Hike

Centennial Cone Open Space Park is a large conservation area owned by Jefferson County – the Travois Trail encircles the park in more than 15 miles of hills, meadows and forest. Most of the area is moderately hilly, with grassy knolls, low shrubs, and ponderosa pines dotting the tops of hills that seem to stretch out for miles in all directions. Large, old narrow-leafed cottonwoods grow along the drainage between hills near the trailhead.

In spring when the grasses turn deep green, this landscape may make you want to run through the grass and sing “The hills are alive!”, a-la Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music (ok, I just dated myself and that’s not good). In the fall, the grass turns a dull shade of cornhusk and grasshoppers take over the area with their hissy calls. This is a relatively low-traffic trail in every season except summer, and the lack of nearby road or air traffic also makes it a particularly quiet place to hike. The ringing in your ears may be louder than any sounds you’ll hear coming from the land, especially on a chilly morning when the grasshoppers are still warming their bodies.

The dirt and gravel trail is narrow and winds around the round hills in loose, wavy shapes, sometimes in shade if the sun is lower on the horizon, or in hot, full exposure if it’s near high noon. The ponderosas and the altitude don’t seem to provide much relief from the intensity of the sun on a clear day. The trails climb up the sides of hills and up to the summits, where a view extending from Denver to Lookout Mountain to Mt. Evans and the mountains west of Blackhawk frame an ocean of forested hills and grassy ravines. At some points on the trail when you’re ascending up, you may have a sense of vertigo as you look down at least 1,000 feet or more down the steep slopes. It can also be a feeling of expansiveness and spaciousness when you’re walking on these sections. There are plenty of boulders and rocky outcroppings to sit on just a few feet off-trail and relax or contemplate, or simply take a break in the shade of a small tree. The trail is well-maintained and easy to negotiate when it’s dry.

Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

In Buddhism, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to a state of openness and curiosity about a subject, devoid of judgment, expectations or preconceptions. It is about throwing out everything you think you know and allowing yourself to experience the world anew.

To illustrate this concept, there’s a well-known parable about a scholarly monk who was seeking a master teacher so he could become his student and learn more about enlightenment. The monk approached the master and during his interview, bragged about how intelligent and sharp he was and how he had showed up so many other teachers with his knowledge. The master teacher just sat and listened and went about making some tea.  As the monk was speaking, the teacher began pouring the tea into their cups. He kept pouring tea into the monk’s cup until it began to spill over the brim and onto the monk’s lap, burning him. The young monk jumped up and exclaimed, “What are you doing?!” The teacher simply smiled and replied, “Your mind is like this cup. It’s spilling over with ignorance and already too full to receive any new teaching. You are wasting your time here.” And he sent the young monk on his way.

The parable demonstrates that when we think we know everything there is to know—about a person, a thing, an idea or a place—then we lose the ability to receive new information and experiences. When we close ourselves off from the world by judging it and then dismissing it, we actually shrink our lives.

In reference to hiking, there may have been times in the past when you looked at an area or viewed a photo of a particular hiking trail and thought, “I don’t like that kind of landscape. That looks like a boring place to hike. I don’t want to go there.” Or, how many times have you met a person and decided you knew everything you needed to know about them within the first hour or even the first five minutes of saying, “Hello”?

The common term for this in the Western world is, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or, “There’s more to that than meets the eye.” In Eastern teachings, beginner’s mind means there’s more to the world than you can ever know. Therefore, when you approach the world with an attitude of “not knowing,” you can be constantly, and sometimes pleasantly, delighted by what you experience.

When you make quick judgments about the world and close yourself off from truly experiencing life with beginner’s mind, you’re channel surfing. You are not fully engaged, not present, and unable to experience the joy of getting to know someone or something with the full breadth and depth of your soul. You sit in your car in rush hour, feeling aggravated and bored, not bothering to look around at the cars next to you or see the trees and plants that are growing on the side of the road, or the way the clouds look as they pass over the sky, not expecting to see anything new or interesting or worth your attention. But there is always something to new to see, experience and feel.

The Activity

Think about how long you’d like to hike on this trail and split your hike up into two halves. This activity is best when it’s done in the middle, at the turnaround point of an out-and-back walk. Find a place to sit comfortably for about 15 minutes with your journal and a pen.

Look around where you’re sitting and find an object to hold in your hand. This could be a rock, twig, plant, or pinecone. Whatever you’re drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a natural object, but it’s better if it’s something you don’t look at every day.

While you hold the object in your hand, pretend that you’re an alien that’s just landed on Earth. You know nothing about this planet or its inhabitants. Your planet is nothing like this planet. Therefore, you have no idea about this object is. You don’t know what it’s used for. You don’t know if it’s dangerous or benign, alive or dead, young or old.

Look at your object in this way, with “beginner’s mind” for a few minutes, until you feel ready to write something down about it. Spend time noting its texture, its weight, its smell, its integrity, its taste.

What do you notice about this object that surprises you?

Now, after a few minutes, you may reach a point of boredom. You may think you already know everything there is to know about this object. You’ve been looking at it for a couple of minutes and there’s nothing else to figure out. Or is there? This is the point at which we usually shut ourselves off from the world. Our minds are at first curious, then quickly become bored after reaching a conclusion after some analysis (sometimes this analysis takes microseconds).

Go back to your object and look at it deeper.  Ask it what its name is. Where did it come from? What does it do? Who are its friends?

What else comes up at this point for you when observing and experiencing this object with beginner’s mind?

When you’re ready to hike back to the trailhead, think about the way you’ve looked at this common, perhaps “mundane” object with beginner’s mind. Can you look at the land surrounding the trail, where you just hiked, with the same sort of beginner’s mind? You’ll be going in a different direction, so things will look a little different than they did in the last hour or two, but what else will you notice that’s different?

When I facilitated a hike with a small group and engaged in this activity, the participants reported that they noticed a keener, more heightened sense of presence and awareness on the return. Some noticed more color. Some noticed flowers and plants along the trail they couldn’t believe they didn’t see before. Some actually found themselves curious about textures, and touched many objects while walking. In general, most of the hikers said they felt more at peace on the hike back because their minds were not as filled with chatter.

Cultivating beginner’s mind is a practice—it’s something you need to do often to really get a sense of its power and potential. It’s not something you can do once and then expect to live your life differently. But fortunately, this activity can be done anywhere, on any trail, any time of year.