Less Nature, More Drilling (Ugh!)

Last week I received an e-mail from the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, the nonprofit formed in 1995 to construct the Continental Divide trail, with the sad announcement that they are ceasing operations. Their Board of Directors had to make this difficult decision due to “increasing pressures from development in the West, rising land costs, and challenges with the longstanding down cycle in the economy”.

The Continental Divide Trail is a hiking trail that stretches all the way from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide, and in Colorado it traverses the backbone of the Rocky Mountains. As of 2011, 2,268 miles of Trail have been completed, and volunteers were responsible for 525 of those miles, and to date 832 miles remain to be constructed.

The CDTA was a long-time graphic design client of mine. From 2001 to 2010, I designed their quarterly newsletters, event flyers and posters. I was proud to have contributed to the success of their campaign in this small way, because I believe that the completion of the trail is not just good for state tourism and mountain economies, but for providing low-impact ways of re-connecting people with nature and wilderness. This is important to the future of our planet. The news that they’re closing their doors was not just a shock, but pained me to think that this project may never be completed. I certainly hope that I’m wrong about that.

How many hikers have experienced moments of wonder, transcendence and revelation on the Continental Divide trail? How many families came to volunteer through the last 15 years to swing a pick and shovel dirt and be a part of this legacy? What kind of impression did that make on kids, and how were their lives affected forever? How invaluable are these experiences to future generations?

We need more nature in our lives, and low-impact access to wilderness such as the CDT, the Colorado Trail or the Appalachian Trail, not only provides this kind of access to anyone of virtually any background, education and income level, but helps stimulate local and state economies with tourism. People come to Colorado from all over the world to hike these trails in the summer. It helps mountain towns maintain a decent economy in the summer, when ski resorts are closed. Being able to experience the peace and beauty of wilderness on a well-maintained and relatively safe trail with others is something we may have been taking for granted during the economic boom of the later part of the last century. When the economy takes a downturn, as it has in the last several years, everything but the most critical of services and support systems gets underfunded or neglected.

In the current worldview, access to nature is not seen as a “critical” service. As things get progressively more uncertain, it seems that jobs and money take precedence over beauty, human health, ecological health and sometimes even common sense.

About the same time I heard of the demise of the CDTA, I read that oil and gas companies were gearing up for more fracking operations along the Front Range—this time in a couple of state parks. I have already witnessed more oil and gas operations setting up shop in Dacono, Erie, Commerce City and Broomfield. Energy is something that is almost never in soft demand and as we fall on the downward slope of the peak oil parabola, we are becoming more and more desperate to eke out anything we can, anywhere we can find it. Nothing is sacred anymore. Drilling near suburban neighborhoods, schools and playgrounds? Sure, why not? We need the jobs, and the gas. Setting up a rig in state parks and maybe even National Parks? Well, where else are we to find new pockets of energy?

These operations are not just unsightly and polluting, they are a disturbance to the wildlife and human residents. A Denver Post commentary from October, 2011 sums it up nicely: there are things that are priceless that are worth protecting for future generations. Clean air, clean water, quality of life.

If I extrapolate the future based on what I’m seeing today, I will predict that in ten or twenty years we will have less nature and more oil and gas rigs. We will have sold out our precious, irreplaceable resources for a quick buck and in the end, we will not have avoided economic and societal collapse, we will have just postponed it a few months or years. We will have less and less unspoiled stretches of wilderness and more cancer, more poverty and more despair. This is the future, unless we all commit to educating ourselves and doing some deep soul-searching.






Emotional Resilience In Traumatic Times

By Carolyn Baker, PhD.

Original article can be found on Carolyn Baker’s website at CarolynBaker.net.

NOTE TO READER: Carolyn and I will be co-facilitating two workshops in Denver, CO on the 3 Keys to Resilience in Uncertain Times. If you’d like to meet others and discuss your thoughts and anxieties about what’s happening with the world’s economy and environment, and learn ways to cope emotionally and spiritually, please join us February 4th and March 10th. For more information or to register click here or email me at magsemerson@yahoo.com.


While mainstream media has been encouraging collective dithering over a possible U.S. government shutdown, the chilling realities of off-the-chart levels of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, escalating upheavals throughout the Middle East, and surging oil prices have been simmering in the background, remaining the lethal environmental, geopolitical, and economic time bombs that they are. Weeks ago, I was well aware that a government shutdown was highly unlikely but would be used to distract our attention from more urgent matters, and thus, I reported only one story about it in my Daily News Digest.

I recently returned from Northern California where residents there were profoundly anxious regarding the effects of radiation on the West Coast from Fukushima. How not, when on April 1, the San Francisco area newspaper, Bay Citizen, reported that “Radiation from Japan rained on Berkeley during recent storms at levels that exceeded drinking water standards by 181 times and has been detected in multiple milk samples, but the U.S. government has still not published any official data on nuclear fallout here from the Fukushima disaster”?

In typical American media fashion, out of sight, out of mind. Fewer and fewer stories of radiation realities in and issuing from Japan are being reported. An occasional comment surfaces, usually assuring us that we have nothing to fear. It’s all so benign. Apparently, we can now move on to “really important” stories like Obama’s 2012 campaign and the royal wedding.

And yet, whether explicitly stated or not, Americans and billions of other individuals throughout the world, are not only terrified about radiation but about their economic future—an economic future which will be inexorably more ruinous as a result of the Japan tragedy and its economic ripples globally. By that I do not mean that they feel mild anxiety about embellishing their stock portfolios, but rather, are feeling frightened about how they are going to feed their families, where they will live after losing their house in foreclosure, where they might find employment in a world where having a full-time job is becoming increasingly rare, how they will access healthcare without insurance or the money to pay out of pocket, or how they will make ends meet in forced or voluntary retirement.

Obviously, these anxieties are relevant to the world’s middle classes and not to teeming masses of human beings living on two dollars per day or less. Ironically, however, it is frequently the case that for all the suffering of abjectly impoverished human beings, they have seldom known any other standard of living and have learned how to survive on virtually nothing. They hear no reports of nuclear meltdowns, and even if they did, such news would seem insignificant in the face of needing to secure food or water for today—a type of existence that contains its own traumas and yields dramatically short lifespans.

Having inhabited a middle class existence, one can only comfort oneself for so long by reflecting on the plight of the destitute in far off places. One’s immediate reality is an anomalous deprivation, a stark loss of the familiar, and the looming reality that things will not get better, but only worse, and that these losses are unpredictably punctuated with frightening events such as extreme weather, natural disasters, nuclear meltdowns, or the terrifying consequences of rotting infrastructure such as pipeline explosions or collapsing bridges. These realities take their toll on the body—sleepless nights, a weakened immune system, moodiness, anger, depression, despair, and often, suicidal thinking. Whether the trauma is dramatic and frequent such as a 9.0 earthquake in Japan followed by high intensity aftershocks, or whether it slowly grinds on amid a disquieting sense of the permanent loss of so much that one held dear, the landscapes of countless lives are forever, painfully altered, emotionally littered with charred shells of once exuberant and robust routines.

Yes YOU Have Been Traumatized

But, you may argue, I haven’t been traumatized. My life is amazingly normal. I’m weathering the collapse of industrial civilization reasonably well and feel profoundly grateful.

Indeed I celebrate your good fortune, but I must add that no inhabitant of industrial civilization is without trauma because that paradigm is by definition, traumatizing.

It is only when you understand the extent to which you have been traumatized outside of your awareness that you can effectively prepare for and yes, welcome, the demise of empire and its ghastly assaults on your soul and the earth community.

In the face of extreme weather events and earth changes, skyrocketing food and energy prices, increasingly dramatic expressions of civil unrest globally, massive unemployment, global economic evisceration of the middle classes, and the proliferation of toxins worldwide—whether from fracking in Pennsylvania or leaking reactors in Japan, we are all in varying states of emotional breakdown and breakthrough. The sands are shifting under the feet of all human beings on this planet. Nothing is as it seems. “Things fall apart,” said William Butler Yeats, “the center cannot hold.”

Call it whatever you like—collapse, Transition, Great Turning. Put a happy face on it or a terrified one, but regardless of how you spin it, regardless of how much you want to feel good about it—and there is much to feel good about, the changes are dizzying, sometimes delightful, sometimes devastating. Yes, it’s an exciting time to be alive, and it’s an excruciating time to be alive. Sometimes one feels schizophrenic, sometimes bipolar. But all of that, yes all of that, is traumatizing to the human nervous system, and if we don’t recognize that, we’re probably hiding out in the “Hurt Locker” of empire.

So how do we not hide out? How do we face our trauma, begin healing it, and protect ourselves as much as humanly possible from further wounding, particularly as life becomes even more traumatic?

The Transition movement has provided us with a treasure-trove of resources for cultivating logistical resilience in our communities through awareness-raising, reskilling, and creating self-sufficient and sustainable communities. Anyone not involved in this kind of logistical preparation is only half-awake, yet many individuals believe that no other preparation is necessary. Might that not, in fact, be one characteristic of trauma? Just as the PTSD-scarred combat veteran insists that all he needs is another good battle to make him feel better, it may be that the hunger for one more gold or silver coin, one more case of freeze-dried food, one more bucket of barley, one more permaculture class, one more emergency response training is yet another means of avoiding the emotional healing and preparation work every human being needs to do in order to navigate the accelerating unraveling of the world as we have known it.

A Few Ways Of Developing Emotional Resilience

1)     Understand that industrial civilization is inherently traumatizing. Make a list of the ways it has wounded you and those you care about.

2)     If you are involved with a Transition initiative, start or join a heart and soul group where the psychology of change (see The Transition Handbook) can be discussed in depth and group members can share feelings about the acceleration of collapse as well as share how they are preparing for it emotionally.

3)     Become familiar with your emotional repertoire and how you deal with your emotions—or not. Imagine the kinds of emotions that you and others are likely to feel in an unraveling world. How do you imagine yourself dealing with those emotions? How would you prefer to deal with them?

4)     Think about how you need to take care of yourself right now in an increasingly stressful world. What stresses do you need to pull back from? What self-nurturing activities do you need to increase?

5)     Who is your support system? If you do not have people in your life with whom you can discuss the present and coming chaos, you are doubly stressed. Find people with whom you can talk about this on a regular basis.

6)     What are you doing to create joy in your life? Do you have places in your life where you can have fun without spending money or without talking about preparation for the future?

7)     What are you doing to create beauty? Life may become uglier on many levels, including the physical environment. How can you infuse more beauty into the world? Use art, music, poetry, dance, theater, storytelling and other media to enhance the beauty of your community and your immediate environment.

8)     Consider creating a regular poetry reading salon in which people come together perhaps monthly to share poems or stories which express the full range of human emotions. Many communities have found poetry sharing events to be incredibly rich venues for deepening connections and their own emotional resilience.

9)     Spend as much time as possible in nature. Read books and articles on ecopsychology and take contemplative walks or hikes in which you intentionally engage in dialog with nature.

10) Engage at least twice a day in some kind of mindfulness practice such as meditation, inner listening, journaling, guided visualization. Still another tool for mindfulness and community deepening is sacred earth-based rituals which can be done individually or shared in a group.

It is important to remember that challenging experiences are not necessarily traumatizing experiences. The collapse of industrial civilization will be challenging for those who have been preparing for it; for those who haven’t, it will constitute massive trauma. The less attached we are to living life as we have known it, and the more open and resilient we are—the more we are utilizing the myriad tools that exist for preparing our emotions, our bodies, and our souls for collapse, the more capacity we create for navigating a formidable future.

All of the above suggestions are related to releasing stress from the mind and body. As the external stresses of an unraveling civilization accumulate, we all need ways for letting go of them. My friend, Jerry Allen, of Transition Sebastopol, California who is also a Marriage and Family Therapist, recently penned an article entitled “The Importance of Effectively Discharging Accumulated Stress As Our World Moves Into Crisis,” in which he states:

Learning to effectively release accumulated stress is not some peripheral process that is needed primarily to treat returning soldiers and victims of abuse, as important as that treatment is. Learning to let go of accumulated stress and discharge new stresses is a vital skill for all of us who are preparing ourselves to face the unknown future. It is as important as doing physical emergency preparations. We have witnessed the chaos, rage and panic that can grip communities when devastating changes happen. When panic hits as someone yells “fire” in a crowded theatre, other voices need to be ready to stand aside and start singing loudly to calm the people and re-direct their energies.  Such work has saved hundreds of people from trampling deaths in panicked crowds. If we are still too activated by our own build up of trauma, we will not be in a position to discharge fast and take quick decisive community initiative.

As we prepare to serve in a helping role among many, it makes sense to train a vibrant cadre of our community members on how to cultivate body awareness, let go of stress fast, remobilize our adaptive capacity and be ready for action. It also makes sense to explore and adapt the use of story, song, dance, ritual and whatever works to help our communities come together, heal together and strengthen our joint body for action.

My just-published book Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition is chock full of re-usable tools for creating and maintaining vibrant emotional resilience. It is also ideal for use in Transition heart and soul or study groups focused on creating emotional resilience.

I do not assume that a world of increasing crises will be a world devoid of cooperation or community building. In her brilliant 2009 book, A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster, Rebecca Solnit notes that in most natural disasters, human beings, in most cases, unite in a spirit of cooperation to support each other. While I certainly concur and reviewed Solnit’s book in an article entitled, “Disaster: The Gift That Keeps On Giving,” I am also well aware that cooperation is not the only response to trauma. Furthermore, the collapse of industrial civilization is most likely to play out in an irregular, “lumpy” fashion in different locations at different times. How it plays out and over what period of time will dictate how humans respond. One thing is certain: Responses will not always be benevolent, caring, and cooperative.

Thus we must prepare for a very uncertain future by consciously cultivating emotional resilience. This involves addressing the myriad ways in which we have been traumatized by the current paradigm and training with intention for encountering situations in the future which may be even more emotionally challenging in a world unraveling.


Carolyn was a psychotherapist in private practice for 17 years and a professor of psychology and history for 10. She is the author of several books, including Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition (2011) and Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse (2009). She manages her website, Speaking Truth to Power at www.carolynbaker.net. Carolyn publishes the Daily News Digest which is a collection of independent news stories focusing on unprecedented transitions and options for navigating an uncertain future. She also writes a regular column entitled Collapsing Consciously for Mike Ruppert’s website, Collapsenet. Carolyn tells stories with an African drum and leads workshops on Navigating The Coming Chaos and on Relationships In The Long Emergency. She has a Transition coaching and spiritual direction practice locally in Boulder, Colorado and by phone or Skype worldwide for people who want help with dealing with the unprecedented challenges of our time.

A Nature-Based Cure for the Blues

There are times when all of us, at some point, experience a mild bout of “the blues.” Either it’s circumstantial —there is something worrisome going on in our life— or it’s just the normal ebb and flow of mood. If you’re a woman, it can be hormonal or it can be the result of poor sleep or nutrition. Even mild depression can be downright painful. You feel the ache of listlessness and hopelessness, even when you know logically your life is generally good and comfortable. That’s when it’s especially bad, perhaps because you can’t even find a good reason why you’re feeling down. If there was something you could fix, you’d fix it. Instead, you’re just not happy and you’re not sure why.

I have observed throughout my life that certain activities make me feel better and even cure me of the occasional blues.  One of the activities that seem to be most reliable in making me feel better instantly is exercising outside in a nature place, preferably alone. The mental health benefits of this are not just anecdotal, there are studies that point to the idea that exercising in an outdoor, natural setting is far more effective in improving mood than exercising indoors.

The reason I recommend exercising alone in nature to cure blues is that it’s contemplative, meaning that it allows your mind to wander to how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking—in the moment, as it relates to your environment. You need not worry about what another person is experiencing, how fast they’re walking, or what they think of what you’re telling them. Solitary, contemplative time in nature, allows you to be as present in the moment as you possibly can be, and affords you the space to work through problems and emotions. I have had many instances of creative insight and even a surge of ideas and motivation during solitary hikes, but not so much when I’ve been with others. Maybe the conversation always gets in the way, or maybe my mind is better at surging creativity when I’m giving it the space to do so.

Studies have also concluded that vigorous exercise in bright light (such as sunlight) increases mental well-being by increasing seratonin levels in the brain. These chemicals give us a “feel good” boost, and as an exercise enthusiast will tell you, there’s nothing like a good workout to put you in a great mood all day. Combining vigorous exercise with time outdoors in nature is the ultimate natural remedy for a mild cause of the blues.

This is a particularly important point for seasonal depression, or the “winter blues.” When it’s cold and blustery outside, the last thing we want to do is go out there to exercise, but this is precisely when it’s most beneficial, especially on sunny days. Where I live near Denver, Colorado, I am no more than a 30 minute drive from beautiful hiking trails that meander through pine forests and rock formations. Even in winter, after a snowfall, so many people hike that the trails are snow-packed and completely walkable.

In modern culture we spend so much of our time indoors, in front of one screen or another (a computer, a television, a smartphone), and this is doing nothing for our emotional, physical or spiritual health. We need to connect – to our bodies, our spirit, other beings, nature—in order to experience the totality of who we are and our place on earth. Nature has already provided us with the means to being and feeling healthy and happy, we just need to rediscover those gifts.

Are there places near where you live or work that you can exercise in a natural setting? If so, set aside at least three days this week to doing so: to greet the day with a sunrise jog, to contemplate the day with a walk at sunset, and to cap the workweek with a long and physically invigorating amble among the trees, birds and open sky.



Why Old Approaches to Environmentalism Are Failing

The cover story in the December, 2011 issue of Outside Magazine is about marine biologist’s Wallace J. Nichols “touchy-feely” theory that if we could “understand what really happens to us in the presence of the ocean—which brain processes underlie our emotional reactions—it could bring about a radical shift in conservation efforts.”

Nichols has been observing what happens to people’s demeanor when they enter the gigantic and spectacular coral reef tank in California’s Academy of Sciences in San Francisco where he works, as well as what happens to the attitudes of people who spend time in the vast wilderness of the ocean, such as surfers and fisherman. He’s concluded – anecdotally – that spending time in or near the ocean has a calming effect on the mind and body, akin to meditation or a spiritual experience. It also creates a desire to conserve and protect in those who have a direct relationship with the ocean.

Nichols is so excited about this concept he has even launched a campaign to create a field of study called neuro-conservationism, because he believes that if we knew exactly why we love the ocean (or any kind of wilderness for that matter) we could create a new tool to protect it. In other words, if we could have empirical evidence that the human mind needs nature for optimum wellbeing, we could make headway in the environmental movement.

I agree with Nichols and many others that the guilt, blame and shame of the environmental movement in the last 50 years isn’t working. While reading dire statistics about the extinction of species or the pollution of air and water worldwide may cause us brief panic or concern, it doesn’t necessarily work to change our long-term patterns of thinking or behavior. There’s a very simple reason for this – we can’t truly care about something with which we have no direct relationship. It just becomes another problem “out there” that hopefully someone will solve. But for now, we think, we have to figure out how to pay the bills and fix the car.

Since the Agricultural Revolution 5,000 years ago and more recently since Industrial Revolution, there has been a shift in how most human beings relate to their environment. Instead of  living in harmony with nature, out of necessity and out of a spiritual impulse, we look to nature as a resource and something to be exploited. That river is no longer a sacred thing that provides life to everything around it, it is something to be controlled and dammed and put to use so we can have electricity and water inside our homes. That mountain is no longer a majestic testament to something greater and older than ourselves, but a pile of minerals and coal to be extracted and plundered so that we can make gadgets and products and “service the economy”.

We’ve literally moved away from depending on the land we’ve inhabited to living inside boxes all day long: houses, cars, cubicles, living rooms, and the virtual “boxes” of televisions and computers. We have separated ourselves from that which sustains us so much that many of us don’t know where our drinking water comes from, where our food comes from, and lack the visceral knowledge that everything is connected to everything else. Therefore, how can we know that our very survival depends on the health and vitality of every ecological system on Earth? We think it depends on a job, or the economy, or the grocery store down the street.

Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that our eyes glaze over when we hear about how the world’s oceans are dying? Or that the rate of extinction of species is accelerating at such an alarming pace due to climate change, pollution and human encroachment on habitat?

If you lived on a piece of land that provided for your every need, from food, drinking water, heat and shelter (wood) and even your spirituality, you sure as heck would care about whether or not someone was dumping toxic chemicals downstream of your river or shooting all the predatory birds and mammals for recreation. You’d lay your life down to protect the place where you live, because you would know how important a healthy ecosystem was to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your children’s children. But in the paradigm of modern society, we are taught that all we need is money, and that as long as we have a healthy economy everything else can be fixed, developed, or sacrificed to the deity of “progress.”

Of course we’re wrong, but we don’t know it, because we have no direct relationship anymore to the land.

What Nichols is realizing, and what ecopsychologists have been saying since the 90s, is that unless we develop a new relationship with nature, we will not have the will or the passion deep in our heart and soul to change anything. Studies have shown that persons who can relate to nature, or spend a lot of time in nature, may realize the connection to their environment better than those who do not, and consequently are more apt to give more attention and credence to issues such as the need for conservation and sustainability.

“…people high in environmental identity accord more weight than people low in environmental identity to those principles that endow environmental entities with moral standing. That EID score was also related to an increased rating for a fourth principle, ‘managing natural resources for the public good’…” (Susan Clayton, Environmental Identity, pg 57)

So yes, Mr. Nichols, it is true that people who develop a relationship to the ocean are more likely to care about conservation of the ocean. For that matter, the same holds true for those who develop a relationship to mountains, prairies, forests, and all the plants and animals that reside there. I don’t think we need more empirical data or neurological studies to make the case that we are not and cannot live separate from the world around us. We already know that deep down in our gut, in that place that connects us to who we really are. We need a healthy environment, not just so we can thrive physically, but also so we can thrive emotionally and spiritually as well.

The new environmentalism consists of taking people outside, showing them what they have forgotten about the connectedness of all things, allowing them to see for themselves the beauty and serenity they’ve been missing. It is about getting people to fall in love with something—an animal, a mountain, a stream—and then allowing their hearts to make the conservation and protection of it a priority.

Al Gore’s documentary, “Inconvenient Truth” doesn’t start with a smack on the face statistic. It starts with a scene at a lake, under a tree, where Gore reminisces about how there was a special place he used to go when he was a kid, and how it made him feel, and how it’s shaped his priorities in life. I believe we all have that memory of a special place where the birds sang and the wind rustled through the trees. It’s time we reconnected with its source.

Who Are You Without Your Ego?

Our ego is our constant, drama-addicted and often irritating companion. Our ego tells us that we are better than other people or not as good as others. It tells us that we’re smarter than that guy down the hall in Marketing but a slacker and dumpy compared to that athletic bicyclist in the office next to ours. Our ego tells us that we aren’t doing enough to realize our goals and it tells us that we know more about health/politics/religion than our best friend.

We find it very difficult to separate ourselves from our ego, and therefore we feel exhilarated whenever information from an external source elevates our sense of self (“You did so well with that, I’m impressed!”) and devaluates it (“I’m not in love with you anymore.”), because we derive our emotions from our thoughts, and our thoughts are dominated by ego. Our mind cannot distinguish what is actually happening to us from what we think is happening.

In this way, we suffer needlessly. We tell ourselves stories about how this or that person is not respecting us. We convince ourselves that someone else is standing in the way of what we really want, and therefore we can’t truly be happy. We hold grudges and we feel anxious much of the time. Our blood pressure surges and our adrenal glands are pumping out fight-or-flight hormones in response to some perceived threat to our wellbeing.

And yet, this is all happening in our minds. Our bodies are just sitting there, staring at the computer screen or laying awake in bed at night. We are creating our own suffering.

We cannot live with the peaceful joy and sense of aliveness that is our birthright and natural state unless we recognize that who we are is not who our ego tells us we are. Our story—of what happened to us in the past or what we think will happen to us in the future—is not who we are.

So if you’re not your role or your story, who are you, really?

Are you a teacher? An engineer? A writer? A mother? Are you a bicyclist, Apple user,  intellectual, athlete, urban farmer, vegan, ominvore, conservative, liberal, progressive, peak oilist, naturalist, yuppie, or sports fan?

Do you have a high opinion of yourself or a low one? Are you a valuable person? Who are you without your identities and without your ego?

We are not who we think we are. We are the awareness of our identification with form. In the moment when we realize we are placing a label on ourselves and feeling a certain way about that label, we have brought awareness in between the thought (ego) and our identification with it. We are the space that separates us from the thought that tells us, “You are not enough” or “You are better than everyone else.”

We suffer because we feel inadequate in our roles and identifications. We didn’t get that promotion, we lost that client, our child came home with an F on their report card, we suspect our spouse is cheating on us, we aren’t making progress on that project or goal we’ve been obsessing about for the last several years.

In nature, consciousness and life are ego-less and have intrinsic value.

Here’s an activity in nature you can do on a hike or just out in your backyard, that will help you answer the question, “who am I?”


Find a place to sit comfortably outside, where you can feel safe and where you can spend at least 30 minutes undisturbed.

Close your eyes and extend out your hand. How do you know that your hand is alive? How does it feel, inside of your body? Is there a buzzing, a vibration that tells you that your hand is alive, that you are alive?

Don’t think about the fact that your hand is alive. Don’t think, “I know my hand is alive because I can see it and I used it just now and there’s blood flowing through it.”

Don’t think, just FEEL. Feel the sensation of aliveness in your hand.

You are this sense of aliveness. You are not your thoughts, you are not your past, you are not your future. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are consciousness and life itself.

Now, open your eyes and look at a plant or some other living thing near you. Perhaps a tree, or a flower, or an insect. It’s best if you look at something you know very little about—perhaps an insect or plant you haven’t seen before.

Look at it without trying to identify or label it. You don’t need to know what it’s called or what it’s usefulness or function is.

You know nothing about this being. You don’t know what it thinks of itself or what it knows. You don’t know how long it’s been alive or who its mate is. You don’t know if it will die today or next year. You don’t know what diseases it may harbor.

Does this being have value, even without you knowing anything about it?

Why does it have value?

Why do you have value?

Who are you?

Darkness and the Death of Ego

When you live in a city or suburb of a city, or even a small town, it is virtually impossible to experience total darkness outdoors. The light pollution that emanates from windows, street lights and car headlights prevents you from experiencing the wilderness of night untainted by artificial light. But if you’ve ever backpacked, or visited remote parts of the desert, mountain or prairie, you’ve probably had the good fortune to experience the complete and utter darkness of wild night. What was that experience like for you?

Recently I was staying in a vacation home in southwest Colorado, on a mesa above the small town of Ridgway, Colorado. This was a neighborhood with mostly other vacation rentals on large, two (or more) acre properties completely immersed in juniper trees. There were no street lights installed on this mesa, and most of the  houses were unoccupied because the owners didn’t live there fulltime. On this particular evening, a storm had rolled in from the south, where the San Juans had churned up a day’s amount of moisture, and the clouds and rain came in droves over Ridgway, petering out over the mesa where I was staying. What had been a clear and sunny day had turned into a gray and cloudy evening.

A couple of hours after sunset, I ventured outside to let me dog out one more time before bed. What I experienced outside in that wild night floored me.

Because there was no moon and it was cloudy, and because there were no streetlights on the mesa, the landscape of junipers and shrubs and a few rooftops had disappeared into an unmitigated black hole. I waited for my eyes to adjust so that I could see the nuances of the trees, some faint misgivings of shadow and light, but nothing happened. It was black, and it stayed black. There was no sound. The birds were sleeping and the insects weren’t making a chirp or crick. The wind from the earlier had calmed to an oh so slight breeze, just the faintest breath. I saw a flat, black sky above an even blacker clump that during the day was a landscape of thick green juniper canopy. I stood there, feeling as if I were about to fall from the precipice of some enormous black canyon into the dark mystery beyond.

I was mesmerized. Never before had I experienced such darkness. Not even on previous trips to the wilderness, not even during my vision fast in the canyon in Utah (because there were stars and moon and lots of reflective surfaces). Not even in the middle of the night in the mountains of Fairplay, where I once owned a cabin. Always there were stars, always there were streaks of light from houses or towns or cars.

This was a nothingness like I’ve never seen, or felt. And I was both drawn to it and terrified of it. When I looked at it, it felt like I could disappear into that void, and by disappearing know true freedom and unity with the sacred. I could become one with that darkness. The thought of that made me feel untethered and vulnerable. But at the same time, I couldn’t stop looking, I couldn’t stop wanting that release.

I wonder if what I felt was not unlike the prospect of the death of ego. The idea of becoming one with all that is is unimaginable to the ego. It doesn’t want to be erased and made inseparable from everything, from the Universe, from Life Force, from god. It wants to hold on to its membrane and its separateness. It wants its specialness. It wants its distinguishing aspects from The Other. It wants the light, because the light gives the ego form. The ego resists its own demise.

At the same time, the prospect of disappearing into the void of All That Is feels orgasmic and mindblowing. It was a seductive terror. It was the ultimate oxymoron. It compelled me and it repulsed me. I felt as if I could stand on the gravel road of the mesa staring at the void for many more hours or even all night. But I didn’t. I went in and embraced the light once more, and experienced myself as I am in the realm of everyday consciousness.

Perhaps one day I can experience that wild darkness again, and spend a little more time with my friend Carolyn Baker calls the embodied ritual of dying before you die. I sense that there is richness and enlightenment waiting for me in that abyss.

I Need More Wilderness in My Life

After several days of hiking, fishing and canoeing near the Flattops Wilderness and Steamboat Springs with my husband, I’ve concluded three things:

1. I prefer silent hiking. After nearly two years of leading groups on contemplative (silent) hikes, and hiking alone (silently, of course), I have found that it comes naturally to me to just be present in the woods and on the mountain without the need for chatter. I can talk in the car on the way to the trail, I can talk after the hike, but during the hike, I want to experience everything. I want to listen to the land, not to the same five stories I keep retelling myself and others over and over.

2. I need more “silence” in my life. It was refreshing to spend all day in a place where we barely saw any other people. No one on the road, no one on the trail, no one at the Ripple Creek Pass overlook and picnic area. I felt my body settle into a completely different rhythm without the “noise” of cars, machines, and the daily panic of clients, to-do lists, and mainstream media. I ate when hungry, slept when tired, woke when ready for more.

3. I need more wilderness to remind me of what’s really important in life. I saw people who have made a life for themselves in remote, natural places doing things that speak to their soul: running a small marina in the summer and training sled dogs for winter, raising cattle sustainably, making sure people are safe while enjoying a state park area, leading pack trips into wilderness, teaching people to fish and giving people the means to enjoy the thrill of a river from an inner tube. They live in the mountains because they see the value in small-town life, and a simpler life. I admire them.

There is something disturbingly soothing about routine, now that I’m back in it at home. Perhaps as I’m getting older, routine is wearing grooves in me like a river wears streams into canyons. The tributaries of my life–the vacations and getaways–are getting narrower and narrower, but there are more of them. They’re necessary to keep the river from overflowing its banks or rushing too quickly downstream. I will churn my way downstream, down the destiny of my life, and hope that somewhere up ahead there’s a tributary large enough to take me into a calmer, more wild landscape again—perhaps for good.

Carolyn Baker and Margaret Emerson Book Talk

Carolyn Baker and Margaret Emerson at Boulder Book Store, May 4, 2011 from Michael Brownlee on Vimeo.

This book signing and talk took place on May 4, 2011 at the Boulder Bookstore.

Carolyn discusses her book, “Navigating the Coming Chaos”, and the psychological implications of the impending collapse of industrial civilization. Margaret discusses the benefits of contemplative hiking and time in nature.

The Intersection of Evolution, Spirituality and Psychology

For all of human history we have possessed limited knowledge about how our minds and our emotions actually work. We’ve been at the whim of primitive instincts, often at the most crucial moments in our lives.

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Seeing the truth of how the world works, especially our inner world — can set us free.
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In this teleseminar, you’ll learn how our inherited instincts have come to be deeply “mismatched” with the sophisticated, demanding lives we actually live today.

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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.

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