Gratitude and Presence In Times of Sadness

dreamstime_s_67074644My mother is at the end stage of her terminal illness. After being diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer almost two years ago, the chemo treatments stopped working and the cancer has spread all throughout her abdomen. The doctors said they don’t know how long she has left. Maybe weeks or a few months at the most.

My daughter and I flew to San Diego to see her while she was still feeling relatively OK. As we drove around town from the airport to the marina where my mom is living to my sister’s house nearby, my mind was filled with all manner of thoughts—what we would do to maximize our time there, how to handle certain delicate conversations, and the logistics for the weekend. My daughter, however, had something else on her mind.

“I love San Diego,” she said. “Look at how all the plants and trees are so different than in Denver. It would be so cool to live here.”

My first instinct was to defend Denver and remind her of why her father and I moved out of San Diego more than twenty years ago, but instead, another thought blossomed in my mind. Why was I taking her comment as a personal affront? Why not see what she sees? She was right, after all. The flora was different. Way different.

Until that very moment, I was taking the surrounding landscape for granted. I looked again through her eyes. Some trees had huge red blossoms on them and not many green leaves (I learned later they’re naked coral trees). There were yellow and purple flowers on the side of embankments and in the medians. Trees were bright and deep green with fresh leaves. Grass was lush and dense after a season of rain, a relief from years of drought and brown.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers. Rosemary shrubs and pepper trees were as common as ash trees and Russian sage back home. The air was fragrant and humid with an approaching rainstorm, a sensation seldom to be experienced in the arid climate of the plains of Colorado.

We spent the next two days observing all the new and wonderful things San Diego has to offer: a diving seal in the harbor, a manta ray coasting casually near the dock of the Midway Naval Museum, purple trees, slugs, eucalyptus trees, teal-blue coastlines. In the midst of our sad and difficult family visit, we did what we could to stay present to what surrounded us. We appreciated that life was beginning anew in San Diego after a period of drought and death. It was a momentary glimpse of something beautiful and perhaps, not necessarily enduring.

This attention to beauty kept us in a state of gratitude toward life, and indeed was a contrast to the decline and illness we had to witness.

When you have to face a sad reality in your life, is it possible to be consoled by nature’s seasons and beauty? Can staying present to nature’s cycles get you through some tough times? I think so, because you see the endurance of life and beauty after a period of harsh and difficult challenges.

One Simple Reason to Meditate

The other day I was at a friend’s house for a little gathering and the subject of meditation came up. The women at this gathering discussed the many ways meditation had helped them, or what they thought were benefits of meditation based on what they’ve experienced from friends and family.

We all seemed to agree that meditation was a good habit, and that it was important to not get caught up in the idea that it has to be done correctly or for a certain amount of time. Any time you can just sit quietly, take a break, breathe and observe your thoughts, even if it’s for five minutes, was a good thing.

There is a common misconception that meditation is about suppressing thought. Meditation is not about “not thinking” but rather allowing the thoughts, observing them, and then going back to the breath. In this way, meditation is a way for us to let go of our attachment to the meaning we assign to our thoughts.

Detaching ourselves from the emotional triggers our thoughts create is one simple and very important benefit to meditation.

I’ll offer an example from my own experience with meditation. Many years ago I was taking an online meditation class at Naropa for my graduate degree. We were required to sit at least 20 minutes per day and journal about it afterward. I hadn’t done any serious daily meditation before. I’d meditated only a handful of times before and with a group. Never alone and never consistently.

I was ready to see what it’d be like to have a consistent practice. I prepared my space. I put down a couple of couch pillows on the floor. I set up a timer on my phone so I wouldn’t constantly be watching the clock.  I got into a comfortable position and touched the “start” button.

The first few times I meditated I kept glancing at the timer, thinking that surely at least 20 minutes had passed, when in fact it had only been five or ten.  It was excruciating to sit still doing…nothing. My thoughts started lining up.

My back feels stiff. What if I start fidgeting. Will that be wrong?

Back to the breath…

There’s a lot of dust under the entertainment unit. Ugh. I have to dust that later.

I can’t forget to make that appointment today.

Back to the breath…

Will I have time to get that project done and do this meditation, too?

I wonder what I’ll make for dinner? Not now, back to the breath.

…and so on.

At first, I was totally “buying into” these thoughts. I would start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, disgusted even. I was a terrible house keeper. I had too much work to do. I wasn’t totally happy with my work because if I were, I wouldn’t feel so stressed all the time. Why was I so forgetful lately?

The meditation felt excruciating because I wanted to keep DOING instead of just “sitting there” obsessing over something.

After a couple of weeks of this, I noticed a pattern. I noticed that the same exact thoughts would come up, day in and day out. The noticing of the dirt and dust in the room as I sat with my eyes open with a soft gaze. The discomfort of my position because my core was weak. The sense of overwhelm about all the things on my to-do list that day.

That’s when things began to shift, ever so slightly. Instead of feeling anxious over the many things I believed I had to do that were pilling up and creating ever-increasing urgency, I began to look at the thoughts themselves with a little bit of irritation. Why was I so obsessive? Why was it so hard to relax for 20 minutes and let things go? The world (and my to-do list) wasn’t going anywhere for 20 minutes. Why was my brain making it so difficult for me to just sit?

I was really judging myself!

After another couple of weeks, I began to look at my irritation in a different way. I saw that I was resisting, but what I was resisting was the letting go. I wasn’t resisting taking 20 minutes away from my schedule to just sit, I was resisting the idea that I stopped buying into the idea that the thoughts themselves were all that important.

Was it really that important that the room had pockets of hidden dust that I hadn’t cleaned?

Was it really that important that I get everything done on my to-do list a week ahead of schedule?

Was it really that important that I be absolutely 100% comfortable at all times?

What I was witnessing was the ego having its little power struggle. As Eckhart Tolle would say, our ego wants us to believe that it is much more important than it really is. It wants to be in control. It doesn’t want to be released or gently set aside. Letting go of our sense of importance is really one of the most difficult things we can do, but it can be the most liberating.

And that is the one simple reason to meditate, in my opinion: To observe those repetitive thoughts and be able to unplug from them, and to be able to unplug from our ego’s sense of importance. This allows us to have more inner peace, because we are not always in some sort of competition with the world, our schedule or our ego’s idea of happiness and success

After several months of daily meditation, I was able to look at a thought that came up—about the dust or the to-do list—and chuckle. “Oh, right. You again.”


3 Steps for Having a More Spiritual Experience in Nature

Remember the last time you had a really spiritual experience in nature? Perhaps you were hiking to the top of a mountain or kayaking along the glass-like surface of a lake, just barely after sunrise, and an expansive feeling came over you. Suddenly, you felt connected to something much bigger and older than yourself, perhaps even the essence of life itself. A calm peace came over you and you knew that everything was as it should be.

You often wish you can get back that feeling and linger for a little while longer.

Spending time in nature can be an emotionally and spiritually healing experience. It can allow you to rejuvenate and re-align yourself to what really matters in life. But it’s not always possible to have a spiritual experience if the conditions aren’t right. In fact, it can feel a bit frustrating when you’ve trekked to the end of the trail in a beautiful and remote location and all you can think about is the kink in your shoulder or all the emails that are going to be waiting for you upon your return home.

If you want your time in the wild to be a more spiritually rewarding experience, there are three things you must do in order to create the conditions to make it possible.

1. Set an Intention.

Intentions are powerful forces for the psyche. Setting an intention is like putting out a message into the Universe announcing your arrival at a certain point in time and space, instead of following the whims of randomness.

Setting an intention before you go out into wilderness can enable you to connect deeper to your soul, notice signs from nature, and expand your awareness. Some examples of intentions are, “I intend to relax fully and not dwell on my usual issues during the next hour.” or “I intend to open up to any messages, omens and signs from nature to answer a question that’s been on my mind for a while.”

Saying your intention out loud makes it all the more powerful.

2. Be Silent.

It’s difficult to enter into a state of peace and receptivity to a spiritual experience when you and your trekking buddy are busy debating about current events or complaining about work.

Whether you’re hiking alone or with someone, agree to do most of your hike or adventure in relative silence. Silence allows you to be mindful and present in a way that can’t happen when you’re chattering away.

It may feel awkward at first if you’re with someone, but the more you do it, the easier it will be. You’ll find that spending time in nature becomes mentally and spiritually refreshing as well as physically rewarding.

3. Be Present.

You’ve set an intention and you’re spending time enjoying your adventure in silence, but there’s just one small problem. You can’t seem to shut off your “monkey mind”. You’re worried, fretting, and your mind is going around in circles.

How can you be more present to what’s around you in order to open up to a more uplifting experience?

One powerful technique to becoming fully present in the moment is to focus your attention on two sensory inputs at the same time. Notice what you’re hearing at the same time that you focus on a tree or cloud in front of you. Or breathe deeply and notice how it smells at the same time as you’re touching something and discovering its texture. Keep your concentration on these two sensory inputs for as long as possible. You’ll find that you instantly get very present and all other thoughts stop. You can practice this over and over until you find your mind settling down and becoming more in tune with your surroundings.

Another way to get more grounded in the moment, especially if you’re debating something or worrying about something, is to tell yourself that you’ll set aside 15 minutes after your outdoor adventure to think about this topic. Allow yourself to relax into the idea that you’re okay right now and that you deserve a rest away from stressful thoughts.

I’ve heard so many people tell me they had moments of intense clarity and joy because of contemplative time they spent in nature. It’s hard to have these kinds of insights in our normally busy, distracted lives. We could go years working jobs we tolerate, staying in relationships that are destroying our soul, and we don’t even know how bad it is until we have a spiritual experience in the wild and it all hits us: We’ve been asleep in our life and have missed out on so much that’s possible, beautiful and liberating.

Don’t Ruin What You Love By Turning It Into a Job, Part 2

Why do we so often want to turn something we love into a job? We are not content to just love what we love and do more of it, we want to monetize it somehow, and that’s where we run into a problem.

I’m not saying that dreams can’t somehow be monetized, or that you can’t turn your life’s purpose into a career that supports you financially. Obviously many, many people have done just that. All I’m saying is that be careful not to limit your dreams to only include those that have something to do with charging people for your goods or services.

In Napoleon Hill’s classic book, “Think Rich, Grow Rich” he talks about the importance of having a “burning desire” as the first step toward manifesting whatever it is you want. During the time the book was written, the United States had just come out of the Great Depression, so it’s not surprising that the focus of the “burning desire” in his book had a lot to do with money. He says that above all else, you must have a singular focus about what it is you want and belief that you can achieve it. He says that you need not have education, status, money, looks, friends – in fact, he says that none of those things are prerequisites to obtaining riches beyond your wildest imagination.

When I read that, I realized that I’ve been going about the whole business of creating a life purpose backwards.  I had been trying to figure out how to keep doing more of what I love by turning it into a job, but it wasn’t necessarily something I had a burning desire to do (turn hiking into a job). I already had a burning desire. That desire occupied my thoughts often. When I imagined it, I felt a sense of freedom and aliveness that was a beacon to my life today. This dream was the future life my husband and I are planning to have on our 6 acres of land in Ridgway, Colorado. We would be living much closer to the land, growing most of our own vegetables, raising chickens, going hiking and fishing more often in the proximity of Colorado’s most beautiful mountains. We would live in a small community, make great friends, enjoy interesting adventures in new places we would explore.

The only reason I didn’t consider this as my purpose was because I thought I would have to support the dream rather than the other way around. But that doesn’t have to be true. We are planning on selling our wares at the local famer’s markets in Ridgway and Telluride. I am still going to be doing what I do now, since I’ve been working from home for the last 18 years and can work anywhere. The point is, anything can happen, but trying to have it all planned out ahead of time is a dream killer. Who knows what opportunities will unfold in the new life we’re creating? So often life takes us down some interesting trails, ones we never planned on taking. I can’t possibly know every single thing that will happen in the next ten years, nor do I want to. I just have to trust that as long as I have the vision, the details will work themselves out. I’ve got to stop distracting myself with worries about finding the perfect outdoor, active, closer-to-nature way of living. I will already have it!

Consider what it is that occupies your thoughts. What is your burning desire? Do you love to run? Travel? Create art? What draws you, what whispers into your ear and calls you closer? Whenever I go hiking, I find myself longing desperately to stay in the mountains and woods, to experience the sights and smells and sounds of nature on a daily basis. My body and soul beg me to pay attention to this. It is a burning desire to experience these feelings of authenticity and freedom more often.

But it doesn’t have to be a job. We only revert to this way of thinking because our occupation takes up so much of our time. All I’m saying is that our burning desire can lead us to a life that’s worth living, regardless if it’s a job or just the way we live.


Don’t Ruin What You Love by Turning It Into a Job

I work as a freelance copywriter and many of my clients are in the self-help industry. One of the biggest reasons people turn to self-help, especially in mid-life, is to figure out their life’s purpose. I’ve written marketing for quite a few gurus and spiritual teachers who claim to know the “secret” to discovering one’s life’s purpose.

Just like in the diet industry, where there’s no such thing as being too thin, in the self-help industry, there’s no such thing as being too fulfilled. If you’re not wildly successful, crazy abundant (rich), deliriously joyful about Monday mornings or don’t have a three-page long list of accomplishments in your chosen field, there’s something wrong with you. We are told that we should do what we love 40 hours a week, and if we’re enlightened enough, we will find a way to be millionaires doing it. We are told that we can turn hobbies into fully realize businesses with employees and 401Ks, but only if we overcome FEAR and awaken to and embrace our life’s calling.

Well, I don’t know about that. There’s a danger in turning what you love most in life into a job. Hear me out.

While I wholeheartedly agree that the world would be better off if everyone could wake up each morning and go to work doing the work they are not only good at doing, but that inspires them and fulfills them spiritually, financially and emotionally, I also think that sometimes our desire to turn our hobbies or interests into a money making venture can backfire.

About ten years ago I was flying home from a trip to visit family when it hit me. I didn’t want to do my job anymore. At that point, I had been a freelance graphic designer for about ten years and had been fairly successful. I made more money than I thought possible at that career, and I had a solid base of steady clients. But it was starting to bore me. I get bored easily.

I knew that change doesn’t just happen because you decide your life sucks. You have to take ACTION. So I went back to school and got my Master’s in ecopsychology. I chose that field because when I learned it was about the healing aspect of nature on the psyche, I was astounded that there was a field of study that put into words what I had felt for years.

One thing led to another and I ended up writing my book, “Contemplative Hiking” shortly after I graduated. At that time, I thought my life’s purpose was to show people a different way of being in nature. I wanted to share my transformative experience of contemplative hiking with anyone who was open to it. I still do. But writing the book wasn’t enough. The next step was to actually start taking groups on contemplative hikes, so I organized a MeetUp around the concept.

For three years, I led more than 70 hikes around the Front Range. The more time I spent outside, the more I wanted to be outside. I didn’t like the idea of sitting at my desk, day in and day out, writing and designing for the rest of my life. I wanted to be in the woods, teaching people how to be mindful and experience a spiritual awakening among the trees. The idea of turning what I loved into a business began to take shape. What if I offered retreats and workshops around the idea of contemplative hiking? Could I possibly turn what I love most into a way to support myself, so I could do it full time?

I did end up facilitating several workshops and retreats, but it didn’t meet my expectations as far as income. What I realized was that I could easily make decent money sitting at my desk and doing what my clients said I was good at—writing and design—but I couldn’t seem to figure out a way to make decent money doing what I loved.

Around the same time I had that realization, something else started to happen. When I took groups on the free MeetUp hikes—which I had hoped were a great way to promote my retreat business—I noticed that I wasn’t as relaxed as I would be if I were alone or with my husband or friends. I felt responsible for the people on the hike, most of whom I knew nothing about. I didn’t know about their health or their background or what they were hoping to get out of the hike. It was just a MeetUp, after all, not a structured retreat where participants fill out forms and sign waivers. I worried whether they were enjoying themselves, or if the hike was too strenuous and someone would fall ill or pass out. I worried about being late, getting injured, getting lost… Worry began to crowd out my good feelings of peace and belonging. I was ruining what I loved most (hiking) by trying to turn it into a marketing vehicle. Now, instead of looking forward to my scheduled weekend hikes, I dreaded them.

This past summer it dawned on me that I was making a huge mistake. I was ruining my experience of hiking because I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I wanted to bring money into the equation, and I had expectations of how much money that was supposed to be. I wasn’t doing it anymore because it was fun, spiritual, or because I enjoyed sharing my experience. I was doing it to get something else out of it, and that was the mistake.

I knew that I had to take a sabbatical from taking groups on hikes or leading retreats. That didn’t mean I still couldn’t go hiking. In fact, I reveled in the fact that I could hike just about anywhere because I had a good career that allowed me plenty of free time and vacation since I was self-employed. And without scheduled MeetUps, I could be more spontaneous with where I went or with whom, and for how long.

I still believe in following my bliss. I’m just a little more careful about what I drag along for the journey. I don’t have to take along a business plan, or a marketing budget, or a good mailing “list”, or a rockstar ability to network. I can just follow my bliss and see where it leads me. My bliss has led me to a degree in ecopsychology, lots of interesting friends, and a book I’m proud of. While my bliss continues to be contemplative hiking, I’m enjoying a walk along a side trail into the latest research in physical fitness and nutrition. I’m listening to podcasts, reading books, and considering—oh yes!—a way to turn this latest hobby-slash-obsession into yet another part-time job.

Chakras, Yoga and Hiking

Chakras and Hiking from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.

Yoga therapist, Sharon Alexander, and I went on a short walk along the Bobolink trail in south Boulder to demonstrate how to be mindful of the energy of your chakras while hiking. Even though the terminology is different, the concepts behind the earth, water and fire chakras are very similar to the concepts in the chapter about masculine and feminine energy in my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range.

Masculine energy is about doing, striving, achieving. It is goal-oriented and direct. Feminine energy is about being, feeling, experiencing, sensing and receiving. If one’s energy is out of balance, problems can occur. Too much masculine energy in life can create burn out, as Sharon points out. Too much feminine energy can perpetuate a stuck state, or an inability to create inertia for change.

When you’re hiking, notice your energy. Are you focused on the goal, the summit, the point on the map that you’ve assigned yourself? Are you enjoying the moment or concerned about the end result of your hike? Are you dropping down into your feelings or are you checking off lists in your mind? This exercise isn’t meant to create judgement about what energy you’re projecting, only an observation. If you’re feeling burned out, you may consider balancing your energy with more feeling and sensing. Slow down, sink into your senses, don’t worry about how far you’re walking or how to elevate your heartrate. Use the yoga poses shown in the video to be mindful of your body.

If you’re frustrated by your lack of focus in life, and you’re feeling stuck, you may need to ramp up your energy and become more task-oriented. Set a goal for yourself for the hike (distance, time, destination) and achieve it. Balance is key.


Tips for Getting Unstuck and Overcoming the Blues

Tips for Getting Unstuck and Overcoming the Blues with Hiking from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.


There are days when I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? You feel totally uninspired, blah, and you can’t seem to conjure up any motivation or enthusiasm about the future. The days ahead seem like a slog, and you wonder what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. It’s particularly bad if I can’t even look forward to the weekend, when I’m supposed to be enjoying my life and spending time with my family.

These feelings are often temporary for me. I know that if I just sit with the feeling, eventually I will feel better. Perhaps later that evening, or the next day. Often, within a few days. But sometimes the feeling persists and I know that I have to do something to get myself out of the funk. But what?

The advice experts offer on how to beat the blues, or mild depression, involves getting enough sleep, getting adequate exercise, proper nutrition, time with friends and quiet time spent in nature. Time spent outside has many health benefits besides offering invigorating exercise—you get a dose of vitamin D, which most people don’t seem to get enough of these days, a condition that has been linked to depression.

Time spent in nature isn’t just good for curing the blues. It has been shown to improve creativity and some cognitive function, according to a study undertaken by the University of Utah and the University of Kansas psychology departments. This study was performed with subjects who had been hiking in the wilderness for four days, and it’s unclear whether the benefits stem from an immersion in nature or from the removal of technology (phones, computers, cars, sirens, alarms).

The soft focus, or what researches call “soft fascination” on the natural world (as experienced through hiking) is soothing, and brings us back to a kind of default state of mind where introspection, creativity and clearer cognitive functioning occur. It can be a kind of “reset” button to our state of mind, especially if we feel overwhelmed, stressed, or stuck in negative thinking.

This study also validates my belief that the last thing I, or anyone else for that matter, should be doing when we’re not feeling all that great is to sit around surfing the internet or watching TV.


Excuses Keep Us Stuck

When I’m feeling down, I’m really not in the mood to do the very things I should do, which is to socialize or get outside to exercise or hike. More likely I will sit at home by myself, moping, napping, reading, or surfing the internet. Depression inertia is difficult to overcome.

What excuses do you use that are keeping you stuck at home and feeling down? That it’s too cold outside? That it’s too far to drive to go hiking, and you don’t feel like sitting in the car? That you’re too tired? Don’t want to go alone and have no one to go with?

Yeah, those are all excuses I’ve used, too. But here’s the thing. When I do kick myself in the butt and actually get out there on the trail, I feel so much better afterward. I’m so glad I went, even if it’s cold, wet, snowy, whatever. In fact, some of the best hikes I’ve had have been in inclement weather or uncomfortable conditions, simply because the intensity of the experience adds to the feeling of aliveness and adventure.

3 Tips for Getting Un-Stuck and Relieving the Blues

Consider doing these three things the next time you’re feeling a bit depressed and you know you should get outside, spend time in nature, and invigorate yourself with exercise and fresh air.

1. Prepare the equipment you’ll need the night before, or at a moment when you’re feeling a little more motivated. Take out your daypack, fill up your water bottle, and set this next to your hiking boots by your front door. Simply the act of getting ready for the hike, even if you’re not going until the next day, will increase the likelihood you’ll actually go.

2. Put your hike on your to-do list or calendar for the day. Set the alarm to go off and remind you. Tell yourself that you intend to go, and set a specific time that you’ll leave the house or the office. The more specific you are about when you will be going and where, the harder it will be to blow it off.  Make arrangements to get to work a little later or to leave earlier if you have to. Your mental health is important! I doubt anyone has ever invented anything or produced anything of value when they’re depressed.

3. Tell someone you plan on going on a hike. Perhaps they’ll want to join you, and that will offer you more social time with a friend, or alleviate your worry about going alone. Whenever I have a goal in mind, I make it a point to announce that goal and intention to as many people as possible. (The bigger the goal, the more people I tell.) The theory behind this is that the pain of NOT doing something you’ve committed to verbally with others is greater than procrastination and lack of inertia.

By following these tips, you’ll also be creating a set routine and setting a goal, which are two suggestions off the WebMD site for fighting depression.

There have been times when I’ve felt so lost and down that I’ve prescribed “a hike a day” for myself, even a short one as close as possible to my house. What I’ve found is that after three days of this kind of imposed routine, I begin to feel much better. I have insights while out there looking at the trees and mountains. I begin to feel like a part of the world, not like the world is on my shoulders. The exercise alone is like throwing open the windows in a stale house in the spring.

I’m willing to bet that you’ll feel much better after a nice hike, and you’ll think clearer and maybe even get some new ideas for how to live in a way that makes you feel alive and purposeful.

Like The Willow, Become More Resilient With The Winds Of Change

Are you sometimes feeling blown away with the dizzying changes of our time? Everything seems more complicated, things are moving at a faster pace, and it may seem difficult to keep up with what life demands of you. Perhaps you are overwhelmed by the bad news you hear about climate change, the economy, rising prices and dwindling resources. The future you envisioned for yourself even 5 or 10 years ago seems unreachable and impossible now, and you haven’t yet been inspired by its replacement.

You’re nagged by the need to be more clear about your own future in such a rapidly shifting, fragile world. If you’re like many who care deeply about the Earth, you are challenged by what society tells you about the right path and what you know in your heart and soul to be true.

You’d like to feel more resilient, more confident, and stronger in the face of so many challenges and so much uncertainty. If any of this rings true, you may benefit from life coaching by my good friend, Carolyn Baker. I highly recommend her if you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, confused or needing direction and guidance on how to put your goals into action.

Carolyn is the author of two powerful books on resilience in the face of challenging times: Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Demise and Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition. Both books offer emotional and spiritual tools for preparing for living in a post-industrial world and can be purchased on Carolyn was an adjunct professor of history and psychology for 11 years and a psychotherapist in private practice for 17 years. (She is not, and never has been, a licensed psychologist.)

Carolyn has facilitated numerous workshops and seminars all over the country on resilience, emotions and hardship, and cultivating a rich inner life. Her website is

How can Carolyn Baker’s life coaching services help you?

Life coaching is profoundly different from mentoring, advice-giving, therapy, or counseling. The coaching process addresses specific transitions, goals, or projects that are going on right now and discovering what the obstacles or challenges might be, then choosing a course of action to make your life the way you want it to be.

Life coaching is an alliance where the coaching relationship empowers you because it is assumed that you know the answer to every challenge you have in your life, even if those answers may not be obvious.

Life coaching in the context of navigating an uncertain future is unique, and it is important to work with a coach such as Carolyn, who understands that uncertainty. Some of the issues for which people seek coaching from Carolyn are:

• Relationships and intimacy

• Stress management and balance

• Seeking one’s life purpose and how to fulfill it

• Spirituality and personal growth

• Family and parenting

• Wellness, aging, lifestyle, and self-care

• And much more…

For more information, contact her at

Hiking and Weight Loss

Before (year ago)

A subject I haven’t broached yet on this blog is the idea that hiking is great way to stay fit because it’s enjoyable and grounding in way that standing on the elliptical for an hour at the gym is not.

Notice what I didn’t say: I didn’t say that hiking was a great way to lose weight. At least, not permanently, or not at all, if you expect that by hiking miles each week you’ll magically start shedding fat.

In recent months I’ve been devouring books and research on diets and permanent fat loss. Last December, I signed myself and my daughter up for some personal training. My intention at the time was to help her get in better cardiovascular shape for hiking, and to maybe lose a few pounds myself (Ok, maybe more than a few). It was around this time that I started wondering, why is it so easy for me to maintain a higher weight than I’d like, but so difficult to maintain a weight that’s oh, 30 pounds lighter? Why can’t I reset my “set point” without starving or exercising like a maniac?

I’m certainly no stranger to regular exercise. Five years ago I was running half-marathons. Those took up a lot of time to train for, so I gave up long distance running in lieu of hiking, and while I was doing research for my book, I would hike 12-15 miles per week. I kept this up for more than a year, because even after I was finished with my research, I was leading group hikes through my MeetUp. In between hikes, I’d take long walks, jog, and work out at the gym. I love exercise and love being outside more. I was doing something active at least six days a week.

But still, I was 30 pounds overweight. So something wasn’t jiving.

I thought I was eating healthfully, and not too much. For breakfast, I’d usually have a bowl of oatmeal with almonds and soymilk, or a bowl of high-fiber, low-sugar cereal with soymilk; for lunch it was usually leftovers from dinner the night before, like some kind of meat, pasta, rice and veggie. My favorite meal for dinner was a big salad with goat cheese and glazed nuts and some crusty artisan bread. Man, I loved crusty bread from Whole Foods. I also liked nonfat frozen yogurt, and made that a favorite treat at least once or twice a week. I never ate what I considered junk food (Doritos, donuts, poptarts, sodas and fries) and eating out was usually where we could order lots of veggies or lean meats – like Tokyo Joe’s, Rubios, or Sweet Tomatoes soup and salad buffet.

Because I thought I was doing all the right things, I resigned myself to never looking and feeling my optimum. I simply did not want to spend the rest of my life obsessing about food, running 6 miles a day and feeling hungry all the time—which is what I had to do when I weighed a lot less and fit into a size 2.

One day I was at Natural Grocers and noticed a book by the check-out stand: “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes. I’m so glad I picked it up that day. I finished it two days later. That book completely rocked my world! At first, when got through most of the book and I learned the “why”, I was shocked. I said, surely THIS can’t be the answer?? It felt both too difficult to do and not necessarily new information. It sounded like Atkins, but worse – what it meant was that for my metabolism type, I had to not only give up any form of sugar, including honey and agave, I had to give up all manner of starch, including grains, corn, beans and gulp…crusty bread.  Forever. Waaaaaaahhhhh!!!

I don’t like to back down from a challenge. So at the beginning of February, I gave up all sugar and starch, all fruit except berries, and ate mostly meat, eggs, cheese, non-starchy vegetables (lots of leafy greens), full fat greek yogurt, and nuts. What a paradigm shift! To go from non-fat oatmeal with nuts and soymilk in the morning to 3 eggs over a bed of spinach with some meat on the side, cooked in butter or coconut oil, no less! I couldn’t believe I could actually lose weight eating this way.

Lunches and dinners were much less challenging, but I sure did miss my pasta and bread.

After doing much reading and research (list below) I also learned why hiking alone isn’t necessarily a vehicle for fat or weight loss. I was simply unconsciously eating slightly more throughout the week to compensate for the calories I was burning while hiking. I didn’t think I was, but I was. Plus, I was eating the WRONG kind of calories – lots of—you guessed it—whole grains along with the occasional sugars and nonfat frozen yogurt.

During (current)

To date, I’ve lost close to 30 pounds of fat, gained back lots of muscle with resistance training, and can now fit into a junior size 11 shorts. I feel healthier, my hair is thicker, my sleep is better and I need less of it, I’m energized all the time, my acid reflux is gone, and the best part? I don’t feel hungry between meals. In fact, I can go much longer between meals than ever before. No more grazing every 2-1/2 hours.

Now that I’ve awakened to the facts of metabolic syndrome, I’m a little angry at what my medical establishment has been pushing on me and everyone else for years. All that whole wheat bread and pasta, and all that brown rice wasn’t doing me any good. Those potatoes, too, skin or no skin, butter or no butter, weren’t doing me any good. In fact, just about anything that spikes insulin was ruining my metabolism, and it didn’t matter if it was simple or “whole grain” – it was wrong for my body.

And as for hiking and exercise? The contemplative aspect of being in nature is both grounding and mood-enhancing. The cardiovascular aspect of hoofing it up and down hills is good for your muscles, heart and lungs. There are many benefits to contemplative hiking. But weight loss isn’t necessarily one of them. It’s just one more reason we don’t need to race to the top.


Recommended books:

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes

Wheat Belly by William Davis, MD

The Science of Slim by Jonathan Bailor


Recommended websites:

Recommended documentaries:

Fathead (get it on Netflix or Hulu)

UPDATE: April 15, 2013 (One year later)

The other day someone wrote me asking what my progress has been on this low-carb way of life since a year ago. Have I kept the weight off? Have I stuck to this way of eating?

The answer is yes. I have kept the weight off and have even gained a fair amount of muscle, thanks to a steady regimen of resistance training. I have remained very healthy, my blood lipid numbers are ideal (high HDL and very low triglycerides, the lowest of my life) and my heartburn issues are non-existent. I haven’t had so much as a cold since I started this plan, but then again I hadn’t had a cold in 3 years, so I think my immune system is strong anyway.

I don’t eat grains, starchy vegetables, beans or sugars of any kind. I don’t eat soy in any form, either.

What I appreciate most about this Primal/low-carb way of eating is that I don’t feel hungry all the time, I’m not obsessing about food, and my cravings for carbs have subsided greatly. I don’t count calories. I just eat when I’m hungry and end up only eating 3 meals a day as a result, with maybe one small snack in between. My weight is rock steady now. It doesn’t matter if I go a day with a lot of exercise and not much food, or a day of overindulgence (in quantity, not junk) because of the holidays or whatever—my weight isn’t easy to budge. This is a revelation for me, because when I was on the low-calorie, low-fat diet seven years ago I was constantly hungry and couldn’t even have one indulgence meal without my weight fluctuating upwards instantly, and I felt like I was starving myself most of the time.

I really can’t go back to being mostly a vegetarian, anyway. When I was eating that way, I was ingesting a lot of starches like oatmeal, whole wheat breads and pastas, rice, potatoes and beans. I had to – how else could I get enough calories and protein? I believe that way of eating would spike my blood sugar constantly and contributed to my metabolic syndrome. Had I not gone on this low-carb lifestyle, I would have developed Type 2 diabetes for sure. It runs in my family and that means I’m pre-disposed.

I’ve learned a lot in the last 18 months, but the most eye-opening thing I’ve learned is that saturated fat in the absence of starch and carbohydrates is benign and even good for you. This is why the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) is so unhealthy. People eat fatty foods in combination with bread, noodles, cereal and french fries. THAT is what’s going to give you heart disease, because starches and sugars are inflammatory. If you’re going to eat a lot of carbs, you better also avoid saturated fat and eat low-fat in general.

Everyone is different. People come from different genealogical backgrounds. You have to find what’s right for you. I’m from northern Europe, so I can’t eat like a person born in the tropics of India or South America. My ancestors didn’t crow corn, beans or rice or eat pasta. We were meat, dairy, potato and vegetable eaters, who enjoyed fruit when it was in season (August-October), mushrooms and berries picked from the woods, and occasionally bread made from rye and un-hybridized wheat.

I think many people in our modern culture have lost track of who they are and where they come from. We are bound to our biology, whether we like it or not. We have not transcended nature, we are nature. We are animals. We are adapted to where we have evolved for thousands of years, even if we were born across the globe from our ancestors. We seem to want to deny these facts, which is one more symptom of our disconnection from nature and our denial of interconnectedness.