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.

Road Trip to Oregon

After being away from home for three weeks, first on a trip to Ridgway, Colorado to meet with contractors about building a house there, and then two weeks on a road trip to Oregon, it’s good to be home. Not because I was tired of traveling or sleeping in unfamiliar beds, but because it’s good to step back and learn to appreciate again the things you take for granted.

I have some great memories from the trip, and enjoyed spending time outside in nature most every single day. We picked berries and cherries in the Hood River Valley, we fished off a row boat at Long Lake under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood, we caught and released a salamander, hiked up to some glorious waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, watched fireworks over the Columbia River, inspected tide pools at the beach, and traced low tide on a cool, windy beach at sunset.

I missed my dog, and I know this because I kept gravitating toward other people’s dogs, secretly wanting to rub them and feel their soft fur. I missed the fresh garden salads I would make. I miss my garden, both at home and at the Grange where we keep a community garden. I miss my pillow, because people who rent out their vacation homes don’t invest in quality pillows. I miss going to the rec center and lifting weights and feeling sore, because doing push ups and squats every day is BORING. But I did get to do some awesome hikes and runs. My favorite was the hike to the summit (1,600 ft summit) of Neakahnie Mountain, a fairly steep, short, but scenic climb through douglas fir and moss heavy woods to one of the highest points on the Oregon coast.

I loved hearing the melodious calls of the Swainson’s Thrush birds, which sounded like the combination of crystals tinkling and a soft flute. Learning about the 60+ year old sturgeon named Herman that lives in a tank in a fish hatchery in the Columbia River Basin near Bonneville Dam was astounding – as was seeing this docile fish, which was the size of a great white shark!

The most inspiring of all was visiting and learning about the replanting of the Tilamook State Forest, where 600,000 or so acres burned in wildfires over the course of two decades in the 1930’s and 40s but was all replanted by an unimaginable human effort that lasted two decades. It’s a lush forest now, and a testament to the human spirit.

Adventures at Lost Lake, Oregon

Adventures at Lost Lake, Oregon from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.

My teen daughter, Skye, and I are on a road trip to the coast of Oregon. My husband joined us mid-way through the trip to enjoy a bit of the mountains and coast with us. We’ve spent close to a week in the Hood River Valley, south of Hood River, Oregon, at a vacation rental with a front-and-center view of Mt. Hood, one of Oregon’s active (but dormant) volcanoes.

When my husband Dave and I first visited this part of Oregon a couple of years ago in the fall, we were enchanted by the rolling green hills filled with orchards and fruit farms. Back then, we barely were able to catch a glimpse of the dramatic volcano that presides over the valley due to low clouds and near constant drizzle. We enjoyed the infamous Fruit Loop and ate the sweetest and juiciest pears and apples we’d had in a while, sometimes straight off the tree. We walked through flower fields that were already starting to wither at the end of their season. We wondered what it would be like to come to this valley in mid-summer, when berries and cherries were in season and the views of Mt. Hood were easier to come by.

Since we arrive July 3, and for the next 10 days, the forecast is pure sunshine and zero chance of rain, so views of Mt. Hood have been constant.

Yesterday we spent the day at Lost Lake, where we rented a rowboat and flittered around the lake all afternoon, fishing and relaxing. The trout were reticent about biting, but Dave did manage to catch one. I got a few nibbles on my bait, but that’s about it. Later, after we returned the boat, we fished some more on the shore, where the water was brilliantly clear and surprisingly not too cold for wading. I spotted what looked like a small fish but turned out to have arms and legs. A salamander! There were quite a few of them gliding through the water and they were easy to spot against the lighter colored gravel below. Skye was excited about catching one (she’s a kid at heart, even now), so we devised a plan using a ziploc bag.

Later, I Googled it and found out that we caught a Columbia Torrent salamander, a rather small-ish variety that is aquatic and prefers cold, clear lakes and streams (bingo)!

We also watched as ospreys hunted for fish above the lake, diving and soaring, diving and soaring, until one succeeded in catching a trout right in front of us. It was just the kind of day that’s perfect for the whole family – lots of wildlife to look at for the kids at heart, and comforting peace and fresh air for the old folks.

Staunton State Park – Awesome!

Staunton State Park June 2013 from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.

Staunton State Park is the newest state park in Colorado. It opened in May, 2013 and is located around Pine, Colorado. It is already one of my favorite places to visit and hike along the Front Range. During the week, it’s not too crowded, but on the weekends I imagine you’d have to get there very early, as parking is limited to maybe 50 cars, and there is no off-site parking allowed. When the park had its opening weekend, they provided shuttle service from Conifer. I don’t think they’re providing anything of the sort now that the grand opening celebration is past.

Upon entering the park, you’ll notice a very dramatic granite wall to the northwest of the entrance and about five miles distant, that isn’t actually part of the park system, but is perhaps a landscape feature that isn’t visible when you’re just traveling along Highway 285 toward Bailey, so it’s a nice treat. It is like a miniature version of El Capitan in Yosemite. On the eastern border of the state park itself, there are many unusual and dramatic rock outcroppings similar to this one, where the park has allowed climbers to explore. As you park the car, either in the lower, larger lot or the smaller one a little way up the road to the picnic area, you’ll have the choice of several trails, including the longer Staunton Ranch Trail and Mason Creek Trail. I took the Staunton Creek Trail on this visit, and headed toward the climbers’ access point, where I turned around. A dark cloud had moved over the park and lightning and rain were threatening. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can hike all the way to the northern-most point, which is the Elk Falls Overlook, about 3 miles from the trailhead one way.

The landscape there right now is incredibly lush and green. There are big aspens interspersed with ponderosa and other spruce and pine trees. The meadows slope down dramatically to expose a view of the Lost Creek Wilderness in the distance, Pikes Peak and the snow-capped mountains to the south of Mt. Evans. It doesn’t feel like the Front Range. The lushness, the dramatic granite cliffs and the distant views harken of the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, or Crested Butte.

I like this place because it has a kind of wildness to it, and a soft beauty that is calming and welcoming. It’s not spoiled by highway noise and overuse–yet–and it’s tucked away in a pretty little valley that’s off the beaten path.

Dogs are allowed, as are horses and bicycles on some trails. If you want to picnic there at the special covered area with tables and grills, you’ll have to reserve a spot ahead of time.

This park was bequeathed by Ms. Frances Staunton, its owner, upon her death, to be preserved as a wild place for generations to enjoy. I am grateful to people like Ms. Staunton, who knew the importance of preserving at least some of our land to cultivate wildness, both the inner and outer.

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.