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 Amazon.com. 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 carolynbaker.net.
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 Carolyn@carolynbaker.net
“There is such a thing as old emotional pain living inside you. It is an accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances, and so after some years you have a “painbody,” an energy entity consisting of old emotion.” –Eckhart Tolle
We all get triggered sometimes. Someone will say something, or act a certain way, or respond to you with body language that pushes your buttons and wham! you feel a surge of panic, anger or shame. This emotional pain that arises is what Eckhart Tolle calls the “painbody”. It is an old wound that has festered and perhaps laid dormant inside your psyche, and occasionally it gets triggered because of an incident that happens, rises out of the depths of your consciousness, and begins to grow and strengthen from the negative thoughts you feed it.
Everyone’s painbody has its origin in a past painful event. One of mine was when I was 10 years old. My best friend, who lived across the street, betrayed me. I was invited to her house for a birthday party sleepover. Also invited were her cousins and other friends from the school she attended. I didn’t know anyone there except my friend.
At first the afternoon progressed as I expected, with the usual festivities—games, cake, silly antics. But after the adults retreated to the living room to watch TV, leaving us to play in my friend’s bedroom, the girls at the party turned on me. They began picking on me. They asked me about being Polish, and then laughed about how I was a “dumb Polack”. They made fun of me being “fat”, which was particularly hurtful to me. I didn’t have anything to say. I just sat there and took it. The more I sat there, the more they found things to make fun of and laugh about. Their laughter turned sinister, and my friend, to whom I turned in hopes she’d defend me, laughed right alongside them.
I had the presence of mind to get myself home, and since the party had been a sleepover, my coming earlier than expected that evening made my mother suspicious. She got the truth out of me, stormed over to the neighbor’s house, and promptly demanded that all the girls apologize to me. It was quite the scene. My friend’s mother was furious and apologetic. I’m sure the drama ruined my friend’s birthday party sleepover.
Afterward, my friend was no longer my friend. She became my neighborhood bully.
This is when one of my painbodies formed in my subconscious.
Today, whenever I trust someone and they betray my trust or reject me, my painbody is triggered. This can happen in all kinds of situations: at work, with my family, with my friends. I’m an adult with more than 30 years of experience and wisdom over the 10 year old I was then, but when something occurs that even remotely resembles that incident, I’m a little girl all over again, running home where she knows she’s safe.
This can cause tremendous pain and suffering. It can lead to misunderstandings, overreactions, and unnecessary drama.
One of the ways the painbody becomes stronger is that whenever we are triggered, we feed it thoughts.
“They don’t like me because I’m not as funny/with it/sociable as they are.”
“I guess I’ll always be the chubby girl no one likes, no matter how much I work out and diet.”
Of course, these are just thoughts and have no basis in fact. But we reinforce our pain by telling ourselves all manner of negative things about why something is happening or not happening. We make the painbody bigger and stronger, so the next time it is triggered out of dormancy, we react with more and more emotion. We become the painbody. After a while, we can no longer separate what is happening in reality with how we feel about it. It becomes our reality and takes us out of stillness and presence, because it takes over our mind.
While I don’t think we can ever fully eliminate or erase the painbody, there is something we can do to lessen its effect on us. We can stop feeding our pain body with thoughts. Whenever you are triggered, and you sense an arising of turmoil inside you, take a few seconds to become still and present. Just notice what is happening inside you. Notice where the pain body resides. Is it in your stomach? Your throat? Your belly?
Instead of focusing on where the discomfort lies in your body, focus on other parts of your body that still feel relaxed, like your feet or your hands. Imagine the pain body dissolving and becoming smaller as the other, relaxed parts of your body take over.
Before reacting to the situation, also notice your thoughts. What are you telling yourself about what just happened? These are just thought forms, nothing more, and they aren’t real, as much as you’d like to think they are.
By refraining from feeding the painbody, you may not eliminate it altogether, but you can diminish it. Over time, you’ll be able to easily notice when you’re being triggered, and you can just as easily let it go, without comment or complaint. That will allow you to be fully present to the moment and experience it as it should be experienced, instead of through the lens of your 10-year old self.
I am fairly confident that if I were to ask the 500 or so participants of the Eckhart Tolle retreat I’m attending at Asilomar, California, what they are hoping to get out of the experience, many would probably tell me that they’re looking for ways to achieve inner peace. I’ve only had a few conversations with the retreat goers, but I’ve gathered they’ve already been able to apply Eckhart’s teachings to improve the way they feel about their lives and interact with others.
One woman I met from Australia told me that she’s been able to get through a difficult period with her teenaged daughter with more presence and mindfulness. Another woman told me that she found it easier to care for her now-deceased husband who had Alzheimer’s because she was able to be present with his essence instead of focusing on the faculties he was losing over time. I have noticed that the people attending this retreat do seem to strive to be fully present, and they seem to be taking steps to cultivate more inner peace. They don’t bring their laptops to the meeting hall, they are comfortable with silence and meditation, and they don’t have their face compulsively glued to their cellphones. They’re relaxed, friendly, and unrushed. On the surface, it may seem that being present and experiencing peacefulness doesn’t seem to be as much of a challenge for this crowd as it might be for attendees of a, say, conference on economic or social media trends.
But all is not as it would seem. Judging from the quality of the questions being posed to Eckhart during the Q&A sessions, I doubt this crowd can claim to have actually achieved a lasting state of inner peace. People are still facing many challenges in their lives, both internal and external.
They want to know why they keep having compulsive judgmental thoughts about others. They want to know why they are so upset about a computer issue. They are still deeply grieving a loss and don’t know when they’ll feel like themselves again.
Despite all the spiritual “work” we may have done, inner peace is as elusive as ever.
Which made me wonder, do we really even WANT inner peace?
It seems like a weird question, but let me explain.
Eckhart says that some people are addicted to bad news (in the sense of the media and sensationalism) because it affords them a sense of aliveness they can’t otherwise access. Maybe some of us are addicted to chaotic people and situations or torrid emotions for the same exact reason. Drama, love, hatred, jealousy, infatuation, despair – these are all strong emotions that makes us feel alive. When we’re flustered after an emotional encounter, we feel our heart racing and we’re motivated to do something (write an angry letter or a love poem, for example). On the other hand, when life settles down into a kind of “boring” drone of not-much-happening, sometimes we consciously or even unconsciously sabotage our life in order to feel alive again.
We move to a new town…because we feel bored and uninspired about our life.
We have an affair with someone because we think we need to “feel more”.
We quit our job in search of a “better fit.”
We leave a relationship.
We pick a fight, criticize, complain and push people away.
We find a new cause to stand behind – something REALLY important (and usually something we think most people are ignorant about).
We aren’t even aware we are looking for that sense of aliveness. We believe we are overcoming challenges or making a change that will alleviate some kind of suffering. We wouldn’t call it a quest for aliveness. We would call it a quest for inner peace.
In this quest, we may even unconsciously want to do things that will turn our lives upside down, even though we would deny that we would ever willingly create unwelcome challenges for ourselves.
But we do.
That’s because what we really want is not inner peace, but to feel alive. This is perhaps why people who’ve had brushes with death or have been diagnosed with a terminal illness can finally find that elusive inner peace. They stop feeling restless and dissatisfied. They no longer focus on that which doesn’t matter. They know what it’s like to be facing the emptiness of unconsciousness, so they revel in the consciousness they have left. They effortlessly feel their aliveness, therefore they come to a place of inner peace.
What We Really Want & How to Get It
What can we do when we’re faced that those vague feelings of restlessness and dissatisfaction with life, short of plunging our life into chaos? One thing we can do, instead of seeking the next form of external emotional stimulation, is to try tapping into a sense of being-ness instead. One need not be gripped by euphoria or despair in order to feel alive. You just need to feel your own aliveness in every cell of your body.
Your aliveness is the part of the Universal consciousness that takes place as form (your body, for example). When you’re in the present moment, you sense your aliveness and your being-ness in the world. You are not lost in thought. You feel the ground beneath your feet and experience the spaciousness around you. Life is around and within you. You ARE life itself.
This practice is easier to do in nature, where it is quieter and you feel more relaxed and unencumbered by the demands of the external human world (“I should clean the house, write that e-mail, call that client, answer this person’s question”). But you can certainly do this at home while sitting on the couch, just breathing.
As you sit, sense the space in the room, or if you’re out in nature, sense the space around yourself, the trees, the rocks and the ground. Smell what life smells like. Listen to what it sounds like. Everything in the world is alive at the molecular level, everything is churning and changing and buzzing. Animals and plants and insects all share your consciousness with the world. Feel what it feels like to be conscious of life and of the Universe itself. Feel what it feels like to be you, without form and without any of the conceptual ideas you have about yourself.
Who are you, without labels and functions? As you begin to grasp this sensation, drop into it and try to stay in the experience without having any thought about it. Just stay present to what it feels like to be consciousness.
This is aliveness. This is what you’re “working” so hard to experience, every moment of your life.
It is the essence of inner peace, because it is the no-thing-ness of consciousness.
What does it feel like to be a nobody?
For the last four days, I’ve been a nobody surrounded by about 500 other “nobodies” from all over the world. We are all attending a retreat with Eckhart Tolle in a seaside conference center in Pacific Grove, California. The only two people I know at the entire event are Eckhart and his partner, Kim Eng. Everyone here knows these two are “somebodies”. They have expectations to uphold. They need to demonstrate their spiritual enlightenment to everyone. They need to say just the right thing, so we all go home feeling satisfied somehow.
I don’t envy them. I’m enjoying being a nobody.
Everyone here beside Echkart, Kim and my husband is a stranger to me, and I’m a stranger to them.
The other retreat participants and I meet three times a day at the dining hall, where we are randomly placed together around a table for the meal. Sometimes we speak to each other and sometimes we don’t. The first evening it seemed that everyone was eager to meet, and the conversations were animated. As the days progress, however, the introverts are asserting their right to silence and the extroverts seem to somehow find each other as necessary.
When I sense an openness and I’m willing to converse, I greet the person sitting next to me and we begin a light conversation. There’s no pressure, I can still remain a nobody. They don’t know what I do for a living (no one asks), they don’t know how much or how little I know of Eckhart’s work. They don’t know how much money I have or what kind of car I drive. They know nothing of my expertise and skills, or how much time I’ve spent learning what I know. They don’t know my history or the things I’ve suffered or accomplished. All they know is that I’m from Colorado, because everyone here is curious about the places in the world people are from.
I haven’t asked any person here these questions about their life, either. I allow them the space to tell me how much or how little they wish about themselves, and usually it isn’t much beyond what their home town and its residents are like.
I’ve never been such a “nobody” around so many people for so many days in a row.
It’s been liberating.
By being a nobody, I am free to be anybody. I don’t need to uphold some kind of egoic version of myself or defend my opinions. I don’t need to explain anything. I don’t need to prove anything. I don’t need to be a good example of the kind of person I say I’m supposed to be. Perhaps my attire and age narrow the possibilities, but not much, because everyone here has the same uniform of casual, warm clothing to repel the bone-chilling dampness that permeates the central California coast this time of year. I know that everyone here has to have at least enough money to pay for this retreat and what it took to travel here, but I haven’t seen any Rolex watches, overpriced technical clothing or flashy jewelry.
By allowing myself and others to be a “nobody” I am allowing the space to be instead be completely present to the essence of the other. I have sensed timidity, eagerness, preoccupation, agitation and openness. I have sensed high energy and subdued energy. I have sensed emotional pain lurking beneath the friendly surface.
In between sessions with Eckhart, or during longer periods of “free time”, we’ve escaped from the conference grounds to experience nature near the Monterey Peninsula.
Nature, in the form of the ocean breakers along the coast, the birds in the water and in the trees, the cypress grove, and the ancient redwood forest, accepts my presence. It asks nothing in return for my enchantment and sense of wonder and relaxation. Nature doesn’t care what I do for a living, or if I do anything at all whatsoever. It doesn’t even ask me where I’m from or whether or not I’m enjoying the retreat so far.
My experience of nature can be the same, whether I’m a famous spiritual teacher walking from my room to the meeting hall or just a hotel groundskeeper on my lunch break. In nature, I don’t need to worry about being judged or ridiculed or scoffed at. It doesn’t expect me to get anything done. I can be present with any emotion, I can scream and cry and stomp my feet, and it won’t matter. The trees won’t buckle or tell me to leave. The ocean’s roar is always louder. The birds will chirp no matter what story I tell them.
Nature allows us to be exactly who we are. This is why we may feel so at home in its presence. This is why, when we feel demoralized by life, we want to run to the woods and lose ourselves under the branches of a large tree. For some of us, not even a mother’s or a lover’s embrace feels quite as comforting.
It’s been at least four years since I’ve been really sick. That’s why, when several days ago I came down with a stomach virus that had me laid up with all the horrible physical symptoms and a dose of some thick malaise, I resisted the truth of what was happening with me. I was determined not to let it last too long or be that big of a deal. It was the holiday season between Christmas and New Year’s, so I didn’t have to be anywhere or really do anything, so on one hand it was good timing. But from the standpoint of having “ruined” a perfectly nice stay-cation, it sucked. To make it doubly worse, my husband came down with the same thing at about the same exact time.
The day where I felt my lowest, physically and mentally, I spent either on the couch or in bed, sometimes reading, sometimes surfing the internet, or watching Netflix. Mostly I spent time in that hazy netherworld between sleeping and just laying there, staring at the wall, contemplating my existence.
What I found fascinating after that day of forced rest, is how much better it felt the next day, when I had a minor recovery, to be able to actually want to DO anything. I cleaned, I cooked, I checked my email, I made plans. The accomplishing of small tasks felt stupendous. I felt like myself again, because I was able to drink a little bit of that Western culture drug of choice: DOING. I’m not surprised a bit that I’m indeed addicted to doing, and to accomplishing of tasks and goals. Without that doing, I’m in a timeless, gray fog where not much matters. I love doing. My best days are those where I get a lot done, or do a lot.
But here’s the thing…
That day where I had no choice but to not do felt like a revelation. My brain was doing its job to focus my body on healing by forcing me to become detached from desire for anything (except relief from the discomfort). Work felt very “far away”. Desire and hunger felt “far away”. Ambition and goals were not even visible. But that part of me that is addicted to doing was watching the whole time, and criticizing and lamenting about I was wasting a perfectly good day. The voice wasn’t as strong as it usually is, but it was still there, like the annoying, low drone of the distant highway when you’re cresting a scenic ridge and trying to appreciate the wilderness.
For just a day, I had really succeeded in the art of “not doing” and just being present, and not minding spending a day of just “being”. I wasn’t doing it to accomplish any kind of spiritual goal, or with the intent to observe my thoughts for the purpose of changing them later.
Now that I’m starting to feel better, I don’t like that I had “wasted” a day or even several to the task of taking it easy while recovering from a stomach virus. That monkey mind doing voice is angry that I didn’t go on long snow hikes or take on a big personal project or visit with more friends. But now that I know what true “not doing” feels like, and how it’s a relief from the incessant drone of the task master, I’m telling myself that it was a good experience, because it offered me a rare insight into true being and not doing.
I published my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range in 2010, and did the actual hikes described in the book from October, 2009 until August, 2010. Just two short years later, I’ve already noticed changes in the environment as a result of climate change in the foothills and mountains of Colorado.
The benefit of doing contemplative hiking, where you’re actually paying attention to the flora and fauna as well as your own internal landscape, is that you are more aware of the subtle differences from season to season, and, if you journal your experiences, from year to year. I’ve noticed many environmental changes on the trail having to do with a warmer spring in 2012 and less precipitation in the winter of 2011-12. These are just my personal observations. Your observations may differ, or you may have noticed other changes where you hike:
Wildflowers: Around the third week of April, 2010, I noticed small wildflowers growing around rocks near the trail near the Mesa Trail and Boulder Creek Trail, such as violets, chickweed and sand lilies. I wrote an entire chapter about contemplating these small, pretty things. During the same month, but in 2011, the wildflowers had bloomed earlier, and in 2012 there were less of these flowers overall and their bloom happened a month earlier, in March. In fact, I noticed wildflowers along the NCAR to Mesa trail in May that normally I don’t see until June, such as wild iris.
The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, which takes place near the beginning and middle of July, was a bust in 2012. Due to a below-average snowpack and a dry and warm spring, the flowers were sparse and bloomed a month earlier, in June. During the festival the only flowers to be found were up above 11,000 ft., and the normally colorful Washington Gulch hike was just a solid green.
Pasque flowers, a staple in the foothills and lower mountain elevations, were gone by June of 2012. Normally, they linger a little bit after their first appearance in April. They appeared in March of 2012.
Wildfires: The spring and summer months of 2012 were devastating for the Front Range as far as wildfires went. We witnessed the High Park Fire, the Waldo Canyon fire, the Bear Peak fire and dozens of large and small fires throughout the state. The scariest day was one day in late June when a thunderstorm passed through the Boulder foothills, igniting literally DOZENS of fires with every lightning strike. It was as if we were at war and being bombed.
The warmer, dry conditions and lack of normal spring precipitation, combined with too much beetle kills from too-warm winters in the last decade or more, made Colorado a tinderbox. It remains a tinderbox today, with the Boulder County sheriff enacting a fire ban in December.
Snowpack: As of December 4, 2012, the mountains of Colorado are only at 40% of normal snow pack for this time of year. Officials are already worrying about the impact on water availability for the summer. This is also impacting ski resorts, as Vail braces for a “slow start to winter.”
Climate change means that places that normally get adequate precipitation will experience extremes with either droughts or flooding. In July, 2011, the Yampa River flooded.
I’ve personally observed that hiking trails that normally are snow-packed this time of year (Elk Meadows, Bergen Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park north slopes) are bone dry.
Trees, shrubs: I made a personal observation that due to the extremely hot weather (104-106 degree days in June and July), many trees and shrubs along the Front Range simply withered. Leaves turned brown or yellow and the trees went dormant for the year. One lilac bush at my mom’s house is budding out—in early December!—because daytime temperatures have been averaging above 55 degrees for several weeks now.
Reservoirs, ponds and lakes: There was a large pond, perhaps 2 acres in size, near where I used to live in Westminster at Olde Wadsworth and 108th Ave., where water fowl would swim year-round. As of last summer in 2012, the pond is now a weed-infested field. Estes Lake in Estes Park is at the lowest level I have ever seen it. Denver reservoirs are below 70% full, down from previous years when they were anywhere from 80-87% full this time of year. The Boulder Creek near Eldorado Springs is a trickle compared to previous years at this time.
All these observations are just some of the big and small ways we are seeing what Guy McPherson says are “rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”
I fear what the summer of 2013 will be like. I also fear what the next 20 years will be like.
Before you dismiss these observations as simple weather anomalies, or begin a mental debate with me about whether or not man is responsible for climate change, let me say that we’ve already wasted way too many decades debating science (and more recently, simple observation), and we simply have no more time to waste. Unfortunately, however, nothing we do can stop the train from going off the cliff.
According to a presentation by Guy McPherson at a 2012 Bioneers Symposium, the best we can do is prepare and adapt to the catastrophic consequences that are coming down the pike near mid-century. McPherson, in the video below, presents data and scientific evidence that we are headed toward a 6 degree Celsius warming by 2050, which by all standards, will mean the end of ALL LIFE (including human) as we know it.
When I started first grade, I didn’t speak English. My parents and I had just emigrated from Poland, and within a couple of weeks of arriving in Detroit, Michigan, my mother enrolled me in the local public grade school. I don’t remember much from that time, but what I do remember is sitting in class feeling like I didn’t belong. I didn’t understand anything anyone was saying, it was a new country with new surroundings and a new culture, and I was completely freaked out.
At recess on the second or third day of school, I decided I didn’t have to stick around if I didn’t want to. And I was done trying to fit in. I started walking home—by myself—not caring whether or not I’d get lost, or if anyone was home to let me in, or what would happen if my mother found out I ran away from school. I was already on the other side of the school playground fence, fiercely determined to blow that popsicle stand, when a classmate ran up and motioned for me to stop and come back. I’m sure that at that point, a teacher must have seen the exchange and followed me, and perhaps had taken me by the hand and led me back to the school, but I don’t remember. All I remember was the feeling of needing an emotional sanctuary because I felt so untethered and alone. I just wanted to go home, and I didn’t care about the consequences.
When I was that little kid, my mom was my emotional sanctuary. I ran to her when I’d been hurt or insulted, or when I felt overwhelmed. As an adult, I have no desire to go running home to mommy whenever I’ve had a bad day. We don’t have that kind of relationship. But I do want to reach out and connect with my husband, or a friend, or just visit an online forum where I can vent and get support.
As adults, sometimes “home” isn’t the best place to run to, either, for a variety of reasons. Home may represent too many responsibilities, or “home” may be the source of emotional challenges because your kids are acting up or you just had a fight with your spouse.
There are times I long for “home” even when I’m already there, physically. There’s a work challenge, or a project bombs, or I feel deeply criticized in some way. Emotionally, “home” is a place where I can feel accepted and safe, and it has nothing to do with the house I reside in. In my case, home means staying true to myself, writing about the things that matter to me and my tribe, and creating beauty for the sake of beauty, not for the sake of someone else’s misguided idea of beauty. Home means a place where my deepest longings are expressed as reality and my greatest concerns are met with serious consideration and thoughtful feedback.
Home can be a state of mind, but it can also be a location.
The physical location for my emotional sanctuary is on the trail. When I’m surrounded by trees, birds, grass and an expansive sky, I am free. I am accepted, and I am safe from judgment and criticism and expectations. Nature has no expectations. Nature doesn’t have an ego and it isn’t offended if you have one. Nature just IS. It is neither friend or foe, but it does command respect.
When you’re feeling lost, criticized, uncertain, overwhelmed, where is your emotional sanctuary?
It’s changing the climate, it’s stressing animal habits, it’s creating the next big global extinction event, and it’s melting the ice caps at a rate unprecedented to modern civilization. We are squandering fossil fuels that took millions of years to form on industry that’s meant to make our lives easier, but has only made us increasingly stressed and unhappy. We are surrounded by gadgets and technology meant to create a global village, and we can have discourse with a virtually unlimited number of people anywhere in the world, all while sitting in the warm comfort of our living room. The options of where we can travel, live, work and play are almost endless, restricted only by finances. We can ease our discomfort at a moment’s notice by turning up the thermostat or Googling the answer to a frustrating conundrum.
And yet, our souls are withering. So many of us feel untethered in a sea of meaninglessness and distraction.
We have lived in the blip of time known as the Industrial Age, during which we increased our population from 1 billion to a world of more than 7 billion people in just a matter of 150 years. There will never again be a time like this on the planet. In another century or two there will be scant fossil fuels left to extract. The disease of modern civilization will eventually overtake us, and we will inevitably return to a way of life that’s both less complex and yet more arduous for our species.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t change the trajectory of evolution into something better, or that we can’t somehow start to heal the disease of Industrial Civilization. We can. All it takes is a subtle shift in how we view ourselves and the world we live in.
Healing can happen for the soul and for the planet when we stop trying to conquer, control or use nature, both for our “lifestyle” and for ego-gratification. True sustainability can occur when we see ourselves not as separate or above nature, but as intricately tied to our environment in ways we may not even be able to consciously comprehend. What we do and how we live has an impact on everything around us. The way we perceive the natural world and the way we interact with it (or not) can also greatly affect our physical and mental well-being.
When we use nature for ego-driven pursuits or as validation of how “special” we are, we are actually contributing to the feelings of inadequacy that compel us to seek out those experiences in the first place. Whatever we do, it can never be enough. There’s always someone better at the endeavor than we are, there’s always an untouched wilderness to explore or one more unclimbed mountain to scale.
When we give up hyperbolical pursuits and instead seek the pleasure of just being in nature, a completely new experience unfolds for us. We sense a deep, ancient acceptance of who we really are. Like the dark clouds that form on the distant horizon, we are not always benign, rather, we are capable of both creative and destructive forces. We are not unlike the lightning that sparks the fire that rips through ten thousand acres in a matter of days, killing thousands of trees and animals while at the same time providing the conditions that make way for new life and a better adapted ecosystem. Our lives are stories filled with beginnings, endings and transformation and in the end, the unavoidable tragedy of entropy. When we spend contemplative time immersed in nature, we see the entire universe reflected by all our senses, and we are grateful for the gift of consciousness. We feel truly at home.
I spent a week in Glacier National Park, Montana with my family, almost completely unplugged. We didn’t have cell phone service where we were lodging, there was no wireless, and the only time we could check messages or receive calls or texts was when we drove into Columbia Falls or West Glacier to get groceries. We did have cable television in our cabin, so there was some tie to technology and the outside world if we wanted it.
Other than needing an update on some luggage Frontier airlines lost, I really didn’t care about not having phone or internet. I enjoyed the respite from my day job, which involves sitting at the computer writing or designing for many hours a day.
We were visiting Glacier because we were intrigued by the almost-surreal photos of the park we had seen. These photos featured mountains that were pointier and steeper than any mountains in Colorado, with lush valleys greener than anything west of the Mississippi, except for the Cascades and Olympics.
I don’t own a professional-quality camera and I’m just a mediocre photographer anyway, so the photos I’m posting here can’t do the place justice. When I first embarked on a hike in the Many Glacier area, I remarked that the entire place looked almost fake, like one of those sofa paintings you learn how to create in a half an hour on Sunday morning off a PBS television show. Waterfalls that were hundreds of feet tall, and hundreds of them, insanely steep cliffs, rivers snaking through valleys that were green with moss and pines and birch. If there’s a bucket list of hikes to do in the United States, I would rank this among the Top 5.
Something happened midway through our stay in the wilderness that bolted us out of the present moment of blissful contentment with the scenery. While our on way to Whitefish for the day, my daughter received a text from a friend telling her about the Aurora theatre shooting. Just like the vistas in the park, at first the story seemed fake. My teen had been waiting to see this movie for what seems like months, and to get a text that said, “Somebody came into the theatre on opening night and started shooting and killed more than a dozen people” sounded like a mean prank designed to annoy her, like a not-so-funny joke meant to burst the bubble of a 14-year old who’s been anticipating seeing a popular action movie for a long time.
We quickly discovered that it wasn’t a joke. Suddenly, we were not present to our surroundings any more. We were lost in thought, thinking about what happened 1,000 miles away. We empathized with the people who had experienced the tragedy. We imagined what we would have done if it had happened to us.
Then, when we returned to our cabin, we made the mistake of turning on CNN.
There wasn’t much new to report, but that didn’t stop the reporters from retelling the tragedy over and over. Cameras and microphones were dispatched to Aurora and San Diego with the hopes of getting some juicy tidbit from friends and family. And I realized, that just like the 150 point headlines on the Huffington Post, the media loves to sensationalize a tragedy. If there isn’t a tragedy sufficiently shocking enough to warrant 7/24 coverage for many days in a row, it doesn’t matter. They’ll come up with something. They’ll create drama, controversy and tragedy where barely any exists. And if something awful really does happen, like it did in Aurora, it’s capitalized and maximized. The media loves a tragedy.
I know what happened was horrible, and because it happened so close to home, even more shocking. I don’t know quite how to say this without sounding callous in some way about what happened, but I wonder if people realize the mainstream media’s sole purpose is to make money and distract us with sensational stories so we become addicted to the drama. It’s not really to “report” anything. These people aren’t even real journalists, probably. And let’s face it. Shitty things happen every day, all over the world. In recent days hundreds have died in attacks in Iraq. Adults murdered children in Rwanda and Darfur. Children murdered adults. Somewhere, right this minute, a creepy old man is sexually exploiting a child and lying about it.
You know what else is happening right now? There has been unprecedented melting of glacial ice in Greenland. We are poisoning ourselves and the environment with toxins. We are depleting soil quality and clean drinking water. Species are dying off. We are on the downhill slope of Peak Oil. Climate change has entered the phase of negative feedback loops and we probably won’t be able to alter its course, even if we all stopped driving and using electricity today. The last time the temperatures rose this quickly was during the Permian extinction, which killed all but 3% of life on Earth.
We are on board a runaway train headed toward a cliff, and there are no guardrails.
Why aren’t those stories told with 150 point headlines on Huffington Post and monitored ad naseum 7/24 on CNN and FoxNews?
It also made me consider that in the midst of the wilderness in Glacier, where rangers harp on “bear awareness” and bookshelves at the gift shop feature, among the nature photography, frightening nonfiction about bear and animal attacks, the true violence isn’t in wilderness. After hearing what happened to the regional Native American people from a Blackfeet tribal historian, I see where the real danger lies. After experiencing record heat and seeing so much of the Front Range explode in fire this summer, all while energy companies advertise how “sustainable” and “good” they are to the environment, I see where the black heart of evil resides.
It isn’t in the woods or on the grassy slopes of a national park.
True violence isn’t where we fear it is. It isn’t in the deep woods of a national park at 3 am, or while you’re hiking alone in silence in Glacier. That’s not where true violence is, and it’s not where we should be feeling trepidation. True violence is sitting next to us in a dark theatre, about to execute its agenda, as we’re about to enjoy a tub of popcorn and a superhero action movie with our kids.