Over the past couple months, I've been yearning for a retreat, feeling the need to spend a few days outside in the heart of nature, un-tethered to electronics, obligations, and expectations. And though I'm a Naturalist, I'll confess that I'm not a lover of spiders and I surely don't care for mosquitoes and ticks. But the insights that come when we take time outside and immerse ourselves in our natural world can be enlightening, and worth stepping out of our comfort zone for a few days.
I finally had the chance last weekend to spend five days immersed in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains. There were long hills to climb, meadows to sunbathe in, a pristine water hole for swimming, clear night skies unburdened by light pollution, and other gentle and like-minded folk to spend time with. There were opportunities to play hand drums, learn Native American drumming and chants from a Lakota singer, and be a part of a community where it was safe to be yourself and your uniqueness was welcome. Blazing bonfires brought out the grace and beauty of people called to dance to the beat of drums, and giggling children were a welcome part of every piece of it, adding their contagious, unbridled joy to the whole weekend.
Despite the rigorous hill-climbing that challenged my legs and lungs, I've not felt that good in a while. Nature has a way of bringing things into perspective. The more time I spend out in the wild, the more expansive my understanding of life becomes. Being among green plants has a way of opening up the heart and shedding light on everything. Even in solitude, there is a feeling of universal support behind you.
As I floated in the river, allowing its soothing coolness to penetrate my body, I recognized that there is something healing about swimming in living water. It's invigorating and restorative...the gentle current moving with your body...blossoming mountain laurel hanging over cliffs and dropping flowers to the water below as if to honor your presence there...water snakes gracefully gliding around to give way to people...water bubbling endlessly over rounded rocks...fish and crayfish graciously sharing the life-giving waters with all who chose to be there. Comparatively, the water in swimming pools is dead - sterilized so we can be bacteria-free and free from critters. I always feel icky and drained after being in a swimming pool, with chlorine clinging to my skin and matting my hair. I'd never really noticed all this before.
I ate home-cooked food with friends, each of us bringing something to the table. Garden veggies and fresh meat baked over a fire and there was plenty to go around as we worked together to craft our meals and clean-up. We respected each other's need for friendship as well as solitude, each going off on our own adventures or hanging about with whoever felt up for hiking or conversation or a card game. There was no right or wrong way to do anything. We could just be.
As I gathered with others in a large fire circle each night, I felt the beat of the drums resonate through my body and my heart began to match the rhythm. My eyes opened up to every movement of every person who chose to drum and dance, and I recognized their movements as prayer and interpretation from their hearts. Not all the "dancers" had the grace and agility that we generally find pleasing to watch, but nevertheless, it was exquisite beauty in motion. To watch each and every person who moved their body in honest response to the rhythm of the drum was breathtaking. Through the beat of the drum, my own heart opened to something more real than I could ever experience online, and I eventually allowed myself to cast off ego and fear and dance too.
"This is living", I thought. Music is living, fire is living, stars are living, water is living, air is living. Living is from the heart. People are living things, but I don't know that we're truly living.
The weekend made me realize how much time I've spent in what I'm calling the "dead zone". As much as I want to deny it, I've been sucked in by electronics and our fast-paced-instant-gratification-lifestyle as much as everyone else. I find myself checking my smart phone often or checking email or Facebook in case I missed something. Or if I'm not checking, I'm thinking about it.
I've been missing something, alright, but it's not what I thought. While the internet has helped us to have the illusion of a global community and the ability to work and do things for long hours, it is not the same as being in the presence of other living beings. There is just no substitute for that.
The dead zone is inside our buildings, where we're closed off - closed off from the sunlight, the breeze, flowers and trees, insects, living water, living land, and most often, each other. The dead zone is in front of our computers, our smartphones, our desks, in our cars. We're task-driven, which leaves us in a non-living space because we've forgotten how to be in the moment - fully present on the people and activites at hand - and are constantly surging forward, seeking out the next email, phone call, task, etc.
At least that's what I've found to be true for me. Perhaps other people fare better at taking one task at a time and really focusing on it, not multi-tasking like I try to do, despite my training in meditation and knowing better.
I've spent much time in the dead zone, skimming the very edges of life instead of diving in deep. I have been afraid to feel fully or face challenges, afraid of saying no, and then taking on too much or taking on the wrong things. Or letting chances pass me by because I was afraid to try or afraid I'd fail or afraid of what people would think. I've gotten overwhelmed and often lost my way. I've looked at other people and their accomplishments and wondered how they managed to have it all together, and have often thought that I'm just not good enough and don't fit in.
And that kind of thinking right there is also a dead zone.
Living is being true to oneself - honest about who we are, our strengths and weaknesses. It's dancing, singing, creating, moving, music, serving others, and doing work and activities in a way that comes naturally for each of us. Living is about opening up our hearts to make our way through this life together, expanding and growing. Living is making "mistakes", forgiving, and then trying again. Living is accepting who we are, where we are at this moment, and accepting everyone else as they are too.
Living is remembering that we are all a part of something bigger than us. Living is following those crazy spur-of-the-moment ideas that end up being the delicious moments that feed our inner wild soul. Living is recognizing that we are a part of nature and we have a deep and primal need to be immersed in the natural world on a regular basis in order to stay alive and be well. Living is not being like everyone else, but honoring who we truly are and finding ways to share our gifts and talents with the world.
When we stay in the dead zones, we cannot heal or grow. When we fail to connect to other people on a heart level, we're in the dead zone. When we focus intently on money or the lack of it or when we judge ourselves and others harshly, we're in the dead zone. When we're incapacitated, we're in the dead zone.
Being among living things brings us out of the dead zone. Nature heals, because it's where we belong. Nature helps us to be whole again...to gain fresh perspective and timeless wisdom from ancient trees, wash our cares away in flowing rivers, feel the reprieve of fresh air on our faces, and warm our hearts in the sunshine. We can cry with the rain, and we will be heard. There is a deep well that fills when we allow ourselves time "in the wild", so to speak. Nature helps us untangle our complicated lives and see what's really important.
We are not alone. We belong to one another and to everything else on this planet. Humans belong to the bees, birds and creatures of all kinds, the soil, flowers, trees, rocks, water, air, clouds, sun, moon, and stars, and they to us. We are in their care and they in ours. Without each other, we shall all perish. We are in this all together.
I'm grateful to have felt the depths of this union with all other beings on our planet as I stood on a sunny hilltop, wildflowers waving in the wind, surrounded by mountains, a hawk soaring through the sky to remind me I can fly by keeping my burdens light.
I'm glad to have joined my heartbeat with that of the drum and a community of mostly strangers. I'm glad to have allowed myself the space to see my truths, drum and chant and dance with strangers-now-friends, reach out to comfort a lone child afraid of fireworks, try my hands at drumming on a Native American drum and singing (ok, mostly mumbling) in Lakota, breathing in fresh pine, swimming in a vibrant river, and being illumined by glorious stars in the Milky Way.
After spending five days in a very-much-alive zone, I don't care to return to a dead zone. That place is just an illusion.
I honor the wild within, and without.
May you hear the call of the wild to soothe your own heart and mind. There is much wisdom and solace within the tender care of our natural world.
Love & Light,