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I load the last of my trip gear in my car, buckle my seatbelt, and pause for a moment in the dark car to bring the coffee to my lips. The smell and the heat trigger my senses. I turn the key in the ignition, hit shuffle on my playlist, and start out slow, inviting pleasing melody and the subtle spillage of color above the ocean horizon into my heart. I take my time meeting the ocean-bound curves of West Cliff Drive — it’s not until Highway 17 that I’ll weight down deeper into the gas pedal.
The mountains hold promises of space, solitude, and quiet — everything I crave. The recent summer months have put my body, heart, and mind through magnificent delights and trials. There's a lot to reflect on and to come to terms with. I trust the seven-hour solo drive from Santa Cruz to the mountains will help me realize what I need to know in my life right now.
That’s why I’m driving seven hours by myself in the three days I can manage to scrape together without losing out too much on my next paycheck. Well, it’s part of it, anyway. The truth is, there’s a lot to heal from. There’s a lifetime to heal from, and I know my last trip to the mountains played a part in moving me forward in exactly the way I needed. I remember as I went through the mountain pass it was like going through a passageway of my soul; when the mountains rose up and the valley swooped down before me, I erupted into tears. How incredible. How vast. How beautiful. The road has a way triggering breakthroughs, and I need breakthrough.
As I went through the mountain pass it was like going through a passageway of my soul.
When I recently saw an image of the Ancient Bristlecone Pines on Instagram, I knew I was going to visit them — and soon. So here I am again, passing the hours, watching the landscapes change, pulling over to stretch and leap into handstands, pulling over to wait patiently and compassionately for beauty-induced tears to clear up and to eat. I’m not quite sure why driving on the open road through stunning landscapes unravels emotions and provides clarity, but it does. I suppose it’s a kind of meditative experience. There’s an upheaval. Consciousness transforms just as do the horizon’s lines and nature’s assemblages.
There’s an upheaval. Consciousness transforms just as do the horizon’s lines and nature’s assemblages.
The final approach to the Bristlecones is in the Inyo National Forest and is unbelievably gorgeous and thrilling. The ground rolls up and down as the road, framed by bright yellow desert flowers, curves through hilly scrubby terrain. I turn up the volume and delight with each rise and fall of the car. As I ascend the mountain, an immense landscape falls into view. I didn’t realize it would be this impressive.
By the time I arrive finally at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, I am exhausted. I step out of my car and shiver. Also didn’t realize it would be this damn cold. And I'm sleeping in my car tonight? In the visitor center I pose questions to a docent, a beautiful young woman with dark hair, a fullness to her voice, and a deeply kind presence. I'm grateful to talk to another human after spending 7 hours with my thoughts and emotions. She and another docent--an older man with the same gentle presence--and I discuss for a bit and finally they advise I take an easy trail that I can complete before darkness falls.
As I walk I puzzle at the gnarled, twisted, burly, ancient trees. Curving patterns in the trunks meet jagged branches that address an equally bold grey sky.
Reading the interpretive signs, I learn that a naturalist made a paradigm-shifting discovery regarding these trees one day by accident, when he went the wrong way and saw a side of the mountain in a way he hadn’t glimpsed before. This gives me pause.
I eventually wind my way back to the car. In truth, I’m a bit disappointed. I was hoping to spend hours with these trees, meditating and resting, absorbing their ancient wisdom. Instead I’d taken a somewhat touristy jaunt through the most accessible grove in under an hour. But it is too cold, night is on the evening’s heels, and my body is done. I’ve gotten good at cutting my losses. I face up to the craziness that has become my hatch, spend a few minutes organizing, and get back in the driver’s seat.
But it is too cold, night is on the evening’s heels, and my body is done.
About a mile or two out from the Bristlecones I pull up a steep, short dirt road that I’d noticed on the way in. I park my car and arrange my blankets in the hatch. It is a cloudy, moonless night. That is to say, it’s dark. It’s not very late yet, but it’s plenty dark and totally silent. I close myself into the hatch, think about all the possible ways I could get murdered or die out here, conclude none of those will happen, and turn on my headlamp.
I close myself into the hatch, think about all the possible ways I could get murdered or die out here, conclude none of those will happen, and turn on my headlamp.
I turn the pages of “Beyond Words,” a book by conservationist Carl Safina that explores stories about the lives of animals. A man spent every day for more than ten years observing a wolf pack, and what he’s learned is breathtaking. I become enchanted as the words meet my tired eyes and unsettled heart. I begin to feel a kind of steadiness build within me as I follow the story line. I feel like I am in the right place, even though I barely know where I am. And I’m falling in love with these wolves.
When I turn off the light to sleep, I lie awake a while, questions about love mixing with images of silver fur and thoughts of “Twenty-one,” “the perfect wolf,” who never lost a fight and never killed his adversaries. After a successful hunt, he'd let everyone else eat before he had any. Maturity. Generosity. Dignity.
As I close my eyes feel I’ve learned something from those wolves on a level I don’t often access. Sleep comes, thankfully.
I awake at dawn. While part of me wants to go back to sleep, the part of me that sees peachy tones rising from the horizon and wants to feel the morning grace is stronger.
I awkwardly step into my boots as I exit the car. Still cold. Still quiet. But the faint light is casting the land in a heart-stopping glow. With unexpected patience I set up my camp stove and brew coffee, grateful to hold the hot mug in my stiff cold hands.
Now the light is brightening, and I ascend the rest of the slope to behold my surroundings. I begin to emerge more completely from sleep’s loosening embrace as the scenery and caffeine stimulate me. As I come to wakefulness, there is an incredible, so smooth-it’s imperceptible shift.
As I come to wakefulness, there is an incredible, so smooth-it’s imperceptible shift.
I can see the vast landscape unfolding in all directions. Mountains miles away hold their ground, flourishing with secrets and promises of stability. There is a great quiet. A great stillness…and that majestic presence is merging with me. The transition is imperceptible — imagine being on a plane and having such a smooth descent you aren’t quite sure if you’ve landed or are still up in the air. I’m not sure if that’s possible (if it is I’d like to meet that pilot), but that was this. I become yet I already am the vastness and the quiet. I am simultaneously empty and complete — a continuation of the resonant soul of the world. There is no more turbulence. There is no contradiction, no clutter, no confusion, no disturbance. No ache. I am seamless and whole.
I am replete with gratitude and love.
This is beyond words.
These, and all the plunges into divine grace we are lucky enough to have are life-giving glimpses of what there is and what can be in this life.
I of course must come back to my life which is too often fraught with details I don’t care about, and which is filled with problems and frustrations that I suspect we’ve invented. I of course must return to a world which regularly violates what is sacred, and which can feel hopelessly fragmented and dissonant. But I come back to this life with deeper strength, and with the lingering energies of the profound, loving peace that the mountains showed me was already within me.
We all know this fundamental steadiness. Each of us at some point, and most likely very early on in life, has come into connection with the vastness. The completeness. The peaceful power. And each of us can again. I can’t guarantee that going to the bristlecones and reading about wolves will make this happen for you, or for me again for that matter. In fact, trying to make it happen will almost certainly ensure that it doesn’t. What I can say is there must be openness. The painful, dark, and confusing contents of the body, heart, mind, and soul are of the same stuff as profound peace — and so if you reject the mess, you also reject the stable energy — the perfect calm and clarity.
The painful, dark, and confusing contents of the body, heart, mind, and soul are of the same stuff as profound peace — and so if you reject the mess, you also reject the stable energy — the perfect calm and clarity.
Anything that arises in heart, body, or mind can become a gateway into soul integration — maybe it takes time, maybe it’s sudden, but to be open to whatever the contents of the heart and mind is to invite resonance and steadiness.
We can all become part of this healing journey and this exploration into the wilds of the heart, body, and mind. Each of us can make space to honor our soul, that great presence, which is shared with all that there is. And whenever we’re feeling fragmented, or distanced from ourselves, nature is here to remind us who we really are.
So, go. Take yourself somewhere. Bring all your questions and fears with you. Give solitude, space, and silence a chance to help the pieces of the soul fall into place, into union once again.
DEBUNKED: Meditation is for Boring Perfectionists
TRUTH: Meditation is for Boring Perfectionists and Interesting Imperfectionists
It’s not all blissful smiles and picturesque lifestyles. Media representations tend to depict a very limited view of meditation and thereby leave a bland impression of meditation. What's missing is the wildness and dynamism of meditation.
If you have a distaste for meditation because everything you’ve seen and heard about it is tedious, I understand where you are coming from. Seriously. When everything you see and hear about meditation sounds the same and seems like it’s something for a boring perfectionist, and you are an interesting imperfectionist, it’s perfectly reasonable that you would be running for the hills.
But wait, come back.
Meditation is more than trying way too hard to be a good person by doing this super boring thing of sitting quietly for 20 minutes a day.
Yes, meditation is often associated with a serene countenance and mild-manneredness (do a quick Google search if this isn't ringing a bell). No, meditation will not necessarily make you serene and mild-mannered. Meditation can indeed be grounding and bring about a sense of peace, but it can do a lot more than that too. Meditation is just as much aligned with what is adventurous, spontaneous, diverse, and fun as it is with calm and peace—really meditation is as diverse as human minds.
Meditation is just as much aligned with what is adventurous, spontaneous, diverse, and fun as it is with calm and peace—really meditation is as diverse as human minds.
Meditation can be as much like swinging in a hammock as it can be like forging a river. Some days its luscious mellow vibes, others it’s high speed winds and you’re just trying not to crash the helicopter you’re flying. Meditation is surveying the scene—taking in what is, and so it accommodates all variation of human experience. We all know that when it comes to inner experience, there is a rich spectrum. Meditation practice, over time, is like going on a long hike or a road trip; the scenery changes, and each unique landscape and soundscape contributes to the journey. Thank goodness it doesn’t all stay the same.
Some days its luscious mellow vibes, others it’s high speed winds and you’re just trying not to crash the helicopter you’re flying.
So yes, you can meditate and then work out to EDM like there’s no tomorrow. You can meditate and then break down into tears. You can celebrate later with friends, or you can read and go to sleep (what does the moment call for?). You can make mistakes, you can doubt meditation or anything makes a difference and try it anyway...you can change your mind.
A practice of meditation can support processing, and therefore deeper engagement with and contextualization of any given experience, keeping you connected with yourself and showing you new possibilities and interpretations. The contextualization opportunity offered by meditation can give rise to insight and may stimulate you to raise or lower your energy output. It may trigger a life change or amplified efforts in the direction you're already going. It depends.
Where does the “boringness” theme come from? It’s a great question. I think that many people turn to meditation when life gets really tough—when coping and healing have become priorities and boringness is more than welcome considering the chaos and intensity of the circumstances. These are the kinds of stories we hear about in the media. They certainly are remarkable and important stories of a shift from frenzy and crisis to calm and serenity—but they don’t resonate with everyone and these are not the sole contents of meditation.
Furthermore, there are not many ways to depict meditation other than a person sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed. But meditation is far more than an image can communicate, and touches every part of your life. It would be like if the only representation of “Scientist” you ever saw was a person staring into a microscope. Why would that inspire you to become a scientist? Seems boring! What are they even looking at and how can it be so interesting to them?
It would be like if the only representation of “Scientist” you ever saw was a person staring into a microscope.
SO, with a little imagination and experimentation, we come to see that meditation is not this tedious, boring thing. It’s not just for really organized people who are trying to set up a perfect life and adhere to society’s favorite values in an effort to be a good person. There’s no reason meditation can’t support both the shy and the bold, the organized and the disorganized, the rebel, the teacher, the gamer, the hell-raiser, the social butterfly. Meditation isn’t *for* select personality types any more than sleeping is *for* select personality types. Yes, maybe more, maybe less and maybe at different times for different people. Maybe one pillow, maybe two. But ultimately, it serves a purpose that transcends your view of yourself and your belief about “the types of things you do.”
There’s no reason meditation can’t support both the shy and the bold, the organized and the disorganized, the rebel, the teacher, the gamer, the hell-raiser, the social butterfly.
It’s a way toward insight into the nature of mind and an integration of the self. Even though it is an effective pathway for establishing steadiness within, the whole practice is actually quite wild and adventurous—the heart, body, and mind are not exactly tame.
Even though it is an effective pathway for establishing steadiness within, the whole practice is actually quite wild and adventurous—the heart, body, and mind are not exactly tame.
I don’t know what it’s going to be like for you. I can share insights from my journey as a way of providing a reference point for you, but I have no idea what you’re going to experience, and I don’t know what you’re going to do next. Go find out…maybe you’ll surprise yourself.