In order to get a handle on our own lives and orient toward a future which feels supportive to our souls, I believe it is imperative at times to simply stop. Getting caught up in the momentum of our lives is so easy that we simply react to whatever is in front of us rather than truly choosing our actions. By the time we are adults we are fully conditioned by the norms society imposes upon us. The only proof we need comes when we feel we “should” do, be or think a certain way. “Shoulds” are telltale signs that we are not living a life true to ourselves. To counterbalance this we need time to rest, time to reflect, and time to simply be ourselves without outside influence, We need time to attend to our lives to ensure we are on track with living the life that we truly wish to live and with being the person that we truly wish to be.
Since leaving my home and hopping in my van a few weeks ago I’ve regularly pondered what my plans would be. Although there are a world of options available, the only one that continued to speak with a resounding “yes” was to spend quiet solo time in nature on a personal retreat. I ended up in a remarkable location about 7,800 feet in elevation deep along a tooth-chipping dirt road in the Tahoe National Forest. With expansive views, old ponderosa pines growing betwixt a sprawling array of glacially-carved granite, and enough shade and breeze to keep high temperature discomfort at bay, I quickly settled in and was almost instantly reminded why taking time to reconnect to myself on a personal retreat is so important.
The return to self
The most valuable aspect of a personal nature retreat is simply the returning to myself that happens. In life, every project, responsibility and social interaction has the capacity to disconnect me from myself. Though I may not notice it in the moment, that disconnection is additive over time. The depth of the slide down to deep relaxation is the measuring rod of how far I’ve actually traveled from myself.
One of the important things about a personal restful retreat is that I only do that which I want to do in the moment. No to-do lists, no social responsibilities, no agenda, no accomplishments required. Just whatever I am truly moved to do in the moment is done. The “shoulds” in my life simply fall away.
My only job is to simply be
While on retreat, I tend to fall into a regular daily rhythm. Here in the mountains, my day begins with an early morning hike of about 2 1/2 miles to get some exercise and connect with nature before the heat begins to take hold. Around the endpoint of that walk, I get a data signal which enables me to remain responsive as needed to my home-as-vacation-rental business. That little amount of internet, barely a bar of signal strength, only once a day, and a long walk to get there, is the perfect amount for me.
The deepest rest I know comes when I am on solo retreats in nature. I can simply be and generally remain as long as is necessary to feel fully recharged. I’ll nap whenever I am tired. I also read, not just to relax but also to support my soul’s development with books that open both my inner and outer horizons. This may sound silly to some, but for me, a hammock is an essential piece of infrastructure for a deeply healing and relaxing retreat. I can spend hours a day in a hammock reading, resting, journaling and perhaps most importantly simply staring up at the trees.
Here’s a rough summary of a normal day: walk, check internet and deal with whatever needs attention, write, eat, nap, journal, read, nap, songwriting, eat, read, nap, sing, walk, eat, write, sleep. If asked to sum all of that up, I’d say that my only job is to simply “be.”
The Support of Nature
I’ve learned for myself that sitting quietly and witnessing nature with my eyes open is the best “meditation” for me to practice simply being. The more I sit still, the more quiet I become, the more the world opens up to me and the more I experience my own presence within it. Stopping, sitting and witnessing brings out the beauty and appreciation that all too often escapes me in my regular life, despite how omnipresent that beauty may be.
“And I feel above me the day-blind stars~Wendell Berry
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
I spend most of my life with my eyes open while not really seeing. Natural beauty reminds me to see and to be present with the seeing. This morning while hiking, I heard some noise coming from the nearby brush so I stopped. While paused and listening to what at first I erroneously thought had been a creek, a baby bear cub came scurrying down a tall tree about 30 feet from me. The bear’s mother in the brush must have been that sound I initially mistook for a creek. I don’t need baby cubs to open my eyes with wonder and appreciation, but they do help! Don’t worry, I left quickly to give momma and her babes the space they deserve.
Privilege, Intention and Trusting the “Yes”
I recognize it as a privilege to have retreats, yet I also know that to make something like this happen takes intention and listening to the truth of our desires. As I mentioned at the beginning of this writing, the only “yes” I was getting for doing anything was to spend solo time in nature on retreat and simply drop in. I listened, and here I am. I even U-turned while heading toward the San Francisco Bay Area when I felt somewhat intense internal resistance in that directional movement. It wasn’t long before I was up in the Lake Tahoe National Forest and this retreat had begun.
The Transformational impact of Retreat
The most important aspect of deeply restful retreat is the support it offers to return to the truth of who we truly are. When everything slows way down, I in fact come much more in direct contact with whatever is true for me. The chatter of my mind slows way down and I begin to observe rather than interpret. I simply exist in the flow of life rather than attempting to make life bend to my will, or worse yet to bend my own life to society’s will.
As I look back upon earlier backpacking retreats, I can very clearly tie my experience and insights to some of the most penetrating and long lasting transformations in my life. On one such wilderness retreat, I was so touched by natures perfection that I hesitated even to move a single rock. This led to a larger realizaton that everything is perfect simply as it is. I’ve learned that being at odds with reality is always a losing battle. It doesn’t mean that I can’t work at bettering the world, or myself, or situations I may find myself in, but those attempts at betterment are never at odds with an acceptance of that which already is.
On another retreat, I caught a plump, colorful trout in a lake in the Emigrant Wilderness Area of the Stanislaus National Forest. Although I had been fishing with the intention of catching my dinner, the stillness and my absolute appreciation of nature exactly as it was made it impossible for me to kill that fish simply so that I might eat. That beautiful, perfect creature, which I can still see in my mind’s eye swimming on my line along the shallow bank of that mountain lake, was instrumental in guiding me toward a path of vegetarianism and now veganism. These dietary choices reflect my developed intention of not wanting to be complicit in the killing and/or suffering of other life forms, and also not wanting to be complicit in the continued harming of our planet through harmful fishing, farming and animal raising practices. Thank you fishy! May many generations of your offspring continue to enjoy\ a life of freedom in that pristine lake.
Attending to Our Lives
When we slow down and hopefully truly stop, we connect with ourselves in a much more meaningful way. We find time and space to be, time and space to think and reflect, time and space to look at our lives and make affirmative movements towards changing our lives to better reflect the truth of who we are. When we continue our lives as they are without truly slowing down or stopping, our natural default is to remain living the same as before with our tomorrow not very different from our yesterday. The beauty of stopping is that when we begin again we do so having broken the inertia of our lives and are thus more free to choose the direction we now wish our lives to take.
When I set aside my cloaks of responsibility and carve out time for retreat, time to simply be, I am much happier and relaxed. The more simple my life becomes, the better. I value it so much that actively work on architecting a life for myself which increasingly has more spaciousness, more freedom, more time in nature, more space for creative expression, more time spent simply with those with whom I find joy. Several years ago, I playfully yet sincerely added “beach nap” to a checklist of accomplishments for a particular day. Ever since, I’ve done my best to recognize that doing things that fill my soul with joy and ease are more valuable an accomplishment than those tasks marked by the seemingly endless checking off of to-do lists items.
Although it has taken considerable time, decades really, I have learned to recognize that I am in fact free to choose my own life. In many ways it has been an arduous uncoupling of my true autonomy from the torrents of expectations of others and society at large. When we give our bodies and souls enough space to deeply rest, we allow more freedom to simply be. When we take time to simply be, we give ourselves permission to discover for ourselves the person whom we truly are and to create the life we truly wish to live.