I feel compelled to share what I have learned the past few years as a lot of what I’ve learned has been invaluable to me and may be beneficial to you, and I’m in a state of contemplation and reflection as I transition from a forest-dwelling creature (wilderness guide) back into a student (graduate-nutrition).
First, it has been difficult to leave the place and profession that I have come to love so much. I will be forever grateful to western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Four Circles and Red Oak Recovery Centers for employing me as a wilderness therapy field guide and rites-of-passage facilitator, and to all those who have helped me on this journey.
In working in the forest through all seasons, I have had the privilege of experiencing nature in a raw way – I’ve bathed in the freezing streams in winter and fought off aggressive yellow jackets in the summer.
First and foremost, I learned that my needs are very simple – everything I truly need fits in my backpack (shelter-tent, water bottle, water filter, warmth-clothing/sleeping bag). Learning to live this way has been incredibly humbling and has provided the space for gratitude for the simple creature comforts such as running water.
In living simply, there is so little to worry about – you spend time meeting your basic needs. You arise with the sun, fill up water at the water source, cook and eat food, hang the food in a tree so bears or other animals do not eat it, defecate, urinate, and occasionally shower. There is little room to worry about things that people may typically worry about, things I often worried about – what time the post office closes, what that knocking in my car engine is, etc… There is beauty and peace in simplicity. Additionally, I mostly slept very well. Without heavy use of electronics, and with adequate exercise, and little to worry about, coupled with exposure to natural light during the day, darkness at night, and the soothing sounds of streams or rain, sleep was easy.
I got to live like a human being. I made fires with tree branches I found – I learned to source what was around me to make tinder for said fires. I found great value in reconnecting with a more primal part of being a human. And again, I felt very healthy in doing so.
Additionally, this simple, natural way of life illuminated a few things for me. First, as I had already mentioned, our typical way of life creates serious disharmony within our bodies, but these, at least in my experience, can be easily corrected by spending a few days in the woods. As I would have one week off and one on, I’d often slip back into using my phone at night or thinking way too much about things when not at work, and this disrupted my sleep cycle. But, after the first night in the woods, I was back so sleeping at 9 or 10 PM and waking up at 6 or 7 AM. And in the winter, we slept earlier at times and woke up later, and I was able to experience those articles I’ve read about regarding how our species used to sleep – I would awake after 4-5 hours, journal or meditate, and then rest for another few hours. Anywho, the point of all that is that we can reset our circadian clocks simply by spending time in nature. I experienced it week after week. As a future doctor, I hope to one day explore the basis of this so that it can be utilized as a medical modality. Environmental signals such as light exposure, UV exposure, and exposure to earth’s electromagnetic field are powerful signals which enact biological responses within us – and the antithesis is also true – I learned that in my undergraduate research when I explored how man-made EMFs (coming from cell phone towers, Wi-Fi routers, etc…) can contribute to subtle and gross biological changes (e.g. decreasing cell membrane permeability to cancer).
Second, by living in modern societies with AC, heat, and so forth, we really limit ourselves to understanding what we are capable of. Before working in the woods, I would’ve thought it insane to jump into a freezing river in February and emerge with icicles in my hair. I mean, if you aren’t used to it or overdo it, it is dangerous. But I learned that this caused a biological signal which made me feel refreshed, alert, and decreased my appetite. Additionally, I learned I could hike up and down mountains with 60 pounds on my back for 7-8 miles a day. I didn’t have to rely on a lighter to start a fire, and so on. There are many examples, but my point is this: as I exposed myself to the “harsh” elements, I saw that my body could adapt and thrive in the extremes. And, I felt empowered and experienced serenity in this. I experienced a new sense of independence – that I could survive and even thrive in the elements.
This leads me to my next point – I became so grateful for modern amenities, not because they provide comfort, but because they provide time. For instance, in the woods, it may take an hour to retrieve water and filter it so that it can be consumed. Sometimes the filters break and you must fix them, or they get clogged and must be cleaned, etc… And in the winter, it may take an hour to boil water for dinner…
In a home, it takes seconds to filter water and minutes to boil it, and it’s not an exhausting process. Because of this, I have time to do so much! I can meditate or learn or really do anything and not be burdened with making sure that I don’t die of dehydration, starve, or become hypothermic.
Because I have experienced the benefits of both types of lifestyles, it is my hope to work toward integrating them – for instance, non-toxic homes close to a natural setting, electronics that do not disrupt biological signaling, etc…
Further, I had the honor and privilege of facilitating rites-of-passage ceremonies as a wilderness guide. I worked with young adults suffering with alcohol and/or drug addictions and co-occurring mental health challenges.
Several key realizations occurred during this time. At this point, I would like to note that this work coincides directly with an increase in my meditation practice (Vipassana) and my seriousness around living a meditator’s lifestyle. So, realizations occurred due to both meditation and my work as a guide/facilitator.
First, we all suffer with similar challenges and self-defeating behaviors. As a facilitator, I often observed several themes – feelings of guilt, worthlessness, fear of the unknown, … And for the most part, each guide and client could relate to the stories they heard – for instance, most people had lost a friend or family member close to them, many had experienced homelessness, feelings of guilt over past actions… I realized the maladies were universal and expressed themselves uniquely in each individual, and when discussed openly in a group setting, participants could better understand how they were not alone in their suffering, and this often provided great relief. There was great value in openly discussing fears, traumas, doubts, and worries with the hope of learning to overcome them.
As the maladies are universal, so must be the solution. Before I get into that, I want to also say that I saw that maladaptive behaviors causing suffering were learned behaviors – the clients I worked with knew no other way of living. An alcoholic father often produced an alcoholic son. Or in a family with no alcoholism, there was a death, or divorce, or some perceived traumatic event. Additionally, no helpful coping skills were given, and as drugs and alcohol can provide instant relief, they were abused. They were easy to access, perhaps even easier than healthy coping strategies. These young men were defined as deviants based on their past actions, but their hearts were pure. They had remorse, the desire to change, to right their wrongs. They just needed to learn a system for doing this because they had no idea on how to recover, how to heal, how to stop their cycle of suffering.
Back to universal malady, universal remedy. The programs I’ve worked at have been 12-step programs – and they have been successful in helping countless people recover from alcoholism and addiction. And as a rites-of-passage facilitator, we used nature and silence as a tool to catalyze self-realization and a deeper understanding of our place in the world.
Although there are many helpful methods of correcting maladaptive behaviors and learning to live a new, healthy, sustainable life, I have found Vipassana meditation to be the most helpful. It has taught me a simple, practical method to be compassionate towards myself and those I interact with. And, it is available to all regardless of income or background.
Without ranting on about Vipassana, I’d like to say that it has been most helpful for me in learning to lead a serene, harmonious life. Universal malady, universal remedy – Vipassana.
Now, moving on. Due to the work I’ve done for the past few years, I was often in a general state of self-reflection and working on personal growth. I realized that when I became stagnant, feelings of depression would often return. When I was stagnant, I felt I had no purpose, no direction, that I was not growing. And in observing the clients I worked with and co-workers who had recovered from alcoholism/addiction coupled with meditation teachings, I learned the ultimate purpose of a human life is unconditional service to others. Once one finds their purpose, their reason for coming to this earth, they have a reason to live. Live to give I guess would be a cute way to say it.
Of all the purposes, the ultimate must be enlightenment – saintly people like Buddha or Jesus are revered as they give without expectation of return.
And the path to enlightenment was laid out by fully-liberated people – I practice the technique Buddha used in achieving enlightenment, which he taught directly to his students and has been passed down since.
And I’ve also realized that I’m not ready to give up my interests to become a monk, but will still meditate and act in a way to selflessly serve others, whether that be directly or by furthering my education.
Furthermore, to understand your “purpose,” I’ve found it requires a place to sit silently – nature and meditation centers have proved incredibly helpful to me – along with the capacity to understand your experiences, including suffering, and learn to use these experiences as tools to help others in their journeys of healing and recovery.
Living in this way requires great patience and a sacrifice to your old way of being. It is challenging, incredibly challenging indeed. I’ve found though that living a life dedicated to personal growth and serving others has filled my life with abundance and serenity.
And in living so intentionally, I have found that no matter where I travel to or relocate, I can make friends and meet mentors to help me on my journey. That is a wonderful feeling – to feel free, free of fear, something that had hindered me for so long.
The past few years have also helped me better cultivate patience – to realize that life is a process, and that craving for a desired outcome will only cause suffering, for myself and for others. I’ve found it is better to act for the sake of acting, or in a more cliché way of putting it, to enjoy the journey.
What I’ve found feels profound, at least to me. I feel I’ve discovered through all these experiences how to overcome adversity, to heal from traumas, to stop making decisions that hold me back and rather take action beneficial to me and others, and lead a purpose-filled, harmonious life.
I feel I have an overarching understanding of this all and must delve deeper. I feel the deeper I delve, the more I will understand, and the more I’ll be able to help myself and others.