“For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free”
~~~Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
As a child, I remember countless days filled with play in nature, being part of a generation of kids sent outside after breakfast and told not to come back inside until dinnertime. Staring aimlessly at the sky, just feeling the peacefulness of having nothing to do but be. Climbing trees so high my elders felt a fear I hadn’t yet experienced and refused to inherit from them. Watching the phenomenal work ethic of the ants, squirrels, and other animal beings gathering food for the inevitable needs of winter. Foraging for wild blackberries in the woods behind my neighborhood. Connecting with friends, laughing with the lightness that comes through deep play in communion with our natural surroundings.
Continuing to grow, learning the deeply meditative aspects of competitive swimming, moving through the water in a mentally silent dance, feeling the peace that comes from being pulled completely into my body. Walking and biking longer and longer distances, finding freedom in greater and greater concentric circles radiating out from the pain of whatever house I lived in at the time.
Living my childhood experiencing the great perfection of all things in a visceral way, feeling my own pulse connected with the pulse of all things. Pure presence, engagement, and full participation. The simplest of all contemplative practices, found in a natural world that heard my voice, listened to my song, encouraged my curiosity, nurtured my spirit, and accepted me in ways I never really felt accepted in my difficult home life.
And then I grew up, then things expanded, farther and farther away on an endless quest for an even greater sense of belonging.
Body surfing in the Pacific Ocean as a young Marine stationed in southern California, where the ocean demands one-pointed mind in service of safety; experiencing the joy of being one with water. Climbing Mount Charleston outside Las Vegas, climbing Mount Shasta in northern California, becoming one with the earth and the natural world in a way that required full awareness of available time, ever-changing weather conditions, personal ability, hydration level, and body energy. Snorkeling in strangely clear, painfully beautiful water in places like the Philippines and Japan, places I’d never even thought to dream of visiting growing up in Indiana, where the open water Lake Michigan in my hometown didn’t have meaningful waves and was far from clear. Long endurance hikes with heavy weight on my back, the soldiering silence of moving from one place to another on my own two feet. Running 3-5 miles most days, at a time before listening to music while running wasn’t a realistic possibility, not quite understanding the meditative nature of moving my body through space in a way that was both creating health and a calmer way of being. Dancing, feeling powerful, confident, and attractive in my body. Quite literally, the whole world became my home, a place of refuge, no matter where I was.
And then traumatic childhood body blows started catching up with me, compounded by new traumas I didn’t understand – traumas I self-medicated in new ways that didn’t involve the natural world quite so much.
Multiple poor relationship choices with partners who didn’t share my need for time in nature, who in fact avoided it like the plague, not quite knowing how to break the cycle – thus endlessly repeating it. Trading the cleansing embodiment of sweat for the comfort of air conditioning. Trading boots for a suit. Far too much time indoors, struggling to manage my sanity in a new world well beyond one of simple acceptance and belonging, having to prove myself over and over for external validation of my own worth that I suddenly couldn’t see or feel anymore, not fully realizing how deeply I’d lost the mirror of worth and belonging being reflected back at me in nature. Losing my true voice in favor of an artificial voice, while playing a game in the business world that I was quite good at playing without truly understanding the opportunity cost of being successful in that world full of ego.
Ultimately, finally, collapsing under the weight of it all, losing virtually everything the phenomenal world views as markers of a successful life. Stripped naked, emotionally raw, and solo parenting two wonderful humans who desperately needed a different me, who deserved a different me.
Two-plus decades of ever-deepening Buddhist practice had helped somewhat, but even there in that space of refuge, sitting within the walls of a meditation hall only served me by slowing the damage as I learned to observe my own mind with greater and greater clarity.
What was trying to be seen there didn’t come easily, exacerbated by a lifetime of conditioning toward something else. Sitting summer retreat in the Colorado mountains, in a tent with the walls rolled up, started to unlock something. A glimpse of something, seen while squirrels quite literally ran across my feet as I sat on my gomden. Laughter and joy beyond managing psycho-spiritual pain. What I saw my mind say to me was actually quite simple: REMEMBER.
Thus it began, again. Re-discovering myself in the natural world, a world that has given me so much, a struggling world that is now calling for brave warriors to engage, bear witness, and act.
Now, two more words are guiding me: PARTICIPATE and SERVE.
Listening to the natural world, I’ve traded where I want to be for where I am. I’ve traded what I want to hear for listening to what’s actually being said. I’ve traded what I want to do for actively participating where I’m called to serve. I’ve traded someone else’s voice for my own. I’ve traded trying to be a perfect parent for being the best good enough, fully present parent I can be in any moment; helping model for my children how to engage with the natural world as a place of peace and belonging, complete with responsibility for protecting and respecting her.
Like the best of dzogchen meditation, I find myself exactly back where I began, experiencing the great perfection of being right where I am, experiencing re-newed engagement with nature and the natural world surrounded by my people, my tribe both human and beyond human, my sangha of all beings.
Once again I am alive, engaged, and participating.
I’m home. Right where I’ve always been, a simple citizen of the natural world.
And I’m so grateful to be here. Again.