“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Where do you go to feel good? Me, I head to the woods, or the ocean, jagged cliffs or soft sand—any of these will do. As will the mountains, a stream, a lake, anyplace I can find trees or a wide open sky….
According to research on healing and nature, images of these things will also do.
Patients heal faster when exposed to nature. Children settle and stress melts away. Nothing you have to do, or be. Just walk in the trees, breathe in the sky, squish your toes in the sand, sit on a boulder and listen to the waves crash and let it in. The magic will happen all on its own.
This is what I remembered last weekend as I attended a 3-day silent meditation retreat in Santa Barbara, CA. The land on which the retreat center calls home is in Santa Ynez, once home to the Chumash people. It’s breathtaking oak trees, boulders, wind, and thanks to this year’s rainfall, water rushing in the stream.
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”
—Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”
I love nature more. That was the theme of my retreat. The story beneath it, “I hate people,” rose to the surface to be healed. You see I don’t really hate people, at least not all people all the time. Just most people some of time. I have these socks, with a girl hugging her horse, they say, “I hate everyone too.”
I’m thinking if someone made socks with this message, I’m not alone here.
It was in the presence of nature that I was able to hear this quiet story bubbling just under the surface, a story that keeps my defenses up. Everyone is against me, must remain vigilant. This story can pop up when I’m confronted by a new or uncomfortable situation. Or new people. I don’t know where it comes from. Years of schooling, where conforming or rejection are seemingly the only options? Maybe. I suspect it may have been perpetuated there, but it came to me by way of my DNA. I recognize this story has been triggered, by the quality of my thoughts…critical, judgmental, defensive, absurd.
It was an absurd thought that gifted me my freedom: On retreat, I was sharing a room with two other women I’d never met before. Over the course of our sharing a room in silence, thoughts passed by about the shades, open or closed, the windows, open or closed, the heat, turned up or turned down. By turning the heat down, opening the windows, closing the shades, taking care of my needs (not theirs, even though I didn’t really know what their needs were). Defensiveness arose inside me. I didn’t let it out. In fact they were kind of horrifying, my thoughts. No, I just kept my armor on.
On my final morning, I was leading the first meditation of the day and so I got up to use the bathroom first (how did they feel about that? I went first. They were milling about too, should I have let them go first? That would be the polite thing to do). When I came out of the bathroom, the shades were opened. Ah, when I’m out of the room, they finally feel comfortable to open the shades…. That’s what a tiny voice said. WHAT! I smiled. That’s some crazy talk. It was in that moment that I saw this small shadowy part of me that thrashes about in righteous indignation, feeling like the world is against her.
“The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.”
—Christopher Paolini, Eragon
I gave her a hug. This part of myself. Of course you hate everyone, if you think they’re all against you. That is the moment the healing began.
There was nothing to fix. Nothing to change. Just acceptance. Of what it is. Of myself. All parts of myself. That morning, I felt connected to everyone and all that was shared. I was filled with the warmth of humans being human. I was touched beyond words. And ecstatic at seeing and embracing this vulnerable part of myself.
The thing is, I was already happy and relaxed.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
This revelation was icing on the cake. In the arms of the old oak trees, I was held, happy, at peace, safe. It was safe to let this part be seen. Be healed. It’s not that she’ll never come back. She is a part of me. It’s that being with her in radical, compassionate acceptance when she is all riled up, changes everything and now I know how to do that. I know what triggers her (feeling alone, scared, new situations). I know what helps her feel relief.
Here are the words I offered her: Hello my love, this feels uncomfortable right now. I see you. I hear you. I am right here with you, holding your hand. You don’t have to be alone anymore. I believe in you. Yep. You really hate everyone sometimes.
NOTE: Lonely, tired, hungry, scared. These are all conditions that can send us spinning out of control. Same as a young child. In these moments, can you meet yourself with the kindness you might bring to a child?
A few years ago I was blessed to live for two years in the mountains. To me it was a dream. Not so for my kids. They yelled, slammed doors, fretted over leaving the city. I had to dig deep to trust the part of my knowing that told me it would be ok. Even if they never went for long walks in the mountains with me (they hate hiking). Just living under the trees would fill them in ways they may never understand. But I did. We have been back living in the city for three years now and my 18-year-old is heading to Santa Cruz, CA for college. “Mom, you should see the trees,” he said. My 15-year-old, who screamed the loudest, wants our next home to be in nature.
I am profoundly grateful that I listened to that knowing voice. That I had the support of my teacher, to hear that voice.
There is so much that I have to share from those three days on retreat. It has inspired weeks’ worth of writing. I also want to give a shout out to my teacher Deborah Eden Tull, founder of Mindful Living Revolution. Her retreats are intimate, her heart open and well. If you need some support in this journey, she is a gem of a resource. I was not paid or even asked to say that.
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
—John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir
I went a little quote crazy today. Just couldn’t stop the flow of beautiful words calling me home. My hope is they will bring you relief, a sweet secret smile just because, as they do me.
How bout you, where do you go to feel good?