I just got home from a two week trip through Nevada, Utah, and Colorado; the trip helped me reconnect a simple truth about myself. I need nature to feel grounded. I go to nature when I feel mounting stress, taking long walks in the deep canyon valleys and expansive coastlines of San Diego. But my favorite times spent in nature are when I am deep within a forest range, far away from any cell tower or local town. It is here that I really connect with myself and with the grander picture of life.
Childhood in Nature
At age five, my family started taking me on their routine nature escapades, first camping in local California State Parks, and then into more intense backpacking trips through the Sierra Nevada’s. All five of us, plus our dogs, would strap up with large packs and spend the day walking along trails, resting under a grove of trees, and sleeping under the stars. This was what I thought the word “vacation” meant, and while I at times begrudged the long days, multiple mosquitos, and freeze-dried food, the mountains slowly became my favorite place.
As I began going to school and meeting kids outside my family circle, I started to learn that not all vacations entailed days alone in the woods. When other children told me that they spend a week on an island and stayed on a “resort”, I recall feeling confused. Moreover, it sounded utterly boring. I liked the challenge of backpacking and the serenity I felt at the end of a difficult day. And when I started horseback riding at age seven, my life truly became one spent outdoors and in nature. I did not know life without animals, trees, and open spaces.
At age 19, however, I moved to South Carolina into a high-rise building in the middle of town to begin university—and what a shock that was. What I found was that I was overwhelmed by stress and anxieties. I was never one to be particularly anxious, yet now I could barely longer sleep and felt out of control of my state-of-mind. Each time I returned home to quiet suburbs of San Diego and to the tranquility of my local barn, I would sleep for 12 hours a night and feel my stress literally melt away from my mind.
The more I thought about this dichotomy of experiences, the more I recognized that my shift within myself was due to my shifts in environment and lifestyle. Despite being on the equestrian team at USC, I was only around horses about three times a week, amounting to maybe five hours a week out in nature and with animals. In San Diego, I spent at least five hours a day at the barn, a few hours exercising, and the rest of my time resting at home with our family dogs. Weekends in San Diego were spent at the beach or on a trailhead— weekends in South Carolina were spent at college dive bars and under the library’s artificial lights. My college apartment was void of pets, let in very little natural light, and filled with noisy tenants and buzzing hall lights. Very rarely did I escape from the cars, the people, and the pervasive noise. And all this stimulation was, in fact, driving me mad.
Things only got worse in my sophomore year, when I dropped the riding team completely. I felt the added pressure of picking a new life path, and now I had no escape from the daily stressors of the campus and the city. After a terrible first semester, a friend of mine, Federika, encouraged me to take a Buddhist Meditation course in the spring. Thankfully, I agreed.
That spring semester, Federika and I spent hours a week reading about meditation, practicing different chants, and submerging ourselves in this class. I began to feel serenity and self-awareness beyond anything I had experienced before. Additionally, I grew more and more sensitive to my surroundings—instead of accepting my noisy world, I started to crave silence and natural sounds. For weeks, I drove myself crazy as I combed through USC’s campus for a pocket of silence. I came up empty-handed. Even at 6 am, on my walk to the gym, I could hear students talking, street lights hymning, and doors opening and closing. I confessed this frustration to a new friend (and a more advanced meditator). He told me something revealing:
Silence is something that must be found within
His words have stuck with me through the years, and while I still do love to sit in meditation next to a stream and on a pile of leaves, I work to find just as much peace when I am in my airplane seat or on public transportation. The truth is, you can search far and wide for “silence” and you will always come up short. Even in nature, leaves ruffle, birds chirp (loudly and obnoxiously at times), and lightning strikes the ground with a deafening crack. Although we may idolize nature, it too comes with distractions and noise. The goal of meditation is not to escape theses sounds; it is to remain unaffected by them. When we are in nature, we easily tune out the distractions and connect with the broader cycle of life, which can be partly why nature does feel quite meditative to us. But the meditative state does not rely on the external world, it is an internal state.
I never want to be someone who escapes from the world to live in the solitude of nature. I want a balance between city life and the world of nature, I want to admire the beauty of trees and birds on some days and attend a fancy art gallery on other days. I want to spend my life in and out of libraries and in dialogue with other people, and I want to spend my life in silence with my horse.
I have come to see nature as an example of how I am supposed to feel and how I should be, but I must take her lessons and apply them to my own life. Meditation helps me maintain this internal state of tranquility, and the past two weeks in nature have shown me just how much work I have left to do to make that peace pervasive and engulfing.