Extreme Unplugging: Why I Go Dark

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. —Blaise Pascal

I started to write this post during meditation. I know, I know…that’s not what you’re supposed to do when sitting. But as anyone who has meditated has discovered—thinking happens.

I was a few days into a monthlong retreat at the Zen Monastery Peace Center, and I was happy. Not the kind of happy you feel when you’ve won the lottery, but happy like when you’re a kid on summer vacation.

This, I realize, is not the reaction most people would have when staring down 30 days of silence with no phone, computer, family, friends, or even eye contact. But I love being on retreat, and people often ask me what it’s like, so it occurred to me to try to articulate why I like to go dark and unplug in such spectacular fashion.

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Forgiving Is a Process

I love learning about words—their meanings, where they come from, how we use them. But sometimes I wonder if I missed a pivotal week in school where the vocabulary list included words like love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

I’d heard these words held aloft as aspirational signposts since my first Sunday school teacher explained the Golden Rule. I’d even, on more than one occasion, had the experience being described by each of these words.

But the concepts themselves remained abstract and intangible to me most of the time. I knew they were real, but often it felt like I sometimes feel when passing through business class on the way back to coach. Someone else got to sit in love and compassion while I grudgingly wedged myself into acceptance and tolerance, wondering how exactly one gets access to those roomier seats.

Because these words are, well, words… I had assumed they had clear definitions. And if something could be defined, then it could be gift wrapped with a bow and neatly filed on my shelves of understanding, ready to be taken out when needed.

However, when I found myself in need of compassion, I’d take the box off the shelf and it would be empty. I’d think to myself that I know kindness would be useful in this situation, but I seem to be fresh out and don’t know where to get more.

I felt locked within an intellectual fortress, forbidden entry into the garden of good feelings and betrayed by my reliance on reasoning.

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Kissing the Earth

Walking tends to be a means of getting from here to there. We generally don’t notice we’re doing it unless there is an ache or injury that makes it less pleasant to move about.

When you walk, you may prefer to wander in the past, but I’m usually several steps ahead of myself. I tend to project into the future or find myself engaging in conversation about imaginary scenarios with imaginary people. (Yeah, it’s like that in here.)

Last year, after a few months away from home, I returned to the cottage where I had lived for 7 years and the walk from the driveway to the house changed my life.

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Coming at It Sideways

Ecologist Jerry Jenkins is working on a project that would send most reasonable people over the edge: a 9-volume atlas of Northern forests.

While his approach—an elaborate field guide that includes ecology—is fascinating and worth a nod for its ambition and integrated structure, it’s Jenkins’ practical philosophizing that captured my attention at a recent talk a the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

A researcher who spent years observing and quantifying ecological changes in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, Jenkins authored two books he assumed would change people’s behavior and attitude toward climate change: Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability, and Acid Rain in the Adirondacks: An Environmental History.

But despite the books, things seem to be getting worse. Jenkins had laid out the worst possible future scenario for the Adirondacks, yet it was business as usual. No one seemed to be listening. Continue reading

Clouds by Jenn Brown

Remembering Your Place in the Family of Things

One of the conundrums I often ponder is how, as humans, we can do what we are doing to the planet. Floating continents of trash in the oceans, flammable tap water, mountains laid low, ancient forests stripped bare. Why?

Why can’t we accept the world as it is and live in it, rather than breaking it and living among the shattered pieces, as fantasy writer Robin Hobb asks? What compels us to bite the very hand that feeds us? Why do we think it’s OK to shit where we eat?

Entitlement, greed, envy, jealousy, power, ignorance, and money are clearly motivating factors, but how, exactly, do these states or emotions overpower common sense?

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5 Things You May Not Know About Your Breath

breathe_horizontal-AThankfully, we don’t have to think about breathing to make it happen, or most of us would have given up the ghost long ago. But thankfully, too, when we want, we can consciously control our breath to encourage healing in our body.

I recently took a Feldenkrais workshop about the neck. I hoped the gentle, mindful exercises of Feldenkrais would offer some relief from a neck injury that was making life relatively unpleasant.

To my surprise, we spent most of the afternoon doing breathing lessons. Through the focused, deliberate attention and soft, subtle movements, I learned more about the relationship between my lungs and my neck (and just about everywhere else in my body) than I’d learned in my life to date.

Here are 5 gems.

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Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

I live in a small cottage in a rural-ish neighborhood where I can’t see other houses from my house. Everyone keeps to themselves and lives quiet, private lives—it’s not a neighborhood with any sense of community.

But I’m a walker, and by walking the winding roads nearby I have met a garden designer, a social worker who really loves handwriting analysis, a dean at the culinary school, a kitchen manager at the same school, a hairdresser from town, and a German guy who helps take care of his mother-in-law’s enormous property.

Over time the neighborhood opened up, at least to some friendly “Good mornings” on my walk. But everyone in cars still seemed grumpy. No one ever waved. No one beeped a hello. Most barely dipped to the side to give me some room on the road.

I began to obsess about how unfriendly and rude everyone was. Couldn’t they lift a finger off the steering wheel? Couldn’t they acknowledge that I’m here at least by moving a tiny bit into the other lane? What’s wrong with these people?

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Step Out of the Personality Pigeonhole

I recently heard myself say to a friend, “I’m just such a Type A.” That was code for “I am a perfectionist,” but even as I said it I questioned the truth of it.

I leave dishes in the sink (sometimes for days), I often put my hair up rather than style it, and I’m more interested in trying new things for work than being a career-driven achiever.

That doesn’t sound very Type A, does it? Is there a Type B? And where did this whole system come from anyway?

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A Moment of Silence With 400,000 People

“Silence is a source of great strength.”  —Lao Tzu

I wouldn’t have thought you could get 400,000 people excitedly waiting to begin the largest climate march in history to stop, become still and silent, and raise their hands in solidarity. But it happened—and it was powerful.

As we lined the western edge of Central Park with a cushion of quiet, we had a moment to access that place beyond words, to get in touch with the bigger picture, to tap into the mystery that transcends but includes us all.

After filling up on the love, peace, joy, connection, or whatever each of us found in that moment of reflection, we brought forth that energy in a roll of sound that moved through the crowd like a wave in perpetual crest.

It was a roar of hope and frustration, of joy and anger, of optimism and sadness. It was a roar of love—the sound of a mother bear protecting her cubs and a parent whispering, “I love you” to their sleeping baby.

It was the sound of the Earth itself, saying, “I will not be denied.”

We’re All One Tribe

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The People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 was significant for many reasons, but for me the most important was its inclusiveness. The causes represented spanned everything from labor rights to veganism to water protection to nuclear disarmament. But underlying all the concerns is a love for our home, our precious planet, that is strong enough to get people off their couches and into the streets.

I have loved nature for as long as I can remember. I spent hours romping through the woods and exploring my dad’s vegetable garden when I was a kid, and our vacations happened in an 6-person Coleman tent that included cots and a 100-pound St. Bernard.

As an adult, I have struggled to find a place where I felt at home in the “environmental movement.” Who is my pack?

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