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?

Disengaging From the Universe

Galactic Paradise by Tunc Tezel

Galactic Paradise by Tunc Tezel

It seems this can only happen when we think we’re separate from everything and everyone else. When the world is limited to a focus on I/me/my/mine, then doing what it takes to ensure my own comfort and security is the only thing that “makes sense”—regardless of whether it’s at someone else’s expense.

Self-described “Earth Scholar” Thomas Berry wrote about this separation in The Great Work. He described how at one time we used nature and the universe as a way to put ourselves in context, to create an understanding of our identity in “the wonderful yet fearsome world about us.” But now,

“We no longer read the book of the universe. We have extensive contact with the natural world through photographs and television presentations. But as Saint Augustine remarked long ago, a picture of food does not nourish us. Our world of human meaning is no longer coordinated with the meaning of our surroundings. We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment that is inherent in our nature.”

This fundamental misunderstanding, this disengaging from the universe and acting as if we aren’t a part of it, leaves us without access to the “perks of membership,” so to speak. We perceive we have lost the benefits of connection, belonging, survival, healing, and a frame of reference for life.

We forget completely that we are dependent on something intangible, incredible, and inexplicable. Not dependent in a way that makes us weak, but in a way that makes us powerful beyond our imagining. We forget, as Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star-stuff.”

And in that forgetting we are cast adrift. We feel out of place, lost, ungrounded, and unsafe. We begin to act in ways we think will take care of us but lack a larger perspective. We expend huge amounts of effort and energy to arrange things for our benefit, destroying the infrastructure of life in the process.

Thomas Berry says,

“The difficulty is that with the rise of modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects […] We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning, we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.”

Begin With Yourself

how-you-do-anything-is-how-you-do-everything-quote-2-466x254Remarkably, the same process takes place on a micro level within each of us. As Zen teacher Cheri Huber (and others) have said, how you do anything is how you do everything.

Why do we do things that are harmful to us individually, like overeat, smoke, sabotage relationships, or physically harm others or ourselves? Why can’t we manage to do the things that take care of us, like keep the commitments to exercise and eat well?

When we are a house divided, we don’t connect our actions to their consequences, even when they’e in plain sight.

To act in ways that are life-sucking rather than life-giving, we have to leave ourselves. We have to forget who we are. Only then can we act compulsively, addictively, and harmfully, often in an attempt to ameliorate the feeling of unease we have from thinking of ourselves as separate. Only then do we override our own intuition with such ruthless ignorance.

How, then, do we end this illusion of separation? We begin with ourselves and work our way out from there. Albert Einstein suggests,

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Relearning Compassion From Nature 

Poster outside the planetarium at SUNY New Paltz.

Poster outside the planetarium at SUNY New Paltz.

Embracing ourselves—and indeed everything—in compassion takes practice. We are not raised to think this way; we are not trained to do it. But we have an endless resource at our fingertips to help us learn: nature.

Our relationship status with nature right now would read: “It’s complicated.” We have not held up our end of the deal. We’ve made a bit of a mess of things. But the relationship can be salvaged if we commit to shifting our perspective from “me” as the center of the universe to “me” as a part of something much more grand.

To do this we must go outside. “One has to be alone, under the sky, before everything falls into place and one finds his or her own place in the midst of it all. We have to have the humility to realize ourselves as part of nature,” says Thomas Merton

Start rebuilding your relationship with nature today. Spend time in stillness or silence outdoors. Gaze at the clouds or the stars. Watch a particular tree in your yard or on your commute and note its changes throughout the year. Visit the reservoir where your water originates. Create small nature-centered celebrations. Pick up a pebble or a leaf every time you’re outside and hold it for a minute. Listen for the next birdcall you hear.

You will be surprised at how quickly you reconnect to nature. After all, you’re only recognizing something that already exists. And that something is waiting to welcome you home, as poet Mary Oliver says, to “your place in the family of things.”

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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