20 Sep When the Sky Opens, and the Answers Shimmer
A BRIEF RIDE ACROSS THE lake dropped us at the start of the Twenty Lakes Basin Loop Trail in California’s Eastern Sierras. The water reflected the sunny, light blue sky. With my bandana tied below my hat and my pack full of camping gear hoisted over my shoulders, I and six of my best friends stepped off of the metallic boat and onto the slowly swaying dock.
The short dock led onto the rocky shore, where expansive green meadows unfurled beyond the undulating waves of stones. Ominous mountains dominated it all and enclosed the natural landscape like the walls of a home.
For the next few days, this pocket of natural wonder would be our home; the mountains became our walls, as if they’d protect us from what might lie beyond their precipitous peaks. I immediately felt a change of energy and a wave of gratitude course through my being as we stepped beneath their watching eyes.
Life in the mountains differs from what we’re accustomed to at home. At home, we wake up and re-enter the world of things. We exist in our world of going and doing and comfort, and continue sailing with the stream of time. We’re enmeshed in a system of progress that’s been continually moving forward since the dawn of humankind.
When we’re home, we seldom stop to think about why we’re doing what we are. Time just moves too quickly. Sometimes, it’s necessary to remove ourselves from what we know to find some clarity.
While the emotions that I feel every day tell me I’m a human being and not some cyborg, I want to act human. Humans are made to try and fail and climb and explore. We are here to create, love, and express ourselves.
We are animals, yet we withhold our animal instincts, our human instincts, to live without fear. We know we can and should leave fear behind, but the world tells us to stop and wait, for it might not be safe beyond the confines of what we know.
So we wait. Acquiring and doing more doesn’t fulfill us, because in reality, we have all that we need to be happy; we have the things which nobody can take — nature to explore, a beating heart, a soul that’s connected to all the life in which we’re entwined. We are who we are, not the things we accomplish or the things we have.
Beneath it all, we are the spirit that just wants to soar.
One returns from nature with a new perspective on how the world works. It becomes clear that to be happy, one doesn’t need to spend their time pursuing goals that aren’t important or things that just collect dust. I believe there’s a reason we’re here — learning together, here and now.
Nature is where I’ve found the greatest meaning in what can’t be explained. It’s where I glimpse a sliver of an answer to the questions that continually knock on the door of my heart. In the forests, in the mountains, by the sea or in the desert, the process of life unfolds naturally; I find profound joy in observing that natural unfolding.
Witnessing the world turn makes me feel small, yet significant. And perhaps that’s what we are. We’re all small in the grand scheme of it all. But we matter. There is some force we can’t explain, a source of all that exists. I don’t know if each of our destiny is preordained — but I do have faith that each of us is able to change the energy in the universe with every step we take.
This source protects us, it loves us, and it wants us to fly. It wants us to let go and flow with the natural course of life. When we have faith in this source, we’re able to let our guard down once and for all. The world is no longer against us, but for us. We’re able to drop our masks, and be the human beings we are.
I believe everything we do bears significance we can’t comprehend. Every smile and every act of love matters. I have faith that we’re all here to create a more beautiful universe. It’s what we’ve always been here to do, and that’s nothing to be taken lightly.
The Trunk From Which the Branches Stem
I’m twenty-six years old. While every season of our lives is meaningful, I feel like I’m at a pivotal point in my journey. Perhaps it’s just the societal pressure to find my path, my career, my purpose. Maybe it’s that I feel a sincere calling to create something special to give to the world, and I put pressure on myself. Yet the pressure’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I’m committed to exploring what it means to be a human being on this planet. I’m blessed beyond words; most people on this earth are simply trying to survive.
Part of the pressure I feel is how to use the blessing I’ve been given. I don’t want to waste this incredible opportunity of being alive. What is actually possible for each of us is beyond our comprehension.
The only way we can discover what is possible is by pushing the boundaries of what we think we know physically, mentally, and spiritually. To become what we’re not already, we have to do what we’ve never done. And that is damn exciting, because it means we can never stop growing.
Seek. Be. Laugh. Question. Feel. Cry. Share. Love. Wonder. Hope. All we have to do is continue.
Why are we here — why are we really here, alive, existing with each other? The answers to this question hide in the stars and reveal themselves in the darkness of night; a glimmer from a star awakens the imagination.
What is it about the darkness? At night, away from what we know, we’re able to tap into the intelligence of the universe and feel something that we’ve never felt. We find a reason to believe in ourselves and that there’s profound meaning, joy, beauty and love pervading the world around us.
How easily we can lose sight of this. This world can be a confusing, cruel place. There’s much we have to figure out on our own, or so it feels. It takes courage to follow our instincts and place our faith in something that transcends our daily experience.
How are we supposed to know what is right, what is wrong, and what to believe in? How are we supposed to know where to seek the answers beyond merely striving for traditional success?
We know based on how we feel, yet our mind and our heart are often at odds. Life would be a place of action if we relentlessly followed our hearts. It wouldn’t be easy, yet nothing in life worth striving for is given easily. What does the heart give us that the rational mind can’t?
The heart emboldens daring acts and dreams, while the mind guides us along and tries to make sense of it all: the outside influences vying for our attention, what is rational, correct, smart. What equates to success. Without continual introspection and questioning, it’s a challenge to know if we’re even living our own lives.
We’re accustomed to going through our daily motions, yet for so many, there seems to be something missing, a great hole in our being which we don’t know how to fill. We get up and cultivate the multitude of branches we call our daily routine; yet it’s challenging to find stability in the trunk of the tree that is our essence — that which reaches into the earth and connects with all of life.
We know what we’re supposed to strive for; we know that to progress as contributing members of society, it’s important to work, educate ourselves, create relationships, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. But what’s beyond these practical endeavors? Why are we unfulfilled in our work, unhappy in our relationships, and unable to pursue what truly makes us happy?
These things that we strive for, they can feel empty if not contributing to something integral which can’t be explained. This is a deep sense of connection with the cosmic order. When we believe in something that transcends the individual self, we become one — one people, one planet, one existence.
There’s no reason to feel anger towards others when we realize we’re all experiencing the same world through a different set of eyes. There’s only gratitude. Gratitude that we may be here, experiencing this incomprehensible existence together.
Our Why Gives Us Hope
Since the beginning of humanity, what we call religion and spiritually have filled this essential role. While I’m still a curious neophyte of philosophy, religion, and spirituality, I believe there are powerful, profound lessons to be gleaned from both religious and philosophical texts to help us fill that meaningful absence which we struggle to articulate — the trunk from which the branches stem.
Because while we may get up and work, day in and day out; while we may contribute as a loving member of society and be there as a friend, a sister, a son, there must be a reason for it all. There must be some why which sustains us through whatever trials we endure.
Our why makes each day the only one that matters, for without a why, we float through time without an anchor, never acting on our dreams, never becoming who we’re meant to be.
When all else fails, our why gives us hope.
Hope has served as the burning ember at the core of every religion throughout history. Hope that there is a reason for the suffering and the beauty, and that there’s an alternate reality beyond this temporal world.
But a new hope is emerging, one planted firmly in the soil of this rock we call earth. A hope that we may create our own reality, a new reality, one where all religions and all people are accepted, celebrated, and shared. One where each individual feels empowered to explore the wisdom of the past to make sense of the present, without the traditional dogma that has separated us for so long.
Our caravan set off towards the mountains as I pondered my two primary intentions for the short time away from civilization: to cherish this unique adventure at 10,000 ft. elevation, and to garner a greater clarity for this period of my life by removing myself from it, however briefly.
I gazed into the white plumes of clouds which hung over the distant grey mountains, eager to lose myself where the world cracks and the wind blows and the rain falls and the sun shines. Sometimes all one needs to feel hopeful again is a weekend in the mountains, laughing and letting it all go with a group of loving friends.
RELIGIOUS TEXTS PROVIDE wisdom on how we should live and what’s possible beyond this realm we know as life on earth. That’s an exciting concept. Yet, there’s a disconnect between many people and religion, particularly my generation.
If you asked most people my age what they thought of religion, they’d probably be indifferent. It just doesn’t have the same weight as it used to. My generation isn’t looking for an institution to belong to, as the world is more connected than ever before.
This connection — strengthened by technology, social media, and the ways in which we travel — provides a historic opportunity. It’s time we become a more unified people, where all religions are celebrated. There’s a notion that to be religious, you must be all in.
Traditionally, to be religious is to believe in one god, one appropriate way to conduct one’s life over another. Yet religion is believing in what’s incomprehensible, a facet of our being which may dance with the practical nature of existence.
To me, life becomes a daily adventure when there’s a balance between the logical and the metaphysical. Yet for so many, the magic has faded. Maybe the magic isn’t supposed to die away as we grow older, but inspire us. As kids, our dreams are attainable — what else would we believe in?
How do we get back to that?
Religion and spirituality create a bridge between who we are now and the sheer awe of being a child, where the nature of existence is unknowable. But as we grow older, we discover what the world’s made of. It’s not so much about seeking what we’re doing here, as if things would get easier once we formulate a scientific theory as for the precise reasons for our existence. Religion provides us with our why.
As the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said:
He who’s life has a why, can bear almost any how.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson’s work has changed my thinking profoundly over this last year-and-a-half. Peterson explores the psychology of the Bible’s stories and teachings, and how the text has shaped Western civilization and thought whether or not we’re aware of it. That’s why I started reading the Bible over a year ago; if I want to make sense of the book for myself, I should know what it says. Peterson writes in his book 12 Rules for Life:
Everything you value is a product of unimaginably lengthy developmental processes, personal, cultural, and biological. It is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs — those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface level self knowledge.
You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe before that. You are too complex to understand yourself. It takes careful observation, and education, and reflection, and communication with others, just to scratch the surface of your beliefs.
The thing is, I agree with many of the teachings of the Bible. There’s so much beauty in the words about what it means to be a person of faith, love, honor, integrity. What it means to be a friend, a neighbor, a family member. These are traits which allow our spirit to fly, no matter what we endure.
But there’s also much in it that’s archaic, outdated beliefs that may have been relevant two thousand years ago, but which are condemnable in our modern world.
When I read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, I couldn’t agree with his statement that one can’t simply accept Jesus as a moral figure to look up to without accepting him as the son of God. Lewis writes:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Narnia’s great and all, but what makes C. S. Lewis the authority on Christianity?
What I and those straying from the religious stronghold of the past are after is a transcendent human experience. We must feel it not simply by accepting an ancient belief system, but by digging deep within ourselves and the mysteries of the world.
I think about what gives me hope — how music gets me through anything. At a concert or on my daily commute, music shifts my reality and brings me so much joy. Music is a gift to this world, something to live for. Nature too, is where I experience transcendence. I stop thinking realistically and marvel at what we’re part of; and maybe that’s a good thing.
A Student of All Religions
Religious principles have guided human beings and provided hope for thousands of years. I can’t help but feel called to explore the practices which make up our world’s religions, instead of only practicing one.
There’s no doubt that religious wisdom can help us lead better lives in our modern day. Why not gather as much breadth of wisdom as we can from all the beauty that’s been written, passed down and cultivated?
We don’t need to subscribe to one religion over another, just because we always have. Author and classicist Brian C. Muraresku writes in his recent book, The Immortality Key:
Over a billion people across the planet are now religiously unaffiliated, including one in five Americans and Europeans, and almost have of the British public. The ‘un-churching’ of America is being driven especially by the 40 percent of millennials who don’t identify with any faith whatsoever. That figure is more than double what it was a generation ago.
Religion is a force that has changed the face of the planet like little else. While religion has brought countless people profound meaning and has produced significant acts of good, it has also caused wars and more unnecessary pain than one can imagine. Muraresku writes:
From the late fourth century AD until about two hundred years ago, the history of Christianity and the history of the West are essentially one and the same. The crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III as the Imperator Romanorum and Father of Europe in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day in 800, kicking off a long line of Holy Roman Emperors that would last until 1806; the East-West Schism of 1054 between the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and the Catholic Church of Rome, forever dividing Europe in half; the Crusades that preceded the Renaissance, when the rediscovery of the Classics would lead to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
In the Age of Discovery from the fifteenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries, Christianity left Europe and the Near East behind, becoming the indomitable global brand it is today. Missionaries were dispatched to every corner of the planet to convert local indigenous groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Since there was no real separation between Church and state, the memory of Jesus and the hope for his imminent return were the guiding force behind it all. Especially in America, the ultimate blank slate for Christians.
The colonies were flooded with Protestant denominations of every stripe, seeking the spiritual freedom to worship their version of Jesus. Well into the nineteenth century, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny declared Anglo-Saxons a superior race, chosen by God to bring ‘Christianity to the American continents and to the world.’
What It Means to Be Spiritual but Not Religious
The history of religion is mind-blowing. When we look at history through our modern lens, it’s obvious how religion has destroyed us. But throughout history, religion provided an essential pillar in one’s life which brought meaning, even — perhaps especially — if that meant sacrificing oneself or taking another life for a higher cause.
There’s a reason we continue looking up at the stars through any adversity. A hope that we’re a part of something bigger. Why not believe we are? Why not believe we’re connected, each and every one of us? We’re alive as living beings on planet earth, a rock that breathes and feels just as much as every person who calls it home.
There must be something more, a reason for the perfection of nature, the majesty of the cosmos, the mere fact that we’re conscious and can’t explain why. Each religion of the world offers profound teachings that have helped human beings grapple with the unexplainable. We have the opportunity to study them all, change, adapt, grow, and question as we learn.
Reading about the spiritual-but-not-religious phenomenon opened my eyes to this possibility that’s always been available, but not overtly acceptable. Muraresku writes:
It’s time to cut out the middleman in the private search for transcendence. The result is the 27 percent of all Americans fueling the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) phenomenon. It has been called ‘the most important religious development of our time’ because the trend is clear and will only surge in the years to come. With unprecedented access to the teachings of the world’s faiths, we are living in an age when the rallying cry of the SBNRs has never been more achievable: ‘to be the student and beneficiary of all traditions, and the slave to none.’
What We Believe Is How We Act
Does it actually matter which religion we say we believe in, if our actions don’t align with these beliefs? What we believe is how we act, not what we say. One might associate with Christianity, but if they then turn around and begin gossiping about a co-worker, what does that mean? It means they’re human. Religion is something to strive towards as a human being, not what you are.
Perhaps this is why more people, especially my generation, are turning away from traditional religion than ever before. I wonder if there were no notion that to be Christian, one must believe in a man with a flowing beard watching over us, more people would be inspired to explore the teachings of the Bible, as it can teach us how to be a more loving person. Maybe it can be that simple — yet the dogma, the history, the faith, the teachings — they’re inextricably linked.
I enjoy reading the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and what I hope will be other religious and spiritual texts as this journey unfolds. For their teachings, stories and mysteries are deeper than I could ever hope to dig. There is magic in the mystery of not knowing how we’ve come to be.
I believe in humanity, in the goodness of people, in endless possibilities. I believe heaven exists in each and every one of us. And I don’t have to call myself a Christian; it makes sense to me that anybody should be free to celebrate any god they call their own, as long as their beliefs hurt nobody else. It’s not our words, but our actions which make us who we are.
Jordan Peterson says in his Biblical Lecture XII:
It seems to me that the way that you fortify your faith in Being, life, and your own existence isn’t to try to convince yourself of the existence of a transcendent power that you could believe in, in the same way that you believe in a set of empirical facts. It’s more something that needs to be embedded in action, rather than in statable belief. The way that you fortify your faith in life is to assume the best, and then to act courageously in relationship to that.
As a student of life, I hope to be a student of all religions, one who explores all that this world offers with the door of my heart swung wide open. We should feel open to study these ancient texts, so that we may draw from them what we find to be enriching to our human experience.
THE AIR WAS SWEET, dry, and mildly warm as we continued to climb further into the mountains. At this elevation, there were hardly any trees to provide shade from the glistening sun. The flowing water seemed to be the only movement out there, from what I could tell. But as we climbed, I could feel my legs burn from within.
We move atop the planet and gaze upon mountains, cross rivers, and seek shade under a solitary tree. We discover the world as we move through it. Yet, the same nature exists within us — the heart beats like the sea, in constant motion that ebbs and flows.
The muscles work like the wind, blowing when it’s time to blow, resting when it’s time to rest. The senses ignite when our interest is piqued, like a pack of lions that smells fresh blood. The stillness of the wilderness provides the time and space to explore who we are inside. Each deep inhalation refocused my mind; every step made me grateful to be alive.
This sojourn would provide the ideal environment to practice the Taoist principle of wu-wei, which author and philosopher Charles Eisenstein describes in his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible:
Sometimes translated as ‘nondoing,’ a better translation might be ‘non contrivance’ or ‘nonforcing.’ It means freedom from reflexive doing: acting when it is time to act, not acting when it is not time to act. Action is thus aligned with the natural movement of things, in service to that which wants to be born.
I dove into Charles Eisenstein’s work over the summer, and am thankful that I did. The More Beautiful World spoke to my soul directly and has profoundly changed my outlook on our current circumstances, and what we’re here to be.
Right now, we are in between stories.
In looking to the future for direction, we’re really looking for something to hold on to — a promise. I’m looking for a sign which tells me I’m on my path, and that things will work out. Yet, it will never be that obvious.
Life becomes an adventure and so much more interesting when we can dance with the unknown. In the spirit of wu-wei, Eisenstein writes:
There is a time to act, and a time to wait, to listen, to observe. Then understanding and clarity can grow. From understanding, action arises that is purposeful, firm, and powerful.
This is the essence of wu-wei. Reconnecting with nature, I believe, is essential to understanding ourselves and what we’re on this earth to do. As we connect to the source of life, we dig deeper into the depths of our soul. Life becomes simple, purposeful; one leaves nature and reenters society with a fresh perspective, more aligned with the natural flow of existence.
In nature, you pitch a tent when the rain begins to fall; you rise with the sun and gaze into the open sky. You build a roaring fire to stave off the cold. You act on intuition.
When the flame surrenders and becomes smoldering embers, you listen to the sound of silence under the pale light of the moon. The silence amplifies the callings of your heart and the natural rhythm of your soul.
That which is meant to arise will, and that which no longer serves shall fall away into the depths of night. It might take weeks, months, or even years to understand the importance of time away from home. But one day we see, as I hope to one day see — that it all happened for a reason.
Taoism and the Mysteries of Existence
I told my friends about the concept of wu-wei, hoping to make it part of our time together. All of us are in our mid-twenties, far from adolescent, prone to try and fail, question and wonder. I’ve been deeply interested in the principles of Taoism, the religion, but perhaps more so, the Chinese philosophy outlined in the Tao Te Ching.
What draws me to Taoism is its practical lessons, as well as its grounding in the mysteries of existence and the importance of the natural world. In nature, all one must do is observe the natural order of things. That, to me, is experiencing the intelligence of the universe rather than just reading about it.
Lao-tzu, the ostensible author of the Tao Te Ching whom we hardly know anything about, admits humility in the first lesson of the book:
To write about the Tao isn’t to know the real Tao, as writing and language can’t do the Tao justice. That which follows — the entire Tao Te Ching — isn’t the true mystery; it’s simply the best that we can do to try and articulate the nature of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching proposes that nature, the cosmos, and all that comes before the Big Bang derives from the source, the Tao.
Call it whatever you like, but this source is unyielding, life giving energy. The Tao Te Ching calls this source the Tao, literally the Way. The Tao constitutes a harmony between yin and yang, masculine and feminine, light and dark, as both are neither good nor bad, but essential to each of us.
It can take several lifetimes to comprehend one of the eighty-one lessons of the Tao Te Ching. Yet on the surface, they’re so simple. The lessons reconnect us with the source of life, the well of boundless energy which entwines our hearts with the world and one another.
Clearly written by a human being and not claimed to be otherwise, the Tao Te Ching is an ancient text that can greatly enhance the beauty and meaning in one’s life, without being taken as the one great holy scripture.
The words provide a manual on how to detach from what we can’t control, how to flow with life instead of against the current, and how to be a virtuous leader. As poet, translator and scholar Stephen Mitchell writes in his translation:
A classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world.
Riding the Current of Life
Like a ceaseless river which snakes from bank to bank and then rushes towards quickening rapids, our time on earth will never stop moving forward. When we want time to stop, it quickens. When we want it to speed up, it slows.
We have the choice: to ride the current as it moves through each season, or to do everything we can to fight the moving water and scramble for a rock to hold on to.
It feels like we need to hold on to something to anchor us where we are. But holding on only leads to greater struggle, as the water wants to move. All we can do is pick our heads up, admire the passing beauty, and gently continue floating. This moment will never come again.
We may seek a change in ourselves, but we’ll never again be exactly who we are right now. We’ll never be this young, this lost, with a world of possibilities before us. It takes a conscious decision to determine how we will interact with life. We might eagerly seek the next step or let it come naturally, with patience, grace and gratitude for what currently is.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Yet when we immerse ourselves in nature, where the seconds on a clock mean nothing but the advance and fall of the moon and sun, we may find a greater clarity for the season we’re in. That’s what I intended to do.
As we moved over rocks and passed by gentle streams, I continued to softly bring my mind back to the present moment. Naturally, it ran off to think about life back home. I allowed it to. In nature, I could consider life at home with a different perspective.
Do I know what I truly want? I continued to ask. No, I don’t. And that’s okay.
We found a secluded area on a formation of rocks overlooking Shamrock Lake, which to me looked more like human lungs, conjoined by a small lake in which our site overlooked. We set up our tents and prepared for our first night in the wilderness.
With my bag unpacked and nothing to do but exist, I made my way down the stony, irregular path to the edge of the crystal clear lake. I took my first few steps into the muddy outer edge. My feet sunk into the squishy soil as a chill surged through my being.
We don’t need to have the answers. I’ll strive to make the best of wherever this path takes me.
The repeating chirp of a local bird guided me along, one step after the other, until I stood atop solid stone. I dove in. Taking one stroke after the next with my face in the freezing water, I couldn’t think about anything but the moment. I came up for air, unable to stand, and turned to view the surrounding mountains. They held onto the final rays of daylight as if they’d never return.
Cold water is therapy for the mind, body and soul. When immersed in water that takes our breath away, the mind struggles to wander. It doesn’t have that luxury. To stay composed, the mind focuses on the breath: in, out, in, out.
The water moved around me in soft flowing waves as I waded my hands back and forth. I found a rock to stand on in the depths of the lake; at this point my body was numb to the cold. I put my hands together and closed my eyes.
The world is changing; how will I be a part of that change? I ask the question, not needing an immediate answer. Not needing an answer at all.
The Comfort of a Roaring Flame
Back at camp, I comforted myself in warm clothes as the first embers of the fire provided a reassuring glow to return to. The light of dusk continued to fade as clouds rolled into the pocket of wonder that was now our home. Stones beneath my feet, clouds overhead, a fire to warm the soul, surrounded by friends.
What more could one ask for in any stage of life?
Above was a canvas of color and shapes, a mosaic of light and dark. I gazed into the sky with awe as we sat around the crackling flame. It doesn’t matter what you believe in — we just want to believe we’re a part of something — a community, a group, a common cause.
We are a part of something. All of us.
The clouds moved in concert as darkness fell. I noticed faces in the clouds of marble, like the work of Michelangelo. They disintegrated molecule by molecule, as if I watched the bedrock of society and all we’ve come to know turn to dust.
It must be something about being this high in the sky — the mountain spires acted like magnets, pulling the clouds this way and that. After a while, I looked up and the sky was clear, save the twinkling stars that often go unseen.
I could feel the energy moving through space, and I was a part of it. Colors, soft flowing energy, love, guided by the luminous moon. Our small fire and group of friends existed as a part of the cosmic order.
As the night drew on, the laughter grew louder. The flame grew bigger. We talked for hours, unaware of the time, not caring what it was. I cried. How good it feels to cry; to allow the emotions that bottle up each and every day to flow freely from our eyes.
Often, it’s hard to say what’s stirring in the depths of our hearts. But all we can do is try, and if it doesn’t work, keep trying. That’s what I love about writing; there’s always more to write about, to explore, to whittle away at, to question.
Whereas writing can be precise, the beauty of speech is its vulnerable nature. We have the opportunity in every situation to speak from the heart, and even when it doesn’t come out perfectly, the message can still be deep and true.
It takes courage to tell others what we think; it takes trusting ourselves to say what’s on our mind. Because that inner voice will tell us what it wants to say. It wants to say I love you.
We crawled into our tents under the white light of the moon, but my mind kept running. I tried to assuage the thoughts, but the endless night sky provided ample room for my mind to wander. In the spirit of wu-wei, I let it.
THE morning was cool and still after the rainless night. I made my way down to the water for a morning plunge. The route had become familiar; a step to balance on a rock, a move beside a wall of granite. How old is this rock that I glide my hand across? How ancient is this resting water, a world unto itself? I dove beneath the surface and opened my eyes to the silent, green, empty space.
When I came up for air, my head was clear and cold; my body felt unequivocally alive, connected to something beyond me. Cold water in the morning causes one’s DNA to transform, to dance, to smile. There’s truly nothing like it. The day becomes brighter, the body stronger, the mind more observant of details.
I felt transcendent and weightless, united with the past and all those who have come before me, seeking guidance from Mother Earth. I was the love that never ceases to exist — pure, positive energy, surging throughout my being. This, to me, is spirituality.
My buddy came and joined the aquatic meditation; I could be no happier. I could be nowhere else. These are the moments which lead to clarity, where we realize how good this life can be. What’s truly important becomes salient and simple.
We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be. Here, living, breathing, trying. Lao-tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching:
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
When we stop looking at the world through the lens of the way we think things should be, what’s supposed to happen, happens. Even if it’s nothing. Even if it’s chaos. The less we force, the more we trust in the intelligence of the universe.
Trusting is the nothing. Joy is the nothing. Hope is the nothing. These feelings don’t depend on outcomes, but on an inner-flow with the world around us.
To flow is to attain a sort of softness towards life, “ the opposite of rigidity, and is synonymous with suppleness, adaptability, endurance,” writes Stephen Mitchell in his translation of the Tao Te Ching.
There is time for doing, and time for non-doing. That is to have faith in the long game, where everything falls into place, where meaning, joy, and purpose shall arise.
The Calm Before the Storm
We spent the better part of the morning casually waking up. With a flat granite stone as our kitchen table, we prepared coffee and oatmeal over the single flame burners. There’s no doubt that food tastes better in the mountains. The simplest food. Oatmeal with nuts and berries. A green apple, cut in half with a pocketknife and shared.
I sat on a perched stone overlooking the lake, sipping coffee from my “the good things in life” tin mug. The first sip was coarse and earthy and sharpened my senses. Soon enough, the laughs and witty remarks flowed freely and without remorse. The earth was quiet as the sun crested the surrounding mountains and showed no signs of a shifting mood.
We planned to hike the surrounding terrain to idle away the day. After breakfast and everybody’s respective dips in the lake, we gathered our things. Rain was in the forecast, despite the cloudless blue sky. We bundled our things in our tents, unaware of how long we’d be out and not wanting to take any chances.
With a tidy campsite, we set off like the seven dwarfs into the hills beyond the glistening lake. The further we traveled, the more the world opened. At this altitude, you don’t realize how high up you are until you reach a view, a valley, a sight that takes your breath away. You’re just walking across land. After about an hour of trudging through the crisp noon air, we came across such a sight.
The earth fell precipitously into a swirling valley, where the towering, multi-colored mountains on each side guided the earth into the world below. You can’t imagine how magnificent this world can be until you see its natural processes at work.
The cloudless day gave way to a light rain, which dropped upon our heads as we sat in awe, gazing into the valley below. We took little notice of the rain, only looked at each other and smiled, recognizing that this was a spectacular moment in time. To be here, together, taking part in nature.
To our left, a waterfall stretched from the lake above, down through the funnel of mountains. The rain turned into a genuine force while we were caught in wonder. Rolling clouds turned the sky grey; it continued to darken as the gentle rain became a steady downpour within minutes. The sound of the waterfall grew in intensity. Everything changed, for a serious storm was brewing.
We were deep in the Sierras; nature was about to make its presence known. The wall of shale that we’d traversed was now slick and iridescent, transitioning between slate grey, neon yellow, and bright orange. As we picked up our pace, the rain turned into hail.
The Splitting of the Sky
We broke into a trot as we moved along the mountain face. The hail fell like pebbles and felt as if we were being shot with BB guns. We laughed through the pain as we continued to climb. The hail had coalesced on the ground in clumps of white snow.
We were about a mile away from our campsite; the entire environment became enveloped in ominous clouds, pouring rain and hail. Then, within a split second, a light flashed across my field of vision; a yellow, fiery light that can only mean one thing. In that moment, before grasping what had taken place, I wondered if I’d just shut my eyes without realizing it.
The loudest, lowest, soul-shattering force of thunder I’d ever heard, as if Zeus had taken aim and propelled a mighty lightning bolt directly at our pack, trying to scare us, or at least realize what we were dealing with.
We all crouched low amid the deafening sound; the lightning had to be within a quarter mile from where we stood. Two of us yelled over the downpour that they saw the lightning crack like a whip as if the sky had opened; the sky was alive.
We passed another group huddled under a tree, drenched, but in raincoats, whereas we were clearly caught off-guard in T-shirts and swim trunks, soaked and shivering.
You could probably smell the fear emanating from us — true fear. This was the fear of death, an unfamiliar fear that takes control of your being and is difficult to shake.
Another flash of lightning… another low, grumbling boom of thunder, deep in the core of the mountains, but no less threatening. Now, we were acting on intuition. To be there for my friends or not to be. To encourage or to keep to myself. These were the split-second decisions which reverberated through my head; we’ll be alright — I kept repeating as we moved.
We’ll be alright.
We made it back to camp; the sky looked as if the gods were contemplating their next move. The clouds swirled and congealed, dark, unresting, and full of rain. We all stood around looking at each other, unsure of what to do, drenched from the inside out, our jaws agape in shock. First things first. We had to get warm.
Our tents sat in puddles of mud and hail, but luckily, most of our stuff was dry. Most of it. We crawled into our tents to change, but more so for a semblance of safety. We gathered ourselves and began to discuss our options. We go home now, or stick it out. The weather report showed no signs of the storm letting up — in fact, it was only going to get stronger the next day.
Now that we were warm and had our bearings, we figured the safest play might be to let the circumstances naturally unravel. We were warm, and the afternoon storm seemed to be subsiding.
We watched the clouds moving through the mountain pass, patiently waiting, regathering our strength and inner peace. The laughter returned and the music turned on to accompany the pattering of falling rain upon our tents.
Without music and laughter, what do we have? It wasn’t me, but my friends who reignited the positive vibes. Until the music turned on, I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear the sound of laughter. I’d go through anything with these guys. This was one of those surreal moments one remembers forever.
We were there, together, deep in the mountains after a life-changing event. We were okay, and always will be.
We built a fire between the intermittent rain. The intermingling of cold weather and a crackling flame put me in a space of deep gratitude and appreciation. We were on an adventure.
From the moon, this event might hardly occur as a flicker of transient light. But down here, the earth rocked us to our core. From the burst of lightning and force of thunder, to stillness and the warmth of a crackling flame, we were experiencing the natural way of the world.
Order and chaos, yin and yang, interacting, dancing, intermingling in temporal beauty. But what had changed in the depths of my being? I hope that I was there for my brothers through a trial of fire. I’d experienced something that resonated deeply within me, for if there is a God, then she, he, it, will test us to see the beauty in the chaos and the light in the darkness.
Nature makes the individual feel small, unimportant, trivial. And perhaps that’s a good thing. We’re so often caught in our daily routine, where everything we do seems to be life-or-death.
We fear following our dreams because of the inability to see the fruits, only the labor; we doubt ourselves, thinking to achieve what we’re capable of achieving, it will take more strength than we can manage. But maybe it doesn’t have to.
Every one of us contains the same potential energy as the crack of lightning and booming thunder. Each of us possesses the same inner peace as the contemplative sky after the storm.
When we feel the power of the natural world, what trivial matter could scare us? What choice do we have but to go for our dreams, to stare our fears in the face and strive to overcome?
We might fail, we might fall. In fact, we will fail. And that is a beautiful thing. It means we gave this life a shot. We’re a part of something beyond our comprehension — an energy that emanates from the light of the moon, from the heat of a smoldering flame, from the laughter of good company. We are a part of something truly beautiful.
After a while, we stopped watching the clouds. The flame grew brighter as the night fell darker. The sky opened. Deep into the night, we could finally see the hiding moon; an answer, not in a word, but a feeling of togetherness. I’d found an answer in the sky, to be there for each other.
That doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop asking what it means to be alive.