The campfire faded down to a bed of embers. Lori had already crawled into the tent and fallen asleep. I heard her deep and steady breathing.
Lying on the ground and looking up at the stars I felt the pull of gravity pining me down like a moth on a corkboard. A warm desert wind moved through the sage. The stars spread out in a vast field from one rim of the horizon to the other, too many to count. The darkness seemed insignificant in the light of all those blazing suns.
A deep and timeless silence fell over the desert.
Suddenly I was looking down at the stars.
They were spread out beneath me in a vast emptiness. Normally we think of the stars above us and the earth below, but in a surprising reversal of relational perspective, I was certain that I was glued by gravity to the bottom of the earth, peering down into a pool of boundless space below me.
The vertigo passed in an instant, eclipsed by a warm sense of peace and a deep surrender. I felt oddly safe and entirely lucid. The earth above me and the sky below – I wondered why this had never occurred to me before.
And with this came a knowing – all perspectives are relative. There is no such thing as up or down, over and under, above or below. Those terms only make sense from one limited point of view. If you move out of your own perspective (or any singular point of view) and take on instead a universal perspective, all orientations dissolve and there is only here, now. In other words, if you drop your local awareness and adopt a non-local awareness, you see in one singular moment the incomprehensible oneness of all existence. Freed from a parochial, provincial orientation where one ego-identifies with a particular time and place, you move instead into the formlessness of Being itself, an expanded consciousness where the ego recedes to its rightful place, as a captain of a tiny vessel, not lord and master of all it surveys. You don’t have to go anywhere to get this awareness. You’re always in it. You have only to shift. But going to the desert helps.
One of the great services wilderness provides is this opportunity to leave behind our small view of the world. As we leave the city and head into the hills we enter a realm of existence where nature reigns and the arising and fading of forms unfolds in an endless symphony utterly apart from the machinations of human activity. Stepping out of the car and walking into the woods or the desert or along an empty shore brings you into direct contact with a timeless presence untrammeled by the human mind, well, until we get there anyway. Spending time in nature gives us a chance to take a break from the torrential thought stream and its oh-so-important assessments and judgments. And when we do, we have a shot at recovering our original simplicity, our primal purity, our childlike awareness, that Garden of Eden consciousness where we walked in the cool of the evening with God, and we didn’t even know that we’re different from anything we saw.
It’s not our mind’s fault that we’re so easily trapped in an illusion of separateness. It’s just doing what it’s supposed to do – naming everything, judging everything, ascribing value to everything, craving, pushing away and attaching to everything. Bravo mind. Nice job. Keep it up. We need you. But once in a while, it’s nice to remember who’s really in charge. Once in a while it’s nice to say, mind, you work for me, not the other way around. Thanks for everything you do, but go ahead and take the rest of the day off.
In Walden, everybody’s all-time favorite back-to-nature manifesto, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To deliberate means to cautiously reason our way toward the ideal. And how can we live deliberately if we don’t understand the essential facts? For this process to work, we have to have good information. As you deliberate about the big questions like what is the good life, what is the purpose of life, what is the purpose of my life, what should I be doing with these few short years I have left, isn’t it supremely important to first understand the most important question of all: what am I? Only in nature, or better yet, wilderness are we unceremoniously stripped of all our careful constructions and reduced to our essential core – simple, unadorned, non-local awareness. We are no long defined by the social roles and definitions that layer over us like sediment. We realize that beneath all the layers we are pure, undifferentiated consciousness. With this essential fact in hand, we can re-enter the human world of family, job, duty, citizenship, moral obligation, creativity and community with a new-found sense of direction and purpose. We know now what this is all for. Our priorities have been re-ordered. Our eyes are firmly set on what really matters. And we are willing to let the rest go.
Wilderness has always been our greatest teacher. For millennia, humans have known that despite the comforting safety of our shelters, it is only when we step out under the sky unprotected that we emerge like birds from the confines of our shells. We need the nest, but we need the sky more.
Although it’s been years, I carry with me that night in the desert when I, for a few fleeting moments, saw the stars spread out beneath me like a sea of pearls. That one shift, that reorientation, forever loosened my attachment to the fleeting forms of the world and the careless devotion we place in our limited perceptions, assessments and judgments. I know now that there are not only two points of view for every problem – there are millions. I know that I can set myself free anytime I want from the Promethean chains that bind us all to a dangerously small view of the world and of ourselves. I know now that it is not only possible, but it is absolutely necessary for my survival and for the survival of the entire planet that we learn to live from the core truths of our existence and not the surface trivialities, that we learn to live as if it mattered, that we learn to live deliberately.