Seeking Solitude In Nature: A Meditation Teacher Shares Her Story
By the time we’re 60, we will have been alive for almost 22,000 days on this planet, rarely, if ever, stopping to watch just one. It is this total immersion into nature and commitment to simply being there, that we can entrain our nervous system to the natural, healthy rhythm of the planet
On the 7thday, my mind was flowing at the speed of sea fog. Or maybe that was the description of my nervous system. I felt so present with a gentle flow - and my mind felt open to whatever arises. Good stuff.
I had been camping in solitude on a hill over the ocean on the coast of California, as I have done 2 times a year for the past 20+ years. I jokingly call it my “People Fast”, which I have always assumed I needed since, as a meditation teacher and an actress, what I do in the world involves intense and intimate interactions with people, and I figured that we always need an opportunity to “clear out” and refresh or re-ground ourselves.
A PERFECT MONASTERY:
But there is more to it than that – at least for me. I find this immersion into nature – in total solitude – to be a most advantageous environment for cultivating deeper states, insights, and restoration. It is my monastery.
As a mindfulness meditation teacher, I am, of course, always encouraging people to set aside time to practice – whether formal eyes-closed practice or incorporating mindfulness into daily activities – so that they are “monasticizing” their daily lives for optimal growth and well-being.
I am also often encouraging people to go on retreats, where the environment of “unplugging”, being surrounded by people who are meditating, and not engaging in social chit-chat are conducive factors for delving deeper into one’s internal experience and “rewiring” of stressful thought-feeling habit patterns.
I just recently co-led a retreat with my meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, and it was so rewarding to spend 7 hours a day teaching (technique instruction and private sessions) and witness the impressive growth and insight of the meditators I was working with. It was non-stop work and intensive interaction, but so ultimately rewarding.
And while over 20 years of taking (and sometimes teaching) 2-4 retreats a year has absolutely been the foundation of my mindfulness practice and experience, it is in solitude where I get some of the most profound work done.
When at home, it is on my “organic nights” (where, in solitude, I courageously and playfully examine my experience) that many of my deepest insights have been born. But the ultimate solitude is when I am camping in nature – totally surrounded only by plants, animals, earth, sky & water. Then I experience that my environment meditates me.
I have been coming to this same spot on this hill over the ocean now for many years (at least twice a year for 5-12 days each time) and I know it intimately. Yet every time I’ve come, my experience with weather, animals, and nature has been different and is always perfect – whether I have stunning sunsets over the ocean, am pelted with rain, am freezing and huddled over some hot tea, or I’m surrounded by sea fog the whole time with no sense of anything else existing.
Many years ago, I did a Native American vision quest. This is a sacred ceremony where one stays alone in nature without stepping outside of their site (which is an approximately 6’x6’ square space) for 4 days with no food, no water, no tent and no fire – with the idea that one is praying for a vision or dream.
I discovered then that sitting still and not moving when alone in nature – and especially if I have no food – changes my my relationship to animals in a wonderful way. Usually, animals just want to know if you have food or are looking to harm them, and when they ascertain neither is the case, you become to them just a big animal who happens to have made a nest in the middle of their world and they just go about their business. I love that. I love sitting in stillness as animals move around me.
So after that vision quest, I stopped hiking during my own solo camping retreats in nature– just to appreciate what is unveiled when I “park” and open to the world around me. There is a great power in that stillness. It makes me feel so connected to the earth.
This past solo retreat, from which I just returned, gave me the experience of a family of quails – dad leading the way, followed by mom and two babies – who would come within 3-4 feet of where I was sitting (in total stillness) and graze around me as if I was not there.
Last year, I had two young bucks come up the hill in front of me. First I saw antlers, then they came closer (to within 25 feet) and at one point they both turned and looked at me (again, I was totally still), then they turned to each other and locked horns – pushing each other back and forth the way two brothers might do in play. (And, yes, I slowly reached for my camera and caught the last 60 seconds of this play on video - also recording the sounds that their antlers making contact with/agains against each other.) What I especially enjoyed, and caught on camera, was them just deciding to stop with the antler pushing, they then turned to look at me (almost as if to say, “You saw that, right?”) and then they returned to grazing, as if no such show just took place.
I have endless stories of animal encounters – a last one I’ll share is one year when a family of racoons unzipped my tent in the night and made their way inside. I awoke to 3 large racoons inside my tent and one was sitting on my legs in my sleeping bag! (And, yes, that was back when I was bringing more food than I do these days.) It was alarming but afterwards, I found it amusing. So the special relationship to the animal kingdom is part of this natural monastery.
WATCHING EACH DAY:
Another advantageous view afforded by sitting in stillness in one spot in nature is the opportunity to watch each day be born and end - and each night arrive and pass away as the new day is born. This is something we are usually aware is happening – out there – but it isn’t something we feel part of. We live in a world of electricity, lights and computers and our system is not regulated by the arrival or departure of the light in the natural world.
Witnessing the journey of the sun and moon across the sky (and around the planet) from one spot in nature for 4 days is a rather amazing experience (that I highly encourage anyone to have.) You can see how the light transforms the world around you throughout the day and evening – and one of my favorite events in life is being outside during the transition from day to night – as light changes, sounds shift as the animals of the day recede and the nightshift comes forward for their turn moving through the world.
By the time we’re 60, we will have been alive for almost 22,000 days on this planet, rarely, if ever, stopping to watch just one. It is humbling and also provides a unique relationship to Time. I often marvel how, with my busy schedule, I find the time to find this sea of endless time. I always feel my nervous system rewiring as the situation I’ve put myself in naturally cultivates a deep, contented equanimity.
Now, I do incorporate meditation strategies and techniques into my experience there, but only as suggestions, sometimes playful exercises, or momentary considerations. I rarely do eyes-closed formal practice when I’m in this particular monastery. I want to take advantage of the view that is being offered, and the lack of conversation to free up mental space to tune into what is happening in each moment.
For example, when setting up camp and making one of the 4-5 trips up the steep hill to my site from my car, pulling a little cart behind me (which is loaded with my camping gear, water, and other essentials), I find myself looking at the dirt trail beneath my feet since my cart will sometimes weigh a lot and in order for me to pull it, I need to bend over forward so that my torso is almost parallel to the steep dirt trail beneath me.
The practice that I habitually do during this is a self-inquiry one, where I look at the dirt, feel my body pulling the cart, and ask, who/what is pulling? Who/what is seeing? Who/what is feeling this. And, because I’ve logged in years of doing this, within a few moments, my experience shifts to simply noticing this activityof pulling, seeing, hearing, and feeling. It is simply activity happening with no “I” or attachment. I am not a person pulling a cart - pulling, feeling, seeing and hearing is just happening. I witness it. I experience great freedom and ease in this.
That is, in fact, a sort of “setting up camp” ceremony that I naturally fall into. And here is where I also want to mention being “in ceremony” which is something that I find strengthens my commitment to and benefit from this ritual of coming to this monastery.
From the moment I am packing to come – including the drive up, the schlep up the hill to set up my campsite, to my unpacking and leaving – I consider myself to be “in ceremony.” That is also, in fact, how I look to those “organic” evenings I create at home – and how I think of retreats – that through my commitment to this period of time as being for inner evolution, I am creating a sacred environment in which a kind of growth beyond my conceptual mind can happen.
While I do very little formal practice when in this solo retreat in nature, I will “play” with mindfulness techniques and strategies – or even just experiment with my perception (like the self-inquiry exercise I do when schlepping my stuff up the hill.) Sometimes this is simply a playful experiment in reframing my experience. At other times it’s a commitment to investigating the very nature of my experience.
Several years ago, I remember a favorite meditation experience at this special place. I lay in my tent one night, bundled in two sleeping bags, feeling quite safe and warm as the wind outside started to pick up. I felt so still and peaceful that I meditated on the stillness – of my body and of my thoughts & feelings. I park my tent under a huge eucalyptus tree and when the wind picks up, water from the ocean air that has condensed on the leaves, starts to fall like rain. I looked up at the tent above and around me as the wind increased to a dramatic degree – to the point where my (older) tent start to rip apart above me - as I continued my meditation on stillness.
I had just previously worked with a client who had been experiencing intense kriya movements during deep meditation, and I had encouraged him to allow his attention to focus on the stillness (the “eye of the hurricane”) insidethe “hurricane” of the kriya movement. This had been quite powerful and helpful for him so that the kriyas didn’t pull him up out of deeper meditative experiences (which had been his complaint.)
My description to him was still fresh in my mind, and I found myself excited to get to practice this delving into and appreciating stillness as my tent moved wildly around me and started to actually be ripped apart over me. It was a divine 3-hour meditation until the wind died down and I ultimately went to sleep. (And yes, I patched up that old tent the next day and used that as an excuse to get a new one with a total net view of the world around me.)
My normal daily experience when I’m camping in this natural monastery is to tune into the visual & sonic movement or “flow” of the trees & grass-like vegetation in the wind, the sound of the ocean crashing into the coastline a half-mile down below the hill on which I’m perched, along with the sound of a distant fog horn and the sea lions barking in a distant cove. Birds are my constant companion – soothing and delighting me, and at night, sometimes I will hear packs of coyotes sometimes coming quite close, which can be rather exciting. When I’m outside my tent, my body feels the movement of air – which always has a cool-to-cold-to-icy quality, even if the sun is out and the day is hot, due to the unique weather pattern of the land I sit on.
TUNING INTO FLOW:
And it is these movements of what I see, hear, and feel that I give over to. This flow massages me and I become it – until there is only the flow. I am not consciously applying any technique here, although my years of being trained to notice and appreciate “flow” (through the Unified Mindfulness system developed by Shinzen Young) have helped it become something that happens naturally for me without any effort.
We often come to meditation to rewire unhelpful habit patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, and those years of dedicated meditation have, for me, developed new habits that, in this special monastery of nature, happen on their own, as habits do.
People often ask me, when they find out I go alone into nature for such long periods of time, if I am scared – and also they want to know what I do. My typical response is that this is the safest womb I know – and I don’t know exactly what I do, but it’s all over in a flash. It seems I have just arrived and it’s time to go. I think this is mostly because I (or the sense of an identity that is Stephanie) disappears for most of the time I’m there, and I simply merge with the movement and stillness and richness of the natural world around me – disappearing into it – and re-emerging as a restored, grounded, profoundly contented being (and usually not without totally cool insights.)
This past retreat, from which I’ve just returned, was one where I had days surrounded by sea fog. My campsite is on a hill that is on a bit of land that projects out into the Pacific Ocean, so that the weather is often as if you’re at sea (thus the cool/icy air and sea fog.) But there is also an interesting weather pattern created by how the ocean wind hits the land and often the sea fog coming in will move around my little perch, so that I may have walls of fog around me that do not touch my patch of hilltop, and I can even see a bit of blue sky above me.
Watching the fog come around through the canyon to my left - and to my right – I started to become meditated by the movement of the fog. It’s like when you watch clouds, except these clouds are 40 feet from you and you have more intimate contact with it all. And once the sea fog fills the canyon, it starts to get thicker – and come closer – and soon, there is no ability to detect movement at all in the fog. It becomes this thick stillness. And I have become absorbed.
That was what meditated me for much of this past camping adventure. On the 3rdor 4thday, I had decided to notice any emotional sensations in the body from any thought about past & future that might arise. This is an exercise I often give my students & clients whenever their mind has wandered in meditation – to quickly look to see what emotional sensations are present from having thought that thought – before returning focus to whatever was the intended technique or object of meditation. This can yield insights as well as tremendous sensory clarity around our thought-feeling experience.
So, here on my solo retreat, I had been tuning into subtle places of “holding” in body & mind, and inviting them to release – and this practice was feeling quite good and freeing. So I decided at that time to simply be present with the world around me and notice emotional sensations of any thought of past or future that may arise.
Three hours had gone by when I realized I hadn’t had any such thoughts. This was novel even for me. I had been watching the sea fog and listening to the sound of the ocean that I could no longer see. In the fog, sounds become blanketed - yet the sounds share the same “room” – and thus the sound of the sea then can echo off of the trees so it seems to come from all directions – and seems more intimate as it is offered on a platter as the soundtrack of your experience in that moment.
And so it seemed my mind had become one with this outer sea fog experience of sight and sound and feeling. So I let go of any mindfulness exercise and simply gave myself over to allowing nature to massage me, to entrain my being into a lovely grounded presence.
So I tell this story of my personal experience in solitude in nature, to share how we can do our meditation practice – to cultivate core skills of concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity, to get insights into our nature and what we are – and we can also allow ourselves to be meditated. We can do that in any environment, but I particularly appreciate the retreat setting and this one.
I have found that solitude provides a perfect environment for this to happen naturally. When taking away social interactions and relationships, we can “let go” of any identity of who we are in relationship to anyone, and release any ordering principle of who we are, what we want, what has happened in the past – to simply be present.
When we add immersing ourselves in nature, we get an extra special treat: we allow the natural human to become entrained to the nature of the planet we are part of. We allow our rhythm to get in tune with the natural rhythm that we are biologically part of - and an “allowing” of the benefits of meditation to happen without having to make any effort to meditate.
I will always remember my teacher, Shinzen, saying “You can learn as much from easing up as you can from bearing down” which is a phrase I have repeated often to my students and clients – especially when I see them creating unnecessary tension from their efforting.
But this is taking that easing up all the way, this is surrendering who/what we are and allowing a natural process to nurture and restore us.
Now, what I do isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Being in solitude in nature is scary for many people, so I write this to give you a taste of what’s possible and to encourage you to go – even if just for ONE day – out alone into nature – just to see, hear and feel it, totally.
JUST GO TO A PARK & SIT UNDER A TREE:
And, at the least, you can, even if just for a few hours, find a place in a park nearby, sit under a tree and just tune into the tree, the plants, the birds, and allow yourself to be entrained – and let me know what you find – inside and out. It’s a gift waiting to be experienced.
* A version of this story was published on the Insight Timer blog.