Article By Ray JardinePhotos by Richard Else and Cameron McNeish 1998
Photo Cameron McNeish, 1998
There is nothing like a long-distance trek to shift one's priorities and rejuvenate body, mind and spirit. During an extended wilderness journey the urban complexities of the day-to-day routine lose much of their significance. Values shift, and one's earth consciousness moves more forefront.
The many benefits require a type of metamorphosis, and like other long-distance hikers I go through various stages while "on journey." The first and most profound transition occurs with the proverbial "passing of the gate," the simple act of leaving home and embarking upon the grand adventure. Actually the entire adventure hinges on that gate. As the trip begins to unfold I find the initial few weeks typically the most demanding, mainly as my body adapts physically to the rigors of trail life. Once I have physically attuned, the aches and pains subside and my energy levels stabilize. But it takes another month or so for me to break through the next barrier, the mental one. Only when the mind finally lets go can I begin to fully tune in.
"Lunch stop, and an opportunity to tune-in to the landscape." Photo: Cameron McNeish 1998
With both body and mind attuned, I find myself almost flowing along the trail. The miles begin reeling past with very little conscious effort. Once again, this higher level of body/mind consciousness takes me around six weeks of wilderness trekking to achieve. But this is when magical things begin to happen. Wild animals start losing their fear of me; often I find myself approaching them closely, and they, me. My sense of smell becomes acute, and I can use it to become more aware of animals and people in my vicinity, and of the surrounding landscape. For example I can smell where someone had camped hidden in the brush a hundred yards off the trail. Beyond that I begin sensing things that cannot be known by ordinary means. I sense when other hikers are approaching - still at a distance - and even what kind of people they are, whether they are friendly or not. I begin to sense what the weather will do, and to know in advance when I should descend to more protected terrain to wait out an approaching storm. The landscape begins speaking to me, telling of the forces that shaped it thus, whether it is healthy or declining in vitality, and why.
Fortunately, the end of the trail is not the end of the story. I think most experienced long-distance hikers would agree that on returning to urban life they find themselves much more focused and capable in meeting whatever challenges come their way.
This is all well and good, but what about the vast majority of hikers and rovers who lack the time to embrace these multi-month outings? Actually, this leads me to the heart of the article: shortcuts to wilderness connection. I have arranged five exercises that can do wonders to springboard your sense of wilderness connection and help you glean its many benefits - no matter how much time you can spend in nature, or how little.
"The natural world exhibits a power and an intelligence not found in the so-called developed world. And the more you practice in the wilds, the more you will connect with nature, and with the inner self."
These exercises will require only a few minutes of your time. Naturally, the more often you practice them, the more profound will be the results. And while you can practice them almost anywhere, I recommend you find somewhere in the wilds, for example during your regular outings.
This first exercise will help awaken your senses and expand your awareness. The more seriously you practice it, the more you will begin to "see" and experience. Allow three to five minutes a session.
Sit down, close your eyes, calm you mind, and use your other senses to learn what you can about your surroundings. Listen to the wind as it rustles the trees or grasses, feel its freshness on your face. If the sun is shining, then feel what parts of your body it is warming. Listen for insect sounds, the chirping or fluttering of birds. Smell the subtle aromas given off by the surrounding vegetation. Feel the way your clothing rests upon your body. Feel your feet inside your shoes - are they cold, cramped, hot, sweaty, tired? Feel your chest expanding with every breath, your heart beating. Feel gravity pressing you, almost cradling you to mother earth.
With eyes closed you will begin to "see" things in an entirely different light. You may be amazed at what you can discover about yourself and your surroundings in these few minutes.
Draw a line across the trail with your shoe or boot. From that line walk 50 yards along the trail at your normal pace. Stop, turn around, and retrace your steps at a mere one-tenth your normal pace. In other words, on the return trip move with extreme slowness and care. Along the way, be a sponge. Absorb as much about your environment as you possibly can.
The slow walk will calm your mind, expand your awareness, and bring you more into touch with the present moment.
The square foot
Practice this "meditation" while lying on your stomach. Don't worry about soiling your clothing. Rather, think about how your efforts will enhance your earth connection.
With a few pebbles or twigs, mark out a section of ground measuring about one foot square. Lying on your stomach, earnestly study your marked territory for at least five minutes. Discover everything possible about it. Look for plants, insects, seeds, droppings, small animal trails, and so forth. Guaranteed, the longer you study this small parcel the more interesting things you will discover.
This in-your-face approach will show you things about your world that you could not possibly chance upon while walking or standing. So, too, it will help relieve your mind of extraneous distraction and focus it upon the present moment.
For every animal we see along the way, we miss another ten hiding close to the trail. And curiously, our eyes are responsible for missing so much. This is not because our eyes are necessarily defective, but because of how we misuse them. When we look at a picture, for example, we focus only on one small detail, then quickly our eyes move to another detail. The same is true whenever we look at anything: our eyes jump all over the place, rapidly moving from one small detail to another. The problem with this erratic, pin-point focusing is that it uses only a small fraction of our retinas. At any given moment we miss everything in the periphery, which includes most of what lies before us. So in the following exercise we will practice peripheral, or wide-angle vision.
As you look straight ahead, hold your arms straight out to your sides, and wiggle your fingers. You cannot focus on the fingers of both hands at the same time, but you can see them in your peripheral vision. Not very well, granted, but at least you can see their movement. And as you draw your hands slowly together, still looking straight ahead you will see your fingers ever more clearly.
Drop your hands, look straight ahead, and hold your eyes still. Concentrate on seeing everything before you - all together - in wide-angle vision. With practice you will see the scene in stunning three-dimension. Once you have achieved that, practice sweeping your eyes slowly across the landscape while preventing them from snapping back into pin-point focus.
Not only does wide-angle vision allow you to take in much more visually, but it makes you very sensitive to background motion. If something in your periphery moves, however slightly, you will see it. For these reasons animals generally do not use pin-point focus. Another benefit for humans is that wide-angle vision can open doorways to higher wilderness consciousness.
Walking in wilderness connection
Now let's bring everything together by practicing wide-angle vision in a slow walk. This is best done in soft-soled shoes, or even barefoot if you tread very carefully. Either way, this exercise will coalesce and amplify everything learned in the previous exercises.
Look straight ahead and use your eyes in extreme wide-angle vision, seeing everything before you. Walk with utmost slowness, letting your feet find their way as though they had eyes of their own. Quiet your mind of thought, and allow all your senses to absorb the myriad but subtle details of the natural world enveloping you.
If you can manage to keep your mind perfectly stilled, in just a few moments you will begin to ease into a higher level of consciousness. Many people refer to this level as "alpha." It is in this realm that animals lose their fear of you, that you begin to flow along the trail, that your senses grow exceptionally acute and you become aware of all that surrounds you. Alpha is the only real "trail magic" that I know of. It is also a definitive step toward that heightened wilderness connection. So, too, it is an excellent method of discovering something of your higher self.
You can practice moving into alpha anywhere, but the best place - by far - is in the wilderness. The natural world exhibits a power and an intelligence not found in the so-called developed world. And the more you practice in the wilds, the more you will connect with nature, and with the inner self. As a result you may find more synchronicity coming into your life. "Coincidences" might happen your way more often, and more beneficially.
Of course, the benefits of alpha are not limited to the wilds. You can practice at home and even at your workplace. In alpha you will become more observant of the subtle clues all around you - making you more effective in your daily routines. For example, you may begin picking up on people's moods and intent. You might also notice a clarity of your own thoughts and a better grasp of the overall picture that previously you had not experienced. And you may enjoy a boost in creativity. I believe that all genuinely creative efforts are accomplished in alpha, whether or not the person realizes it.
Like me, you probably long to spend more times outdoors, hiking the trails, exploring wild places, and strengthening your connection with nature. But no matter how much or how little time we spend out there, we can internalize, clarify and strengthen our relationships with the world around us by practicing these simple exercises. This, in turn, will lead to a more powerful and focused walk through life.
So go out there and give these five exercises a try. And remember that the more diligent the practice, the more effective the results.