Friday, July 11, 2008

The Big Room with the Blue Ceiling, Part 1

I first tried camping in my 20s, spending a week hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania. Years later, I slept under the stars at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The hike to the bottom of the Canyon was at the top of my "bucket list," as was the hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite.

Also during the 90s, there were some majestic hikes in the Colorado mountains with my high school friend Raul. Raul owned a couple of llamas, which would carry our tent and stuff. Leaving the animals at our base camp, we climbed as high as 13K feet.

But then one of llamas died, and it's been a few years since I've had a major outdoor adventure. This summer I hiked at Joshua Tree a couple days, but we slept in a motel outside the Park.

I haven't thought about camping for a while. I'm not one of those hippies who feel that I need to escape evil human civilization. After all, my definition of "nature" includes everything. As I grow older, inner explorations have occupied more of my interest than trekking through the wilderness. The bears and deer don't wander into my dwelling to hang out; why do I need to hang out in theirs?

So I might have given up on camping, except that my buddy Bill (pictured here) is a huge fan of it, and during this week he invited me to join him for a few days of car camping in a State Park north of Truckee. I thought it'd be fun to hang out with him there, and a good use of my free time during my (assumed temporary) period of unemployment. I didn't expect much from the camping experience itself, but it turned out to be more profound than I'd thought.

One of the great benefits of living outdoors is that it's so uncomfortable. It made me realize how much of my day-to-day attention is taken up with concerns of bodily comfort. It's not that I've ever craved luxury, but I do have my temperature-controlled apartment, soft mattress, refrigerator, and broadband net access to keep me constantly amused.

It's a different matter to wake up in the middle of the cold dark night, on the hard ground of my claustrophobic tent, with no distractions from exhaustion, scrapes, and mosquito bites. It's one of those wonderful "no escape" situations that forces me to just pay attention to the moment, due to the lack of alternatives.

I realized that the situation wasn't so different from the painful meditation retreats I put myself through every month, with the "no escape" a bit more literal. If there's anything I've learned from decades of mediation and inquiry, it's the extraordinary power of thinking. "If you want to understand all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future," say the Buddhist scriptures, "then you should view the nature of the universe as being created by Mind alone."

Lying there in the tent, it became clearer that it's my thinking that creates suffering. A few mosquito bites are no big deal (especially considering the vast array of pain that human life has to offer). It was my thinking that it should be different that's the root issue. Buddha's teaching in a nutshell: If you want something, you have a problem.

In any moment that I just experienced the situation as it was, letting mental desires and imaginings come and go like clouds... it was just like this, no problem. I always understand this conceptually, but it's an entirely different matter to be forced to practice like this directly.

(It's similar to what happens to me on airplane flights. Sometimes I get claustrophobic attacks while flying, and my only option is to focus on a simple mind-stopping technique like mantra. Amazingly, once thinking quiets down, the situation is transformed. These nitty-gritty life situations bring meditation practice to life, moreso than a mountain of philosophizing.)

I was also surprised by the effect of being constantly surrounded by an environment that isn't man-made. I'll ramble on about that in the 2nd part of this posting, coming shortly.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Good stuff!

The environmental factor that always strikes me when camping is the difference in noise. Very quiet, in a nice way, but not quiet at all really. Just noisy in a different way, city noises vs. forest noises. It's a nice change once in a while.

The attraction for me to camping is just what you described in the lack of creature comforts. Without video games and magazines to offer constant distraction, I end up focusing in on just being. The comparison to a sesshin is perfect... well, substitute one kind of leg pain for another and it's perfect anyway. :)

Cheers, & looking forward to more!

- Doug