Snow, And the Zen of Hiking
By Jeff Pierce
Snow is one of the environments great universal equalizers. It doesn’t care how tough you are (mentally or physically), or how well prepared you think you are, snow will win. This was the thought that came to me while hiking today, what I felt at first was a failed attempt at reaching my Zen state, that after a few rationalizing minutes I realized was a minor moment of clarity. Think about that for a second. We’ve all been there at some point, the snowball to the face, the car in the ditch, or even worse. Do you think the Donner Party thought this out while they were starving? More MEN died in the Donner party than women. This then stirred up the internal struggle debate, my little duality issues. I love snow, even though it has tried to kill me on more than one occasion. How many people can rationalize something like that? You love something that would just as soon destroy you as make your environment into your favorite playground. Ahh, love hate relationships.
I try to use hiking as a way to reconnect not only with nature, but with myself, the never ending swirls of disconnected thoughts inside my head. As I’ve said before, on my journeys outbound, I can approach a Zen state, not letting the disconnected thoughts win, but clearing my mind isn’t Zen. It is peaceful, don’t get me wrong, but Zen by definition is “direct self-realization through meditation”. Am I self-realizing when there are no thoughts to be had? But then there is the pause, the trails end, the return home when the introspection begins. The thoughts begin to flood back, and today it was thinking of the times in my life when snow won, or came very close. Snow has made me realize or understand my mortality on a few occasions, as anyone who reads any of my rambling knows.
Can it be this simple? While wandering around in the forest to reach some sort of enlightenment? Ok, so I’ve not achieved self-enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of the meaning, but I keep having those “Aha!” moments more often. I personally feel the key is to follow those “Aha!” moments instead of pondering them whimsically and then filing them away in the grey matter. That moment is usually a break through, whether it is personal or universally profound, a breakthrough none the less. Where would we be if Archimedes hadn’t bathed? Personal “Aha!” moments are easier to ignore, we don’t see the significance of the moment to our overall state of mind or well-being. I’ve begun to pay attention to those moments later in life, and they haven’t steered me wrong…….well, so far.
Carl Jung wrote “All consciousness separates, but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night”. Was he trying to say truer to ourselves? Did he mean truer to the “ideal” or “perception” of what and how a man is supposed to be and act? Society as a whole is a complex structure, and the ideas and perceptions of the society end up shaping those in it. Whether or not they are realistic ideas and perceptions is the issue at hand. We spend our lives being told how to act, how to look, even if we believe that we have a concept of self, but in reality most of what makes “us” is what is fed to us by “them”; the “them” being our peers, our family, the media, or our religion if we have one. Do we really have our own sense of self and identity if what makes us “us” is what we are fed by everyone else…….forcibly at times?
Sometimes the “Aha!” moment is terrifying if it goes against the identity given to us by society. We were programmed to think a certain way, and now all of a sudden this thought comes screaming from out of nowhere. You might think, I wasn’t raised to believe this by my family, my church. You might think that friends will look at you differently now that you have started to become self-aware. Self-awareness can be scary.
Understanding mortality can be even more frightening and lead to a heightened state of self-awareness. That’s a point I can attest to first hand. Having faced my mortality more than once at the beginning of my teens pre-empted me from having to wait through any of societies “manhood” rituals. I didn’t have to jump from a tower with nothing but vines attached to my legs. I didn’t have to climb to an eagles nest high on a cliff to snatch a baby eagle that would then be my companion and hunting partner for the duration of our existences. I was thrust into a different state of mind by almost dying, one that changed my view of society as a whole. I recently read a book by Karl Marlantes titled “What It Is Like To Go To War” which made me ponder my manhood ritual of near death experience, and how it changed several of my decisions later in life. He wrote that most young men (late teens to early twenties) have never had to ponder their mortality by that point, so when they experience combat, it takes everything they’ve been fed by society and throws it right out the window. They now can see that they may not get the chance to have the house, car, and 2.4 children that society has told them they need. Anyone ever wonder why the divorce rate is so high in returning combat vets? While they are gone, the world they knew at home is in a state of constant flux, relationships and events are constantly changing that they have no control over. In the current times, the problems these young men, and women face in combat are then exacerbated by the fact that with modern technologies, they can talk to home with much less difficulty. A friend whose husband was in Iraq a few years ago was able to chat via Skype almost nightly with him.
I almost joined the Army while I was in college, but ended up talking myself out of it. Why you might ask? Here comes that pesky duality again. First off, having faced my own mortality by this point, I knew that if I joined the military, there was a possibility of dying. Flipside of that coin, I may have to take someone else’s life. Because I valued my own life having almost lost it at a young age, I couldn’t see myself taking another young man’s life because of reasons I may not believe in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pacifist who doesn’t think we should fight. I do agree with fighting for what I believe in, and war as a concept will never go away. It is human nature for societies to engage each other with violent conflict for reasons known or unknown. Tyrants invade, dictator’s rule, neighboring tribes occupy better lands than other tribes. Conflict is almost instinct in humans, the “I want what you have”. If taking what another society has is a tool for the invading society’s survival is one thing, but humans are territorial and constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses.
You might be thinking, “I’ve never been to war or in a major conflict for what I possess”, but you may be mistaken. In everyday life, people are in conflict with another person to attain what they feel they need. You may be in conflict with your boss for more hours or pay; you might be in conflict with you bank, your bills, or the bill collectors. After all, if they take all your money, you can’t get all that society says you need. You may not need a bigger house, better car, or have more children, but that is what society is telling you. Your society; friends, family, media, advertising, they are all bombarding you constantly to upsize, upgrade and consume. Why do you think that they refer to customers as consumers? That is what we do! We consume, conquer, and control. We’ve lost the ability to understand that there are things beyond our control in the modern day and age. When a child gets sick, we just assume that modern medicine will have the answer. When there is a car accident, we assume that the surgeon will put Humpty Dumpty back together. We aren’t afraid of what goes bump in the night because we have a false sense of security in which we are lulled into complacency. It has affected our ability to effectively handle traumatic events when they don’t have the positive outcome we’ve grown accustomed to. In ancient times and with aboriginal cultures, death was accepted differently. Warrior cultures felt it was a glorious ending to die in battle or to the service of their gods. Gods, the ancient people’s way of explaining the unexplainable. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Howard Phillips Lovecraft who wrote “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown”.
When ancient cultures couldn’t explain an event or occurrences, they attributed it to gods, those things with no form that mortal man would never see. We have no gods now. We think we’ve seen anything and everything there is to see, or at the very least we can read a blog about it or look it up on Wikipedia. This makes surprise all the more shocking. We need to be in awe of the natural world again, but we’ve been over-stimulated by information overload. A society that is numb is doomed to failure, maybe not now but eventually. What I keep seeing is people numbed to anything perceived as bad, and stimulated by the trivial. Again I ask a question, why do you think that “Reality TV” is so popular? Is it because the general population’s menial lives are so boring that they must live vicariously through “Survivor” or “Dancing With The Stars”? Go on a hike or take some dance lessons! Live for yourself, not through others on television. Again it is society telling you how to be and act. They want you lazy and complacent so they can sell you the next great fitness trend or a video game so you can pretend you are dancing……in front of your own damn TV! Societies used to offer praise and thanks to what they felt sustained them, now we worship money, status, and possessions.
These are the thoughts I have while hiking through the forest. This is how I go from “snow” to “consumerism”. It’s all a process of taking the disconnected thoughts in my head and sorting them out to make some semblance of rationality. In the end, what I find is that my thinking keeps getting further away from what society tells us how we should think and act to fit it. These thoughts aren’t new; I’ve had them for years but acted on them in a different manner, a more destructive way of thinking and acting. It was rebelling against a perceived authority, which in reality the authority was just society in general. I didn’t want to think the same way as everyone else or try and be fashionable and “fit in”. I wanted everyone else to open their eyes and see what I did. I wanted everyone else to feel the sense of doom I felt for society. When we see a genocide or famine on the news, Western society especially cannot fathom an event so horrific happening in a civilized society. What they don’t see or can’t comprehend is these events could happen anywhere and to anyone, but also that they are contributing to these atrocities by being the “haves” to the “have nots”. You might think this is a stretch, but would you be willing to give up your comforts so that another person may gain the bare essential to simply survive? You may be thinking to yourself, “I donated to a charity”, but how many times? If you did it once to make yourself feel good or better than everyone else, then that is a shame on you.
Humans have to do things to make themselves feel better about life or to achieve a sense of superiority over others. Simply stated, it is wanting to feel “holier than thou”; I don’t think there really is a better way of summing that up. “Yeah, I donated to XYZ charity because they are helping poor orphans in –pick your war-torn country. Oh, you don’t donate to charities, shame”. But then you donate only once and now those orphans who could have received clean water, possibly an education, and the chance to live past age 5 are dying off in record numbers from Cholera or famine. Go ahead perform charitable acts to feel more superior to others, just do them more than once. Or, do us a favor and save your money. You’re going to need it when you lose your job and your house is in foreclosure. Those who have can never seem to make any real sacrifices for the benefit of others, but will sure scream foul once they are in dire straits and need some assistance. If one day you woke up and realized that you were going into foreclosure, couldn’t make your car payments, and would have to stop paying tuition for your 2.4 children, you would want a little help to. There again, society is lulled into a false sense of security. We are made to think that there is assistance for us, that our churches, governments, even neighbors will bail us out. Ho, ho! Wrong way of thinking, my friends. The money will run out, the neighbors that you’ve never had over to your house for a barbeque will shun you, and when the cumulative effects drain the coffers from all available resources, you’ll begin to wish that maybe people could be a little more kind and generous.
Hunter S. Thompson liked to use the term hubris in his writing as a way to describe his or others actions just before they failed fantastically. The literal definition of hubris is “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis”. We have become an over bloated and defiant consumerist society, and the gods, those things we can’t explain, are going to humble us eventually. Modern society is edging ever closer to a tipping point, where the needs of the citizens are going to overwhelm the resources available. If people forget self-reliance and can’t learn to revert back to the origins of true society, humanity is doomed. We’ve gotten cocky, but we are just a blip on the cosmic timeline. For all we know, we were a genetic evolutionary mistake, and just as other species have come and gone before us and during our time here, we one day will also be a memory. In the evolutionary scheme of things, we’re an eye blink, a fraction of an epoch. Just my observations in the 37 years I’ve existed in this organization of atoms, and what I feel for me is the right path, is to regain a sense of community. We as a species have lost that aspect of our lives to social networking and reality television. How many people actually wave at each other anymore, or just random strangers for that matter? One thing I’ve always enjoyed is driving up to visit my parents, the sense of community that still exists in some of the more rural parts of our country. Random people are always waving, always smiling. Everyone seems to have a feeling of contentment; people care about their neighbors and come together when tragedies or other events happen. Community and society shouldn’t define us, they should help us to feel complete. Remember the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child? Everyone had a place and was fundamentally essential for the survival of others. That direct interaction makes people stronger, both physically and mentally, and for humanity to survive, we need to be that global community instead of a global society.
Does this mean that I reject the notion of a house, car and 2.4 children? Not necessarily, but my internal struggle is in how I want to come about having these things. I have a car, it does its job and isn’t anything flashy or fancy. I live in an apartment, but whether I’m living in a house, tent, cabin, or a lean-to shelter, I am happy with a roof over my head. I once spent a winter in Northern California living in an old camper parked inside a warehouse. It was warm enough, dry enough, and secure enough. I was content. The roof over your head doesn’t need to be anything fantastic and extravagant, but modern culture has become accustomed to a certain level of comfort. Is this level of comfort absolutely necessary for survival? No, not really, but once you have attained that level of comfort, you don’t feel the desire to relinquish it without a fight. Maybe this is why I’ve always enjoyed Fight Club so much (I need to read the book, I feel like a schmuck for only watching the movie hundreds of times). The concept of either losing all to gain your identity, or rejecting the media imposed ideal of what a person should look like and act like. “Once you’ve lost everything you are free to do anything”. Oh, how wonderful it would be to shed all of your societal constraints and just be yourself for a change!
Can we, as a community, shed the societal constraints of normality and just be ourselves? I often wonder what kind of parent I would make, and if in this modern day and age I would even want to bring a child into this world. I’ve met many people who say that at first the concept of becoming a parent is frightening; they think up all the ways possible that things can go wrong. What ever happened to nature taking its course? In early cultures, becoming a parent was for the benefit of the community, and as cold as this may sound, a child dying at birth was usually a matter of natural selection. Would they have had the strength to grow to adulthood and provide for the community? In that early community, everyone had an essential function, from hunting and gathering, to making clothing and shelter. If the weak survived, then what affect would that have had on the strength of the community as a whole? The community would become weakened by not having an essential set of hands, another able mind and body. I bet you’re all thinking to yourselves, how could I sound so indifferent to the life of a child? Well, I’ll pose this question, how many parents in the modern era would have an abortion if they found out their unborn child had a major medical “defect”, one that would not only affect the life child’s potential, but would limit the parents financially, socially, or the proclivity for leisure time?
In this modernized, mechanized, industrialized society we live in, parents can make the selection before the child is born, but then even if the birth is “normal”, who’s to say that child will survive to a ripe old age, and if they will ever be a productive member of that society. I think I can safely say that if a mega-catastrophe was to engulf the continent we live on, most people would perish simply because they had no creative thinking skills, no basic survival skills, and certainly not the strong interpersonal relationships and communication required to lead and organize. It is this dumbing-down of the next generations that will do us in, unless parents can learn to instill in their children true survival skills. Sure, knowing how to fix the car, hook up the TV, and look both ways before crossing the street are good things to know, but they are not essential for survival. Knowing how to tweet isn’t going to save your life. I’m sure that you’ll be one of the first to know that the disaster has happened, but once you lose power and can’t play your X-Box anymore, you are effectively screwed. We’ve also grown accustomed to the event of a child dying being a downright tragedy. Yes, losing a child is difficult and life altering, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Parents should celebrate the birth, that first hurdle, then try to pass on all the love and knowledge they can before time runs out, which we all know is going to happen, but no one wants to face their own mortality. You are going to die, get over it. What you do in the meantime is what defines you. Are you going to be the guy that no one attends your funeral, or are you going to be celebrated for all the lives you touched on your journey to the inevitable. Two significant examples that I draw encouragement from are my grandfather and one of my cousins who have passed on since I’ve reached adulthood. My grandfather taught me much through my life, and community was an important lesson. You needed to help your neighbor, be a helping hand, and defend those who couldn’t defend themselves. When my grandfather passed, we packed a high school gym to standing room only, this man who some would have looked at as just an old retired logger. It was the lives of others he affected on his journey that truly defined him as a man. My cousin Ron died very suddenly a little over a year ago, and although we hadn’t been as close as I would have liked over the previous few year (busy with this or that, we all make excuses until it’s too late), it was still a harsh blow to the family. I hadn’t cried when I received the phone call, not even when I drove up to Washington to my parents place the day before the funeral. I talked to my folks about how his family was doing, and the what-where-when of the funeral service. They held it at the Klickitat County Rodeo Grounds, since that had always been Ron’s passion, as well as one of his favorite places. It didn’t hit me until I looked at the crowd in the grandstands, and then out to the road leading in where a line of cars as far as the eye could see where still arriving to pay their respects to this humble logger, farmer, husband, and father. I absolutely lost it. A flood of emotion poured over me, this is community, this is family, this is what constitutes the most important part of our lives. Not what we have, not our status in society, but how “your” community remembers you.
There is a wonderful oral tradition in many Native American cultures, as well as stories in art from pottery, totems, lodges, even the blankets they weave which are essential to their own survival. The stories tell of their lineage, their ancestors, those who carried traditions forward and the great leaders of men. Now in modern times, we gauge someone off their twitter followers or how many people are on their friends list. We have no great community leaders anymore, it’s all a popularity contest and a race to amass as many possessions as possible before we die. Status in a “clan” used to be more based on character, leadership, and how well you could survive, let alone how well you could keep others sustained. If you were a good hunter and provided for the rest of the tribe, clan, whatever kind of group, you held status. You showed that you cared for the others and recognized that they were essential to your own survival. People don’t understand interdependency like they used to. We are all interdependent, but not in such a direct manner. My neighbors’ personal health and well-being doesn’t directly affect my life or livelihood. But should I be concerned for that neighbor? Absolutely! This is the idea that has become lost the more electronically connected we’ve become. Now we don’t have to wait weeks or months to communicate, we chat online with friends or send text messages halfway around the world, but then fail to connect directly with those around us.
I started to become guilty of the e-living ideology. I could talk to people I’d never met in person who lived nowhere near me, we could form our own “community”, and live in a world beyond physical interaction. It doesn’t take long before those types of societies begin to break down. If there is no clearly defined hierarchy, then conflict ensues, and people decide to “take their ball and go home”. You are trying to establish a community with maybe one common interest, but the personalities are so diverse, there’s no way that conflict can be avoided, especially with the anonymity of the internet and the personalities people develop. I hear so often from people, “He’s really a nice guy in real life, but sometimes acts like a jerk on the computer”. This shield, our computer screen that gives us a measure of protection begins to define us further. People become addicted to their web-based lives and can’t step away and see what lies in front of them: reality. We are losing our sense of self identity, at least what little of it is truly our own every time we tweet, update facebook, argue on a forum, or become totally engrossed in internet drama. Information is just a few mouse clicks away, so we are lulled into a false sense of security thinking we will always have access. It will all come down some day, and if you can’t find a book to reference, you are left strictly with what is in your head. We should all become life-long learners, or learn to regain a sense of community. If you don’t know everything, there’s a fair chance someone around you does. You come together with this knowledge base, and solve problems as a team. You share information and ideas for the benefit of the community, and then pass them on when the time comes.