So here we are at the transition from one year to the next: Perhaps we’ve reflected on the things we regret, we’ve asked for forgiveness and granted it to others. We’re poised to grow and change and to do better next year. However, none of the soul searching, scouring or gentle suggesting will do a whit of good without the How piece. How will we actually make the changes we aspire to for the New Year ahead? I will attempt to offer you an answer. But first, let’s agree about the questions. I propose these: How do we release the pain of the past so that we can grow? How can we become more compassionate and loving towards ourselves and others? How can we become kinder, more peaceful, more generous with our gifts? How can we become someone new, while still living inside our old familiar lives? This is the work of a lifetime, indeed, but here in Vermont we have particularly easy access to what we need for growth, which is the natural world, nature. So our answer to How? has at its core the difference between outdoors and indoors, which for me is no less than the difference between the mind and the soul.
Indoors is the realm of the known. Whether you spend more time in your office or your home, you know the indoor space well, down to the tear in the armrest of the couch, the stain on the kitchen counter, the amount of resistance when opening a door, the smell of the mudroom, the sound of the refrigerator, the oil burner or traffic. In the comfort of our home or office there is no mystery; thus we can accomplish. We can function. We can do what needs to be done.
Outdoors is where spirit lives. It is where you can most easily experience profound healing, epiphanies, deep opening and contact with the divine. One truth that I have experienced over and over, the part worth highlighting or underlining three times is this: No matter what the question, the answer is go outside. There is no question too large, no pain too great, no mystery too deep, but that it cannot be healed by nature and lead to just the personal growth we seek today. This truth is reflected in the ritual of tashlich (tash-leech), that happens between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we are instructed to go out in nature in order to symbolically cast away our sins by throwing them into a moving body of water thus leaving our old shortcomings behind us, and starting the new year with a clean slate.
But wait, spirit is everywhere so why is it that we need to go outside to connect with spirit, our own souls, divine truth, inner knowing, “the field/Field” (per the Embody Leadership Model™) – however you want to say it. It’s because WE are different outside. Outdoors, in nature, we become receivers, antennae for spirit. You may believe it is everywhere, but we are not fully present everywhere. Nature can, if we let it, bring us into direct contact with something beyond ourselves. us.
So, am I saying just step outside and you’re there? Not so easy. When you go outside, I invite you to consciously breathe. To ask yourself what the air feels like today. To notice the temperature, moisture, wind direction. If you are standing on your deck or patio, walk onto the earth. Consider that we live on a sphere and that your feet are now in contact with rushing rivers of underground water, a vast ocean, flowing magma, boulders of unimagined immensity. And we get to stand on this! It’s a miracle. Does anyone remember the movie “The Abyss”? The healing came through the awesome mystery deep, deep in the ocean. What is accessible to all of us is the vast sky, a single clump of grass. It is there for us to look at. Out in nature we have an opportunity to see something no human being has ever seen before. Something new can enter our old, familiar lives. Think of that. If every day our lives we commit to “Something New Day” our lives WILL change, we will be made new.
Today every one of us can look at something never seen before by human eyes, without going on any kind of journey – it’s right outside our doors.
Let’s take small moments each day to connect with outdoors. Ten minutes of walking a little ways away from the familiar can deepen the wonder. Asking silently or out loud for answers to questions is good too. We can ask very general questions: How can I be a better person, parent, partner? How can I release the pain of the past so that I can grow? How can I become more compassionate and loving towards myself and others? How can I become kinder, more peaceful, more generous with my gifts? How can I become someone new, while still living inside my old familiar life? We can ask anything and then open to the miraculous answers.
I will share a story from my life. So, many years ago I had a problem. I was in a relationship with a man who had a young child. After we had been dating for some months the child’s mother decided to pursue reconciliation, for the sake of the child. My boyfriend was conflicted. I was conflicted. So the question I was pondering on this particular fall day was “How can I help?” Specifically, do I pull out and let them figure it out? Do I hang in there and convince him to stay? I lived way out on a dirt road with a sloping field behind the house that ended in woods. I walked down to the edge of the woods to a small stream. I sat against a tree with my feet propped on a log that had fallen across the water. I closed my eyes as asked “How can I help? How can I help? How can I help?” I said this over and over in my mind. I don’t know how long I sat there, ten, twenty minutes. After a time I gently opened my eyes to see a large raccoon walking towards me on the log at my feet. I watched it approach feeling mostly astonishment, no time for other thoughts, when it slipped. It actually lost its grip on the log slid to one side and ended up hanging by its claws from the underside of the log. I watched as it clambered, struggling, back to the top of the log and it continued to approach! That was when I noticed its face was a pincushion of quills. It had been in an altercation with a porcupine! I don’t remember thinking or deciding anything, I only know what I did. Actually my next memory of that event is walking up the long hill with the raccoon clutched against my chest, limbs splayed around me as though in a hug, and I could feel its heart beating against mine. Not to belabor the details, but I took it into the house, wrapped it in a towel to protect myself from its claws, got a pair of pliers and yanked out the quills.
This is a moment of my life I will never forget – My heart grew three sizes that day. I did something I never could have imagined nor thought myself capable of. Outside we become receivers in ways we cannot be indoors, not in our homes, our offices, and possibly even our places of worship and meditation halls. Did I get the answer I expected? And what did it mean for my original question? These are all the thinking that went on later. The not-thinking is what can happen outdoors, if you let it. Outside not only means out of doors, it means outside of yourself, outside of your mind, outside of the known.
Pema Chodren talks about what she calls “the gap." She advises: “...stop and take three conscious breaths, and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.” Consider how much more potent this will be if we do it outside. When we breathe we take the wind into our bodies. All the love and healing that floats in the air is now available to us. Let’s allow it to fill us. Today find a gap and take this opportunity to quietly stand outside, or take a walk. Let’s be open to noticing. It’s okay to be cold for a bit and just notice. Perhaps a breeze comes up when there wasn’t one before. Perhaps it is strong enough to loose a cascade of orange leaves down around us and we can’t help but wonder as we stand in awe, where that breeze started and how it came to be here where we are at this moment touching us with a shower of leaves. We can feel the blessing of each dancing leaf, feel love surrounding us. Feel into the new things we are capable of – we can sense the new sprouting like a seed in the soil of our old lives. If we return to this place, water this sprout with our hopes and dreams for ourselves, we can then celebrate the New Year every day. No matter what the question, the answer is “go outside”.
When Laura Berkowitz participated in the Brattleboro, VT aWALKening Retreat, she shared about her philosophy: No matter what the question, the answer is “Go outside.” There is no question too large, no pain too great, no mystery too deep, but that it cannot be healed by nature and lead to just the personal growth we seek. This was the first time Laura shared these personal beliefs while outdoors, holding pieces of nature and in the presence of a group of listeners. Laura built upon this aWALKening experience by giving a sermon in temple on the high holy day of Yom Kippur. In this remarkable expression – that mirrors much of the philosophy of Leadership ‘N Motion – Laura expanded on the idea of getting answers by going outside. As we approach the close of one year that folds into the next, consider reading this excerpt.
Leadership 'N Motion
Where walking, mindfulness and leadership intersect