Twenty-five years ago, 7/12/89 (July 12th incidentally being Henry David Thoreau’s birthday), I set out on a 50 hour Greyhound bus ride from Chicago to Seattle. I had just graduated from college and I had a backpack full of books and other essential items. It was my trip to find myself, my vision quest – that in between time of life, between education and adult pursuits. It was one of the foundational events in my counter-curriculum of humanization and re-humanization (I hope to write more in a future blog about this concept of the counter-curriculum as described in my forth-coming book, but before I can do that, I must honor my past).
I spent two weeks in the woods, solo backpacking. It was, perhaps, where I first became aware of the dramatic swings of emotion and thought that can occur that permeate perception. I had a portable library (another feature of the counter-curriculum – always carry a variety of books), most notably Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Bach’s Illusions, The Portable Thoreau, as well as books by Alan Watts and some novels. I meditated, went hopping along on the rocks in the stream, I had ecstatic views of nature, but all this was also in the context of what I called “goddamned suffering in the woods” which was interchangeably a physical, emotional, neurotic and spiritual suffering. Physical pain was great in the beginning, with the heavy pack and my muscles getting used to climbing (I thought I was “training” for the journey by going for runs in the flat Midwest). The psychological and neurotic pain was immense in the beginning – all the little decisions became immense – should I camp here, or push on? Should I put the tent here or there? Should I relax now and push on later, or push on now and relax later? Luckily, I had some of the best meditation teachers along in my pack and I was great neurotic material to work on.
I also grappled with death and met the limits of what I could control, as I startled awake at night by a noise and wondered about meeting a psychopathic killer in the woods or being attacked by a wild animal. There is a point in the woods, where you have done all you can and you just have to sleep and not worry too much about all the things that could go wrong. This is what the meditation teachers instruct us to do – live in the present, when something happens – react, don’t worry about something that has not happened.
I have been resisting thinking about or writing about this journey of twenty-five years ago because I could not think of what to do to honor it. I have moved to Seattle now, which was the site of my pilgrimage 25 years ago, now it is home. I thought about going back to the mountains, re-tracing the same route, but that idea has no roots to it. So I have just ignored it, up until now.
On somewhat of a whim, I wrote to Kurt Wilt, about his book, The Visionary, about Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow). He put me in touch with Joseph by email. I figured, what the heck, I’ll just write him and just say whatever comes out of my mouth. Joseph invited me down to visit him on the Southern Ute Reservation in Southern Colorado and I am writing this as I am on a flight from Denver back to Seattle. What a trip it was talking with Joseph. On the surface, it was to learn from him how to work with helping Veterans return home physically as well as spiritually from our wars, but it was also a spiritual journey for me, as well. And, when I realized that this trip to meet with Joseph was another “peak experience” on my journey, and that it honored my earlier trip 25 years ago – my heart sang with such joy!
I’ll write more in another blog about what I learned from Joseph, and I have a conceptual idea for another book and another class for Veterans based on our talks (I tape recorded much of our three days together). This blog entry is a more personal reflection – who was I 25 years ago? Who was that 21 year old in 1989 trying to find? Who did he become as he set off for medical school in the “big city” of Chicago? Who am I now? What am I grappling with internally? What template am I setting for the next 25 years of my life? Joseph spoke about cycles in a life, traumas, visions, “peak experiences, and events that recur on a certain cycle. What is this 25 year cycle about for me?
I had some major dreams on this trip, “big” dreams as Jung would call them. I spoke with Joseph about them, as well a “big” dream from my past. Visioning. How to envision what this next 25 years are about? I feel more confident, I have less fear, less neurosis (although that is one of the hobbies of the mind), I don’t fear death, but I am overflowing with ideas and concepts that are clamoring to come into physical form. I am just publishing my first book, I have a very rough draft of a second, an outline of a third, a brand new outline of a fourth after this weekend, as well as lecture notes from two classes that I’d like to edit into two books someday. The first half of my life was spent gathering experiences, trainings, travel, and reading, reading, reading. Now I feel the vessel is full – I have taken in a great deal, I have lived and studied, and now I have this tremendous need to move into action, to write books, to teach, to develop classes in order to metabolize, synthesize, and give back to the world what I have taken in from it. Up to this point, I have been cautious about trying to fit my writing into the mainstream of psychiatry and medicine. I view the publication of my book, Re-humanizing Medicine, as a signal that from here on out, I will seek to transform the mainstream of psychiatry and medicine. What drew me to the field was the work of psychiatrists like Carl G. Jung and M. Scott Peck, who blended the wisdom of the spiritual path with the clinical field of psychiatry. I can see that this is consistent with who I am and I see and sense a guiding pathway for how I can move forward along my path, not the path that others might say is most prudent. Another way of putting this is it has taken me 47 years to figure out who I am and what I need to address in my writing and now I feel an incredible pressure to get this all out into the world.
I feel like I should share something personal from my visit with Joseph. I’ll share this. The first morning in the hotel, I looked out at the Animas River (anima in Latin means soul), but it looked like there was a smudge on the window by my breakfast table. Upon closer inspection it was a frosted glass image of a hummingbird, and I jokingly said to myself, “look, there is my soul, flying around.”
I was thinking about the Native American totem animal, and wondering if that might be something I would speak with Joseph about. I had been reading Kurt Wilt’s section on discovering one’s animal. It turned out it was not something we talked about, which was ok. When the same bird lands on your head for no apparent reason, you don’t really need someone else to tell you that there is something to learn from the Nuthatch. Back to this story, though, the last thing Joseph did before I left was a ceremony with an eagle feather. I left his house after three super-charged days and I had some more daylight left that afternoon. The old neurosis had been raising its head – I wanted to get up into the mountains while I was in Colorado and my mind had been running through a bunch of different possibilities: Mesa Verde National Park, the San Juan National Forest, Animas Mountain, maybe that would be a fitting place to go since the Animas River ran through where the hotel was in Durango, Ignacio near where Joseph first lived, and Aztec New Mexico, where we went on a field trip to see the ancient dwellings there.
I came to accept, on a different level, what I have always viewed as my back and forth neurotic tendency. Joseph explained that with our face and our eyes, we are always entering, moving forward into experience and the world, but we also back up, which is receiving, and that these two movements must both happen and support each other. He made a big point of this movement in many of the dances, the forward and backward movement. So, now I have a different paradigm from which to view my moving back and forth, such as driving to Ignacio for what seemed like a fruitless meeting (although I saw such a beautiful sky, sun and clouds),
then driving past where Joseph lives since I had some time before meeting him, then driving back to meet him, then driving back the way I had gone earlier and turned around. This wasn’t pointless neurosis, it was also tracing out a backwards and forwards movement across the land, entering and receiving, taking in and metabolizing, coming into relationship with myself and the land. And then, even though I had made the choice to go to San Juan, I ended up not seeing the exit I had seen earlier and ended up at Mesa Verde and spent an amazing couple hours driving around the park. It is now fitting that I share some of those photos of Mesa Verde National Park, as I had been in the Olympic National Park 25 years ago.
But I never finished my story, at Mesa Verde, after the ceremony with the eagle feather, I saw, in the sunset clouds, the most beautiful vision of a vast eagle in the sunset (I was driving and couldn’t photograph it). Scientists and psychologists can take comfort in this being a projection of my mind as a meaningless unconscious association, but another explanation is that during my visit my soul had started as a little smudge of a hummingbird and grown to a glowing sky eagle with a wing span of many miles. For this next part of my life, I will choose the second explanation.
I’d like to end with a few quotes from my journal from 25 years ago:
Today I am born. I AM ALIVE. Today alone was worth the price and troubles of the trip. I am seated atop a mountain. The view is breathtaking and it is even more spectacular because I climbed up the whole damn thing! I passed snow in the shady spots coming up. Except for a couple of chirpers and a multitude of bugs…it is silent. What more could there be?
When nothing is lost
nothing is gained
When nothing is gained
things are not as they should be
Right now I am at Kyak.
Yesterday…well, there is that earlier entry. After that I went up still higher and a view opened up that was indescribable. I had been on the north face of the mountain and had been viewing the smaller mountains to the north. After I crossed over to the south side and climbed a bit higher, I could see the entire Olympic Range, along with snow/glacier covered Mount Olympus. Breathtaking is the only way to describe the section of mountain I stood on. There was about a 60 degree slope of about 150′ without trees. The only thing between the mountains and valleys beyond and myself was air. I stood and stared for quite a while. I think it would be hard to say that you had been alive if you have not seen something so spectacular.
By the time I had hiked 9.2 miles and found a decent site, I was in a foul mood once again. If I would have seen the guy who wrote that shit about nothing lost, nothing gained, I would have pushed him off a cliff. In the last dying light of the day I opened Zen Mind, Beginners Mind and the only word I could make out was “constancy.”
Yesterday was anything but constancy, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows…
When water comes to a tough spot, it yields and flows through, sure it may foam a lot and make a lot of noise, but in no time it continues on its way, calm and smooth.
I am here at Flapjack and this is the nicest campsite yet. It is on a small, sunny plain with a lot of birch trees. The river is broad and shallow here. The hike wasn’t too bad, but still my body aches, but it isn’t that bad. I saw a bald eagle soaring around today. I think I heard it earlier, but I couldn’t catch a glimpse of it. There are a lot of swallows or swifts flying about the river. When I got here it was so hot and sunny that I took off my shirt and put on a pair of shorts and wandered down to the river. I tried to wade in, but nearly fell over because all the rocks on the bottom are slippery as hell.
~ 9:30 AM: This morning is a glorious morning. I woke up a little while ago because I was hot, the 1st time since I left Illinois. The sun is shining on the side of the tent and it feels great in here. Every now and then a cool breeze comes through the flaps. There are a lot of low lying, misty clouds at about the level of the hill tops, hopefully the sun will burn those off. Today I think I will hike up the river and look for a secluded spot to take a dip, which would feel great about now. At least I will wash my hair today with my water bottle.
A battle has been going on all morning between the sun and the clouds. Right now the clouds appear to be winning, so I am just lying around camp now. I did wash my hair this morning it was cold and great!
These swallows seem to want to sing together, but always end up being a little off beat or they produce a different tone or pitch, but the effect is more beautiful than if it was planned.
Even though the clouds have carried the day, it is still beautiful out here. The greens have a more muted tone and there is a clear contrast between the lighter birch trees and the darker firs higher up. It is amazing the number of sounds I sometimes hear in the water. I don’t know if it is aural deprivation that makes me hear things or what. I often hear voices or footsteps or hollow clanking, like boats, and today I heard a Native American holy procession. It is easy to imagine how rivers and woods were thought to have spirits.
“We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.” (Thoreau)
I was sitting and reading a section of Thoreau, “On Higher Laws,” when the mist started descending down from the hills. I quickly made a fire, started my beans cooking, and put everything inside the tent. I put on my rain suit and alternately watched the fire or the mist for about an hour. It was really something to see. My rain suit got damp, but there were never any visible drops falling. I saw an eagle, flying much lower this time, go off into the mist between the hills. It would have made a great Japanese painting, if only I was a great Japanese painter. I ate my beans, they were great, and I opened up my tortillas and had a few of those. It is hard to believe, but my food is finally down to a small, manageable weight. Now I am lying in my tent, digesting my dinner. It has stopped being wet outside, but it is still cloudy.
“To be passing is to live: to remain and continue is to die.” (Watts)
“If you look at it carefully, you will see that consciousness- the thing you call ‘I’- is really a stream of experiences, of sensations, thoughts and feelings in constant motion. But because these experiences include memories, we have the impression that ‘I’ is something solid and still like a tablet upon which life is writing a record.” (Watts)
Today has been a day entirely devoid of human beings. I didn’t even realize this until just now.