The rushing of water was all I could hear, all I could hear until the little bird landed on a rock and shot out its crystalline call. Its rock-shaded body dipped and bounced with its dark bead eyes focused on me. Somehow its voice was clear over the overwhelming water noise. I couldn’t tell why it might care to point at me, I couldn’t imagine I seemed like a threat and it would have been hard to believe that its home was hidden in the rocks I stood in. Maybe it was some kind of underwater dweller but it seemed more likely that I should take some thread it seemed to have attached to me with its voice and let it show me something.
I needed to think, I needed to get away and maybe not be seen for a bit. The little bird didn’t have a human mind behind its bird eyes so I thought the nature of the forest would look at me without any humanity. That suited me, and that is why the woods seemed like the correct place to get away to. To be in the trees with some drippy moss would do the trick is there was any trick I knew to do.
It wasn’t that I really was troubled specifically. It was starting to become hard to tell if I was bothered by anything specific or if my mind had just learned to say “It could be good but its probably not”.
The water reached high on my legs as I gripped with my toes to the tiny edges. I knew it was cold but it didn’t feel cold. The bird beeped and then flew away. I wondered down the opposite bank wondering what I might find. I found a branch that had been lodged under a rock with one end in the splash of the current. It had worn itself into the clay and the clay had worn the branch into a sandy bow shape. A bit past this there was some rock pools under the yellowing leaves of some Maple trees. It gave me the idea to create a hot tub. I knew I’d have the time, I had planned to be out for at least a week with only some meditating and thinking on the agenda. It seemed like the right kind of task to keep my body active while my mind could relax. I crawled up the bank into the woods and found that everything was too wet to move through comfortably. I didn’t want to get soaked right away so I set down my pants that I had not put back on after crossing the river in a dry nook so I could explore the Ceders and Salmon Berry without soaking the cotton. I immediately felt more a native when moving in just a T-shirt and underwear. It was cold but not very if I kept moving. I could easily duck and slip through the undergrowth and I began moving towards a clearing I saw a few hundred meters through the trees.
I came to the edge and saw that the clearing was just the river again as it made a large oxbow to nearly encircle the little patch of woods. It was a bit disheartening to have to return the same way back so I moved down some slippery logs and onto the bank. I climbed onto a log jam and smiled a big grin. There was clay, a whole hill of it sliding into the river behind a fortress of logs. I knew at-once that this could be a perfect spot. After I found a drier area under a Hemlock I went back to find my pants and my backpack.
I was a bit alarmed on my way back across the river to find that it had risen a few inches. It had rained hard a few minutes off and on but I didn’t expect that to change the water level. The air of the place began to feel darker and wetter so I set my mind to get ready for night. I gathered wood off the log jam before the rain completely soaked it and by the time the light faded I was tired and hungry.
I felt an emptiness creeping into my chest just like the water had risen after the rain. The last I had checked the river was up by at least a foot. I often feel that emptiness when going to sleep in a new place if it is quiet and quite alone. I felt it and didn’t call it bad, I just don’t tend to think its about here and now. I felt it many nights while I was traveling and I have felt it other times I have been alone in the woods. If I am occupied it is kept at bay but after dinner is made and sleep is between me and the next day it can creep in. I think its like a memory of something that I don’t remember in my mind. Its not true now but still likes to exist. I said “I feel alone” to myself and it slipped a little away. I think it survives because it doesn’t have a name. It’s not really a feeling that can live in the light so I gave it a name, loneliness, and it started to leak away.
The morning was easy with plenty of sun and soon enough I was building my hot tub and my mind was busy with wondering how best to heat the contraption and if there was any way to make it extra durable against the water. I enjoyed the warmer weather and listened to the simple messages. I would rest if I got tired and eat when I felt hungry. I thought about the kind of routines I wanted to practice.
Before I had left my mind was dull all over and sharp in the wrong places. I was finding it hard to form healthy routines the ways I had learned in the past. I began to feel like I was standing on the sidelines. This muddled mentality was one thing that was clear to me. I tried to change it. I tried to think positive thoughts and turn negative spirals into something moving forward but my mind kept in the ruts until I realized I knew just what to do. It came to mind that I felt like I didn’t know what to do but that actually I knew what I wanted and I already had a blueprint for getting there. The confusion and frustration acted as some kind of band aid so I wouldn’t have to face the fact that I knew how to regain some breathing room in my head. I didn’t know why I had not realized earlier. I had just spent 8 months learning about healthy habits for me. Traveling had taught me many tools I could use. Those are the routines that made traveling so rich for me and had brought me back home with such a sense of calm.
The first tool was gratitude. While I was traveling I grew a strong routine of focusing on what I was thankful for and on savoring my experiences. I had so much time and simple activities became significant. I would take the time to taste my meals, to focus on experiencing what my senses were telling me only lead to greater depths of experience. Over time it became natural for my mind to focus on the positive and simply notice the negative in passing. The positive being experiences that were easy to enjoy and the negative being experiences I didn’t enjoy.
The second tool was focus, I think of focus as the ability to hold a single thread, a specific thought in my mind. The longer and clearer I can hold the thought the more focus I have. While I was traveling I would try to think of poems in my head and only write it down once I had finished it or I would practice visualizing something specific. I would try to stretch my ability to visualize by doing things I could not do normally. Like seeing an object from more than one angle at the same time or I liked to try to intentionally change the things I imagined. I was always baffled by how hard it was for me to change what I saw in my imagination on purpose. Sometimes the object would change into something else and I couldn’t quite get it the way I was trying to choose.
I would also practice focus by thinking through questions. When I was in transit between towns I would have a lot of time to think on the buses so I would save things to think about for those times. Over time I got a lot better at remembering what I wanted to think about later. It’s a useful skill for me because I often want to write about something but I forget the details or the entire premise before I get to writing.
The third tool is to give my mind a break from active thinking. It can be easy for me to get caught on certain thoughts if I don’t have ways to shake my mind off the topic. If I was riding on a bus for 12 hours it would be really hard to have enough energy to keep my mind happy and moving forward the whole time without breaks. I usually used music and sometimes audio books to help me zone out.
The fourth tool is to introduce my mind to new ideas. I could do this through audio books, deeper conversations, or other thought provoking experiences. It was important in helping my mind to move forward. It would give me avenues and new perspectives on old questions. It is definitely something I can get too much of also. I can take in more information than I can adequately process.
The fifth tool is a breathing meditation focused more on not thinking actively. Some of the other tools are probably other kinds of meditation but it seems like having different kinds helps me.
There are many skills I like to practice but these have proven to be really helpful in establishing a kind of stable framework for me. It’s easy to have a poor balance but that’s also easy to know when it happens because I feel it immediately. I add these elements in and it seems to really help level out my thinking and move my brain out of unhealthy feeling spirals.
I am continuing to learn about how to maintain a healthy mind. I think there are probably things I’ve left out but this is because I am not done learning and crystallizing what I know about this.
As the days went on I added these tools into my day. I savored my meals however simple, I sang a song and gave thanks for as many parts as were on a Ceder frond before dinner, I meditated in various ways, I listened to audio books, I did carving projects to allow my mind to rest and I wrote a little bit each night to help me remember more of the details of each day. The thing I really went out on a limb for was if somehow I could compress what I practiced for many months while traveling into a week in the woods.
Strangely enough by the last night out in the woods I didn’t feel any lighter or much less fuzzy-headed. The point of this time in the woods was to give my mind a chance to get back into more positive, and all round healthier patterns. It was hard to notice much change. I thought it would be a gradual trend of growing thankfulness and a less cluttered feeling mind. I didn’t expect it to feel very much the same on the last night as the first night but then feel the changes I was looking for as I walked out of the woods.
I didn’t expect the transition to be such an important part of the process for me. I wonder now if I would have had the same experience if I had not left and come back. Would I have felt like a different person if I had practiced the same routines without a form of transition? This is a question I’m left with as a continue to savor the quieter mind I still have access to. I will likely need these ways of reestablishing routines many more times in my life and each time I hope to understand more of the mysteries of how my mind works.