I was originally going to call this post “A Recipe for Ordinary Wonder.” I’ve already written about wonder here, and while I think it’s essential, it remains a little ephemeral. It slips beyond the edges of our understanding. I feel the medicine of this particular moment needs to be earthy, grounded, real. Needs to be practical enough to lift us out of our fear and isolation. It needs to come in bite sized pieces, like good dark chocolate.
I’m a horse and nature based teacher. Or rather I was, until the recommendations for social distancing led me to decide to cancel my spring break camps and enter self imposed quarantine as I’ve taught students from all over the Sea to Sky corridor (and the world, via Whistler) over the last two weeks. Yesterday while picking out the paddocks, I asked myself this question: if I’m not able to teach in person– to create the kind of meaning filled and deeply felt transformative encounters between horses, humans and land I feel we so badly need right now– what can I offer through other means that can give people the skills to create experiences for themselves?
There’s a lot of writing swirling around about reconnecting and seeking stillness right now. What I think we’re being invited to do is to expand our consciousness past our own perspective. To broaden it past the narrow road of our individual lives and the lives of our families; to open to the collective whose voices move close against the boundaries we’ve made around ourselves. As I write this, an image comes into my mind of a dog shaking its head: one of those proper shakes where their ears flap up against the sides of their skull, and you can almost hear their brain rattling around in there, rearranging their neural pathways.
These times we’re in are like that. We’re being shaken out of our patterns. We can choose to steel ourselves against what’s happening and create more rigidity in response to change (which we know we’re going to see a lot more of in this lifetime…) or we can get curious and explore it as an adjustment in our perspective, an ear shake that opens us to something wider than what we were.
I want to give you a set of tools, something real and grounded and simple, that you can play with. Play with these with your kids. Pull one out each day and see where it takes you. You don’t need anything special. Just your body and the body of the world. Some of them might seem a little silly. That’s on purpose. They’re meant to enliven the younger parts of ourselves. That’s often where our biggest perspective shifts lie and where the more authentic parts of ourselves are buried. They’re also meant to give us the kind of connection we crave right now, an empathetic, felt sense of being known by an other. It’s just that, in this case, “the other” isn’t human. Even better! Nature is endlessly forgiving of our bumbling attempts to re-mind ourselves of our relationship with her. There’s no judgement here. Think of these exercises as lighthearted games, little valentines we can exchange with the more-than-human-world that surrounds us.
If you try these, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments. Share your valentines with me. (I promise I won’t judge you either. ❤ )
- Take off your shoes. And your socks. Find a patch of ground that looks warm and safe and inviting and stand on it. If you want more, go for a little walk. If you’ve tried a warm and inviting patch of ground already, try standing on snow. Try pavement. Try mud. Try exploring a liminal zone by walking from a shadow to sunlight, and track the differences in temperature with the bottom of your feet. Want to level up? Watch my video, “Place Based Walking,” for some ideas. Or walk on some gravel for a free acupressure session. (Top tip: touching the earth barefoot grounds and stabilizes the electromagnetic systems in the body. It literally rewires us to attune to the larger electromagnetic field of the earth, which helps us to come closer to a state of heart and brain coherence. Think of this as your antidote to all the wireless technology we’re saturated with, and the true savasana with which to end your online yoga class.)
- Let yourself be touched. The next time you’re out on a trail– or in your backyard, for that matter– notice the shrubs and trees that lean close to the edge of the path. It may be an errant twig that brushes across your cheek, or a cottonwood limb that’s come down across the over the course of winter. Or perhaps a low hanging cedar branch that brushes the top of your head and releases its scent. Just before you move out of the way, stop. Let yourself come into contact with this tree. You are nature touching nature. See how many different trees, bushes and branches you can let make contact with. Try not to do it on purpose. What happens if you turn off the path and into thick brush? Is it easier to find the gentlest way through? Is there something in your walking that becomes a kind of dance? An intimate exchange with the life forms we’ve believed to be inanimate all around us? What thoughts do we dance with in our psychic space in this same way? What reaches always toward us, yet remains unnoticed? What do we cut through in order to continue to travel in the direction we want to go? What does it take for us to be touched by a different part of nature in this way? A rock? A lake? How would we have to move our bodies to make contact?
- Fall in love with something small. Go outside. You can go to your favourite patch of woods or rock or field, or give yourself a challenge and start on a sidewalk or in the middle of your street. Your goal now is to wander. To meander with no destination in mind until something tiny calls your attention and makes you stop. Look down in the direction of your feet and keep your eyes soft. Look at the trunks of the trees. Look at everything without really looking at it. Keep your attention soft, like a photograph that’s not quite in focus. Wander until something, of its own accord, pulls your attention toward itself. It might be a bright green wolf lichen, or a pattern the compression of the snow has left in last summer’s dried grass. It might even be a chocolate bar wrapper with half of its colour worn away, held to the ground by a fallen stick. Once something tiny calls you awake, then give yourself to it entirely. Bend down and get close. Learn everything you can about it without causing harm. Then stand up, zoom out again, let your attention go soft, and start wandering again until something else calls to you. If you’re with your family or a friend for this, tell each other something you love about the tiny thing you discovered without giving away its identity. See if they can guess what it was. (Top tip: if you can cultivate this kind of “falling in love outside of yourself”, this sense of your attention being called to something of its own accord, it’s the best state of consciousness for finding mushrooms and other medicinal plants, and a profound way to activate our intuition. This form of listening to the being-ness of the world has been essential to the survival and evolution of human beings up until the last hundred years or so, when we started to place our emphasis on the rational, linear parts of our cognition.)
- Look up. Go to where there is nothing a human has made between you and the sky and look up. Bring a blanket and lie on a rock and look up. Let the sun heat your eyes behind your closed lids. Sit with your back against a tree and trace the line its trunk makes on the way to the sky with your gaze. Follow that line out into the crown of the tree, as if you were drawing the lines of each branch into the sky with your mind. Or look at clouds and then trace them in your mind’s eye in this same way. At night, look up at the stars. Imagine you are sailing on a ship a thousand years ago and this is the only map you have to guide you into the unknown. Learn a few constellations, or trace lines between the stars and make up your own patterns and give them names. Learn a star or a constellation as a family and know that every time you go outside and look up at it, you are connected. Look up. We need to remember the world is bigger than us again. (PS: I have a secret theory I have only anecdotal evidence to prove, but I’m still going to share it with you anyways: I think looking up in this way– actively tracing and engaging the muscles of our eyes in unfamiliar patterns of movement, specifically looking up into the worlds that exist above the plane human live on– causes our vagus nerve (and our autonomic nervous system, which governs our heart rate, breathing, digestion, hormone levels, AND THEREFORE OUR STRESS RESPONSE) to shift from fight/flight/freeze back to social engagement.)
- Leave a gift. Make something beautiful out of some bits of nature you find around you. (Three year olds are great at this, as they haven’t yet been trained out of this kind of reciprocity with their environment. ) Arrange a line of pinecones that marches across your street and makes someone else wonder. Create a spiral made out of pine needles for the wind to blow away. Line up twenty sticks from longest to shortest. Write “I love you” in pebbles across the valley trail. It doesn’t have to be profound, and it doesn’t have to be ‘Art’. Making and creativity are part of the basic tenants of humanity. Nature is always taking chaos and creating something more complex and more beautiful. How can we invite some of this elemental and playful creativity into our lives? How do we share our energy with others in ways that add to the glorious mystery of the natural world? Be inspired by the ephemeral earthworks created by Andy Goldsworthy or the morning altars offered by Day Schildkret, but don’t get trapped by the idea that your gift has to be a grand gesture. Gratitude, giving, and making are ancient parts of our being. Make something now, in this field where we’re standing, with just the materials of the field itself, for nature herself to wonder about.