Like Buddha in a Forest

Howdy kiddos! I have returned from my journey into the forest, rested and relaxed and---no word of a lie---feeling utterly transformed. Me taking this time away from life caused no small amount of drama in my household. Many therapy sessions were had to discuss why I needed to get away from The Wife to Be Happy. She was not doing well with the notion that I was desperate to get away from her, which is how she saw it, and I was empathetic enough to understand that and to tread lightly with her emotions. Gradually, I came to make her understand that it wasn't that I needed to get away from her; it was that I needed to rediscover myself. Holy shit, that last sentence was very Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. Sign me up for a EST class, stat.

Given our difficulties of late, I can now confess that, yes, at least part of this trip was to get away from her. I made the decision to do this immediately after we had a huge blow out so, initially at least, my need to flee was in reaction to that. But after I decided to go away and I really started thinking about it, I learned that what started out as a need to remove myself from a hostile situation morphed into an exciting opportunity for self reflection. I started thinking about how I would use the time and what I wanted to ponder while I was there.

I am the queen of distraction, a trait that's only gotten worse now that I don't have a job or deadlines or anyone telling me I have to do something. There is so much boredom in my life right now---I'm not working, I'm not hanging out with my friends, we don't have the money to go out or to go on vacation, I don’t have anything due, I'm not working toward anything. And because I seem to lack the gumption to self-start any of these great projects I've come up with, what that equals is a lot of free time.

And like most Americans, I'm not particularly good at sitting with my thoughts. The second I feel that boredom creeping in, I immediately search for my usual distractions; mainly, technology or mind-altering substances. Buddha teaches that we need to sit with our thoughts---even the shitty ones---because these thoughts, though painful, have something to teach us about ourselves in a transformative way. But like most of us, the advent of the internet, followed by the insidious invention of smartphones, has made it incredibly easy for us not to have to spend a minute with ourselves if we don't want to.

So in that half-second when I feel the boredom creep in, I start searching for anything and everything that will distract me from sitting with myself---I smoke weed, I go drinking, I lie in bed and watch hours of Netflix, I dick around on Facebook for an embarrassing amount of time each day. Hell, even when I'm not home---even when I'm just sitting on the bench outside my coffeeshop every morning having my first cigarette of the day---I can't be content to just sit and observe; I pull out my phone and check out what's happening in my virtual world.

My friend was nice enough to let me use his cabin up near Tahoe. So I decided: no television, no phone, no internet, no people, no booze, no pills, no sound. Just me and myself. For 10 days. I had absolutely no idea how my mind would take to these conditions, but I decided to just go and to sit with myself, utterly devoid of distractions, and see what I learned.

This is typically as much interaction with nature that I'm comfortable with. 

So I loaded up the car with a bunch of shit, headed three hours northeast, and hunkered down in a lovely house in the midst of a pine forest. And I sat. And the first day was a little hard. I'd sit down, smoke a cigarette and force myself to be present…for about .6 seconds. Then I found my mind immediately jumping, searching for my next distraction, wanting to grab a drink, smoke a bowl, jump on my phone, watch a mindless show. I started paying attention to what my brain does when it's "bored," and it made me realize just how many times a day it starts bouncing around like a pinball looking for whatever shiny object will distract me.

But by the second day, I'd eased into this whole doing-nothing thing. As I sat on the porch, stared at the rain dripping off the pine needles after a mid-afternoon rainy cloudburst, and listened to the cacophonous bullfrogs singing their endless song, I finally gave myself time to think about the biggies: What do I want my life to look like? What do I want for myself? Who am I and what do I stand for? What will be my legacy? What kind of a partner do I want to be from this point forward? How can I do Life better? In short, I guess I'm trying to find a way to live my life more meaningfully, and I don't know yet what that looks like. As someone who prides herself on being self aware, I seem to be woefully underdeveloped in my knowledge of who I really am and what I want from life.

Do others struggle with this notion? Or are most of us just so busy trying to make a living, find a job, buy a house, raise our kids, save for retirement, keep our marriages intact, get dinner on the table to worry about such ethereal things? Is my navel-gazing nothing more than simple self-indulgence, a luxury? Am I making things harder than they have to be? Should I just cave to the corporate job again? Accept the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, I certainly don't have it that bad? I have a loving wife, I have a solid roof over my head. I can afford to buy and have the time to make a variety of good food for myself and for those around me. No one is bombing me or raping me or shooting at me. We have clean water and indoor plumbing. We have a warm place to sleep at night.

I'm aware that these things already put me above 90 percent of the planet in terms of what can be called "an easy life." Then why do I continue to struggle so? What is it I need from myself? From those around me? From life? What is it that keeps me from examining my surroundings and saying "This. This is enough"? What happened to that blithe, easily contented young woman who sailed through her twenties and thirties without a care in the world? Is this sort of introspection something that comes with age (aka, the dreaded "midlife crisis")? Or am I unnecessarily complicating matters? Socratessaid (or maybe it was Plato---you'd think I would know by now, having dated two philosophers and being the daughter of one) "The unexamined life is not worth living." Is that true? Or is everyone else out there blissfully living life without a thought for the world and their place in it, happy and content in their lack of outer vision? Is ignorance truly bliss?

By the fourth day, I was in a groove. I'd already THREE BOOKS. And I was getting better at forcing myself to be present. I didn't just slap together dinner---I paid attention to the crisp, solid noise my chef's knife made as it sliced through dozens of Brussels sprouts or the aromatic masala rising up from the tea I made with Turkish black tea, coconut milk, star of anise, cinnamon, allspice, fennel, and cardamom.

Then the weekend came, and with it came the posse of gays who own the two houses on the property where I was staying, and my quietude was momentarily disrupted. The house was full of gay boys who, at the end of a long day on the slopes, stripped down nekkid, and threw themselves into the hot tub with reckless abandon. I had to laugh. Only I could go for a monkish retreat deep in the woods and have a gay hot-tub party break out. I was surprised to find the intrusion was more unwelcome than I thought it would be---I figured I'd be desperate for human interaction after four days of solitude, but by the time the houses emptied out again on Monday, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and welcomed the silence ricocheting off the lonely walls.

Additionally, I am happy to report that I missed my wife muchly. I was nervous that I'd get out there, plop down on the porch, light a cigarette, and think "Thank god, I've got some space." But nope, I missed the hell out of her. While I was enjoying long hours spent reading or soaking in the hot tub with a glass of wine or a joint, there was definitely a part of me that was sad I wasn't sharing it with her. She would have loved watching the herd of deer that wandered onto the property every night around dinnertime or having a moonlight soak in the tub.

Hard not to contemplate the meaning of life while relaxing in a hot tub surrounded by nature.

Oh dear...deer!

While I missed her, I wouldn't have traded by mini-vacay for the world. It has absolutely done what it was supposed to, which was to revitalize, recharge, and reset my balance point. Sometimes you gotta get away to break away. I can't believe how different I feel. I have come back feeling stronger, happier, and more ready to dive into whatever difficulties life might throw my way. Turns out my shrink was right: I am a person who needs this precious time alone to reset myself from time to time.

I dunno y'all, the concept of breaking away from all technology and spending time somewhere quiet is something we don't do enough of here. And I can report that if you are one of the people who doesn't do this from time to time, you should rethink that strategy. It allowed me to think about the shit that isn't working in my life, how my habits affect my ability to deal with those things, and to just sort of think "enough." Enough hand-wringing, navel-gazing, and making everything harder than it has to be. Less thinking; more doing.

To that end, I came home ready to be a better partner to The Wife and ready to Get Shit Done. We're having a massive garage sale with the neighbors in a couple of weeks. We've been talking for months about how we need to clean closets, kitchen cabinets, and the garage; yet, we've failed to actually get anything done. This weekend we knocked out the office closet and all of the kitchen cabinets. It's like a light switch has turned on, and I'm like "Right, this is what it's like to be a normal, functioning human again. I remember this." It's sort of incredible, and who am I to question it?

So all in all, a very successful ten days. My advice: get away from your normal life on the reg. It doesn't have to be some expensive Bahamian vacation. Just so long as you put down your devices, remove your other daily distractions, and sit quietly with yourself. You'll be pleasantly surprised at what you might learn.