Unplugging, or “practicing mindfulness in the desert”

Unplugging, or “practicing mindfulness in the desert” June 10, 2016


I’m off tomorrow for a week off the grid. Or, more truthfully, about 3.5 days of driving and camping with 3.5 days trekking through some of the remoter gullies and gulches of southern Utah with three good friends and three soon-to-be good friends.

Mindfulness will be on the menu, though it is a hard thing to avoid when your life is on your back, the sun is hot overhead, and one missed step could mean a sprained ankle (or worse) and hours, if not days, of pain. Once you get the basic situational awareness needed to stay injury free, another aspect of “present mindfulness” makes itself seen: the intricate beauty of the land.

This will be my first time backpacking in the desert, but in wooded hikes I recall the distinct feeling of being on the chest of some “greater” organism. Especially near flowing water, with wind moving through the trees, the rising and falling of the breath of this great being made itself known. With a few days in wilderness that connection between oneself and this organism called nature builds and strengthens. With a few days back out in cars and cities and busyness the connection slowly withers.

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Even if not in the woods or the desert, just walking (without your head in your smartphone) can have the bright and freeing effect of shaking off some of the cobwebs of daily life. Observing the changing of the leaves over the seasons, connecting with neighbors, human and non-human, observing the flow of clouds in the sky. All of these, repeated diligently and regularly, can make room for great thoughts.

Socrates was known for his walking and wandering nature. Aristotle’s school of philosophy, too, walked the colonnades of the Lyceum where he taught, earning his followers the term peripatetic, meaning “walking about.” Kant was famous for his prompt daily strolls late in life around his home city of Koningsberg, so much so that it is joked that the city’s residents could set their clocks by his passing.

In the Eastern world, one is hard pressed to think of a great thinker who lived a settled, sedentary life. The Buddha was one of an apparently widespread movement of “drop-outs” from society, the sramanas, or wanderers.


It’s not so hard to get out for a walk. We’re all too busy, I know. We’re busy on facebook and watching TV and shopping and worrying about that thing we must do before that supposed deadline.

But give it a try.

And try to make a habit of it. Many of the happiest times in my life were when I made a habit of walking, either around the winding roads and cemeteries and green spaces of Bristol, England, or the hillside near my college campus in Missoula, Montana, or the hills south or west of my hometown of Helena, MT.

And then try to get out for a couple days here or there. My friends here who won’t be headed to southern Utah with us are themselves hosting a couple from Texas next weekend who have never camped. Ask a friend yourself. Car camping is fine – as a start. Gear malfunctions (or poor planning) leading you to have to sleep in the car or drive to the nearest hotel aren’t the worst thing in the world. Go through a few of those, get things sorted. Then go into the back-country, ideally with more experienced folks who can argue over landmarks and map points while you catch your breath and connect to the breath of the earth.

You’ll be glad you did.

See ya in a week.

(Tell me about your walks while I’m gone, and I’ll tell you about mine when I get back)

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