From INTO THE WILDERNESS: A 12 Month Guide Clearing the way for a STILL/WILD practice
You can move through the following twelve sections in whatever order you choose, with the exception of this one. It’s important to begin here. First, you’ll find a meaningful place in which to practice, and then you’ll learn some foundational exercises to help you on your way.
Find and Claim your Sacred Space
Though I’m speaking metaphorically when I talk about going into the Wilderness, it is necessary to find a place or space in which to establish your practice. Obviously your practice isn’t dependant on a singular place, and eventually, the work you do in the Wilderness will become so deeply ingrained that where you practice won’t matter nearly so much as it does in the beginning.
But for now, it’s very helpful to have a place that you return to again and again, even if it’s a corner of your living room. Whatever place you choose becomes your portal to the Wilderness. You’ll need a place in which you won’t be disturbed, and where you can safely and comfortably sit with your eyes closed. This place could be anywhere, though I strongly suggest getting out into the great outdoors when you can. There is something to be said about being surrounded by the wild beauty, profound quietude, and massive strength of nature, all of which you will inevitably absorb if you spend time in the literal wilderness.
My own practice started at Montgomery Bell State Park near my home in Tennessee. In addition to lovely trails and streams, there is a little stone chapel in the park, in which I have spent countless hours these past few years.
If you don’t live within driving distance of a state park or some such, perhaps there’s a park near your home, or a body of water, or a corner of your yard. If going outside isn’t possible for whatever reason, you might consider building a small and personal alter in your bedroom, on which you place things that make you feel alive, hopeful, comforted, connected. Look for, or create, a place that feels as if it holds some sort of magic for you.
Find your place (or let it find you) and make it your own. It’s not mandatory, but it can be very helpful to choose somewhere you can revisit again and again, as your relationship with this place will deepen over time.
In this guide, I won't be teaching you to practice a traditional form of meditation or centering prayer, per se, even though you’ll look like you’re meditating when doing the Wilderness exercises. Instead, I’ll be teaching you techniques that are a prelude to a more formal Still practice (for which there is no substitute, incidentally). While I urge you to incorporate meditation into your practice as soon as you can, it may be that you have to practice the Wilderness Exercises for a few weeks before you’re able to even consider a silent meditation, in which your goal will be to quiet the mind. In my experience, the exercises very naturally turn into a purer form of meditation.
In the early days of my Wilderness experience, I often engaged in both a silent meditation (or centering prayer) and the exercises. I generally had the little stone chapel at Montgomery Bell State Park to myself and, for my traditional meditation practice, I sat on one side of the chapel. When I switched over to the Wilderness exercises, I moved to the other side of the chapel. This worked for me, and you’ll find what works for you.
These two exercises are foundational. The first exercise allows you to check in with yourself in a deep way—something we don’t do often enough. The second exercise introduces you to your wild selves. Be not afraid, and remember that you don’t have to change or fix them; you just have to listen to them and hear what they have to say. Remember also your watchwords: Awareness, Acceptance, Love.
Wilderness Exercise #1: Scanning the Physical, Emotional, and Mental Bodies
Sit quietly and close your eyes. Do a quick body scan. Pay attention to your body, from your toes to the top of your head. Are you hurting anywhere? Tense? Tingling with energy? Take time to check in with yourself. If you find pockets of physical pain or tension, breathe into those places and consciously try to relax them. In the beginning, you might find that your body is really, really tired. Even though we’re quite good at outrunning our exhaustion (for a while), it’s never, ever a good idea to do so. If you can’t stay awake long enough to make it through the exercises, carve out time in your busy schedule for rest and relaxation, and give your body the rest it needs. Then come back to the exercises as soon as you can. If you’re this tired, recognize the fact that you’re pushing too hard, there is a health issue you need to see to, or there are people or situations in your life that are draining you. It is vitally important to identify and modify/eliminate your energy drains.
Next, scan your emotional body. (This is when things start to get interesting.) Name your emotional state(s). You might find that you feel sad. Or excited. Or angry, ashamed, frightened, excited, nervous. Don’t rush—in the beginning, especially, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact emotion(s) you’re feeling. Set the intention and wait, listen. Always, in the Wilderness, the less you think the better. Ask, and practice emptying your mind. You might be surprised by what emerges. At this point, you don’t have to understand why you feel the way you do, you just have to identify the feelings. Be patient. In no time at all, this part of your practice becomes second nature.
Finally, check in with your mental body. For every emotional state you experience, there is a thought looping in your mind. So, for every emotional state you identify, it’s important to identify its corresponding thought pattern. For instance, if you get quiet and discover that you feel a sense of shame, listen closely for the thought you’re having that animates that emotion. “I made a fool of myself when I spoke up at today’s meeting,” for instance.
After you’ve completed this initial exercise, it’s time to introduce yourself to your wild selves.
Wilderness Exercise #2: Meet and Tame Your Wild Selves
Long before I went into the Wilderness, I used to joke about my alter ego, whom I called “Fea.” I blamed Fea for all of my irrational, fear-based behavior. When I went into the Wilderness, it became very apparent that Fea was much more real than I had imagined, in that she represented a very real, and completely out-of-control aspect of myself—one who had immense influence in my life. I was shocked by how destructive and, most of all, how utterly terrified she was. Recently, I wrote to a friend about my initial few weeks in the Wilderness:
In the beginning, I did my work this way: I would close my eyes and imagine the different aspects of myself sitting across from me at a table: I would talk to Fea who, in the beginning, was usually curled up in the fetal position sobbing. I also would talk to my dependent, child-like self, who was afraid to strike out on her own, convinced, as she was, that she needed other people on whom to depend in order to be safe in the world. I would ask them questions and hear what they had to say. Sometimes the work was a part of a silent meditation, and sometimes I wrote down questions and answers. After a few weeks of that, they all calmed down. Mostly, they needed to be heard, and I needed to be aware of how powerfully they influenced my everyday life so that I could mitigate their influence. Now when I close my eyes, they are all quiet, healthy and relaxed. They used to be in control, but now I am–not because I whipped them into submission, but because I listened, deeply, and brought all that fear to the Light. This might sound whacky, but it is this sustained practice that has changed everything for me. And, I promise I’m not schizophrenic! I just think in terms of archetypes.
This, then, is what I urge you to do: Close your eyes and imagine sitting at a round table, surrounded by these various aspects of yourself (many of whom might be very agitated in the beginning). If you’re struggling with something in particular, ask to be introduced to the self that has the most influence in that area of your life.
Let’s say that in doing the first Wilderness exercise (scanning the emotional body) you discover deep pockets of shame around something that happened recently at work. Sitting at the table you’ve conjured up in your mind’s eye, ask to speak to the part of yourself that is obsessing about the experience. When she appears, look closely at her body language. Is she slumped over? Tearful? You can tell a lot by how she presents. In other words, you can quickly get a sense of how much shame you’re carrying around by noticing how weighted or defeated or even paralyzed this aspect of yourself appears. Ask her how she’s feeling and what she’s afraid of, and then listen. This might seem clunky and unnatural at first, but try it anyway, and then try it again. You’ll be surprised by what you learn, and by how much power these parts of you wield. They can shut you down, rile you up, or paralyze you, depending.
Now let’s say you did a quick scan and uncovered some anger. Close your eyes, take a seat at your round table, and look across at the aspect of yourself that needs your attention. Perhaps this wild self is far too agitated to sit down (because sometimes they are.) Perhaps he’s angry that you’ve ignored him for so long. Perhaps he’s still carrying around inordinate amounts of rage concerning a past injustice. Perhaps it becomes clear that he’s not going to leave you alone until you deal with him. Maybe he needs to scream and rage and cry. He might even smash your table to bits. Let him. Listen to him, cry for him, give him a voice. Once you’re sure he’s said all he needs to say, you can speak to him reassuringly, but not before.
What all of these various aspects of yourself need most is to be heard. Every time you take the time to listen to them and, eventually, to reassure them, you let more Light in. As you do, they release their stranglehold on you.
The “wild selves” exercise is extraordinarily useful in terms of identifying the negative and/or repetitive thoughts that run like looping tapes in your mind. It’s also useful for identifying the disempowering emotions (anger, grief, guilt, boredom, fear etc.) that create your feeling tone minute-by-minute, day-by-day. Remember, your thoughts create your general feeling tone, which determines the quality of your life. Pay attention, listen, let in the Light.
Work with these exercises all month, or move on to whatever section calls to you next. Wherever you go from here, take these exercises with you.