Journal Musings Walking

Sit Still and Listen

At the urging of Beth, from The Cassandra Pages, I am reposting a post I put up Facebook earlier today. It came to me while I was walking to the train station near my house:

I’ve been trying to figure it out, why it is the “hiking” concerned with making miles and reaching summits has never really fulfilled “the call” inside me. I think I figured it out. Two weeks ago when leading the overnight Moonlight Hike from Mt. Jinba to Mt. Takao (just to the west of Tokyo), I met a new friend, Damon Mckinlay, from Damon Bay Photography. There was one moment during the walk, when we heard a strange call. Damon thought at first it was a giant flying phalanger (giant flying squirrel), but a few moments later discovered the frog calling from inside a rain barrel. He named it and described its life cycle to everyone, which I already knew. What struck me was how attuned he was to the surroundings, something that reminded me of my younger days. I used to get up before dawn, to wander the parks and woods and spend intense hours observing and learning, by direct viewing, everything I could about the natural world. And I was extremely knowledgeable. I was shocked during the hike and watching Damon, by how much I’d lost over the years as I got older, how much I’d let go, knowledge and experience that even today I hold as some of the best of myself. I used to go on very long, deeply immersive walks and bicycle rides that had little to do with getting somewhere or checking off a peak from a list. I was in love with the natural world. I’ve lost that. And I have to try to find it again. Slow walks and sitting still and looking, listening, smelling, tasting, touching, and waiting. I have to be inside the world again.

Thanks, Damon.

Here are the replies on Facebook:

Beth Adams, James Castleberry, Bärbel Makrutzki and 13 others like this.

Dale Favier: It’s amazing to me how easily the impulse to do something profoundly centering and important can be overlaid and eventually completely overwritten by the ambition to make some number, or be able boast of something in a sentence. How easily, say, a sitting meditation practice turns into wanting to be able to boast of sitting X minutes a day. It frightens me, how easily that happens. That’s how souls die, I think.
10 hours ago · Unlike · 3

Dale Favier: Anyway, what I meant to say — wonderful post!
10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

Miguel Arboleda: I think I’ve been aware of my soul dying for a long time. And it’s seems like I’ve been trying to fill the void with things like adding up the number of peaks I’ve bagged and scouring the Internet for hiking paraphernalia. But it’s always empty. I used to feel immense joy and a sense of completeness in my old walks. No one told me that it was what I was supposed to do; I just knew it, or felt it. And what was best about it was that my sense of self disappeared almost completely; I was, literally, “the world”.
10 hours ago via mobile · Like · 1

Dale Favier: I hear that. Though also I think we tend to remember more wholeness and joy than we actually had: I’m suspicious of believing too much in my golden past! Though whatever gets us to shake a little freer of “the world” is probably a good thing.
10 hours ago · Like

CNevin Thompson: I suppose if I were a comet, travelling along the elliptic, my moment of perihelion would have been the summer I was 31, just before our first son was born. Unfortunately, we humans do not get aphelion…
10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

Miguel Arboleda: Yes, I think I know what you mean. But I’ve never had a golden past, and have always been aware of great loneliness, bullying, and self-doubt. Even when I was 9 years old. To me, this joy in nature is not a state of perfection or silent timelessness. It is moving and ephemeral and fraught with hardship, danger, even death. But it feels right. I feel complete. And totally alive. Even today, when I slow down during my hikes, I always feel it, and can’t help myself laughing out loud, even singing. I do believe it is possible to live in synch with the living world. I think we’ve “thought ourselves out of” accepting that.
10 hours ago via mobile · Like · 1

Daniel Stuntz: Great post!
10 hours ago · Like

Bob Fourwheelbob Coomber: I write of that often – gauging a “good” trail day by mileage or whether you are first of a group to reach a summit…for me, I may hike a half mile and get in all the spiritual awakening I need. Whether from a flower, rock, animal or bird I find incredible beauty everywhere. And that frog? Surely would have made my hike memorable!
10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

Miguel Arboleda: Bob, you are another one if those people who seems to have incorporated that immersion into your life. Though I may not always comment, I read every one of your posts because of how you speak of it.

Some if the intense, beautiful, and peaceful moments in my life has been in a 20 meter square patch of garden when I was a boy. I learned more there than almost any other place I’ve been.
9 hours ago via mobile · Like

Viviana Lugo: That a very lovely statement
8 hours ago via mobile · Unlike · 1

Yohei Aoyagi: I agree. So I want the silence in the trail.
7 hours ago · Unlike · 1

Angela Beyer: Here here : ) when I was about 14 I had an awesome science teacher. One day he took the class to the bush behind the school. For that hour the lesson was to sit and listen. To hear as many birds and critters that we could – starting with the loud and close by… Then hearing those further away. It’s a fond memory and a technique I regularly use when walking or enjoying the wilderness : )
6 hours ago via mobile · Unlike · 1

Angela Beyer: Another time I was in Hokkaido with my bf and uncle. The bf (soon to be ex) had to climb Ashe Darke (the volcano thingy) to achieve yet another pin on his map. My uncle and I opted for a walk around the mountain and the beauty was spectacular! We sat on a rock next to 2 steam vents through the snow, drank coffee from a thermos and watched a bird in a surreal natural zen setting. I didn’t have a camera but that moment is etched in my mind forever – the serenity. My uncle and I often discuss that shared experience : ) Oh, The bf got photos of cloud… Not even a view for his efforts… And a tick in a box for mountains climbed lol.
6 hours ago via mobile · Unlike · 1

Miguel Arboleda: Nevin, do we not? I really wonder… Perhaps it’s not possible as hierarchy motivated, know-it-all ape.

Viviana, thanks. We live in a world that is far better than anything we could have up with.

Yohei, sometimes I want no trail, and no reason to be there. I don’t even want “me”, to spoil it.

Angela, since I met you in Victoria I’ve always loved the way you approached life. You don’t judge before you give something a try. The variety of your interests and experiences surprised me. You seem like someone who be happy anywhere.
4 hours ago via mobile · Like

Beth Adams: Miguel, please cross-post this wonderful and important post to your blog – I want to link to it for the Cassandra readers. It’s so crucial to get back to that deepest place inside us, to allow our soul to get back home. I’m glad Damon reminded you of things you already know, deep down; life makes us forget and wander away, but when the call comes clearly, we hear it.

Miguel Arboleda: Beth, thanks! I will. I was actually thinking on the train today, that I’d like to get back to writing these kinds of things on my blog again, and a little less often on FB. I’ll try to get up now, actually.

Japan: Living Journal Life In

Food for Diagnosis

It’s been a strange day today.

First, in the midst of reading what for me as a diabetic is an important book (important because so few books that I’ve read on diabetes have spoken soberly and without the sickening “Oh, poor widdle babykins, let Daddy kiss the booboo and make it all bedder” attitude that I can’t stand, and actually goes into depth about the origins and workings of diabetes, with examples and explanations that closely follow my own experience with the disease), “The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution“, by Richard S. Surwit, and taking the clinical tests within to determine my levels of risk in stress, depression, and hostility, I discovered that in both stress and depression I carry the highest possible risk factors (what a relief to know that hostility-wise I am a lamb!), and that technically I have severe clinical depression, and need professional help.

I guess I’ve more or less known this all along, but it seems so artificial. It’s hard to describe. I grew up and live in a culture, Japan’s, where I don’t know a single person who goes to any type of therapy (as opposed to America and Europe where it seems half my friends see a shrink), and have very rarely met anyone who even remotely seems to need it. Yes, I meet people who are down occasionally and who have anger issues and such, but it never seems to get that much in the way of their lives. In the 14 years that I’ve been teaching English I’ve asked countless students about their memories and experiences of high school, if they harbored any resentment or exceptionally bad memories. Almost without exception each student, men and women, have told me they enjoyed high school and would be very happy to do it all again. Only about three or four admitted to any kind of bullying. When I ask these students about their present lives, a few will tell me of dissatisfaction, or disappointment, but in general, very few people tell me out and out that they are really unhappy. You walk the streets and, compared to what I have seen in the States and Europe, only rarely do you come across individuals who seem out of whack with reality and their surroundings.

Now I know that some of this comes as a result of the Japanese tendency to keep embarrassing family secrets out of the public eye, but it is more than that, too. There is a whole alternative expectation out of life here that, I think, puts less pressure on individuals and in many, many ways is much more realistic about life. There is none of the tunnel-vision of organized religion pervading the society in any way (and Westerners who come here seeking such a social construct often tend to give more weight to such things as the Buddhist temples and the shrines than actually exists… Japanese are simply not a religious people, though they do carry their own form of spirituality). Marriage is often seen much more as a pact between two people for raising a family, than as a field for solely nurturing the couple’s romantic feelings (though that is a big benefit when it happens). I have talked to many married people, men and women, equally, who, without the slightest sense of guilt or moral wrongdoing (though not all, course), feel that there is nothing wrong with their spouses having extra-marital affairs, as long as they don’t find out about it (in their transliterated words: “As long as the affair doesn’t intrude in the family circle”). People here expect life to be hard and full of sadness. The whole concept of “mono-no-aware”, a perception of pathos, in which the whole world is seen through the glass of impermanence and passing, and everything is filled with the sadness and beauty of things that only last a moment, is something that every Japanese intuitively understands. Say the words “moon”, “rain”, “frog”, “blossom”, “pebble”… and each one will conjure up a flurry of colors, movement, sounds, and feeling that pertains to things not lasting. People see themselves and their possessions as just as fleeting… one reason why so few artifacts from the past, especially buildings, remain.

I could go on, but the point is that I’m not sure how to interpret the criteria that the diabetes books lays out for determining the ill health of my mind and spirit. I grew up non-Japanese and spent a little less than half my life in the States, so there is the influence of western culturedrawing me one way, but there is also this Japanese sense of how things are and should be. I don’t see my state-of-mind as being all that unusual or off-kilter. The questions in the book felt so American, in that they assume a MacDonald’s smile for a state-of-mind that they consider healthy:

1. Do you feel sad most of the time?
2. Do you often feel as if there’s little to look forward to?
3. Do you see your life as being one failure after another?
4. Do you feel as if you no longer enjoy any activities these days?…

to name just a few.

Part of me nods in sage understanding, knowing that it must be necessary to keep up that sense of glittering cheerfulness that pervades American culture, where if you aren’t smiling something must be seriously wrong with you. Smile at the camera!

But the other part of me sees no reason to smile at the camera when I just don’t feel the least bit perky. It doesn’t mean I am not full of mirth or quiet contentment; it just means that the camera is no reason to put on a show.

Why weren’t the questions framed thus:

1. Do you love what is around you and grieve the letting go?
2. Do you often feel a responsibility toward people around you and just don’t have the time or means to do what you would really like?
3. Do you see your life as being a learning experience and that there are bound to be more failures than successes?
4. Do you feel that you are changing as you get older and your tastes have moved on?

So now I must determine my state of affairs and go either East or West. Decide to prance about or skulk in the corner… Take your pick.

After putting aside the book I met a blogging friend, whom I hadn’t seen in over six months, for lunch. He brought his young son along this time and we three men sat in Starbucks, basically being ordered around by my friend’s son, he telling us to help him complete his sketchbook doodles. The boy was a great little kid, full of fresh vivacity and laughter, and I found myself, as I watched him, suddenly filled with a great sadness that most likely my wife and I will never have a child together. I have no idea where this suddenly came from. Children are not something I have much thought about or strongly desired, and yet there I was, jealous of my friend and wondering how I could have missed something so fundamental. When the two of them said good-bye, I headed toward my evening job with a kind of slack-jawed surprise. Me, a father?!? I promptly dashed off a message on my cell phone to my wife: “I really miss you today.”

And finally, on my way home, I decided to take the extra long walk from one station before my own, a quiet saunter through an upper-income neighborhood where quite a few gardens and trees reminded me that soil still existed in this world. I love going home this way and have taken to doing it almost every evening these days, as part of my steps toward changing my life toward those things that mean most to me. As I descended a particularly charming set of steep stairs lined with zelkova trees and ivy-covered walls, I spied a break between some of the houses and saw straight into someone’s bedroom, where the lights were full glare. Staring right back at me from the wall of the bedroom was a huge Nazi flag, the red and black blazoned in the darkness. “Damn!”, I thought. “What’s that person up to?” What exactly did they like about that flag? But this was Japan, of course, and, like almost everything, it was mostly likely something just for aesthetic affectation. But you never know. There be blond, Aryan-Asian dragons even here.