My friend Dave Howell, author of the awesome book The Descent into Happiness, defines happiness as being completely engaged in the present moment exactly as it is instead of thinking about what has been or could be. For the last few days, my husband and I took to the backcountry of the Grand Tetons where I was given millions of opportunities to be in this state of bliss.
When you’re on a challenging trail, a misstep could mean a fatal fall (ooooooooo-kay, I’m mostly exaggerating here, although at times this was definitely true) or a debilitating sprained ankle, and so moment by moment, for 30 miles, I had to pay attention. And after hundreds of moments of paying attention, it seemed that my brain was getting better at it – at every stop along the way, I could pay better attention to things other than the trail, like the design of that mountain slope, the brilliance of that flower, the adorable mischievousness of that marmot. No where to be but here, I told myself. No one to be but me. Nothing to do but this.
And what I realized is that, one step at a time, I could DO this. I could traverse a mountain. I could cross a snowfield. I could sleep where bears lived. I could poop in a self-dug hole. I could scramble down a valley of rock. Any and all anxiety on the trail was caused by somehow looking ahead and making assumptions about what the trail might be like “up there.” But, in reality, every single time that I got “up there,” as challenging as it was, I could do it. In this moment. And then this one. This happiness thing was starting to really make sense to me, and as I got better at it, and I came into a state of non-thinking, my mind became so clear that I could see that all was good, that all was God – appearing to me as the kind stranger who gently fixed my blisters, a snowflake, a tree, an insect, a flower, a Shawn.
As I walked across the wide belly of the Earth’s loving body, my whole world-view broadened, too. I felt the God in EVERYONE and a deep sense of love and compassion for all of creation exploding from my heart. I saw that the entire design makes sense – every “weed” was tilling the soil for the eventual growth of more life, every forest fire preparing the soil for new seeds to take root. I knew in my heart, that everyone is doing the best they can, perfectly playing their parts in a cosmic dance toward the light, experiencing deep compassion for those whose best sometimes feels anywhere from really shitty to mediocre. In the womb of God Herself, I felt that I could take a deep breath of mountain air and really believe in life again.
Ironically, as we began to descend the mountain, and the trail got busier, this person cut me off, then this one was in my way, and that one sneered at my snail-like pace.Geeeeeez, I mumbled to myself, as I watched my old habitual patterns of judgment bubbling back to the surface. I could literally feel my heart tighten, my Spirit curl into little snake-like ball in the pit of my stomach. I wanted nothing more that to head back up the mountain and give the world a big ‘ole middle finger. “Oh, but Erin, the bottom of the mountain is where the real work begins,” my wise mother reminded me during a check-in call. Ahhhhh, yes. Yes it is, Mama.
After some celebration, showering and recuperating, Shawn and I luckily scored what we thought would be a really sweet Air B ‘n B in Salmon National Forest the following two nights. Our plan was to raft, fish, and for me to have some time to write (which I am realizing is absolutely necessary for my existence). As I looked at the online description of the place, I told myself an elaborate story of what John and Nancy (the hosts) would be like, how the place would look, and what the food would taste like. After all, the online pictures were perfect!
We pulled into town, stopped at the grocery store and I soon realized that I wasn’t in Kansas any more. Most people were missing teeth and seemed to give my Anne Taylor maxi and easy-breezy smile an anxious up-down. The gentleman next to me in line at the store asked what we were doing in these parts and when I told him about rafting the Salmon, he said that we were absolutely crazy – he had lost three friends to that river and stayed as far away from it as he could. Anyone who pays to go down that thing is a damn fool, he said. And just like that, I could feel the wheels of my Spirit crank another few inches inward. This place is skeeeeeeeeetchy…. but our cabin will be different, I reassured myself.
When we pulled up, a sullen “For Sale” sign greeted us, followed by John who welcomed me while, at the same time, explained that no one in Idaho leaves the house without a gun, as he pulled one from his pocket. Rrrrrrrer – tighten the wheel another inch. All of a sudden, a fantastical movie of my twisted backcountry rape and murder played through my mind. “There’s plenty to do here,” he continued to explain. “There’s a cave you’re welcome to explore across the street; but ya’ll’ need headlamps because the last family who went in walked in on a bear. Oooooo-ey, were they scared! Out they ran with the bear right behind ‘em. Just make sure you stop to listen for any noises before you head in.” Excuse me? Say again? Rrrrrrrer – there it goes again, my Soul now a pee-shaped sized that quickly flew out of my body.
How was it possible that within a few hours’ time I went from feeling an all pervasive love of humanity – feeling compassion for terrorists and praying for Donald Trump – to imagining my death play out in multiple elaborate and graphic ways?!? Who cares about being in this moment; I needed to plan for how I would deal with all possible bear and hillbilly / rapist attacks! It’s pretty funny when I think about it now, but in the moment it certainly wasn’t. To further my fears, my “angelic husband” decided that he wanted to go out and explore that cave. Seriously?!
While everything inside of me begged to stay locked in the car, my fear brain convinced me that I couldn’t let him go alone because, if he was in trouble, I would somehow have to help him, and so I begrudgingly tagged along. With my bunny rabbit heartbeat racing and all of my chakras spinning backwards, I followed him up the mountain, stepping over piles of (what I convinced myself was) bear poop.
With our headlamps on and bear spray in hand, we approached the cave entrance making as much noise as we could. I was taken-aback by the rush of cool air that exuded from the cave and floated over my scorching hot body, pontificating for a moment on the Ayurvedic principle of the cooling nature of Earth energy, when I quickly brought myself back to the present moment, where I had to prepare for watching my husband get slaughtered by a bear. As we entered the cave, I was so numb that I could barely notice the nature of the beautiful rock hovering around us: now I wasn’t concerned about the possible bear in the cave, but the possibility of the bear coming back to his cave to find some smelly homo-sapiens with lights on their foreheads poking around. After about 20 seconds, I had seen all that I wanted to see and turned around to scramble out of the small rock hole that led us in. I was surprised to find Shawn at my heels saying “DANG – did you see all of those bones in there? Something has been bringing its kill there to eat.” “You asshole,” I said (because that’s what I always say when he pulls my chain, which he does often). “No, I’m serious,” and just as he said it, I looked over my right shoulder to see a pile of femur bones and the like lying just outside the cave. We moved quickly down the mountain and back to our lodge where I bee-lined it to a little patch of grass with my travel yoga mat in hand.
I took the best concoction I knew of nervous system calming yoga tools – grounding, cooling poses, relaxing breath techniques and combined them with a prayer of tranquility. Breath by breath and pose by pose, I slowly felt my spirit climb back down into my body. With every pose that brought me closer to the ground, and closer to the nothing-to-be scared of reality that was in front of me, I was able to come back to that moment-by-moment experience of living that I felt on the mountain top. Instead of thinking my way out of this mess, I needed to move and breathe my way out of it. And after 45 minutes of this, I could see again, exactly what was in front of me: a hummingbird, a husband, a lake, a mountain, a warm bed and hot shower. I started to feel the happiness that Dave describes so accurately. And I remembered, once again, why yoga is my medicine, the prescription to my crazy that my teachers and those who came before them have blessed me with. After my practice, Shawn and I had a lovely meal, held once again by the God all around us, appearing as a John, a steak, a glass of delicious wine, a sunset, and a chocolate truffle. I tasted every delicious bite, totally and completely happy once again. Nowhere to be but here, no one to be but me, nothing to do but this.
Yoga Teacher and Student, Speaker, Writer, Mother, Wife, Friend, Daughter, Sister, Human