In counselling, we often approach our work from a place of trying to understanding and accept the here and now experience. But being truly present can be a lot harder than it sounds – what does it mean, and how do we know we are doing it? Last weekend, I spent 3 days walking in the Dartmoor moors on a Wandering Wild journey with the intention of deepening my experience and understanding of that experience with nature and being present. An opportunity that felt at once both indulgent and essential, and that I am privileged to be able to access.
We were led across the landscape by our guide, Henriette. Following the trails from other creatures (the sheep, horses, rabbits, cows) and our ancestors. We walked quietly, with enough distance between each of us in our small group to feel collective but independent. The experience, though sometimes challenging with the terrain and the rain and a wary, protective bull early on our journey (!), felt peaceful and nourishing.
I tend to process externally, finding richness and value in talking through ideas and feelings. Initially the silence was jarring and uncomfortable – I wanted to exclaim about the way the light caught on the river, encourage others to touch the hanging moss adorning the ancient oak trees, point out a baby slow worm in the path (actually, I did give in to that desire to comment!) and say something, anything, about the dead cow, blown up like a balloon from her internal process of decay… And I wanted to photograph it all so I could share it later. And I wanted to sit and look more closely and touch and hold the beauty. I didn’t want the sunset to end, I wanted to taste the cool water again, I wanted to drink up the dancing sunlight with my eyes and breathe in the vastness of the hills and rich green of the moss. But we often kept walking. The experiences were sometimes wrenchingly fleeting, but the continued walking meant there were many more.
I like to take photos, to paint what I see, to share things that have made me think, or have brought me intensity of feeling. I write poems and blog posts and talk to friends about what I see and do and feel. This enables an elongation, a transformation or creation from the initial experience. It can highlight, shift a perspective, create an opportunity for bonding, strengthen values and enable a sense of being seen and heard.
Perhaps it is also an attempt to hold onto the experience and memory in some way, and avoid being with the awareness of the impermanence of life. Our ultimate paradox; we spend our lives finding ways to survive and live, all the time aware on some level that we won’t be able to do so forever.
Being fully in the present enables a depth of encounter rather than skimming over it, or turning from it to share with others, but it also relies on giving in to the transience of experience. A bittersweet paradox.
“He who binds to himself a joyWilliam Blake, ‘Eternity’
does the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies
lives in eternity’s sunrise.”
Practicing being with and flowing through these moments throughout the weekend was ever so gently transformative. The first photo I took, I instantly regretted. It didn’t capture the landscape, it felt like it took something away and disrupted the connection I had in the moment. I also knew on some level that I wouldn’t be able to fully translate what I saw and felt into words – perhaps this is why it has taken a week for me to write this post. As I allowed myself to be in the present, helped by the rhythm of walking and our collective movement forwards, I felt connected to the land, the creatures, the weather and the plants around me. I became more accepting of the momentariness of the beauty I encountered, of the awe.
The visible life cycles around me felt both sad and comforting; the frequent fragments of jaw in the soil, the browning bracken, the cow, nibbled mushrooms, the rivers and the clouds and the rain, the mating crane flies in my tent, the sunrise and sunset.
My experience of being present, of being in the here and now, is unique, as is yours. It is a fluid state, not a fixed experience. Being in relatedness with nature means having the opportunity to encounter in the present – it doesn’t need the wildness of the moors, or three days. The natural world can be found even in the most urban of environments, and of course it is us and others. But perhaps it does take some practice, some re-learning of how to connect, and some unlearning of the disconnection and fast, achievement-focused pace around us.