After a series of difficult and shattering family-life events one after the other, I knew I needed a vacation—some time to get away and clear my mind. However, I was never one to be satisfied by sitting on a beach with a colorful drink in my lap. So I decided to take a solo pilgrimage to the great American southwest.
I set off without a plan, map, or any accommodations/reservations to go traversing through the desert backcountry and hinterlands of the rugged West. There, I found another universe. One seemingly untouched by civilization, development, or electricity. This was neither Northern Afghanistan nor some country village on the other side of the world, but there were certainly some parallel resemblances.
I found myself situated deep within the off-road and backcountry interstices of Death Valley, California and some parts of the western Nevada desert-scape. I was totally and completely off-the-grid, at least a 50 mile distance from any semblance of civilization, in a small jeep with a barely functioning satellite phone. Off-the-grid, off-the-radar, and virtually un-pingable. I was both happy and terrified.
I learned to truly live in the moment during those times.
When I happened upon some fierce-looking mountain goats, there was no choice but to keep moving along the path. When I found myself between dangerously narrow sliding rock-plates high on a mountain pass, there was no debate in my head about what needed to be done. When I stopped to sit on barren earth and heard rattles behind me, there was no hesitation about which direction to take.
I could only rely on my wits and perceptions as a compass to the world. I was not pre-occupied about the past or the future. Of course, worldly concerns and anxieties still crossed my mind. There were still instances when I could not help but to reflect on my personal losses and setbacks—my divorce, familial betrayals, broken friendships, and lost opportunities. In the midst of those memories and reflections, I was still experiencing the beauty of the environment and learning to cope with the terror of the unknown. Paradoxically, this helped me learn to give in to the moment.
And learning to just surrender to the moment somehow allowed me to learn to trust that it will also pass.
It has typically been easy for me to accept the good things in life, and to have gratitude for them. But what about the hard stuff? The things that threw me for a complete loop. The things that shook the foundations of who I thought I was. The moment when I realized that I couldn’t fix my marriage or mend my shattered family ties, despite my own deepest personally-held values. That I couldn’t turn back the hands of time.
“This too shall pass…” How many times have I heard this saying repeated? How many times have I let it pass through me like yet another drive on automatic cruise-control during morning rush hour?
When I was trekking my way through the majestic and awe-inspiring mountainous backcountry, I was also learning to take time and pay attention to each passing moment. This attention helped me fall in step with my own emerging inner truth. Sitting next to grand mountains with only the sound of distant rattles and blowing shrubs, the heat on my face, I listened my own voice and the encompassing presence of nature. I heard what I felt could be the voice of G-d.
I initially felt unsettled by being so far removed from my daily responsibilities and concerns, and out of the gaze of human inquiry. Never mind not having access to amenities such as running water or a functioning toilet, or a light switch.
I felt unsettled as I became increasingly aware of a duality within me. On one hand, I wanted to master the moment by taking charge of my situation. I wanted to begin plotting routes to get myself back to the shores of human contact before descending into total darkness in the wilderness. And yet, slightly behind this impulse, was another one to simply stop… To allow myself to take in all the beauty and complexity of where I was standing, sitting, and looking. To breathe. To feel the force of the surrounding mountains, unsheltered ground, untamed flora, exploding wilderness—and to hear the pulsations of the blistering sun and darkening sky.
I often notice this same duality now that I am back in my daily routines. A push towards mastery, and a pull in the direction of acceptance. I have learned that I need both of these components in my life because they are such integral parts of my development, temperament, and satisfaction. For me, learning to live in the moment meant learning to accept all the fragments of myself, and making room for them to come to the light of day and integrate with my entire being.
My experiences and travels throughout Death Valley and other barely charted terrains have taught me how to be vitally present and dynamically aware of the moment. Becoming aware of the moment has taught me—and continues to teach me—how to be more present in it. And I believe I can do this best when I am thankful and receptive to both my drive for assertiveness and my graceful acceptance. This is a dance that only gets better with practice and time.