5 Lessons From the Forest

I could have easily made this 100 Lessons From the Forest because nature isn’t one to skimp, but I do realize ain’t nobody got time for all that, so I’ve limited myself to five. Without further ado…

1. Things change. Often faster than you think.

I can walk the same trail everyday for a month, and it will never be the same. Just this morning, I was walking on one of my regular trails, and I paused to take in what had become a favorite view over the past few months.

The view was gone.

Or, I should say, it was entirely different. Shrubs had exploded in height with seemingly preternatural speed, and what once was a grassy meadow outlook was now a grove twittering with birds.

Everything changes.

This is good to remember when you’re not exactly thrilled with your current situation (it’ll change), but it’s an equally good reminder when things are going along swimmingly (it’ll change).

Accepting this fact can inspire us to be more flexible, less controlling, and more appreciative, because whatever it is…it won’t last. Soak it up, then let it go.

2. Living on autopilot can lead to trouble.

During my last hike, I encountered four different types of snakes. None of them were venomous, but it sure was nice to confirm this before accidentally stepping on snake face. Plus, it was fascinating to watch them, something I would have missed had I been zoned out on my phone or lost in thought.

On hikes, as in life, it’s smart to pay attention lest we go sailing over a real or metaphorical cliff.

While few situations call for hypervigilance, thankfully, most of us could benefit by dialing up the care and attention paid to the life that’s unfolding in and around us.

Our choices create our life, but too often we’re so distracted that we’re unaware we’re actually choosing. Life feels like it’s happening to us, not through us, and then we wake up one day, look around, and wonder–how the hell did I get here?

Why is my health suffering? Why do I feel unsatisfied in my work? My relationships? Where did my spiritual practice go?

Pay attention. Your life is happening right here, right now. You don’t want to miss it.

3. Life (and truth) is complex.

On a forest hike, everywhere you look you see multilayered life and complex interactions that boggle the mind.

Our ego deals in certainties. It doesn’t care if its beliefs are certainly wrong. It just wants to be certain. It will strip away facts with impunity in service of whittling things down to more manageable size. 

Life, on the other hand, is much more complex, which means that, ten times out of ten, we need to take action without knowing the full story. We have to do our best with the information we have access to, and that information is always incomplete.

The good news is that, while the ego flounders in uncertain waters, the soul/higher self/whatever you like to call your inner wisdom, thrives in it.

 The soul understands through and through what Joseph Campbell meant when he said:

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

When we embrace this, we build the courage to take that next step, even when we don’t know where we’re headed.

And we’re less apt to judge our fellow travelers when we understand that truth is never as neat and tidy and as-we’d-like-it-to-be as the ego insists.

4. You are inherently creative.

Life is constantly creating. Flowers bloom, turtles mate right smack dab in the middle of the trail (just saw this today), birds incubate clutches of eggs, and on and on it goes.

You, my friend, are no less a part of this whirling circus of life than the flowers, turtles and birds. You are creative (whether you like it or not).

You create thoughts, which create actions, which lead to the moment-by-moment creation of your life.

I always cringe inwardly when I hear someone say, “Oh, I’m just not that creative.”

To me, this is to deny the very mechanism of existence.

When we begin to see how very creative we are, and we own this, we take responsibility for our life. We see our creative mark on everything we experience, and if the scene before our eyes isn’t quite the masterpiece we’d hoped for, we know it’s up to us to break out the palette of paints, roll back our sleeves, and get messy with the work of creating.

Like painting, practice makes progress, and the “mistakes” are often the most beautiful features of the landscape.

5. Discomfort isn’t the enemy.

We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to get–and stay–comfortable.

We go out of our way to avoid uncomfortable conversations, physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, foods, people, sounds, smells, places, temperatures, and on and on it goes.

In the woods, discomfort abounds. Biting insects seem to love me best of all, thorns scrape, sun bakes, and mud cakes.

But then, just when you’re brushing off the seventh tick and untangling your shirt from a snarl of thorns, you see it. The fawn tucked away in the undergrowth, snow-colored spots and jet-black eyes. The waterfall just ’round the bend that utterly takes your breath away. The owl dozing in a tall oak, lazily swirling its head to lock your gaze.

Life is uncomfortable. It just is. But it’s also absurdly beautiful and abundantly rich.

We can spend vast amounts of time and energy trying to make life less uncomfortable, but we’ll have little to show for it besides spent time and less energy.

And discomfort comes with a gift: The realization that we can be uncomfortable and happy.

We can say yes to that difficult conversation, that annoying physical sensation, that weird smell, and when we give our resilience some space to show up, we learn how to relax. To breathe a sigh of relief that can be heard two states away.

Maybe we’re not as fragile as we thought. Hallelujah! Happiness doesn’t depend on micromanaging the discomfort away.

It was there all along, just waiting for us to stop chasing away the discomfort long enough to notice.