Awakening The Wild Within
By Carla Brennan

The great valley below spreads westward, ending at the distant incline of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. I sit cross-legged on a rock wedged into the mountainside, with another stone to my back and two more supporting my legs. Atop these purposely-placed stones, I gaze toward the expanse below and the vast open sky before me. At other times, I lie prostrate on a massive boulder, fitting my body neatly into the swells and troughs of the surface to face the sky above.

For 28 days I am alone, or more accurately, separated from human contact. I share this special place, this high desert slope, with a myriad of non-human inhabitants. I have a small tent, simple food, no fire, no books. This wilderness retreat, a “Sacred Passage” led by John Milton, integrates Tibetan Buddhism with Taoist and Shamanic wisdom. For two weeks, our group of six retreatants prepare in the base camp, learning practices to “open to the sacred view” before moving to our individual secluded sites. In this setting, wild nature becomes our teacher; we only need to relax, surrender and be attentive to receive its teachings.

We are in the Sangre de Christo Mountains in Crestone, Colorado, in the heart of what is called the “dream corridor,” a powerful area where it is believed that ancient groups of shamans gathered to practice. What remains today are the arranged stones and the powerful effect of the land. John has spent many years deciphering the stones’ secrets and he believes they were placed to enhance deep meditative experience.

After a number of these retreats in the wild, nature has become my primary teacher. Civilization could be defined, only half jokingly, as the organized elimination of naturalness, the forced domestication of our spirit and soul. To rediscover our own true nature, which is inherently free and wild, we may need to step out of the cloistered isolation of modern culture and into the vast, mysterious realm of the more-than-human world that knows nothing of distractions, concepts or duality.

If we can truly leave behind, for even a short while, the relentless activities, habits, and props of Western Civilization that serves to both numb us and reinforces our delusions, the walls and assumptions of our limited identities readily fall away. Our authentic self is reflected, everywhere, in the natural processes of life as inner and outer nature are reunited. Mindful and open, we observe that the same forces that create the weather, the mountains and trees are at work within us.

Being alone can transform into being “all one,” triggered by witnessing the ever-changing dance of stars, flowers and stones. When continuously surrounded by wild nature, we become infused with a deep wordless presence. Watching the 14,000-foot snowcap above slowly melt into the frigid wild creek below, sitting through rain and hail storms that feed into that stream and then drinking from that water everyday, I wondered: Am I the snow? The stream? The rain? What am I? Gradually, body, speech and mind are revealed to be the body, speech and mind of the earth, the display of primordial nature itself.

Time in nature brings us face to face not only with beauty and awe but with our deepest fears. Observing the cycles of life, we see our own inevitable decay and destruction. We recognize both our interconnectedness and our impermanence. The awareness of this vulnerability invites tenderness for living beings who all share the same fate.

People who frequently go into nature in a sacred way will often report unexplained and remarkable phenomenon. These occurrences challenge, in a profound way, our assumptions about reality and ourselves. Surprising synchronicities abound and events occur that seem to have extraordinary personal significance. With uncanny timing, nature offers its own wake-up calls, from the blinding blast of lightning, to the eerie call of an unseen bird, to a sudden confrontation with a bear.

From all of this arises respect, wonder, sometimes fear, sometimes delight. In the middle of my month-long solo while performing a special ceremony of appreciation and gratitude, the small ring of trees surrounding me completely filled with numerous birds of many species, singing and cackling excitedly, only inches away. A squirrel and chipmunk also joined my sacred circle. I was fortunate to experience what others in this area have described as “hearing the mountains sing.” Strange, beautiful music emanated from the high cliffs and canyons, the flowing waters and soothing breezes surrounding me.

Perhaps the deepest wound to our psyche comes from our inner alienation from the vast unfolding cosmos, causing our fundamental experience of separateness. Modern humankind’s most urgent task may be to rediscover our innate wildness, naturalness and interdependence lest we extinguished our spirit and destroy our planetary home.

Gazing across the broad valley toward the descending sun, the enormous sky and cloud masses take on hues and shapes of astonishing beauty. As my awareness opens and mingles with everything around me, then the heavens, the river, the stone I rest on, all meditate for me. Above, the raucous calls of the circling ravens implore me to awaken and see my true nature.