Guest Post By Kelli Hastings:
I recently decided I wanted to go camping alone in the woods for at least one night. I imagined that my campsite would be secluded and surrounded by forest, with no other campers within eye or earshot, giving me a real chance to deal with whatever shadows arose within me during my alone time. I figured I would have to confront some deep-seated fears that would only dare peak out during my time of seclusion.
I was already flustered by the time I arrived at the campsite after a two-hour drive, leaving me about thirty minutes until sunset to get my tent pitched. I was immediately put on edge by the fact that the campground was not what I expected. My tent would not be secluded in the middle of the woods, but would instead be surrounded by other families of campers just a few yards away. They were all sitting around with their already-pitched tents and cozy campfires and I felt like I was in a fishbowl; like all of their eyes were on me, judging me and my tent-pitching capabilities as I tried to set up my site before sunset. I envisioned that they were probably laughing and commenting to each other about whether or not I knew what the hell I was doing. Brain voice was already laughing and commenting at me with judgment as well.
I looked at the instructions to my tent (which I had set up in my backyard all by myself without issue a month before). The instructions mocked me, suggesting two adults were necessary to get the main tent pole up. All I could think was, “I don’t want any help! I just want to set this up and vibe out with myself and my alone time. I hope none of these fuckers tries to offer me any help!”
As I tried to raise up the two main tent poles criss-crossed from each other, dirt got into the the bottom of the poles, preventing me from inserting the pin into the bottom of each pole. I laid down the tent and attempted to pry the dirt out with a pen. Nope. A knife? Fail.
The voices in my head were relentless. I kept imagining what the other campers were thinking about me and I berated myself for my choice of campground, decision to camp in the first place, for leaving late and losing daylight; for everything. I decided the only way to get the dirt out of the bottom of the poles would be to bang it out on pavement.
I drove up to the paved parking lot at the campground entrance. When I got to the parking lot and banged the first pole on the pavement, the elastic holding the pole together snapped, leaving my tent pole in about eight pieces. Fuck.
Again with the voices and judgment. There was no readily-available way to fix it. Should I drive back home at this point? Try to find another tent? How do I always end up in these situations? I’m such an asshole.
I decided to drive into “town” to see if I could buy another tent. The grocery-like store looked promising — it might have camping equipment. Indeed it did, but no tents. I was really anxious and tense as I walked up and down the aisles of the store. The women working there kind of looked at me funny. I had the thought that I should ask for help, but again brain voice shot me down: “I don’t need any help! I don’t want to ask for any help!!” As I walked out the store, a bright-gypsy-eyed, long-haired, older woman looked up at me. I noticed the thought, “I wonder if she is a teacher? Her eyes are so knowing.” Then the thought, “Nope, still not going to ask for help.” I observed as I walked out the store that I was clutching my huge purse with my hands in front of me, rather than over my shoulder like normal.
When I got out to my car, which was packed to the brim with food and other camping supplies, I realized my hands were shaking with hunger because I had forgotten to eat dinner. I went into the back of my car and grabbed something to eat. As I was getting the food, I put my purse in the back and all my stuff accidentally dumped out of it. I scrambled to get everything back in and get settled back into the front seat of my car to figure out what the hell I was going to do. Find a hotel? Try to buy a tent somewhere else? Drive home? While I was thinking and stuffing my grill, I saw the outline of the long-haired-teacher in my peripheral vision. My mind jumped to the thought, “Maybe she recognizes something great in me and she has come out to teach me?”
Then I realized she was reading my license tag and was writing something down. She started to head back inside. Was she writing down my license plate number?? I yelled after her, “Excuse me, ma’am, is there something I can help you with?”
“We know you were stealin’. I’m calling the police.”
Oh shit. Time to fess up my need for help. I suppose I did look pretty shifty walking around, carrying my purse weird, not buying anything. “Ma’am, I wasn’t stealing. I need help.”
“You had something in your purse. We saw you empty it out into the back of your car.”
“No, I wasn’t stealing. I was getting this food out of the back of my car. I need help. I was trying to set up my tent and my tent pole broke.” I showed her the broken pieces.
“Yeah that is a broken tent pole alright.”
“I’ll show you the back of my car.” I start fumbling for my keys and I couldn’t find them anywhere. It was like they fucking disappeared. While I looked for the keys I continued, “I was just nervous because my tent broke and I’m from out of town and I’m not sure what I am going to do tonight. You were probably picking up on my nervous energy.”
She was still a little agitated. “Yeah all four of us in the store picked up on something.”
I finally found my keys and opened the back for her to look around. I also opened my purse and let her look in there.
She softened. “There is no where to buy a tent around here. But you may be able to stay at Elite Campground up the road. They have cabins you can rent. The owners are up at Salty’s tavern by this time of night, so just go into the bar there and ask around and you will find them. Are you going to be here a few days?”
“Thank you very much. Yes, I’ll be here two days.”
“If you come back to the store, leave your purse in the car.”
Ok, sounds fair. I left after getting directions. Perhaps not surprisingly, I completely misunderstood how to get to Salty’s and ended up driving around whispering to myself about how suspicious everyone in this small town must be and again fell into a steady stream of self-deprecating thoughts related to the predicament I found myself in.
“Crucify” by Tori Amos came on the radio. I noticed it was about the fourth time in two days that I had heard that song.
Why do we
I crucify myself
Nothing I do is good enough for you
And my heart is sick of being in chains
I gotta have my suffering
So that I can have my cross
I know a cat named Easter
He says will you ever learn
You’re just an empty cage girl
If you kill the bird.
I finally found Salty’s by accidently driving right into the Elite campground and right up to the gatekeeper. I was very nervous when she directed me to roll down my window. “I’m trying to find Salty’s…” I started. I could hear Karaoke coming from a bar in a strip mall a hundred yards behind the gate.
“Salty’s is right there,” she said pointing in the direction of the Karaoke.
“Actually, I need a place to stay. I broke my tent pole, so I couldn’t put my tent together, so I tried to find another tent, and the lady at the grocery store said maybe you had a cabin available here I could rent?” I was nervous and the words were rapidly spilling out of my mouth; still not sure if she was friend or foe.
She said, “I used to have a car like this,” as she gazed at my Mini Cooper. “It was a red convertible. I drove it many years ago when I was young.”
Yay, she’s nice!
She said, “You don’t want to stay here. Its too expensive. You have to put a deposit of $100 per night down and pay $100 for the cabin per night. Why don’t you just go up to the store right there and buy some duct tape and fix your tent pole?” She pointed to the Dollar General on the other side of the strip mall.
Brilliant! Duct tape! “Yes, that’s great. Thank you so much!”
“And come back later for some Karaoke at Salty’s once you get your tent all set up!”
So long story short, I got my tent set up in the dark by myself using the miracle of duct tape. And I am shortening the story, because by the time the ordeal was over, I was way too tired for Karaoke.
As I laid down to go to sleep that night, I could hear the other campers all around me. I laughed at how not-like-I-imagined camping was turning out to be. I wasn’t alone at all. I was practically in wide-open public. And maybe if I had asked for help from the start I wouldn’t have gone through the whole predicament. But what is the fun in that?
Obviously I also need to learn something. Maybe the gypsy-eyed-lady was a teacher after all. And what is with the constant judgment of myself? Even Tory Amos was trying to tell me something. I let my emotions rise up within me and pass.
The next day I went to make a fire before the sun came up. I couldn’t see what I was doing and all of a sudden my feet were burning all over. Ants! Shit there must have been a 100 bites.
I actually got myself still for a minute, sat with hands in jnana mudra, and tried to connect with the ants that had just bitten me: What was the great ant spirit trying to teach me? Then I looked down and saw that I had dropped my fire wood right on top of their giant ant mound.
Brain voice replied, “the great ant spirit wants your shit out of our house!” Ahem, yes, maybe moving the firewood will help.
The ant bites seemed to fuel my anger. I felt like I was barfing up old angry vibes for the next several days after coming home from camping. It came in nauseous waves. I really stirred up some fire over some old situations in my life. I realized I still had a lot of buried anger that needed out. Kind of like a demon, lurking in the deep recesses of my heart. In my expereience, my demons of un-dealt emotions can’t be pushed down or forced out. It’s more like I have to sit down with them, invite them to talk to me and listen to what they are there to teach me.
The only devils in this world are those running around in our own hearts, and that is where all our battles should be fought.”
And the Buddhist monk Thick Nhat Hanh explains anger this way:
Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away.”
In my last blog I suggested a life of always living in the present moment; of realizing the miracle of life all of the time. Living that way could be called practicing “mindfulness” for Buddhists or jnana yoga (the yoga of the mind) for yogis. It is a constant state of alertness where one’s attention is not constantly being pulled away by unnecessary thoughts. A friend of mine pointed out that “mindfulness can be exhausting.” She is right. It is hard to stay focused on the beauty of the present moment, when the mind constantly wants to wander. My mind mainly wanders to thoughts of self-judgment.
The practice of devotion (or bhakti yoga) is the path toward mindfulness or yoga that might be less exhausting. Its the way of the poet Rumi, of Jesus, and the great devotional yogis like Vivekananda, Amma, and Maharaji. Maharaji’s disciple, Krishna Das, tells a story of Maharaji’s teaching him to “meditate like Christ” by “losing yourself in love.” He is describing a state of being where it is easy to be mindful because the mind is wrapped with attention in a state of divine devotion; non-loving thoughts have no room to exist in such a state. This is the bhakti path. Vivekananda describes it this way, “The Bhakta has not to suppress any single one of his emotions, he only strives to intensify them and direct them to God.”
So when an unwanted emotion arises, rather than suppress it, invite it in, feel it, intensify it, and then redirect it toward the Divine.
The yoga sutras tell us that bliss can be obtained through this devotional path, the bhakti path. (Sutra II-45). The sutras also advise that by practicing deep meditation on our hearts, full knowledge of the mind (citta) is obtained. (Sutra III-35).
So through the practice of devotion, the great teachers tell us that mindfulness can be obtained in a sort of back-door way. We can learn to understand the mind by going through the heart; by dealing with whatever lurks there – whether it is naughty or nice. We don’t have to try to quiet our ADD minds. We can focus on our hearts and allow mindfulness to develop naturally.
Often I find that I suppress my negative emotions, especially anger, because I see them as “bad.” But even Amma, the great spiritual teacher I met (and hugged!) in India, used her anger as a bhakti practice to find God. Her followers described Amma’s journey as follows:
She was feeling unbearable grief because She hadn’t yet seen God, She turned against the whole world. She felt angry at Nature. She would say, ‘I don’t like you at all, Mother Nature, because you make us do things that are wrong!’ She would spit at Mother Nature and shout at her using whatever words came to Her mouth. It became a form of madness.
So in Amma’s own path, she felt anger which she intensified and turned to God, rather than turning it inward (self-deprecation) or outward (blaming others for one’s life situation). After my camping trip, my anger demons were triggered. They didn’t want to be suppressed anymore. I struggled with the urge to project the anger outward, toward friends and loved ones who had “wronged” me in some way. I also struggled with the urge to “crucify myself” and project the anger inward at all my self-perceived flaws and incapacities. I resisted, and instead, I got really mad at the Divine Mother.
Why do you insist on putting me in these situations with these assholes that make me angry? Why do you have to make me so scatter-brained and crazy?? Why do I seem to live the same fucking stories over and over again, no matter how I struggle and try to change them? Why I am surrounded by assholes? Why am I such an asshole?? The anger inside me welled up and was released in a several fits of tears over several days.
After my anger release, I climbed a tree in a park in the middle of downtown Orlando in broad daylight. As the voice started to judge me and project onto the nearby park-goers thoughts of disdain toward the tree-hugger,I felt love. And the voice quieted naturally, on its own, without much effort from me. I thought, I am doing nothing wrong; I am just hear relaxing on this tree. What do I have to hide? What could the people possibly think about me that would be so bad? What does it matter what they think about me as long as I am peaceful and happy?
Then it hit me: it was not out my fear of being alone I needed to confront through my camping trip. It was my fear of being out in the open; of being truly myself in front of others. My tree-hugging-crazy-yoga-jedi-intensely-passionate Self. Exposed.That is why my camping trip ended up being out in the open out rather than in seclusion. First I had to release my emotional demons, which were keeping me from feeling the love and were keeping my thoughts inclined toward self-judgment. Then the lesson was learned on its own, almost effortless.
At that moment I noticed a jogger from my perch. I looked at him and smiled. He smiled back and said, “you look comfortable.”
“Thank you!” I hollered back with childlike fervor. I am feeling comfortable, more and more.