Sensory Bliss Blazes the Trail

Years ago, I went on a camping trip that changed my life and defined my career.

I was fresh out of architecture school, living in a Berkeley apartment and apprenticing in an architecture office. I was busy, tired, out of sync, and in my head. I took a few days off to go camping in Big Sur, on the California coast. My city head arrived with me at the campground: Did I pick the best campsite? What should I do with myself? Was this trip really a good idea?

Eventually, something inside said, “Just sit there. Don’t jump up; don’t do anything; don’t think about it; just sit there.” It was late afternoon on a warm summer day, and I sat down on the bank of the Big Sur River. Gradually, my mind quieted and I noticed the water. It was clear and shallow; the stones of the riverbed were beautiful, round and many-colored. The water rippled subtly over the stones in ever-changing patterns.

I noticed the soft, steady rushing sound of the water, the calls of birds, the footfall of small animals.

And the smells—the freshness of the water, the pungence of redwoods, the richness of earth. My whole skin drank in my surroundings; with my eyes closed, I could feel the warm sun on my skin and the cool, moist air of the river. I became part of everything and lost track of time. When darkness came, I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept deeply.

Early the next morning, I sat in the sunshine on a rocky beach by the river. I watched the flowing water, gazed into the trees, basked in the sun, observed birds, squirrels, insects. I was utterly entertained by the rich, constantly changing sensory textures.

I spent days in that state of surrender, occasionally moving from one place to another to experience a new array of sensations. Sometimes I lay on my back to better feel the earth. Once I sat in the stream to feel the water flowing all around me. I was open. I felt clear, whole, and healthy.

The birds, the trees, the sun, the water, the rocks, the breezes, and the plants were all teaching me, giving to me. All I had to do was Be.

After a few days, I returned to Berkeley, vowing not to shut my senses down again. I would stay open to the nuances of the world around me. I would take time every day to be still, to receive and learn from my surroundings.

When I returned to my apartment, I lay on my back on the floor. It was hard and flat and cold. Around me I saw furniture, white walls, and a flat white ceiling. Nothing moved. The indirect sunlight through the windows told me little about the time of day. My ears were open: the refrigerator came on, a radio blared, an old car chugged up the street. There was no sensory texture, no enriching variation, no useful information. I realized why I’d shut down and lived in my head.

Over the years, I’ve come to better understand this duality between the world our bodies crave and the world most of us live in. We wouldn’t quickly give up the warmth and safety of our dwellings, but neither do we need to tolerate sensory starvation. It is possible to have luscious surroundings that feed our bodies and souls while living in cities and suburbs. That’s what Come Home to Nature is all about. Welcome to the journey.

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