Sunday, November 6, 2011


This post is third in a series, go here for the first post

I wrote once about a weird fantasy I have, of going out into the desert to meditate in solitude, to see what I'd find without distraction. Trey from The Rambling Taoists made the intelligent comment that I probably wouldn't find anything out there that I couldn't find in my own living room. I agree with that in principle, but there are two problems, or issues, to consider.

The first is the distractions. In my house, there's the TV with a couple hundred channels, there are movies on tape and DVD, books to read, I can jump on the internet, I can play with my dog, or get on the phone and call someone up, and nearby are restaurants, coffee shops, movie theaters, stores, and so on, a million different things to do should I get bored. So the level of discipline must be far higher in my house than in the desert. To get to the desert level of distraction, I'd have to become a recluse living in a room with nothing in it, like monks have always done. I currently have a hard time getting myself to meditate for 20 minutes a day.

Of course, because meditation is boring to the ego, I'd find distractions in the desert same as I do now: I can watch the ants roving over the rock and sand, can throw stones at chosen targets, stare at mountain ranges in the distance and wonder what's there, concoct all sorts of stories and fantasies involving my surroundings, or maybe totally disconnected from where I am. But of course, it would be easier to be reminded what I'm intending to do, by virtue of the fact that I've come all the way out here into these stark surroundings to do it, not to mention that those distractions and amusements themselves become boring after a while. So, while discipline would still be called for out there, it clearly would be of a less intense nature. This is one reason I believe wise men often went out into Nature, or otherwise the monestary.

The other issue is entrainment. Entrainment is what it sounds like: getting into a groove with what surrounds you. It was discovered in 1665 by Christiaan Huygen when he noticed that one of his pendulum clocks ran a minute slower than another. He placed them side by side, and found that, after a while, they now kept the same time; in fact, they ended up working out a sort of compromise, running at the same time, but 30 seconds slower than his pocket watch, which had before run in harmony with the faster pendulum clock.

This happens biologically too. I remember seeing a documentary when I was a kid which showed two heart cells in a petri dish. Each beat its own rhythm, but they slowly neared one another and finally touched. When that happened, almost immediately, they adjusted to one another and beat in one rhythm. Same thing is going on at a larger scale with circadian rhythms, and with women who live in close association, the way their menstrual cycles tend to coincide (just imagine the PMS that goes on in a sorority house. Yikes!). Or think about the way you entrain socially; if you hang out with someone a long time, you start to talk alike, picking up each other's phrases, expressions, even cadence. To say nothing of their memes.

This is what I was talking about in my posts (first, second) about the echoes of the mind. There is a very noticable shift in one's mindset when one goes out to Nature, be it the woods, the mountains, the sea, or the desert. This isn't anything mysterious or unknown, this is the major draw towards the outdoors and especially the back country. People go fishing not just to catch fish, perhaps not even primarily to catch fish; but because it is inherently relaxing. People camp not to sleep uncomfortably on the cold, hard ground, but because there is a rhythm out there that they want to entrain with, at least (usually) on a subconscious level. People just know they feel more relaxed out there, so they go, not really thinking much about why. And of course, that's fine, it works the same.

So even if I'm a recluse in a bare house, with no mass media devices, no books, no phones, no other person around, I believe I'll still be caught up in the rhythm of the city. It's not about interaction as much as it is proximity. The clocks in the experiment never touch or interact directly, but the effect is there. Likewise, if you travel much and are sensitive and paying attention, when you arrive in a new city you notice that it often "feels" markedly different from others.

This is probably even more true with international travel, but as someone who has mainly traveled in the US, I can say that Dallas feels very different from Detroit, and Logan UT differs greatly from Wichita KS, and even from St George, UT. Even the West Coast cities of San Francisco and Portland feel quite different from one another. Mountain towns feel different from seaside towns, and desert towns from farm towns from forest towns. This effect is being deadened somewhat by the spread of national and transnational corporations, the McDonaldization of the world. Still, each place has its own energy, and this can be felt right away. It is all around you, and staying in your house won't escape you from that energy.

So heading out to the "desert" or Nature is partly about leaving distraction behind. But another, bigger part of it is about entraining to a larger, older, more natural rhythm or energy. Where the big energy is the rise and fall of the sun, the breath of the wind, the deep vibration of the landscape in which you find yourself, be it desert or forest, by the sea or in the mountains. This is taking my point about letting the echoes fade to another level, something deeper than a mere shift in conscious thought.

The process starts quickly. I've found on past camping trips that as soon as I get out of the car, take a deep breath of the forest air, I'm already "unwinding," which is a rather telling term. I am loosening the mind from the forms and content of the city, finding myself immediately speaking quieter. Given more time, this can get really deep. On long treks I've taken, such as on the Pacific Crest Trail and especially the Appalachian Trail, I get almost spacy. Staring at the trees was a common pasttime for many on the AT, and when we'd finally get an exposed ledge or open summit, I for one could stare for hours if allowed (sadly, on thru-hikes you have to make miles). That was part of why I loved the PCT so much-- it's vastly more open for long views. There's a quietness of mind, an openness that isn't quite emptiness. I think this is entrainment. I'm becoming a part of the greater whole.


  1. I see your point. For someone like me who has been married for over a quarter century, I know that my wife and I often seem to exist as one organism! We are both pretty good at finishing each others' sentences. :-)

  2. "just imagine the PMS that goes on in a sorority house"...may explain the tradition of menstrual huts. Had nothing to do with being "unclean," more about being annoying.

    I can attest that the different cities and regions "feel" different and there are some I connect with easily, some I don't. I just made a two week business trip to Atlanta, DC, and Portland (where I became quickly entrained.) And in China, I settle into Wudang in an instant; Shanghai is another thing. And upcountry Maui beats Waikiki any day.

    But I do think meditation is more effective in nature.

    Nice post!