This summer, I’m going to be conducting fieldwork. No, it won’t be an immersion into another country to study another culture. I’m going to spend nearly a month walking 275 miles on the John Muir Trail, through California’s Sierra Nevada range—going from Mt Whitney, at 14,505 feet above sea level, to the valley floor in Yosemite. And while I’ll have a few days visiting with family and friends along the trail, I’ll be on my own most of the time, with only eternal granite peaks, wind-sculpted pine trees, and clear alpine tarns for company.
Provided that my middle-aged knees behave themselves, I’m not too worried about the physical aspects of the journey. Sure, there will be days when my hips and back will ache from carrying a 35 pound pack up and over 13 passes, each at least 10,000 feet above sea level. But the kind of discomfort I am most curious about is the absence of other people and connection to the world of those around me. Like many of us, I spend my days in the company of others, be it colleagues, family, friends, or patients. Electronic communication and social media allow for near 24/7 compulsive connectivity. But at what cost? Have we lost touch with the quiet whispers that emerge from within when we can be silent for an entire day, or an entire week? Naturalist John Muir was once quoted as saying “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
I’ve always admired people who can go on meditation retreats. Sure, I try to sit for a few minutes a day and attempt to quiet the beehive that lives between my ears. But the idea of days of silence with hours of walking meditation each day? Frankly, it terrifies me. Like many things we find frightening, perhaps it is not what is known that scares us. Rather, it’s when we step away from the known into unfamiliar, uncharted territory, different from all that we have grown accustomed to and familiar with, that the fear arises. Perhaps we can only hear those voices when we have no capacity to evade them, to gain, as Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chodron calls it, “the wisdom of no escape.”
In short, we’re scared of the inchoate places within us. They offer no guarantees. But what if, in that mystery, there lays an as-of-yet-undiscovered treasure? What if I come to like being alone, or learn to assuage my anxiety without a quick glance at the phone or the computer each time my mind becomes restless or lonely? What if I learn to eagerly anticipate the valley of insight that lies on the other side of the mountain pass of discomfort? When John Muir explored these mountains, the landscape of peaks and rivers awaited discovery and exploration. In a time when I can zoom into any place on earth with Google Earth, what’s left to explore?
Perhaps it is our inner worlds that invite exploration. The places we can only find when we are alone, quiet, and sitting in nature. What’s on the other side of this pass? What’s on the other side of my discomfort? I’ll let you know when I come out of the mountains.
Andrew Penn was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Currently, he serves as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing. Mr. Penn is a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, California, where he provides psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. He is a former board member of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, California Chapter, and has presented nationally on improving medication adherence, emerging drugs of abuse, treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice.
The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors. Blog entries are not medical advice.