The Dark Night of the Soul

In a past life, I studied and consumed the ideas, art, and teachings of Medieval scholars, artists, and writers. I read everything I could get my hands on from Maimonides, Ibn Sina, and Thomas Aquinas. I delved deeply into the ideas of these medieval scholars and was drawn to their questions about life, G-d, and the world they lived in.

One late medieval, early modern poet from Spain, St. John of the Cross wrote some remarkable poetry. His poem called The Dark Night of the Soul resonated with me in my early incarnation as a student of the medieval world. This short poem is a powerful statement about the darkness we live in and the light we seek. For St. John, he sought out a connection to G-d. For me, I found a broader meaning in the poem…the search for light in our own mental darkness.

“On a dark night, 
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed, 
My house being now at rest.”

As I settled into a night along Elk Creek, I was overcome with fear and doubts. Every possible negative thought and emotion crept into my fear-addled mind. I wept, deeply, constantly, at the despair I felt. I was overcome with grief and self-loathing. I tried meditation, writing in my journal, and even tried music to push away these feelings. None worked. I was deep in it. Deep in the complexity of a mind adrift. I imagined that stomach pains I felt were the beginnings of a heart attack, that I had some internal disease. I went through every single possible negative action I had done in my life and mentally beat myself over and over for those mistakes, failings, short comings.

I played the 100 syllable mantra, recited the Benza guru mantra, and generally tried to ease mind off of this proverbial cliff. Nothing worked. So, I stayed in it…I was overcome with this powerful grief and nothing, it seemed could shake it. I was in it.

When relating some of this story to folks after the trip, everyone has said, “That experience must have been a real catharsis!” Yea. No. No relief, no catharsis, no end. The experience was one I have read about for a long time; many of the Buddhist scholars I follow comment on the fact that once you open the door to the kinds of meditation that unlock the conflicts that ravage our minds, there is no going back. It is true. The beast is out of the cage; the subtle and elaborate ego protections I assembled no longer functioned. They were gone and what was left was the raging torrent of my crazy mind.

The Dark of the Night

I spent the night in some physical pain. My right knee is a constant source of pain with little to affect it. I don’t take NSAIDS as they are terrible for my body. I use a CBD cream that works well for about 30 minutes. Laying on the ground in my tent, I flipped back and forth seeking a comfortable place to sleep. My mental state combined with my physical one was rough. I could not find sleep until about 3:00AM…I finally passed out. I woke at 6:30AM to a sharp pain in my hip. I dosed again for an hour only to have cows trampling around my tent, mooing incessantly.

I climbed out of bed, prepared tea and planned a small meal. My goal was to stay in place and then day hike West to the 2nd meadow and scout a good camping spot somewhere in the vast expanse.

My mind was groggy, tired, and still in the throws of the madness I went to bed imaging. As a means of ameliorating the situation, I packed my daypack and planned to exhaust myself on the trail. The hike out of the First Meadow is steep and I climbed my way up and out.

The day’s temperature and climate could not have been better. A slight breeze followed me along the path and the sound of the creek and leaves was a salve to my weary mind. I walked slowly but deliberately West. I passed one person on the trail, a fellow solo traveler who was coming out from a distant part of the wilderness. We exchanged hellos.

After two miles, I stopped for a snack and water. I captured one of the most moving scenes (to me), rocks and trees in an elegant dance. The perfection of this natural scene struck me in my odd state of being. I was drawn to the juxtaposition of stone and tree, the inanimate and animate. While I do not practice Shinto, I idea of kami came into my head as I admired the essence of this particular place.

Earth, rocks, and plants in an elegant dance.

As I approached 2nd Meadow, the ravages of the night and my exhaustion took hold. I was just 1/2 mile from the meadow and I decided to turn around. I was spent. Exhausted. I headed back on the trail, making a slow walk back to camp. At this point, I felt completely alone in the wilderness and I stopped off and on to capture that feeling of being in a place completely by myself. Rather than feel any terror many miles away from the laughter of people, I felt, in a strange way, at ease. My mental state was not, as I discovered, the result of being alone; it was something else entirely.

The Second Night: A Slight Reprieve

It took a while and I made it back to camp. It has become my habit to record my heart rate on a check strap I wear on these longs hikes. I checked my vitals: 1300 kcals burned, 5 miles hiked, almost 4 hours of moving time. The trail was a bear; up and down over and over again. I had climbed a few thousand feet over the course of the day…my feet felt the stress of the ups and downs.

I rested at camp, sitting without thought for about two hours. I did not attempt a traditional meditation. I just sat. In that space, no thoughts came to mind, none of the raging anger and fear consumed me. I was completely silent. Time passed and I watched the flow of the water.

I picked up my journal after a time and started to write…I wrote and wrote for a couple of hours…I had no sense of the passage of time and when I finally stopped, I checked my watch and found it was about 6:00PM. Hungry and thirsty, I started a meal and pumped water from the stream. I felt this incredible hunger and once the meal was prepared, a rice, quinoa, veggie dish, I ate it all. I immediately regretted the decision. My stomach groaned as I had forced too many calories into my stomach too fast. I was in pain. The cycle I experienced the night before began again.

Recognizing my situation, I decided to “walk it off.” I walked around the meadow, I photographed cows and trees, and water. I found a perfect hiking stick and carried it around. Thoughts now tumbled out of my brain: I should pack up and leave, I should make my way back to the car. I reasoned, at 7:00PM that I could make it out in 1:45 minutes if I pushed it. My body moved in the direction of the campsite and, in a moment, made the decision to stay. To stop. To continue the experience. To remain in the moment and not distract my mind with the packing and hiking that such a move would take…I decided to remain still.

Prayer flags I placed at the site.

Instead of fleeing, I stayed in place and began chanting a mantra: Benza guru. I kept it up for a long while as the sun went down.

As darkness fell in the meadow, I headed into my tent and chose, on this night, to rest. The pains were all present in those moments and I chose to accept them as they were. I fell to sleep, woke, fell back to sleep and finally woke at 6:30AM. I crawled out of my tent and stared a cow in the face a few feet from the door. I stood up, the cow looked at me and then went back to eating grass.

Mindful of my queasy stomach, I ate very lightly and contemplated my next move. I felt much better, emotionally. Should I stay? I knew I was in a better place, overall, but after a quick inventory, I made a decision: I would travel to the Karmapa’s Stupa in Crestone, Colorado. I would go to that place and meditate for as long as I could.

I packed my gear carefully and by 9:30AM lifted my pack and hiked out of the meadow and toward the car. As I hiked, I noticed something quite remarkable. I was physically very strong on this day. I noticed that I had no trouble climbing or moving down this rocky trail. Too, I was moving faster than I had ever hiked in the past. As it turned out, I arrived at the car a solid 20 minutes ahead of my previous time. I felt physically good. Hmmm.

The Elk Creek Trail

Travel to Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang

From the trailhead to the Stupa takes about two hours. The drive takes you through Antonito, Alamosa, Mosca, and Crestone. On the way, my mind was empty, silent, quiet.

Tashi Gomang, Crestone, Colorado

The roads to the Stupa wind around the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Going from paved asphalt to improved gravel, to rough gravel is a typical experience in the Southwest. I moved slowly up the side of the mountains, contouring around until, finally, I found a spot to park.

No one was present when I arrived and I headed to the stupa for prostrations and a walk around the structure 108 times. As I walked, I chanted the Benza guru mantra. After I sat in the shade, pulled out my journal, and wrote down much of my experience. Finally, I sat in meditation. Tears welled in my eyes and streamed down my face. The sight of a local nun increased the tears and I sat, crying in meditation…one of the strangest experiences of my life.

As the sun started to set, I ambled back to the car. I filled my water bottle and drove back to Albuquerque days early from this experience. My reflection on what transpired and any understanding of the experience will come, I imagine, in the coming weeks and months. Needless to say, these moments are carved deeply into me and I wonder at it all.

In The Absence of Courage

I take an annual retreat into the wilderness alone. This experience has been something I have craved and looked forward to for the past 20 years or so I have been heading into the wilderness of New Mexico and southern Colorado. These moments have been precious and allowed me to reinvigorate my heart and mind. I typically choose a meditation for the retreat and try to stick with that approach for the days I am alone…it has been a remarkable series of experiences. On this trip, I chose the teachings related in the book Enlightened Courage by Dilgo Khyentse.

With plans in place, this year turned out to be quite different. As I began my preparations doubt creeped into my mind. I felt a sense of fear and trepidation as I worked through my checklist of things I had to carry. My list was short and my pack relatively light for such an excursion; nevertheless, a sense of dread filled my mind as the day came closer to depart. I was, as I would come to discover, not ready for this experience.

One aspect of a solo retreat or solo backpacking trip is to get your mind ready for being completely alone; or, rather, completely away from people. It’s a misconception that you will be alone on a solo journey. You bring your entire life with you; family, friends, enemies, fantasies, positive and negative thoughts, and, in fact, every single thing you have ever imagined. It’s all with you. You are, in fact, not alone at all.

My mind was crazy in those days leading up to the trip, and I knew I was struggling. I saidto myself, “it’s just the nerves of being in the wilderness, alone, nothing more…” Those words filled my mind as I pushed aside the thoughts and emotions I faced.

Driving to the Trailhead

The four hour drive was uneventful, but in retrospect I made some bad choices that enhanced my crazy mind. I eat a vegan diet and have done so for the past few years; on my drive I made a bad food choice, eating some food I normally would not have eaten. The thing is, sticking to a plan, staying disciplined and focused is one KEY to doing well on a solo retreat. Allowing for the possibility of change and unexpected events is FINE…making bad choices is, actually, not the best way to go…so, when I ate the vegan tacos that were fried in corn oil, it hit me hard; my stomach was queasy and I felt gross.

This one errant choice made a big difference in my experience. I had stomach pains that lasted for a couple of days….it made my mind spin into a crazy place…too, that one choice kept me from getting into that deep place of meditation, constantly distracting me and keeping me unsettled.

As I approached the trailhead, I knew that a solo trip was probably not the best idea. I stopped at a couple of campgrounds to find a place to camp. On this Thursday afternoon, sites were available AND they only took cash. Since I had only $10 for the trip, owning to my current state of financial difficulty, I could not reserve a site. I reluctantly decided to press on.

At the Trailhead

The hike I planned is one I know. The well-trod trail leads into the heart of the South San Juan Wilderness. Almost entirely lined with Aspen, Pine, and Spruce, the path is as close to an idyllic Rocky Mountain hike as any I have ever seen. Wandering along Elk Creek, the way leads to high country meadows in this part of the San Juans. The creek meanders and rushes through the canyons and its sound is never far from the hiker’s ear. That pleasing and melodic sound I craved, and as I packed my pack for the final time, I felt a slight sense of relief. As I would discover, the feeling of calm was fleeting.

Distracted by packing and checking my gear, I filled my water bottles for the last time. The parking area was filled with day hikers, I imagined, and that gave me some comfort. I donned my pack, or rather lifted the beast on to my back, fifty some odd pounds of clothing, food, shelter, and water. I was off.

On The Trail

The hike along Elk Creek, as I mentioned, is idyllic. I signed into the trail log and found just one other group headed West into the wilderness. They were hours in front of me and I knew I would not see that group on the trail. I was, as it turned out, alone as I walked into the wilderness.

The bridge across Elk Creek begins the journey..remember to turn left!

A solo backpacking trip is a singular event in one’s life. (Pun not intended) Most folks that I know are either astounded or horrified that anyone would travel alone into the wilderness. The most common comment is “what about bears?” I’ve heard and seen many bears in my travels; not one could give a rat’s ass about my presence in the backcountry. The snorts of a bear around a campsite are not an uncommon experience. One night I opened my tent to the sound and flashed my headlamp at a decent sized bear. The animal looked at me from about ten feet way and then went back to snorting around the area. Bears are the least of a backpacker’s worry (at least in the lower 48).

The second most common comment is “what about mountain lions or cougars?” Now that one animal does give me pause. Mountain lions, unlike bears, are on the prowl for a live meal. In the Southwest, a reader can find plenty of stories of mountain lion encounters with humans. At the same time, those encounters, when put into the context of ALL encounters with animals and humans, is a very very tiny fraction of catastrophic events in the backcountry.

The truth is that the most common experience and danger for a backpacker is their reaction to changing climate conditions and terrain. Simply put, our own choices are the real danger. On many occasions I’ve gone through rain storms, snow storms, wind storms, and on and on. I’ve shivered my way through a night, using emergency blankets to warm me when snow and temperatures have fallen. I’ve had to wake in the night to warm water for students in the midst of hypothermic reactions, and have aided folks with broken arms, legs, toes, and fingers. Burns from cooking are also common incidents in the backcountry as people are bold about their expertise at creating and maintaining a fire. I cannot count the number of people I have helped who have burned themselves on a backpacking stove or at a fire! The real danger, as it turns out, is ourselves.

As I made my way on the Elk Creek Trail headed West, I listened to the sound of the creek, found solace in the breeze, and reveled in the delicate motion and sound of Aspen leaves. I paused, occasionally, and simply watched the leaves flutter in the breeze. The feeling of serenity that came was fleeting and welcome.

About 1/2 of a mile into the hike, my daughter’s bandana around my neck as a talisman

The Elk Creek First Meadow

After exactly 3.06 miles I descended into the meadow to locate a site for the night. At the far end of the first meadow on Elk Creek is a cluster of Aspens and Spruce. In those trees I searched for a site. As I wandered the small area, came through a tight copse of trees to see a line of Alpacas. A small group with two HUGE tents were camped in an open area, the first time in all my experiences I found fellow campers. I exchanged pleasantries with their trip leader and searched for a more distant site. About 300 yards away, to the East of the meadow, I found a spot along the creek….a downed log between two trees made for a perfect resting spot and a small open area, just enough for a tent, allowed me to pitch the tiny (and LIGHT WEIGHT) backpacking tent. I found my spot.

MSR Hubba Hubba NX placed in the perfect spot

In past years, the good luck of finding a new camping spot with a perfect place to prepare food would have made my heart sing. On this night, a sense of dread creeped into my mind. Slowly, gradually, painfully I felt a real sense of despair.

On these kinds of excursions, we take with us exactly what is on our backs and in our minds and bodies. If we bring a distracted and terror-laden mind, those feelings will grow and spread. If you bring in a sore ankle or knee, a pounding headache those physical traumas will become overwhelming.

In my distracted state, I prepared my food, a new backpacking meal from Patagonia Provisions. The food was exceptional (and vegan). At the same time, my stomach pains resumed from the earlier meal, and while the food provided some sustenance, it added to my unrest as that queasy feeling overcame me.

After I ate, I wandered the meadow, pushing back my crazy mind with photography. As the sun went down, I captured the place as best as I could…

Elk Creek, First Meadow, an evening in the South San Juans

I walked back to my campsite and sat down with the intention of mediation. This first night in the backcountry was going to be one I will always remember.