Updated: Oct 16, 2021
FRUSTRATION, THEN AWAKENING
I remember it distinctly. My heart was beating fast, the palpitations rampant in my chest. The day I quit my “day job” in pursuit of something different.
After five years at this company, it was finally time. I wasn’t happy. I remembered the buoyant, outgoing person I used to be, full of joy and laughter. Where was that person? The one I had become was angry. A lot. With my family, my colleagues, myself… I recall how nervous I was sitting down to tell my supervisor. The surprise that broke out across his face as he heard my words, and the rapidity with which the news spread. It seemed only a blink and my last day arrived.
Honestly, it should have happened much earlier. One thing I now recognize about myself after fifty-plus years is that I am slow to action. I ponder too much. I love philosophy and turning over ideas in my mind, contemplating the best path forward – but the problem was that I rarely moved down those paths. I just thought about them. It took a prompt from an ancient thinker to finally get me moving.
In late 2017 I stumbled across The Daily Stoic, a daily missive and website that focuses on Stoic philosophy and its most noted practitioners such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. I dove in with vigor. What could their experiences from lifetimes ago do for me in the 21st Century? What I found is that human experience is universal and has a way of resurfacing when we need it. The more I read, the more I became a fan of this perspective. A philosophy focused on action and virtues, not just esoterica.
While lofty ideas were certainly critical to the Stoics, there was something even more critical to them for a life well lived - action. I realized if I was to live fruitfully, my life must proceed beyond the world of ideas. Slowly, the scales fell away from my eyes, and I saw what was holding me back. I had been hiding behind a perceived disrespect for me and my chosen vocation, behind my criticisms of other’s actions or inaction - for years! I realized I was the issue, no one else. I chose to feel slighted. I chose to feel disrespected, unheard, ignored. It was my problem. When I realized that I had the power to choose my own reaction, that the situation is neutral, and that it was my choice to respond positively or negatively, well…my mind was blown. Could it really be this simple?
Yes, it could. That was the turning point. From here onward, I had to choose my reactions, my path. No more decisions made rashly or out of spite, but consciously, thoughtfully, and with intention. After careful planning, discussions with my wife, and my regular paycheck in the rearview mirror; I set off for the forest.
VANAPRASTHA – RETIREMENT?
My propensity for philosophical thought, for curiosity, for new experiences, has led me in many directions throughout my life. I’m drawn to meaning and things that inspire it. I need connection – with family, friends, mentors, and the more-than-human world. I crave ideas that challenge me. However, I have always balanced those needs with my need for fun and joy and inspiration. I have had an email signature on my personal email account for years. I never change it because it fits me and my personal perspective so well. It’s from E.B. White and it states: “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult."
In Hinduism, life revolves around four ashramas or stages. Simplified, those stages are Learning, Family, Retirement, and Detachment. Those stages reflect roughly 25 years each. While ashrams are typically ascribed to individuals, Devdutt Pattanaik, an author and mythologist, tells us that the ashram system is alive and well in global corporate systems - “When one takes up a job, one spends a lot of time learning the new job. This is Brahmacharya. Then a point comes when the learning stops, and one becomes increasingly productive with higher and higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness. This is Grihastha. Then there’s a stage when one outgrows a job. One desires to move on.
This is the time when one must step into Vanaprastha, the twilight zone, when one empowers and enables the next generation to step in. Conventionally, Vanaprastha is seen as retirement. But it can be seen as the stage when one passes on one’s skill and knowledge to the next generation so that they can flourish while one moves on. The ashrama system need not be applied only to one’s entire professional life - it can be applied to each role one takes up. If we have to grow, we have to constantly keep retiring.”
I want to draw your attention to the third stage of life: Vanaprastha (vanna-prass-ta). It translates as ‘retiring into the forest.’ This stage of life begins at age 50. When I saw that translation, I read it in surprise and excitement. Wasn’t this exactly what I was doing? And at the right age too.
It seems I was in the process of discovering what Meera Seth states in her book Vanaprastha (A Joyous Journey Toward Liberation):
“We have to learn the art of living, but alongside we need to learn the art of leaving. Vanaprastha is not the age of helplessness. People have not arrived into uselessness. They have arrived into becoming supportive of and useful to society. Vanaprastha is the age of resilience. Don't delve into the past or worry about the future. Just continue and be, and remain steadfast in the pursuit of spiritual knowledge. Vanaprastha is the creation of unencumbered time, regardless of one's physical age. It is a time for freeing oneself from ambition-driven action as well as burdensome relationships and desires.”
Yes! That’s exactly what I was doing – freeing myself and using the newly-discovered breathing space to find meaning for myself, to grow. Once on the path, I could help others find meaning and inspiration – something I knew I enjoyed.
As I contemplated what this next stage of my life would encompass, I knew that it had to be a balance between the philosophical and the inspirational. It also had to be action oriented. Looking at contemporary society, I see imbalance everywhere. We pride ourselves in taking the prize for most hours worked in a week. Acquiring the largest house with the most stuff. We have FOMO on events that suck our souls dry. We’d rather doom scroll on our permanent technological appendages than have a conversation with our kids. Why? It doesn’t make any sense. We have forgotten what a balanced life looks like. The Japanese have a specific word for death from overwork? Karoshi. What does that tell us about our global society when there is a word for such a sad and preventable event?
One benefit I noticed that emerged from living with COVID-19 – people began to wake up to the acuity of their imbalanced lives. Our collective eyes were opened to what life looks like when every decision must be more intentional. We don’t want to die from a microscopic virus or from our jobs. It’s clear there are millions of fans of this new world. Having experienced what a more balanced life feels like, we are simply choosing to opt out of jobs that lack this feature.
Interestingly, there are places that thrive on balance. Where it isn’t an afterthought, but an essential link in an interdependent chain. Where are these places? How can we tap into their synchronicity? I discovered them long ago, but had forgotten their power and mostly ignored them day to day. I was grateful to reacquaint myself with them. Others have rediscovered them recently too – because for a brief time they were all we had to stave off our mounting cabin fever. These places are outside your door, down the block, in your town or your state – they are the green spaces and places of our planet - parks, trails, woods, lakes, forests, wilderness.
A leading ecologist at the University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, has been dedicating her life’s work – the past 40 years – to exploring the interconnected balance of the forests. Her recent New York Times best seller ‘Finding the Mother Tree’, highlights these balanced communities in striking detail. The Japanese are keenly aware of these deep balanced connections present in nature. A majority of their country is mountains and forests. Their native religion is Shinto, a belief system that finds gods within stones, and trees, and waterfalls. The Japanese have four other words and ideas that compel me: Komorebi – the distinct look of sunlight filtered through leaves, Wabi Sabi -finding beauty in rustic simplicity and senescence , Ikigai – a reason for living, purpose , and Shinrin Yoku (Forest Bathing) – taking in the forest air with all your senses.
All those words, in my mind, emerge and cascade from Shinrin Yoku. I felt it when I traveled to northern California for my training as a certified forest therapy guide. I feel it every day when I have my coffee at my ‘sit spot’ on my back deck, and when I’m guiding groups through green hidden gems just miles from our homes. I was reminded that THIS is what I felt when I was 5 or 6 years old, pleading constantly with my mother to drive me through a spectacular forest preserve near my grandmother’s house. Overflowing with maples and featuring a winding drive that ascended and descended through dappled green light, I couldn’t get enough of that place.
This connection has been in me for a long time. What’s interesting is that it’s actually in all of us. In our DNA. For hundreds of thousands of years our species existed as a part of nature, not apart from it as we do today. Human beings have written, painted, told stories, sung songs about nature’s wonders across millennia. That imprint is strong, and still there. We just need to remember our way back to the sustaining vitality nature has decided to share with us. And let’s be clear, Mother Nature doesn’t need to share anything with us. Like this fantastic video makes clear, she’s been around 22,500 times longer than us and will continue to be here once we’re gone. That’s a powerful library of accumulated wisdom that we could tap if we chose to see our relationship as reciprocal rather than extractive.
That is why the act of remembering is important for us to reclaim our balance and ourselves. One of my most erudite colleagues, Ben Page, framed remembering as a two-pronged etymology that has really stuck with me. In the most familiar sense of the word – remembering is tapping our memory, retrieving something from the dark synapses of our mind. But re-membering is also an act of healing, of putting our bodies back together. I believe, given our evolution with the natural world, that intentional immersion within the forests helps us remember and re-establish those long-severed connections.
This act of reconnecting humanity and nature for the benefit of both is my vanaprastha. I smile as I step back and see my choice has literally led me into the forest as the third Vedic ashrama indicates. However, I don’t see myself as retiring from work. I am learning the ‘art of leaving’ one state and entering another. Coming back to what Pattanaik said: “If we have to grow in each role, we have to constantly keep retiring.” I designed landscapes for 20 years. My decisions during that time will affect how people will interact with place for the next 50 to 75 years or more. I don’t see any of that experience as wasted, lost, or irrelevant to this current stage of my life. I have retired the specific actions present in that phase of my life, but not the knowledge gained.
I love that the place I am at now emerged from the ancients. Ancient philosophers, ancient belief systems, ancient connections to even more ancient beings – the trees. I feel I’ve been entrusted with their ancient message to carry forth into the maw of an interminably individualistic society – we’re not meant to exist without community; without nature’s help we wither and die - literally. Remember that little thing called oxygen? Everything a tree needs must come to it – it depends on the community of other living beings, on rain, on soil, on our CO2, to provide it what it needs to thrive. Are we thriving right now? No. We’re not. But we could be…
That’s why I chose the forest.