Backpacking for Cosmic Sanity

 Final paper for “Ecological Postmodernism” with Professors Charlene Spretnak and Brian Swimme at California Institute of Integral Studies Spring 2003

Caution: If you have seen Blair Witch Project your views of this paper may be skewed. BWP inductees have been known to panic when imagining themselves in the isolated wilderness images. Please note these views are based on fear and should be dealt with in therapy, perhaps by systematic desensitization, before proceeding.


Close your eyes and listen. Can you hear your breathing? Deeply in your nose, full body swelling to contain the rich earthy smell of soil still warm from the day’s sun, the cool, intoxicating ozone of impending rain, the delicate prickly roughness of pine. Hold it inside you until you can’t hold it anymore. Out through your mouth with abandon, body collapsing to the support of the ground and embrace of the trees and stars weighing in on you – spent, from trying to fathom the miracle of separateness.

Can you hear your breathing? As it whispers through the trees? As it tickles the giggling creek? Can you hear your breathing in the owl hoot, in the wolf’s howl? Can you hear the darkness bringing heaviness to your eyelids? Can you feel it? Are you dreaming yet?

The night was spent rearranging to keep your toes warm. You’ve cocooned down into a your sleeping bag and developed an almost sufficient method of rolling your hat down to cover your nose so that its warm and you can still breath. Somehow the light of dawn gently brings you back to the world and you flop around to check the status of your fellow campers – mounds of sleeping bag, impossible to tell if they’re awake or not. You hear a stove turn on outside. That means hot cocoa. There’s a slight consideration of trying to dress inside your sleeping bag based on a recall of the frigid bathroom venture in the middle of the night, before deciding to emerge from the tent in-chrysalis. Granted, a feat rarely attempted and scoffed at by naysayers, but it’s 10 degrees out there and the hot cocoa’s not coming to you. Simplicity wins out again. So one arm emerges into the cold, grabs the glasses to put on your face, brr, and unzips the tent. The stove starter outside looks to see who is stirring and can’t help but smirk at the Kafka-like vision of living sleeping bag emerging / flailing from the tent, soon upright and hopping on over to the cocoa.

The sun creeps down from its teasing position on the mountain tops until finally it bathes the camp in warmth. By now everyone is up, sipping cocoa and marveling at how much easier it is to get up when waking up into a world more spectacular than their dreams for once, like waking up in the arms of a lover, but way less complicated. With hikers fed, water bottles filled from the creek and camp packed into packs, we’re off for the peak in the distance, birds singing and squirrels scampering ahead in due deference to our menacing claps, intended for the bears.

There is something about a wilderness backpacking experience that produces in many people something of a perspective shift. It’s a very different world than most of us come from, so it’s not too remarkable that we would think differently in the midst of it. There’s a different texture to woodsy experience than city experience. The values are different. Time flows more easily.   But the remarkable thing is that the experience tends to stick with us when we re-enter the bustle of everyday life. Not only does it stick with us, but it draws us back to the wilderness again and again, out of respect for the place and for ourselves when we’re in it. The experience gives us meaning as part of a story larger than that of our earnings or screwed up relationships. It puts us in relation to the earth and to the stars, thereby as part of their stories which encompass, and therefore trump, the shortcomings of our lives as modern people. This is the key in the task at hand.

As a player in the Universe’s struggle to birth an ecological age through Earth’s humanity, I marvel at the daunting task ahead, wonder how it will all play out and what role I might play. It’s a matter of fairly basic logic, from a wide perspective; to see that here in the West we’re consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. The only final law is the dollar, leaving ethics by the wayside and creating devastatingly imbalanced relationships on a personal and global level. The trick to solving the problem is first seeing it as a problem, and to do this requires a very wide view. Unfortunately, right now we’re intellectually geared toward narrowing, analyzing, criticizing, and picking apart in order to understand rather than synthesizing, building up, or seeing relationships. The big picture is working its way back in slowly, and anything we can do to in the way of midwifery to move that birth along will be helpful.

We’ve spent the entire semester detailing the problematic symptoms of modernity in various aspects of life and seeking helpful ways to re-envision ourselves not only as products of modernity, but as its transformative agents. The remedies have centered on developing a framework of thought, ecological postmodernism, which holds as central, the knowing body, complex sense of place and creative cosmos. In the following paragraphs I’ll outline some of the dissociative effects of western modernity on the individual psyche and explore backpacking as a possible method of reintegration.

Being vs. Grasping

Perhaps the most obvious contribution of modernity to the individual psyche is that of the autonomous self. The pressure of society upon a person is to become self-sufficient, self-contained, self-reliant, independent and free. Dependencies are looked upon as a weakness of character, an inhibition of one’s personal gain and status. As Charlene appropriately expresses, “The heroic figures of modern literature boldly escape their place of origin and head for the new promised land: the city, with its sprawling urban potential rising from flattened hills and filled in stream beds, offering anonymity and heady autonomy in exchange for nearly everything else.” (Spretnak, 1997) Therefore, as it is impossible to rid ourselves of dependencies, moderns must find some way to avoid acknowledging them.

Conveniently, the broader modern characteristic, which contains the notion of autonomous self, of separation, values things, not relationships, facilitating the extraction of self from context. Once relationships fall by the wayside in the shadow of piles of stuff, we are severed from our complex interconnectedness, left with many things and no relationships. The problem here is that relationships are where meaning is held. Without relationships we have no meaning, no purpose, and no ethics. Carl Anthony also notes, in a conversation with Theodore Roszak, this issue as at the heart of racism as well as eco-psychology, thus intertwining the two issues, “…this separation within the human community (racism) is deeply reflected in the separation between people and nature.” (Roszak et al, 1995)

Human and personal history is a story of increasing complexification. Our lives gradually grow from a finite number of variables and relationships, a context limited by mobility, to an exponential multiplication of variables as mobility expands, and, with it, consciousness. Gradually one ceases to be able to keep track of all the variables and their complex interrelated intricacies, so then immediacy takes priority. And what are immediate are things, not processes or relationships. Perhaps a striking example of the contrast between the problematic nature of rigid objectification abstracted from its context of relationships to meet an immediate desire, and a contextually embedded relationship allowed to change as necessary might be the contrast of prostitution to marriage. Somehow we’ve managed to allow money to sever us from all responsibility, as if it could be a fair trade for anything. The main responsibility of any relationship is awareness of your impact, not just cognitively, but felt. If all your relationships are touch-and-go, it’s hard to understand your impact.

Relationships take time to develop. In a fast changing world, where time is carefully parceled out to meet certain needs – mainly gaining physical things – often the time to develop relationships is not allotted for. A trek into the wilderness physically removes you from the multiplicity of things which demand your attention. Time no longer has to be parceled out judiciously. As John Muir put it, ”Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” One can release and sink in deeply. This is the duration experience that is missing from today’s hyper-technocracy.

When you’re exploring new territory, you’re in survival mode. What do I need now, and how can I get it now? It is practically impossible to realistically think about the future when you have no past relationship to the place to base future notions on. In the modern world, like the wild world, we’re always exploring new territory, but the key difference is quantity. The modern world has an infinite list of demands. In wilderness you require only food, water and shelter. Once those are set, you can truly relax, without some other “to do” hanging over your head. Fear is simpler in the wilderness too. I mean, you’ve got bears, injury, and getting lost, and that’s pretty much the whole list, all nice and tangible. And because the feedback loops are smaller, one can quickly learn to strike a balance of reasonable caution which doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment of the trip. When you are situated in a consistent environment, even when that environment is harsh, your situatedness offers hope based on real experience and thus displaces fear. Our physical and mental space transitioned from a fixed world to a changing world and we have yet to catch up spiritually or emotionally.

When we remove ourselves from that situatedness, bodily, we must establish a new relationship to hope and fear, now disembedded and detached from continuous experience of history and place. When detached from consistency it is much easier to fall into a dissonant worldview. Normally one’s embeddedness would be the judge of the worldview. But now if your worldview doesn’t work somewhere, you can just leave, or just look at the facts that support your view. Thus the dissonance between one’s cognitive process and one’s lived experience can proliferate.

As moderns we fear losing all our things. We hope for more things and greater productivity. The modern relationship to hope, fear, and time is largely based on things, which seem nice and solid now and don’t require time to build up. Yet this is the great misconception of our time. Things do take time to build up, as much time as relationships. Nouns are just bound verbs, like a curled up dimension of space-time. If we, verb-like in our true nature, spend all of our time with nouns, we will surely feel lost and disconnected. We spend our time to make money, to have things, when we could be spending our time to build relationships, to have meaning.

Perhaps fundamentally tied up with our conceptions of things over relationships/ process/ meaning, and nouns over verbs is our conception of space and time. Space we have managed to domesticate, and control to serve our purposes, at least on a small level. Time, however, as measurable as it is, we have not been able to exercise any power over. It continually evades our grasp and our desires for its behavior. It remains wild. As Brian and Thomas tell us, “A wild is a great beauty that seethes with intelligence that is ever surprising and refreshing for the human mind to behold.” (Swimme & Berry, 1994) Time laughs at our futile attempts to stop it, and dawdles when we would have it fly. In our resentment of time’s freedom, we devalue its untamed counterparts, including processes, in favor of the more manipulatable versions, things. Feeling, perhaps, that the more things we own, the more time we have managed to conquer into nice little packages. They mean we’re winning, we have the most power!

We all want something for nothing, our own little piece of miraculous magic. And, ironically, we think we can make this happen. But there is always a trade off. Just because we tell ourselves that what we traded was worthless doesn’t make it true. We often trade our most valuable gifts, our time and relationships, for material things. So we work really hard, hoping to make it big, hoping to win the lottery, when the fact of the matter is, all that pales in comparison to the something-for-nothing-miracle we’ve already been given, life.

Relationships and meaning are patterns, hidden or invisible to one rushing across the surface of life, hopping from one thing to the next, never seeing more than one at a time. But if one allows for time to sink down into the depths of a moment, where the complexity can wash over you, the world is suddenly colored, vibrant, alive and full of relationship and meaning. The world is more like you than you thought!

There is so much we need to come to terms with in this life in order to really be in relationship to it rather than wrapped up in our own little imaginarily disconnected worlds. We try to control both time and space by filling them. We are afraid of the ego-emptiness, of death and of responsibility. We’ve tried to remove them, and we’ve suffered the consequences. If you act as if you have no responsibility, then no one relies on you and you have no meaning. Without death, life loses its momentum. Without emptiness, fullness is stagnant.

In the wilds death is constantly underfoot. And when one can’t avoid it, one can’t help but notice its relationship role and meaning in the greater scheme of things. Massive fallen trees are hiding hovels for little creatures and nurseries for fascinating fungi and new plants. In this context one’s own death takes on a much gentler form of energy recycling itself into new forms. So we get to participate in new ways beyond death through the immortality of energy. In coming to terms with death, we can quit grasping for life and actually be alive!

Grasping is the root of the emptiness of the modern world. Being allows the depth and fullness of each moment to flourish. To grasp something is to imply you don’t already have it. To be something is to accept the power and responsibility inherent in your being. Capitalism is based on competitive grasping, and is seeking to validate itself by enveloping the world in its cycle of need and greed. Ecology is based on mutually enhancing cooperation which encourages true being and identity in relationship.

We are a society overextended. The reach of our actions’ ramifications greatly surpasses that which we are willing to engage, willing to allow into our being. Our need for autonomy is so great we delude ourselves into thinking, “better bargain, better for me” without a thought as to the fairness of the exchange for the labor invested in the product. For the sake of “efficiency” we’ve divided labor and with this division increased the degrees of separation between ourselves and those whose services we depend on. In this overextension the buck gets passed, literally, as money accumulates in the hands of middle men, and figuratively, as responsibility is continually passed off on the next person in the chain. Eventually there is no moral recompense for any action beyond how cheap you can get it.

Increased mobility and division of labor set a perfect stage for the rise of big business (the ultimate middle man) and consequently, people’s migration to the cities and estrangement from the land. The drive for production eventuates in loss of community. Once again “things” devalue relationships.


So today, we find people waking up from the narrow perspectives of modernity to broader perspectives and humongous problems which arose as we slumbered. The task of facing this giant and refusing to return to blissful sleep is one which requires precisely those tools which have been stripped from us while we slept: trusting relationships with our bodies, our communities, our earth and our universe. The trigger to the path of awakening is different for everyone: disease, curiosity, and divorce, death of a loved one, losing a job, education, spiritual quest, service, or travel to the three quarters world. But it is easy for no one. It is the transition from a stable world viewed from within, to a precariously perched world viewed from without. And once you’ve seen it from the outside, your relationship to hope, fear, and anger changes drastically. Once you see the destructive neglect of the modern world for the larger world, if you can allow yourself to care about the larger world, then, to hold that pain and continue within the inflicting system requires great strength, courage and faith against great fear, anger and pain.

Success, in this endeavor of awakening, requires a certain momentum. I mean you open your eyes and there’s a monster staring at you, with red eyes and fangs! It’s kind of like the alarm clock – let’s just hit the snooze button and close our eyes again, OK? But here’s the hitch, you helped create the monster, so if you close your eyes again you get eaten. Here’s where the momentum comes in – if you can keep your eyes open long enough you will see more than just the monster, you’ll see the place. And your mind will churn out a bazillion different plans for dealing with this situation now that you have a context and resources, like trees to climb from which you can survey the scene and buy some time. It’s the same way with awakening to the midst of the tragedy of the modern project, you just want to give up, but if you hang with it you start to get your bearings and feel the support of the earth, who has tackled problems like this before, of the universe, who can’t wait to see what happens next, of people already pulling on the monster’s tail, and of your body, who you can finally hear.

And since we need as many people as we can get to tackle this monster, and all amounts of shaking poking and prodding seem to achieve little if a person isn’t ready to wake up on their own, it would be great if we could have a team constantly monitoring the field and as soon as someone’s eyes flutter open…Hah Hah! We’re on them and we hold their eyes open!! OK, that might be counter productive. Maybe if we just stand by the monster waving or something, to offer a little vision of hope, they’ll stick around and help us out. Theodore Roszak is standing by the monster waving, “Those of us who feel trapped in an increasingly ecocidal urban, industrial society need all the help we can find in overcoming our alienation from the more-than-human world on which we depend for every breath we breathe.” (Roszak et al, 1995) It’s hard not to get anxious about getting people up when the monster, fueled by the dreams of the sleepers, is eating entire species, forests and people as well as producing extremely noxious odors. But, like I said, the best we can do, it seems, is distract the monster from its task, wait for people to wake up, and try not to laugh when they say they just had the worst nightmare.

It seems that with the current popularity of self help pop psychology and a resurgence of spirituality in contrast to the materialist 80’s that people are more and more willing to take on the complexity of relationships rather than hunkering down in the supposed solidity of things. In fact it is the things themselves which are revolting and refusing to be things. Quantum mechanics keeps trying to pin the buggers down and keeps turning up in pickles like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the butterfly effect, where the thing vanishes into something else. Even neuroscience is coming to recognize that there’s more to the brain than a computer. They’re tackling emotions. A recent New York Times article revealed, “‘Academics are throwing themselves into the study of emotion with the rapturous intensity of a love affair,’ The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in Feb., in an article that included a list of 25 recent scholarly books, from philosophy and history to literature and political science, all devoted to affect in one way or another.” (Eakin, 2003). As attention turns to emotion, it can not help but find the pain of the estrangement. As we set about reintegrating ourselves, we will hit the pain of earth, and then the healing can begin.

Facing this pain is not easy, and people do need certain skills that will not only help them face their pain but also help them to find their pain. So some of us can go in as “dream guides” to prepare people for the scary information that’s out there. We are: teachers – Montessori and Waldorf; architects – Hunderwasser; philosophers – Whitehead; psychologists – Jung; scientists – Capra and Wilson; students, farmers, moms, CEOs, businessmen, artists, and poets.

We are wilderness guides. The great outdoors is a growing trend in the west. Just look at the REI proliferation, or count the number of hiking boots, high performance fleece sweatshirts, or four wheel drive SUVs you see on the streets of San Francisco. The market has identified/created the deep longing in the American middle class for the challenge and rugged individualism lacking in their daily boring lives. Not only did they identify it, they went right on to amplify this impulse and make it so ridiculously obvious that we can’t help but use it for our own purposes, heh heh.

Not that Americans have a problem with the hypocrisy of portraying themselves as something they’re not, because that’s obviously not the case. But our hunger for the intense wilderness experiences as a status symbol of daredevil individualism to back up the garb is almost as great as our hunger for the stuff itself. Luckily, “grasping” can lead to “being”, in some contexts, especially when thwarted. Take, for example, the average American citizen who craves the image of self-assured individualism portrayed by outdoor gear propaganda. So maybe buying the stuff makes you decide to go for a hike, or maybe you can’t buy the stuff, so you get the image by going for a hike rather than by buying the stuff. And what might just happen on that hike? It is precisely these wilderness encounters which have the potential to lead to an unexpected awakening of relationship to body, place and universe. People masquerading as rugged individualists are inevitably placed in situations which truly test their façade and lead them to discover their own humility and deep need for interrelatedness.

The lessons of the wilds…

Backpacking is a very effective means for restoring balance to life’s relationships. First of all, it shrinks your circles of dependency. The feedback loops are smaller. If you don’t keep a tidy camp, you get visited by a bear. If you don’t get water, you get thirsty. On a solo trip it’s all up to you. Even in a small group there is, at most, one degree of separation between you and the person upon who you are depending for food or shelter. Thus a person who considers themselves an independent person will come to realize just how much they depend on others.

Let’s a take for example a young man, we’ll call him Fred, brought up in a home where Mom took care of everything. Upon leaving home, Fred gets a maid, eats out most of the time, uses exorbitant amounts of water and doesn’t even recycle, persisting in habits of dependency despite his delusions of independence. When Fred goes backpacking with EcoPoMo Tours, he finds that he develops a new awareness for consumption, waste and the processes of maintenance.

First of all, he has to carry a 50 pound backpack with all of his supplies in it. The first pack Fred packed weighed 95 lbs. But the kind guide quickly warned him against that sort of thing. And by the middle of the 7 mile hike on the first day, Fred was ready to leave half of the rest of his supplies right there on the trail, including his tent. Once again the all-knowing guides intervened and took on a few pounds from Fred’s pack into theirs. Fred managed to finish the hike from some unknown store of energy and by the third night, when it was pouring rain, Fred was thankful again for the wise guidance. Here Fred begins to appreciate the balance between simplicity and necessity, between self-denial and over-consumption, between independence and interdependence.

As Fred prepared his own meals, cleaned his own dishes with water he filtered from the creek, and packed out all the trash he produced, he gradually began to think a little differently. As his well trusted guides seeded a few comments on ecology and sprinklings of, “Here a statistic, there a statistic,” he began to think, “I can’t believe I can fill up an entire trash can in one day at home, and here it’s a mere two wrappers.” and “Wow, it barely takes a cup of water to clean my dishes.”

Thus we see the fruits of simplicity bloom when we really pare down to just what we need. No extra food around for those boredom snack breaks. No extra clothes or dishes to avoid cleaning the ones you dirtied. No makeup, no deodorant, no hair gel, no high heels, no fingernail polish, no razors, no mirrors, no problem. No barriers, no cover ups, no hiding, just real unadulterated relationship, and surprise, people still put up with you! The earth for your bed, the stars for your night time contemplation, your companions for comic relief and bear protection. Life starts to look OK

Now let’s look at Kennedy’s experience with EcoPoMo Tours. Kennedy is 15; she comes to us overweight and pissed off. Her hobbies include junk food, TV and having cut-down competitions with equally angst-ridden “friends”.   Day one: relentless complaining. Day two: sullen silence. Day three: Kennedy spots a deer before anyone else. Day four: Kennedy decides to share a little bit about her family in response to something shared by another hiker. Day Five: Kennedy learns that she is made of stardust. Day six: Kennedy offers to filter water for the group. Day seven: Kennedy shares a poem she’s written:

Sometimes I think
I’m right on the brink
It’d be so easy to wink
out of existence.

But I feel something here,
not like the fear of a leer
not causing tears,

More like that deer,
Standing in the clear,
Peacefully here,
then gone
Like a song

We go along
Loosely together

Free to resound

As Kennedy began to appreciate the transience and beauty of being and wildness, the pain of grasping slid into the background and she sank into herself deeply and solidly. She began to drink from the life-giving spring of unified immanence and transcendence.

So the universe is slowly learning to care for itself as its new child, Consciousness, broadens its concern beyond itself. The earth is learning to learn from her body. We are her learning from her body. We awake to relationships we’ve long denied and set about making amends. To recognize ourselves, to recognize our relations, to recognize our woundedness, only then can we begin to heal. Only then can be begin to live what we grasp for. The earth teaches us her simplicity, her caution, her creativity, her vigor, her strength, her flexibility, our confidence, our humility, our love, our meaning. To know the history and the roots of a thing is to know its character. The Tao Te Ching shows our true character rooted in our mother the earth, in the infinitude of our universe. Perhaps the wilderness is the crucible through which our wayward individualism may once again arrive at the values of simplicity, humility, balance, peace, meaning and relationship. Lao-Tzu tells us, “Materiality makes things real, but non-materiality gives shape to things by cutting away certain portions and so renders them useful.” (Carcus, 2000) We have made ourselves real, now perhaps we can make ourselves useful.


Carcus, Paul. The Teachings of LaoTzu. New York, New York. St. Martin’s Press. 2000.

Eakin, Emily. “I Feel, Therefore I Am.” New York Times. April 19, 2003.

Ratzloff, J. “Life Changing Journey” viewed April 22, 2003.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E Gomes and Allen Kanner. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. “Where Psyche Meets Gaia” Sierra Club Books. 1995.

Spretnak, Charlene. The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World. New York, New York. Routledge. 1999.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, New York. Harper Collins. 1994.


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