Finding Sanctuary in Turbulent Times

By Seth Kahan

Periodically I head to the wilderness with my dog, just the two of us, to clear my head and allow deeper stirrings to emerge. Alone in Nature, with a capital N, I have been able to find sanctuary. I have tried churches and synagogues and community centers to no avail. It is with trees, rain, mountain streams, bears, dirt, and campfires that my soul finds its place in the world.

In the summer of 2020 I headed into the Adirondacks, along the North Fork of the Bouquet River, with my companion, Sita. She is a 110-pound German Shepherd, and a soul mate if ever there was one. The two of us carried our packs into the northeastern forest, to spend five days and four nights alone along the trail.

I had been suffering. For almost four years. Bleeding inside as I watched our 45th president have his way with the country, enabled by 52 senior statespeople who stood by while he visibly abused his power and authority. It was the culmination for me. It reminded me of Hitler’s rise to power, enabled as it was by men in positions of authority. Our national leaders, the Republican Senate, did not have to explicitly come out and say what he said. They only had to turn their heads and allow him to say it. It had me in knots. So, off to the woods I went, looking for solace from non-humans.

Our time together in the Adirondacks was tremendous. Even the one day that rained from dawn to dusk, confining the two of us to our tent mostly, was a spiritual reprieve from the ordeals I faced at home. It allowed me to settle inside, to find my Center, with a capital C to accompany the capital N mentioned above. It happened slowly and dependably.

When Sita and I emerged from the wilderness I walked slowly, feeling the Earth give beneath my step. I was connected to the planet, literally grounded. I had the dirt under my fingernails and in the tiny ridges of my fingerprints to prove it. Each breath was a prayer. 

The car, big, shiny, and metal, was my bridge back to the world of humans. On the way down from the parking lot to the highway I hit a rut and dislodged a panel under my door. Fitting. The woods took one more part of me that appeared to the outer world as perfect and gave it a good, hard knock, whacking it out of its perfect position. I didn’t mind. It felt right.

Not twenty minutes on the road and it came up, like vomit, a surging anger buried beneath the peace.

It was the thought of children being torn from their families, used as a deterrent to immigrants, without regard for the psychological damage inflicted. The fury was stark against my peace, and I pulled over. What do I do? I was scared.

I knew that I wanted to be engaged, and to do that I needed to know the truth of the atrocities. How would I digest what was going on in my world and remain clear-eyed so I could take right action? Sustainable action that makes a difference, makes an impact, that was my goal. And already I had been knocked off balance. 

My quest was clearly defined. I needed to know how I would take care of myself, provide my inner world with the stability it required for me to gain clarity about my position, my assets, and my methods for disarming this looming corruption in human values. 

That’s when the second wave came, grief. It poured over me and I was a drowning man. Just a few years earlier I had basked in the glory of our first African-American president winning his second term in office. Never mind his accomplishments, his election was our accomplishment as a country. We, the people who had launched an experiment in representative democracy on the backs of slaves… we, the melting pot of immigrants who fought a war, brother against brother, to forge equality… we, the crafters of the 13th, 14th, and 19thAmendments to the Constitution embedding equality in our laws. It all washed away as I watched tens of millions of voters go beyond electing a white supremacist to organizing, speaking out, and perpetrating violence out in the open without repercussion. 

I fought for air. Coming up again and again on the side of the highway in my little car, with my trusted companion in the back seat watching in silence as I sobbed and heaved. I knew in my heart of hearts there was a way forward for me. But first I had to let go of what I thought was stable ground. I had to open myself to the horrifying reality of my nation and its citizens. I reached up and thankfully found something to grab onto.

It was nothing, really. 

Nothing literally.

It was the emptiness of my own being. The severely bare experience of life that I re-discovered in the woods along with the wolf-like creature who now panted in the back seat. There was something important that I had regained that was not dogma, nor was it ideology. It was a sense of my own life and the value I brought by virtue of my own existence. 

I remember the story of the Buddha being challenged while he was achieving enlightenment by the king of the demons. He was asked something like, ‘What right have you to have this experience?’ In response he simply put his hand on the Earth. That story zipped through my mind and reminded me that my experience of life is real, including my grief, anger, and desire to respond. Something deep inside anchored, not to the Buddhist tale, but to my sweat and tears, my grime that now felt holy to me. 

I took the time to waver and wobble until I finally came back to my position behind the wheel. I didn’t want to just start driving. I felt too raw. I was unsure of my response time as a driver. I sat there until the profundity of the moment began to pass. This, too, was part of my quest in the wilderness, this re-entry. 

I came back and re-engaged. Made phone calls. Reached out to friends. Organized responses. And important to me and my sanity, I set a date for my next camping trip with my canine companion. Here the balance swings for me: between the state of my society and the truth of wilderness. I am a pendulum. I have a pivot, that fixed point from which I swing. The pivot is my experience, my awareness. Simple as that sounds, for me it takes a good deal to keep it strong and healthy. Including regular trips off the grid with Sita. 

©  2021 Seth Kahan

Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. But he can still hang out and tell stories.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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