Seventy-three million mosquitoes, lentil stew every night, and a complete lack of sleep. Mix it all together, and what do you get?
A very big awakening.
When I was sixteen, I spent a summer in the woods and swamps of northern Wisconsin. I wasn’t alone – I was working at a wilderness living camp – but my most powerful teachers weren’t the other people. They were the woods itself.
Lessons From the Forest
In those three months I slept indoors for only one night (due to a run-in with the most fearsome creature in the northwoods – the striped skunk). All the rest of my time was spent in the out-of-doors.
Food was always interesting. We supplemented with wild edibles, which was fine (although the one time I demonstrated to some students the palatability of muck, I must admit that it would have benefited from a good béarnaise sauce), but the bulk of our food consisted of a sort of lentil stew each night, and oatmeal each morning.
The stew gained added nutrition from the above-mentioned wild edibles, as well as the addition of road-killed animals. Yes, in that summer I ate many unusual meats, including snapping turtle, snake, groundhog, and, I’m ashamed to say, even Bambi.
Now, though the food was undeniably interesting from a philosophical sense, it wasn’t too exciting to the taste buds. Plus, there was never quite enough. Which added up to a constant gnawing in the belly. There was food every day, but sometimes very little, and being hungry every day and lying awake to a grumbling belly . . . well, it left one with two choices – getting very annoyed or getting a new perspective.
Hunger is one thing, but being deprived of sleep is another. I had wisely come equipped with a K-mart kid’s cotton sleeping bag, really meant more for basement sleepovers than extreme wilderness situations. That was it. Pillowless, tentless, and warmth-less, I’d usually manage to find a crook in a log or a patch of high ground to sleep on. There was a lot of shifting around due to roots and rocks poking through the thin sleeping bag. And shifting had to be planned strategically, since there was always a cloud of a few hundred mosquitoes waiting for any flesh to pop out of the sleeping bag. Even with the bag up over my head, I could hear them . . . the constant drone of innumerable wings, each pair supporting one of the world’s best inventions for challenging a human’s sense of sanity. Again, I either had to suffer from sleep deprivation, or get a new perspective.
How To Get A New Perspective
Life is full of choices like this. Either suffer, or get a new perspective. But even when we decide to get a new perspective, we usually go about it in the wrong way. I’m not talking about ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’, or thinking ‘it could be worse’. These methods only tend to create more negative thinking, increasing our tendency to manifest more of what we’re not looking for.
On one level, a constructive way to change perspective is to start seeing the positive in any given situation. Start practicing this. Really. This works especially well if you consider the massive amount of ‘unknowns’ regarding any situation. A good example of how much we don’t know about any given situation is found in this Zen story.
Also, when you find yourself feeling down or frustrated, stop and take a look at the thoughts associated with those emotions. If you look carefully, you’ll always find that any given emotion is tied to a thought. If you practice mindfulness enough, and are able to experience periods of ‘no-thought’, you’ll find that a thought-less state doesn’t manifest emotions – at least not emotions as we usually know them.
Once you notice what your thoughts are, become aware of how they are shaping your world. If you are thinking that everyone in the world is mean, then you’re probably acting in a manner that is going to encourage people to treat you just as you’re expecting. If you think everyone is nice, and you walk around with that assumption, you’ll find that 90% of the human population has a ready smile and is eager to be friendly. Guaranteed.
On a deeper level, the perfect perspective is actually a lack of perspective. This is what I encountered in the woods – so much discomfort that everything sort of transitioned. Suddenly I was exactly where I was. Right in the moment. I wasn’t hungry, because hunger isn’t a gnawing in the belly. Hunger is a mental projection into the future. It’s the mind saying – ‘When will I get food? A big hunk of chocolate would be so good right now, or a hamburger, or just a glass of milk . . .’
This becomes a sort of mental torture, and it’s common knowledge that our body reacts strongly to our state of mind.
Truly having a lack of perspective is actually even more profound than that, since it’s really about not even having an ‘I’ that can be hungry. But that’s fodder for the Deeper Understanding section of this website.