by Lawrence Schuessler, Gaia U MSc Candidate
16 years of my life I have been working in the outdoor education field. I have worked for colleges, private schools, guide companies, mindfulness programs and many well known outdoor education programs. Currently, I manage the Outward Bound California base camp in Joshua Tree, California where we run 3-22 day backpacking and rock climbing expeditions. In this role, I have the opportunity to mentor and train staff and help create a culture that inspires and motivates them to be the best versions of themselves.
The idea to begin this project came to my colleagues and myself as we were talking about what we thought about what was sometimes lacking for the training of instructors in our field. We talked about how some instructors were not fully aware of their own process, not fully conscious of how their ego affects their instructing or aware of the effects of these things on their students. We each spoke about how the more time we spend working on our personal process and working through our own “stuff”, the more we can be present for both students as well as our co-instructors. We all admitted that we struggle daily with knowing how to approach a given situation, or how to respond. If we speak from the heart and pay attention to our own opinions as well as our own edges, then we can come from a non-attached place and be more honest and open about what we think. This practice is never-ending. If we are not practicing meditation or taking the space and time to pause during our busy lives, we can easily fall back into acting in a way that is reactive. Practicing mindfulness, along with deepening our connection to nature, has been crucial in our personal development and also has a positive effect on our ability to connect with students. We tossed around the idea of having a staff training that would create opportunities to practice mindfulness and how to incorporate mindfulness into the courses we teach.
After getting the green light to offer this expedition, Rafi (a colleague I have known for many years) and I began to think about curriculum that could be included in the training. At the time, we were not sure exactly what topics to include. One thing we did know is that we wanted to allow more space to “drop in” during this training. Outward Bound trainings tend to focus on skills, safety concerns, and educational frameworks. On almost every Outward Bound training that I have been part of, there is a feeling of trying to cram as much information as possible into a short period of time.
For this new training, we were hoping to create a container for the experience that is widely outside the scope of a typical Outward Bound training. At many Outward Bound schools, there is an annual Staff Expedition, which is somewhat different from a training, though participants still walk away from it with new learning. In this case, we were offering a new spin on a Staff Expedition. This experience would hopefully give me and the other participants an unparalleled opportunity to delve more deeply into questions that we don’t usually have time for in the more standard trainings.
After the excitement of getting the go-ahead on our Staff Expedition, Rafi and I began talking about where to hold it. An idea that was thrown out was the Sierra Nevada mountains since that is where the main Outward Bound California base camp is located. However, both Rafi and I knew that a mountain setting would be too snowy and too cold for the atmosphere we wanted to create for this course. The training would be held in April, so we needed a more hospitable setting. Then Rafi and I both looked at each other and said “the desert!” We each knew that this landscape would help to provide the container we were hoping for. The desert has so many qualities that reflect mindfulness. The landscape is open; there is room to breathe and space to spread out. The sky is huge; you can see for miles, watch the glow of the moon, and feel the sun and stars above. In the desert, you are exposed; the landscape reflects back your emotions, it reflects back your sorrow or joy.
Both Rafi and I have been leading trips in the desert for over ten years, and we each have witnessed and experienced the power of this landscape. We both agreed that the desert would be the perfect place for this expedition to take place.
The Journey Begins
The expedition began in Midpines, California, at one of the main Outward Bound California (OBCA) base camp facilities. A large number of our staff live at this facility during the summer season. The base camp also houses offices and a gear warehouse.
When we all arrived, we took advantage of a quiet base camp to get ready for our expedition. We spent a morning greeting the staff participants and opened the expedition with a ceremony involving the facilitators’ intention. We also asked each staff member what they were hoping to gain from the expedition. It was a very powerful way to begin the trip. Then we loaded up and began our drive down to the desert. We spent two long days traveling to Utah, where we picked up the permit, our backpacks, and went to the trailhead to spend the night. That night rain poured on us, and though we stayed dry, the narrow section of the canyon that we were hoping to hike experienced a flash flood, so we avoided that section and began our journey at a different trailhead which cut off about 16 miles. Looking back, we were glad to have those miles out of the way; otherwise it would have been a rushed and physically demanding way to start the expedition.
Early the next morning, we woke to a perfect blue sky and warm sun. We asked the group to mindfully pack their bags, to pay attention to any feelings that arose and just notice those feelings. We asked them to slow down from their normal pace and to be present in the ritual of packing everything we would need for the next eight days. This may seem like an easy task for a group of outdoor educators, but it was actually quite challenging. After about two hours we circled up, bags packed and ready to go. Before we began to walk, I facilitated a “Wilderness Threshold” activity. I asked everyone to check in with themselves about how they felt as we were about to head into the wilderness. I asked them to get a piece of nature, such as a stone, a leaf, or a stick, that represented how they were feeling at that very moment. Next, we each shared a metaphor of what we were “leaving behind” and what we were “walking towards”. We explained what the object represented and then we placed the object in a line that represented the threshold we were about to cross. After each person had shared, we stepped across the threshold and made a gesture, movement or sound to show what we were walking towards. Then we put on our packs and began to walk in silence. We were heading into the unknown, we were open to possibilities, and I could tell each of us was feeling the magic that surrounded us.
After hiking for about two hours, we took a break at a small knoll covered in grasses, cacti, deep-red rocks and small flowers that were just beginning to bloom. Each person in the group slowly sat down, and no one broke the silence. I looked around and noticed that each individual in their own way was beginning to settle into the landscape, each person looked like they had left their worries or life stresses behind. This group of participants, many of whom I have known for years, were all beginning to drop in. “Dropping in” as I use the term, essentially means to open up to the landscape and the magic of nature, or the magic of the current moment. “Dropping in” can happen at any time; it happens when we get real when we are synced to the moment and to what is happening around us in a profound way.
At camp, we fell into the usual routines and chores. It was effortless, and this ease continued throughout the expedition. The routine we had at camp was to set up shelters, organize our equipment, and then meet for a facilitated activity and/or time to connect by doing a relational mindfulness activity. Relational mindfulness activities are designed to allow participants to practice interpersonal skills with conscious attention. For example, listening to another person while they share and being fully present for them (in Gaia U, we call this a “Think and Listen”). During our first few meetings, the group defined what mindfulness and deep ecology are and shared their thoughts about those topics. There were many great, insightful conversations. Deep ecology was a new concept for many staff. Due to this, a great deal of curiosity was shared as staff slowly began to understand what deep ecology was.
After just one day, we had an evening gathering where everyone expressed feeling calm and safe. Evening Gathering is a time to connect in various ways. Some nights we shared our perspective with a “go around question,” some nights we shared insight or stories. Many of the questions on this trip were centered around personal digging and were reflection-based. On some nights we placed a person on the “Hot Seat.” The Hot Seat is a time to shower one person with loving attention and curiosity. This is an activity that lets go of the social constraints of being polite or not asking questions that might go deep. In fact, this is exactly what the Hot Seat is for, to go deep and ask those questions, to learn more about the person and who they are. The folks that participated in the Hot Seat on this trip shared a lot about themselves and bravely allowed themselves to be vulnerable with one another. This was a highlight of the expedition.
The next couple of days, we developed this routine: wake in silence, sit for a 30-minute meditation or some solo time, meet up for breakfast, share the plan for the day, pack up, hike for a few hours, take a break, sit for a guided meditation, stop for a nature awareness moment, take a dip in the river, play a game, break for lunch, hike some more in silence, and finally, get to camp.
Silence is Magic
As we walked, I would allow myself to get quiet; I rarely talked unless I was facilitating an activity or to answer a question. Inside, I began to feel still, I felt the silence around me, and I did not resist the urge to fall into it. My heart became warm. I realized at times that I was smiling.
Each day, I noticed how each participant looked visually different than when they began the trip. The whole group radiated a warm glow, they moved calmly, and their eyes began to gain a clarity that I had not witnessed before the expedition. The container we created, the space we provided, the landscape, the canyon and the river were all holding the participants. After seven days, the routine and flow of the trip became second nature. Participants were opening up to each other and themselves. Many participants spoke of how they did not want to leave the canyon. Due to the time of year that we were in Paria, things were not yet busy, and we only saw four other people the entire trip. When we did notice others, we would keep our quiet ways and gently nod and move past them without disrupting the silence. Moving in this silent flow became effortless.
One day, as we slowly made our way, Rafi and I looked at the map and saw a side canyon that had a huge red rock arch. We decided to make a side trip to see the Wrather Arch which has a span of over 200 feet. The rocks became loose and the trail grew steep as we got closer. Our pace became slower and more intentional with each foot step. When we arrived, each person peeled off from the group and went to find a spot to sit under the huge stone arch. For the next forty minutes, we sat and looked with awe at the beauty of what the elements had carved over time. Just before we were about to get up, there was a piercing sound, and a peregrine falcon flew under the arch and passed right over our group. I will never forget that moment, the sound of the falcon’s wings, the silence hanging in the air, the sun on my face, how small and insignificant I felt in the presence of such beauty.
That evening, every member of the group shared what they struggle with in life. The responses were profound; some shared about being addicted to pornography, struggles with self-doubt, fear of living up to their best potential, sex addiction, and drug addiction. The vulnerability shown by everyone was a real testament to how open and safe each member of the group felt after only four days of being together. Imagine what would happen in the world if we could each share in this way- the empathy that it could generate, this could change the world and fundamentally affect how we interact with each other. That night, the group talked for hours, and as the stars came out, they continued to share around the fire. Around midnight folks finally began to head to bed with the knowledge that nights like this are sacred and to be cherished. I slept the deepest I had in a long time and woke to a red dawn feeling happy and safe.
The days were flying by, and as we grew nearer to the Colorado River, where our journey would end, I wanted to try to write a group poem together. Each person wrote one line then folded the paper to hide the words and then the next person would write another line and so on. Once finished I read our group poem out loud. Everyone was excited to try this activity. If you are curious to read this poem, you can find it here.
The Journey’s End
The final day of hiking began early. We each packed in silence before dawn, with the birds singing to greet us for the final leg of our journey. Many of us were moving at a slower pace than when we started eight days before – our skin was darker, changed by the hot desert sun, we had sandy crusty clothes and wet feet. We had walked in the river for eight days, we had seen ravens and petroglyphs, we had seen the dawn greet us with silence, and at night we had seen shooting stars. We had shared our deepest thoughts; we had meditated together, cooked together and eaten together. We had slept on the same sand and rock. We had shared stories around the campfire like humans have been doing for centuries. We had cried, we had laughed, and we had dropped in together. We each knew now that we could never just pass by one another back at the Outward Bound base camp. We had a deep history now. We had shared parts of ourselves; we now knew who the other was. This level of intimacy can happen when you share time in the wild – when you show up genuinely and are authentic in how you experience the world. This happens when you sit together and notice your thoughts and that they are just thoughts and they are not who you are, they are not your total reality. This happens when the work you do in this world is to ignite passion in another and create a container for them to explore who they are in the world.
This expedition affected the people that I work with on a daily basis along with the community that I am immersed in year-round. The participants that attended the staff expedition each told me that they all incorporate mindfulness activities that will benefit the students. They also expressed that when they are facilitating and creating a course structure for students, they will continually check in with themselves to ensure that they are coming from a place of compassion and mindfulness, rather than control and personal agenda. Hearing this huge learning from staff brought me joy, for this is a crucial learning when being in a leadership and/or teaching role.
This shift in interest and ideals is a paradigm shift that is spilling over into the entire outdoor education industry. There will always be competitive instructors who want to “crush” miles, and rock climbs, but the instructors who came on this expedition learned they could also take pride in knowing their inner heart and edges. This can also affect the students on a course. They can practice taking a breath and responding from their hearts instead of reacting. The possibility of this having a ripple effect on those around them can help lead to a calmer world and more grounded human community. A world where people are taking that extra second to breathe and can respond from a calmer space. That is a world I want to live in.
A Mindful Reflection
This was the most important and personally gratifying trip that I have ever facilitated. It was so important because of how strongly I believe in practicing mindfulness in a wilderness setting, along with how mindfulness can positively affect staff’s personal and professional lives. This project was also exciting and satisfying because I had the chance to work with one of my old and beloved friends, Rafi, doing what we do best. From the beginning, I knew that this project would be fulfilling as well as fun, for Rafi and I love this work and find it easy to relax into. During the expedition, I found that I don’t need to fill the silence with words, I can just remain in the silence, and that is alright. This profound learning had a huge impact on the courses I worked following the staff expedition; students said that they appreciated me giving them space to think and space to talk. Personally, I will not forget this lesson, for this lesson has reminded me to slow down and speak from the heart at all times.
The 2016 Staff Expedition: “Deep Ecology and Mindfulness” started out as a dream. It was a dream Rafi, and I shared, and because of this shared dream, we worked to make it become a reality. This took many hours of exploring how to create a safe and inclusive container for the participants. Rafi and I worked towards a shared vision, and with the support from OBCA and countless others, the expedition was a huge success. After the long drive home staff filled out a feedback form in which we asked about highlights and edges from the expedition. Our greatest piece of feedback came from a participant who has been an Instructor and Staff Trainer for eight years. He said: “This Deep Ecology and Mindfulness Training should be required for all staff.”