Photo by Albert Pego

— By Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —

It was so beautiful.

I was driving a friend over a wintry mountain pass to make a doctor’s appointment. We started out in a snowstorm predicted to become worse, but he wanted to make the long-awaited appointment. The pass was icy, windy, and given to areas of blowing snow that made visibility difficult, but that is not what bothered me. What bothered me was that we might be late.

I tensed, trying to drive as fast as possible given conditions that varied from curve to curve, switching from areas protected by trees to others where the wind blew freely in great gusts, driving blinding snow across the road. Then, somehow, my brain switched—perhaps as we rounded a curve with a particularly beautiful view of the tall pines. I don’t know or remember how or why I switched. But suddenly, I was engaged in the sheer beauty around me—the big soft flakes falling thickly around me; the tall silent sentinel pines dimly seen through falling flakes, their dark green boughs heavily covered with snow. A magic landscape. Then I looked at the time and switched back to my earlier worries. Catching myself, I thought, “This is ridiculous. I can only go so fast and it will be what it will be.” I consciously made an effort to focus again on the beauty. But telling myself something doesn’t always work, so back and forth I went between the two states of mind, seeing the profound, calming beauty and then feeling worried and stressed. Trying to watch as I shifted states, to catch myself moving into the state of worrying, so I could stop it before I got so lost into it I didn’t even realize what I was doing. 

I think we do this all the time, switching between brain wave states, mostly unconsciously, responding to what is around us or to internal cues, without making deliberate choices. Sometimes, in this case, the sheer power of the beauty cut through the worry—which was a waste anyway as there was nothing I could do about it. I started thinking in general about how to maintain the awareness of beauty more than the worry, which is a remarkably useless state—unpleasant as well as ineffective. We don’t solve anything from the position of worry. We can solve things and make good and rational choices from calmness, where our brain, no longer wound in tight knots, is freed to seek and invent creative solutions. 

How do we do this? Meditation helps. Nature helps. Great music and art helps. Deep connection with other living beings helps. But how do we stay there, instead of being seduced or scared into attending to things that are not rich, healing, or productive? 

This isn’t a casual question, actually. It goes to the heart of how we live our lives and how we make decisions—not to mention the enjoyment of our lives. It is crucial that we make decisions from a calm, unhurried place if we want to make real, lasting solutions to our environmental issues. Unfortunately, we are easily influenced by external circumstances we cannot control: time or money pressures (emphasis on the word “pressure”) or cultural beliefs that may or may not be true or useful. We need each other’s help in this as we work to overcome the shortfall in our human biological wiring and try to go sane. We can begin in our own communities or in small groups, sharing our wisdom, insight, and fears

As an aside, we did make the appointment. On time. I had spent considerable time in tension instead of enjoyment. Two avalanches occurred while at the doctor and the pass was closed. I had to drive the long way around—three hours in the blizzard—to get back to yet another appointment. I had a lot of time to practice attempted sanity. Fortunately, most of the drive was truly beautiful. 

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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