A Newer Leaf

Earlier this afternoon I returned home from one of my big road trips. I’ve taken quite a few this year, mostly the same route as I have been back and forth preparing for this past summer’s move to Oregon. This one was no different: trace the Oregon coast southbound towards Santa Cruz, see some friends. Do some birding on the way to LA, have a bit of a freak out getting into town. Went to Joshua Tree, spur of the moment. Great times with one of my oldest and best friends. Freaking out in the car in LA again, driving north on 395 towards Yosemite. Actually, getting a site there, fishing, hiking, birding, freaking out, and then it was time to come home. I stopped in Lake Tahoe and Klamath Falls, so I could get some rest. Saw some more birds, lived on the edge of my autism for the past 4 days.

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I’ve been taking these trips since I let my PhD program in 2014. The first one was to Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree. Since, I’ve crisscrossed the country more times than I can count so I could chase the dragon of playing music for a living. Last fall I started traveling for the sake of my mental health. No music, rarely even bringing a guitar. This trip was no different than when I went to King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks around this same time last year. I did it to bring clarity to some difficult and nagging questions about my life, this time a few weeks away from turning forty.

My life hasn’t worked out the way I would have wanted it and I still feel privileged to be where I am right now. Here’s a picture of Russell James at age 40: steadily graying beard and curls, still no wrinkles around the eyes, disabled, a pesky spare tire that just won’t go away, pre-diabetic, autistic, chronically depressed, fairly unknown musician fighting for his life in the obscure fringes of the music industry like so many other dreamers out there. I’m joyously married, and I live in one of the greatest towns in this country. I have two amazing dogs who are currently sleeping at my feet.

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Me at 40

And I’m confused, discouraged, tired of the life I’m living.

Earlier this year I had a eureka moment, which rooted the questions I sought to answer on this trip firmly in my mind. Mainly, what do I want out of life? What do I want out of my music? What is reasonable? What is possible? Where do I want to go? These sound like traditional musings of someone turning the corner into middle-age, but for someone like me, someone who didn’t have the opportunity to figure out what they wanted for themselves for all this time, these questions are everything. I’m not just humoring over-the-hill fantasies, this is a serious quest. One most of you took when you were in your late teens and twenties. I’ll write a blog about that sometime soon, but for now you’ll just have to trust me.

Here is a confession: I haven’t enjoyed playing live music in at least a year, probably more. This has been reflected in the number of shows I’ve played and the number I’ve cancelled. Live performance has become a root of a lot of anxiety and meltdown. It’s exhausting for me. I sort of enjoyed making my latest album, but not a whole lot. I certainly didn’t have many moments where I was excited about it. As it released last month there was a disparaging, anti-climactic feeling along with it. I was more relieved to get it off my plate than I was excited for people to hear it, and that’s sad. To be honest, I don’t even know if I like this record, and that’s where all the questions started.

To summarize, Pay Attention, is full of electronic bips and bops, synthesizers, heavily effected electric guitars, and brutal, autobiographic honesty. It sounds great, people like it, but it’s not me. I felt this as I was finishing everything up for its release. It feels inauthentic to who I am, and it has nothing to do with why I started writing music in the first place. It was a creative effort, of that I am certain, and I am proud I finished this; but I can’t help but think I finished it only because I said I would (admirable, if not efficient).

I write music compulsively. It’s an obsession. Five years ago, I talked to a songwriter from Albuquerque who has been pretty successful and is well-known in many circles. His advice to me was to write every day. I took that advice and ran with it. Now I can write 3-4 songs a day; most of them are throw-aways (not everything Tom Petty ever wrote made it on an album). I’m now burned out. Songwriting has taken over my brain. I awake with ten new ideas, and they multiply throughout the day, sending my mind spinning in too many different directions. The only way to vent the steam created by this fusion is to write, so I write to keep the voices at bay. I’m not excited about it, I just do it.

When Pay Attention came out, I decided I was putting the brakes on my songwriting. The obsession was too painful, it has to stop. Since stopping, creativity has continued to spill out. I write lyrics with no music, poetry, I’ve seriously engaged photography. I still have a slate of live shows scheduled and I’m going to play them, if anything to keep me limber. But until this last trip, I really didn’t know what to about my lukewarm feelings towards the thing that has sustained me for my whole life. The one thing I could always run back to.

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What I do when this happens is to take a trip, one with a lot of silence and long drives. This trip was as effective as any other I’ve taken in an effort to sort somethings out.

I’m no longer excited by music because for five years I’ve been motivated by the idea of success, both in recognition and financial ways. This is no way to live. Walking through life making decisions based on what others think is pretty damn common for autists like me, and it is also antithetical to being a true artist. Pay Attention is the apex of this crowd-pleasing motivation: pop songs with brutal emotions sewed into them. The sound was completely shaped by what I thought people may want to hear from me. That’s not to say I didn’t want to make the album, I did and in a lot of ways I’m still glad I did it; but I know when I look back at this writing cycle I’m always going to come up disappointed.

What I realized on this trip was when I got excited about writing songs, this would have been when I was seventeen, it was simplicity engaging me. A voice, powerful words, and a guitar. That’s all Elliott Smith needed. It’s all Damien Jurado needs. All of my favorite artists can communicate with only a guitar and a voice. So, this solves one problem: I need to get back to the basics of what excited me about music when I was younger. A voice, powerful words, simple guitar. This is the easy part.

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Elliott Smith, an early hero

However, something else entered my life over the past five years, which puts a damper on everything I do. I’m of course talking about my late-in-life diagnosis of autism. As I’ve travelled around the country, my autism was given room to grow and space to show itself. Stimming started after touring, meltdowns became severe, suicidal situations 2000 miles away were commonplace. What I’ve learned is I can’t survive the way a typical musician survives. My brain just won’t ever let me do it. Autism is always there, putting up some road block or another.

See, with autism, literally EVERYTHING I do is harder than it would be for you. Sometimes ten times harder, sometimes a thousand. I can’t be the musician I want to be, I just can’t. I can’t tour extensively, it can be dangerous for me to be alone far from home. I can’t handle the noise, the traffic, the stress, the social situations, and the late nights. I need consistency, I need to experience routine. As this has become more and more apparent, my obsession with understanding autism has grown.

Right now, I’m rethinking what the point of my life is. I’m realizing that the point of someone’s life isn’t static; it changes when experience puts up a road block. I used to think the point of my life was to share my music. Now I’m not so sure it’s the end all-be all I thought it was. In fact, I know it isn’t. It’s part of my point, but only a part.

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The other part is educating you, and the rest of the world, about what autism really is, how it effects people’s lives, how it can be hell and heaven at the same time. I have decided that over the next few months you’re going to see me changing a few things. My social media will no longer be focused on my music and my landscape photography. I will still engage these things I love, but my big focus is going to be on autism. I have a lot of questions I want answered, and I want to share them with you.

The music industry, like everything else in this world, is built in a way that works against people like me. In the music industry, like everywhere else in the world, people like me are forgotten and pushed to the margins. I’m ok with that; the music industry is bullshit and anyone who things they’re going to “make it” is crazy. If you’re doing it for that reason you’ll never be satisfied with your work, you’ll always be frustrated, and you’ll end up quitting. This is especially true for someone like me. I’m finally moving on.

Music has been good for my autism because it has taken me places I never thought I’d go. I feel privileged for this. On the other side, these travels, these places, all these people, it’s damaged me. It’s burned me out. Music is important to my life, but it’s not the most important thing. It’s time for autism to become my central focus, my locus of control, my faith, if you truly understand the definition of that word. It’s time to let it stretch its arms into every area of my life, and you will see the change. It will appear obsessive to some, but it’s more important for me to understand how to live my life as easily as possible, and to have folks understand me, than it is for everyone to like me. I don’t need that like I thought I did.

Autism, nature, music. In that order. I hope you’ll continue walking with me on this journey. I’m only just starting to figure out the map.

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The Burden of a Good Day

This post was originally written in fall of 2018.

Russell James 10 may 2019Something I’ve thought about for years but haven’t ever mentioned to friends is how one of my “good” days is almost always followed by a “bad” day. “Good” meaning I was able to walk through the day, completing tasks and recreating and socializing with a strong level of coping with my braincloud. “Bad” days meaning the exact opposite: depression, meltdowns, really nasty self-talk, and extreme impairment in executive functioning and spatial reasoning (I walk into shit all the time). I know putting judgements like “good” and “bad” on my days is probably not helpful, but it’s something I can’t help doing at this point in time (but I’m thinking about working on it).

I had a great day yesterday. I woke up with an energy I hadn’t felt in months, “My brain feels like it clicked or something,” I revealed to my wife during our routine morning tea and coffee session. I had a plan to head to town, hang out with one of my friends, look at records, and look for some cool birds down by the Rio Grande. It was a good plan, and I pulled it off. I had fun with my buddy, playing video games and running a few errands (I even drove!), then I headed down to the river and hit a trail.

Albuquerque’s bosque area (officially the Middle Rio Grande Valley State Park) runs north to south like an artery through the city along the banks of the Rio Grande. It is a forest of cottonwood, oakbrush, tall grasses and reeds, with a series of trails running like capillaries on either side of the river. It, along with the myriad of open spaces in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, are the best ideas Albuquerque has ever had. There are a lot of things distinguishing Albuquerque from any other metropolitan area in the country: the abundance of green and red chile resulting in a culinary culture unlike any other, the fact that Breaking Bad was set and filmed here, and The Bosque.

I used to live mere blocks from it before we moved to the mountains east of the city. I enjoyed my morning walks along the western bank, where I was often lead by two coyotes 30-50 feet in front of me, finishing their morning hunt (every morning, if I awoke early enough). I would get home and pull the goatheads out of my shoes before going into the house. (“Goatheads” a horrific byproduct of Puncturevine are basically tiny rocks with three to four poisonous spikes sticking out of them and they are the bane of every New Mexican’s bare feet and bike tires. Sometimes there was a mist coming off the river and I would hike up Dog Biscuit Hill and watch the sun rise over the mountains and slowly burn off the fog. What I’m trying to say here is it’s a really special place to me and most other people in the city.

Yesterday, I was specifically down there to find some birds with the new bins my wife got me for the holiday. Mostly mountain chickadees and one hairy woodpecker were all I saw as I walked through the hibernating forest, wearing its best winter brown. The river was quite low, but with the previous weeks copious snow fall, I thought it would be up to level as soon as Valentine’s Day. I walked through the reeds to reach the bank and I thought, “This has been a very good day.” The immediate follow up to this thought was, “Tomorrow is going to suck.”
For me, having a good day is a burden because of the amount of energy it takes for the good day to happen. For neurotypical folks, good days are just there. They happen without much work. A good day could be every Saturday, because you don’t have to work, you’re hiking or doing something else you love, you go see your friends, all on autopilot. People who are neurotypical don’t often have to think about making these things happen. Those of us who are neurodiverse must be both prepared and intentional about everything I just mentioned.

Generally speaking, it just takes a lot of energy to hang out with friends because I tend to wear “the mask”, and I have to follow along with social norms that might not make sense to me. I have to take great effort not to turn the conversation into a monologue about why I love whales so much. I have to make just enough eye contact to not look weird, when eye contact makes me incredibly anxious and uncomfortable. When I go to a public place I’m accosted by noise, awful smells, bright lights and sun, and of course, other people. Everything I just mentioned gives me a physical feeling of pain, nausea, and extremely uncomfortable jitters (like I need to jump out of my skin, a claustrophobic feeling).

It was smart for me to go down to the bosque after a day of this type of assault; connecting with nature always heals. Even though I took a nice long hike along the river, by the time I got home I was completely worn out. My whole body ached, and it felt like a storm was gathering in my brain. I did not sleep last night.

This morning I had a meltdown. I’m still in it, kinda. Writing this particular post has been a way to pull me out a little. It wasn’t unexpected. It happened because I was having fatalistic thoughts about my future and the storm just swept in like a tornado. Thanks for reading this time, folks. It was important I write this.

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GHOSTS

The first single off of my new album drops today (link below), but this rests only in the margins of this post. The song is about first, my wife and how she pulls me through life, often kicking, screaming, and punching walls. It’s about receiving care. The second verse is broader, about how we as a society have devalued interdependence to our peril. The shining light of this song comes from the facts that we are not alone. We are surrounded by others like us, and most people I know are prone to help when things get rough.

Yet here we are, resting comfortably in a society which looks down on people who are dependent on others for their care. We are seen as a drain, wasted potentials, something to be forgotten and left to die. One of my biggest struggles over the past 2-3 years is the growing dependence I have on my wife and certain special friends to be my caregivers. Because I, too was ingrained with the same cultural values as everyone else. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, everything is your responsibility, you can’t count on anyone in this world.” For a long, long time I did this. I learned to act like people who were well liked. I realized at a young age, I was very different from other kids and there was not going to be anyone there to protect me. I was raised with fairly absent parents (perhaps they were there physically, sometimes, but they were never there emotionally). I got hit a lot, I was told I was stupid, I was told I was a bad kid and wouldn’t amount to anything. I was told I couldn’t take responsibility.

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This is me, reflecting on how much responsibility I can’t handle. Just kidding, I was trying to look cool for the video shoot.

It’s taken me a long time to realize none of this is true. These uniquely isolationist ideas are implanted into our brains from birth. We grow up with them hammering in through grade school and on into our lives. It results in two very dangerous ideas: people who are sick, chronically or not, receive no respect or reprieve for an illness which isn’t their fault. Second, it creates a mentality where we should not ask for help, asking for help is a negative trait.

Do you see how full of shit this mentality is? I suffered silently for years with my neurological impairments before I felt confident enough to talk about them. The same thing goes for my PTSD. Some of you may look down on me because I can’t work a “normal” job because the only work I can do is writing songs (and my various ailments often inhibit this job, too). And because that work doesn’t make money (yet, fingers crossed), I have very little value to the world. “Why would anyone choose to help me?” I’ve often asked.

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My love, my life. The Helper rests after a hike when I was living down in Big Bend. She’s not trying to look cool at all. She’s cool without trying.

Having this question at the ready defeats me before I start. It’s already difficult to ask for help, but now my brain tells me I don’t deserve it. This isn’t some natural function of my impaired brain. It’s the product of our society’s elevated importance of self-reliance. And then I’m inevitably turned down when I do ask for help, which is why I have only a few friends (and my wife) I feel comfortable calling on when care is needed. I’ve been turned down by so many of my friends that I don’t feel I can trust them with my well-being anymore. Isn’t that fucked up? It’s really unfair and really hurts.

I’m chronically ill. I’m not getting better. Like others, I must accept this, and I continue to have a hard time. I still believe it will magically disappear someday. It hasn’t for 30+ years, there’s no reason for me to hold on to this hope anymore. Another bullshit idea wired into us is giving up hope is bad. I think this is true for some stuff like if you have cancer you should do what you can to fight (or don’t, it’s really your choice). But with chronic illness, hope is the glue that sticks you in place.

I don’t think I can truly move forward until I voluntarily give up the hope that my mental health disabilities will go away. The difference is it has to be my decision to give up the hope, this is what makes it different from losing hope. Giving up the hope my life will ever be “normal” allows me to put hope in another thing: The future, a new kind of life; different, but perhaps more meaningful.

Also, check out Ghosts. I’m sure you’ll like it. It’s out now on iTunes/AppleMusic, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Amazon, etc. Visit my site for more details.

Ghosts on Soundcloud

Mental Health Awareness Year: Redux

2017 is coming to a close and we all say thank you. It was a year of turbulent politics leading to further divide amongst our global population. Weather crises, tragic deaths, the West Coast is burning; once again my dear readers, we sit on the brink.

I’m staring down the wake of this year through the lens of where I was at Christmastime 2016. I was trapped in my brain and caught in a cycle of ferocious suicidality the likes of which I’d never experienced. Stuck on tour in freezing cold weather with anxiety-inducing sheets of ice coating the road. Entombed by the East Coast’s blaring horns and glaring lights. It almost happened twice: once when I had every intention of jumping off the Griest Building in downtown Lancaster, once when I had every intention of walking onto I-40 somewhere in the middle of the country. Each time I was physically stopped by my wife, and I am grateful.

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My amazing wife in Colorado this summer 

 

When I got home from last year’s disastrous and incomplete winter tour, and when I went back on the medication holding my fragile sanity in place, I wrote this blog post. I made a commitment to disclosing more about my mental health with the intention of bringing a brighter sense of awareness all to my friends, followers, readers, and listeners. I asked people if I could lean on them and offered my shoulder. I held up this commitment, for better or worse, all year long. It led me to reveal some of darkest corners of my history, but also led my loved-ones to a better sense of who I am, why I am the way I am, and what they should do. IMG_2984

I discovered a great deal this year. One of the most important of these findings: with mental health, it’s never just one thing. Unlike our physical bodies, which are much easier to pinpoint problems (“My ear hurts really bad inside, I must have an ear infection.”), our mental health is much more dynamic. It isn’t just PTSD hitting me like a ton of bricks, it’s serious family of origin issues, it’s my sensory processing disorder. All of these things work together to make me who I am and to cause a lot of problems with the way the world works.

The two most significant findings by my team this year were the severity of my sensory processing disorder and the impact my upbringing has on my mental make-up. I talked about my hyperacusis in this blog here. I didn’t talk much about how it roots me on the autism spectrum or the social behaviors I have long cultivated to compensate for my lack of social skills, and perhaps I should write that blog, but my team and I have come to understand my “meltdowns” are more a result of my sensory integration concerns and the autism spectrum than of PTSD (but they are working in tandem to make me miserable). I also did not disclose a great deal about my family of origin concerns, because they are sensitive to my family. I feel I disclosed enough, and I don’t plan on sharing any further about that particular issue. I shared quite a bit about quite a bit, yeah?

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It wasn’t all bad: Good times on the beach…

 

Divulging the circumstances leading to the development of PTSD was an incredible experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. The response I got was overwhelmingly positive and I felt really great for a couple days. My friends and family came through, especially when some asshole trolled me. They weren’t going to let something like that happen to me when I was so exposed and I felt protected and safe. The exact opposite feeling from what I grew up with. It was what we call in psychotherapy a “corrective emotional experience” and I want to thank all the friends and strangers who lifted me up after my posting.

Another reveal I retain as special was discussing my disability. While on my summer tour I was graced by a conversation with an expert on disability who helped me understand who I am in light of this designation. I am on disability, something I’m no longer ashamed to admit. I think I was ashamed of it because I wasn’t sure if I deserved it (although we got our decision back in a matter of weeks due to the decades-long documentation of said disability). My sister further shamed me by insinuating I was on disability so I could work on my music career, and planted this awful and untrue thought in my head. The fact is, my disability check barely covers my medical bills. The fact is, my music career is not immune to my disability. I canceled probably 30% of my shows this year due to it, and a booking agent told me they were afraid to work with me because of it. Although these last two situations make me incredibly sad when I reflect on them, they also have a backhanded effect of lifting me up because they validate my illness and neurology. And again, opening up a conversation about my disability offered an opportunity for a lot of my friends and loved-ones to understand my situation better.

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I recorded the most ambitious and complicated music of my career in spite of my disabling mental illness. That is something worth sharing. 

 

My readership went up dramatically this year, and I can only surmise this is because you people like to read about my pain. I mean this as a joke, but there is truth to it. The blog posts getting the most attention were the ones disclosing the most painful things. I think this is because more people go through awful shit than care to admit, and reading about other people’s awful shit is validating. Reading about other people surviving their awful shit inspires us to survive ourselves. Writing about my awful shit obviously has helped me through this year; I’d say I was depressed a good 90% of the time and sometimes writing these blog posts was the only meaning I got.

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It’s a climb. Always. But the view is worth it.

 

But it’s also exhausting. 2018 won’t be a mental health awareness year, not officially anyway. You’ll likely see more reflective nature writing and spiritually-based work from me. I have a new album coming out, I’m sure you’ll read a lot about it. I hope to retain my readers from this past year, but I won’t be dropping any bombs like 2017. I want to express gratitude and love to everyone who has supported me, this blog, my music, and my family this year.

Thank you, beyond the earth and the sky.

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A Summer Spent Inside

I haven’t written since June 15th. I wrote then about my disability and the effect it has on my life. I didn’t write about how that tour ended in mental health disaster, but it did. Five weeks on the road proved too much: I collapsed in the gorgeous Black Hills of South Dakota and had to return home, again through the assistance of my wife. I didn’t write about how a short vacation with friends in Colorado was ended because of a series of meltdowns. I haven’t written about the tumultuous 2.5-day train ride where I had to disembark two hours in and was stuck, suicidal, in a hotel in West Virginia for two days. I haven’t written about the disaster of a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with my father, where I cut the trip short due to flashbacks of the abuse I suffered at the hands of my family when I was younger, to which my father made feeble and misguided attempt at an apology.

I haven’t written about any of these things because I have been exhausted by my inability to enjoy life this past summer. I haven’t been able to hear the click-clack of typing because it feels like nails in my eardrum. I haven’t had the energy to do anything but sit inside. Even watching TV or reading has been quite sporadic, as the sensory input from these things has derailed all comfort they have given me in the past. I’ve stared at walls, out windows, taken long spells laying down in my bed, and doing an awful lot of reflection about my dark companion, my disability.

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My view, most of the summer. Good news is there’s a great album coming…

I must say, 25 years of journaling, a decade of mindfulness training and years of graduate work, research, and practice of psychotherapy have trained me to reflect quite well. It’s a skill I advise anyone to develop as it leads to some important insight that can improve your life. In fact, it’s been 3 years since I was in the Ph.D. program and 2 years since I left the field of behavioral health altogether. I’ve learned more in the ensuing time than the many years I was working and researching the field.

The psychology-related fields enjoy surrounding mental health with boundaries, which they call diagnosis. It wasn’t long into my training when I came to the conclusion that diagnosis in mental health was complete and utter bullshit due to the subjectivity of the person making the diagnosis. In other words, mental health is not like physical health: In the physical realm, a doctor would look in a patient’s ear, see a red, inflamed eardrum and say, “Well, you have an ear infection. Here are some antibiotics, take them properly and it will go away.” And lo and behold it does. Mental health is different. “Well, you are depressed, take this Prozac and it will go away.” Then it doesn’t. “Hmmm… well, you are still depressed. Take this Zoloft and it will go away.” You have diarrhea for two weeks, the depression is still there. “Oh, hmmm… take this Lexapro in addition to the Prozac, and here’s some Xanax to take that edge off…” and on and on and on it goes.

The reasons psychiatrists keep cycling is because the mental health fields want to say the concerns their patients come in with are “this or that”. Oh, you’re depressed. Oh, you have PTSD. Oh, you have some neurological disorders. A “this or that” view naturally limits treatment. If someone is being treated for depression and they have a neurological disorder affecting their social dimension being left untreated then the person is never going to heal from the depression.

Mental health defies boundaries every step along the way. So many diagnoses have similar signs to others, so many are intermingled with other concerns like addictions, trauma, and neurological differences. It is never “this or that”, it is always a combination of things. Some of these things are very complex and reach deep into the subconscious. If the whole person is not being treated they will never heal.

The profession is not moving away from the medical model anytime soon. In fact, with the publication of the DSM V (the book that tells you how to diagnose people in psychology), it would seem the field is doubling down. As a person who struggles with mental health, it is up to me to recognize the problem and do what is necessary to obtain the holistic treatment my mind and body needs. I’m privileged: I have years of schooling and practice to recognize the things I need to advocate for. Most people in my psychiatrist’s waiting room do not have the tools I have, and therefore they are being left behind (and don’t even get me started on how unethical the VA is in this regard). Even though this knowledge isn’t easy to obtain sometimes, it is important for me to add simply changing one’s mindset from looking at mental health as one singular concern to looking at as a web, with each strong and sticky strand comprising one element of what’s causing the anguish. Depression, trauma, neurological stuff, anxiety, adverse early child memories, physical pain, all of these things are strands in the web. We can’t just go after one strand, we must address them all.

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I took this on a 5-mile walk home after I had a meltdown in the car on the way to a gig. Good news is, I got this picture and actually got outside.

This summer, I watched countless sunrises and sunsets from the windows of my house. I viewed countless pictures of peoples’ outdoor adventures from the confines of my phone. I stared at walls, floors, and ceilings. During all the staring, all the seemingly mindless moments where I was focused on my pain, I was actually working. I was being productive and reflexive, and as a result I feel a spark of hope for the next few months. While I haven’t been hiking (and my body feels the results of this inactivity), I have been working harder than ever inside my head. And yeah, it’s exhausting. My hope is the result of this work will be hanging out with my friends again, enjoying my tours, going on road trips without crippling anxiety, and being able to enjoy all the amazing cities I visit and play in.

Thanks to my friends for sticking with me through this journey. I know I’m largely incommunicado, and I appreciate the patience over the past several years. Here’s to hoping the sun sets on my depression, even for a little, and I can enjoy the cool fall nights of relief.

The Road Part II: Meaning

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Even when it looks like there’s a storm up ahead, the road is the right place for me to be.

My mental health disables me from doing many things. I’ve left a dozen or so jobs due to the ongoing struggle. There are times when it prevents me from taking care of myself: I have a hard time exercising and eating right, I can have a tendency to neglect my hygiene and the state of my house. It can prevent me from doing chores and other work that needs to be done for my music business. It can hold me in a cage, causing me to cancel plans at the last minute, and even cancel gigs in a similar fashion (this isn’t a rare occurrence). Travel has been hard for the past 5 years, and international travel has been completely out of the question. There is so much life that my mental health gets in the way of, so when I’m looking at coping skills I am searching for things that open the doors PTSD and depression have closed on me.

While I’m planning an entire post on the coping skills I have developed, one coping skill, in particular, has developed into a lifestyle over the past 24 years. Music. While I played one musical instrument or another since I was a young child, I didn’t fall in love with it until I started playing guitar. I never felt that playing guitar was a tangible coping skill: It didn’t alleviate my deep-seated feelings of sadness or anger, and I don’t feel that it does as an adult, either.

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All smiles at a show in Lancaster, PA, May 2016.

For me, music doesn’t work like a typical coping skill. There are a lot of layers to this, and I’ll try and explain. For me, music has always been a constant positive presence in a life that has been plagued with negativity. I’m talking about the trauma I’ve been through as well as the trauma of life-long depression. It acts as an anchor, through the most turbulent storms. It has been constant and consistent, unlike most other things in my life. I can depend on it to be there, no matter what. I realize that this could all change in a moment: I could lose my sense of hearing; I could lose the ability to play music somehow. But I am confident that I will always have music in my head, even if I can’t express it.  It’s always there, and I love it so much. I wake up in the morning with songs in my head and I go to bed struggling to filter them out. My love for my wife is the only thing that trumps my love for the feel of a guitar beneath my fingers. It’s this love that has the most profound effect on my life and forced my hand.

Two years ago I left my job as a psychotherapist amidst immense, depressive turmoil. It was hard, I’d left so many jobs for the same reason. I’d begin these jobs by working my ass off and being good at what I do. Six months to a year later and I’m a depressed wreck: burnt out, suicidal and calling in on a regular basis because I feel like I can’t move. This has been a pattern my whole life and it has nothing to do with laziness: I know this because I work hard and (I hope) all my former co-workers and supervisors would attest to this. I stop working hard when my mental health begins to decompensate. Then I stop working altogether, and I mean this in an encompassing manner. My whole life stops working: I can’t do anything around the house, any coping skills go out the window because I’m stuck to the couch, or my bed, or that chair I always sit in at the kitchen table. Hiking and music are gone, and at times I just stare at the wall for hours on end. My brain stops working correctly. Distorted thoughts perpetuate the depression, while my depleted cortisol levels leave me open to severe anxiety, which also digs the episode’s heels in deeper. After this happened yet again with my final job as a therapist, my wife and I decided it wasn’t important for me to make as much money as it was for me to make meaning. I’ve played music for what seems my entire life, part-time professionally for the past decade. It was time to use those talents and skills to try and start a career doing the only thing that had ever really made sense to me.


I’m driving a straight line across the southern California desert, where the Colorado meets the Mojave in Joshua Tree. It’s dusk, I’m listening to Tycho churn out mellow electronic beats alongside ambient, dreamy, analog synthesizers and guitars. A slight crescent of moon has already risen behind me, and ahead the horizon is a stratum of colors: The Dr. Seuss landscape is divided from the sky by a fading band of pink and orange, changing the colors of the rocks from a deep pumpkin to dark violet. The colors continue above the fading sun: a fading sky blue turns navy as it reaches into space. My windows are open and the cool air licks my face. The smell of night in the desert is special: the dry, dusty cough of the day seems to allotrope into relief. The chill in the air makes it feel damp and the smell of the creosote bushes is a natural aromatherapy, lulling me to wind down. I drink this in greedily as I pull into my campsite and begin preparing for sleep.

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Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2017.

This is a scene from the beginning of a month-long tour I recently completed, but it’s one that I could write from several different, exotic locales. Over the past year-and-a-half, I have completed six tours ranging from five days to a month. I’ll be leaving in three weeks for a month-and-a-half. I live out of my Honda Element most nights, staying in national parks and forests, BLM lands, and even a Safeway parking lot or two. I spend my days hiking and fishing, and most nights are filled with gigs in exotic cities and some of the most amazing small towns this country has to offer. I’ve hiked the rocky outcrops of the Pacific Ocean, fished the rivers and streams of the Rocky Mountains, and I’ve walked the New York City streets in the dead of winter. I lived in one of the most remote national parks in the country for a month, writing music and gazing at a night sky the likes of which I’d never seen. I’ve met countless amazing people and been able to reconnect with old friends. None of these things would have been possible without music.

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On stage at Big Bend National Park, Texas, November 2016.

Soon after leaving the traditional career path I began realizing new and deeper love for writing and performing music. I realized that I loved the feel of a guitar in my hands just as much as I did when I was 13. It was invigorating; I couldn’t stop playing and writing. I began booking solo shows in earnest (I was still playing with a band at the time) to bring in some money, and I began looking at booking my first tour: Tucson to Silver City, NM, not six months after leaving my job. This first tour was a disaster. I left the house depressed and it grew as I went down the road. I ended up having to come home early, and my wife and a friend had to meet me in Truth or Consequences, NM to help me finish the journey as I was unable to drive. As I rode in the passenger seat for two hours back to Albuquerque I figured my time as a touring musician was over as soon as it started. It was just too scary to be on the road by myself.

Hitting the road alone can be dangerous for someone with such severe mental health concerns, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. Quite the opposite, in fact. In my time in academia, I did a lot of studying on trauma. Not only was it close to my heart, but I found the concept of trauma to be absolutely fascinating, and I began seeing childhood trauma as a pervasive social problem. In my studies, I came across the concept of posttraumatic growth. It’s a term to describe the tendency for people who have gone through trauma and healed themselves to exhibit a perception of personal growth as a result of the process. This growth gives meaning to the trauma, creating space for further healing to take root. For this reason, posttraumatic growth has become a focus in my life: to further understand the optimal situations that produce it, and then apply them to my own life. One of the first things I realized about growing beyond my trauma was that I had to allow for situations where I needed to rescue myself, over and over again, to allow new emotional memories to become tied to my anxiety and depression. Memories where I triumphed.

In Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger, he discusses an incident where a group of school students was kidnapped and buried underground in their school bus. They escaped, some with more injurious trauma than others. A study was done on the children and the varying affects the traumatic experience had on them in the years following the event. Loosely explained, the study showed that the children who actively worked towards ensuring survival (in this case tunneling their way out of the bus and to the surface) showed graduated returns in growth and healing beyond the experience of being kidnapped. Older children who conceived of the plan and encouraged younger ones to help dig were shown to be the best off in the years following the event and the younger children who began to dig and help were doing well. The story lies in the children who were frozen by their fear and relied on others to rescue them. They were affected in a debilitating way by the traumatic event, even years after it occurred. What was the difference? In short: those who experienced the most posttraumatic growth kept moving. They refused to give up and they fought for survival.

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Fight or keep moving.

There are a lot of childhood traumas where fighting is not possible, as was the case with mine. Just because I couldn’t effect the situation at the time doesn’t mean I’ve lost my chance at posttraumatic growth, but it does mean I have to work harder at it. Going on tour and putting myself through anxious situations and coming out on top aids posttraumatic growth. Each time I drive through major city traffic without panic I’m one step closer to it never happening again. Each time I don’t throw in the towel when I’m driving in some faraway state while depressed and on the verge of tears I pound another nail into my trauma’s coffin. If I didn’t have music I wouldn’t be able to do any of this


I’ve been playing music since I was very young, and I’ve been writing it since I was 15. I feel in resonance when I’m creating music. Chasing this resonance has pushed me out of my comfort zone and that is something I have sorely needed. Chasing the resonance has brought a level of meaning to my life that I could never have imagined. It has been the true impetus of healing in my life, and when the going is hard that is how I choose to understand what I’m doing. I don’t have any delusions that I would become some famous singer-songwriter, I know that I’m just another white guy with a guitar. I also know that meaning is rarely found in something outside of ourselves, like money or notoriety. Meaning comes from within. Cultivating this meaning is one of the most important tasks we must accomplish in our lives. Music gives me the road. The road gives me meaning.

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Feeling good on the southern California Coast, April 2017.

 

2017: Mental Health Awareness Year

In May of 2016, I took my first real steps in disclosing my life-long struggle with PTSD and it’s kissing cousins: depression and anxiety. I wrote a lot of posts on social media that opened my life up to those who may not have known it about me. In fact, as my notoriety has increased due to my near constant touring for my music career, these statements and posts about my life began to hold greater weight inside my head. Who am I sharing this part of my life with? How will they react? Can I trust my fan base beyond those whom I call my friends? My answer to this question is I don’t really care. Trust has never been a friend of mine, and even those friends who think I have the deepest level of trust in them are usually wrong. I can count the people I truly trust on two hands with fingers to spare. I’ve been burned by trust far too many times for me to rely on it a great deal. But again, I don’t care. I have been living a life where trust has not been adequately present for 30 years; I’m used to it. If people want to use the words I type to vilify me, that’s fine. I never trusted people, to begin with.

Sharing your struggles is not a task taken lightly. The right people have to be involved and you have to know they are going to respond in a way that is empathic, compassionate, and understanding. When you don’t trust most people, this concern goes right out the window. So as my readership and fan base has grown, the question of whether or not I should continue revealing some of the most vulnerable parts of me is moot.

May is the designated Mental Health Awareness Month, and like most other months dedicated to honoring someone, a group of people, or a cause (et al), it’s a pretty cheap 28-31 days. I’m not satisfied with one month where we all talk about our depression, anxiety, bipolar, chronic illnesses, etc. I live with my depression, anxiety, and flashbacks on a daily basis. They don’t magically disappear on June 1st when I stop my daily posts about mental health. In fact, symptoms are likely to worsen.

2016 has been a magnificent year for me: I’ve successfully launched a music career, gained notoriety, and seen more of the country than I ever thought I would. I got to live at a national park for an entire month. I am a lucky person because my career and my lifestyle are finally in resonance. I understand how lucky I am that I don’t have to wake up and amble through the mundane existence of a 9-5 job, which has proven impossible for me in the past. Unfortunately, the decision to live in resonance does not mean that my mental health has improved; its been quite the opposite.

Without getting into details, I’ve made a lot of changes this year in hopes of treating or coping with my mental health, which only seems to get worse with every passing year. I’m sure there’s research that shows that the more depressive episodes you go through the more likely you are to go through them, but I don’t have the energy to do a Google Scholar search to cite them (I assume a more ambitious reader may do so). While some of the things worked (nature-based healing, EMDR, and cannabis being the top); a lot didn’t seem to make a difference.

“On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful.” 

Living with chronic depression is hard to explain. On the outside I often look predominately fine: you may notice slight dark circles under my eyes and a bit of a slower speech pattern, but if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t recognize these things. On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful. The images supplied to me are as horrific as any horror movie (picturing yourself in the midst of dying by suicide over and over and over again, all day, every day). This has been my life for at least 25 years. Voices in my head continue to tell me how worthless I am, how everyone is a liar and they are just telling me that I’m a good person so they can feel better; so they can feel like they did something if I ever were to pull the trigger. These thoughts are quite effectively reinforced by the fact that when I isolate myself (see: most of 2016) people don’t really notice that much. Some do, and I appreciate that, but my depressed brain even questions their motives. No one wants to feel like they could have done more when the dirt hits the coffin.

It was different during Mental Health Awareness Month; people paid attention. Then, they forget. They stop sending messages. I get it, I really do. It’s not in front of people so they don’t think about it. We live in a society with a very short attention span and if I’m not snapping my fingers in front of the faces of my readers every day they forget about what was once important to them. I’m not saying that mental health awareness loses its heart once June hits, but it fades from consciousness. This tells me that those who value mental health must needs make it more important. It needs to permeate the lives of those who do not suffer under its banner. It needs to be thought of on a constant basis and cannot be discarded like some rind once the fruit has been used.

This is a call to action. 2017 needs to be a mental health awareness year. Here is my commitment to you: I will step up my disclosures and share my walk with you. I will share ideas and tips for becoming more aware of how mental health affects our daily lives (even those of you are lucky enough to experience stability). I will write about how people without mental health conflict can assist those they love in a way that is not intrusive, and in a way that is authentic, genuine, and full of compassion. Those are the things most of us need, anyway. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Depressed and isolated friend? Don’t make plans with them. There’s a good chance they’ll get broken and your friend will just feel worse because he or she has “ruined your night”. Go to their house. Bring a cup of tea (chamomile, no caffeine). Don’t plan on staying long, just say hi and give a hug. WHY? Because it shows them that even if they’re isolating they’re still thought of and loved.
  • Offer to watch a movie with them. I’m partial to Harry Potter when I’m depressed, but super-heroes work as well. This is not “hang out” time. You shouldn’t say much. Just sit there, make them some popcorn (they may not eat it) and watch the movie. When its over, give them a hug and some love and go on your way.
  • Texts: Do this on a daily basis. Make them funny, full of love, or just normal stuff. A good way to send something special is using an app like Canva or Adobe Sparkpost. Throw some color into a drab day.
  • Bring over a healthy dinner. Make sure it’s something they’ll eat (don’t bring broccoli casserole if they hate broccoli). Then leave. Drop it off and leave.

A little known, but a well-researched fact is that you don’t need to say anything! In fact, 80% of whatever you say is going to get completely distorted in your depressed friend’s head and the outcome of something that seems so innocuous and loving ends up in a panic attack or furthering suicidal thoughts. Depression and mental health are exceptionally complex disorders in the brain and if you’re ever caught in a “What the fuck just happened?” moment you need to learn to roll with the punches, keep your gob shut, and nod your head with equal amounts empathy and sympathy.

 

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In the interest of authenticity and full-disclosure, I’ve been actively suicidal for the past few weeks. I am having to cancel the second leg of my winter tour as well as a 3-week long recording session. As of right now, I will be taking a full 2-month sabbatical from playing live music in order to straighten some things out. I plan on taking a lot of long walks, just me and my dog John Henry. I plan on reading and writing. I plan on once again reclaiming my spirit, whatever the hell that means. I do not plan on pulling the trigger.

Will you lean on me if I lean on you?

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-RJP

Everything in the Desert is Trying to Kill You

From my journal, 11/4:

Everything in the desert is trying to kill you. That’s what I’m surmising. Spiny, thorny everythings that jump out at you, almost with their own sense of malice, some sort of surprise vendetta play, reasons known only to them. Venomous insects and snakes: stingers and teeth. They’re all out there, trying to take you down every time you put boot to trail.

 Or so we would think. But the desert, like all the natural world, is majestically impersonal. We are shown that these things are not trying to hurt or kill, but to survive. The living things in the desert have produced though hides, sharp edges, and the ability to melt into the background, all so they can keep on living. Some, like the Saguaros of Southern Arizona, age gracefully, flowering only past 50 years. Those thorns are one of the most essential pieces to their long life. The thorns keep animals from drinking the lifeblood that flows through their fibrous cells.

 We’re the same way. We are just as fragile and we live in a harsh world full of attack. We develop defense mechanisms to ward off the violence and trauma. We prepare ourselves for it every day, and some of us develop spines, venomous bites, and offer them to anyone who gets close to us. We are trying to protect ourselves, trying to prevent any catastrophic damage.

 It’s a misnomer that we need to do this. We don’t need to take advice from the desert here; in fact, we should do the exact opposite. Where we have instinct to push people away with our needles and teeth gnashing we should instead act to pull them closer, allowing them to help us move through life and survive.

 Somewhere along the way we have collectively been damaged. It’s not just those of us who have been damaged directly; it’s everyone. For the past 150 years much of the world has had access to the most horrid tales of history, and the tales continue to be written day after day, and endless onslaught of secondary trauma. We are so afraid, and it is so disheartening. We seem to be seeing an uptick of these horrid tales, and why should we be surprised? It’s long been known that damaged people can easily damage others with those spines and thorns and teeth.

 Breathe.  

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The desert is full of surprises. One of the scariest looking creatures, the tarantula, is also the one of the meekest. It trundles across the road like a furry, eight-legged turtle. The formidable cactus can surprise us, too: get past the thorns and teeth and there is life and sweet fruit inside. More lessons from the desert.

Prelude

The sun set an orange blaze to see the day’s end arrive. I drove, as I have so many times before, with that fire to my right and a cold blue washing over the fields to my left. Eastern New Mexico is often ignored for the more prominent northern and southern parts, yet the flat plains and farms are certainly pastoral and such land has long held my fascination. I grew up in a city, then just on the outskirts (although we had a wonderful creek that rippled behind our house), but not far from Lancaster city proper lies the rolling hills and farms of the Amish and Mennonite communities: green and gold, thriving or fallow. I chose to move away from the populated areas when I was 19 when I went to college in the smallest of towns in central Kansas. The flatlands lacked the green waves of Lancaster County, but they were nonetheless beautiful. I can remember quite clearly the first summer storms I experienced in the middle of a picked over milo field. There were at least half a dozen gray, silver, and charcoal systems pounding the land in the distance, stabbing it with hot lightening. I don’t know if it was the storms or my fancy, but the air felt electric. I then moved on to the mountains of Virginia, which held more farms plowed into the side of the Appalachia. The glens did sing true in the spring and fall, painting with the sound of growing and dying, both colors handsome and new.

And here, more than a decade from the time I left the emerald east, I drive through land that has been recently harvested and so reflects the burning of the day. Silos and grain elevators silhouette against the oncoming rush of blue while irrigation pivots still themselves for the night. I’ve secured a small and simple cabin about ten miles north of Carlsbad. I’m on my way to Big Bend National Park in Texas, and this is the first of thirty-one nights I will spend alone. Tonight is Halloween; I won’t be home until the calendar reads December.

I’ve been chosen to explore, and craft music inspired by a harsh and beautiful piece of far west Texas called the Big Bend. It’s named so because the seemingly never ending Rio Grande cuts a sharp U-turn north after having travelled south since the Colorado/New Mexico border. It carves its way through a canyon land seldom seen by America. A dusty corner, forgotten and sunburnt, where the sun shines hot and hard and only the most adaptable of creatures, human or otherwise, survive. It is a place of trial, but as is so often the case with such places, it is the perfect environment for healing and creating.

The dark fog of the past three months has moved on from me and for this I am grateful. To begin this journey free of depression is nothing short of a miracle. The level of anxiety I have experienced over this trip has been observably more than your average person would experience, but a lot less considering what passes for normal in my brain. As I packed the Gray Haven full of every essential piece of camping and survival gear, music and recording equipment of all types, an inflatable kayak, and what seemed to my wife and I to be an adequate amount of frozen chili and lentils to last me an entire month, I found that I was stalling. There was a charged excitement that had slowly settled over me in the months since I found out about my appointment as one of centennial resident artists for Big Bend National Park, it over the weekend it had approached its zenith. But I kept slowing myself down, even when I was in the car and on the road there were last minute errands that “just had to be done” (they didn’t). I said goodbye to Deborah in the morning when she left for work. It was hard but we had a great weekend together and I’ll see her the week of Thanksgiving. I’m not sure that was what was holding me in town. Although I will miss having her next to me every night, I think what was chaining me to the middle Rio Grande valley was not a fear of what negative encounters I may have, but of the positive changes and healing that could occur during such a sojourn. Change has always been an exciting prospect throughout my life, one that has kept me moving forward, but in recent years I have grown weary and apprehensive of change. Subsequently, I feel my progression in healing has been stunted, and perhaps it is a change of this nature that can be a shot in the arm.

Even so, I have worked hard to keep myself from holding any expectations for the following weeks. Tempered expectations are one of the keys to a good life. My aunt always told me, “If you don’t expect anything, you won’t get disappointed.” A Zen master couldn’t have spoken truth more clearly. It’s hard to have expectations for something you have never attempted before, and its for the best. Still, creating goals is always a smart thing and I definitely have some broadly defined ideas as to what I would like to see happen, without forming an attachment to them:

  1. Write music.
  2. Hike a lot.
  3. Get better.

I feel these are reasonable and accomplishable goals when given a month in one of the most amazing and dramatic national parks in America. I’ll stay in my little cabin tonight, no doubt listening to a Stephen King audio book until my eyelids feel heavy. Tomorrow I’ll explore Carlsbad Caverns in the morning before making the final push towards Big Bend. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of positive mystery.

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Night time needle grass infestation in Carlsbad, NM.

The earth has fascinated me since I was a small boy playing in our tiny backyard in downtown Lancaster. I’ve watched that fascination grow with each move forward in my life. The correlation is not coincidental: the earth has a power that can only be understood when connected to it. I began that journey a long time ago, and it’s taken me more time than some others to get where I am. Now that I’m here I won’t be wasting any time. I’m at another point where that forward momentum is going to take me somewhere. As hard as I try to temper it, my imagination is running wild tonight.

Walk On

What if I got rid of everything that is unnecessary in my life and just started walking? Not going anywhere in particular, just walking. I’d come home, but it would be unencumbered by things I don’t need. What if I sold all my comic books, blu-rays, and TV? What If I got rid of the superfluous clothes and only kept what I needed? So many unused books could go to ones who would benefit from them. Then I would walk.

I would start by going north on 47th Street, towards Atrisco and the desert edge of the Bosque. There’s a path there, about a quarter of a mile from our house, going east and cutting down a slope of thick desert sage before it reaches the golden banks of the muddy river. I’ve seen it when I’ve been driving somewhere to buy things I don’t need. I’d walk that path slowly and forget about The Noise. I would breathe deep, and it would be a dry pull of air that hits my throat. It would be savory, like a wedding dinner for an old friend.

The path would hit the trail  running the strand of the Rio Grande and cutting through the heart of Albuquerque. I could go south, ducking under the golden cottonwoods and oakbrush, listening to the fallen leaves crack beneath me like broken old bones. I’d breathe deep, and it would be the sickly sweet aroma of fall foliage littering the soil, decomposing, giving itself back to which it came. It would remind me of my childhood in Pennsylvania, piles of leaves in the yard by the creek, and the fear and sadness.

In a mile I would hit Central Avenue and The City and The Noise. I would breathe deep the death that lay there. My hands, until that point hanging freely by my side and swinging with the sway of my walk, would inevitably wriggle into my pockets. Instead of looking up through a golden green canopy to the light of the sun, I would look down at the dead sidewalk and quickly circle back to my house.

There I would breathe deep the musky balm of home, of dogs and food, and living. Where I would sit, in patient silence, without things, and wait for my next walk.

TOP 5 THINGS YOU NEED FOR SUMMER ADVENTURES!!!

I love Pinterest. I discovered it a few months ago and have not looked back. When I’m bored I pull it up and read about Star Wars, cannabis, and recipes. I use it to dream about my next tour vehicle and discovering new camping hacks. It is truly junk food in the written word. One of my favorite things about Pinterest is the amount of lists for camping gear they have. Headlines almost always include some arbitrary number: 49 Things you MUST have for your next camping trip. The same items appear on almost every list and yet I read them each time and think to myself, “I absolutely need to get that inflatable lantern.”

The truth is nobody needs to get the inflatable lantern, the inflatable tent, or even the inflatable hammock (all real things, by the way). What do we need for summer camping? Or camping and outdoors-ing in general? My list for the things I need this summer looks a lot different than the ones I have seen on Pinterest.

Openness

Openness to experience, or the level to which someone accepts new experiences, is incredibly important to reaching full potential when exploring nature. Not only does it cause a statistically significant increase in cognitive ability and decision making (Lapine, Colquit, & Erez, 2000), it affords the mind a respite from the normal worries of every day life back in the city. Accepting and inviting whatever it is that comes our way means we won’t get bent out of shape when things don’t go according to plan. It means losing our attachment to the way we think things ought to be. When exploring nature this trait is invaluable and constantly utilized. Sometimes you forget the can opener and you don’t realize it until you unpack at the campsite that’s an hour and a half from anywhere. Other times it unexpectedly pours down rain the entire weekend for a backpacking trip and you forgot the cover to your backpack. Or maybe your keys fell out of your pocket when you were hiking out of the Grand Canyon that one time and you didn’t realize it until you got to the car. Yeah, these have all happened to me and caused minor to major meltdowns. Not this year, friends. If I drive all the way to the Jemez and forget my fishing rod I’m going to go hiking instead. Who knows? I may see something I’ve never seen before.

Mindfulness

Take it all in. What does the air smell like exactly? How cold is the water in the stream? How do different trails feel beneath your feet? What happens to your mind and body during a long hike? How does the campfire smell? What memories comeback when that smell lingers on your clothes? What thoughts are you having as you sit by the lake? Think about how you are part of nature, not separate from it when you lay down in camp at night. By being mindful of every aspect of our outdoors experience we ground ourselves in the natural world and allow it to work its healing in our lives. Five deep breaths are all it takes to connect yourself to the moment. When your mind naturally makes its way towards problems and stressors you’ve encountered during the work week, allow them to pass like leaves on a river. Observe them, then move your attention back to the present moment by connecting with the feeling of your breath and labeling your five sense. A more enriching interaction with the natural world is your reward.

Compassion

As we walk through the natural world we must do so with the intention that we will keep it as such: natural. This is a result of the compassion we feel towards ourselves, our communities, and the earth we live in. The three realms are not separate from each other. When we feel compassion for one realm it will inform our interactions with another. We feel compassion towards ourselves, this will extend to our community. If we have compassion for our community and ourselves, we will desire to enrich and conserve the natural environment we find ourselves in. Our environment feeds our communities in many ways, from the farms that grow our food to the mountains that feed our souls. Having compassion towards our environment means that we tread lightly and preserve them so the community we love can continue to benefit from the land long into the future.

Stealth

Have you ever been hiking in pristine wilderness only to come around a bend in the trail and see leftover food trash? It’s a miserable experience. Leave no trace ethics are paramount to keeping our natural lands healthy and ensuring their survival. Do you know how to poop in the woods? What about what you should do to erase your campsite? Do you know what cryptobiotic soil is? Educate yourself on how you can enjoy the natural world in the most responsible way. Wherever you are, leave the earth looking better than when you found it.

Self-Reflexivity

This refers to your ability to think and process your experiences while they are happening and after they happen. When you are in the wild it is important to let your mind explore your soul. What better place to ask the big questions than surrounded by a cluster of 14,000 foot peaks? Or staring at a sunset while listening to the lull of waves at the shore?  The ability to reflect on your experiences is the key to learning from them. Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally, but here are some questions you can ask yourself if you’re finding it hard to get started:

  • How is this experience affecting me?
  • Why did I do that?
  • What do I really need right now?

IMG_3729Enjoy your adventures this summer. Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water. Bring your maps and a raincoat. Don’t forget the snacks and inflatable hammock. Don’t forget why your doing it, either.

365 Days

Above image: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

For the past year I have been undergoing a bit of an experiment on myself. Last May I made a commitment to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible and see how much of a tangible impact it would have on my mental health. Being a staunch believer in ecopsychology and using the natural world to heal mental health, this seemed logical.

Let’s start with where I was mentally at this time in 2015: Depressed, suicidal, burned-out on my job and my life. I was at an end, in a lot of ways. There didn’t seem to be very many options for me and giving up seemed like the easiest thing to do. It was at this point when I decided to reframe what it meant to “give up”. Instead of giving up my entire life, I would give up all of those things that held me down. I’m quite fond of the expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and that was my intention.

The first thing I gave up was my job. In June I left my work as a behavioral health consultant and completely turned my back on the counseling career I had been building for upwards of a decade. My plan was to play music full-time; a plan which I have carried into fruition but had no idea the impact it would have on my outdoors adventuring. I no longer had to worry about paperwork and hours, taxes and billing, and most important of all I could focus on my own mental health concerns without being fettered by those of others. I began by taking walks in the east mountains every morning, fly-fishing in the Jemez on Fridays, and simply preparing dinner outside in our jungle of a backyard. The first month was brilliant and I felt fantastic pretty much the entire time. Sure enough, depression crept back in, but I had a hedge against it in the mountains.

I took 4 trips to Colorado last summer and enjoyed exploring what is one of my favorite states. From Durango and Telluride on the western edges, to the green valley of the south central (packed with mosquitos, by the way), to the red rocks of the front range. Colorado was my go-to state for 2 months. One of the better adventures happened later in the summer when I spontaneously drove from Albuquerque to the Green Mountain Reservoir near Rocky Mountain National Park. That trip instilled in me an idea: I could pretty much point to a place on the map and book shows all the way there. I could go anywhere, all I needed was the proper ride. In early October I got that wish when we bought Eleanor, the Gray Haven.

Eleanor is a gray and black, 2005 Honda Element. I removed the back seats and build a modular sleeping platform that is perfect for one. I hung curtains on bungee cords, built a drawer system that peeks out of the hatchback for kitchen supplies and food, as well as another drawer system that opens into the sleeping compartment for clothes. My musical equipment stores nicely under the sleeping platform, which is topped with a 4-inch, high-density foam mattress. I hung my hammock on the roof rack so that I can enjoy hammock naps no matter where I am (this has come in quite handy on long tours). I even set up a bit of an entertainment system so I could watch movies before turning in at night. It’s been a great little vehicle and has cut down on my costs quite a bit. No hotel rooms for me: I can live quite cheaply out of the Gray Haven. Furthermore, I have become fond of calling it my “kennel”. As dog owners know, kennel crates can be a safe and special place for dogs. That’s the way I feel about Eleanor. After a long day of driving, playing music, and socializing, its nice to get back there and relax in my own little space.

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Eleanor, the Gray Haven 

The maiden voyage of Eleanor was a week long trip through Utah before meeting my parents and Deborah in Zion National Park. Eleanor did fantastic and kept me warm and comfortable most of the nights. The final night before I met my family was a little rough for me, so I took a room at a hotel outside the park entrance. Even though I was staying in a room, nature had something special in store for me. As I walked up to my secluded suit I saw a young elk calf that was sitting on the porch directly adjacent to my room. He looked at me as I unloaded my things, and then I sat with him for about 2 hours as I read. He was about an arms length from me and didn’t get spooked once. I went to eat dinner (elk meatloaf, of all things) and when I came back he was gone. I was feeling incredibly depressed when I walked up to my room and that young elk seemed to lift my spirits quite a bit. As he sat there it was almost as though he was placed there for me, to be there with me while I healed. There are plenty of psychotherapists that could take notes from this gentle animal.

As fall was turning to winter I toured went on a seemingly disastrous tour through Arizona and southern New Mexico. I was depressed before I left but reluctant to cancel the tour. I thought that the exposure to the natural world would be healing. I made it through, but not without incident. I was stuck in Silver City, suicidal and miserable, for a few days before cancelling my show and heading back to Albuquerque. It made me nervous and took quite a while to recover from.

But winter arrived and with it the holiday season. Deborah and I had decided that we would take a week-long trip to Joshua Tree National Park, which is my favorite national park. Deborah had never been and I was excited to share with her the magic of that desert wonderland. Looking at the forecast caused some concern: the nighttime temperature was supposed to average in the 20’s. It didn’t matter to us. We hit the road on a blustery, snowy day after Christmas and drove till the snow was gone. Our first night at J-Tree was the coldest I’ve ever spent and one of the best times I’ve ever had with my wife. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and laughed at how cold it was outside of them. We bundled ourselves together and slept wonderfully, waking the next morning with the sun to hot coffee (her) and tea (me). We spent the next 5 days hiking through the rocks and desert. It was the best vacation I’d ever had in my life.

Winter held a lot of depression. Although it was mild in the high desert of Albuquerque, I stayed in quite a bit. Depression has a way of Velcro-ing a body to the couch, or the bed, and as a result my access to nature was confined to what I could see out my window (when the shades weren’t drawn) and snuggling with my dogs. I had another Arizona tour in February. This time I made my way north from Tucson to Flagstaff. I camped in Saguaro National Park, the Mogollon Rim of Sedona, and Petrified Forest National Park. The latter being a surprising little gem that everyone driving along I-40 should stop and experience. The tour was better, I was buoyed, and I returned home to record my debut solo album.

Spring arrived with another opportunity to travel. I booked a last-minute tour from Hood River, Oregon all the way to Yuma, Arizona. As I passed the Colorado border into Utah it started sprinkling rain. By the time I hit Salt Lake City it was pouring. It didn’t stop raining until the final day of the tour, a week and a half later. This tour was fraught with battles inside my head. Even though I was sleeping amongst the redwoods I found myself trapped in a cycle of awful thoughts and by the time I got off the Pacific Coast Highway a couple days later I was in bad shape. The rain followed me to Joshua Tree and finally let up once I hit Yuma. Brow-beaten, I turned eastward toward the warm comfort of home.

After getting back from the west coast I as able assess the functionality of my medication with a new psychiatric provider and we found that I was a far too high a dose. I had known that some people can experience an increase in depression and anxiety due to SSRI medication, but never fully understood it till it happened to me. My doctor lowered my dose of Zoloft and the effects were almost instantaneous. The fog of depression lifted for the first time in at least two years, just in time for my latest escapade: a month-long journey across the country. From Tucson to Philadelphia and back.

I just got home from that tour this past Monday. I was able to see both the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Parks. It rained most of the time, but it didn’t bother me a bit. I was happy and in a good mood for the majority of the tour. I slept in the Gray Haven even though I didn’t have to. I realized that I could be alive.IMG_3301

Hot Spring Trail, Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, TX

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Here I am, a year later. My mental health is better than it was at this point last year, but it’s not without its struggles. There are times when I feel like giving up, but those times are fewer and further between than they ever have been. My depression doesn’t feel like a life sentence anymore, and that is something special. I know that it will be there for the rest of my life, but it won’t always have the same affect. I can cope with it now.
How much of this do I attribute to the natural world? Quite a bit, to be sure. My desire to be in the natural world helped lead me to decisions that have been incredibly beneficial: Leaving my job, playing music full-time, living in a small SUV… The contact I’ve had with nature has left a tangible mark on me as well. From the sunburns and the weight-loss, to the focus and the energy, nature has been more helpful to me than any medications, therapists, or hospital stays ever have. That’s not to say that everyone will have this reaction, but I firmly believe that connection with the natural world must be an adjunctive treatment for anyone who is struggling with mental health. The healing property is undeniable. Getting out there can be tough, and being there can be tough, but when it’s all said and done it is clearly beneficial for everyone to renew their connection with the natural world.

In This Together

I drove north, planning on camping on the Pecos river and fly-fishing for a few days. As I passed the brown Adobe of Santa Fe I didn’t understand why I would stop at the Pecos Wilderness. I could keep driving north, on through to Colorado, meeting my wife in Denver for a concert later in the week. So I did.

I drove through the setting sun, into the mountains of southern Colorado, and watched as their silhouettes grew more jagged and prominent in the rising moon. I climbed further north and deeper into the night. I had no real destination to speak of, but my directions were taking me towards Rocky Mountain National Park. As I began to tire I pulled over somewhere northwest of Silverthorne, about an hour south of the park. I found a campground and set myself up as light shown through the gathering clouds. I heard the slapping of waves coming from somewhere just beyond the mouth of my tent, but, exhausted, I decided to leave that exploring for the morning.

When I awoke I saw I had chosen a campsite alongside a large body of water with lower-hanging mountains on its eastern edge. My hamlet rested fairly lonesome above the high-water line, less that a hundred yards east of the entrance to a cove, about three-hundred yards across from north to south. The water was sapphire blue with occasional chop lapping against the banks: stoney outcrops backed by steep black pack, crested with sage and purple and yellow asters. A beauty to be sure. The gray clouds had gathered significantly and framed my yellow tent with a swath of pencil-lead. It was here I would lay my head for the next few days, exploring the nearby Arkansas River and hiking the relatively low mountains. Rain came and went and I enjoyed the rhythm of the waves on those dark and cloudy August nights. Lightening provided a show the likes of which cannot be duplicated by a television.

I packed leisurely the morning of my departure, looking upon my inlet in content and nostalgic silence until the hum of a motor grew louder and I saw a speed boat power through my field of vision, straight into the narrow cove, pulling a water skier in it’s wake. The chop increased. Time to go, I thought, and started the car with a sense of irony.

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As I drove away from that space a question entered my mind regarding how we are to enjoy the natural world. Is there a better way? Ed Abbey railed against motorists in the National Parks 50 years ago to no avail, and if you travel to any of our nation’s most protected lands you will see the results of over half-a-century of automobile use and motorized recreation. These mod cons bring more people to the land and that can possibly cause more conservation efforts by those who have been touched by nature. More often motorists bring litter, pollution (both air and noise), and that sense of entitlement that comes with the privilege of being a private transportation traveler. It’s indicative of a greater problem: humans see themselves as separate from the natural world, observing it as though through a window at a zoo. This viewpoint has led to a health crisis not only for the Earth, but for the human race as well.

The answer to my previously posed question is a resounding “YES!” There is a correct way to enjoy nature, but not entirely for the reason some might think. The idea that human beings are separate from the natural world is an example of dualistic thinking. It’s the age-old “us and them” mentality and, as with most dualistic thinking, it’s quite incorrect. Humans are a part of the natural world; just like plants, animals, insects, dirt, and rivers. We come from the natural world, we are not born from something other. The two transitive properties that we now have are thus:

  1. Humans are separate from the natural world, we have consciousness and therefore we are above the nature. This leads to thoughts and actions that can be destructive to the environment.
  2. Humans are an intrinsic part of the natural world, our sense of consciousness encompasses all living things. If we are part of the natural world, we are subject to the all the consequences the natural world experiences. This leads to thoughts and actions that are uplifting and life-giving, both for the Earth and for ourselves.

One of the basic tenets of ecopsychology is that by healing the earth we can heal ourselves. There are a lot of reasons for this: a basic sense of altruism and fulfillment, a feeling of being grounded, and the simple fact that you get a heavy dose of vitamin D and endorphins when you engage outdoors activities being a only a few. I think the more salient affect comes from the innate connection human beings have with the planet: When we give life to the Earth, we give life to ourselves. The increased sense of isolation from our planet is killing both of us.

When we enjoy our public lands we have a responsibility to care for those lands so that they survive. If they don’t survive, we don’t survive. It’s not as simple a problem of hearing a buzzing dirt bike when you’re trying to quietly observe an eagle’s nest or fix a fly to your line. The problem is that the buzzing of a dirt bike cuts deep into the health of the Earth, and thereby cuts deep into the health of our society.

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We must enjoy nature with the care and responsibility that we approach anything else in our lives. It sustains us and it is a litmus for the health of humanity. Right now the prognosis is dim, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be turned around. Outdoors writer Ad Crable once told me that we should always aim to leave nature looking better than we found it. Perhaps that’s where we start. ATVs and dirt bikes are next.

Up from the Desert

IMG_2201The smell of creosote greets me as I emerge from The Gray Haven (also known as Eleanor), my 2005 Honda Element just before dawn. I find myself about a mile southeast from the entrance to Saguaro National Park. Late last night I drove the serpentine Gate’s Pass Road following a show I played in Tucson. The pull-off seemed set in place specifically for me and Eleanor, and I marveled at the silhouette of the giant Saguaro cacti and the sharp edges of the Tucson Mountains in the moonlight. Sleep came quickly but was disturbed by uncomfortable dreams and paranoia caused by a circling helicopter with a spotlight. As a result, I was up before the sun and allowed to revel in the scent of the desert as the globe slowly crept over the mountains, turning what were mere lines the night before into a jagged vision punctuated by various cacti, brush, and rock.

After a brief morning hike, I began traveling north on I-10 towards Phoenix, that sprawling slab of concrete in the middle of the desert. The landscape of Arizona seems to be split in half by latitude about an hour or so north of its largest city. As I begin to climb the mountains on I-17  I watch the giant Saguaros seemingly wave goodbye to me in the rearview mirror and the topography moves towards the piñon pine and juniper forests of the northern half of the state. I pull onto AZ 89 and begin the traverse towards Jerome, a true wild west town that was built into the side of the mountains, reminiscent of towns in Spain and Italy, with a decidedly Americana feel. Beyond Jerome, Sedona. The setting of a disastrous attempt at healing-by-nature in the fall of 2014. It was very much a watershed moment in my life, and now I find myself again staring at the Mogollon Rim, just west of Sedona, in the Coconino National Forest.

I’m surrounded by the sound of a breeze traveling through the juniper, giving off a decidedly fresh scent. Different than the smell of the low desert further south, but a calming and pleasing aroma just the same. Mingled among the deciduous trees are reminders that this too is a desert environment. On a hike through the forest surrounding my campsite, I recognize prickly pear and a barrel variety of cacti, and I have to watch my path as sharp fronds of Yucca threaten to impale my shins and knees. Small burrows pockmark the ground. These could belong to any variety of creatures attempting to survive both the harsh heat of the day and the stinging cold of the high desert nights. I see a desert cottontail lope across my path a few feet ahead. It gives pause as we regard each other mutually, then skips quickly away. And now, the sun is setting behind me drawing a line of shadow in the hills surrounding the red rock of the Mogollon, edging ever closer to the rim. The moon is already high in the sky, about to break free of its adolescence for its monthly night of adulthood and fullness.

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The desert, like most everything else in the natural world, screams with metaphor. But can a landscape serve as an archetype in the Jungian sense? I am more than enamored with the desert, I am more than inspired by it. I identify with it in a manner that one would normally reserve for another human being. I identify with the struggle to survive and the need to adapt more than anything else in my life, and certainly more than any of Carl’s suggested quintessence. More than that, I identify with the success of the desert. Not only the need to adapt and survive but the ability to do so under the most palpable adversity.

I live with severe depression. There are times when it waxes and wanes, but for the most part, it’s in the forefront of my experiences. Like the dirt and dust of the desert, it is a ubiquitous drone throughout my life. Rain comes in bursts of joy and happiness, contentment and peace, and when these showers arrive I soak them up and do my best to save them for future dry spells. I flower during these downpours, often exploding with creativity and love until there doesn’t seem like there could possibly be any left. When the joy and contentment clear I cleave to their memories with a desperation matched only by the cholla’s reservation of water. Those memories of how good things can get often pull me through.

St. John of the Cross coined the term “a long dark night of the soul” to describe the spiritual and emotional separation one feels when wading through upheaval and doubt, depression and anxiety. This is an apt and telling description of this experience, but I don’t think it holds as much water as the desert metaphor. The desert offers opportunities for change and survival, but one must recognize and take these gifts for what they are worth. The long, dark night only offers one option: Wait for the morning to break. I’d rather take my chances with action than waiting around for something to happen.

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The sun has continued to set and something interesting has begun to happen. The shadow-line it drew 15 minutes ago is blurring and the hills are lighting up again. The rim is now enveloped in the precursor to night. Yet another show from the desert, another lesson. Change can happen even when it’s least expected. Maybe there is something else.

Cultivating Compassion

As I’ve entered and matured into my adulthood this world has slipped deeper into an epoch characterized by anxiety, anger, hatred, selfishness, distractibility, and fear. As a global culture we are truly captured by an existential crisis paralleled only by the discovery that we can wipe out our entire species with the push of a button (atomic bomb). Our global society is traumatized and scared for it’s survival. We are assaulted with images of violence and catastrophe on a daily basis and we have been informed that our doom is impending, within the next few generations. Our climate is collapsing quickly and our respect for one another is diminishing at an ever more rapid pace.

Over the past few months it seems that we are approaching another watershed in this crisis. With the violence in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris occurring over the past month, and with the bombing of an MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital also looming in the recent past, we have become saturated with some of the most awful news, and, perhaps more destructive than the images, the opinions of those who are driven by negative states of consciousness and impulsive, knee-jerk words that are not chosen wisely.

Looking around social media I see and feel this tangible angst among many I know, and I feel the tension within my entire being. More than a few times I’ve heard or read people remark, “I feel like I’m going to lose my mind if I hear more negative news…” And yet the news keeps coming. How can we deal with this dangerous level of negativity that has taken hold in our collective mind? How can we can we cope with the vicarious trauma we experience every minute of every day? If we look inward we may find the key. _____________________________________________________

Metta Meditation, or Loving-Kindness Meditation is based on the understanding that all beings capable of feeling can experience both good and bad, and that all such sentient beings, given the choice, would choose the former rather than the latter. In fact, that’s the definition of “metta” in the Buddhist tradition. Basically, it’s saying that everything that can appreciate the distinction between “good” and “bad” experiences would rather have what they feel is a “good” experience. Meditation based on this idea assists us in cultivation (or Bhavana) of feelings of love and warmth towards not only ourselves and those whom we know and love dearly, but also extending that love, compassion, and warmth to those whom we do not know; including those towards whom we feel conflict and lack of compassion, those that we don’t know at all (e.g. refugees), and those toward whom we feel indifferent (strangers, people whom we do not interact with in any way whatsoever). I’m going to offer up an explanation of this simple meditation practice, beginning with a script:

As with all meditations, I encourage you to find a place where you can be alone, a place where you can concentrate. Find this place and sit with natural relaxation. Breathe deep and feel the air going into your body. Do this for 2-3 minutes, and begin the meditation when you feel ready.

May I feel happy and peaceful, May I feel healthy and safe

May my loved ones feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those who are suffering feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those whom I don’t like feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May WE ALL be happy and peaceful, may we be healthy and safe

I practice this meditation and have led it in a group setting on numerous occasions, using a plethora of different scripts before writing my own that I felt was easiest to remember and recite. You can find other examples of the script anywhere online, but I think the words hold power regardless. Here is an explanation of the form: 

I:

This is directing the compassion and love towards ourselves. We must start within if we  intend to send love out to others. There must be an immense sense of self-compassion and nonjudgement before we can effectively send compassion out to others, especially towards those towards whom we harbor deep feelings of anger, fear, or resentment. Although this can sometimes be quite difficult, we start here. Cultivate a love for yourself. Understand the true nobility of your Self so that you can see it in others. As you say these words imagine yourself experiencing them deeply.

My loved ones:

When you are reciting this phrase bring to mind someone towards whom you feel an easy and natural affection: your partner or spouse, your children, a respected teacher, a dear friend, even your pet. Imagine them experiencing the words, picturing their face and all the things you love about them. Hold this love deeply inside yourself and let it warm your being. Often the easiest step, sending well-wishes comes quite naturally to us and so we let it fuel our love for every sentient thing that comes after. You may substitute the name of a particular loved one if you wish.

Those who are suffering:

All the bad news, all the pain we are watching and reading about, within our closest circles and throughout the entire world, causes us to feel helpless, hopeless, and dejected. Do something about it. Send this line to all the world’s suffering: both those at home as well as those unknown faces abroad. To the strangers on the train with saddened, share-cropper eyes,  to the neighbor next door who lost their job, to the refugee struggling to escape a violent war in order to live a life of peace. Imagine them all, one by one, experiencing happiness, peace, health, and safety. You may experience warmth from this, hold it close. It is a dear part of you. You may substitute the name of a particular person, or group of people, if you wish.

Those who you don’t like :

Jesus of Nazareth was no stranger to loving his enemies: “But I tell you love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:44). Great figures throughout our time have held compassion for those who would harm them in some way, recognizing the power this has to not only change the enemy, but more importantly to change the Self from within. When we choose to have compassion for our enemies we take their power away. Picture those with whom you have a troubled or disturbed relationship.  Make sure it is not someone who triggers some type of trauma response, make your choice reasonable. It is antithetical to the point if you are re-traumatizing yourself, and we don’t want that to happen. Recite this line, imagining them feeling the words as deep as your loved ones or yourself. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the meditation and that is OK, it doesn’t have to be easy. Perhaps it will get easier in time, perhaps not. If it gets easier try and move towards imagining you loving your enemies, you comforting them and keeping them safe. If this practice becomes too difficult, move backwards and begin reciting the “I” line again, then move on to reciting the “We” phrasing. You may substitute the particular name of a person or group if you wish.

We:

In this phrasing the point is to hold all of sentient existence with love and warmth. Our intention is to send all these wishes of well-being to all who can feel them. It doesn’t matter if the people are “good” people or “bad” people; they all have the same right to happiness and growth. Hold yourself, your loved ones, completely strangers, and enemies with this compassion.

Throughout the meditation it is important that you picture the phrases coming to life. Picture yourself feeling loved, picture those who are suffering experiencing relief, picture the person at work that you just can’t stand, looking healthy. Hold these images, the words in the phrases, and the sensation of your breath in the forefront of your experience and allow your muscles to relax and your heart to soften. Run through each phrasing at least 10 times before moving on. I use a traditional Mala (a string of beads) to help me keep track. If you find yourself overwhelmed you can always anchor yourself back to your breath, and stay with it as long as you’d like. _____________________________________________________

I was discussing this meditation several years ago with a friend of mine. He said that when he is feeling low, anxious, or angry he goes to the mountains that border Albuquerque and does “hundreds” of loving-kindness recitations. He says that he inevitably feels better when he leaves and heads back into the city. The sense of loving and accepting yourself unconditionally, then transferring that love to all living things that are found both inside and outside your consciousness is transformative. There is far more power in love than in fear. There is more strength in peace than in violence. This applies not only to the physical world around us, but also the spiritual world that is within all of us. Nurturing love instead of fear, and peace instead of violence: this is the path to healing. 

A Green Summer

This post was originally written for Melinda Wilder’s blog: HeyLouWrites. Check out her amazing writing here: http://www.heylouwrites.com

Living in the desert has its obvious challenges, not least of all is the constant search for water. All living things residing in desert climes face this similar fate; for a creature can exist for quite some time without food, but water is the stuff of life. It would seem that nothing can survive long without it. The desert, that ever changing and surprising landscape, holds so many secrets of survival that nothing is ever as it seems.

New Mexico, like much of the great southwest, depends on monsoon rains during July and August to buoy yearly rainfall totals. Rainfall throughout the rest of the year is lackluster at best, and there have been many late spring months where residents of Albuquerque and beyond have felt the emotional toll that a dry fall and winter can have on a body and mind. Not only do the rains hold the key for physical life to continue and flourish, they provide a vital service to the mind and spirit; invigorating, revitalizing.

So it is with great anticipation that the desert awaits its drink. The months of April and May, casually letting loose the clouds on much of the rest of the country, deny the southwest their respite from up to 6 months with less than an inch of precipitation. June comes in with a deeply draining sense of hopelessness, until the last weeks, when a cold breeze begins applying itself to the west. Then, sometime in early July, late in the afternoon, big bellied clouds roll in off the volcanoes in the west, catching against the Jemez, Sandia, and Manzano mountains, and piling up in great towers of darkened cotton. All at once they drop their payload, often for 45 minutes at a time, then breaking away allowing the sun one last glimpse of the earth before clocking out from it’s shift. Not to worry, the great cumulus clouds will return tomorrow, and they are efficiently punctual.

The desert that greets the sun the morning following the first monsoon rains is not the same as the one from the day before. Small green ground cover begins to appear in what was only one day ago a great brown ocean, the cholla and prickly pear cacti start showing the faint traces of flower, and blue gramma and buffalo grasses begin the short journey towards shedding their seeds and perpetuating their survival. As the days pass with their daily downpours late in the afternoon, the burnt landscape begins its seasonal transformation. And the desert knows exactly what it needs: summer rainfall late in the day or overnight is far more beneficial than the late morning or afternoon. During the peak heat times of the day the rain can evaporate so quickly that it won’t make a difference if it makes it to the ground, and often won’t make it to the ground at all. Rain late in the day and at night allows for the rain to hit the desert floor and soak in, nurturing the soil for as long as it can.

Watching the walls of water spread out in the distance is a captivating experience. As the thunderheads migrate eastward, great sheets of rain paint the horizon below the clouds different shades of slate, gray, and charcoal, based upon the intensity of the downpour. These screens stretch for miles and miles, blanketing the distance but inching ever closer towards the volcanoes on the edge of Albuquerque where I bear witness to their unfurling. The volcanoes are the best place in Albuquerque to watch a storm: they provide a complete panorama of the city edged against the great Sandia Mountains to the east as well as the vast expanse of nowhere reaching North, South, and West. The city in the valley below sparkles in the twilight as lights turn on to greet the coming night. Why are you people in your homes? Why are you not outside to catch some of the life that will soon be spilling out of the skies?

Water hitting hot, dry ground has always produced one of the most aromatherapeutic smells in the natural, or unnatural world. As a child I remember the smell of the first rain drops hitting the dark macadam of the city streets where I grew up. A sweet, slightly metallic odor rises as the water mixes with the oils on the blacktop. The heat causing the cold drops to create small geysers of steam that dissipate about a foot off the ground, releasing the familiar, long-awaited smell before soaking the earth and morphing into something a little more sickly-sweet, losing the metallic layers in the process. I never thought there was a better smell until I experienced the rain hitting dry dust instead of the tar of industry, and sage, rosemary, and desert willow instead of grass and the old mulch of far-fallen leaves from the previous autumn. Equally earthy, but much more natural, pure, cleansing. The ground of my youth was polluted by an overabundance of smells that overwhelmed the olfactory system. In contrast, the desert smells mix menthol and camphor, clearing the nasal passages and calming frazzled nerves quickly. The air is think with a dusty scent in accompaniment as the parched sand and dirt fly into the air with each new strike of the raindrops.

While this process repeats itself for two weeks every summer, every ten years or so an anomaly may arise like the cumulonimbus clouds towering the horizon. During this type of year the monsoons stay not for two weeks, but stretch from the end of June till the middle of August, enveloping most of the summer in a perpetual forecast of moisture. The year I arrived in the southwest, 2006, was one such year. This year, 2015, has been another. In fact, the rains began in the beginning of May and have not quit. Rain has not show it’s face every day, but more days than not have been marked by puddled gutters and wonderfully smelling desert plant life. When looking west towards the volcanoes a great green country greets the eye, beckoning. Driving through the region, north through Colorado and west through northern Arizona, the same site is present. Ten-year water numbers are vastly improving due to the amount of water falling from the sky. Rivers rise above their banks throughout the area and the Rio Grande, running mere blocks from my home, is high and muddy on a consistent basis; a tell-tale sign of extreme runoff. The desert has changed before my eyes: once a barren, desolate patch, promising a harsh and unforgiving existence is now a healing factor, stitching the wounds of my year and applying a needed salve.
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The desert is analogous to life in many ways. St. John had his long dark night of the soul, but I feel like what he was describing is better termed as a long walk through the desert. Periods of extreme drought followed by an outpouring of growth and beauty. Creatures that have adapted to the harsh life offered by the desert have one constant instinct: get water, stay alive. Again, this is analogous to what humans need throughout their lives. There must be a constant search for that which gives life, that which sustains. When I am parched from these things I dry up and become emotionally dormant, unable to grow and show the world the beauty that is my true identity. On the converse, when I find and drink the water of life I flourish and bloom, my winsome nature becoming apparent not only to the world around me, but also to myself.

Finding the well can be difficult, and from time to time the water dries up, leaving me to search for a new draught. Fortunate for me there are dowsers as a guide: exercise, connecting with nature, exploring spirituality. Unfortunate for me, there are also springs that promise to quench thirst, and seem to do exactly that at first, only to reveal themselves to be a poison. Or they are actually feeding the side of me that takes away life.

Consider the Cherokee legend of the two wolves: A grandfather explains to his grandchild that he has two wolves fighting within him. One wolf is malice, anger, shame, and pain. The other is love, compassion, peace, and contentment. The child asks, “Which will win?” The grandfather replies, “The one I feed.”

I see that there is water that will feed my beauty, and there is water that will feed my pain. There aren’t always clear signs hanging from those wells that hold poison, but I have always felt that there are signs on the wells that give life. So I continue to search through the desert, drinking greedily when I come to the latter.
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A western hike through the volcanoes this week shows the signs of the dry season to come: gold-brown patches have appeared amongst the green, and the walls of water that once dominated the sky are no longer. It will be a while before desperation creeps back over these lands, but it is inevitable. Like the amazing Rose of Jericho, the desert will crawl into its dusty brown turmoil, looking dead until the next season of monsoons hit, allowing it to bloom for only another moment.