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A wilderness meditation pilgrimage



Story and photos by Charles Wolf Drimal, Contributor

cascade of clear, piercing whistles
invites the first sign of dawn. The sun’s
rays have yet to touch the depths of
Dirty Devil Canyon, but to a canyon
wren—the melodic harbinger of morning—
there is no reason not to sing.

Each ensuing note falls in tone, slowly
settling across a sand desert floor held
cold through the dark by clear spring

More than 600 miles from my home
in the Northern Rockies and five days
deep into a wilderness meditation
expedition with Absaroka Institute in
south-central Utah, my perspective has
shifted. From the comfort of a sleeping
bag, I feel a slight air current brush across
my face. The canyon wren’s early morning
inspiration to rise has habitually
become my own.

Unlike past backcountry trips, which
have brought me immediately to a stove
for breakfast, tea and conversation,
my first movements of the day lead to
a meditation cushion, the lighting of
incense and the sounding of a bell.

As I take the cross-legged position,
the encompassing shrine of ancient
sun-scorched Navajo sandstone, cottonwood
leaf chatter and distant creek
babble all arise and fade in my perception.

An unceasing effort for the next
40 minutes directs my awareness to my
own breath. Thoughts of last night’s
dreams come and go. A changing light
warms my skin. I straighten my posture
and sink my knees into the substratum
of stone, grounding myself. A raven’s
call overhead reminds me to return to
my breath.

The natural world of mountains, rivers,
deserts and forests has been a place of
healing and a source of insight for the
human psyche since time immemorial.
Removed from society, spiritual seekers,
priests, shamans and saints trace
moments of awakening to prolonged
sojourns in wild country. Reclusive
hermits of Asian peaks and plateaus,
Native Americans seeking visions on
hilltops, Australian Aborigines on
walkabouts, the Buddha’s enlightenment
under a Bodhi tree, and Jesus fasting
in the Judean desert all exemplify a
common orientation of the soul.

People from all walks of life have recognized
the power of an untrammeled
landscape. The renaissance of the modern
day urbanite’s magnetic pull toward
remote wilderness areas throughout
this continent and beyond is no aberration
to human behavior. Likewise,
there are explanations beyond deep
powder turns, cold beer and a paucity
of romantic partners for bucolic, pennypinching
ski bums to eke out a living
near Western wild lands.

The natural world holds the power
to mirror our struggles and ignite our
inherent potential. Influenced by
both wilderness travel and meditation
practice, the human condition may
be catalyzed to realize that the world
around and the world within are not
separate from one another. Through
close study of the mind, we develop the
capacity to know our own freedom and
self-induced suffering.

Often associated with Buddhism and
Hinduism, meditation can be found
in faiths as diverse as Taoism, Sufism,
Judaism and Christianity, as well as in
contemporary psychotherapy practices.
Today, in the U.S. alone, more than 10
million people practice some form of
meditation. Worldwide, the number
of practitioners enters the hundreds of

The practice is just as extraordinary
in simplicity as it is challenging in
execution. An effort must be made to
bring full awareness to the breath. As
thoughts arise, one must acknowledge
them, let them go, and return awareness
to the breath. This practice can be
repeated for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an
hour, or throughout a long walk in the
mountains or desert. The cultivation
of this skill leads to stress reduction,
expanded awareness, clarity, momentto-
moment presence, recognition of
shared commonality, and many masters
would add, the realization of life as
intimate flow.

There is no better place to explore this
practice than on a wilderness pilgrimage.
A week of walking sandy creek
bottoms and watching the sun and
moon track across the sky becomes a
flowing movement that meshes the
boundaries of earth and mind. Time
told by shades of red sandstone and nomadic
blue firmament offers a welcome
inheritance to any agenda.

Through extensive meditation under
swaying cottonwood trees planted
by the weathering of remote canyon
corridors, I’m reminded that human existence
is a process itself. We are more
verb than noun. The ever-changing nature
of the physical body, of thoughts,
feelings, perceptions, responses—all is
in flux. With each passing backcountry
day my mind grows sharper, more
observant of the nuances of inhalation
and exhalation. With time and practice, the breath
assumes its own lead.

Like a canyon creek carried forward
without hindrance, there is a time in
meditation to simply let go. When
the mind as we know it is no longer
in charge, the breath experiences this
world of canyon and sky with an intimacy
previously unknown.

Charles Wolf Drimal is an ecopsychologist,
wilderness guide, conservationist,
Zen Buddhist practitioner and a poet. He
leads wilderness meditation expeditions
for the Absaroka Institute and advocates
for public lands conservation with the
Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

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