Lessons on gratitude from a mountain top in California

Last month I participated in a week long wilderness experience. Fifteen of us, all men, gathered on a mountain in California and pitched our tents. We had no cellphones or electronics, no books, and no way of connecting to the outside world. During that week, each day we set off alone, away from the camp, to find a solitary spot, to commune with nature, to learn from the trees, and to see what happens when we remember that we are animals, living on a wild planet. After our walks, we reconvened at camp and sitting in a circle, shared our stories.

All these walks led to the fifth day at 8am when we said goodbye to one another, and left the camp to each find a spot where we would live, alone, for the next 24 hours, embarking on what Native Americans call a “vision quest.” This meant no food, no tent, and no way of communicating with others.

We were high in the mountains and as I don’t have a view from my apartment in New York City, on this day I decided, I would find a spot high up on a ridge, with a sweeping view and an enormous Californian sky.

As they say “man plans and God laughs”.

I found myself on a path that wended its way straight down the mountain, further and further down, until I was at the bottom of a ravine, on the flat rocks beside a dry creek.

I was exhausted and my knees were sore and there was no way I could make it back up the mountain just yet. So forget the view, for the next twenty-four hours this was my home.

I sat down, feeling the still dry air, and the deep silence. I made a circle of pinecones and sitting within them decided I was safe. The sun moved slowly across the sky, bees buzzed and a deer crossed in front of me. As the sun began to set, I remembered why I wanted to be up above, in the light, with a view. I remembered fear. I felt a gripping sensation in my belly, and knew that this place was eerie and dangerous and I had made a terrible mistake. I could feel the presence of the axe murderer around the corner, the mountain lion, the impending heart attack with no nitroglycerin and no help, the beginnings of the big California earthquake.

No sooner could I calm myself, so another thought arose. I was terrorizing myself and it was working. I had to find some antidotes to fear.

I experimented with talking out loud, singing, meditating, planning to walk back up that mountain before the sun set completely. And then the sun set completely. There was no way out. No way back until the morning. It was going to be a very long night.

And then I discovered it. Gratitude. Gratitude and fear cannot co-exist. But there’s one problem, you have to really mean it. How do you begin to feel grateful, when what you are feeling is terror.

I began very slowly to fake it, speaking words of gratitude, starting with my baby toe. I thanked each of my toes, and then slowly and methodically, every part of my body, all the way up to my bald scalp. Next I thanked everyone who’s ever been in my life, for what they have brought me and how they have taught me. I went way back. Then I thanked the earth, and the sky, and each of the trees around me. I even thanked fear itself. This was not easy, because every now and then fear would break through and tell me I was crazy to be doing this when such danger lurked.

Well, I made it to the morning and back to camp by 9am. I even slept, while an animal stole some of my supplies just a few feet from my head.

This Thanksgiving day 2016, perhaps more than any other Thanksgiving I appreciate my lesson from the mountain. The past few weeks have felt like an eternity. There are so many feelings I encounter, and so much fear. Just for today, perhaps faking it at first, let’s see if we can practice gratitude.