Six (6) Radical Life Lessons From The Red Rocks Of Sedona

Run to the desert
You will see all that you need to see
Run to the desert
You will be all that you need to be
-Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros,
From the song “Desert Song

There’s a lot we can learn about respect from the desert. All it takes is a stroll through the Coconino National Forest of Sedona, Arizona to understand why. I recently had my first experience hiking through Sedona’s red rocks, and I quickly realized that it would be unwise to veer from the red dirt paths created by other foot soldiers because there’s nothing but a bed of thorns in every direction. Every desert tree, bush and cactus was armed to prick and prod any uninvited guests who made any false moves.

I was in Sedona to lead a songwriting retreat for a group of high school students at the Verde Valley School, which is nestled on National Forest land and is surrounded by the most incredible red “butte” views that Sedona has to offer. The school is rooted in appreciation for its natural land and celebrates a diverse international student body, so it’s easy to appreciate every aspect of the experience here. Students even help to sustain a huge garden right on campus that provides an abundance of fresh produce to both the school’s cafeteria and the local community. Respect and appreciation is at the heart of the Verde Valley School, and the red dirt paths that span out from its campus look to me like the bloodlines of its natural source.

It took all of my will to agree to my first red rock hike with my soul sister Donita because I’ve always been terrified of the desert and all that inhabits it. There seemed nothing warm or welcoming from a place so dangerous and poisonous. It felt like agreeing to enter a torture chamber of needles, and even a possible death wish resulting from any surprise coyote or bobcat encounters — not to mention all the venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions en route. I don’t even own a cactus house plant because I’m afraid of getting stabbed on the drive home from Ikea — but I trusted my friend and decided to face my desert fears.

We set out, and were immediately surrounded with barbed vegetation. I stayed carefully on the path, trailing close behind her. There was no question that the forest was beautifully striking — fantastic, fierce, and full of wild plants I’d never seen before. Some even had seductive qualities, like they were reaching out to be touched. It was spring and a heavier rain season than usual, so cactus flowers were blooming and the greenery was thriving — but even the softer looking plants would bite back at the gentlest touch. I mean, they’ll cut a bitch :)

It appeared that nothing was soft in Sedona. So why then is it such a hotspot for healing and wellness?

There are stories of energy vortexes throughout the canyons that might speak for the number of spas, reiki practitioners, and chakra healing centers anchored there, but it seems almost counter-intuitive for such a restorative community to flourish within such hard terrain. Were they all busy healing the cactus wounds and snake bites of masochistic red rock explorers?

I was fortunate to land a conversation with a local wellness practitioner who brought much-needed clarity to my accusations. She said she had just arrived home from a couple weeks vacationing on the Pacific Ocean. She loved Sedona, but she was sad to be back in the desert because of how connected she felt to the ocean while she was away. “It provided such needed feminine energy for me,” she said. “Sedona is beautiful, but there’s just so much masculine energy in these canyons. I need more feminine energy in my life to balance out my own masculine energy — not more of what I already have.”

Her words resonated with me right away. I didn’t recognize all the “masculine energy” that was surrounding me at first, but from the moment I arrived in Sedona, the landscape appeared to be rugged and mighty. It even smelled rugged — musky, robust, and almost sexy. The earth is red-blooded and commands your respect with its forest of thorns. There is no room for error in the desert forest. If you disturb its presence, you will suffer the consequence. It’s survival of the fittest. Tough love to the core. These are all incredibly masculine traits in my mind, and they help me understand why the desert feels so different from all that I’d previously known.

The desert animals know what I mean. Every morning, I started my day with coffee on the deck of where I was staying at around 7am. The school campus is basically in the wilderness, so I was always surrounded by wildlife. Mostly rabbits, lizards and birds of all kinds — and I particularly enjoyed my road runner sighting and the momma desert quail escorting her babies across the red dirt road one morning. The deck faced a breathtaking vista of red rocks, with the legendary Cathedral Rock as the focal point — a view that doesn’t suck. I noticed that even the desert animals have morning rituals. Every day, there was a white-crowned sparrow (or something similar looking) perched on the top of tree that must be at least 36 feet tall. He just sat there, looking down on everything below him, like he was king of the Coconino National Forest. And there was a row of smaller, flat red rocks lined up the walkway that seemed to be home to one particularly buff-looking lizard. He was about the size of a large frog — short and stout — and he crept over to the flattest rock in the line to do his morning pushups. As far as I was concerned, he was crushing his daily workout, and he had the front leg muscles to prove it. These animals are literally creatures of habit — and masculine as fuck.

One day I retired to the same space for an afternoon breather. It was significantly hotter than it had been at 7am, but I braved the heat, contemplating the future, wondering what was next once I arrived back in Los Angeles. I call LA my home now after two quick years, but I’m still trying to figure out what on earth I’m doing there. I was deep in thought when I noticed a stroke of red in my periphery swoop down from the sky and into the trees towards my right. I turned my attention to the trees, and in less than twenty seconds, the bird emerged from the tree and landed about six feet in front of me on a red rock. It was a red cardinal, as fierce and fiery red as could be. I knew it was male because he was red from head to toe. He also had a chiseled beefcake-type body and a ferocious mohawk that might even impress Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten. He seemed to be looking at me dead in the eye at one point, like a spiritual messenger of some sort. His presence commanded my attention and I felt the significance of his close proximity in the fleeting moments before he ventured on.

This “masculine” energy was alive and apparent in every aspect of my Sedona experience. It was surprising, exciting, motivating — healing.

Unlike my new wellness practitioner friend, I often feel like an ocean of “feminine” energy myself and am usually drawn to the “masculine” source of things, so it’s no surprise that I’ve quickly grown such an affinity to the desert.

There was so much I got to absorb from its natural habitat, so here are six (6) radical life lessons from the red rocks of Sedona that I think we can all benefit from:

  1. Respect: Every prickly plant in the desert commands your respect. They are as beautiful as they are dangerous. We have an opportunity to see our inner selves within a similar landscape. When we respect both the beauty and the danger we harbor within, we are able to love ourselves more fully. The soft and the hard, the tender and the tough, the dark and the light — the yin and the yang. They are reminders of our own dichotomies, and we can learn to respect our contrasting qualities rather than resist them. We can also learn to see others within a similar landscape and learn to respect their contrasting qualities — honoring the divine dance of inner balance we all have within us.
  2. Fear: The Coconino National Forest can be a terrifying place to explore. It’s full of danger and beauty, but giving too much energy to its dangerous sides will only empower one’s fear of it. Fearing the desert is also fearing all that the desert represents — strength, resilience, protection, confidence and uncertainty. These are all characteristics of fear worth facing. And facing your fears means deepening your respect and appreciation. Just as the desert plants command your respect, facing your fears allows you to gain more reverence for yourself and everything around you.
  3. Consequence: The consequences of unhealthy actions or decisions can feel like falling face-first into a cactus bush. So how can we better recognize the thorns of consequence to prevent ourselves from making bad decisions in the first place? For me, it’s a matter of will to think through the potential pros and cons of any decision. This will always lead to some insight about whether that decision aligns with my truth or threatens unfavorable consequences. So let the threat of consequence be another opportunity to deepen your respect for yourself and your decisions.
  4. Boundaries: My favorite ambassador of spiritual truth Danielle LaPorte discusses the difference between boundaries and barriers in her latest book White Hot Truth. She says, “Boundaries are like a fence with a gate — the energy can come and go. You know you’re protected. Barriers are like a shield that you drag around — ready to defend yourself from attacks. It’s not very peaceful.” The desert plants of Sedona probably seem more comparable to barriers than boundaries at face-value because they’re all armed with protective shields, ready to defend themselves from attacks — but they also seem pretty peaceful to me. They’re all laid out like barbed-wire fences, allowing energy to come and go. You can admire them, even get close to them — just not too close. Your personal boundaries are your thorns for the world around you. Let them be another opportunity to deepen your respect for your time and space.
  5. Failure: Since there are no mistakes in the desert, you don’t take it for granted. I expected to succeed on my journey through the red rocks because I didn’t want to be annihilated along the way, and I expected to return from it braver and stronger than before. That was non-negotiable. And just like in the desert, there are also no mistakes in life either. Any “false” move will yield consequences and life lessons that we can learn from if we so choose. So do yourself a favor and expect to succeed in life. If you make mistakes along the way, learn from your mistakes and “fail forward.” Expect to succeed in life and the journey will make you braver and stronger than before.
  6. Strength: The most resonant attribute I feel pulsing from the heart the desert in Sedona is that of strength. It speaks to the Chinese philosophy of Yang more than anything else because there are so many internal and external traits present in its nature. Traits like positive/active/male principle in nature. The sun. In relief. Open; overt, and belonging to this world. These “Yang” defining words remind me of the strongest men I know — fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who love and protect themselves and their families with fierce conviction. These are core components of radical self-love and self-care that we can learn from. It takes loyal strength to love ourselves with this kind of conviction — the kind of love that leads to radical inner purpose. So love yourself radically — with loyal strength and fierce conviction.

I’ll leave you with some brief definitions yin and yang from the Chinese philosophy (according to Wikipedia). Yin and yang are semantically complex words., but a reliable Chinese-English dictionary gives the following translation equivalents:

• Yin 陰 or 阴 Noun ① [philosophy] negative/passive/female principle in nature ② Surname Bound morpheme ① the moon ② shaded orientation ③ covert; concealed; hidden ④ ⑦ negative ⑧ north side of a hill ⑨ south bank of a river ⑩ reverse side of a stele ⑪in intaglio Stative verb ① overcast ② sinister; treacherous
• Yang 陽 or 阳 Bound morpheme ① [Chinese philosophy] positive/active/male principle in nature ②the sun ④ in relief ⑤ open; overt ⑥ belonging to this world ⑦ [linguistics] masculine ⑧ south side of a hill ⑨ north bank of a river

Here’s my mission

I want to change the dialogue on inner purpose. We all want a “life worth living for” before we die, so I think we need to start “living a life worth dying for” while we’re still alive. Too many people look back on their lives with heavy hearts full of regret when they could be living with radical inner purpose. So what are you dying to live for? Go ahead, get creative… Or click here for a little help from this handy creative action plan.

RIP (Radical Inner Purpose),

-Gregory Douglass

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