Entering the Dark Forest of the Psyche

ENTERING THE DARK FOREST OF THE PSYCHE:

Going Down Into Our Unconscious Depths

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 “Each entered the Forest Adventurous

at the point which he himself had chosen,

where it was darkest and there

was no way or path.”

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The Quest For the Holy Grail

                                               – Anonymous 13th Century monk

Once we cross the threshold into the mythic realm of adventure, moving beyond the threshold guardians at the boundary of the safely familiar, we must leave behind a well-worn path that has already been made before us to enter the darker forest regions of our own unconscious depths.  In these realms, we enter the territory where a previous path does not (and cannot) exist.  We make our own path, as we go.

In this phase of the journey, the distinct feature of the interior world, as well as in our external landscapes, is the lack of a clear path in front of us.  The clear way is not already laid out for those of us who undertake the heroic adventure of awakening to what is most essential.  Myths unfold over time, little by little, and only by being willing to venture into the unknown.  If we are really paying attention to that unfolding, each little part of the journey can be remarkable.

Joseph Campbell said, “if a path already exists, it is somebody else’s path”.   We have to make our own path as we go, otherwise it is not an adventure.  That would be more like a tour.  And if the path is already laid before us, it may be someone else’s best laid plans for us, but not necessarily the path we would want or choose for ourselves.

At first, it may seem easier to take the path already made, for, being already there, it initially appears to be more concrete, and more certain.  It requires less work or less risk from us up front.   But for those of us who desire to know our soul’s true pathway to bliss, the price for taking the road already made grows steeper the longer we stay on it.

Here is what the Spanish poet Antonio Machado has to say about soul’s adventure, and how one must travel on a hero’s journey:

Traveller, your footprints are
the road, and nothing else;
pilgrim, there is no road,
the road is made once you walk.

By walking the road is made,
and when looking back
the path is seen that never
will be stepped on again.

Traveller, there is no road,
only ripples on the sea.

– Antonio Machado

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Machado’s important message is that we make the road by walking, before we can know where it goes.  This is the heroic action step.  This is an essential component of the unfolding hero’s journey: going where you have not gone before, without knowing the way in advance.   And where we must ultimately go, is down deeper into our own depths. 

Disorientation:

Coming Undone in Service of Finding A Deeper Orientation

 Many of us end up becoming more troubled, anxious and confused when we try to solve problems from the same level of consciousness that created them to being with.  We sometimes will repeatedly and defensively strike out in new directions to get away from something old, not to genuinely venture towards something new and as-yet unknown to us.

This is a real problem, because we often try to change something in our lives without actually going through the more difficult phase of a transition – coming undone.

Before we can authentically take up a new way of living, we often have to un-do something old first. 

In fact, crossing the threshold ensures that something in us is about to let go or come apart; we must now separate ourselves from that to which we have been strongly attached.  We have to withstand the ambiguity of both the distress and the relief we feel as we detach from the old and familiar.

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Who among us does well with coming apart?  How do we have faith that once we come apart, we will fall together in new ways?

What allows us to descend underneath the surface awareness of what troubles us, what no longer serves life?   How can we bear to face our own unconscious depths?

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Leaving behind our striving towards cherished goals; setting aside the successes and rewards of what we have already become accomplished or excel at; dropping the plan that we have clung to – all these things undoes something fundamental in us, something that tells us who we have been to the world.

This deep level of letting go in the psyche is inevitably quite unnerving to experience.  It is the price of admission to an authentically renewed life.  When we encounter this degree of undoing, we appreciate why people never bother to boldly cross the threshold into adventure to begin with.

How can we have a positive perspective about letting go and coming undone? Another one of Campbell’s self-evident aphorisms goes like this, “What you cannot experience positively, you will experience negatively.”

We have to be willing and able to purposely wander from the already made path; we have to let go of what we already know in our minds, in order to discover something new about ourselves that we don’t yet know.

We need the necessary ego strength to tolerate the feeling of ‘lost-ness’, if we are going to have successful encounters during our adventures and ordeals.   We have to find a positive, open-minded way to become lost, to let the darkness come upon us.

We need the support of others during our letting go, during our descents into the unknown within us, so that we don’t experience an existential panic that can take over, once we begin to realize that we have no idea where we really are, or where we are going.

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For the hero, this very realization of ‘being taken by the journey’ is the thing the really gets the feeling of adventure under way.

David Wagoner, a poet from the Northwest, has a poem that was inspired by a teaching story from the Native Americans of the Northwest.  They taught this to the young ones, so they would know what to do and how to be, if they ever found themselves lost in the woods.

His poem was the very first poem that I actually “heard”; it awakened me.  It unleashed in me something I didn’t know about myself – that I carried within me a deep fascination and love for the spoken word.

It was a moment in time that happened 25 years ago, and one that lives beyond the borders of space and time.   It is a moment I will never forget, and one I often recall.  I was in Cleveland, Ohio, at the time, immersed in my Gestalt therapy training.  “Lost” was recited by a newly emerging poet at the time, David Whyte.

Annie Dillard, a wonderful American writer, sums up my experience of awakening to poetry like this, “It was if I had been my whole life a bell, but never knew it, until the moment I was lifting and struck”.  Here is the poem that first struck me, in the earlier years of my journey: 

Stand still,

the trees ahead and bushes beside you

are not lost.

Wherever you are is called ‘here’,

 and you must treat it like a powerful stranger,

ask permission to know it, and be known.

 

Listen

the forest breathes, it whispers

 ‘I have made this place around you,

if you leave it,

you may come back again,

saying ‘Here’.

 

No two trees are the same to a raven,

 no two branches the same to a wren.

If what a tree or a branch does

 is lost on you,

then, you are surely lost.

Stand still,

 the forest knows where you are,

you must let it

find you.

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Wagoner’s poem is an essential teaching for anyone who courageously pursues the soul’s journey towards bringing bliss into action, because an authentic journey will inevitably bring on moments of being profoundly lost.

This sense of lost-ness can have a debilitating impact on the psyche.  It begins to undo one’s prior sense of self, and one’s prior sense of place in the world, which can elicit a spiraling existential terror.  I know, because 10 years ago, I found myself literally alone and completely lost in the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York.

Stand still,

the trees ahead and bushes beside you

are not lost.

Stand still.  Sometimes the hardest thing in the world to do when one enters the realization of being completely and utterly lost.   Finding the strength of will to slow down, and to do the opposite of one’s tendency to flee or seek premature solutions, when entering a state of fear.   To slow down enough to become grounded and look beyond one’s self, or deeper within one’s self.  To slow down enough to study the interior or exterior landscape that can be seen from where one truly is.  To recognize that ‘the trees ahead and bushes beside you’ have been in place for a long time; indeed, they are not lost.

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I was visiting with Joseph Jastrab, late one summer season, ten or so years ago.  We decidedly in a rather impromptu fashion  (and in the spirit of adventure) to head for a cherished Vision Quest site, a place where Joseph has hosted his vision quest work many times, and to where I had been three or four times previously myself.  This site is located in sacred, pristine mountains, well off the beaten trail.  I welcomed the chance for another time of solitude on this remotely beautiful land.

Within a short time we were packed up and off to the mountains of upstate New York, near Keen Valley.  We took enough food and water for a two-day trek, returning to the base camp area that held indelible memories and deep meaning for the both of us.  We then each ventured our own way alone, and headed to solo sites that we  favored. 

Joseph walked with me to help find the way towards my site, up to point where the path disappeared.  We parted ways near some rock ledges I recognized, which would lead me to a high outcropping that exposed a wonderful southern horizon overlooking the mountains for as far as my eyes could see.

I was in my element.  I was outside of time, entering into the eternity of the natural world, one moment at a time.  Fully immersed in the here and now, time stretches itself out, and the space between things grew vast and wide.  

 I watched the sun make its way across the blue horizon; became acquainted with the shrill pitches of various birdsong. I listened to the wind blow through tree branches, breezing through the leaves, ever-changing in their shades of green.  I saw entire mountain ranges turn golden as sun began its dip towards the western skyline; I felt each drop in temperature as coolness upon my skin; I listened to the vast silence that came when the afternoon winds died down into stillness. 

Then the night grew brisk and cold, and the stars came forth with the distant brilliance of their shimmering light.  I felt utterly alone and wonderfully at home in the universe, with no other human beings anywhere near my location, no one even knowing of my whereabouts.  I only knew of one other companion, one mountain range over, sharing in a night of solitude and mystery, gazing upon the same dark sky as me. 

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 In the welcoming light of the morning sun, it was time to head back to base camp.  There was one particular turn to the left I had to find as I descended the mountain ridge and approached the rock ledges.  This turn would take me towards a familiar footpath, and eventually towards our base camp.  

I never found that turn.  As I descended, and kept descending, my internal compass began sounding warnings of alarm.  The landscape was kind of familiar to me, yet there was no opening turn to the left.  I kept going down the slope, and with the passage of time, the woods became thicker and less traversable, and it became increasingly clear to me that I was lost.

Wherever you are is called ‘here’,

 and you must treat it like a powerful stranger,

ask permission to know it, and be known. 

The panic and dread of being lost, of being off-track in our lives, takes us out of the moment.  Panic in particular un-grounds us, further disorienting us.  Our minds leap forward in a spiraling projection of fearful outcomes that have not yet happened.  We enter the thickets of our thinking, and lose sight of our senses.  Feelings of familiarity and safety evaporate into thin air.

Coming back to the present moment when we feel lost is the hero task at hand; it is what we must be able to do to re-orient more deeply.  To come back to our breathing first, slowing down our breath.  Slowing down our bodies, our activity.  Which can help us to slow down our minds. Stop going in circles.  Actions based on panic create useless, futile outcomes.  We need to slow down our runaway train of fearful thoughts.  We have to bring our full attention back to our current surroundings.

This profound entry into the experience of the unknown must begin to somehow become known to us.  Bringing our focus back to the here and now, we meet this powerful stranger that is ‘lost’, whether this space is in a literal forest, or in previously un-navigated territories of the psyche.   We practice letting go or ‘losing’ our panicky mind, we find ourselves by coming back to our senses.  By listening.

Listen

the forest breathes, it whispers

 ‘I have made this place around you,

if you leave it,

you may come back again,

saying ‘Here’. 

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My first feeling, when I realized how lost I had become, was not fear or panic.  My initial reaction was anger.  I was agitated that I had missed the turn.  How could I have missed it?  That didn’t happen to me when I had been here before.  

Then I was embarrassed.  What would happen if I don’t find my way out of the mountains?   What if I was instead heading deeper into the Adirondacks, without knowing it?  Then people would eventually have to come searching for me.

I took stock of my situation.  Having adventured on short notice, I wasn’t planning to explore any new terrain, thus I did not bring a compass.  In addition to that, I had already used up my food supply and most of my water.  And I had no timepiece.  Not good. 

Not knowing where I was, I had no idea where to go next.  There was no visible horizon, no orienting point.  The forest had enclosed itself on me.  I could see no clear forward way to navigate, and going back the way I came was also no longer clear.  That’s when I could feel a panic rise begin to arise within me. 

 It was then that I remembered this particular poem by David Wagoner.  It came to me somehow, up from the deep unconscious well within me, in my time of need.  It became an essential resource.  I had to take stock, gather myself to myself, and listen inside.   Then, I had to orient myself to the woods around me.

I took off my backpack, and sat on one of the many felled trees around me.  I felt like one of them.  So I sat still, as they did.  I was ‘here’.  So were they.  I listened. 

I could hear the sound of the same whispering wind as yesterday, moving through the standing trees. There was a busy little chipmunk scurrying about, apparently not lost.  I practiced letting go of my thinking to listen deep inside: I felt into what I knew.  I knew to walk in the same direction as much as possible.  I knew to find water, and to follow the water.  And I knew that water, and my own fluid nature within, will always lead to an opening somewhere.  

I became aware of my vulnerability.  Being alone with no first aid kit, I couldn’t afford to get hurt this deep in the wild.  I walked as mindfully as I could, paying attention to whatever I could become newly oriented to.  I kept searching for an opening, hoping to find the sun in the sky. I kept looking for water.  I was finding none of those things.

 I was in a foreboding landscape, and lurking in me was a corresponding foreboding mood.  Time and time again, as nothing was opening up, as I was making my way through dense brush with no path, I could feel my fear rise up.  Each time, I kept slowing down and coming back to ‘here’.   I would do the psychological work of getting okay inside.  I spoke kindly to myself. 

At times, I sang soulful journeying songs that I knew.  I kept checking inside with my internal sense of things.  I was both purposefully walking and cluelessly wandering; I could not afford the luxury of panic in this unsteady terrain within and around me. 

I walked on in this manner for what felt like a very long time.  It couldn’t have been more than three or fours hours, but with no horizon, like when inside a cave, time is eternal.  I kept being decisive in my walking in one direction, as best I could tell.  I occasionally would sit, rest and breath.  I still had absolutely no idea where I was, where I was headed, or which way would lead me out.  But I kept taking stock: I was alive, and for sure, I was on an adventure.  I was unharmed, I had a tent, warm clothes and a sleeping bag.   And I had inner resources. 

No two trees are the same to a raven,

 no two branches the same to a wren.

If what a tree or a branch does

 is lost on you,

then, you are surely lost.

Stand still,

 the forest knows where you are,

you must let it

find you.

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Slowing down, continuing to get okay with the ‘lostness’, to become grounded enough in the ‘not knowing’, to orient to one’s present environment and circumstance.  Keep taking stock of conditions, keep listening inside, and sensing into the environment.  Feeling into which way to head next.  If what is happening before us is lost on us, we are truly lost.  Practicing ‘mindfulness’ is a key feature for the heroes of today.  To keep using one’s senses, and not getting lost in one’s head, especially in times of deep uncertainty or not knowing.   Bearing the tension necessary to keep focused.

Then something larger can take over.  The ‘forest’ is a potent metaphor here for the universe, for intangible presence, for that eternal something that is connected to you and me, that can communicate with us.  If we can just embody ourselves enough to deeply listen.  The soul consciousness of our highest self is tracking us.  It knows where we are.  We must let it come to us, let it find it’s way to us, make itself known.

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I kept paying attention to whatever clues the heavily wooded environment would yield to me. Recognizing sunlight breaking through the thick trees was a key.  I was fortunate, as deep and thick into the dark woods as I had wandered, to have a sunny day, even if I could not see it directly.  I could follow the light beams through the trees, moving towards wherever it seemed brighter.  The light gave a hint of a potential opening ahead.  I had to continue until the opening came.   Which eventually, after much uncertainty and consternation, it did.

 I saw ahead a small grassy opening about eight foot in diameter; the sun was shining in there. I was immediately uplifted by this sight!  I made my way to it, and stood on the grass.  The ground was soft and wet underneath me.  Looking closer, I could see that there was some seeping through of water from an underground source which originated there.  I had found wetness, but did not see any well-spring in or around the green circular marsh.   I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I stood with the sun on my face for a moment, to open up more inside.

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The Terrain of Dilemmas

Dilemma – definition – a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between  two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.

Here is another essential skill to learn when on a path of mythic adventure: moving beyond our simple problem solving strategies.  What we also find in the forests of our inner lives are dilemmas.   Learning how to handle matters when there is no immediately clear path to follow, no obvious right way to go.  How to address problems with no easy or apparent solution, stay with concerns that require us to face and give attention to the ambiguity, the grey areas in our lives.

Dilemmas require of us to go deeper inside, to wrestle more.  We must cultivate the discipline to stay present with the not knowing, without taking immediate positions, and without taking up just one side of things.  We learn to reflect and wait, to stay the course.  It is similar to how we move through labyrinths.  We go through twists and turns, apparent dead ends, places that show another potential path only once we’ve reached the very end of another, and looked around some.

Soul issues in life become revealed little be little, one step at a time, making the path as we go.  This requires the cultivation of patience when lacking clarity at certain points along a hero’s journey.  A fundamental and discerning question one needs to be asking, when seeking the treasures of the soul, is this:  “What is the hurry?”

An examination of this question usually reveals an underlying anxiety that has taken root in the journeyer, who is likely being driven by the ego’s willful insistence.  This urgency actually gets in the way, and delays the process of self-revelation.

In the world of dilemmas, forcing any immediate solution is like trying to quickly pull your finger out of one of those Chinese finger traps children play with as a gag toy.  Unwitting victims put both index fingers into each end of the trap.   The initial reaction, once your finger is caught in the trap, is to quickly pull your finger out, but this only tightens the trap more.

The solution to being freed from the trap is to push the ends inward toward the middle, which enlarges the openings and frees the fingers, allowing the finger to slowly work themselves out of the trap, so as not to trigger the tightening reflex again.  This is the same working through process for adult dilemmas.

How many of us have been caught in a dilemma regarding a big decision to be made in one’s life?  To stay in a relationship, or have it end.  To lose weight, or to accept one’s self the way they are.   To take a chance on pursuing a new job opportunity, or stay put in a job that is secure and pays the bills, but is not very satisfying.

Those on a deeper journey have to learn to participate in an active waiting process, one that is generative, attentive and expectant – yet conversely without the ego’s agenda for a specific expectation or outcome.   This is very hard to do, and sometimes goes against our natural survival instincts.

But without this working towards the uncertain middle, right in the heart of where we feel trapped, despairing or lost – and without the letting go while in the middle of the dilemma – something new cannot come forth from the void, the emptiness, the lostness.  Something new cannot truly be found.

T.S. Eliot gives us a teaching on this necessary medicine of waiting.  Learning to shed our fixed and tight ‘end points’, like a snake sheds its skin, to the surrender of waiting without any push from our individual will:

I said to my soul be still

And let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God.

Wait without hope,

For hope would be hope

For the wrong thing.

Wait without love,

For love would be love

for the wrong thing.

 

There is yet faith,

But the faith and the love and the hope

Are all in the waiting.

 

Wait without thought,

For you are not ready for thought.

 

And so the darkness shall become the light,

And the stillness, the dancing.

                                                                          – T.S. Eliot

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It’s noteworthy to see how this working through process, on an emotional and psychological level, is counterintuitive – the useful response to our trouble is exactly the opposite of one’s initial emotional reaction or psychological position with what is happening.  This is another important awakening to happen upon.  In many areas of adult life, we encounter dilemmas.  We first learn what not to do, when caught in a true dilemma.  This is why waiting is so essential.  In the beginning, we learn how not to make things worse.

During our Hero’s Journey ® Wilderness Intensives, we sometimes work with rappelling over the side of a cliff’s edge.  It provides a wonderful teaching opportunity to practice the exact opposite of our survival tendencies, when coming a very real ‘edge’ of anything substantial or worthwhile in our lives.

An instructor provides the support and safety backup on a roped and harnessed belay system, while we as the journeyer support ourselves with the same safety set up.   We experience what happens inside when we come to the literal edge of a cliff.  We slow down, we breathe into the fear we feel in our physical bodies.  We learn to shift the energy of fear towards a mobilized excitement, working through the inner obstacles that interfere with this process.

As we mobilize ourselves, we go over the cliff’s edge, slowly and mindfully.  One step at a time, gradually relaxing our grip on the rope, letting it slide through our fingers, so we can descend safely, while becoming enlivened, excited, joyful.

The obstacle to our progress on the rappel is our reflexive clinging to security.  We  cling to the side of the cliff; we want to stay close to the solid rock.  To a survival mindset, this makes perfect sense.  But the more we move towards the rock, the more vertical our body becomes, causing us to lose traction and making us more likely to slide off rock and even fall into the space below.

When we can move counter-intuitively away from the rock, we push against and into it with our feet.   We tolerate how far away we feel from the rock, and how exposed our head and upper body feels.  This creates the traction necessary in order to be grounded in a new posture, one that will be effective for solid footing and an enjoyable descent along the rock surface.  This traction also supports the feeling of being fluid and airborne while walking down the rock,  becoming one with the open space all around us and within us.

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The Path and Paradox of Wandering

One more way to work through a dilemma, when it is time to stop trying to solve it or get out of it, is to take a wanderer’s point of view.  We walk towards the middle of the issue – not away from it.  We do this by using various serpentine, side-to-side motions and actions, with no attachment to the outcome, to see what comes next…

Remember the aphorism once more that ‘what we do not experience positively, we will experience negatively’.  As a soul practice, we purposefully practice the art of wandering, in order to be lost in the most positive and enjoyable sense.  We allow ourselves to cease our strivings, ambitions and plans, in order to let serendipity  create our opportunities for us, as it will.  This can be a very gentle and non-threatening way to dis-engage from our routines and ruts in life.

When we consciously let ourselves wander, we are purposely agenda-less while also walking with awareness.  We notice things not normally observed when our eyes are fixed on the goal straight ahead of us.  We practice looking sideways at things.  We soften our gaze, letting things stand out on their own from the background of life, as and when they do.

This is helped along if we can embrace the spirit of play, a light-heartedness, which in turn encourages one to be less ambitious and more circuitous as one makes their way as they go.

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Somehow, the small wet patch of grass, and the ability to look straight up at a small piece of blue sky felt like a blessing, and it gave me a sense of relief.  But I still couldn’t find the water source.  I took off my backpack, and simply wandered around the area for a bit.   A short distance away, I came across a small crevasse in the ground, and saw that water was coming out from the earth, in a small downhill trickle.   Sure enough, as I continued to walk along and follow the water, it grew a little wider, flowed a little more.  I had the beginnings of a water trail to follow! 

I grabbed my pack and I did just that, buoyed by this turn of fate.  Even though the terrain was narrow and rugged, and filled with fallen obstacles, I could follow the flow.   The small trickle of water continued to gain in volume.   Now, I felt like I was going somewhere, though I still had no idea where.  I just kept remembering that water always goes somewhere, as all rivers lead to the sea.  

The water flow began to take the form of a mountain stream.  The water made its beautiful gurgling sounds, as only moving water does.  I climbed over fallen tree limbs, maneuvered around boulders, passing all the obstacles in the water.  Now I was on a trek, and happy just to be able to move along, watching the stream grow in breadth and depth.  The forest setting itself was starting to feel familiar to me, but with what I had just been through, I couldn’t really yet trust my sense of vision.

I suddenly saw up ahead a man in the middle of the stream.  I was never so glad to come upon a fellow traveler!   As I grew closer, the man seemed neither concerned nor interested that a stranger was walking towards him alongside the stream.  His indifferent demeanor tempered my jubilance.  In fact, it had me wondering about just who I had happened upon, staring intently at his fly-fishing pole in the water.

I call out to him, and asked him where I was, and how far it was to the main road.   He concisely confirmed my suspicions about my whereabouts, and went about his fishing.  Onward I went on, joyfully.  I gradually found my way back to a path well known to me, and I found my way back to basecamp, where Joseph had been waiting for me, wondering if he should begin to head out on a search for me.  No need, for now I had been found.  His patient waiting was the thing to do.

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What I can say about my being temporarily lost deep in the Adirondacks is this – when I came out of the lost situation, I found that I could reflect back on my frightening and enlivening ordeal enough to realize how I had found inner resources I could draw from.  I now know that I can and will draw from these inner resources again when facing deep adversity with no apparent or immediate way out.

The point I wish to make is that the forests of adventure are not places we want to be so eager to get out of.  Nature is alive, filled with mystery and presence.  The forest is a place that we want to be at home in, a place in which to find our true selves.   If we can only bear the uncertainty of making our was as we go.

Wendell Berry speaks to what can happen if we can rest in the midst of nature’s wildness and silence:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
Where I left them, asleep like cattle…

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
And the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Entering the forest and departing from the path already made opens us to adventures meant just for us, which would not come forth otherwise.   Adventure does not find its way to us while we are caught up in the trance of our well-worn routines.

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Perhaps your own soul is calling you to this unfolding path of adventure, which awaits you.  Let it now come to you.

Here’s to the next life-giving adventure awaiting you.  The forest knows where you are.  Let it find you.

– Michael Mervosh