A life of courage, joy and independence.
By Kurt Bell
1. The problem – Life has no apparent meaning
2. Opportunity – Available light
3. Health – Eating well
4. Action – The Path of Wildness
5. Creating meaning – DBAD
6. Further steps along The Path
As I near 50 I’m becoming increasingly aware that my situation is like a man holding his breath in a sealed container of water with less than a minute of consciousness remaining. Now is the time to scratch something meaningful on the wall to share what I have seen and learned.
The Path of Wildness is an answer and response to a prescribed way of life which may leave some individuals with a sense that their living is little more than a series of pre-determined, step-like episodes between birth and death. The stages of living between these events: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood and senior are themselves natural and in accord with the needs of the species and most individuals. Many find satisfaction in living this course and to these individuals I have little or nothing to say. Others though long for something more; something innate, genetic and seemingly calling. Adventure and change can give a degree of satisfaction and relief yet even these may seem too tame. To those who feel drawn to something beyond the entertainment and stimulation of senses I offer a walk along The Path of Wildness. Don’t bother penciling the event in your schedule, preparing a pack with goodies and supplies or even inviting a friend along, for this experience is along the course of your first inclination and you must surely always go alone.
1. The Problem – Life has no apparent meaning
I receive a lot of email from people who tell me of their self importance and fear of being alone and unimportant. Nobody ever says it that way though and instead they cloak these ideas as life anxieties or the trials and difficult circumstances of living. I think sometimes that they do this more to convince themselves than anyone else that these are the true causes of the churning worry in their gut. Yet another cause seems apparent to me, a more acute and potentially life threatening fear, a demon of sorts lurking in the shadows of conscious thought, peeking with knowing eyes in the direction of our mortality, pointing a crooked finger perhaps at the hazy terminal point of our life with a suggestive grin that nothing will be found beyond. This thought, along with the weighty implication it bears appears to be the more real and tactile cause of the concern I hear in the words of those who write to me. I never point this out to them as I suspect they prefer I play along in their game and humor them with a response in keeping with their stated concerns. However, I think I will now attempt a more honest answer reflective of my own life experiences as well as the most sincere interactions I have enjoyed with others.
This light and living we now know offers a stark contrast to the nothingness we intuitively sense existed before our birth, and the same nothingness we fear a return to after life is over. In fact, this fear is far worse then mere nothingness as we are each capable of holding a vision of hell in our minds more terrible and real than the worst damnation preached from any austere and authoritative pulpit. This greater terror is our sense that the universe can get along without us, that our life and living are of little real consequence, and that our best efforts will account for little beyond the comfort given to the handful of individuals we share and interact with before death takes us away permanently and forever. This is the real terror so many struggle to avoid though instinct and reason coldly claim as true. An abject fear of ultimate insignificance and meaninglessness in the face of the curious fact of temporary life in spite of death.
I don’t understand why the thought of death, real death, absolute death with no chance of recovery, salvation or continuation is more tolerable to some; though I suspect it may relate to some level of comfort and acceptance in being alone. Not that anyone will be alone after death, as even the concept of alone would be wishful thinking at best. Nevertheless, if we can abide our own company for extended periods of time, then the thought of being without others or ourselves even, may somehow become more palpable and acceptable, a more familiar, intangible something and somewhere less feared as accepted or perhaps resigned to. To such a person a life without meaning may be acceptable. Days, months and years of striving to no real personal end alright. The journey is reward itself. The momentary satisfaction and good feelings connected with virtue their own reward. Death offers no transition but is seen as a simple stop. A period and ending of effort and striving and reflection towards understanding which may yield nothing more than transitory and ultimately meaningless gain to ourselves and those to follow. But is that a bad thing? If yes, then it’s understandable that many protest, recoil and fly from such thoughts but if no then our breathing can relax as we measure each inhalation as one of the few we get and use the fuel of living to move our body and brains in such a way as to create meaning in the moments and goodness in the willful expression of perceived best ends.
So what words can I say to those who write to me asking my thoughts regarding their worldly dilemmas when my suspicion tells me their real concern is a fear of unimportance and death? In most cases I will engage their most direct questions and give the best answer and suggestion I can given my untrained, and uncredentialed qualifications. I wish though that I could speak to them more plainly, and tell them that their deeper fears are real, and then ask them to explain their terror for my own benefit and then hear my claims which I hope may benefit them. Perhaps then we could both gain from a more honest and humane inquiry and inquisition than any civilized, restrained or judicial discourse could provide. For my part I am now prepared to lay my humble case before any who may care to hear.
2. Opportunity – Available light
Mind is an instantiation of consciousness formed of energy organized within the brain along pathways designed of genetics and molded through the unique living of each individual. There is no soul in the sense of anything transcendental or eternal. The fact that our materials and energy are everlasting, having been used by others before us and destined for reuse by the yet unborn is testament to the fact that our person is temporary and ephemeral. We are individually and collectively a brief, dim and fast fading spark and flash of material and energy in the darkening night of the universe. In this fact we discover both our dilemma and great potential: The challenge being to remain upright in the face of our utter, fleeting insignificance while engaging whatever meek will we can muster towards observation, reflection and art while the light and sound of the universe wash across our senses.
Without apparent purpose we are left to decide for ourselves whatever meaning or significance should guide our days and actions. This is the great dilemma of the individual which demands forthright acceptance of the facts of the observable universe and withholds any complete explanation or guidance. You must stand alone. You must stand in solitude. You must hold yourself upright despite unstable footing and dangerous circumstance. You must withstand the awful winds and control your trembling hands while strange howling emanates from the wilder places and no trail or trodden path indicates the direction of safety. From here if you can quiet the heart and gain control of your senses, overcome or learn to tolerate feelings of isolation, loneliness and fear, then you will be prepared to make your own path through the wild, to step where the weeds are tangled, and small, biting creatures lurk with hairy legs, slicing jaws and venomous sting. This is your path to follow. A truly dangerous and terrifying route none has ever trod or may ever again follow. The light is faint now and growing more so as the evening of your days grows near. Follow the dusk and note the sights, speak of what you see, describe in writing or story or painting or photography. Poetry is the most natural and best suited vehicle to capture your experience. Walk your path and observe and then tell the story of your available light.
3. Health – Eating well
Your good philosophy depends upon your body which relies upon your health which rests upon the choices you make as to what food and drink you ingest. Devote some time early in life to an understanding of what makes good bodies and then take care of yourself accordingly. Here is a summary of my own, imperfect dietary solution:
Instead of three large meals in the course of a day eat eight to ten smaller meals. Here’s my own menu as an example showing when and what I eat:
5:00 AM – Drink 12 to 16 ounces of fresh water.
5:15 AM – Small block of cream cheese or banana (substitute fresh fruit of choice)
6:00 AM – Large tofu salad
8:30 AM – Small (bite size) cube of cream cheese.
10:30 AM Package of fermented soybeans (natto). These packages are available in Japan in individual serving sizes. If you don’t like natto (few non-Japanese do) then tofu or other fresh soybean products or similar should suffice.
12:00 PM – Half a tuna or ham and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread with a side of veggie sticks and yogurt for dessert or similar healthy lunch. Important: Eat only half now and save the rest for later. Drink lots of fluids.
1:30 PM – Small (bite size) block of cheese or stick of string cheese.
3:00 PM – Second half of lunch. Finish now what you left for yourself at lunchtime. Your coworkers may look at you funny but trust me it’s worth it as eating smaller quantities throughout the day will help keep your blood sugar in balance and assist in keeping your energy up.
5:00 PM – Package of raw tofu. Like natto these are available in individual packages in Japan. If you can’t find them where you are then a similar substitute will do.
7:00 PM – Healthy dinner of meat, vegetables, brown rice and fruit. Eat what you want now (as long as it’s not something you know is very bad) and enjoy as much as you like (within reason).
9:00 PM – Plain yogurt with fresh fruit. I really look forward to this every day and I enjoy an entire container of yogurt which I eat slowly and with relish. It’s a really nice topper on a great day of eating well. The yogurt will also help to maintain your blood sugar through the night and help you to wake up feeling better.
The menu above is my own and reflects my limited sensibilities regarding taste. I’m sure that someone more adept in the kitchen might find more better and more satisfying alternatives. Of key importance here is the absence of processed foods, sugary drinks or excessive sweets of any sort. I do allow myself an occasional fast food meal with my family and an infrequent indulgence in sweet desserts such as cake or pie. Popcorn at the movies is a must as well as a few other simple and periodic indulgences which help to give my life spice and interest without taking away too much from my efforts at eating well. As for drinks I avoid bottled drinks, coffee, fruit juice (too much sugar) and black tea though I do enjoy unlimited quantities of freshly brewed Japanese green tea as well as two cans of beer each evening with dinner.
I can’t emphasize enough how important I have found diet to be in the pursuit of a happy, balanced life. I was 47 years old when I made these changes and sadly spent so many years feeling tired, anxious, irritable, unproductive and downright unhappy before I discovered how the very common sense fact of what I put into my body impacted the resulting biochemistry of body and mind. If you choose to attempt only one aspect of my proposals in this document then I recommend the adoption of a healthy diet as the one to try.
4. Action – The Path of Wildness
Once healthy, and in a position of understanding regarding the possible deeper fear and trial which makes life such a challenge to those who desire rest and comfort not only now but beyond the pale of life, you will then be ready to apprehend and take action in the direction of knowledge, art and wisdom. Indeed, you may be prepared to rise to your full stature as a man or woman of observation and reason in order to apply these sense and brain faculties towards the higher, perhaps seemingly more worthy acts of art. This then, is the time to step upon The Path of Wildness.
The Path of Wildness is easy to find
The course of a stream
Leaves blown in the wind
A beast’s track through the brush
And the direction of our first inclination
Do not mistake at this juncture the concepts of wilderness and wildness which are related yet distinct. Wilderness is a place commonly regarded as devoid of most human influence. Stretches of desert in the American South-West, the far reaches of the Arctic and Antarctic and most of the expanses of the Earth’s oceans among many others are good examples of wilderness. Few such areas remain untouched by humanity though many are nevertheless quite wild and capture the spirit and essence of regions where humans are more alien than familiar. Wildness on the other hand is the landscape of freedom. Wildness is less a place as much as a region of uncertainty, risk and very real danger. Wildness is a feature of wilderness though it is entirely possible for a well trained, outfitted and prepared human to enter wilderness without venturing very far into wildness. However, those who step into wildness may do so without ever leaving their home, in fact they may enter wildness from the comfort of their recliner or in the company of friends and family; though in practice wildness is most easily accessed through wilderness which is one of the reasons I have spent so much of my life alone in the out-of-doors.
Why should someone venture into wildness? Why risk the danger, isolation and fatigue of exploring alone (even among others) where chance or bad choices may leave you crippled or mortally wounded? There are several benefits which vary in degree depending upon the character and interests of the explorer, though one benefit is of special use to all as it grants to the user a most useful skill and habit, and which through training can transform the timid, fearful and meek into brave, spirited explorers. That quality is simply the character of courage in the face of the unknown and a willingness to step boldly into seemingly dangerous regions of ignorance and uncertainty, to confront our weakness and shortcomings in open field where neither can hide and must instead be viewed for what they really are, and once surveyed then likely dismissed as unworthy intimidators whom we order to stand aside as we stride past into the deeper darkness and cold. Not pride, nor unwholesome confidence shall replace these fears as these too cannot fail to fall away during our struggle through the wild places. Indeed, most superfluous human traits are vulnerable to being lost along the way as the close cutting branches, vines and thorns pull away everything which sticks out from our person and is not essential to our truer character and inner strength. This is the singular gain and ambition of movement along The Path of Wildness, to wear away our excess, refine our better spirit and help us gain and maintain the courage necessary to live well as long as the light continues to shine in our eyes.
The Path of Wildness is easy to find. The course of a stream. Leaves blown in the wind. A beast’s track through the brush. And the direction of our first inclination. I’ve described The Path in this way deliberately in order to leave clues in the commonplace experience of nature, which are easy enough to follow, as a simple training-of-sorts for the more challenging foray of trust in our personal instinct. I have a reason for relying on instinct, though I understand that instinct is not always right and in fact may often be quite wrong and dangerous. Nevertheless, despite the risks, instinct is something we all have and a sense we can start with when doubt and considered uncertainty threaten to immobilize our movement. There are times for rest and times for movement and most of us can easily sense when change is needed, though sometimes we lack the will or conviction to make the first step. It is in times such as this that I recommend moving boldly onto The Path of Wildness. This is done by probing our immediate senses for a hint of which way to go, and as long as the urging does not cause us to step over a cliff in our first step (steps and cliffs are of course figurative in many cases) then we should lift our foot and begin moving, or lift our will and push forward with thought, resolution, voice, interaction or whatever form of human living might be involved. We move. We start. We have direction. It may not be the best direction but courageous movement away from irrational fear or unwarranted timidity is often it’s own reward and course correction can usually be made once we are under way.
Once upon The Path the brave explorer should expect two things: danger and treasure. The first is very real and may wound, cripple or even kill. Expect to emerge from your foray bleeding, lame and perhaps a bit deranged for the experience. Yet, a wholesome perspective might view such damage as nothing more than the expected price of discovering treasure where none like you has ever ventured. New explorers may hope (and likely succeed) in carrying away fresh wealth in the form of possessions, status or acclaim from the lonely wild lands. These can indeed be had, in abundance in fact, though the glitter and sparkle of such tangible gain may appear as rust to those who go further in search of the intangible treasure of mind and experience. These brave individuals will most likely return from their ventures exhausted to the point of collapse, pale with blood loss and slightly mad from the close proximity they achieved to the source of the terrifying howling which can only be heard in the most extreme frontiers of the dark and bleak wildness. Their pockets will certainly be torn and empty and they may be unable to speak clearly of the wonders they have seen, though this is less due to any defect in the speakers voice and more commonly a result of the hearer’s excess comfort and certainty which blocks the ears to truth as surely as beeswax. I recommend applauding anyone who returns alone from the wild lands whether they bear treasure in both arms or gleaming ear to ear within the broad expanse of a blessed, mad smile. Do this for each is a person of courage, someone who has broken clean of the quicksand of complacency and fear and who is exercising those most rare and critical faculties of the human species: courage and freedom. But remember also that some who step upon The Path will never return. Some will become lost. Others will die. Still more may give up and return by some secret way to rejoin those, who in fear, remain huddled together in warmth and comfort and possibly some degree of lifelong despair. These are the things you can expect upon The Path of Wildness.
Go then…when you feel lost. Step fast, when you suspect your confusion or hesitancy are heeding some unworthy instinct, borne of the fear of suffering and not suffering itself. Move swiftly now in the direction of your first instinct. Call your best critical faculties to the fore and demand they guide your every footfall. Expect to tire and fall, be ready to suffer, understand that you may die, though know also that along the way, with every step and action you are living the truest, most noble and worthy venture of your life.
5. Creating meaning – DBAD
Those who venture upon The Path of Wildness will find a meaning of sorts in the energy, joy and experience of living a life of courage, a life of periodic misstep, mistake and failure tempered with breakthrough, discovery and understanding. Taken together, these qualities cause life to take on a depth and character both satisfying and reassuring. Our living becomes a beautiful sum of many parts sour, sweet, bitter, raw and savory. A delicious meal of days which fills our mind like a wonderful feast fills our stomach and gives us pause along the way and in the end to rest in sated comfort at the fullness of our very living. During my own journey I have come to adopt an acronym I picked up during childhood from the wonderful fraternity of friends which encompassed my parent’s circle of closest companions. A group who lived life with joy and deliberate determination to make the best of each passing day. For it was their example and courage which caused me to seek my own freedom and Path. To them and you I wish all the best as we each seek our own way.
6. Further steps along The Path
Learn more about The Path of Wildness at the project homepage: http://wp.me/P5A2F-H3
Response to David – The Path of Wildness and other topics
Response to David – Beast-like upon The Path of Wildness
Making a distinction between wildness and wilderness
A complete list of videos on these subjects can be found at the YouTube playlists below:
1. A life of courage – The Path of Wildness
2. A life of joy – DBAD
3. A life of Independence – Sons of Grizzly