Mountain Man Reflections
My goal was to detox; to break free of my addictions and rebuild my body and cognitive function. I thought that two months in the mountains, removed from toxicity and other distractions, would revitalize my mind, body, and spirit.
I was eager and enthusiastic to finally set out on the path I had intended to travel earlier in the year, but had failed to venture too far down due to a lack of willpower and perseverance.
However, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. The lack of amenities and basic comforts — and persistent exposure to the elements — in tandem with 10–12 hour workdays, had the opposite effect from what I had envisioned. Instead of progress, I had (what I deemed to be a very apparent) regression, in the form of mental and physical decline while on the farm.
The emotional stress I experienced — from general work anxieties and inconsistency between my plan of attack (expectations) for the trip and my actual trajectory (or lack thereof) — manifested in the form of structural stress; knots built in my shoulder and neck muscles from tensing up, and thinning hair, weight loss (but FUPA gain), a hemorrhoid flare up (presumably from stress) and psoriasis of the face all began to manifest within several weeks of being there.
There were several variables that prevented my hoped metamorphosis, and ushered in the downfall of my emotional wellbeing and physical state, but inconsistency between my vision (plan) and my conduct or course of action was undoubtedly the largest contributors to what resulted in anxiety and discontentment.
I had formulated a plan that encompassed continuing my daily routine as well as adopting some new, more favorable habits in exchange for a few old, detrimental ones which had become engrained over the years. But events didn’t exactly unfold in the way I had envisioned, leading to a disconnect between expectation and reality.
Tibetan Buddhist meditation guru Mingyur Rinpoche explains well this phenomenon of grasping to expectation or romanticizing the future in a video on his YouTube channel, entitled The Art of Letting Go. In it, he says,
If you are dead set or overly preoccupied with letting go, it won’t work because you are grasping. The real meaning of letting go is putting faith in the way things are, and accepting impermanence.
Mingyur Rinpoche, The Art of Letting Go
One unrealistic expectation which I had set, for example, was the belief that I would be able to coast through life – or at least far enough to get me to the point where I was self-sustaining in my endeavors to make ends meet – on whatever income I would save up from working on the farm.
This only set me up for discontent when I came to the realization I wouldn’t be making as much money while there as I envisioned. Disappointment led to anxiety and preoccupation over having to find a new stream of income at some point in the future, which ultimately resulted in stinginess and overthinking/planning for the sake of cost-cutting.
I would catch myself – in order to compensate for the discrepancy in what I thought I would be earning, and what I would actually walk away with – stepping on the toes of others in pursuit of my own self-preservation (or material vices), even committing petty theft and very rarely, lying (something I had always prided myself on not doing).
For example, self-interest became apparent in work life. Because I wasn’t making much money trimming, I wanted to get the best buds from the bin as possible; not my problem if that just left small scraps for the other trimmers.
Even though I was actively trying to get faster, I prioritized myself over everyone else, instead of simply taking personal responsibility and making it top priority to trim faster and be more deliberate with my cuts.
When setting out, I had hoped that, with less options, distractions and toxins, I would free myself of the extreme indecisiveness I had recently accrued as a byproduct of my predisposition towards over-planning, and cut down on my tendency to romanticize future occurrences.
While roughing it – albeit in a trailer –I discovered a newfound appreciation for the bare necessities, like electricity and a heat source. But, instead of crushing my vices as I had hoped, my predisposition towards fixations simply shifted the focus of my thoughts towards more primitive or basic sensory stimulations.
Instead of agonizing over which video saved to my YouTube favorites playlist I was going to watch before dozing off (as I had done while still in civilization), my infatuation instead centered around preserving my iPhone battery life (as I didn’t have a power source at night once I left the work site).
Water consumption was also an over-concern of mine.
I needed to boil water before bed to have it ready to go for my green tea in the morning — I was able to ditch coffee cold-turkey — for a while, anyway — but not caffeine altogether. I also tried to not drink too much water just before dozing off, in hopes I wouldn’t need to hop down from the heat pocket of my sleeping bag to meet the bone-tingling chill of the great outdoors when nature called.
Mingyur Rinpoche again explains this concept of gratification and dissonance with respect to yearning or desire well —
“We’re always trying to arrange our lives in a way that is pleasant and happy to us, but no matter what, we’re never 100% happy because we’re constantly craving more, materially, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, and because of this we experience pain… So it’s this endless craving and desire that is the root cause of our dissatisfaction.”
Mingyur Rinpoche, The Art of Letting Go
It didn’t take long for the snowball effect of craving more and more intense stimuli to roll my simplified, toned-down lifestyle back into one brimming with first-world “needs.”
Once my buddy (who’s arrival I had been eagerly awaiting) got to camp – flush with fresh-ground coffee and a French press – my new morning ritual became moseying outside when I heard the hot water kettle whistling to mooch whatever was left in the press.
Here it is important to understand that humans are creatures of habit, and I in particular fall easily to the shackles of routine. It is fairly easy for me to fall victim to a given of stimulus, and let the groove of a routine come creeping in. Then in no time at all, a more intense stimulus is needed to get the same satisfaction.
“The faster you are able to adapt yourself to change, the less problems you will have.”
– Shi Hen Yi, Embrace Change
Additionally, it becomes very easy to be subdued by habits when you use constant stimulation or distraction as a means to put off unpacking and evaluating the issues that are causing you anxiety because they are preventing you from realizing your vision and true potential. On the surface, my reluctance to start detoxing seemed to be due in part to avoidance of boredom, when in reality, it stemmed from fear of facing my issues head-on.
It is a whole lot easier to use dopamine to put reality out of your mind than come to terms with the source of your agony or depression. However, the longer you delay confronting these demons, the stronger the manifestation of depression, stress and anxiety from this aversion will become.
This calls to mind another passage of Mingyur Rinpoche from the same Art of Letting Go video —
Not recognizing our true nature [enlightened qualities like wisdom, awareness, love, compassion and other skills] is ignorant, and based on the ignorance we have a lot of illusion, delusion and perception of the samsara (existence), so we have a lot of suffering… If you try to transform yourself, the outside obstacles become opportunities, problems become solutions, and we don’t need to find some other solution.
Mingyur Rinpoche, The Art of Letting Go
In my case, the “other solutions” being coping mechanisms in the form of substances and distractions. He continues:
So in the end, what we call poison transforms into medicine, and clashes transform into wisdom. That is what we call self-antidote. The problem becomes the solution, and we don’t need to bring some other antidote, some other solution. Problems are universal, but whether a problem becomes a solution is up to you (the individual).
In addition to deliberate aversion and ignorance of my issues creating dissatisfaction ªas a result of the inability to realize my aspirations or expectations) craving for those vices also strongly contributed to my discontentment.
I was settling for enjoyment (fulfillment) in the form of lusting after these material stimulations, rather than fulfillment from sorting my issues to realize my true potential; settling for pleasure (from dopamine) rather than joy from realizing a goal or exceeding some expectation.
In the eternal words of the late, great Zig Ziglar, “You can’t behave in a way inconsistent with how you see yourself.”
When you do, depression and anxiety set it.
The more those material fixations were reinforced, the greater the bondage between them and myself became. As these obsessions become stronger, the more incompleteness and despondency I would feel when I couldn’t satisfy them, or the dopamine release wasn’t as gratifying as I had envisioned.
Sometimes, it got so bad that I would become jealous of others who hedonistically partook in instant gratification of their sensual desires.
What’s ironic is that I often wanted to knock family and friends for (what I deem to be) their poor choices or lifestyle. But when I really evaluated the situation, it was usually a form of projecting; judging others for their vices or character flaws when I am far from perfect myself.
But, because I have different shortcomings or weaknesses which I deem to be lesser evils, I see myself as the bigger person.
I think my disgust stemmed from envy—covetous of the choices others would make in pursuit of dopamine. I wanted that stimulation, but prevented myself from pursuing it because I knew better.
Dietary Change Expectations With Respect to Adaptability
As I mentioned, a big benefit of being stranded in the wilderness in terms of detoxification was scarcity of options. Though I was still overly concerned with my diet and carb timing, since I was more or less stranded on the mountain, and had less options to choose from, I certainly gave it less thought than I used to. However, I still agonized over what foods to break my fast with, and was habitually preoccupied with sufficient daily calorie intake.
The experience reminded me of an interview I once saw with Taoist master Yuan Xiu Gang, a fifteenth-generation disciple of the Wudang San-Feng-Pa lineage in China. Though I’ve gathered many insights from various interviews I’ve seen with this legend, this one was particularly beneficial, and the principle can translate to a variety of contexts.
In the interview, with respect to how the general public views diet and nutrition, he says, speaking from the layman’s point of view, “If I don’t eat, I will lose protein. And they worry about it a lot. You don’t need to worry about this. You need to worry about how to lose fat, not about how to eat,” in order to really benefit your health.
One of the biggest advantages of the keto diet is that the practitioner needs to spend less time thinking of what they will eat for a meal, since they should, in theory, be able to go longer periods of time without eating (ketones, fat satiation), or at the very least suffer from cravings for sugar or carbs less often.
However, the way things stand, it was almost the inverse, or at least that’s what I found for myself — though I may be more of an over-thinker than the average person. But I would often stress over if I cut myself off from eating early enough that given night, in order to achieve an adequate fasting window.
This maxim really hit home for me when I first heard it, but I seemed to have let it slip from my mind since, as I learned more about fasting and the ketogenic diet. There is so much content out there surrounding these in vogue dietary practices it is extremely easy to miss the forest for the trees, and end up expending more thought and energy than what is required in order to realize the benefits.
Even just the expectation I had for a given fast or the meal I would break it with would lead to discontentment when it wasn’t as fruitful — or the carbs as satisfying — as I had anticipated.
Again, Mingyur Rinpoche illustrates this concept — of the mind grasping — very eloquently in that same YouTube video of his that I saw:
When your expectations are too great, you only see problems; your mind is too tight. You will fail to see the positive, and never be fully satisfied.
Matching a lot of expectation [or fulfilling an endless list] is impossible, and leads only to experiencing disappointment.
Mingyur Rinpoche, The Art of Letting Go
The preservation of the self — in this case, taking the form of a lifestyle (diet) — can easily become an infatuation in which the practitioner trivializes minute details, as was evident in my case. And when these little preoccupations don’t go as planned, you’re that much more likely to suffer depression because of how much mental energy you expended romanticizing over it.
One can also view this principle in the context of trimming during my time on the farm.
When applied to this situation, rather than expending mental capacity worrying about how much of the good buds were left in the bin, and if I would have the chance to get another tray full before we moved on to the grosser stuff, I would have better served myself (and others) by simply concentrating on what I had in front of me, and thus trimmed faster because of that extra focus.
Again, just being mindful (present) becomes more fruitful than worrying over the future and self-preservation.
Preservation of Material Possessions
You see, addiction to distractions or material possessions usher more (unnecessary) thoughts, which fracture the mind and prevent concentration and mindfulness. The more “things” you own, the more you will be preoccupied with their maintenance, and the more mental and physical energy expenditure you will need to exert for their preservation.
Simple ownership of the car that my grandfather had so generously donated to me in the summer brought with it the stress and anxiety (and expenses) that I had anticipated, which only reinforced my sentiments and affirmed why I had not owned a car for several years prior.
The car was in excellent condition when I received it, and with less than 35,000 miles under it’s belt I vowed to take care of it to the best of my ability. But, within weeks, there were numerous scratches, dents and drive performance/functionality issues which all seemed to be outside my realm of control.
You may be familiar with the phrase, “a car loses 30% of its value the moment you drive it off the lot.” And while this saying may not be totally factual, it certainly carries some weight.
This is an inherent quality of ownership: energy expenditure. Maintaining the condition of physical goods requires a lot of thought, labor and financial means.
For example, recently I noticed that rust spots had begun to develop on the back of my car. And as it is winter, a salty film had begun to build up on the exterior. I failed to get a car wash in the first few days after the roads were dry again, at which point I decided to wait until after the next (pending) snowfall to get a wash. However, the anxiety I experienced knowing my car was sitting there slowly corroding — and thus its value diminishing — was enough to give me an ulcer.
Just as physical ownership of material goods requires additional thoughts and attention, and as a byproduct, results in emotional stress, fixations on dopamine-releasing stimuli also contend for your mental and physical resources. They cause unnecessary emotional turmoil in addition to costing you time.
Fantasizing on how an ice cream or a smoke break will sooth your craving can often lead to disappointment when the vice doesn’t — for whatever reason — turn out as you had imagined, and satisfy your urge like you thought it would. And on top of the emotional strife, you spent all this time anticipating and romanticizing the future, instead of just being in the present.
I would love to have back all the seconds, minutes, and hours I spent walking to a bakery in order to get my sugar fix, or all the mental capacity I expended in pursuit of other addictions — like nicotine or simply obsessions like carb-timing.
But unfortunately, I can’t — and dwelling on that would be a waste.
Each of us has only a finite amount of time and resources on this planet, and the older I become, the more I realize how sacred they truly are. Life is too short to spend it painfully mulling over insignificant little details, or preoccupied with material, sensory fixations.