Wednesday, October 16, 2019

On Sense and Incense: sensuality and religious practice


I. 


I love the smell of frankincense in the morning. The sense of smell is the most primordial. It is said to have the strongest link to memory. Perhaps the smell of our mothers is the first memory we ever make.

In the morning I burn frankincense on my prayer altar at home, and it reminds me of church. My prayer corner is a little bubble of church. I sit down in front of it and I am no longer mentally in my apartment. I am not thinking my usual job and errand shaped thoughts. My eyes are drawn to the eyes of the icons. I sit in the gaze of Christ.

I am an impulsive person and I have a hard time keeping a routine. Many times I have failed to stick to a goal of daily prayer or meditation. But I love to light the incense and the candles. Instead of forcing myself into the routine, I am drawn into it by my sense of delight. When I used to be a Buddhist, my longest streak of daily meditation coincided with the period when I had built a similar altar with a statue of Buddha replacing the icon of Christ.

Growing up in a church tradition with "four bare walls and a sermon", who would have thought that frankincense or myrrh were real things? I remember reading the words in the Bible, describing the gifts the magi made to the child Christ. But there was always this unbridgeable gulf between the present and the past. The past had temples and gold and incense and priests. We had cheap carpet, low-slung ceilings, business suits, and boring sermons. Our aesthetic universe was 1950s Americana. I would not have thought to question that it could be otherwise.

But in Orthodoxy there is no break between past and present. The church grows forward through time like a tree rooted in the ancient world. If you dropped a modern orthodox in a church service in the imperial heart of Constantinople in 400 A.D., he would follow along without missing a beat. He would be delighted to see the liturgy celebrated by Archbishop John Chrysostom, a gifted homilist who wrote the liturgy we still use today. The roots of church practices stretch even deeper - drawing inspiration from ancient Jewish liturgies. That same orthodox time-traveler would not feel completely lost in a Jewish temple service, though he might draw puzzled looks if he reflexively made the sign of the cross.

I find the ancient church to be surprising and delightful. It is like living in a 2,000 year old treehouse. The history of the church is inscribed on the walls, in the icons and architecture. A natural question, "who is in that icon?" leads to a chapter of the story of the church in the world or a lesson in theology. My interest in reading icons has led me to learn the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets (invented by our Saints Cyril and Methodius, the "Apostles to the Slavs" in the 800s AD).



For most of my life I didn't even know that this kind of church was an option. In America, it seems to be a secret. And yet something like it was the norm for the majority of Christian history.

In my childhood religious experience, I was starved of beauty. Beauty was a factor that once drew me to Tibetan Buddhism. As an orthodox, I feel like a starving man who has been invited into a banquet.

I've been meaning to write and talk about my journey to Christianity over the past 18 months or so. Converting to Christianity is a strange thing to do for a modern man, especially one in my social circles (Buddhist, hippie, techie, San Franciscan). I hope some readers might be inspired by my journey. And I know some people will judge me to be stupid or deluded. I accept that.

The journey had an intellectual and an emotional component. It is a continuing journey of discovery that I suspect has no end. The emotional piece felt like falling in love. I fell in love with many facets of the church - the monastics, the historic continuity, the mystical theology. And one of the things I fell in love with was the sensuality of the church. My love, she is beautiful.



II. 


I remember the first time I saw someone prostrating, that is kneeling down and touching his head to the ground. He was a monk in long black robes and it was during a pre-dawn, candlelit service at the moment of the consecration of the Eucharist. I wanted to try it, but I felt too awkward. My mental habits were still too modern. After being around people prostrating enough times I worked up the courage to try it. When the initial awkwardness passed, I felt a sense of peace. In prostrating to God my body is implicitly teaching me about God and my relationship to him. Perhaps the peace I felt is because I had found a God worth prostrating to.

Orthodox worship emphasizes the majesty of God. The pageantry, the bowing, the kneeling, and etc. feels strange to a modern American. But a medieval peasant would recognize immediately the aesthetic universe that we are in - this is how you act in front of a monarch. The words we use in worship are applied to monarchs; "your majesty", "your grace" and "your worship" were forms of address for one. The design of the Orthodox church and its liturgy is to place us in the throne room of God with the Trinity enthroned as the monarch of the universe.

In this world of flattened hierarchies, there is a relief to finding something majestic and worthy of worship. It might even be a necessity for a good life. From a secular and symbolic perspective, Jordan Peterson identifies the concept of God with a person's highest human ideal. One could argue that everybody has a God, whether they know it or not.

I imagine the objection of some readers. Isn't it shallow to focus on aesthetics? Isn't the core of religion an intellectual activity? Isn't it about belief and instruction?

First, much of the aesthetics of the church are also instructional. In the early days of the church, most laity were illiterate Roman citizens and slaves, and the icons and hymns were used as teaching aids to instruct people in the Bible and church history.

But the ritual practices are not primarily for instructing the mind. Their purpose is to instruct the heart.

III.


I read a book recently by James K.A. Smith about the power of habit and repeated activities to shape our desires ("You Are What You Love"). The main thrust of the book is that repeated activities that shape our desires are called "liturgies", and our life is full of liturgies, conscious and unconscious. Checking twitter is a liturgy. I'm on a twitter fast, and I intensely feel how twitter usage has shaped my desire.

There is a vein of Christianity that rejects ritual practices that do not directly instruct the conscious mind, cutting out anything other than preaching, praying, and singing. It judges these other practices as unnecessary vain repetitions or superstitions.  I grew up in one such church. This kind of church life carries with it an implicit model of what a human being is. The human is primarily a mind, and so religion is about putting the right things in that mind.

This is the dominant kind of thinking that shaped American culture and our view of religion. We think that if you want to know a religion, the most important thing is to study its beliefs. That's certainly how I was trained to see the world.

James K.A. Smith is a different kind of protestant, the kind that calls himself a small-c "catholic" and sees value in re-embracing some liturgical practices of big-C Catholicism and older brands of Protestantism. He's even favorable to incense use in church! In focusing too much on the mind, he estimates that many churches miss the role of liturgical repetition in shaping the heart. Given all the secular and commercial liturgies we are exposed to, it is necessary to fill our lives with counter-liturgies to bring us back to God. It seems to me that he's on the right track.

I wish him luck in shaping a movement of more powerful and rooted churches. Secular modernity is waxing and the church is waning. Now is the time to grow our roots deep.

In reading Smith's book I reflected on just how many physical, repetitive and embodied practices we have in the Orthodox church to shape our minds and desires.


  • When we kiss the icons, we teach ourselves that Christ and the saints are precious things
  • When we cross ourselves, we remember that we are marked people of God
  • The liturgical calendar reminds us annually of the important events of our faith. The 12 major feast days and the many minor ones mark the passage of time. Time itself is inscribed in the life of Christ.
  • The human brain has special structures dedicated to facial recognition and processing. Seeing the faces of holy people in icons brings them to life and our minds build a relationship with them.
  • Lighting candles teaches us that we can pray even when we don't have words 
  • Bowing, kneeling, and prostrating teach us the majesty of God
  • Incense during worship produces an instant visceral portal back into the mental space of holiness and provides a demarkation between the sacred and the profane. Sacred music does the same thing.
  • When we fast, we learn how to control our desires, and that small sacrifices are not to be feared. "It is not a sin not to fast, but fasting teaches us how not to sin."
  • Fasting together creates a shared bond as a congregation... as does feasting together at the end of a fast.

In answer to the more severe kinds of Christian that might criticize these tools and practices as unnecessary, I would agree with them. They aren't strictly necessary. Christ was a wandering rabbi, and his followers were mostly poor. The early Christians met in secret in underground graves, not in grand temples. However, though they are not necessary, they are useful. The practices and tools of ancient Christianity are an inheritance that has been built over time and passed down to us. Shouldn't we be grateful for the full inheritance and put it to use? Some of those pieces don't fit modern tastes, but should we change our practices to fit in?

I am 36 years old and I am not that great at being me. But I am better than I was. As I learn to navigate myself, I am learning the importance of my body. It has a strong hand on the rudder, to the frequent consternation of my mind. I am trying to live a good life one day at a time. And each of those days start with the smell of incense.





About me: I'm just a beginner, a recently baptized member of the Eastern Church. I'm pretty excited about it at the moment, and I like to share things I like. Please forgive me if I unintentionally say anything that misleads or offends. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Mindfulness for Christians



The modern world ain't so good for your psyche. It's easy to get strung out, anxious as a wildebeast in a lion convention, with thoughts looping through your mind like a roller coaster.

Eastern religions have a bunch of techniques for developing peace of mind, colloquially referred to as "mindfulness". They generally involve directing your attention away from your thoughts and into something else, like your breath. This has useful side effects for defusing negative emotions like stress and training the purposeful direction of your attention.

Mindfulness has gone mainstream as a therapeutic and self-help practice in the West. The monks and yogis (and nuns and yoginis) of the East did these practices as preparation for contemplation of Ultimate Reality. Westerners use them to run a dual-income household under the demands of modern capitalism without drowning in a pool of tears. Either way, they do a lot of good.

So Christian and post-Christian society has looked to Buddhism and Hinduism for mental tools to cope with an often unpleasant reality. What is missed is that Christianity itself has a long tradition of similar mental tools for calming the mind and directing attention, that also help to grow in the Christian faith. It's overlooked because these techniques come from Eastern Christianity, which is unfamiliar in Western society. However, as far as I can tell there is no dogmatic incompatibility which would prevent a Western Protestant from using the mental tools of the Eastern Church.

The most powerful tool in the pocket of every Eastern Christian is known as "The Jesus Prayer". It has a few different forms, but I prefer the middle-length[0] form which is regularly spoken in church services:

"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me".

This is used as a mantra, repeated over and over. It can be used in times of stress, to short-circuit anger or racing thoughts, or just when you feel bad and don't know what to pray. Like Buddhists, Eastern Christians identify uncontrolled thoughts and desires as a major source of unnecessary suffering, and they prescribe the Jesus Prayer as medicine.

It's a simple practice, but the history and use of it runs deep. Its earliest recorded origin dates to the 5th century founders of Christian monasticism in the Sinai desert. The Jesus Prayer is the monastic's single most powerful tool in his or her quest to dwell in God. In the beginning stages, it clears the mind and the heart of passions and focuses the attention. There are also further stages that monks write about that are hard for me to comprehend. Eventually, monks seek to have this prayer constantly running in their hearts under its own power, every second of their lives[1].

Christian monks and nuns use the Jesus Prayer for contemplation of Ultimate Reality. But lay people use it for every circumstance, which includes running a dual-income household under the demands of modern capitalism without drowning in a pool of tears. The Jesus Prayer is their constant companion in traffic, at work, and when relating to others.

I once dated a girl that was a Buddhist. She carried around prayer beads and used them to count mantras. She liked to recite them silently to herself when sitting on a bus or a train as a substitute for checking social media on her phone. She found it left her in a better mood. Similarly, Eastern Christians often carry around prayer ropes and use them to recite the Jesus Prayer. They are a wonderful replacement for checking Twitter or Instagram.


If you're a Protestant Christian, you probably pray free-form prayers at specific times and when you feel you need it. But it is useful to have a little short invocation that you don't have to think about. The Jesus prayer teaches us to rely on Christ, and not on our own intellects. There is no demand on us to come up with the correct words, or to petition God in just the right way when we are distressed. Instead we just invoke the name of Christ, constantly, and trust in him. We run to him like little children and count on him to do what is right for us.

Elder Porphyrios of the Greek church says that it is not necessary for us to fight the darkness within us. Instead, we only need to open a little window to let the light in. The Jesus Prayer is that little window. The most tiny, minimal effort of turning towards God leaves us open to welcome his grace.

In this post I have drawn parallels between Eastern Christianity and other non-Christian religions. It would be irresponsible for me to not mention that elders in the Eastern church often resist this comparison[2]. In particular, they point out that Christian mental practices are relational tools for contemplation of an ultimate reality that is personal. In Buddhism ultimate reality is impersonal. So I hope I've done my duty by stating that caveat.

What unites the Christian and non-Christian takes on mindfulness is that they both encourage explicit awareness of our thoughts. Instead of identifying with our thoughts and thinking of them as what we are, we view the thoughts as something that happens. And that disidentification then allows us some amount of control to shape them and to improve our existence.

There are many more uses of the Jesus prayer, but this post is intended as an introduction. If you are a Christian looking for a more Christian practice of mindfulness, try incorporating this into your prayer life. You might start with saying it a fixed number of times in the morning and evening to get used to it. A prayer rope is useful, but not necessary. Try to focus on the meaning of the words - who Jesus Christ is, what it means to call him "Lord", and what his mercy looks like. Then you can take it out into the world and have Christ as your constant companion.

Brothers and sisters of all faiths, may we survive life in this hectic world together, with the help God's grace.

About me: I'm just a beginner, a catechumen in the Eastern Church. I'm pretty pumped about it at the moment, and I like to share things I like. Please forgive me if I unintentionally say anything that misleads or offends. 




[0] The shorter form is "Lord, have mercy" and the longer form is "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner".

[1] See this 60 minutes special on the monastics of Mt. Athos, the holiest site in Eastern Christianity. Be sure to watch part 2!

[2] See Father Sophrony's writings on the Jesus Prayer. He was once a serious Buddhist before coming back to Eastern Christianity.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Porphyrios (an Ode)



Poor-fear-ee-ohs
Who ever thought I would love someone with such a name?
But as I get to know it, it plays on the tongue
like a whiskey and cigar

What a blessed man! To be God’s puppy dog.
You decided you deserved nothing,
begged,
wagged your tail.
When he closed his door you did not go away
until one night he took you into his house.

You say this is the easy way,
Don’t you see how hard it is?
To be so utterly unsophisticated.
I have an 8th ex-girlfriend
and a 3rd career
envy my coworkers that have more shares than me
resent my government
have kinks
and daydream about sex, sometimes, in church.
How could I ever be a puppy?
Maybe I could be a smelly beggar outside God’s door
whom he slips a buck every now and then
out of pity.

But oh, Porphyrios!
You have shown the way.
It is never too late to grow in trust and simplicity,
wag more, whine less,
and maybe one day I will nip at your ear in the lap of God.

Fire Built for One (1)



At a campfire built for one
my heart aches for every flame you do not see.
When the sun rises, I will weep for every golden ray
nudging the mountain awake,
lifting the mist off of the tree,
and chasing the hare across the field.


I learned that joy was made for two,
in these last three years,
I would breathe the in
and you would breathe the out.


There was never any difference between me and you
and there still isn’t, now that we hate each other.


There is nothing in life that I haven’t earned,
threefold.
And I know I will carry us both to my grave.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Spider




The spider is a wonderful creature.
She weaves such a regular web
which has such regular features
all plotted in her tiny head.

The spokes meet in the middle
the net runs round and round.
How they get there seems a riddle,
tiny miles above the ground.

The spider swings across vast spaces
she plunges unimaginable depths
without a hint of fear on her faces
or the slightest thought of death.

Her limbs are slim and busy,
her touch, subtle as the wind.
Weaving and leaving her monuments
wherever she has been

When her work is done she sleeps
for day after day in her home
content that her work will reap her
the fruits of what she has sewn.

May my house be open to host her
may her wonders always be near
Let us raise a happy toast to her -
nature's engineer.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Four Things I Wish I Had Learned in School

When I was a kid I was good at school. That turned out to be way less important than I thought it would be. The basic school skills of memorization, arithmetic, and essay writing are fine things to develop. But this narrow range of training omitted many important skills that I would need in life. And worse, this curriculum left me squarely in middle of my comfort zone for 13 years, so I never had to develop the meta-skills of skill acquisition. I was cocky and complacent.

When I hit the adult world, the adult world hit back. I was terribly unprepared to navigate its complexity. I found myself needing to develop, on the fly, a different skill-set from the one I had been taught. I needed to work on sensing opportunities, communicating my desires, detecting and removing fantasy from my world-model, attention management, making friends, letting go of resentment, and effective problem selection.

11 years navigating the turbulent currents of independent adult life is long enough that I’ve started piecing together some of the skills I need to survive and thrive. Along the way, I’ve found some specific practices that make life easier and better. When I run into one of these, I have the thought “I wish someone told me about this earlier!”.

To save you from the same trouble, I’m going to tell you about them now.


1. Improv


Image result for impro book


Practicing improvisational acting puts you into relationship with your subconscious genius. Your conscious mind learns that there is another entity sharing the head, or many. You learn the subconscious self’s habits and desires, and you learn how to harness its creative power for your own purposes.

The tao of improv is the experience of effortless creativity. When you are in the flow, you surprise even yourself by saying and doing things you didn’t know you knew how to do.

The greater tao of improv is flowing with others, effortless creativity in community. You learn how to trust and give and receive.

Improv in front of an audience is terrifying. There is no way to completely prepare. You must learn to accept failure, and to focus on the process. Are you flowing, permeable yet present, receiving and giving? That’s the thing you can control. There is so much else that you can’t control, including the audience’s mood and reaction.

I started learning about improv from a book, Impro: Improvisation and the Art of the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I found the writing provocative, and then I just had to try some of the exercises with my romantic partner at the time. It’s a great place to start.

I found that the skills of improv bled over into other areas of my life. Having had the experience of telling improv fictional stories, I found it much easier to present in front of an audience for business reasons. I grew to trust in that my subconscious mind could come up with appropriate words for the situation, as long as I know the material.

I also have the confidence that I can teach anything I know. Lecturing is not so different from telling an improv story, and add in some hands-on pedagogy and you have an effective workshop.

Improv is a fantastic personal growth practice. But it is also very fun and worth doing for its own sake. One of my catchphrases is, “Improv is the most fun you can legally have as an adult”.


2. Power Lifting


There’s a motivational poster on the wall of my lifting gym that says, “the old that is strong does not whither”. That’s what I want for myself. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself plagued by little injuries here and there. Had I been stronger, some of those injuries could have been prevented. And I believe that getting stronger now will help prevent injuries in the future.

When I’m 80, I want to be like those old guys on youtube with the coke-bottle glasses that can still deadlift and squat a few hundred pounds. I want to bench-press my grandkids.

Lifting heavy things improperly is a major cause of injuries in life and at work. Powerlifting not only strengthens your muscles, joints, tendons, and bones, but will teach you the theory and practice of how to lift things without injury.

Now, powerlifting can also cause injury, especially if you dive in recklessly without proper training and theory. I’m paying for supervised small-group classes where a coach watches me lift and corrects my form. Not everybody has that available.

Starting Strength is a classic manual for getting started on strength training. If you start with that book and a buddy and post videos of your lifts to reddit for form review, that’s a way to get started on a budget.

Lifting makes me feel great. It feels good to be strong. It must generate endorphins or something. It takes away stress and brightens my mood. As someone who tends towards depression, that’s very important that I stay physically active.

I started powerlifting because I hoped that deadlifts would rehab a lower back injury that is keeping me out of Jiu Jitsu class. As I’ve done it, I’ve fallen in love with lifting for its own sake. I fantasize about my next lifting day. And when I get back to Jiu Jitsu, not only will it keep my back safe, but I’m going to be a stronger and more dangerous competitor.

Finally, the constant feeling of progress that lifting provides is a good backbone to my life. It is gamified by default, and there’s nothing like hitting new personal best lifts and new milestones. If I’m struggling in other parts of my life, seeing the weights move up give me comfort and motivation.


3. Authentic Relating/ Intentional Relating
Image result for authentic relating

Probably the single area where my life is going the best is in relationship. I am rich in friendship and connection.

This hasn’t always been the case. I used to struggle to connect to people. I grew up socially isolated and I was a stereotypical nerd.

I credit the practice of intentional relating with the biggest piece of that change. Intentional or authentic relating is an umbrella term that encompasses a family of practices including eye contact, asking deepening questions, noticing and communicating emotions, and reciprocal vulnerability.

Intentional relating is mindfulness applied to relationship. It creates a safe container to practice talking about real emotion that might normally feel too embarrassing. It also provides a great container for practicing healthy conflict.

The main effects this practice has had on me less is to make me less afraid of people and make me like other people more. It’s hard to overstate how important that is. It’s qualitatively changed my experience of life. I get what I want more than I used to. I turned from an introvert to an extrovert. My social life is great. Because I like people more, I like myself more.

The world is full of people, so the more comfortable you are with people the better your life will be. For a long time, I didn’t realize this was a thing I could practice and learn.

Here’s a list of relating methodologies I have practiced. Some of these might be more accessible to you where you live than others.

  • Intentional questions, such as the 36 questions to fall in love, or conversation card decks you can buy on Amazon
  • Circling is my current favorite thing. I practice with the Circling Institute which runs classes in the San Francisco Bay Area and Asheville, NC. There are other circling groups throughout the world with their own take on the practice.
  • T-Group is a practice made famous by the Stanford Business School. It involves sitting with a leaderless small group of people and experimenting with interacting with each other. Focused is kept on the present-moment emotions and desires of the participants. There’s often some conceptual curriculum before a session, such as Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which is a useful methodology for becoming mindful of your inner emotional landscape. There’s a group that meets in Berkeley that is NVC-heavy.
  • I took a year-long peer-counseling program heavily influenced by humanist psychology. Learning to hold space for others is a very good way to turbo-boost your EQ growth.
  • Compassion meditation or praying for people, depending on which spiritual tradition you prefer
  • There are a bunch of neat intentional relating games out there. Sometimes they go under the brand name of “Relating Games”.
  • The books “Nonviolent Communication” and “Radical Honesty” are good places to start if you don’t have access to training courses where you live. Practice some of the techniques with friends. Note: take Radical Honesty slowly. The book can push you to go too far, too fast.
I think everyone who works with people, which is almost everybody, would benefit tremendously from this curriculum. I wish hands-on training was available in more locations.

On a practical level, I’m available to lead intentional relating games and workshops for your group, and I can refer other people who can also do so.




4. Meditation
Image result for meditation

I almost didn’t include this on the list because of my perception that this piece of advice would be too popular. You’ve probably heard people telling you to meditate before. It can feel like a chore. And I am no expert meditator. There are many levels to it beyond where I’ve gone.

However, the exploration of meditation carries with it a philosophical payload that is invaluable. The most important for me is the difference between conception and perception. Concepts are the mental models of our mind. Perception is what comes in through the senses, what is actually happening.

The perceptual world is more peaceful and stable than our conceptual world. It is a haven. When my mind is turbulent and out of control, I can touch in with the world of my senses. My mind might be thinking something like “my life is over!”, but in the world of my senses the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, my breath is rising and falling. Much of the distress I experience is due to my mind ruminating over concepts and my perceived place in social hierarchies, and not due to my actual experience.

Once you’ve developed the meditative practice of mindfulness, of “seeing what is really there”, it can be applied to many different activities: art, dancing, relating. Mindfulness is like salt. It can season almost any dish.

Another thing that meditation gives me is awareness of my mental and emotional state. When I sit down to meditate, I can tell if I am agitated or calm, distracted or focused. I get used to noticing my mental state and I target calmer, more peaceful mental states as a life goal, like other people might target weight loss.

There are probably other reasons to meditate. As I said, I am no expert on the topic. But the habits of mind I have developed from the time I have spent meditating are invaluable.


Conclusion

If I take a moment to fantasize about going to school that includes improv, powerlifting, authentic relating, and meditation, that sounds awesome. I think younger me would have enjoyed that and been challenged by it. What about you? What practices have served you best to navigate life? What do you wish you had learned years ago? Leave a comment.






Monday, August 20, 2018

Surviving in the Alaskan Wilderness



“It is extremely challenging and some students WILL quit. Expect to suffer.”

The marketing materials appealed to me. At the time of signing up for the one-week survival course in January, I was in the early days of recovering from a crushing romantic breakup. I wanted to be lost, obliterated, remade. I wanted physical suffering, perhaps as some kind of penance, perhaps to take my mind off the spiritual pain. The survival course sounded perfect. I pulled out my credit card.

By the time the course actually rolled around in July, I was a different person. I had a new home and a new routine. My emotions had stabilized. But nevertheless, the Alaskan Field Course approached, a foreboding presence on my Google calendar. It was a wall or moat, dividing the calendar into distinct before times and after times. July Jacob had to find new motivations for following through on the commitment of January Jacob. I found four reasons for doing it:


(1) I wanted to test my will. Life is hard and I am soft. There seems to be a lot of obstacles between me and the life I want to live. I wanted a difficult experience that forced me to go beyond my previous limits, an experience that not everybody made it through. It functioned as a symbol to me that I would be able to conquer difficulties elsewhere. 

It's not quite that I want to be a hero. But I want to know that I'm capable of being a hero. I have this fantasy that if there were something difficult and important to do, that I would have the will power to step up and do it. But if my will is untested, it's just a fantasy. By doing hard things, I gain some confidence that I am the person I imagine myself to be. 


(2) I love comfort too much. On the big 5 personality model, I score above average in neuroticism, loosely defined as sensitivity to negative emotions. I like to have my home environment arranged to be comfortable and quiet and I feel distressed if I can’t accomplish that. I try to fight this. In the woods - starving, sleeping on leaves, being cold and wet when it rained, doing hard labor - I knew that comfort would not be an option. I would be forced to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort. I might still instinctively seek comfort, but I want to have the knowledge that I can handle discomfort when it is necessary. 


(3) I wanted to have the knowledge that I could survive wherever I was in the world. I wanted nature to seem less hostile and more like home. 


(4) In the intervening 7 months, I had told a lot of friends that I was going to do the course, so I didn’t want to look weak by backing out or quitting. This might have been a stronger motivation than I like.


The Alaskan Field Course involves surviving under instructor supervision for a week in the Alaskan wilderness with minimal equipment - just clothes, a canteen, backpack, knife, and a small length of cord. No sleeping bags, food, tents, or water purification tech. 

Both my January self and my July self got their desires met. I can’t remember ever suffering so much physically. I was starving and sleep deprived most of the time. Food is not a top 2 priority in a survival situation (#1 temperature control and #2 clean water), so we made do with a few hundred calories of foraged berries that were bitter and sour for the most part. And, lacking sleeping bags, we needed to tend a fire all night to prevent hypothermia which made for broken sleep through the mercifully short Alaskan nighttime. 



Work was the lifeline tethering me to sanity. On the second day in the field, our instructor showed us how to make the A-frame structures that are in my pictures. His method of motivational speaking involved a lot of dark humor. “Results are mandatory”, he reminded us. The pressure of needing to get my shelter raised and water-proofed lit a (figurative) fire under my ass. I haven’t worked that hard in a long time. I hustled for about 12 hours in the long Alaskan daylight to build my shelter, gathering sticks and moss and grass. I spent more hours on it in the following days, haunted by the nightmare of my hut leaking in the rain and being forced to spend a night doing survival calisthenics to ward off hypothermia. That was the miserable alternative available if shelter or fire failed and the weather took an unlucky turn. 

I kept surprisingly busy in the course. There always seemed to be something to do to mitigate risk or make ourselves more comfortable. I partnered up with another student to share a shelter. Once our shelter was established, we built another one for our firewood so we would have some dry wood if it rained. Gathering firewood was the single largest use of time. 

Two-a-day courses in survival skills kept our lives interesting and added an extra layer of difficulty. For example, on the day of building the shelters, we had a hands-on course in how to safely cross swift rivers. This resulted in all of our shoes being wet. Other days, we learned how to carry injured hikers, wrap a bandage, make birch-bark bowls to enhance the efficiency of foraging, use a compass for navigation, and to trap animals and fish. 

There was a lot of misery. My will was sapped early in the week from caffeine withdrawal and later in the week from starvation and an accumulation of small injuries. My body did bizarre things. At night, it would tingle all over. I think it was a response to the starvation. My guts felt things they had never felt before. 

But there was also much that was pleasant about the experience. As my eyes adapted to the work, I began to see the forest as a store of resources. I knew that tree had analgesic compounds in its bark, that tree had sap that was a great fire starter, these leafy plants were good to eat and had protein. I learned how to sleep on the ground and I learned that moss is nature’s upholstery. My hands developed comfort and intelligence with the knife. I was turning into a bit of a wood-elf. 

Other highlights of the trip included the Alaskan scenery. We were surrounded by gorgeous mountains and camped on the banks of a clear wide stream with jumping fish. The monkey parts of my brain loved living in scenery that normally I would politely admire from a respected distance. I loved climbing over and under logs, chopping branches, eating berries fresh off the vine, and sleeping on the ground. It was a physically stimulating sort of life. 

The fellowship with other students was pleasant. In rare moments of downtime, we would lounge about on the moss and drink some boiled nettles or chaga, discussing which McDonald's food we would consume when we returned to civilization. 



The pace of work slackened in the last few days. With the extra free time, our minds turned to fishing. A variety of methods were attempted to catch them: traps, baskets woven out of green sticks or roots, hand-fishing, spears, and makeshift fishing rods. Most of the methods caught at least one fish, but the fishing rod was the most successful. It was just a string baited with guts and tied around a stick. It worked surprisingly well. 

I was disappointed not to catch any fish myself, but I did manage to barter for a small trout. I spit roasted it over a campfire. It was deliciously warm and fatty. 

From one perspective, the Alaskan Field Course is a wonderfully ridiculous thing. I’m surprised that you can buy such a real and dangerous experience in this age of regulated capitalism. The safety net exists, but it’s minimal. The nearest road was a treacherous 9 mile hike away. And we took risks. 16 adults, some of them brand new to the outdoors, spent the week running around with knives, climbing logs, foraging, hunting, and bushwhacking. We were constantly one wrong step away from needing a helicopter evac, or else spending a grueling day carrying a peer to safety. I loved that nobody stopped us for our own safety. It felt like freedom. 

The week passed by in a blur. Much of the time I was just focused on surviving. As I returned to civilization, I was left with a ghost of the forest experience. The ubiquitous smoke of campfires haunted the corners of my vision for several days. Each itch I instinctively assumed to be the probing of a mosquito.

In the end, I found what I wanted in the Alaskan wilderness. I feel harder, tougher. I lost my addiction to caffeine and sleeping with ear plugs. I've never been backpacking, but it sounds easy to me now. You get to carry food with you! And a sleeping bag! Lots of things sound easier to me now. At least temporarily, the course lowered my expected level of comfort. I’m happy I did it. I survived.