It never fails. Even after a relatively short immersion in wild nature, I am transformed.
When I started up the dusty path from the trailhead, I felt constricted in a calcified shell of modern containment; irritable, burdened, and somewhat prickly (think: porcupine). Two hours later, when I emerge from the coastal canyon in Big Sur, I find myself ensconced in a bodysoul that feels soft and open, with feathered arms for flight.
Habitual filters, so necessary and unavoidable in our modern world, have fallen away. Things glimmer at the edge of my peripheral vision and awareness, spirits winking in and out. As my bare feet traverse the dry, uneven ground—sole meets soil meets soul—the very landscape has become animate, suggesting itself to me as shapes of animals, supernatural entities held in rock or tree. This, of course, is the real world, as it has always been: alive, breathing, fully intelligent and aware. Magical, even. We’ve simply stopped seeing it as such and become mostly blind.
An iridescent blue dragonfly zooms up to me and hovers near. Creature of both water and air, its long, narrow body like a thick blue needle floats suspended by a blur of gossamer wings. Somehow, these small messengers always remind me that everything in life is merely an illusion.
We are not separate. Life is simply a sea of energy… you, included.
After a period of quiet sitting amid the tall evergreens with my senses open—listening, seeing, feeling, sensing—the mythic is near, beckoning me into the imaginal realm.
“Imaginal” does not mean imaginary; rather it is the world of archetypes, where the human psyche meets the Soul of the World. Describing the domain where the mythic and mundane interpenetrate each other, Henry Corbin first coined the term “imaginal” (he called it the Mundus Imaginalis), which was later employed by noted Jungian, James Hillman.
Entrance to this domain is gained by crossing the threshold of senses, open heart, and inspired imagination in moments when a door is left open—when the Mystery slides in unexpected to dance in the rooms of our shifting, expanded awareness. And because nature is the expanded, greater soul, a deep immersion in its realms is a powerful (perhaps unsurpassed) access route to the imaginal.
Thinking we can have it all, we’ve lost so much.
Disconnected from the natural world, holed up in our heads (while staring at a flat screen or handheld electronic device), we are estranged from a heart-centered cognition. Men, in particular. This is more than simply feeling; it is a stepping away from the mental towards a more somato-emotional, intuitive way of knowing—an erudition that comes from the heart and our senses, from being deeply embodied in our bones and breath.
Like movement, respiration, and silence, nature invites us to open; it offers the chance to remember that the heart is a primary organ of perception. To initiate the intuitive, wholistic mode of cognition, we have only to place our attention upon a thing (tree, bird, flower, person) and ask silently, how does it feel?
Immediately, there is a shift in our body. Breath deepens. The images, sensations, and affect arising in us with this sort of connection/communion form the real language of the world; something flows in, an awareness, a knowing in the heart that can be transmitted no other way. When we shift from thinking to feeling, from analyzing to simply observing and sensing, we slip casually across the threshold to an alluring, visceral realm that has mostly been lost to us.
After my hour alongside the little flashing stream amid the watchful redwoods, casting my senses and heart ajar with every breath, it is in the mythic, imaginal and fully animate world where I now find myself—a different realm than the identical looking one I passed through earlier. Drawn outwards, I am light and open. Diaphanous.
Edgewalker, remember who you are, the one who walks between worlds, following his heart’s song.
No longer blocked and segmented, motor movement sequences through me in an effortless ripple and wave from the core. Rather than locked in the cage of my ribs, breath is expansive and free in the belly. My spine feels elongated, rusty hips somehow open and loose.
I have shed my heavy, limiting armor, and like some shapeshifter or shaman, become once again a graceful wildcat on softly padded paws.
Unhurried by manmade time, the humblest thing catches my attention—fading flower, sunbathing lizard, gnarled limbs of an oak—and seduces me with its marvelous, wordless beauty. This moment will never come again and I am here, fortunate enough to witness it.
What grace to celebrate and mirror back the extravagant creativity of the cosmos. What privilege to be in this body, to be a man with his heart wide open, smitten dumb and awestruck by the holy in everything. Is that not the very essence of embodying the Sacred Masculine? What a great joy that nature brings me to this place effortlessly, again and again… ever calling me home to myself and something much larger.
Descending the coastal canyon, bare soles and soul appreciating the tactile connection with earth, feeling entirely in my element, I am slowly, reluctantly, returning to the manmade existence. Yet I am still composed of feathers and fur, scales and claws. Wings. A tail, perhaps. Threshold dweller at the edge of a continent where land meets sea and sky, I am fully myself—my best, most authentic, embodied and magical self. A wild soul enfolded by wild earth.
On the return, I always like observing people’s expressions when I pass them on the trail—the way their eyes glance down at my dusty, dirty feet. Or their comments, aloud to me or spoken to each other after I’ve passed.
It’s my unclad feet they notice because they can’t see my tail. Or glistening wings. They don’t catch the wild hawk’s gleam in my eye, or detect the catlike way I move, nor smell the wildness under my skin. We are blind and numb to such things when we first emerge from the city, and for most folks, the filters never come off.
Repelled by the cloying, synthetic scent of fabric softener on their clothes, nostrils flared to the autumn air, I move past them with feral grace and keep heading down the trail.
I can hear the afternoon with its awaiting work at home calling to me, a distant drone and vaguely metallic voice, but I’m in no hurry to answer. All in good time. Even with my small rucksack on my back, I feel so light and unencumbered that it almost seems that something is missing.
The mirth in this is simply delightful, and laughter bubbles up like a spring from somewhere deep inside me. As I turn around and head back up to the great trees, to the little side path leading down to the stream where I had been sitting on the great old stump, I cannot help but be amused.
It does seem that I’m always leaving something of myself when I depart the wild, natural realms and return to everyday life, but today what I’ve left is something a bit weightier than just my spirit.
I am still chuckling when I find my sandals, right where I left them, waiting for me. I pick them up but don’t put them on, stashing them inside my pack, and then once more head back down the trail. Smiling. Musing on the things we carry and the things we leave behind.
On any quest—whether a mythic journey, a long process of self-discovery, a modern day ‘vision quest’, even a weekend workshop—the One Who Returns is not the same as the one who went out.
Whether or not we find the talisman we seek—even if that is only an elusive sense of peace and quiet—the very process of severance from the rote and familiar, then venturing into the unknown and the experience that greets us there, changes us.
To what will we give the gift of our attention?
Still expansive and stitched of silken moth wings, I am different now. Strangely whole again. Fully human and something just a bit more.
Approaching the wide mouth of the dry canyon, I hear the noise of the highway and nearly simultaneously catch the briny scent and muffled voice of the sea. I am emerging from one realm into another.
As always happens back at the car, there is the momentarily strange sense of being confined, surrounded by synthetic materials. I want to immediately roll down the windows, but at the same time I strongly desire to be shielded from the steady, rolling noise of the highway. And so it begins, the pulling in and gradual closing down.
In the hours and days ahead, even in the sanctuary of my little cottage near the sea, in my deliberately constructed life of soulful rituals, the modern day amnesia will slowly creep over me. Senses will dull and once again I’ll forget the full, non-domesticated, sensual wildness of who I am—until that restlessness under my skin, the wild soul, urges me back out into the trees or onto a sage-covered mesa, where I wake up again and remember. Re-wilding myself.
That’s why I need to live on the edge of wild places, at the threshold between worlds, so I can just slip out and disappear among the quietly singing trees and come home to myself—dancing naked and yipping at the great luminous pearl of moon.
Remember who you are, edgewalker, a wild, barefoot soul with wings on your arms.
No shoes required.