This summer a girlfriend and I strode out into the Colorado wilderness with forty pounds on our backs and lived above tree-line for several days.
The winter previous was a harsh one, leaving little snow melt by July. All hikers before us were turned away by icy catwalks that plummeted thousands of feet below leaving no margin for error. Just two days, and a few extra degrees of warmth, granted our passage by mere inches of melt. Hence, we were the first people to enter that native domain in months, and the only ones there for the entirety of our stay.
The presence of pure unadulterated wild was palpable. It was a world yet unveiled, and as such, uncompromised and fiercely prescient. We could smell the musk of the mountain lions on the granite boulders as we scrambled over them. We felt a thousand eyes upon our backs. Not one human footstep had yet broken the pristine silence. We were there as fragile guests, our welcome tentative.
We set up base camp at a high ridge lake, our voices awkward and tiny against the immensity of rocky ranges and peaks around us. And there we lived, with just the barest of essentials, and only our most true and unadorned selves. Deer visited our camp by morning, and the screams of she-cats echoed around us, close, by nightfall.
Living in that simple and raw way revealed a kind of deliberateness that became beautiful to me. Each moment was mindful. Economy of movement and consumption was an imperative. Only a dab of toothpaste; just this much food; only that much heat to boil a minimal amount of water for tea.
And the senses, stripped of modernity’s incessant noise and chatter, were alive to every shift in energy, every smell, every presence. Silence became the norm, and words were used to communicate only essential true things. We were awake. And it called us to be responsive and deeply present in every moment. Not because it was the spiritual thing to do, but because our lives depended upon it.
The beauty of our surroundings invited us to tend graciously to it, preserve it, like monks in a Zen garden, carefully combing behind us as to leave no trace.
Economy of effort and consumption, presence and beauty—these three things seem to create a life deliberately lived.
A bit later, I spent some time with a friend who lives on a boat. There I witnessed a similar way of being. Walking out onto the pier, the world of noise and haste is left behind leaving only stillness. A boat embodies both symmetry and simplicity, with only so much space on which to live. That space needs care, attention and tending in order that the boat can remain in the water season after season with its integrity and beauty intact. To safeguard such a lifestyle, my friend must, day after day, live deliberately.
The movement of the sea underneath was a constant reminder of an untamed wilderness that stretched out forever. Senses remained alert and constantly tuned to the natural world. Words regained their meaning. Time took on new shape.
Staying on the boat, I was watching a kind of an art form unfold—only a dab of toothpaste; just this much food; only that much heat to boil a minimal amount of water for tea; combing behind him so as to leave no trace. Beauty, economy, presence—a monk in a Zen garden.
This kind of living requires a different relationship to time and space. You can’t just rush around throwing dishes in the dishwasher while texting that you are going to be late to your next meeting, feeding off of adrenaline. You can’t run through your life like a bull in a china shop, buying too much, eating too much, spending too much, expending unnecessary energy, all the while never looking up to see the awe and wonder of what surrounds you.
A life lived deliberately requires a sense of sanctity, that this one present moment is full, beautiful, alive and deserving of mindful attention and care. And what it provides is a way of being that is more instinctual, and leverages way more power, precision and influence.
Perhaps it is not more we seek, as in getting more things done, having more things, and going faster and bigger, but less, so that we can better align with our true purpose this world.
I’ll leave you with the words of Henry David Thoreau.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
– Walden: Or, Life in the Woods