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On the edge of a cliff…

Posted by in blog, Homepage December 11, 2014

It’s around midday. A surprisingly hot mid-winter sun blazes down from an azure blue Pyrenean sky and a mind-blowing vista of tree-ruffled, rumpled green hills rumbles away towards the horizon. I’m sat on a tiny natural rocky terrace, less than twenty feet wide and half as deep, the edge of which drops precipitously away into the valley hundreds of feet below. It gives me vertigo when I approach the crumbling brink. This is to be my ‘home’ for the next twenty-four hours of my ‘Way of Nature’ wild ‘solo’.

Spending a day and a night alone in this national park wilderness in this mountain range twixt France and Spain is in one sense no big deal. A couple of dozen short hours in a beautiful location, a chance to kick-back and enjoy spectacular panoramic views and reconnect with nature, to empty my mind of the busy-ness of the daily grind. And yet it also feels significant. An exodus from our world of perpetual distraction, a long dark and bitterly cold fourteen hour night of the isolated soul, a small but perfectly formed rite of passage.

‘The biggest danger on a solo is yourself’ our wonderful guides Andres and Korbi had advised during our preparations as they expertly introduced us to gentle, subtle but powerful techniques of qi gong, meditation and mental models of mind. These tools would help us purge and detach from any thoughts and feelings of fear, self-sabotage or loneliness we might encounter on the mountain.

And now as Korbi departed having delivered me to my pre-chosen spot I was by myself. It didn’t take long for the trappings of so-called civilisation to melt away. Having gathered fuel for a discrete fire after sunset, clothes were dispensed with – they felt superfluous and cumbersome in the warm sunshine – and, clearing my mind, a nuanced process of deep reconnection began.

Feeling the warmth of the sun and the cool breath of the wind on my entire skin inspired a sensation of full body listening. My senses became acutely heightened. The oily scents of the fragrant vegetation, juniper, rosemary, myrtle and thyme wafted on the breeze. My ears were so attuned to noise they were almost ringing in the silence, once they’d adjusted to the constant background roar of the river in the rugged water-worn canyon far below. And my eyes had an unfamiliar sharpened sensitivity to movement, being instantly drawn to every twitch and flicker in my peripheral vision.

I’d been pulled to my solo spot because of its dramatic perspective. I wanted the ‘big picture’ view. As Father Ted once famously explained to Dougal: ‘These things are small. But these ones are far away’. In similar fashion I’d been feeling that just because certain aspects of life loomed large, prominent and close this didn’t mean they are necessarily the biggest and most important. Conversely those hazy ideas and beliefs just visible in the distance might actually be more vital and powerful than those which preoccupy because of their perceived scale and proximity.

I quickly learned ‘solo’ was a strange way to describe my time on the mountain. I was most definitely not alone. At every scale a community of life thrummed intimately around me. Ants, from tiny brown to big black soldier-type species patrolled the rocks and detritus in the hot sun, a bright red-legged grasshopper skipped past and a tiny scarlet mite marched recklessly visibly against the grey stone backdrop. A beady-eyed lizard darted back and forth hunting all of the above.

Hearing the skittering of displaced limestone scree above me I had a close encounter with a huge white shaggy furred and massively curly-horned mountain goat who eye-balled me across the narrow terrace before skipping away. A pair of enormous eagles effortlessly ascending the thermal winds blowing up my almost vertical cliff were so close I could hear the air riffling roughly through their wing tip feathers as they trimmed their flight. Later a single leaf caught my eye as it blew up the cliff face in defiance of gravity and floated in surreal style away and over my head.

‘All one time’ is how Way of Nature founder John Milton describes such experiences. It felt profoundly resonant as the afternoon hours passed in a soulful realignment of my physical, emotional and even spiritual links with the immediate world around my little platform.

As the sun set clouds resembling whale-like dirigibles formed over the peaks around me. A gaping crocodile cumulus threatened to consume a gesticulating madman whose manic laughing face was so vivid and life-like it made me guffaw out loud. The temperature was also plummeting so as the golden fire in the sky faded and darkness descended I sparked up the campfire.

It’s unsurprising we find fires so reassuring. For the best part of a hundred millennia fire has been at the heart of human communities. We’ve all sat calm, mesmerised and anchored around the flickering flames. But it was only as I sat solitarily feeding mine for several hours that I perhaps really and genuinely appreciated this. At first after the serenity of the day the vigorous burn of crackling tinder-dry wood, sparks shooting pyrotechnically up like organic tracer bullets into the night sky and fierce radiant heat of the fire felt almost invasive. From the daytime carnival of life, the fire was the principle energy in the otherwise relative stillness of the night – the sun in my hearth.

At the same time it was cathartic. Usually campfires are communal affairs, their beacon-like context filled with laughter, conversation or song. Yet my lonesome blaze was a pyre for detached and discarded thoughts. As the river rumbling below had served as a literal stream of consciousness into which I’d cast unwholesome and unhelpful thinking during the day, by night those similar manifestations burned merrily away on the hot embers.

The fire became a meditation in itself. My mind emptied itself almost entirely of superfluous pre-occupations and for many hours I was contentedly present in the immediate moment. Eventually with my wood-pile exhausted I went to turn in. A brilliantly bright full moon illuminated the whole valley, the night now bitterly cold as I carefully climbed into my tent perched precariously above the abyss.

Despite multiple layers of clothing the sub-zero temperatures outside made for a bitingly cold night. As I shivered in my numerous hi-tech layers of fleece and nylon I felt for the tenacity of our ancestors and the arduousness of their lives, humbled by their resilience in simpler but much harder times. In my chilly delirium the lyrics of a Streets song I couldn’t remember the name of kept tumbling over and over in my head;

‘For billions of years since the outset of time

Every single one of your ancestors survived

Every single person on your mum and dad’s side

Successfully looked after and passed onto you life

What are the chances of that like?

It comes to me once in a while

And everywhere I tell folk it gets the best smile’

I was so cold that I was praying for morning, longing for the warm kiss of the sun. So when I heard the first birdsong announcing the approaching dawn I practically leapt out of bed. The full moon had not yet set to the west, and the first rays of the un-risen sun were already tingeing the clouds a bright pink. In the valley wisps of mist crept skulkily between the rocky, forested ridges.

As I stood in the frigid light of the early morn I reflected on my choice of solo spot. The terrace of perspective on which I’d camped precipitously above a sheer drop – an interesting choice for a man not exactly comfortable with heights. It felt like a metaphor for the tenuous brinksmanship of our own civilisation. Our denial of profound interdependent reality, our determined distraction by the mundane and fickle, our feckless failure to embrace our own depths and truths – those connections we share with every living being and the animate world around us.

It was an enduring insight. Later I discovered the title of the track whose lyrics had haunted my twilight hours: ‘On the edge of a cliff’. Serendipitously appropriate. There is a more beautiful world that we know in our hearts, as Charles Eistenstein so eloquently put it, is possible. The solo was another step in my own personal journey of reconnection to the source of that which truly sustains us. Of a new story of self unfolding, one in which the illusion of our separation from each other and from nature is confounded and that when we tell it, like the Mike Skinner lyric, it raises hopes, sparks inspiration and provokes the best smiles…

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