Posted on April 10, 2023
With the turmoil of the world surrounding me, my thoughts are too scattered to collect. Ever-increasing confusion cloud the horizon – twists of facts blurred by the speed of falsehood add to my detachment. I feel compelled to examine reality.
Intense weather, intense news, extreme political rhetoric. Should I wade outside or find a dark corner in my room to hide from this madness?
Distractions. All distractions.
Existential dread is a springtime affliction I experience with increased frequency. This year it’s more pronounced as I sit here staring at my swollen knee… a torn meniscus prevents me from long-awaited spring hikes into the hills of Czechia or heading out on a run to stretch the body and soul after a long winter.
Instead, I sit reminiscing, scrutinizing what lies ahead (and what doesn’t). Contemplating life.
Reality has taken the form of the parable Sisyphus, the mythical Greek man destined to push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down. And he gets to do it over again, ad infinitum. A bleak reality. A monotonous life… parallel to mine and those I know.
Viewed from the outside, we are but slaves to routines with the macabre void of death waiting for collection at the end. And if you are wondering, yes, these days, I am the life of the party… 🙃
The above photos remind me of my countless trips up and down Mt. Ellinor. And as with Sisyphus, each ascent had the same monotonous steps, albeit with minor variances but roughly similar. As did the days that filled the time between climbs. Hmmm, what is keeping me sane?
Nothing changes. We eat. Sleep. Exercise. Work. Die. It is the abbreviated history of humankind. Spiritually, what keeps us alive? What keeps us striving?
Reviewing past photos of Ellinor, the answer comes in pieces, reflections on what has brought me to this point in life and, surprisingly, to the philosophy of Camus and Nietzsche.
The short answer: Art.
The human mind has an endless appetite for creativity. It observes reality, churns it around the head & heart, and creates its own existence – a world in which to belong.
The question becomes, do we succumb to the chaos we experience daily from the mass of information and give in to the absurd reality fed to us? Put our mind on autopilot and drearily live through the day?
Such questions have become a spring tradition with me, to the point where I classify as an existentialist… with pieces of stoicism, Daoism, and cultures from around the world holding me together.
Add to this dread my swollen knee and wondering if my future Ellinor will resemble the ones of my past, and I wish I had a beer in front of me right now. My Czech friends would laugh at this, as any authentic Czech has at least one in the fridge for such occasions.
Spring, as a concept, is hope itself. And being fooled again by spring is easy, for the silence of winter allows complacency to creep in, and with the Siren’s song of spring echoing loudly, it creates discomfort.
Discomfort is something to cherish and revel in. Wrap yourself up in the existential questions, for to live is to invite stress and difficulties to spur us forward. We need to churn thoughts repetitiously, to the point of madness… and from this existential quest, we find the lucidity of courage.
It’s a love-hate relationship for me with spring, originating from an inherent romanticism since youth… The thought is in spring, I’ll be inspired, in summer in love, by autumn reflective, and by winter, ready to take solace in a year/life well spent.
In reality: it is ‘roll the stone up the hill, watch it roll down’ repeated ad nauseam.
Somehow I fool myself into believing in the comfort of spring’s Siren call – she makes me feel like I could be enough and contribute to her world. I’d say it is a lot like bad TV, rewatching those shows I’ve seen a thousand times… yet, even with the ridiculousness of it all, I rejoice in it. Star Trek, anyone?
Existentialists look to the absurdness of life as a catalyst. Getting sucked into the repetitive void that makes life meaningless is easy. But we have one tool which gives us freedom: the creative mind. In essence, our ability to appreciate and create Art. It allows us to escape this
fucking Sisyphean reality.
One of the critical points of existentialism is taking complete responsibility for one’s life. No excuses. Even in Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, in Heidegger, improving oneself is the minimum of what we owe ourselves (and thus life).
“What makes existentialism so appealing to me?” I ask myself, slowly getting up from my chair to pace around the room – my obsession with hitting my daily step goal remains strong even while hobbled.
Everyone, at some point, struggles to understand the meaning of life, and for me, existentialism cuts to the core of who I am. It allows me to revolt against what society/politics push my way and sink deeper into exploring my own reality and happiness. It kickstarts my creative mind; from this, I can find a slice of Heaven in this crazy world.
And what is this Heaven I mention? I seek one of the more pretentiously beautiful lines of the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton to answer this question.
When in such a mood as I am now, I think of my best friend from childhood, Pat Breland, who has been gallantly making great Art even after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis in March. This quote fits well:
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”– Paradise Lost, Book One, lines 242 – 270 by John Milton
Throughout my life, I leaned on the ideas Pat taught me growing up on what it is to be great ~ he lives life artfully, in all respects. His music, family, and optimistic outlook create a world where he thrives. Having one of the highest IQs of anyone I’ve ever known also helps.
Take the beauty found in the world, assess it with an inspired mind, and craft it into a life desired.
Unexpected shifts in life happen; losing one you love fuels hope in memories. A loss of hope; I cannot imagine life without it.
Throughout his life, Pat demonstrated that the ability to make his own reality and build meaning is where the power of Art lies.
The flexibility of the mind is the most incredible power an individual has. An agile mind can warp itself in any shape to reconcile reality with what it is focused upon. It could be happiness, misery, or a depressed void.
We can be mired in misery yet find a way to make it feel like Heaven.
Art allows pathways to find this Heaven and find happiness. No matter how badly I may feel, I can inevitably find a way to make myself the hero of my own story, recreate myself and find a Heaven within, regardless of what Hell reality throws my way.
The mind is powerful enough to adjust to any situation. Within us, we have a paradise more incredible than the Garden of Eden.
Reflecting back on these beautiful hikes, like Camus’ Sisyphus, I am not crushed by the hopelessness in my situation; I’m liberated by it. There is true freedom and happiness in the face of this illogical world.
Every hour, every second of the day, arrives the same Sisyphean choices we all face. And excitement comes from the revolution of Art and imagination inside to take us somewhere special.
I will escape with an admonition of Soren Kierkegaard: Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.
The words of great philosophers of the past are elegant in thought. There is a certain desperate beauty in feeling lost during our existential quests. Being lost allows us to put life into perspective – it is how we find ourselves.
The artful mind can take us to places the most beautiful scenes in nature cannot. It can reveal pieces of the human soul that are not easily understood, giving us a glimpse into infinite possibilities.
Art is not an imitation of reality but a way of expanding upon it to grasp new meanings of who we are.
Art is the brilliance of the human mind, to go beyond the beauty of nature and uncover an alternate reality. This is how humans continue to evolve and find answers to the universe and each other.
It is love. It is kindness and care for those with passion. It is meaning.
Posted on September 18, 2022
With effort, I slip through the early morning fog, my mind elsewhere. One step, then another, my thoughts floating back to the Sierra Mountains ~ a youthful spirit riding and climbing versus this old soul shuffling out the door. A few hours later, I fold into a seat on a flight back to Czechia, the morning haze beginning to lift.
It feels more difficult to leave the States than in the past, but there is also a twinge of excitement. What awaits me on my return to Kamýk nad Vltavou?
The Czech writer, Franz Kafka, summarizes my mood: “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty will never grow old.” This quote relaxes me, for I know whatever lies ahead, I’ll find beauty… and with it, a rekindled, youthful spirit.
I’ve realized when things are a bit off, life a bit monotonous, I need to jump off my path and stretch my body and soul into something unknown. This summer, the jump ended up on the back of a beautiful paint horse, Hero, and I made my way through the John Muir Wilderness.
Thinking of those days in the saddle, I still feel the shock to the system, but the aches feel good… and sadly, being on horseback is far removed from my current reality of a cramped airplane.
While part of me appreciates the repetitiveness of life, for stability should never be underestimated or undervalued, such moments serve more as a time to recharge for the next moments of chaos: fuel for the fire of life.
Energized and exhausted defines not just my physical and mental state right now; it signifies the beauty of contradictions found throughout life ~ memories of each bittersweet moment, from the familiar to the foreign.
The minute I begin to feel the world closing in on me, I feel most alive… my heart begins to beat a bit faster in anticipation of the inevitable quark to catch my eye. A new opportunity. A moment to create a new reality. A chance at freedom. A chance to stretch the soul.
A misunderstood gift in life is when the comfortable path vanishes, and an untamed wilderness lies ahead ~ there is no choice but to struggle, push forward, and create. This discomfort is the brilliance of life. Reveling in the challenge to succeed and, in doing so, defining a new reality.
It is how I found myself in the Sierra Mountains, sauntering through the John Muir Wilderness, living out the stories dreamt of in my youth.
There was a bit of déjà vu riding through Mono Pass at 12,000 feet. Decades ago, this place was the playground of my Dad. The above brochure was from the Mineral King Pack Station in 1959, and the kid holding a golden trout caught in one of its majestic streams is my Dad.
An adventure he re-lived many times with stories when I was young, his excitement today as pure as it was sixty years ago. He also took pack mules in, hiked the same wilderness, and sought adventures long before I existed.
Peering back in time, perhaps not to the extent of the awe-inspiring photos of the James Webb Space Telescope and the universe billions of years ago, but rather a more humble review of the old & new photos of the Muir Wilderness; its essence is still unchanged. The same wilderness, scenes, and descriptions my Dad had experienced a half-century earlier.
Sharing our stories, we were both kids again for a brief moment. Time: past, present, future – irrelevant. Our two realities intersected and conveyed the enchantment of the Sierra Mountains.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ~ John Muir
In a small opening of the forest with the universe overhead, awed by the immense beauty spread out in the tapestry above, I took in the significance of my insignificance.
It reminded me of a two-thousand-year-old quote by the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars and see yourself running with them.”
If I can do this, I’ll forever be young, making my way through this universe.
Pulling lessons from poets and philosophers of the past?
Re-living adventures dreamt as a child?
For me, a perfect recipe for reflection. A chance to run with the stars, chase ghosts through the Sierra Wilderness, and find truth in the summer of ’22. Distractions of a modern world severed and instead the silence of the wild…
Move at the pace of the Sierra is a piece of advice I took from Muir’s writings. Move at the pace of the streams, the breeze, the trees. Feel the freedom of silence. Freedom from society. Freedom from work and freedom from the avalanche of social media ~ links tying us to the modern world.
It is impossible not to get sucked into the inane reality of modern life. The rush of society can be as addictive as the quiet of nature. Where technology wraps its coils around the mind, chains bound to false realities – nature’s silent flow allows thoughts to percolate.
The Sierra Mountains are a perfect respite.
John Muir wrote of the Sierra Wilderness: “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
Shifting in my seat, there is solace in reading these words. My thoughts are more precise and balanced. I’ll delve back into this modern, technological world with this added confidence.
“The mountains are fountains of men… The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains… ” – John Muir
The week in the Sierra Mountains reverted my soul to its youthful ideals. There is so much good in the world, allowing for a constant evolution of a mind, life, and reality to be proud of.
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius
This is one of my favorite Stoic quotes, for Marcus Aurelius transformed his character, behavior, and entire way of life with this simple idea. He understood that the present moment is all we ever have, and it’s within ourselves to create our happiness.
Sometimes I sit both amazed and confused about how words written millenniums ago can hold such an objective and straightforward truth… a simple meaning, yet challenging to put into practice.
If we can see beauty, as Kafka said at the beginning of this post, we’ll never lose our youthful optimism. Our thoughts create a reality where we can touch our dreams.
I kick back and reflect on the beauty in my life. The reality I’ve created will no doubt evolve into something different tomorrow, but at least for today, I am happy. My past, present, and future are harmoniously aligned, with a youthful spirit set to search for beauty no matter what lies ahead.
With the images of the Sierra Mountains etched deeply in my mind, I close my eyes, sensing a new path and reality will soon come into focus.
* Side Note: A thank you to Peruvian philosopher Pamela Estevez for alerting me to this great opportunity!
Category: Nature, Philosophy, Photography Tagged: Hiking, Horseback, Inspiration, John Muir, John Muir Wilderness, Marcus Aurelius, Nature, Philosophy, photography, Sierra Mountains, Stoicism, The Sierra Club, Wilderness