Wilderness Camping as a Retreat

· Open Access ·

by Robert Genjin Savage
originally published in the Mountain Record journal on Compassion (1991)

Before I discovered Zen, week-long solo backpacking trips were my sesshins. The absence of human references in the blank stare of nature can either quiet the mind or drive it crazy. I’ve experienced both.

Usually the former happens, especially if you keep on the move: the flux of data as you pass landscapes that owe nothing to your species, the organic shapes of objects and events—lacking right angles and mechanical repetition—all of this “talks “ to you less insistently than, say, a city block. Although there are just as many messages, they are less urgent and not addressed to you personally. After a couple of days on the trail, the internal dialogue wears itself out from lack of fresh input, and you begin to see and hear what’s around you. By the trip’s end you are keenly and calmly aware, glad to be alive. 

Sometimes, however, the opposite happens, especially if you spend more than a couple of nights in one spot. As the novelty of your surroundings wears off, you begin to get spooked. Instead of the entertaining parade of trailside sideshows that a hiker on the go experiences, you see the same old tree hour after hour, day after day. just standing there…waiting. You avert your gaze, only to have it fall on that same old ratty fern or rotten log. You shut your eyes, and that persistent, unimaginative bird call starts up again. A sense of waiting invades the world. 

You seem to be caught in a pause in which something’s about to happen, only it never does. At first you just get impatient, but soon, deeply-buried anxieties start emerging from a dark place. Before actual panic sets in, you have managed to convince yourself that it’s time to break camp and put on some more mileage. You “pull a geographic,” as they say in the Twelve-Step Programs dealing with compulsive behavior, and move on. While backpacking trips can be true retreats, they only take you so far, because there are too many ways of avoiding yourself. For instance, even if you stay put for several days, you can keep yourself distracted by fussing with your gear or rearranging the campsite decor, or by devising a busy daily schedule that you follow as compulsively as if it were a nine-to-five job. Without the discipline of a practice like zazen, it’s almost impossible to “stay with it” when “it” starts getting creepy. 

In sesshin the only trails are in the mind, and sooner or later they dead-end on you, so that you wind up with an inner equivalent of the same old tree hour after hour, day after day. But you can’t break camp. The night creatures come out from hiding, and you have no choice but to get to know them. By gently stretching the schedule of sesshin into the demands and uncertainties of a camping trip, new possibilities arise, especially at that key moment when you really start to meet yourself in the lonely wastes of the wilderness. Habitual escape routes and diversion tactics are held at bay by conscious effort. For example, performing campsite chores as “work practice” turns them into exercises in mindfulness instead of distracting games of solitaire. Under a watchful eye, compulsive routine doesn’t have a chance to take root. 

Mess kits prove to be marvelously suited to oryoki, and as the woods ring with your chanting of the meal gatha, a private act becomes strangely public, as though the trees themselves were having lunch with you. Chanting in utter solitude, sounding words that no one hears but you, can transform a camping trip. You’re alone with your voice as you never are when you’re back in the social mesh of your species. You become aware of your own sound-box, its buzzing resonance and the overtones it generates, and of your public presence in a non-human landscape. No longer are rocks and trees simply present before you: you are present before them as well. 

One of the miracles of zazen in the wild is that it transforms that pause, that suspenseful waiting, that coy look of expectation in the humble objects around you, into something quite different. For, lo and behold, it’s you who have been waiting, you who have been projecting your own impatience onto innocent bushes and boulders. Your desire for something to happen blinds you to the fact that it’s already happening, here, now, in the perfectly still, perfectly silent forest. Then, becoming equally still and silent in the posture of zazen, the teeming life emerges from all the nooks and crannies where it had been watching you the whole time, and you find yourself accepted as part of the furniture. Field mice flirt and fight around your folded legs, and a pileated woodpecker practically grazes your head on its way to a nearby trunk. Deer catch your scent but don’t scamper off, not “reading” you as the restless homo sapiens they know best in hunting season. Cautiously they creep closer, heads bobbing, their big wet eyes and big wet noses and flopping ears irresistibly drawn by curiosity—what is it? 

Such magic takes place only when you slow yourself down to the pace of the world around you and stop looking for entertainment. There’s a tendency to try to turn camping into more of an adventure than it is: we read up on “survival,” imagine ourselves in various worst-case scenarios, and treat our unfamiliar surroundings as a challenge if not an actual threat. But the real challenge is when nothing happens, when things reassume their ordinariness, when drinking from a mountain spring is nothing special. 

This is a “no big deal” approach to the wilderness, being prepared for emergencies, of course, yet not focusing on them; being ready, rather, to face boredom and annoyance, your own greed to get something out of an experience. The woods start giving as soon as you stop taking. 

Robert Genjin Savage (1953-1993) was an award-winning composer, avid backpacker, naturalist, and beloved sangha member. He wrote a column for Mountain Record, Teachings of the Insentient before his early death of an AIDS-related illness. A student of Daido Roshi, Genjin’s ashes were interred in the Monastery’s Nirvana Fields. 

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