Micah Mortali: Rewilding

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December 17, 2019

Micah Mortali: Rewilding

Micah Mortali December 17, 2019

Micah Mortali is the director of the Kripalu School, a certified yoga teacher, and a longtime wilderness guide. With Sounds True, he has published Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Micah about humanity’s growing disconnection from the earth and how “rewilding” can help slow that trend. They talk about rewilding both as individuals and as part of whole ecosystems. Micah also shares the story of an intense, revelatory trail encounter with a bear and comments on the “species loneliness” of urban environments. Mulling the sense of grief they have for humankind’s effects on the environment, Tami and Micah consider how modern people can grapple with being in exile from the natural world. Finally, they discuss the barriers many have to reentering nature, as well as ways to initiate your own rewilding experience no matter where you are.(64 minutes)

Micah Mortali is director of the Kripalu Schools, one of the largest and most established centers for yoga-based education in the world. An avid outdoorsman, mindful wilderness guide, 500-hour Kripalu yoga teacher, and popular meditation teacher, Mortali has been leading groups in wilderness and retreat settings for 20 years. In 2018, he founded the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership. Mortali has a passion for helping people come home to themselves and the earth, and he is finishing his Master’s at Goddard College on nature awareness and mindfulness practices. He lives with his wife and children in the Berkshires. For more, visit kripalu.org.

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Also By Author

The Place You Awaken

Establishing a place for regular outdoor meditation and nature observation is often referred to as a “sit spot” or “medicine spot”.  Like the Buddha, who found his own tree of awakening, we too can go to nature and practice being awake to the reality of the present moment.  This practice can also help us become more intimate with all the qualities of the land we live with.  

If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.” 

San bushman

Guided Sit Spot Practice

  1. Go to a place in nature that is close to where you live and that you can visit regularly.
  1. Take a few moments to center yourself, breathing in and out, and arriving fully in the present moment.
  1. As you are ready begin to walk mindfully with an intention to find a spot that calls out to you, a place you can sit and deepen your relationship with this place.  The spot should feel welcoming, safe and comfortable.  It could be under a tree, beside a boulder or in an open space.  Often, east facing spots can be nice for early morning sits.
  1. When you find a spot that feels good, in your own way, ask permission of that place and wait to see what comes to you.  If you feel invited, sit.  If not, keep looking.
  1. Once in your spot, sit comfortably and become as still as you can.  Imagine that you are melting into the earth, becoming a part of the land.  Sit for at least 15-30 minutes, noticing any movement, sounds, or other sensations and activities.
  1. Return often.

Find more practices for connecting to nature in Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Read Rewilding today!

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Nature Meditation by a Window

With many people home-bound, we may need to get creative in seeking ways to connect with the natural world.  Sitting by an open window is one excellent practice for connecting with the outdoors, and it can be a powerful form of nature meditation as well.

“What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.  It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

Crowfoot, Orator of the Blackfoot Confederacy

  1. Find a comfortable seat by an open window that looks outdoors.  
  2. Morning, during the dawn chorus when birds are most active, can be a perfect time to enjoy your morning coffee or tea as you observe a new day emerge.
  3. Set an intention to stay present, letting go of thoughts or stories in your mind as they arise, and instead focusing your attention on whatever is fascinating in your environment.
  4. Sit for at least 15-30 minutes if you can.  Practice regularly to help alleviate stress, increase your sense of connection with your local environment, and awaken your senses.

Micah Mortali Facebook Live clickable image for guided meditation earthday

 

Find more practices for connecting to nature in Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Read Rewilding today!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Bookshop

The Basics of Nature Mindfulness

Ursasana: Bear Posture

Many years ago, a bear sat down next to me while I was meditating in the woods. It was an afternoon in mid-October in the Berkshires, and I had been mountain biking in my favorite preserve. I took a break from riding to enjoy the perfect fall afternoon. I was overflowing with gratitude. My life was going well.

I sat under a strong oak tree and closed my eyes. I asked Spirit to come and sit with me, to share in my heartfelt thanksgiving. I spoke the words aloud and immediately heard footsteps in the woods behind me. They got closer, but I continued with my meditation, until directly behind me, I heard a twig snap and a loud exhalation through a very big nose. I knew in that moment, in every cell of my body, that a bear was behind me.

My heart pounded, and adrenaline surged through my body. I was totally alert and aware. I very slowly turned my head to look behind me and saw shining black fur from shoulder to rump, close enough to reach out and touch. It was a large black bear. Immediately my mind provided options for survival. Get up and run away? Get up and yell to scare the bear away? Climb a tree? Those ideas seemed bad. Sit still, do nothing, and breathe? Yes, that made sense. And so I did. I slowed my breathing and meditated on the intensity of my body’s response to this perceived threat.

In my yoga I had learned that strong sensations and emotions, including fear, can be powerful doorways into meditation. Rather than turning away from an uncomfortable experience, I had learned to breathe into what I was feeling. In this case, the fight-or-flight response was a huge wave washing over my mind, body, and soul. Instead of making a big story about what was happening, I remembered to face the experience in all of its raw power. I had the thought, This is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me! I had another thought, too: This might be the worst thing that has ever happened to me! Many hundreds of hours, I had practiced breathing through the intense sensations of yoga postures, watching my experience without reaction and allowing things to be the way they are. All that training on the mat was now being put to the test in a pose I had never tried before, Bear Pose, or Ursasana.

For a moment, I wondered how it might feel to be bitten by a bear. That was not a helpful thought, so I returned to my breathing. Moments seemed to stretch into hours. The bear walked out from behind the tree and sat next to me. It was smelling me. Still I remained motionless. In time, the bear walked away. I turned to look as it walked away. It turned to look back at me. Our eyes met, and then it disappeared down the hill. I stood up and fell down, my legs weak and wobbly. I stood again and got to my bike. I climbed on board and pedaled out of those woods like a bat out of hell!

For days, I was in a state of profound shock and elation. My life was filled with magic, possibility, and power. Anything could happen. I felt incredibly alive. The presence of the bear stayed with me—even to this day. I have never been a thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie. I’ve never jumped out of an airplane or tried bungee jumping. I’ve always been drawn to more meditative outdoor activities, like canoeing, archery, or watching birds. But sitting in meditation with a bear gave me an unexpected adrenaline jolt.

While sitting with a bear is not likely to happen to many people, you may encounter other life-forms or elements that can help you awaken and experience a greater degree of aliveness. We long for connection with our relatives who roam the forests and wildlands, and we still find nourishment in their company. In mindful rewilding, we open ourselves up to the sensations and life-giving experiences that the land holds for us. Such moments of communion between you and the living earth can open doorways into a more magical, mysterious, and meaningful life. And it makes all the difference to have the right mental tools and preparation to help you ride the waves of powerful energies you will encounter in both the human and the more-than-human worlds.

When sitting with that bear, I used a technique we lovingly call “BRFWA”: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow. You might use BRFWA on your first walk in a park or a wood that is new to you. You might use it during your first solo camping experience or when you see an animal that frightens you. I once used BRFWA when I got caught in a rip current while swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii. It allowed me to remain calm and to act skillfully, possibly saving my life. In any survival situation, the first advice is almost always to remain calm and think, not to react or panic. But how we are supposed to do that is not often explained. 

By practicing mindful rewilding, you are not looking to put yourself in a survival situation, though many of these skills can help you feel more confident and capable when you’re away from the conveniences of modern society. Inevitably, the more time we spend outdoors, the more likely we are to come up against our comfort zone or find ourselves in a situation where remaining calm and being skillful are necessary. In these moments, BRFWA can be a great ally.

I recommend that you use BRFWA regularly as a moment-to-moment practice. Using it daily will support your developing a general state of mindfulness. You can also use BRFWA to go deeper into a pleasant experience. Maybe you practice it when you take a walk or when you dip your feet in a cool stream or when you feel a fresh breeze moving through your neighborhood. Practice BRFWA regularly so that when something truly challenging happens, it is second nature for you, as it was for me when I had my encounters with the bear and the rip current.

BRFWA: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow

To begin working with BRFWA outdoors, try the following steps:

  1. Go outside. Find a place where you can sit comfortably and have a view of a natural, outdoor space. (This might also be the place where you want to establish your daily nature meditation.)
  2. Get grounded. Feel your sitz bones and imagine they are plugging in to the earth. As you ground down through your seat, also lengthen your spine and let it rise up through the crown of your head. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a great tree and you are the bridge that connects the heavens and the earth.
  3. Breathe. Soften your belly, and slowly deepen your breathing with each inhalation and exhalation. If possible, breathe in and out through the nose. A good ratio for this breath is to inhale for four counts and hold the breath gently for seven counts; then exhale for eight counts, and repeat the cycle. As you breathe, notice the qualities of the air. What is the temperature? Is it hot, cold, or somewhere in between? How moist or dry is the air? What can you smell? Leaves, pine needles, the smoke from nearby fireplaces? In which direction is the wind moving? What can you hear? Your breath, your heartbeat, your joints settling? Branches creaking against each other, leaves rustling in the breeze, dew dripping to the ground, chipmunks or squirrels scampering, crows cawing, pigeons cooing, an airplane passing overhead?
  4. Relax. As you breathe, begin to consciously scan your body. Notice any places where you are holding tension. Focus on each of these places, as you continue to breathe calmly and deeply, and invite these places to soften and let go. Maybe your forehead is tense, and your brow is furrowed. Maybe your shoulders are tight and raised with tension. Perhaps your jaw is clenched. See if you can allow your jaw to relax, so that your teeth are parted. Invite your tongue to sit heavy and relaxed in your mouth, with the tip of the tongue resting against the ridge of skin behind your two front top teeth. With each exhalation, feel tension melting out of your body, mind, and spirit. Relax into the support of the earth element. Feel the earth beneath you and within your bones and muscles.
  5. Feel. As you continue to breathe and relax, notice what you can feel. Notice your body and what your body can feel—the air on your skin, the earth against your buttocks and legs, the light on your skin or coming through your clothing. Notice your heart and how you are feeling right now, not from a place of judgment, but from a place of compassion for yourself, and from a larger perspective, from your witness. Notice how the breath moving in and out helps you to feel more. This is one of the great secrets of yoga: the more deeply you breathe, the more of your own life you can feel.
  6. Watch. Be the witness. Observe your experience and allow as much space as you can for whatever is happening to be the way it is. Simply observe the land around you. Notice movement wherever it may be. Watch the play of light and the subtle movement created by the atmosphere’s constant state of motion. Watch everything, and be curious about any life you see, whether birds in the bushes or trees, ants crawling on the ground, or a squirrel leaping from limb to limb. When you come into the present moment using these steps, doors of perception will open to you. You will see the world through new eyes.
  7. Allow. Let it be. Let the moment be exactly the way that it is. Let go of grasping to your idea of what this moment should be. Let go of any aversion to things as they are. See if you can simply allow this moment to be as it is, and give yourself the opportunity to experience this moment right now in its pure expression. No matter the weather, no matter the terrain, can you allow this living earth and your relationship with it to be the way that it is? Moment by moment, can you keep letting go of your opinions, preferences, and judgments? It’s not easy for any of us, which is why we practice. This awareness is something to come back to moment after moment after moment, always beginning again.
  8. This is an excerpt from Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

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Perry Garfinkel: Experimenting with Becoming Gandhi

In a confessional reflection on writing his new book, Becoming Gandhi, acclaimed journalist and bestselling author Perry Garfinkel says, “It was so difficult I almost gave up twice. I thought, ‘I can’t write this book. It’s too big a subject. Who am I to try to become Gandhi?’” Garfinkel persevered, and in this podcast Tami Simon speaks with him about what he discovered along the journey—and how practicing (not perfecting) six universal principles of the Mahatma can transform each one of us. 

Tune in to this highly aspirational yet very down-to-earth conversation on the poignance of the human condition and the elixir of laughter; the Tao of Gandhi; satyagraha, an insistence on and holding firm to the truth; considering “how to Gandhi” a situation you’re faced with; the notion of “good enough”; nonviolence in thought, word, and deed; the connection between words and feelings, and the step-by-step process of personal transformation; simplicity; faith as the driver of our moral compass; celibacy and making love; Gandhi’s life as his message—and making peace with his imperfections; and more.

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Excerpted from Becoming Gandhi: My Experiment Living the Mahatma’s 6 Moral Truths in Immoral Times by Perry Garfinkel.

Let the Journey Begin

By reading this preface, you have just joined what will hopefully be the experiment of a lifetime that will change both of our lives.

Let me set the ground rules, parameters, frameworks, timelines, caveats, excuses, permissions, and other details that will help you navigate your way—if not to be Gandhi, then to become a person who leads a more ethical, principled, spiritually and morally based, truth-full life.

As you will read in chapter 1, I first thought to undertake this effort more than a decade ago. It took me another twelve years to build up the confidence, belief in my commitment, and, frankly, the funding to actually begin this arduous journey, both inner and outer, including travel to three countries plus my own US. Little did I know how much it would change me, how many miles I would travel, how many inspirational people I would meet, and how many disappointments I would encounter, both in the world and in myself.

I began to take it seriously in the summer of 2019. That was when I started finding and  contacting knowledgeable sources in each country. As a dogged reporter who prides himself in finding the email and phone number for anyone anywhere in the world, that deep dive, which necessarily required a lot of reading and googling, was a relatively easy and very enjoyable and informative exercise. You may also want to research anything additional to what I write here and experiment with your own ways to follow the six principles. I can’t speak for Gandhi, but you have my wholehearted permission and encouragement to think outside the box and off this page.

The Big Goal here was to see if, in the face of a sociocultural climate that appears bereft of moral integrity, one could follow Gandhi’s moral compass, on the one hand, and on the other, to travel to countries where he spent considerable time to see how much had changed in the years since he left them. In other words, did he leave an enduring footprint that others followed or were Gandhi’s tracks swept away and forgotten by time and human nature? In these times of questionable ethical values, of increased violence and rampant lying, I was prepared to admit such evidence might be hard to find. In fact, one too-current example of the failure of the nonviolent movement, which was one of Gandhi’s primary pillars, is occurring as I’m writing this: CNN is reporting that thirty-nine mass shootings have taken place in the United States in the first three weeks of 2023 alone, killing more than sixty people, per the Gun Violence Archives.

I knew the hard part of this goal would be living these principles day in and day out on a personal level. There would be a lot of inner work, mental adjustments, a veritable paradigmatic shift of attitude. I would have to change my mind in the most fundamental ways. Change my habits, modes of thinking, daily actions.

The ground rules were simple: try to rigorously follow the six principles on a daily basis, keeping them in mind through the day, whether hanging out with friends and family, alone in my apartment, or out there in the world. But also to give myself some slack. If I “fell off the wagon,” I would forgive myself quickly and get right back on it. The latter would happen with frequency, as you will read. But I realized very soon that once engaged in this experiment, even when I fell off, there would be no turning back. Once the veil is lifted, it’s hard not to see the world for what it is, and see yourself for who you are, who you are not, and who you aspire to be.

People started wondering how long this experiment would last and asking me when or if I would drop vegetarianism and return to eating meat as soon as it ended. I had planned to dedicate one full year to this project. It expanded to some eighteen months of strict adherence 

to all of the principles, and even some that Gandhi didn’t consider in the course of things. I admit I slacked after that but, as I said, once you know which way the compass is pointing, you can’t completely turn back; you always return to your true north. You find the balance that suits you best, or at least better than before you started.

I frame this journey and this book around the six principles. Some sources list up to eleven Gandhi principles. I chose only six; already you can call me lazy.

Truth. In practice, truth is simply telling the truth, but Gandhi meant it to mean more. He said, “God is Truth,” later changing it to “Truth is God.” He coined the term satyagraha—loosely translated as “insistence on and holding firm to truth”—as a form of nonviolent resistance. I take this on, first focusing on practicing truth in thoughts, words, and actions, with particular attention to lies I tell myself. I look at how society views truth now.

Nonviolence. Although Gandhi was not the originator of nonviolence, he was the first to apply it as a strategy to move the dial in the direction of justice, as a peaceful weapon to protest social wrongdoings. His motto: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Taking it from the political to the personal, I look at how we all act out psychological violence—in passive-aggressive behaviors, in road rage, in clenched jaws, in couched (and not-so-couched) language—that sabotages our best interests. I myself am guilty: I was once a featured guest on The Phil Donahue Show, speaking about my own passive-aggressive behavior in my previous marriage.

Vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is deeply ingrained in Hindu and Jain traditions, the setting in which Gandhi was raised. In his London years as a law student, he embraced it more seriously to not only satisfy the requirements of the body and his religious beliefs but also to save money by not buying expensive meats. His book The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, along with articles he wrote for the London Vegetarian Society’s publication, became my personal diet book. I was a meat-and-potatoes kind of kid, just like my father. I became a macrobiotic many years ago, had defaulted to meat in recent years, but an Ayurvedic diet I went on last fall convinced me I need to clean up my eating habits. Don’t we all?

Simplicity. Giving up unnecessary spending is the simple maxim Gandhi had in mind, and because this concept flies in the face of conspicuous consumers on spending sprees in shopping malls, it also has ramifications for our gluttonous nature, which thinks that more of anything automatically provides more satisfaction. But Gandhi also had a political motive in his so-called Swadeshi movement: by making their own clothes using a spinning wheel (charkha), Indians would deal an economic blow to the British establishment in India. These days consumers boycott various brands and stores to protest their company policy, a Gandhian spin. The contemporary “voluntary simplicity movement” draws directly from this Gandhian principle. I will closely examine my spending patterns and make budget slashes. Gandhi called it “reducing himself to zero.”

Faith. Gandhi meant belief in a higher power, no matter what religion. He wrote, “Mine is a broad faith which does not oppose Christians . . . not even the most fanatical Mussalman. I refuse to abuse a man for his fanatical deeds, because I try to see them from his point of view.” It’s the ability to see things from the point of view of someone from another faith that tests the faith of mankind. How are we doing with that? Not so good. The majority of wars in the world are religious wars. My challenge will be to find some balance between my practice of Buddhism, the religion of no God, and Judaism, the religion that invented the One God. I will test the boundaries of my acceptance of faiths I don’t believe in.

Celibacy. Called brahmacharya in Hindi, sexual abstinence was a spiritual path to achieving purity, according to Gandhi, who took the vow of chastity at the age of thirty-eight. Some people question whether Gandhi himself actually adhered to this, with stories and allegations he slept next to teenage girls to test his restraint. Celibacy is not for everyone. Is it for me? I will endeavor to find out, keeping copious notes on my fallings in and out. With my luck, the woman of my dreams will walk into my life and fall in love with me. What will I do . . . or, more precisely, not do?

I never intended this book to be categorized in the how-to or self help genre. I think or hope you can help yourself without my telling you how. Nonetheless, as I made my way around the world, around my mind, and finally around this book, I realized it would be helpful to at least sum up each chapter with what I learned, some tips for your (and my own) benefit. I call these end-of-chapter sections “How to Gandhi.”

With these guidelines and to-dos and with no further ado, here we go. Next stop: becoming the change.

Perry Garfinkel is a veteran journalist, editor, frequent speaker, and author of the bestselling Buddha or Bust. He has contributed to many sections of the New York Times since 1986 and has written for National Geographic magazine, AARP The Magazine, the Huffington Post, the LA Times, and others. He has appeared on CNN and CBS This Morning. He is a frequent guest on WCBS-NY radio’s Health & Well-Being Report.

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Give a listen to this inspiring conversation on the need to reclaim the sacred feminine at this time in history; the dakini principle in Tibetan Buddhism; balancing the energies of the masculine and feminine; the courage to stand up to authority; cultivating self-trust; the Great Mother of pure potential; the union of wisdom and skillful means; becoming an emanation of an ever-evolving mind stream; the legendary yogini, Machig Labdrön, and learning to move toward what we usually avoid; the practice of “feeding your demons”; creating wholeness by integrating the shadow; working with grief and loss; and more.

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