Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In search of the Golden Valley

From the movie Shadowlands

Joy: Is it someplace real?

CS Lewis- I think so. It's called the Golden Valley, I believe.. Somewhere in Herefordshire. –

Joy: Somewhere special?

C.S. Lewis- In a way. It was on our nursery wall when I was a child. I didn't know it was a real place then. I thought it was a view of heaven. Or, the promised land. I used to think that one day I'd come around a bend in the road...or over the brow of a hill, and there it would be.

C.S Lewis-Shadowlands

“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

I’ve always been fascinated by C.S Lewis. At different incarnations in his life he was an atheist, a philosopher, an intellectual, a born-again Christian, and a children’s book author. I love the idea that one man could be so full of constant contradiction and evolution. It’s something I can definitely relate to.

The above scene from the movie Shadowlands about his life always stuck with me. I’ve had a few “sacred” places in my life like his beloved Golden Valley. The top of a mountain in Ireland, the bottom of the Grand Canyon, alone on a lonely and solemn September night, and a lovely valley in the Orosi region of Costa Rica, pictured here.

Today was the first time I’ve ever returned to a sacred place in my life, and it was something I’ve always wondered about. Would the place have the same meaning to me if I was to one day return, or was there something specific about the way I was feeling back then? Would it still have its magic if I returned? 

So I sought to answer that question today, and walking through the hills in the Orori Valley, I had the oddest feeling of simultaneously being in two places at the same time, as the memories and my current incarnation began to intertwine. One burgeoning area in my field is called “Ecological” psychology, which explores the effects certain kinds of places have on our lives. It’s a fascinating idea that these places can act so powerfully on our mental state, and, having experienced it on such a personal level, I wanted to explore the mystery a little deeper.

So I ventured into the mountains of Costa Rica in search of this feeling, wondering as I did if these are the kinds of things we can force, or if we just need to let them happen organically. I took in the beauty of the rolling green hills, and as I walked a feeling of calm and serenity came over me as I became totally invested in the moment. In this time, in this place, all of the regrets of the past and the worries about the future dissipated, as I simply appreciated how fortunate I was to be in this beautiful place.

As I continued to walk, I stumbled across a little village up in the mountains and decided I would forgo my experiment for the moment and take a little rest. The first thing I noticed was how small and run down the homes were, and for a moment I felt a little saddened. I took a seat in the town square and watched families and friends gather together to talk and laugh. I watched four generations of families kick a soccer ball around in a little field. I sat and just took in their lives, and eventually I came to understand something that was different than what it was I came for.

Costa Rica was recently named as the happiest country on earth in a survey called the "Happy Planet Index." This index takes into account a variety of factors such as longevity, health care, pollution, etc. As I sat on my little bench watching these people in this little town, I began to get a sense of why this place earned the ranking that it did.

 What I observed was that on this summer Sunday afternoon, everyone was totally in the moment, enjoying their friends and their families, and simply taking a little time to be completely in the here and now. It’s a quality that is very elusive in the hustle and bustle of American life. Everyone seems to be somewhere else. If you don’t believe me, watch a group of people out at a bar or a restaurant the next time you’re out and about. Half the people will probably have a phone in their hand, texting or calling someone else as opposed to being in the moment with the people they are supposed to be out with. It’s a troubling trend in American life that I myself am also completely guilty of.

So as I watched these people I realized that, although I had gone off in search of some kind of transcendent experience in nature, I had found a different kind of life lesson about staying in the moment. Sometimes it seems like life is always about getting more. Get the newest phone, move to a bigger house, get the newest gadget and by all means stay on it at all times to justify the purchase. It’s an exercise that I believe leads to a great deal of anxiety. 

 But not here. Here in this little valley my gadgets didn’t work, I had nobody to text, and I just had the pleasure of watching people enjoy their lives as they existed. Although their houses weren’t large and their clothes weren’t new, and none of them had the newest ipad, they were happy, and it made me happy to sit and watch for a while.

Eventually I returned to my little hotel and looked at the pile of gadgets I had sitting there, and wondered if I shouldn’t just leave them all behind. They were the tools I used in my life back home, but for a moment they seemed like heavy baggage that perhaps I didn’t need as much as I thought I did. I am a Psychologist, and my job is to be with people in the present moment as I bear witness to the various struggles in their lives.

I don’t need four different Apple products to do this..

Eventually I went home with everything that I came with, but also with a new approach to living in the moment that I had always understood on an intellectual level, but no so much on an emotional one. I wanted to find and bottle what those people in that little mountain village had, but knew that all of this started by taming the distractions in my own mind.

And in the end, I think I also helped answer my own question about why certain places in nature are so sacred to us. Although the places themselves certainly have a kind of power, ultimately I believe it is the state of mind we are in when we observe them that helps contribute so much to their influence over us. As John Milton said hundreds of years ago, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven.” I vowed to keep that in mind as I touched down on US soil again.

For now, I am grateful for the time I have been given today.