Ed and his wife streaked across Tomales Bay from Heart's Desire Beach, leading the other kayaks filled with veterans, their buddies and their family members in a crossing that had turned into an impromptu race. As they hit the shore in Marshall, CA, he exclaimed, "I feel so high!" Ed, struggling with PTS, substance abuse, and marital struggles, was high on life, high on camaraderie, high on exerting himself to the max as he connected with himself and his wife in a stunning setting near Point Reyes National Seashore.
Full aliveness is part of our human birthright, but for many veterans it is difficult to experience, absent high-risk activities like riding the Harley at 100 mph down the mountain road after knocking down more than a few beers. Foolish thrills that try to recapture the adrenaline high of combat, but often prove damaging if not fatal.
The vastness of a pristine wild setting helps us hold our most human concerns, struggles, and traumas, and provide needed perspective. Collaborating with others and pushing our limits becomes exhilarating. At Coming Home™ retreats we cultivate connection on four levels: within the person, among family members, among peers, and with our communities. Aliveness, bonding, resilience, and purpose are four key qualities; being active in the wild helps develop at least three out of four. Retreats are held in beautiful natural locations and activities consist of sharing stories and experiences, wellness practices, expressive arts, recreation, and secular ritual. A wilderness setting is a great place to weave these together and connect with an enlivening and all too often overlooked community: our Earth.
Charged with challenge and risk, the wilderness harkens to our deepest connections with nature, with our planet, with all creatures. It is refreshingly "other" and yet so very intimate. Like other healing relational settings, it helps us settle, take a load off, and also calls forth our deepest feelings and creativity.
The outdoors is a fertile place to reflect: where have I been, where am I going, who am I? A rhythm develops between inner and outer: On the one hand, reflecting, connecting, and expressing, say in a journal, a sketchpad, a photo, a poem or a song; on the other hand, meeting outer challenges, mobilizing the required physical and mental effort and energies within oneself and in concert with others. As we connect deeply with our surroundings, self-preoccupation ebbs, we feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Paradoxically this helps us connect with ourselves. What a relief.
There is also a rhythm between activity and relaxation; some recreation is a good excuse for enjoying the secret pleasures of stillness. The word "awesome," has become so trivialized these days. Just being alive in the midst of beauty is inviting and intimate. It helps us recover a sense of genuine awe and participation in something vaster than me and mine.
Mike was a Reservist who came to a retreat with his family. His teenage kids were ultra-talented and eager for emotional contact. He was shut down and defensive after two tours, one 15 months long. On Heart's Desire Beach, after the first crossing, we had lunch, then gathered in a circle. We reflected on what we could let go of (during the paddle over) and what we could open to (during the trip back). When it was his turn, Mike said in a whisper that belied its power: "I'm mistrustful; I'd like to let go of that." I glanced over and saw the faces of his kids and his wife light up with just a little glimmer. The unfolding sense of safety with other vets and families, the welcoming embrace of the Bay and its birds, fish, and harbor seal pups helped him name an obstacle and find a crease through which he began to come to life.
Check out Coming Home's upcoming retreat for student vets near Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Club's wilderness programs for vets, and the HuffPo blog of Stacy Bare, the Club's National Military Family and Veterans Representative.