Jul 26, 2010, 12:26p - Life
Post survival school, I had an experience that for lack of a better word I'll call "X". Words like "inner peace", "happiness", and "bliss" come to mind, but none of them actually captures the feeling that I had. I've tried and failed to explain it to people who have never had a similar feeling, so maybe it's like explaining color to a blind man. All I know is that I did not have one shred of anxiety in my body, that I was astonished by the great pleasure of banal foods, and that I no longer understood why, for all my life, I had sought happiness. I felt spiritual for the first time.
This was my experience on reentry to the modern world. 28 days of survival school's miserableness resensitized me to the ridiculous comforts our civilization provides, which our prehistoric ancestors worked so hard to achieve. I felt how I guessed a baby might feel at the moment of birth, stunned by the raw unfolding of fresh experience and by the ease with which life comes.
Unfortunately, this experience of X diminished over time. As the weeks wore on, anxiety slowly crept into my body, food became less flavorful, and I began to seek happiness anew. I think the kicker came when I had my first test in grad school, about 2 months after coming back from the wilderness. The test-taking stress jolted me back to my old, semi-anxious, food-unappreciative, happiness-seeking self.
But I had had it. For 2 months, I had become a state of being that I never imagined possible, that I didn't even know existed, one that I never predicted survival school would induce, one that made me want to go back.
But that would be ridiculous. Survival school is miserable, it's cold and wet, and it drove me to pray: for the sun's warmth, for protection from lightning, and because of food. So there's no way I was going to do that again. I had sworn as much.
But for the past 3 years since, I've thought about my experience of X almost every day. I remember back to that time, and try to re-kindle the experience from my memory of it. But I only recover small fractions of the true feeling, and even these too, have diminished over time.
So could I could recapture X some other way? Maybe I could just do a "mini survival school", not as extreme as BOSS but on my own with a friend? In an attempt to do just that, last month Tunlin and I set out on an 8-day trek into Yosemite, survival-style. That meant no tent and taking what we took on survival school: some clothes, a poncho, a knife, and a wool blanket. I thought that 8 days might be enough time to get a partial experience of X, without having to do the full 28 day treatment. Another difference is that we brought plenty of food, though the same food from survival school (mostly lentils and vegetables).
By day 4, we were done with it. Done with the cold, sleepless nights. Done with the uncomfortable packs on our backs. Given the choice to just hike back to the car, we didn't have the discipline to stay out there and endure the discomfort. Despite the early departure, we held out hope that we might have some experience of X when we got back. Tunlin had predicted at least 10% X, but I just got a brief glimmer (and I don't think he got much more other than a nice nicotine-hit after 4 days without). I could see X for a moment in the distance, but then it was gone. Food tasted just the same as before we'd left. Clearly 4 days was not enough.
While we were out there, we thought a lot about X. I wanted to figure out what aspects of survival school contributed to what aspects of X, so that I could recapure X piece-meal if I wanted. I ended up breaking it down into 4 parts:
Given this analysis and a desire to re-experience X, I've decided to try a new post-survival school experiment. Items 2-4 are hard to mimic while living in Boston in my normal life, but item 1 seems quite feasible. So I've decided to eat approximately the same food and quantity that we ate on survival school, for 28 days. So what's on the menu? Absolutely nothing other than water for the first 3 days. Then 25 days of 24 ounces of oats + water for breakfast, raisins and peanuts as snacks during the day, and 24 ounces of survival stew for dinner, consisting of lentils, quinoa, potatoes, carrots, and onions. Also, small amounts of vegetable bullion, garlic, salt, and pepper for flavor. I plan to cook the food in large batches, and then heat them up in the microwave every day before eating. I may break it up with some amaranth and some lamb, both of which we also got on survival school. And I may also throw in an apple every 2 weeks (also like survival school).
- Survival school's minimal, monotonous food contributed to appreciating the magnificent pleasure locked inside food in the modern world.
- The physical labor of hiking 10-15 miles a day with a backpack contributed to appreciating not having to do that in the modern world.
- The discomfort of sleeping on the ground and enduring storms contributed to appreciating my bed and a roof over my head.
- The social isolation of not being able to contact anyone I knew contributed to new deep-felt love for Becca, my family and my old friends.
Maybe by trying to mimic my survival diet I can recapture my post-survival school spiritual appreciation for food. I plan to blog about this experiment as the days progress, over the next 4 weeks.
I think it's worth a shot, and as of yesterday, it has begun.
Read comments (5) - Comment
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- Jul 31, 2010, 4:14p
I don't believe your four parts adequately delineate the factors contributing to X.
Survival school pushes one way past one's own personal psychological and physical limitations. I find that those who experience "X" are people who are coming from a place a far greater dependency on society. Those students that did a lot of wilderness training do not, in my opinion, experience X to the same degree. I think it is partially a matter of the brain being trained to realize that the "threats" we face in society are not real threats in the same way that they are in the field.
Carl Jung wrote about this in one of his early essays, I believe it is on the Stages of Life. He writes that when man's survival is at stake, his problems remain in the field of his existence. Once his survival is guaranteed, his problems move into the sphere of his psychology. People who are struggling to make ends meet do not suffer the same type of psychological ailments of those of the privileged classes. Also, I have never seen a non-privileged person sign up for survival school. I believe that the main contributing factor to "X" is the vacation it provides the psyche by moving one's sphere of problems outside the mind. It takes a period of time after the experience for the problems to move back into the sphere of the mind. During that period you are able to fully appreciate everything you do have and life seems a joy and completely easy. But man thrives on challenge, and you will slowly and by your own volition give up this vacation as you take on new problems.
I don't believe you will be able to achieve "X" with purely a dietary change or by limiting pleasure or by sociality isolating yourself, or by being miserable for a period of time.
I think the key contributing factor to "X" is being confronted with the basic problems of existence and not taking life for granted. It's hard to induce this on your own without a sense of falseness.
- Sep 29, 2010, 12:33p
I doubt the diet will lead you to X as it cannot be attained. Have you tried meditation? If you were meditating during the 2 months following X, you may have been able to continue in the realization you had. Take a look at this article:
- Sep 29, 2010, 5:14p
I've tried meditation, ever since a field trip in 11th grade. I've tried several kinds, including mindfulness meditation. I am not very consistent with it, but I've found that the feeling I have during and after in no way compares to the feeling of X I describe above. Survival school is the only thing that has ever given me the feeling of X, and before survival school I didn't even know that it was possible for me or anyone to feel this way.
So overall I'm not a big fan of meditation. Seems like it works for some people, but it never really worked for me. One's reaction to survival school is also probably person-dependent.
- Sep 29, 2010, 6:02p
Meditation is very difficult when its not easy, for me that's most of the time.
- Jun 7, 2011, 5:48p
I think this guy had a similar experience to what I experienced and now call "X":