I regularly hear people expressing concern about what seems to be a growing epidemic of fear, sedentariness, and depressive affect in “our young people today”. It could be noted that these expressions of concern likely touch on the observers’ unconscious fears of finding meaning and purpose in their own lives as well.
Whatever stage of life we find ourselves in, we all must contend with the reality of a very hurting world, our place in it, and the choices we make daily to live and love within the confines of our own contexts — our homes, communities, and mundane tasks. This escapes none of us.
I’m learning that one of the best ways to manage my existential anxiety about our broken world is to ask myself how I can express love and beauty in my own backyard. Of course, this has a figurative application: how do I engage my own community meaningfully and lovingly — but I also think of it quite literally, as in “my own backyard”.
I’ve been working on some landscaping for a sunken garden in a small cove of our backyard. I’m trying to line the outer edge with some large boulders that I’m pulling out of the ground that previously served as groundfill in this same sunken area. When I say, “large boulders”, I do mean boulders that are probably 1000-1500 lbs., some of them about three feet cubed. I’ve managed to use cables and come-along tools, crowbars and wedges to slowly crank them out of the ground, drag them across the area, and then carefully prop them up using crowbars, chunks of firewood, and cables.
We must make beauty with the stuff we have right in front of us.
It is slow work, but it has offered me an opportunity to show up presently with an intention to move that rock just a little bit further each time I go out to work in that patch of garden (my wife calls it “the hole”) with my rudimentary understanding of physics, levers, and wedges. I figure if the Egyptians could build those damn pyramids, surely, I can set several boulders where I want them.
Eckart Tolle notes that one way of practicing consciousness is to reflect on the task at hand with an awareness of whether you are accepting, enjoying, or enthusiastic about said task. Some tasks are not particularly fun, but when we approach the task with a stance of acceptance, we are at peace. He says, “If you can neither enjoy or bring acceptance to what you do—stop” (p.296).
This is a great thing to notice, and my boulder project has been a case in point. I get out there, work on it a bit, and then I begin to reach a point where I’m suddenly feeling more frustrated. Progress isn’t happening, and I’m stumped. When I begin to get stressed or agitated, most likely my body is telling me that I need to back away and get perspective— just stop for a while.
Even in this one project, I am seeing a consistent pattern. I walk away, defeated for the moment that I can’t turn that boulder just so, it’s getting dark, and I’m irritated. But I’m getting better at noticing when the agitation hits a point where I can walk away and release it without kicking the dog or snapping at my wife for smiling at me (no, not literally…). I give it a rest for a day or two, and then I wander glancingly back over to the hole. I ponder it for a moment, seeing that half-propped boulder that stumped me. And then, I’m in my work boots a little while later, with a fresh take. Perhaps not surprisingly, the boulders have, voila, found themselves each moved to their desired place, one by one. It’s like they want to be there, but they needed my cooperation and patience to let them show me how to get there. I’m grateful for such a tangible lesson.
When it comes to my brain, I can often let it go in all sorts of directions – barriers, problems, hurdles, insecurities. These thoughts fill my mind way beyond the ideal saturation point of putting brush to paper, so to speak. So, I’m trying to catch myself earlier by moving from thought and imagination to the place of actually trying things out bodily.
I’m impressed that when I put a bit of a harness on my mind and let myself walk over the bridges toward my imagined landscapes, what I find is often not what I imagined I would. When I am present in bodily form, I am way less apt to panic and way more able to adapt my mind to the present finding, making micro-adjustments that have pleasing results.
In contrast, if I cross bridges in “imagination only”, my mind rattles with all the potential outcomes and begins to go into some kind of frenzy of contingency planning for each one. This is a case of “trusting the process”, yes, but to trust the process we must begin walking at some point.
I love the song, “We Make the Way by Walking” by David Wilcox. He captures these themes beautifully in his lilting folk song and its nod to the Santiago Pilgrimage. I note that the song is not titled, “We Make the Way by Pondering”.
And finally, to circle back to the crazy idea that literally digging in my backyard is somehow an antidote to existential angst over a hurting world. I believe it is. We must make beauty with the stuff we have right in front of us. I think it’s the only way to experience joy in a daily, bodily way, and we need this to offer any kind of hope, kindness, love, thoughtfulness, or creativity to the problems that confront us in the bigger systems of our world. So, grab a shovel. It is a way to start walking.
Joel Durkovic is the Director of Arbour Counselling Centre, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist, and Registered Supervisor. He brings compassion and expertise to his work with individuals and couples. Read more about Joel here.
Wilcox, David. “We Make the Way by Walking”. A View from the Edge. Freshly Baked Records, 2018, CD. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abRpotKNfEE)
Tolle, Eckhart (2005). A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Penguin Books Ltd., London, England.