In The Field: When Western and Eastern philosophy collide in the great outdoors
In The Field
My search for happiness has never been conventional.
I am at times an adrenaline junky searching for a fix, and, at other times, a quiet monk searching simply for contentment. Somewhere deep inside, I am compelled toward adventure, compelled to move to and perhaps see the abyss, while, somewhere else — perhaps even deeper — is a desire to know what peace and contentment are.
At first, it might seem contrarian, but I’m learning that these kinds of approaches to happiness can quite peacefully coexist in the same mind. This is an existence between two very different schools of philosophy on happiness, and I’ve recognized that, in Summit County, I am far from alone in walking this path.
The Western Self
The first part of my Self desires to find happiness in the senses, in pleasure, in adrenaline and experience — taking in the ineffable beauty of the mountains or the river, or embracing the knee-straining G-forces of a deep powder turn on my snowboard.
Of course, there are more normal forms of this: falling in love with a good meal or a great glass of wine, yearning for human touch and companionship, traveling. These all contribute to my happiness, and all are very Western in the sense that happiness is found in the senses and the accumulation of human experience. It is Aristotelean and Epicurean in its values, and, because I’ve grown up with mountains in my life — and just enough money to enjoy what they have to offer — I find great value in the accumulation of these experiences.
The quintessential Summit County resident appears to hold these values, as well. There are those who seek these experiences in hiking or camping, in mountain biking or rafting or a hundred other pursuits. Adrenaline junkie or not, the end goal is experience — what we might simply call “truly living.” It would be impossible to look past the car racks loaded with paddleboards and kayaks and fly rod tubes, or the bike paths and parks filled with local parents watching their children play outside (away from mind-numbing electronics). Many are visiting, and even they believe that at least some of their happiness comes from these experiences. They would not find Summit as a refuge from their outside lives otherwise. In one way or another, Western philosophy depends on experience as the spice of life. It is an idea as old as democracy.
The Eastern Self
It would seem, then, that my other Self, or that other part of me, is in direct opposition. It seeks peace and liberation from desire. It is Eastern in origin, primarily Buddhist, and it compels me to minimize or pare down my life and find contentment from within.
Over the years, I have stripped away many of the things in my life that I found to be burdens or that somehow clouded my path to happiness. I did not, however, get rid of the equipment that I needed to find that other form of happiness — that of experience. My garage still holds racks for snowboards, bikes and fly rods, but I see them more as modes of happiness, mediums to reach a singular place where I know there is a sense of peace. There is deep value in powder-day face shots and perfect hook sets. The happiness is immediate and visceral. I could never deny that.
What I did do, though, was take inventory of the items that contributed to my happiness. Over time, I removed most of that which felt superfluous. I was left with the essentials in all aspects of my life: the friends, the absolutely necessary equipment and a mind less cluttered (and more focused) on both adventure and contentment.
Here, I again see parallels to many in Summit County. Families might be enjoying the experiences the area has to offer, but, at the same time, I see the desire for simplicity and contentment. If asked, many would probably admit that they moved here specifically to weed out the unimportant things, like the white noise that takes over an unexamined life in a big city or bends their backs under the burdens of time, as Baudelaire might say. We are searching for both adventure and contentment, and, in Summit, there is a place where they are almost seamlessly braided.
On the same day, I’ll see a family participating in a mountain-bike race before relaxing in the park, doing what appears to be absolutely nothing other than enjoying each other’s company. Many residents do it all in the same day: a morning run, paddleboard yoga at noon, an evening bike ride to Bakers Tank Trail and then a walk at sunset with no one or nothing around to distract from the peace they found that day. By accepting both the desire to seek out raw experience and the awareness to simply live and know contentment, I feel my path to happiness is moving in the right direction.
I believe wholeheartedly that these two philosophies can coexist in the same mind. I have found them cohabiting in the same culture, the same county. Here, the outdoors becomes a sounding board for the search for happiness/contentment, whichever we prefer to call it. One must only enter the county and ask the trails, the trees, the rivers, the sky: “Where is my path?”
And the answers will come in multiform ways from the trails, the trees, the rivers, the sky: “It is here.”
Mark Palz teaches writing and literature at Colorado Mountain College. He is an avid outdoorsman who has also taught fly-casting for over 10 years, starting at the Orvis School of Fly Casting in Manchester, Vermont, briefly at Colorado Mountain College and presently with Breckenridge Outfitters. He lives in Frisco.
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