Seminars in ‘sacred groves’

April 14, 2020  • Paul Andersen

Todd Breyfogle’s blog on “sacred groves” hit home. On the hikes I have been leading for more than 20 years for Aspen Institute seminars, one my most sacred groves is along Castle Creek, near the Ashcroft ghost town. I have led hundreds of Executive Seminar participants here, many from distant lands, inviting a contemplative sojourn accompanied by bird song and the soft, melodic rush of snowmelt waters cascading over river rocks and among the willows.

Here’s how I put it in my Aspen Times column from a seminar hike in March just as the COVID-19 crisis had become a global pandemic:

I set out on a snowshoe hike with an Aspen Institute seminar group on a perfect bluebird day. We strapped on the cumbersome footwear at Toklat in the Castle Creek Valley, and that immediately changed our moods.

Most of the group had never been on snowshoes. Many had never walked over a deep spring snowpack at 9,500 feet. The novelty of it had them laughing and joking. Selfies were snapped off by the dozens.

Watching this group tromp across the bright, undulating snow amid the slanting shadows of aspen trees, you would not have known of the dire news that morning. The coronavirus was on a steady climb, and the stock market was on an inverse curve. The Dow had just posted the biggest drop since 2008.

When we stopped for my usual opening talk, I knew what to deliver. I had thought about it that morning and found the answer when I stepped outside my home as the first rays of sun began the day with a warm glow.

The air was mild where I live, and there was an earthy fragrance. Our bird feeder was alive with towhees, nuthatches and chickadees. Robins had just returned and were strutting our lawn, feeling for worms where the snow had just melted.

In a garden bed against the south side of our home, I noticed the first green chutes of daffodils pushing up through the loam. The natural world was energized and emphatic with new life.

“What are we doing in an aspen forest snowshoeing over three feet of snow when the world is mired in uncertainty?” I asked my group. “How can we not feel a growing sense of unease and foreboding?”

My hikers were attentive, waiting for an answer. These were all successful people from many walks of life, representing broad ethnic diversity. They were in Aspen to conjoin their disparate views in a thoughtful and reflective seminar. They were school administrators, health care experts, social workers, cultural reformers, social justice activists, economists and more. They felt the same unease I did and shared deep concerns for humanity.

“It’s springtime in the mountains,” I said. “Nature is reaffirming life. We are part of nature, and we are not always in control. But even today, we can feel an uplift from nature, so let’s walk with that in mind.”

I mentioned the Great Books seminar series I had just co-moderated at the Institute. I asked if anyone knew the word that defined our Great Books theme this year — “eudemonia.” One man offered a partial answer: “A life of virtue.”

Eudemonia is a Greek word for happiness in the deepest philosophical sense, of fulfillment achieved through a virtue, purpose and meaning. Eudemonia is happiness beyond material dross and corporeal gratification.

Webster defines it like this: “A person’s state of excellence characterized by objective flourishing across a lifetime, and brought about through the exercise of moral virtue, practical wisdom, and rationality.”

Eudemonia stands above the rise and fall of financial markets and even fluctuations in health. As “deaths of despair” foment rising suicide rates, as mood-adjusting psychotropics are the prescription of choice, as the American Dream spirals into despair for millions, happiness remains a conscious choice.

This is happiness in the Aristotelian sense of intelligence coupled with contemplative thought — a happiness that transcends cultural institutions and social mores. Such holistic happiness goes beyond the commercialized, digitized, instantly gratified lives many seek today and yet realize are often empty of promise.

Finding solace in an unhinged world is a challenge — and a necessity if we’re to stay sane. Happiness is not measured with the stock market, cellphone apps, social media, TV and superficial social norms.

As simplistic as it sounds, recalibrating happiness starts when we take a moment to step outside, hear the birds sing, feel the day begin and realize why we live here. It is springtime in the mountains, and there is peace and beauty in our world.

By tapping into a sensory focus, even short walks can become transcendent by awakening a deep sense of peace and quiet many of us cannot touch often enough in our purposeful lives. Leading groups to the calming spirit of nature has become a kind of evangelical mission for me by cultivating a holistic sense of communion. Thoreau put it like this:

I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.

Living in context with place is grounding, and being grounded today requires a sincere and dedicated effort by stepping away from the distractions of technology and urbanity and dialing into those finer, nuanced vibrations that science reveals is emanating from the living world.

So, find your own “sacred grove,” a place that reflects the constancy of rare solace in a world of often alarming and unsettling change. Sacred groves provide eternal links to pristine nature in settings that speaks to any soul willing to listen to the warm and reassuring pulse of life.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Aspen Institute or the Aspen Executive Leadership Seminars Department.

Paul Andersen in an Aspen Institute Guide and Naturalist.