Art of Silence: Philip Fraser on Stillness and Alignment
We recently caught up with Philip Fraser, who has been teaching the Art of Silence since the early 1990s, to talk about the power of stillness and alignment. Philip offers his insights on letting go of distractions, becoming more present and aligned, and channeling balance and energy through the practice of stillness.
Being in Alignment
If someone is out of alignment with themselves, and therefore harming their own system, chances are they’re going to be insensitive to others around them and to the environment as well. But when we’re in alignment, we are sensitive to our own nature and to the world around us. Alignment starts at an individual level – so how do we get back into it?
Children are completely in alignment with themselves. They know when they’re tired or hungry; when they’re upset, they cry, when they’re happy, they laugh. There is no filter, no interruption between the emotion and the action. This is our natural state.
To re-align yourself with your experience, you need to allow yourself to experience your feelings and process your situations like a child would. In this way, you give yourself an outlet, which in turn gives you a degree of separation after the fact. You have already experienced a reaction, so these problems don’t have the chance to take over your mind later on.
Of course, we need to have the ability to perform socially in order to exist in the world, and that means we can’t cry whenever we feel like it – but this often leads to a complete disconnection with ourselves, and we can’t seem to reconnect.
A very simple way to process these feelings, to come back into alignment with yourself, is just to practice stillness. Not just physical stillness, but mental as well. You’re giving yourself a break.
The average person never stops. We are inundated with external stimuli, and are trained to be constantly multitasking. Not many people will feel comfortable sitting quietly or focusing on one task anymore – you see it in airports, for instance. Nobody is content to just sit there. We are constantly involved in some form of activity.
One of the many results of this constant activity is the inability to comfortably fall asleep. We don’t feel like our minds are capable of settling down at night.
Nature works in cycles – you have day and night, light and dark, winter and spring, and at the root of all of these, dormancy and activity. Your mind and body need that stillness, that silence, to properly rest.
I illustrate this with an analogy of a bow and arrow. If you want the arrow to fly far one way, you pull it back in the opposite direction and let go. Instictively, we know this, but nowadays it’s hard to find the time and place to slow down, turn off our cell phones, and spend time with nature and with ourselves. The silence course gives us an opportunity to do this.
Releasing Thoughts and Emotions
Stillness rejuvenates us, it allows us to release our thoughts and feelings by experiencing them. We tend to deal with emotions by experiencing them briefly, then putting them away and claiming we’re fine. But these emotions don’t go away – they become dormant, stored inside of you. And so many of us just leave them there, or dwell on them, neither of which are helpful strategies.
The silence retreat helps us to realign ourselves in a formal way, through meditation and focused attention to the breath and body. During meditation, we often, without even trying, work through those old dormant emotions.
This doesn’t mean that you need to re-live traumatic events, or have a breakdown – it’s just, very simply, a time of letting go. There is definitely a degree of separation when you are observant of your feelings – “This is how I’m feeling right now”, or “This is what’s happening in my thoughts”. This awareness is enough to release those emotions, to send them on their way. It is a bit of a challenge, because we are not used to being alone with ourselves, facing ourselves like that. But it’s transformative.
Another way of realigning ourselves is to realize that we are, quite simply, pure energy. For example, kids have so much great energy, and they spring back so easily from every emotion. That fluidity, that flexibility, is our nature. Our nature is to be diverse; our nature is to have a lot of varied emotions going on at any given moment.
At some point, we start to deny any negative thoughts or emotions within ourselves. We strive to only feel happiness. But can you imagine going to a movie and watching people being happy for two yours? It would be torture! We enjoy, live, and thrive on the full experience of life, the dark and light. It is what makes us whole.
To learn more about Silent Retreats, click here.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.
Art of Silence: Philip Fraser on Broadening Your Vision
Philip Fraser has been teaching the Art of Silence since the early 1990s, and has seen hundreds of people transformed by the program. Recently,we spoke with Philip about his observations, and how the Art of Silence can help purify and streamline the human system.
The Scariness of Silence
Silence can appear scary to some people. There’s an association of silence with emotional upset – for instance, we commonly see silence in those who are traumatized, those who are mourning. Sometimes someone will think someone in silence is angry with them, when that’s just not the case. Silence can be joyful and fulfilling.
When you go into silence, a few things happen. You start to really appreciate nature. Generally, we hold the silence course in a place where you can go on nature walks and start to notice how nature resonates in your own mind.
Most people think that being in silence means that you’re totally alone –that the only way to connect with others is through talking. But we find that practitioners often feel much more connected with the people and world around them when they slow down, when they’re not distracted by verbal conversation.
When you go into silence, you also start to notice what’s around you. You notice what’s happening in your own system, in your mind and body. And it can be a revelatory experience.
It is certainly a challenge to spend time with your own mind, with your own thoughts. That part of silence can take some getting used to. In this day and age, we are surrounded by noise, interaction, entertainment at all times. And this is an avoidance technique – without that distraction, you are hyper aware of your mental state. You have to be present. And it’s uncomfortable.
Broadening Your Vision
Sometimes your mind can fixate on the negative situations you encounter. When you’re happy, however, it’s not as if that situation disappears – but you have learned to put that situation into context by widening your vision.
For instance, when you’re standing next to a pile of garbage, it doesn’t feel good. You might feel gross or uncomfortable. But if you take a step back, you might notice that there’s also a tree. And then a mountain. And then a beautiful scene opens up before you, and the entire world is beautiful, even if there is a little garbage.
When Energy Stays With You
Speaking takes energy. Being active in your senses at all times takes energy.If a computer had to do what you do, it would need a huge battery to process all that information.
Deep rest, which we experience in this retreat, gives you the chance to purify and balance yourself naturally, which means that the energy will stay with you long after you leave the Center.
It’s an energetic, mental cleanse, a release. It’s not difficult or uncomfortable, but you’ll notice it when it’s happening.
A True Vacation
In this course, we honor our need for true rest and rejuvenation, which is especially important in this fast-paced society. Silence gives you a break from so much mental activity –the mind gets to quiet down for once.
With the addition of yoga and meditation bring your attention back to your body and your breath, which creates a tremendous amount of energy in your system, strengthening your life force itself. It’s a battery charge, so to speak, and participants often report that they still feel the effects of this retreat six months later.
To learn more about our Silent Retreats, click here.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.
Philip Fraser on Art of Silence: Activities and Benefits
We sat down with Philip Fraser to talk about the Art of Silence course, which he started teaching in the early 1990s. He currently teaches it every few months. Here, he describes in detail the process of this course and its many benefits.
Silence and Consciousness
The subject matter of this course, and the purpose of silence, is consciousness. That’s why it’s a unique course. You can do participate over and over; you can come back to this course many times. The material doesn’t become old.
We generally wake up fairly early; there’s a lot of energy in that part of the day, so that alone is rejuvenating. Then we have a yoga practice and a breathing techniques session, followed by breakfast and some little tasks and jobs that people perform in a group (seva). It gives participants a wonderful sense of belonging.
Guided meditations are also a big part of being in silence. We’re not in silence the whole time, of course, but the combined hours of silence add up to two full days.
More Energy, More Discipline
The first benefit of this course that people notice is the energy – participants feel lighter, clearer, more awake.
Sometimes people take the Happiness course, which is the first part of the series, but find it hard to be regular with that, to create the routine needed and be disciplined about it. But what you find after the Silence course is that your motivation and discipline transforms. You become almost addicted to the process of taking care of yourself.
Watching Your Own Mind
The second benefit is felt on an even deeper level – you become aware of your own mind. What you’ll notice is it’s either in this happy or neutral state, or a little bit unhappy. This sequence happens throughout any day of our lives. Some moments in the day we feel everything is good; and some moments it’s just kind of boring, and some moments something wrong has happened.
On this course, you get to watch your mind and its cycles. There’s no distraction. There’s nothing to blame your moods on, but you’ll still watch your moods fluctuate. It’s not an intellectual process, but just by experience, just by noticing your moods, you get a little bit of distance from it. That realization comes: “I’m not just my mind; I’m not just my thoughts.” That is the point at which you experience true happiness.
For example, when you watch a movie, you enjoy every element of the plot, even the parts that make you sad, anxious, or angry. Life is like that as well. Silence helps us realize that our plot is not everything that we are – this gives you have the ability to be in your emotions 100% when they arise. We temper ourselves so much, repress our anger, explain away our sadness, so this is a revolutionary thing for many people.
Kids are great at this. They go 100% into their emotions, and they release them just as easily.
They’ll fight with their friend and say, “You’re not my friend anymore; I hate you.” They’re really fully feeling it, they mean what they say – but five minutes later, everything is fine.
Later in life when you fight, you’re so much trying to control everything, you don’t have that resilience anymore in your own mind, energy and consciousness. So you fight with your friend, and possibly it could be for many years! “You’re not my friend anymore!” If that comes up as an adult, you’re in a lawsuit; you’re in some crazy thing that’s absorbing so much of your life force. So that ability to be in an emotion, let it go, and accept it: this unique skill is what we teach.
Happiness in the Moment
We think happiness comes from control. We think, “If I have enough money, I can just go anywhere. When I want to be in Paris for lunch, I can at any moment, and that’s when I’m gonna be happy.” Because that’s control; we can do whatever we want. If that were the case then everyone who had that degree of financial freedom would be so happy. But they may not be.
You ask someone, “What do you need to be happy and when will you be happy?” They’ll always say, “It’s not based on anything.” Instinctively, we know that. But this is the way to achieve it: this course and these practices. You can have that. It’s something that you culture in your system.
Many people think, “If I just read a book about the present moment that’s enough.” Reading does help; it’s a definite eye-opener. But that’s only part of it. Really, by direct experience and by systematically going through that and finding yourself there again and again, you’ll start to say, “Yeah, it’s like this. I am more than just the thoughts. I am more than this mood or event or these labels they put in front of me.” Then you’ll find it.
To learn more about our Silent Retreats, click here.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.
Happiness Program: Setting the Best Tone for the Day
Note: We sat down for a conversation with Dan Joy (appropriately named) about his sources of happiness and how the Happiness Program has affected his life. Dan is a budding, multi-talented musician, who shares both about music and how the Happiness techniques set the tone for the day.
Before and After
- Before I started this, my work routine would look like this:
- wake up 30 minutes before the shift starts,
- frantically get dressed,
- brush my teeth,
- run out the door,
- be five minutes late to work and…
From the onset, from the minute I woke up to an alarm I’d be stressed out. Then I’d get to work that way. Stress translated into my work whether I was working with food or as a server.
It always comes across if I come to work feeling frantic or frazzled. So now, I give myself plenty of time in the morning to get myself ready and then I take time to meditate.
The breathing practices have actually changed me a lot. Ever since I took the Happiness course, and learned the Sudarshan Kriya, I practice on a daily basis. I usually wake up a little before the sun rises or with the sun rise, start off with a little bit of yoga and then go into the Sudarshan Kriya and meditate for a while before I come to breakfast.
I’ve found that when I come to work having already centered myself, it’s way easier to plan out menus, to delegate tasks to other people, or work with them. So I’ve found that it’s a great way to just get myself ready for the day. It’s become an essential part of my readiness, when I’m preparing for work and everything.
The Sudarshan Kriya
An automatic reflex happens right in that final moment in the last round of the breathing, right before you lay down. Then I lay down or kinda just sit there and be in that state and ride it out for as long as I can or try to keep track of time.
I think that is definitely my favorite part, just when the final breath is taken care of; and then it just washes over me. When I exit out of that I am just so ready for anything.
A Period of Transformation
The people that I’ve met here and the things that I’ve learned from them have absolutely changed my way of thinking and living completely. The way that I process emotions, thoughts and feelings is all so different from before. I really feel like it has helped me mature and become a man.
At the same time, in my work, working very hard with Chef Raju taught me a lot of discipline. Having a very busy work week has shown me a lot of resilience and the value of hard work.
I’ve come more into myself; I’ve grown as a person musically and professionally, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, in every possible way. I’ve just blossomed as a human being.
I am very grateful to everyone, this mountain, and the experiences I’ve had here.
Sources of Happiness
- So many activities bring me happiness:
- Playing with others.
- Walking in the woods, taking hikes.
- Seeing beautiful things.
- Sharing with other people and their dogs.
- Making food that makes people happy.
To me, music is pure expression. Whenever I pick up any instrument, I immediately go into expressing myself. Whatever emotion is dwelling inside, expressing that musically tends to make me feel better, even if I’m sad.
But if I’m happy already and go into it, it just compounds itself, like a positive feedback loop where I keep getting happier. Playing with others and having a group participate is especially uplifting; you’re borrowing energy and everybody’s on the same wave length.
Food: What It’s Like
Food is definitely interesting. In my family, it is central. At any gathering, there’s always a big spread. Everybody brings a dish. So to me, food has always represented happiness and companionship, family ties and stuff like that. Especially working here, where the people whom I work with are my family.
It brings me a lot of joy whenever I make a dish and my family members come back to me and say that made them feel good. In turn, that makes me happy.
I get into an energetic state of mind when I’m cooking. It’s a fast paced environment sometimes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that tensions are high or people are upset.
Here, I find that everybody’s usually in a good mood when we are back there in the kitchen. Even though we are moving fast, everybody’s still friendly and happy with each other. So I love that. I love that fast paced effort; working myself up to meet the deadline to get everybody fed.
State of Mind
It’s very fun and we put a lot of energy into it. You’re still working during the meal but it’s almost like a roller coaster, with up and down emotions.
Then it’s over; you just breathe a sigh of relief. Everybody gets fed, everything goes off without a hitch, and it just feels good.
Editor’s Note: A big thank you to Dan for sharing what brings him happiness. Discover more about the Happiness Program with our online series of guided meditations, breathing practices and insights. The online series is free and a great introduction to the Art of Living.
Vastu Shastra for Spring Cleaning
As springtime continues, we often look for ways to approach the renewal of spaces in which we live. One such approach, Vastu Shastra, is the ancient Vedic science of living in harmony with our environment. Vastu is one of the oldest guides to aligning ourselves and our surroundings with nature.
As the American Institute of Vastu states, “Vastu comes from the same wisdom texts as yoga, meditation and the first medicine, Ayurveda. These texts are thousands of years old… This wisdom is timeless and pertinent in our fast-living world today. Understanding and using it can help us lead healthier, happier lives.”
It may surprise you to know that the buildings at the Retreat Center show many elements of Vastu Shastra. The campus is one of the few properties in the US that was built according to this ancient science. For example, the program halls, dining hall and lodges on Whispering Hills Road all face east. This orientation welcomes the renewing energy of the sun at the start of each day. This architecture – one of a kind in the Eastern United States – is itself worth a visit.
Using Vastu Shastra, the First Green Science
According to Michael and Robin Mastro’s website, Vastu “is the first ‘green’ science. Vastu helps us recognize the powerful impact that our surroundings have on us. When we properly align our environment with nature, balance occurs. Once this balance is created, stress is reduced and the frustrations and limitations in life diminish.”
While your home may already be built based on other types of designs, many of the ideas from Vastu can inform the way you use your space.
Here are some suggestions from Vastu:
• When sleeping, it is ideal to sleep with the head towards the East.
• Grow big trees to the south or west of the house.
• Placing images of the rising suns or water can bring positive energy into a room.
One of the key principles here is the purposeful use of space. This involves thoughtfully looking at our environment and our activities. How can I let my environment support my activities? How can I create space for what matters most?
Spring Cleaning & the Art of Letting Go
Spring cleaning is also a great time to practice the art of letting go. Marie Kondo delves into this practice in detail in her New York Times best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Spring is a great time to re-evaluate what we really need. What is cluttering up our space? What do we use? What brings us joy? Clearing out items that go unused can clear up mental space too.
Positive Home Energies
By clearing, cleaning and re-organizing, we create more positive surroundings. We function better and enjoy more in these environments, with which we are intimately connected. Like many practitioners, you may even find that the more peaceful and content you are, the more you like to create similar spaces! And the more you create a supportive environment for your own mind, the calmer the mind as a result.
Healing Power of Nature, Part 6: Recycling on the MST
Sometimes it’s helpful to explore unknown areas away from the trail. Before going on a short hike on the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), I chose to continue east and search for a landmark I have heard about but never seen, the east campus of Heavenly Mountain.
When in unfamiliar territory, connecting with the earth helps to bring stability. In this very rural mountainous place, I didn’t leave Watauga County, which is where the Retreat Center is located. However, I was very glad to find a recycling center in a place I knew nothing about.
Discoveries on Elk Creek Road
Inside that fence, I saw a familiar sight: a number of large green recycling bins, with separate windows for
- brown, clear and green glass
- mixed paper
- corrugated cardboard.
A row of trash dumpsters also lined the back fence of the area. At first, I didn’t stop there, but kept going.
Continuing down Elk Creek road, I saw a church on the left hand side, and a stream with a walking bridge over it on the right. I walked across the bridge and then backtracked over it again and started walking along the stream. There was no clear path on the opposite side.
I decided not to continue on down the road. I had been hoping for a short drive to search for the east campus, not a long, meandering, gas-guzzling journey.
There was a full bin of my personal recycling in the back of my car, so it felt very serendipitous to go ahead and take time to deposit all of the glass, plastic, cardboard and metal into the appropriate dumpsters. When I had almost finished, a slim, middle-aged man finally emerged from the tiny attendant’s booth inside the fence.
I asked him if this was the town of Triplett, and he immediately corrected me to call it the “community” of Triplett, since it was never incorporated as a town due to its very small population. The trees with full white blooms in full sun across the road were pear trees.
A Short Hike on the MST
After the detour to Triplett, I parked on the north side of Elk Creek road, crossed the road and started walking south on the MST. The trail was soft, still covered with orange, dried out pine needles. As I moved up and down the hills, I felt such competence and healing in my recently sprained ankle.
After having injured myself while hiking, to get out on the trail again feels wonderful. There is strength in my ankles and knees still, even while I often feel soreness and pain. I walked slowly, one step at a time, feeling the strength it took to make each step. I felt jubilant about the way my muscles still worked.
A young pair of hikers, male and female, passed me going north while I worked my way south. When I reached the end of the forested path, I saw their white pick-up truck parked on a grassy promontory alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). Not interested in walking through the grass on the side of the road, I turned around and headed back, and passed the young boy and girl going south as I went north, returning to my car.
For more information about the hiking trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway and surrounding communities, the Boone Area Visitors’ Bureau and Explore Boone websites have many ways of helping you connect with the earth near the retreat center. All the best to you on your explorations!
Healing Power of Nature, Part 3: The Enchanted Forest
“And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet;
And thence from Athens turn away our eyes,
To seek new friends and stranger companies.”
A Secret Passage
When you first drive by many parts of the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), they are invisible. When I enter the forest, I realize how the woods offer us opportunities for what Shakespeare called “new friends and stranger companies,” as seen in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When I enter the company of the forest, I am both refreshed by a time apart from the company of others and all the more grateful for it.
Removing myself from the spaces of civilization, in the Enchanted Forest section walking from north to south, I experienced a temporary freedom from social engagement. The forest, invisible from the road, formed an enclosure around me, and made the open expanses of land more spectacular by contrast.
And I developed a connection with many of the plants. Some remained green and small, like ferns or moss; larger rhododendrons and azaleas still had leaves, and other bushes and trees were hibernating with bare branches.
In this way, I gained an appreciation for human beings by taking time away from them, and appreciating the company of other living organisms.
Such freedom from hearing from, talking to and seeing other people actually gave me time to gain perspective on relationships. It encouraged new discovery, not only about species living in the forest, but also about myself and others back in human territory.
The Enchanted Healing Terrain
What makes nature so enchanting for those of us who love to hike? Many aspects of walking on forested trails have enchanted humans for ages:
- Breathing fresh air that flows in unrestricted currents.
- Direct contact with weather conditions, either moist or dry, cool or warm, still or windy. This may result in easier balancing of diet and activities for wellness purposes in the face of seasonal changes.
- Sounds, including birds, other animals, leaves, branches, and small rocks falling or blowing in the wind, and moving water.
- Opportunities for observation and imaginative creativity.
- Escape from manmade environments, including highways and cars
- Chances to gain perspective on and distance from people and events in our lives.
As Sarah Wilson states, “Psychologists call it the “wilderness effect” and a number of studies show that green exercise “improves wellbeing and moves us to deep, satisfying realizations that re-set thinking.”
As I walked south along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) into the enchanted forest, the path followed the ridge line several yards away and downhill from the road. It crossed a small creek and then headed uphill, switching directions several times in a zig-zag pattern. The woods formed a barrier between the trail and the road, so part of the enchantment of this place could be heard in the quiet rustle of the leaves and rushing water.
After reaching the summit of a high hill, the trail headed downward for a nice, easy walk before opening up to the BRP again. As I approached the clearing at the bottom of the hill, I could see through the trees a sudden, exciting view of rolling hills with cow pastures on the west side of the road. In the late afternoon or evening with the sky at least partly clear, this spot really lights up the end of the trail with a lovely view of the setting sun.
Sharing One’s Driveway
At the private driveway just north of the enchanted forest section (the 3rd wooded trail north of Boone Trace Overlook), there is enough space for my car in front of a small, chained gate. That gate blocks an old, unpaved service road, which veers to the right from the paved driveway (a small space also sits to the left of the driveway, with logs delineating the boundary). Of course, it is best not to intrude any further down the driveway than these parking spots.
Leaving my car in that spot for the first time, I knew that the generosity of the driveway’s owners added to my sense of mystery. This entryway also required no walking along the side of the highway. From other walks, I had already quickly learned that walking on the grassy side of the road where cars passed didn’t feel much like hiking.
Finding the Location
In many places, the MST weaves back and forth over concrete road, to the east and west sides of the BRP as it heads in a northeasterly direction from Asheville, NC. The organization known as Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail (FMST) has on their website a trail guide to this region’s section of the trail. The enchanted forest sits in a portion of the MST known as Segment 5, The High Country, and runs from mile 34.4 at the south end to 35.3 at the north end.
Just north of the Boone Trace overlook on the BRP, you will find one entrance to the MST that goes into the woods on the east (right) side of the road, and then one similar entrance on the west (left) side of the road, and then another one on the east (right) side. The third one is at the south end of “the enchanted forest,” where the sunset view that I mentioned is visible at the right time of day.
All in all, the existence of a wooded trail between residences and just a couple of minutes from the center allows for an easy escape from the world of humans. As in Shakespeare’s play, the forest is a place where transformations take place that solve human problems. Living becomes more pleasant and much less stressful for visitors as well as those who live nearby. If you enjoy these short excursions, including the one through the enchanted forest, you will have made excellent use of one of the Art of Living Retreat Center’s richest local and regional opportunities.
I’d like to share an opportunity to enjoy the majestic views of the mountains from home too. Check out our series of Blue Ridge Mountain wallpapers, which you can download for your desktop — so that even when you’re on the computer, the memory of a breath of fresh air can add space and perspective to your day.
The Healing Power of Nature Part 2: Rough Ridge Boardwalk and Beyond
Nature offers a wider lens through which to see one’s own life. A broader external and internal vision becomes especially accessible at higher altitudes, where the majesty of the landscape splays out before you at almost every turn. These big views can assist in many ways for the purpose of healing and recovering from stresses and traumas in today’s fast paced world.
Some factors important to emotional, mental and physical healing that result from mountain walks include:
- A sense of wonder and amazement about seeing a bigger picture face to face.
- An increase in the number of vocalized “Wow!” moments in your life.
- Higher levels of life force (prana) from breathing fresher, cleaner air.
- Appreciation for the friendliness of other hikers.
- Openness to giving and receiving help from others on rough terrain.
- Acceptance of the changes and inconsistencies in life and in nature.
A Healing Power in the Mountains
In addition to all of these everyday benefits, gazing out over great landscapes, whether they contain mountains or oceans, can play a crucial role for those times when major life traumas have occurred. For instance, photographer John Bennett shared from his own personal history as he explored mountainous areas in the United Kingdom, where he could grieve and process the sudden loss of his spouse.
He describes camping out with his dog, Kelly. After gazing at changing sunset colors over the peaks, he experienced “a great feeling of spiritual warmth flowing through me as well, a happy feeling, the first for a long time, as things started to fall back into perspective inside my head… I know that as we returned to the tent, taking the path the long way this time, I was far happier and settled than I had been hours earlier.”
For this hiker and many others, an exploration of nature at higher elevations “…certainly did more to help me on the road to recovery than anything or anyone else. There is indeed a healing power in mountains, a power that too many people simply can’t imagine”.
Lay of the Land
In close proximity to the Art of Living Retreat Center, the Rough Ridge trail area offers such grand views. This amazing spot can be reached so easily, since it sits adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) of North Carolina about 30 minutes south of the Bamboo road exit (on the west side of the road.)
Only a short, rocky walk up from the road are spectacular vistas. At this point, a wooden boardwalk over part of the trail makes the hike less strenuous. Once you reach the boardwalk, large signs with added information about the unique ecosystem around the trail provides valuable insights into smaller, fragile life forms along the way.
At this location, as I walk over rocks, cross a footbridge over a rushing cascade, and climb to the high wooden boardwalk along the cliffs, I sense how valuable it is to recognize the collective power of human beings’ pathways. At the same time, I realize my responsibility for the smaller, endangered life forms, such as delicate plants called lichens, which grow profusely throughout the region on various outdoor objects.
Rough Ridge and Beyond
The Rough Ridge trail overlaps two other trails extending further south and north: The Mountains to Sea Trail (symbolized by a white circle) and the Tanawha Trail (symbolized by a white feather). Going south, these three trails together run through a rhododendron covered landscape from the Rough Ridge overlook, over high cliffs, then down to the Wilson Creek overlook on the east side of the parkway, and then on to the Linn Cove visitors’ center. Going north, they run through a “New England-type forest of hemlock, spruce, oak and birch”
If you continue towards the south from the Linn Cove visitors’ center, you will soon see the rocky peak of Grandfather Mountain on the right, to the west of the parkway. The Tanawha Trail and Mountains to Sea Trail continue along the east side of the road, and will take you past several other beautiful natural landmarks.
In my previous post, I talk more about the Mountain to Sea trail, one of my favorite mountain streams and my personal experience of the healing power of nature.
Discover the Healing Power of Nature
When I look down a trail and can’t see where it’s going, with the softness of the orange pine needles and fallen leaves underfoot, something draws me deeper down the trail’s passage. There is something about moving over the actual earth, with no concrete or other flooring covering it, which makes movement healing and the body suddenly strong and healthy.
The constantly changing contours of roots, rocks, animals, rhododendrons, ferns and fresh air make each hike into a new ecosystem like the discovery of a new world.
The process of patient and gentle exploration brings a sense of belonging whenever you enter a new space, and this has become especially apparent during my first year living in the mountains of western North Carolina.
To sit and listen to flowing water as it occurs in nature, calmly heals me. Some of my earliest hikes brought me an intuitive sense of great peace, and this experience has been so often affirmed by scientific studies showing the positive mental, emotional and physical effects of being in nature.
As in so many examples of literature as well as science, nature brings joy to my heart, a smile to my face, and peace to my churning, thinking mind.
From Flatland to Mountain Land
Before I moved here, I had been hiking for many years on mostly flat lands. But the Appalachian Mountains have brought a whole new set of challenges, with more ups and downs on the terrain, more rocks, and more rushing streams through which I have learned to wade.
When I first arrived at my new home, I would drive on the scenic road known as the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), and noticed many small wooden markers along the way. Each marker has a symbol of a hiker, the letters MST, a small white circle and an arrow pointing straight ahead or indicating a turn to the right or left.
Seeing these markers repeatedly brought me the exploration bug, a strong longing for discovery of unfamiliar areas hidden from view.
These signs pointed me towards the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), leading from the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee border to the west, along the BRP headed northeast from Asheville, and continuing all the way down to the Atlantic shoreline on the eastern border.
I decided to walk as much of this trail as possible while on short excursions close to home and the retreat center. Piece by piece, I have lately been using my free time to see mile after mile of the MST, often during sunset hours in daylight savings time.
Going both south and north, not very far from the Bamboo Road exit, are small trails through woods and pastureland, along paved and unpaved roads. The section of the MST between the Aho Gap exit and the Goshen Creek viaduct gave me my first glimpse of the hidden beauty missing from my view for several months.
How to find the Mountain to Sea Trail
To find this wondrous place that may be sitting in your blindspot, here are some directions:
- Branching off on the east side of the BRP, the road just to the south Aho Gap exit (which goes west on Aho Road) is Sampson Road.
- Just off of the BRP on Sampson Road you will find an intersection with George Hayes Road, which extends to the north for a while, parallel to the BRP.
- On the east side of this road, right across the road from a trail marker, there is a small pullout big enough for parking one or two cars.
- On the west side is an entrance to the MST, with a trail marker and a set of steps going down into a small pasture, and then a small bridge over a creek. Just past that bridge, the trail goes into the woods.
This piece of the trail continues for 1.4 miles, crossing and running alongside the roaring, trickling and bubbling Goshen Creek.
You will do a little bit of wading to cross streams feeding into the creek, but the level of water will depend on recent amounts of rain, so you may or may not get a little bit wet. There are usually rocks and logs to step on at stream crossings. The trail will lead you to a sturdy footbridge where mighty, moss-covered rocks, trees, pools and waterfalls converge to make a majestic view.
Beyond the footbridge, along the creek, the trail leads down to a small field below a large viaduct which takes cars over the creek on the BRP. As you walk through from the footbridge to the viaduct, the creek keeps flirting with you, moving into and out of view, like a shy, old friend.
Many flat, wide rocks are available here for sitting and meditating to the sounds of birds and rushing water.
If you’d like further inspiration or clearer directions, feel free to leave a comment.