They don't come more urban than Chicago-born Jessica Lawless. Drop her in any city, she'll track down an independent coffee shop and the underground art scene before midnight.
But drop her in the empty high desert of Northern New Mexico, and the story changes. It's been a year and a half since Jessica found herself alone among dusty piñon trees and looming mesas, but she can still recall the experience vividly—especially the moment she noticed a mass of black clouds storming her way.
"I felt this surge of fear," she says, recalling the gray tentacles that trailed ominously off the bottom of the clouds. But she didn't panic. She flashed back to that morning, when she and a handful of others had begun preparing, physically and emotionally, for their day in nature. The facilitator was Patty Nagle, Program Manager at the Academy for the Love of Learning, and designer of this nature-based weekend course, which she called The Power of the Slowing. Patty predicted that the weather would likely change—and with it, the participants' emotions. "Observe what arises," Patty had recommended, "and attend to what you need."
Six months earlier, "observing what arises" was about the last thing Jessica had time for. She was thick in academia, finishing up an MFA in Studio Art in Los Angeles while scrambling for a tenure track professorship in Media Studies--a difficult task at any time, but nearly impossible in a recession. By early 2009, she began to realize her career was not going to play out as planned, and decided it was "time to start thinking about other options."
On a friend's recommendation, she signed up for a course at the Academy in Santa Fe. The reflective, in-the-moment approach of the Academy facilitators proved a welcome antidote to years of living in the future. And Santa Fe cast its usual spell--by mid-2009, Jessica and her partner had packed up their LA apartment and moved to town.
It was the first time she'd lived outside a major city, and so close to mountains and mesas. She appreciated the beauty of the natural landscape "through-the-car-window," in typical urban fashion, until Patty extended an invite to The Power of the Slowing.
"She knew I was a city person, unfamiliar with immersing myself in nature," Jessica says, "and so she was interested in my particular perspective on the workshop ."
Jessica's curiosity was piqued, and after long talks with Patty, she decided she would give it a try. A few weeks later she stood with the small group beneath a cottonwood at Ghost Ranch, Georgia O'Keefe's iconic retreat center outside the tiny town of Abiquiu. Patty pointed to aptly-named Chimney Rock, a sandstone pillar tottering into the brilliant November sky. "That's where we're going," she said.
Jessica swallowed hard.
Today, she laughs. "I know it's not like this huge hike, but coming from a lifetime in cities, Chimney Rock was a mountain. I was filled with all these anxieties. How do you actually do this, hike up a mountain? It was this complete unknown."
Patty was right there. Slowly, she explained what was necessary to feel safe in nature — from basic hiking tips to remaining mindful and attentive to your needs. Jessica took the lessons in hungrily, and hit the trail.
It was a simple hike, only a couple of hours. But it was transformative. Aside from the physical elation Jessica felt upon touching the base of Chimney Rock, she also felt a new confidence in her own ability to step consciously into the unknown.
"Sitting around the fireplace that night," Jessica says, "I began to think back to other times I'd walked into the unknown--cross country moves and academic programs. In those experiences, I'd simply rely on survival mode, ignoring the emotional and physical nuances of what was happening as I adjusted to something new. But with Patty's facilitation, I was able to observe myself changing, even as I hiked."
The next morning, when Patty informed the group that they would be invited to participate in a mini "solo"--five hours in nature on their own--Jessica didn't flinch. With her typical thoroughness, Patty discussed weather and emotions, handed out layers of clothing, and asked everyone to consider their intentions. She made it clear that this was not an endurance test; they could return to the "base camp" at any time. And when everyone felt prepared, off they went, in whichever direction they felt drawn.
"I remember it was sunny that morning," Jessica says. "So I wandered down to the Chama River, and lost myself playing in the silt and mud." She felt safe and comfortable. Time moved at just the right speed.
But a couple of hours later, as she studied a sprawling chamisa above the riverbank, she felt the sudden chill to the air, and noticed the storm clouds approaching.
"It was this intense shift from safety and warmth to impending danger," she recalls. But as Patty had advised, she took a breath, let the fear run its course, then returned to the riverbank and hunkered down next to a piñon tree. The first drops pinged down, followed by a furious onslaught of pea-sized hail. Somehow, the piñon tree caught the brunt of the hail in its meager branches, and as quickly as it had come, the storm was gone.
Jessica stepped out from under the tree, and took in the glistening landscape.
"Just like the hike up Chimney Rock, weathering that storm was this transformative moment, in which I'd been able to stay in the moment, and follow my emotions through peaks and valleys, from safety to fear and back again. I wasn't in a hypervigilant survival mode, or bogged down with self-criticism. I was just there."
Now, nearly two years later, Jessica's found satisfying work as an adjunct professor at the Santa Fe Community College, teaching gender studies and volunteer service, along with freelance video classes and other odd jobs. She and her partner have incorporated hikes and camping into their new Santa Fe lives, and the Power of the Slowing course remains bright in Jessica's mind.
"That course, and Academy for the Love of Learning in general, were definitely factors in my now being able to stay aware and centered every time I step into an unknown situation," she says. "They helped me make this huge transition in my life, where I've shifted away from living for career and 'success,' and started focusing on creativity and love."