The Case against Mindfulness

Like a once-favorite song, this trend of mindfulness is starting to vex me. Its popularity is what social media and connectivity felt like five or 10 years ago. But already, I just wish folks would get over it.ins outside

  • Please delete Headspace, the meditation app, from your phone.
  • Please stop saying “mindful” at every opportunity.
  • Please don’t give me that look that says you’re non-judgmental and always cycle thoughts through your mindful filter before speaking.

Nowadays, this preoccupation with mindfulness eats up all the spare time of cultured folks. For this informed and plugged-in populace, mindfulness is what intellectualism used to be.

  • 12903699615_a6ca8e092b_oIt is the virtual selfie, taken daily, even hourly.
  • It’s a brain scan developed by its owner.
  • It’s the therapist you don’t have to pay.
  • It’s right up there with pop cultural literacy as the must-have conversation element. As in, “I just loved that TED talk by Andy Puddicombe!”

Meanwhile, reading books has become quaint and oddly unfashionable. Someone visited our house the other day, looked at our bookshelves, and asked innocently, “Who likes books?” As if books were a quirky, souvenir spoon collection.

bellMeanwhile, what happened to actually getting out and doing things? Since when did being inside our heads become more satisfying than engaging with the outdoors or playing sports? Oh, wait. We now call events like those “experiential” and they will be appropriately documented on aforementioned connectivity platforms. “Being present” while “getting out” has become a bit of an oxymoron.

I’ve observed a verifiable bell curve of consciousness, that’s making me wish I had more 7- or 70-year old friends. If you track age along one line, and consciousness/mindfulness on the other, you can see it clearly. Kids and old folks (especially those who are dementing, god bless ‘em) tend to be unconscious of their own mindfulness. In other words, they aren’t mindful of their ability to be present. They’re present, of course, but they won’t be messaging anyone about the moment or scribbling about it to themselves.

IMG_2229I admit to being guilty of this over-consciousness. I, too, have been sucked into the pitfalls of too much self-awareness. Like singing a hook of that once-favorite song, it can be a hard tic to shake. Sing it, then mutter to myself, “Stop!” Sing it again, shout, “Gawdalmighty.”

And don’t get me wrong. I’m all for slowing down. I’m all for slow food, slow uphill hikes, the slow development of connection between a person and the wild, or between a horse and rider. Slowing down, yes! Dead stop? Please, no!

I talked about this cultural trend with David Gessner last week. The author of “All the

David Gessner

David Gessner

Wild that Remains” spent a few years studying Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey.

“The word ‘mindfulness’ makes me want to kick back a little bit. And not kick back, as in ‘relax.’ …Cows are probably pretty good at being in the moment. Human beings, not so much,” he said.

Gessner reminded me of a famous and related line from Abbey: “Enough with saving the world. Let’s go down the river.”

So, I’m keeping Abbey close while crafting my resolve:

Get out and get outside your head.

Or, as my son, Beau likes to say: #Getoffyourbuttandfeelthings.IMG_1673

Real live streaming

Never has getting outside been a more conscious, deliberate activity. But when you get out, where goes your brain?

ins outsideAssuming you’re alone, do you focus on emptying your mind and being ‘present?’ Or, do you let your mind flit restlessly from topic to topic, like a bushtit from branch to branch? Or, are you a student of the wilderness, treating a hike like a laboratory learning session?

Mindfulness and meditation are all the rage.  The smart phone app, Headspace, has more than a million subscribers and offers them scads of guided meditation sessions. Of course, you can take it with you into the back country. What’s more, research seems to quantify the benefits of calming and emptying the mind.

But I’m also a fan of Zen’s psychological foils: train of thought and stream of consciousness.IMG_1912

Whilst sitting at a desk, the writer’ mind is laboriously pedaling forward, hell bent to the task. On a hike, that same mind gets to coast, pedal backwards, and play with the footholds. The best article leads, epiphanies, leaps of connection, and rewrites come to me during a hike, not while sitting purposefully at the desk. I have confidence that this dwell time will yield results, if I come to it without purpose and just let the mind do its thing.

Which brings us back to research.

I heard this week that video games may soon be prescribed for kids with Attention Deficit, since research is supporting the notion that the screen time can gain their focus and calm the kids’ harried brains. Gawd. Why can’t doctors write prescriptions for hiking boots and binoculars? I’m betting kids couldn’t help but benefit from their own, more organic form of dwell time. And if they get dirty, tired, and sore in the process? All the better.

Your thoughts are always welcome.

Backpacker as a museum piece

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

John Muir


Reality is scary and boring.

ins outsideWilderness is beautiful and tiresome.

Getting Out is serene and challenging.

Getting Out, however, might not rate when stacked against the clean, quick, and quantifiable routines offered by technology and domesticity, That’s especially true if those routines have become automatic. Everyone knows the power of habit.

Somewhere between frontiersmen times and now, getting out into the wilderness was a default recreation for many of us. It started with the woods behind the house and expanded from there. Getting out offered a chance to indulge our escapism, to affirm our belief in self-sufficiency, and to connect with something bigger than ourselves. We got out not because we had to, but because we wanted to enjoy what wilderness offered. We learned to crave it.

IMG_1277These were routines:

Hefting a backpack.

Summiting a peak.

Pitching a tent.

Breathing hard.

Getting grimy.

Testing sore muscles.

Following maps.


Hunting grouse.

Swatting mosquitoes.

Catching fish.

Building campfires.



Forget about the black footed ferret, now WE are endangered. Soon enough, the camping family may be in museums (That’s camping without television and toilets. RVing does not count.)

Next month, the big Outdoor Retailer expo at the Salt Palace is throwing a kickoff gala, a “Party with a Purpose.” The purpose? “To tackle the growing divide between young people and nature.”

John Gookin has been watching that divide. He’s the curriculum and research manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming. He was also my instructor for a NOLS trip, decades ago.

John Gookin

John Gookin

Like many of us, Gookin hung out in the woods a lot when he was a kid.

“Now, Moms don’t say, ‘Go outside and play.’ They say, ‘Go to your room and play,’” he said.

Fewer and fewer students come to NOLS with any previous backcountry experience, he told me. “They are in more of a raw state and they aren’t as fit.”

Indeed, wilderness education programs (WEPs) like NOLS are becoming increasingly crucial for introducing concepts and habits which many of us learned as kids of camping parents: Leave No Trace, simple living, environmental stewardship.

Research shows that WEPs can and do have a significant impact on how students view the wilderness and what they do with that information. But as researcher Besty Lindley of Utah Valley University found, most NOLS students already come with some wilderness-minded ideas and ideals. The course “enhanced a preexisting love,” said one interviewed student.

"To inspire a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts."

“To inspire a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts.”

In other words, NOLS and similar WEPs are like liberal arts colleges, mostly the domain of the privileged.

How do we reintroduce wilderness to the masses when the trend is one of urbanization? How do we help them learn to crave it?

  • Do we reach them through retail? (We report from the Outdoor Retailer.)
  • Outreach? (We talk with Estee Rivera Murdock of the National Park Service.)
  • Public education? (We check out the idea of “Forest Monday” in schools.)

And, contrarily, is all this effort worth it? What happens if we walk away?

To Note: Meet someone who’s bucking the trend. My son, Beau Gaughran, documents his travels and adventures through photo and film. Check out his Instagram account here.

Check out related content on our sister site, BestHorsePractices: The umbrella idea of Beasts of Being, making horses newly relevant and recognized in the 21st century.



Exploring the divide: Inside Outside

I always figured folks viewed the wilderness like I did:

IMG_9718A place to cherish and protect.

A place for quiet observation and reflection.

A place where humans could be brought to their knees by the elements or by simple wonder.

As I get older and as our population swells, I find myself craving wilderness more than any other “thing.” More than dinners out, more than bookstore browsing, more than coffee, chocolate, or beer.

I have to get out there, else my sense of being and sense of normalcy start to fray.

Credit goes to my parents and kids for instilling and perpetuating this outsider habit. Growing up, I thought it was normal. But lately, it’s becoming clear that our family is an exception to the rule in the greater American society. Fewer and fewer people want to get out. And when they do, it’s not necessarily for peace and quiet.

I talked with Ester Rivera Murdock of the National Park Service. She’s studied the connection (or lack thereof) between Arizona communities and their magnificent parks.

I visited with John Gookin, an award-winning wilderness educator for the National Outdoor Leadership School. He said fewer baland fewer students come to NOLS with previous backcountry experience.

I see trends: paved “hiking trails,” ranchers swapping horses for ATVs, a Jeep-filled, dusty, and air-conditioned Moab.

At the Outdoor Retailer, later this summer, the Outdoor Foundation is hosting a huge Outsiders Ball. It’s a party with a purpose, “the one night our industry comes together around one common cause: to tackle the growing divide between young people and nature.”

Are us Outsiders increasingly outside the norm?

Beginning today, UtahOutsider will consider and wrangle with the issues surrounding the growing disconnect between society and wilderness. Look for Inside Outside columns and the accompanying image (below). Stay tuned!

ins outside

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