Christian Vogelgesang, an Instructor with Outward Bound in North Carolina, reflects on his key takeaways from this past year. From practicing compassion to sitting still, Christian describes the lessons that keep him moving forward.
A global pandemic. Worldwide lockdowns. More failed home workouts and food delivered to my doorstep than I care to admit. It’s been one year since our world changed. This is my reflection on what I’ve learned about myself and humanity with COVID-19 as my next-door neighbor.
1. We Need Time Outside
It’s funny to look back and remember that I used to think that working from home would be awesome. Today I look around at my house and realize, these walls aren’t that interesting.
Have you tried to work out in your living room? It’s bad. Confining the creative energies and movement potential of the human body to a space the size of a yoga mat just isn’t the same as a collaborative movement at a gym or outdoors.
“By tempering all of those things with self-control, I not only act in the interest of others but practice one of Outward Bound’s core values, compassion.”
We need to be outdoors. As human beings, we crave purpose, places to go and people to see. What I’ve come to terms with is that I can be responsible, limit my interactions and contact with others so as not to further the spread of the virus. But, I can also recognize that I simply don’t like it. I’d rather run wild, gather with friends, hug a stranger and not wear a mask. And that’s okay. By tempering both of those thoughts with self-control, I not only act in the interest of others but practice one of Outward Bound’s core values, compassion.
2. Compassion Unites Us
Compassion is a word that is thrown around quite a lot. It is often confused with “kindness” or “sympathy” or even “love.” While it is related to those, when you examine the Latin roots of the word, you find that it means “to suffer together with.” Think about that for a second.
To suffer together with.
It does not mean to look upon someone with pity or to simply lend a helping hand. No, compassion requires us to humble ourselves despite our pride and get down on the level of another being and experience what they are feeling.
It goes beyond simple empathy. For if we can truly feel the suffering of another, we will do something about it. We will know that the suffering of one leads to the suffering of many and that suffering need not be negative. Instead, maybe it’s the one universality that unites us all, that reminds us we are in this together. A reminder we must not forget a year later.
3. We’re Really Bad at Sitting Still
Many of us just can’t stand to sit with ourselves and enjoy our own company. Once alone, we tend to distract ourselves with Instagram or Netflix. We put together to-do lists and keep ourselves perpetually busy. We drink lots of coffee because it “gets us moving.” We love to feel like we’re doing something.
Why can’t we sit still? Is it because we truly have something better to do? Or is it because we are afraid that we don’t?
I would argue that most times, it’s the latter. Where does that fear of being inactive come from?
“Maybe we don’t need to live under the dictatorial rule of our to-do lists. Maybe we could sit and enjoy the moment more, without any concerns clogging up the scenery. Maybe that is a lesson that while looking back on this past year, we can bring forward.”
At the beginning of quarantine, I hoped that this time of forced stillness would provide our culture of “go-go-go” and “keeping up with the Joneses” a much-needed reprieve. A chance to hit pause on the remote, catch our breath and maybe reevaluate our priorities. A period similar to Solo on an Outward Bound expedition.
I now know that we have a deep-seated distrust in idleness. It’s time we examined this distrust and consider a different way of being through meditation and mindfulness.
For the Sake of Sitting
There is a distinct difference between the concept of meditation and mindfulness in Western culture as opposed to Eastern. In American culture, we tend to look at meditation simply as a tool, an action to be taken in order to achieve a myriad of physical, mental and spiritual benefits. The thing is, we’re not necessarily wrong about those things, we’re just missing a key component.
Many schools of Eastern thought consider sitting meditation as the act of sitting for the sake of—well, sitting. To sit simply because there is nothing else to be done at the time.
When I was initially introduced to this thought it took the wind out of my sails. I thought if I invested enough time sitting in the Lotus pose I would be one with the Buddha and reach everlasting Nirvana. Now I’m finding out that I really should take time to sit just for the sake of sitting. Now, in its simplicity, the thought is really quite beautiful.
What a foreign concept to be sitting with nothing to do. To have nothing to worry about, nothing so pressing that we can’t relax into a comfortable position that our bodies are designed for. No past to shame us, no future to worry us.
Imagine if you spent much of your quarantine with yourself, immersed only in the present moment, not engaging with entertainment or thoughts or distractions or concerns. How much more content may you have felt? How much more clarity may have you achieved?
Maybe we don’t need to live under the dictatorial rule of our to-do lists. Maybe we could sit and enjoy the moment more, without any concerns clogging up the scenery. Maybe that is a lesson that while looking back on this past year, we can bring forward.
4. There Is Always Space for Excellence
Having moved to New Orleans just a few months before the shutdown, I was looking forward to engaging with the city’s music scene. Being a musician, I was able to book a few gigs right off the bat and then in the blink of an eye live music had to stop. It was easy to feel sorry for myself, but I quickly realized that this time alone could be beneficial.
“The potential of the human spirit is so immense, and while difficult to describe, I feel myself connecting with it every time I put my body and mind to work.”
As another value of Outward Bound, excellence is the action of modeling quality and intention in one’s actions in everyday life. It’s pursuing your best self through acquiring new skills, practice and resourcefulness. On an Outward Bound expedition, students practice knots, camp craft, mountain climbing, paddling, sailing, wilderness first aid and other essential outdoor skills. While all of these skills are essential for a successful backcountry expedition, it is through the process of learning these crafts that we learn more about ourselves. After all, at the original Outward Bound Sailing School in Aberdovey, Wales, Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, remarked that the school’s mission was “less training for the sea than training through the sea.”
So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I began practicing my music fervently so that I could hit the ground running once life returned to “normal”. I’ve also recorded and released an album. I started learning things I always wanted to learn such as sailing, martial arts, foreign languages, cooking and farming.
The potential of the human spirit is so immense, and while difficult to describe, I feel myself connecting with it every time I put my body and mind to work. This past year has been difficult, but through this my skills, and ultimately, my character, has improved. I attribute it to the value of excellence.
To Serve, to Strive and Not to Yield
This has been a difficult time for us all and it’s hard to know when the world will return to “normal.” Quarantine has been eye-opening for many, in good and bad ways. I believe that with a little perspective, excellence, stillness and compassion we can change our everyday outlook from one of scarcity to one of abundance–and get back to enjoying life just a little bit more. Humans are no strangers to calamity; no one has ever gotten through life with brushing up against it. We can’t control it, but we can control how we react to it. As the Outward Bound motto states, I will choose “to serve, to strive, and not to yield.”
About the Author
Christian Vogelgesang has been instructing for the North Carolina Outward Bound School for over two years. His favorite part about the job is watching a crew rise to meet a challenge. When he isn’t instructing, he can be found playing music or playing pranks.
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