National Parks and Chill: Learning to Meditate at Joshua Tree

Credit: Harrison Shull / Getty Images

I am not a calm person.

Scratch that: I’m a pulsing ball of nerves who's always waiting for something really bad to happen. I have a hard time concentrating, and to make up for that, I drink too much coffee and over-work myself in an attempt to catch and squeeze out every last drop of focus I have. I get angry, I get depressed, I obsess over the tiniest little things, and I constantly tell myself I need to do more. These are things I’ve accepted, but over time I also learned that I could actually push those things to the side, take control, and find some sense of balance.

This is the part where I tell you about meditation. I’m only letting you know that up front because I fear I’m starting to sound like some minor league Tony Robbins, or like I’m trying to sell a magical elixir, or give you a personality test. I swear that I’m not. I understand all the reasons why people aren't comfortable sitting down and not doing anything for a certain amount of time, especially when we are always connected, where our iPhone is right next to us to check first thing in the morning, and bad things feel like they’re happening somewhere almost every hour on the hour. I get it, there’s something inherently strange or off-putting to you about blocking that out for a little bit. Makes sense to me. I had the same issues for a long time.

Then 2006 happened. A breakup, a job loss, a friend died, I was 25 and felt like I was going nowhere with my life except to the bar on an almost nightly basis, and things seemed bleak. The only plan that made sense was to spend whatever money I had in my savings account and go stay on a friend’s couch in Los Angeles for a week.

So right here you’re probably thinking this is the part where I say I joined a cult in the Hollywood Hills or something. I could see this going in that direction. Guy gets fed up with fast-paced life in New York, goes out west, meets some people with some radical ideas, starts to wear a robe, and nobody hears from him again. But no; I just hung out in Silver Lake mostly reading and drinking coffee until it was time for my friend and I to pack our tents into his car and drive two and a half hours east to Joshua Tree for two days of camping. That was the point of the trip.

Besides maybe the Grand Canyon and the Everglades, Joshua Tree is usually the place people bring up when talking about National Parks. You get 790,636 acres of land, the sand dunes, the trees, the stillness, the sky, the people — you can tell they're probably on psychedelics or simply did too many in the '60s and '70s — the rock climbers, and the Gram Parsons’ fans who are lured there to find the memorial to the late singer whose body was brought there by his friends who intended to cremate it. Lizards, roadrunners, coyotes, and snakes all call the park home, and to a person who spent his entire life in the flatlands of Illinois and later the hustle of New York City, it can really seem like a totally different planet. A very beautiful planet, but still a little unnerving because of how much there is to take in, and how much of it seems totally foreign to my everyday life. I grew up camping, but Joshua Tree took me right out of my comfort zone, and it was exactly what I needed.

In an effort to better myself, I’d been going to meditation seminars and reading up on it in the weeks leading up to my trip, after seeing an article on “meditation as a subversive activity,” and I thought to myself, "I love subversive activities!" It’s silly to me now, but the idea that meditation could be helpful was blocked out by something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. All these weird stigmas, like it doesn’t actually do anything, to this idea that meditation is a form of indoctrination into a cult or religious practice all swirled in my head — like they get you when you’re relaxing or something. Then I read that piece, and suddenly I started to think to myself that meditation really sounded like the opposite of all of those things, and through a little reading and practicing, I learned pretty fast that meditation is all you, the individual. You can do it with a guide or with other people around, but it’s an individual practice. In a world where you have nothing — on par with a college freshman, philosophically speaking — the time you take to meditate belongs to you and you alone.

The thing was, I was having a hard time with it. Any instructor, no matter if it’s one from Transcendental Meditation or Andy Puddicombe of the Headspace app, will tell you that it takes getting used to, all that sitting up, breathing in and out, trying to notice thoughts and feelings, but also not dwelling on them too much. There’s no meditation phenom, nobody is the Steph Curry of meditating. But I wasn’t having that; I wanted to be chill, I wanted to be happy, and I wanted to feel like every single time I sat there in silence with my eyes closed that I was getting something out of it, and that was really my biggest problem. To combat that problem, I reasoned, I needed to wipe the slate clean and go somewhere where I wouldn’t be distracted. That’s really why I ended up in Joshua Tree.

Without turning this essay on meditation into an actual meditation, I’ll simply tell you I woke up just as the sun was rising. I thought I saw a snake outside my tent, so instead of sitting out on the little piece of ground I had staked out, I decided to open up my tent door, and meditate looking out. It wasn’t the perfect picturesque setup I’d envisioned, but that was never the point. I sat there with my eyes closed, the unfamiliar sounds chirping and whirling around me, and I was still and calm. After twenty minutes, my stopwatch alerted me that it was time to open my eyes. I kept sitting, letting it sink in that I’d spent a full 20 minutes concentrating on my breath, the outdoors as my soundtrack, and that I felt good about it. There was nothing necessarily life changing that had taken place, but it was a feeling I knew I wanted to experience more.

Today, ten year later, I meditate twice a day; once in the morning after I’ve had a few minutes to wake up, and at night after I get home and have had a little time to myself to let go of the day. I still live in the city, still sleep with a noise machine on, still feel stress from time to time, still get down, and I still drink too much coffee. I’m not sure if those things will ever go away. But I’ve learned to better compartmentalize anxiety and deal with it in a more constructive manner, and I really do think that morning was what started me off. There was something inspiring about meditating in the middle of Joshua Tree, and about being outdoors, and breathing in fresh air instead of the dust and dog hair in my apartment. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or resources to get out to California that often, let alone get to a national park. So once a week I do the next best thing and carve out a little time in the morning, just before the joggers and bikers are out in full force, and I go and sit in the park across from my house and meditate there. It’s not the desert, but I’ve found being outside, just breathing with my eyes closed, is really all I ever needed.