2010 is no less eventful than previous years when it comes to global treks and adventures: In March I took a group to Nepal and Sri Lanka, in October I am leading a group on a climb up Kilimanjaro, in November there will be another humanitarian trek in Nepal, and in February 2011 I am taking a group on a safari tour of Tanzania. Additionally, I take groups to Wisconsin on weekend foraging trips every couple of weeks throughout the summer.
Although it may appear to be workaholism at first glance, there is a more meaningful and fulfilling purpose behind my group activities. This purpose revealed itself to me in 1998, when I first visited Nepal and witnessed the ceremonial mass cremation of the dead and the spread of their ashes over the holy river of Bagmati in Kathmandu. Bodies of young and old, rich and poor were laid over the tiles of Shiva's temple - all meeting the same fate. As I watched, I was overwhelmed with the realization of how easily one of those bodies could have been mine or someone dear to me. I had already witnessed much death and had long been aware of the fragility of life, yet somehow - until this moment - I hadn't truly internalized the significance of life's ending. It struck me that all the material possessions these people had accrued during their lives, whether modest or great, were now completely meaningless.
Philosophically speaking, one can argue that spirituality encompasses everything beyond materialism. Although spirituality is often equated with religion, the two are not necessarily connected. Caring for nature, sustainability, and animal welfare are all spiritual endeavors, since they are completely divorced from materialism.
Prior to 1998, I occupied myself with collecting material possessions, whether I was working as a musician, a teacher, a chiropractor, a medical doctor, or as a nutritionist. I had not yet realized how insignificant my material belongings were in comparison with a life dedicated to serving my fellow human beings and the environment.
Since that pivotal moment in Nepal, my work for health and ecology has become less a means of making a living, and more of a fulfilling life's mission. It was so refreshing and uplifting to have discovered a meaningful purpose that - out of enthusiasm and curiosity - I began inquiring my co-workers at the time about what they felt their purposes in life were. What I discovered was that many of them were unsure in this regard, just as I had been in the past.
I then realized that my life's mission should not only be limited to positively impacting the health of people and the environment, but that it should also include assisting other people in unveiling their purposes, in order that they too will be able to create small ripples of inspiration that will accelerate and increase the total beneficial global impact.
So how do I alter peoples' perspectives and assist them in discovering a life purpose? A lecture is one way, but it is only a two hour impact - not long enough to influence people to leave their comfort zones. Significant time is required for people to undergo a real change in awareness - this is why I created Eco-Adventures and Retreats. A two to three week period of group interaction in a foreign country gives people enough time and perspective to abandon their comfort zones and to ultimately realize their individual purposes based on their observations. Experiencing how people live in undeveloped countries - not just for the last 20 years, but over the last 10,000 years - is an illuminating experience for people. I have received many letters and testimonials from individuals about how life-altering these adventures were for them. Some of them have gone on to become healthcare providers or educators, while others have simply chosen to be less materialistic throughout their daily lives.
During these trips I try "maliciously" to inculcate knowledge and awareness about little-known principles of sustainability, revealing how many "eco-friendly" products sold in the U.S. reflect deceptive marketing tactics rather than true sustainability.
Visiting villagers in remote areas is a wonderful opportunity to gain a new perspective on sustainability as we observe their general life cycle: how they live, what they eat, how they work, and what and how they celebrate. What is their fossil fuel? Do they pollute the air or extract materials from the crust of the earth? Do they use pesticides and fertilizers? How do they conduct their family life? Are they satisfied with what they have and what do they require to feel happiness? What are the real needs of people for happiness?
Happiness is an elusive concept. If you are looking for happiness, you probably don’t feel it and if you seek health, you probably don’t enjoy it. Shouldn't we ideally be able to take health and happiness for granted? Leading a purposeful life is conducive to happiness since it provides a fulfilling course to chart as well as a useful societal role to fill.
Happiness appears to be less elusive in undeveloped countries. Americans are trapped, stressed, and chronically addicted within a culture of mass consumerism and perpetually increasing technology. We are ever more efficient in our exchange of communication, yet the quality of communication is at an all time low - reduced to mere text messaging. In remote countries, people are more connected to their land and families - they understand their role and they are satisfied. Around these kind of people in this kind of environment, it is possible to gain a fresh perspective and become receptive to the possibility of truly meaningful life change.
Giving people the opportunity to positively alter their lives is my primary motivation for taking groups on ecological adventures as well as on summer foraging weekends in Wisconsin. Even two days of foraging are sufficient to significantly impact peoples' perspectives when they realize that it is possible to forage in nature for all the food they need throughout the entire summer. In warmer climates, it is possible to forage all year long (as it was taken for granted for thousands of years) without ever needing depend on agriculture.
Agriculture has engendered an irrational fear of nature. Drug companies and other commercial entities have perpetuated this fear in order to profit from our dependence on their products. Surroundings once natural to us now seem alien and threatening. In touring Tanzania, whether on safari or hiking up the Kilimanjaro, I wish to offer an opportunity for people to become reacquainted with nature, partially by observing and learning from wild animals in their natural habitat. This is another reason I love to take people on ecological adventures: to help them overcome an illogical, self-limiting fear of nature.
Yet another reason is the long, probing conversations the group members often enjoy during an inspiring trek or during a health and nutrition talk, which I provide occasionally during such an adventure. There are often special, insightful questions from group members during these informal discussions, leading me to consider new perspectives surrounding the issues discussed and to question my own knowledge in a way that helps me expand my own horizons, create new lecture topics, and improve my ability to teach others.
The final reason I enjoy taking groups on adventures is that it is a great opportunity for physical exercise. Humans are lazy creatures just like other animals, who aren't seen jogging or going to the fitness club. Animals require short infrequent periods of intense physical activity in order to hunt, escape, or fight over a female - the majority of the time they move about at a mellow pace. People too are designed to be in nearly constant motion during the day - to walk, and to forage for food. Therefore, why not travel to some distant paradise to climb a mountain, while eating vegan food and breathing clean air? People often lose excess weight during these tours and gain experiences that are much richer and more fulfilling than what an air conditioned fitness club and five-star hotel can offer.
Those who are too comfortable in their sheltered lives, completely removed from nature, may see a fruit on a cactus tree and decide not to pick it lest a few thorns pierce their tender skin. The piercing thorns may have been avoided, but what about the missed pleasure of eating the fruit straight from the plant? We grow old unless we allow ourselves to live on the verge of discomfort. By allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable from time to time, we become receptive to more experiences, more happiness, and ultimately more health. After you have climbed a mountain, the pain and sweat diminish but the feeling of accomplishment always remains.