It is because he is thus free from striving that therefore no one in the world is able to strive with him.
- Lao-Tse, Tao Te Ching 
Sometimes I feel like hiding from the world. The Pacific Northwest corner I call home has been veiled in smoke from long-burning fires in California, Montana and B.C. for much of the summer. Every morning, I check an air quality app just to see if it’s safe to spend the day outside. Then there’s the news. From natural disasters to equally inhospitable political climates, the news leaves me informed but depressed. Looking around, the planet feels like it’s suffering, and at times I feel that way, too. How about you?
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by forces beyond our immediate, individual control—surrounded by battles that seem impossible to win. It makes sense, wanting to retreat.
What I propose is reframing it not as retreating from, but retreating to: to a place blissfully free of overcommitted schedules, overextended energies, and constant media attention. A place where we can put ourselves back together after our nerve-racking world has shaken us apart. A place of solace, after having hitched our hearts to the things we thought would keep us buoyed in the storm of life—our health, our family, plans to buy a home or travel—only to be battered in the turbulent waters anyway, and to lose one or more of the things we were banking on. A place where the stress in our lives won’t overtax our nervous systems, or hide the joys that fill the spaces between our real and imagined crises. When we’re laser-focused on what’s hard, it’s difficult to see the good. And none of us can afford that.
Retreating to means finding your own space to experience the calm that returns our hearts, minds and bodies to equilibrium. It can mean literally escaping for a few days to a cabin in the woods, a shack on a remote shore, or a private “do not disturb” room in our own house—all of which can help us retreat to that quiet place in ourselves. Reading a book when there’s work to be done. Taking a slow, lavender-scented bath and staying in for the night instead of a quick shower before bolting out the door. Trying something slower, simpler, even if it feels boring at first.
When I spent a month in China with my husband a few years ago, we learned about the Taoist concept and spiritual practice of wu wei. Literally translated as “no action” or “without effort,” it’s perhaps best understood as “effortless action” in which one moves through life in a natural way, without attempting to control or force a situation. One becomes fluid like water, and just as yielding and adaptive. A passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, or The Book of the Way and of Virtue, uses the metaphor of water to express the concept:
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. 
The concept of doing through non-striving has been written about for millennia, as attested by the Tao Te Ching. I myself was introduced to wu wei in China in terms of tai chi. Originally conceived as a martial art and still practiced as such, it’s now especially known across the world for its slow, fluid movements that provide exercise as well as physical calming and mental clarity. It’s a practice that walks the middle path, where good health lies.
Movement and exercise are necessary for health, but pushing ourselves to the extreme—as I used to do as a professional long-distance mountain biker—can be hard on and even damaging to our bodies (just ask my arthritis-ridden left shoulder). It sounds like an extreme example, but how many of us aren’t currently preoccupied with some pain or stressor or worry that’s taking a physical and mental toll? Are we at war with our bodies, our neighbors, our coworkers? Perhaps it’s a sign that we need to hit the reset button, and practicing non-striving can do that.
Whether we are suffering with an ailment, anxiety or the general exhaustion of keeping the machine of our lives running, we can retreat to that still place in us where resilience dwells. Sometimes when we stop trying so hard, we return to ourselves. Things get easier. And better.
Where do you go and what do you do to find stillness? If it's hard to find the calm within, escaping to a quiet place for the weekend can be a good first step. Here are some of my favorite retreats in the Pacific Northwest:
Locharie Resort, Lake Quinault
Shi Shi Beach, Neah Bay
Doe Bay Resort, Orcas Island
Snowgrass Lodge, Leavenworth
Chatter Creek Campground
 Lao-Tse, Tao Te Ching, Tr. James Legge (BN Publishing, 2007). Viewable here.
 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. By Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Vintage Books, 1972) chapter 8, 1-3. I also like this very different translation from Derek Lin’s Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained (SkyLight Paths; 1st edition, 2006).
Photos: Top: J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812; Second: Personal photo of the Naerofjord in Gudvangen, Norway; Third: Personal photo of Wedge Mountain, Leavenworth, WA.
How spending time in Alpine Lakes Wilderness can awaken awe and lead to health benefits and a stronger community.
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
-William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
He hears the song of nature; he has transcended his humanity, you know, and reassociated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life, from which our mind removes us.
-Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey
We’re in a stolen world, with no other human creatures in sight. The sun is setting on Dragontail Peak, the rays turning its broad face a pinkish-gold and all below it to shadow. In front of us, Colchuck Lake, a deep aquamarine during the day, has darkened to slate, though it still reflects the gilded mountain above. Behind us, the larch trees and backlit valley ridge enclose what will be our borrowed home for several days. A light wind is dancing with the trees, rippling waves, and kissing our faces.
Colchuck Lake shimmers beside the gateway to the famed Enchantments Basin in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The way to reach it is via the Stuart Lake trailhead, just a short drive from the Bavarian-style mountain town of Leavenworth. The hike demands a mere 4 miles and 2,300 feet of elevation gain to reach an alpine paradise, and what reward for such little labor.
We are among the few remaining here after an afternoon filled with day hikers. Some without camping permits turned back hours ago. Enchantment Area Permits (obtained through annual and day-of lotteries) are required to camp here overnight. Others have continued up Aasgard Pass beside the Dragontail to reach the Core Enchantment Zone before dark. But we have made our home here at Colchuck Lake, content to bask in the golden hour, when the light transforms every known thing into something magical. And, come nightfall, we’ll have other lucky stars to count.
The wilderness draws many into its fold, and its startling beauty is reason enough. But there’s something singular about the scene--the fleeting sunset, the remote peak with its living glow--that makes this moment seem more significant than the one before. A bit of its radiance remains in our soul, like lingering twilight.
When we immerse ourselves in nature, it can alter our perception of time and place, ushering in a heightened sense of the world. And the deepest shifts may issue from feelings of awe. Being “awestruck” can feel like a flash of wonder that expands the world before your eyes, shrinking you in its vastness. You can feel deeply humbled, but at the same time as if you’ve never felt so alive.
Awe is a profound emotion that’s hard to pin down, for within its elusive and ineffable nature lies its power, pointing to something greater than what we can fathom or name. Still, researchers endeavor to study it, and some have documented the capacity of awe to increase “prosocial tendencies,” or altruistic behaviors that benefit other people or society.
One research study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015) synthesized five experimental evidence studies to document how inducing awe in test subjects, including placing them in an inspiring nature setting, resulted in increased tendencies toward generosity and ethicality, and a diminished emphasis on the self. In other words, awe helped them care a little more about others’ needs and less about their own.
The researchers concluded that awe “serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others” (897).
Awe realigns us with each other and our community. It inspires our service, and it serves us in return: there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that serving others can lead to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Probably because it helps us develop a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
For those of us already living our purpose (or following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell might say), seeking awe-inspiring experiences in nature may affirm our path and connection with the world. And for those of us still finding our way, nature can be our guide and teacher, as Wordsworth movingly avowed in his poetry.
There are so many reasons to seek nature: to reduce stress, improve mood, even minimize pain. The Japanese have a term, Shinrin-yoku—loosely translated as “forest bathing”—for spending time under the living canopy as a source of healing and preventive health care. But perhaps awe itself is the holy grail of nature experiences, an elusive feeling ever worth the pursuit, and so miraculous in its ability to inspire. When we find ourselves in nature, we also may find ourselves in wonder, marveling at a vastness beyond the world we know, discovering how good it is to feel so small before its grand immensity.
Want a little more awe in your life? More time in the “meadows, hills and groves," spellbound by sunsets or bathing in forests? You might find what you are looking for in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Leavenworth. Here are a few links to learn more:
Visit Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Hike the Enchantments
Discover Leavenworth, WA
Stay at Snowgrass Lodge