• Cindy Mundahl

Finding Presence During Chaos

Boundary Water Canoe Area

As the pandemic continues and days filled with sameness turn into months, I’ve become increasingly aware that it’s difficult for me to be present. Each day my mind seems to be weighted down by the drastic change in how we live now that it leaves me feeling like I’m living in a thick fog. My mind wanders aimlessly from one thought to the next and never seems to settle. I feel like I’m trying to live while being immersed in a thick soup of molasses which keeps me stuck and slows my brain and body. I miss the moments of presence that I used to be able to find each day. They were crisp and clear, now they are fewer and farther between and laden with a fog that pervades each day and each waking moment.

It’s the loss of those crisp moments of presence that I often find myself lamenting these days. We are several months into a pandemic that grows more dire by the day and whose end seems far less than certain. I try to remind myself that I can’t expect life to be the same as it was before the pandemic started, but I grasp for that familiarity nonetheless. I’ve tried lengthening my meditation practice, but to no avail, even it is mired in the thick fog.

This past February, without knowing it, I gave my future self a gift. I planned a summer trip for several days to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northern Minnesota. This trip to the BWCA felt something like a miracle as it was the only plan I made pre-pandemic that actually went forward as planned. This alone was cause for celebration in a time filled with cancellations and disappointments.

As we paddled into the BWCA against a fierce wind that made it feel like we were moving backwards despite our best efforts, I found myself grinning for the chance to be in one of my favorite places in the world. I quickly felt embraced by my surroundings as if I was visiting an old friend. I felt the stress of the world release itself from my body with each paddle stroke and I was shocked by how quickly I forgot the chaotic world I’d left only moments before. Over the course of several days in the BWCA, I felt as though I was returning to myself, as if the world of the pandemic, social unrest, and inequality was washed away. The fog in my brain lifted and I was completely present for the first time in months.

I like to sit in the bow of the canoe where I can paddle without obstructed views and watch the water part in front of the boat. The rhythmic slice of the paddle through the plane of the water is enrapturing to me, often because it cuts through the water without a sound while propelling the canoe forward. I find it to be a great metaphor for life. Progress is often soundless, lacking fanfare, but we paddle on toward some unknown landscape we hope may be better than the last. Watching the insects dancing on the surface of the water is captivating as are the loon calls that echo through the silence. I find it nearly impossible not to be present in the BWCA. Sightings of other people are few and silence is truly silent. In the moments sitting on the rocky shores of our campsite or taking a break from paddling in the middle of a lake, I found my ears trying to adjust to this true silence, grasping for something to hold into as if they couldn’t comprehend this true peacefulness.

As we approached the landing where we were to end our trip, the voices of people on shore slashed through my coveted silence and I felt my body tighten at the intrusion. It felt violent to be leaving the peace behind and to re-enter a world so averse to silence and solitude. Irritation grew inside of me and I longed to be back on the water in this separate world where I felt so at peace.

A few days after leaving the BWCA, I realized that it represents the space that I always hope to achieve through meditation, a connection between myself and the divine. The presence I feel in the BWCA is really an intense connectedness I feel with myself at a primal level. It’s a peace I can tap into in fleeting moments in day to day life, but pervades my consciousness without effort in the BWCA. Now that I’m back at home, I’ll be trying to reach that place in my consciousness once again. I’m grateful, especially during this chaotic time, to have found that connection to self once again even if only for a few days. It was a welcome respite from the fog that’s pervaded my consciousness these past several months. My hope is that everyone can find their own version of the BWCA to gain some peace and connection during this time of chaos and suffering.

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