By Amanda Walker
It’s not a secret that our physical and mental health are affected by our environment and the people with whom we surround ourselves. But I think that all too often, when our focus yields to the inconsequential minutiae of busyness and distraction, we forget to intentionally construct our lives in a way that heals and inspires us. Paul Andersen, Founder and Director of Huts for Vets, has created a world for veterans that is separate and other than one which typifies bustling modernity. In this engaging oasis, we veterans are able to gain insight and perspective in a way that often proves illusive, despite our best efforts in finding clarity.
After having returned from my second Huts for Vets trip a little over a week ago, I have just begun to reflect on and unearth what it is about these experiences that I find so life-altering. The full scope of the effects are still germinating; I can feel that seeds have been planted for even deeper healing and change which has yet to come.
But for now, I will do my best to explain why these trips are so crucial for me, and I believe crucial for every veteran (and every human, if I’m being honest) to experience. Crucial, at least, until the time that we can change our world and our patterns of behavior in such a way that modern life does not tear at us and wear on our hearts and our souls, the way that it (unfortunately) often tends to do.
I began our conversation by saying that we are all affected by our surroundings; our environment and our companions. And this is true. Not just “kind of true”; it is deeply, intrinsically, profoundly true on a cellular level. In 1665, a Dutch physicist named Christiaan Huygens uncovered and brought to light the concept of synchrony: the occurrence that in nature, two separate entities that move or oscillate, if in close enough proximity to one another, will gradually begin to move at the same rate or interval. This phenomenon occurs in abundance across our universe; we observe this when the pendulums of two clocks placed near one another begin to swing in harmony. Fields of fireflies flash in unison as they draw near to one another. Our circadian clocks adjust themselves to the rhythm of the rising and setting sun as its patterns change by season and geographic location.
Significantly, increasing attention has been given, as of late, to “interpersonal synchronization,” or the alignment of us human-types when we are in the presence of one another. A Danish study found that when two strangers are put into a room to complete a task which requires trust or cooperation, their heartbeats fall into step. Several Swedish studies have demonstrated that the pulses of choir singers speed up and slow down at the same rate. A US study has found that the heartbeats of couples synchronize, even when they do not speak or touch, when they are in close proximity to one another. We are all connected. This is not a speculative statement or spiritual musing. This is a scientific fact. And when I have been given the generous gift of coming along these Huts for Vets trips, I have felt a deep cellular synchronization with the most remarkable people and with the most awe-inspiring environments.
The Huts for Vets curriculum provides a balanced mix of outdoor immersion, selected readings, and engaging discussions in which veterans are invited to participate in as great or as minor capacity as we feel comfortable and called to do. In this most recent trip, amid the vast and expansive mesas and valleys of Canyonlands National Park, we were invited to read poetry, historical texts and articles about the land, engage in meditative practices, begin our mornings with Qi Gong, and spend our days hiking and marveling at the beauty that surrounded us. We were provided meals of local, organic food, largely grown and harvested by Jake Sakson, our Qi Gong instructor, hiking guide, and culinary master for the trip. Jake worked tirelessly alongside Tait Andersen, who, in addition to generously guiding our hikes with his skilled expertise, woke with Jake before the sun to boil water for our morning coffee and begin breakfast preparations.
Our bodies were fed. Our minds were fed. Our souls were fed. We hiked on the earth and were connected with the earth. And from this foundation, we were connected with one another. We were given the nourishment and the tools to foster our greatest, highest versions of ourselves, and we were provided the opportunity to share that version of ourselves with our fellow veterans and trip leaders.
I felt so fortunate to find myself among such a motivating group of people. Everyone had so much to contribute and share. As an Air Force veteran with 10 years of service, I often feel “odd” and “different” among my civilian counterparts. And although all of our military service experiences were wildly diverse, I felt understood among my peers. Although I left the service in 2015, I still sometimes feel as though I am finding my feet when it comes to the full expression of how I hope to live out my life and my purpose. I am currently a Social Worker at the Veteran’s Administration serving veterans that are experiencing homelessness. It is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. But rather than fall into complacency, I find myself searching for more ways to serve (I think this is a common phenomenon among the veteran community; this constant push to serve in a greater capacity).
Among my Huts for Vets compatriots, I found inspiration through everyone with whom I interacted; counselors, wilderness therapists, activists, wellness experts. I made so many connections and have begun to formulate plans for greater engagements with some of the organizations and activities that I learned about. I was surprised (in the best way) to find myself among others that have been quietly (and some not so quietly) fighting to change the world for the better. And that is why these Huts for Vets trips are so essential; we are given the grounds to heal and a pathway to inspiration. Hopefully, from this place of wellness and gratitude for the people and places that have healed us, we are essentially compelled to use our renewed bodies and minds to help others. Hopefully, we are called to pass on the gifts that we have been given through this experience.
Maybe we will be inspired to heal others’ minds and spirits through our work and volunteerism. Maybe we will want to foster strength and resilience in the bodies of others. Perhaps we will be stirred to heal our environment, as it gave so much to us on this short excursion. Or we will advocate to shape our systems and government in such a way that one day we will not need to find refuge from the world to foster inner peace. Whatever capacity we feel called to serve in will ultimately promote a greater wellness in all of the other arenas. After all, we are nothing if not connected.
Mandy is reporting on a pilot program for a new HFV concept titled: “Spirit of the Desert” and will be offered to HFV alums in 2020.