Sometimes I make a shift when I go for a walk, just after starting out. I call it “going feral.” It does not take much: just a slight lean in a certain direction, a quick thought, a pause and a glance around. It can be a few steps down a trail, or a few steps out my back door. In the Tom Brown, Apache-influenced world of nature awareness, it might be called “shifting into the force.” Sometimes it is called “losing your mind and coming to your senses.” Whatever I call it, it is a visceral sensation that puts me into an entirely different frame of mind.
Here it is in its simplest form: get a little ways down a trail, away from the car or house. Find a spot where you can step off the trail into a little cover, maybe under the eave of some trees or behind some brush. If you have a partner who you can do this with, lucky you! Go for it. It is one of the greatest ways I know to spend time with a friend. But it is often best to be alone, because the next step is the critical one: be quiet! Quiet your chatter. Quiet your thoughts. Pay attention to where you are.
This is the shift: check into your senses; listen out around yourself; tune in; open your eyes and let the light in. Now you are shifting. Go into your primal animal self; it’s always there, just under the surface, ready to awaken.
The first rule of going wild is to understand the dangers in nature and how to manage them; if you are susceptible to poison oak, make sure you know exactly what the plant looks like at any time of year. This is perhaps the first rule any animal lives by: avoid danger and injury at all costs. Have you ever noticed how cautious and careful wild animals are, how wary of anything unusual, and how reluctant they are to get in physical fights? They know well that a small injury could mean death, and they are extremely clear about the cost-to- payoff ratio involved. If you want to experience a little more wildness, take note of this. Learn to push your edges but always with a wide margin of safety and clear knowledge of the dangers involved.
So take that first step off the main path. From this spot you have chosen, just hidden from view, you can begin to shift into the mind of a deer or a coyote, aware of everything around you. Become an animal, enter your creature self. Begin to move again. Step back out onto the trail, but stay in this altered state.
Everything has changed. Feel your wildness. Every step you take sounds loud now. You instinctively walk more carefully, step more quietly, and see more clearly. You feel your kinship with all of the life forms around you: the grasses, the trees, the insects, and the birds. You also deeply feel your vulnerability and the fragility of nature under the onslaught of human power.
But we can use this human power in a reverse direction. We have great potential for providing safety to other beings. Once you begin to go feral, you touch a universal field of awareness in nature. You can project a sphere of safety that emanates from your sense of love and empathy for other lives and from your deepest sense of respect for life. Other animals will feel this, their curiosity piqued by a state so unusual for a human, and they will be drawn toward you if you can maintain it in spite of the startling close-up encounters that may occur.
Getting feral is a habit I have developed over a lifetime of being outside. Some of my earliest memories are of times, barely out of the toddler stage, when I made this shift. I felt like I had moved into the magical world of nature and felt the power of my primal animal self. I always felt welcome and safe in that world, instinctively knowing how to be quiet and slip into the wildness. I think the veil between my human self and the natural world has always been thin.
This shift can be as quick as a thought. But it does have to be intentional. It is all too easy to march out on a hike, especially with others, and continue all the talk and chatter, surely enjoying nature, but not a part of it, just a tourist. All it takes is a pause. It is a prayer to the most local god possible. It is a prayer of humility and respect, an acknowledgment of the depth and mystery of life.
Moving around like this is a dynamic meditation involving our body, mind, and spirit, all working together in what is our natural state of being human. There is a great sense of generosity, kindness, and patience in this state of mind. It is a reward in itself.