Devastating wildfires ravaged California this summer, leaving much of the state covered in a thick blanket of smoke. The Lake Tahoe basin was no exception, as we witnessed our perfectly blue skies turn gray for weeks at a time. On the smokiest days, the fresh mountain air that we have grown accustomed to breathing took on the malodorous stench of a giant bonfire. Nerves were frayed and tempers were running high for locals and tourists alike as a collective uneasiness spread throughout the population. Together we struggled to stay positive and upbeat, exchanging forced smiles while the world burned down around us. Now that the worst of the smoke is behind us, let’s take a moment to see what, if anything, we can learn from this experience.
1.Taking deep breaths is not always the answer. Don’t get me wrong, in 99% of all the so called “bad” situations you find yourself in, taking a series of deep, conscious breaths will help ease any immediate tension and calm your reactive emotional responses. It’s just that, in the case of heavy smoke pollution, taking deep breaths is simply not the answer. Maybe that’s why this summer was so difficult for everyone: the one thing we could always rely on to help us out in a bad situation- i.e. breathing- was also the one thing we really shouldn’t be doing. With the entire population forced into taking short, shallow breaths, it’s no wonder there was so much collective stress. Now that the air is clear again, let’s relish the opportunity to relax our lungs and breathe fully and deeply once again.
2.Complaining doesn’t help the situation. Complaining draws attention to the situation. Complaining reminds everyone around you about what the problem is how it is affecting you negatively. However, complaining doesn’t really help put the fires out, it merely helps reaffirm the problem at hand. I did my fair share of complaining this summer as well, until I realized the futility of it. At some point I remembered that, although we were certainly suffering from all the smoke, we were still in a much better situation than the thousands of people who have been evacuated or have lost their homes to the fires. Yes- smoky air is terrible, it can completely ruin your day, but considering the hardships that others are going through, we really can’t complain.
3. The self and the environment are intertwined. Existence consists of the interplay between self and environment. One of the highest realizations you can have is that there is no real separation between you and the world that you find yourself existing in. The belief that you are separate from the physical world that you observe outside of your body is an illusion. Like two sides of a coin, self and environment are one and the same. You can’t have a ‘heads’ side of a coin without a ‘tails’ side just as you can’t have a self without an environment. That’s why nice, clear, sunny days make us feel so good inside. It’s because we are all mirrors, reflecting the world around us. This also explains why the summer was so difficult for everyone. Because when the sky is gray, it makes us gray. When the forests are on fire, it feels like we are the ones on fire. Rather than getting depressed about it, the best thing you can do is recognize that the negative feelings you are experiencing are the direct result of your compassionate nature. It means that you care. However, caring about something does not require that you suffer for it. It is possible to reflect the environment without internalizing it and making it all about you. It is a tremendous relief of internal tension when you realize that the wildfire problem is not actually yours to resolve. Your suffering as a result of all the natural destruction, while noble, is also completely unnecessary.
Now that the sky is blue again and the mountains have reappeared from behind the gray shroud of smoke, let's remember to appreciate how good a clear, blue sky makes us feel. We tend to take blue skies and fresh air for granted until they are taken away from us. We really can't control whether or not the smoke rolls into the basin, but we can control the way we react to our circumstances. In the meantime, let's remember to take full advantage of smoke free days by going outside and enjoying the sunshine whenever possible.
Nick Hughes is a massage therapist, yoga instructor and co-owner of Well Being.