It was a 30-day Challenge. I had a sinking feeling. Thirty days seemed like an eternity. In the big picture of life, it’s the blink of an eye. How much could happen? I’d made a choice and already come this far.
Chasing “success” had failed to deliver the happiness I’d dreamed of. I’d carefully designed a plan for my life that started on the pages of a pink-covered spiral notebook in 2nd grade. Over time I checked the boxes next to many of my goals. The plan was an excellent one … until it wasn’t.
Sometimes life comes crashing down. Significant events mark clear turning points. For me, it was a slow erosion, and then the sudden realization that something had slipped away.
One night, on the couch with my two teenagers, we were watching the new version of Alice in Wonderland, with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. In this version, 19-year old Alice, feeling the stifling expectations of the society of 1871 London, receives an unwanted marriage proposal. Her heart sinks.
Out of the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of a white rabbit, says a polite “Excuse me,” and follows the rabbit down a deep rabbit hole. A disoriented Alice finds her “old” friends, though no one in Wonderland is sure she is “the right Alice” who had been there years before.
The Mad Hatter challenges a tiny, shrunken Alice, saying, “You’re not the same as you were before. You were much more, muchier. You’ve lost your muchness,” replies the Hatter. “My muchness?” Alice asks. “In there,” the Hatter says as he points to her chest, “something’s missing.”
The Heroine’s Journey
Over the next few days, I began to see the parallels in my story to Alice’s. Somewhere along the path of my perfect, expected life, I, too, had lost my muchness. For the first time in my life, I had no plan.
The ancient Greeks to modern movie makers utilize a similar template for the stories we love the most—the hero’s journey. The unexceptional girl is living life. Disruption arrives as the gateway to an adventure. Against the odds, she finds guides and experiences challenges along the way to the victory of transformation before finding her way back home.
As I stood at the precipice of my own heroine’s journey, it felt much less glamorous than the way it’s described in the stories. Fortunately, I was not alone. I’d been infected as I walked alongside my fellow CIPP sojourners as we spent a year together in the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology program. Their courage had been contagious.
We’d explored our character strengths by using the VIA Character Strengths assessment. It identifies what makes you feel authentic and engaged—the positive parts of your personality and aspects of your character, your innate abilities that you perform with ease. The results of my assessment arrived as a map I did not yet recognize that would guide me on my journey.
The 30-Day Challenge
I knew the basic tenets of a 30-Day Challenge. Design a habit that would move me toward thriving. I’d pressed myself into some 30-day exercise and eating challenges, which had become part of my life. This go-round, I wanted to find muchness. With these few clues, I decided to tap into the spirit of Alice and venture outside. I had a new iPhone and a newly discovered woods near my home. Maybe I’d find a rabbit to follow.
I decided I’d go outside for 30 days, take photos of “something” in nature and then share one image a day on social media.
Curiouser and Curiouser
On day four, I charged out the door, phone in hand. With the looming pressure of an over-packed schedule for the day, I calculated I could be in the woods within a few minutes, snap a photo, edit it, and post it as I walked back.
Then I saw her—a tiny masterpiece. She looked like an artist’s sketch. I dropped down flat on the ground to meet this tiny mushroom, eye to eye. The smell of the earthy mulch under her wrapped around me. I knew her kind. She had a life span of only a few fleeting hours. As I took the photos, the details of her underside gills, tinted with black ink, came into focus. My curiosity grew. Time slipped away. Something within me lit up and flickered like a sparkler.
Curiosity was the first quiver of my muchness that woke up in me that morning. I recognized that feeling of excitement from playing as a young child enveloped in a green room of the branches of a weeping willow on my grandparent’s farm. It was a brightness of being fully in my senses and bolstered by the desire to explore the next discovery and delight. As a child, I was bold, wondering about why and how it all worked. I loved looking closer and following vibrant, bright colors and patterns to understand what was within.
The days ticked off on the calendar. On some walks, I’d focus on the tiniest of things. I wanted to get low, to zoom in, look at all the details. Other days, my eyes would shift, my perspective would broaden, and I’d take in the forest and the trees. With each day I spent in my woods, among the trees, my curiosity flamed into a steady fire. My serious, over-packed adult life had squelched my curiosity over the years. In my woods, over time, looking so closely, my curiosity came back to life.
Among the Trees
New guides arrived daily. The scent of honeysuckle, the bright black-eyed Susans, the sweet songs of the birds, the rustle of a red fox under the brush collected my attention and attuned me over and over again to look, to seek out the fleeting treasures being offered. Within the first few days I found a perfect sitting spot among the roots of a magnificent katsura tree.
The flotsam and jetsam of the to-dos and shoulds of daily life had in the past regularly littered my life. They kept me caught in the constant churning tide of my mind, forgetting that my body had senses. In the woods, the waves of my mind would settle and release me back into my body. Sight, smell, taste, and touch became invitations for alternate ways to experience life free of my thinking mind. Something was shifting in me, nudged by the tiny mushrooms, fliting butterflies, blooming flowers, and intricate trees’ roots.
Mary Oliver’s words arrived one day, bringing a voice to what was happening.
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness and discernment, and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
When I was among the trees, I fell quickly into a rhythm matching theirs. With my open attention and a choice to look, I saw no rushing or struggle for things to be different from what was. The fleeting and the permanent, the sturdy and the flexible all flowed together within each day. In this absence of resistance, I could sense their hints of gladness and feel it spreading within me.
Beauty and Excellence
Each day the scenes shifted, and I took it all in. There were arcs of fractal patterns reproducing the perfect proportions of the Golden Ratio. A leaf’s vein pattern, the trees’ bark’s colors, and endless shades of blue sky—it was as if I was studying a prolific and magnificent artist.
At home, after my walks, I’d look to see what my photos had captured in another round of surprises. Details I had not noticed before came clearly into view. Each image was a slice of the story of my time in the woods, a glimpse of nature’s beautifully choreographed dance.
Appreciation of beauty and excellence was another one of my strengths. It’s the ability to seek out beauty and experience feelings of wonder and gratitude. It’s also about appreciating excellent craftsmanship and mastery of skill in self, others, and the world. As my collection of images grew there were ripples of positive emotions that rolled through me in waves—as I took the photos, as I worked to prepare the image, as I looked at them weeks later. I was in awe of the mastery of design that nature delivers, day after day.
In positive psychology, I learned about the power of positive emotions. We talk a lot about the chemical cascade of hormones that happens when we are under stress that can negatively affect our bodies. The body is a brilliant system, and it works both ways. Curiosity, wonder, awe, gratitude, and love are all positive emotions, and they trigger the feel-good hormones that enhance health and wholebeing. As I spent more time experiencing positive emotions, I was strengthening my ability to balance my nervous system, which helped me work with challenges, change, and life’s daily stressors more effectively.
I also began noticing the ripple my images made as I shared them. Instantly people would respond. Friends I’d see at the gym or the grocery store would tell me they loved seeing the daily images. They looked forward to them and felt as if they were there with me, in the woods. My desire to keep sharing the images, to extend what nature offered me daily, pushed my strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence even further.
I was learning to look with less expectation and more patience. In that state of mind the fleeting treasures arrived. As I composed a photo each day, I remembered how much making was a part of me.
Creativity is the act of thinking and making. Life and work are a continuous stream of challenges. To dream, envision, and innovate in life, then pull together the resources to bring those ideas alive amidst the challenges requires practice. Being creative in any way—painting, drawing, writing, cooking, gardening, and taking photos—requires trial and error and builds problem-solving skills.
A study published in 2021 found that engaging in everyday creative activities during the pandemic, like I was doing, fostered and reflected psychological health. However, I didn’t need a study to know that this daily creative act brought me joy and much more. Then I knew what Mary Oliver meant—these trees, these walks, these photos were saving me, and daily.
Falling in Love
Thirty days turned into 60 days and then stretched into 120 days and then 150 days. The daily walks were no longer a to-do on my task list. I slowed down. Each day I anticipated that moment when my breath would catch as I spotted the beauty.
The time in the woods shifted from producing an image to a practice of gratitude. I would pause and bow to the people who had left this little patch of green, to this daily practice, to the pines, the maples, the dogwoods, and the katsura. In walking slowly, getting to know, receiving what nature offered, and bowing often, I fell in love. Another strength surfaced.
The VIA defines love as “the ability to invest in reciprocal loving and the capacity to receive love from others in romantic, friend, and companion, as a compassionate patron or a parent-child relationship.” The love I found was a love of nature, a love of life. It, too, was reciprocal. As our familiarity with each other grew, I would cross the threshold of pavement that turned to soil in the woods, and it was as if nature was waiting for me.
Eckert Tolle’s small book Stillness describes it best: Nature can bring you to stillness. That is its gift to you. When you perceive and join with nature in the field of stillness, that field becomes permeated in your awareness. That is your gift to nature. Through you, nature becomes aware of itself. Nature has been waiting for you, as it were for millions of years.
Millions of years. When I sat at my beloved katsura tree, I could feel this deep stillness, deep peace, a deep and life-giving feeling of love. That feeling spread over me like the wandering honeysuckle vines that I watched grow in the early summer months of my walks. I could say yes to this gift. I could be in love with nature, and with life. When I felt this love for nature, I felt happier, and I responded to life with more ease, less struggle, and more peace. But there was something that mattered to me beyond being happy.
What started as a 30-day Challenge became a life-giving daily ritual. Days built on each other like deposits of sediment, and another of my strengths became a sandstone rock and anchor. For sandstone to form, sediment collects and solidifies due to pressure across time. Life can be like that too. When things shift, we feel stress, and while it may not be comfortable, it can solidify the foundation for the next step in our growth.
By this time almost four years had passed since I began the 30-day Challenge. In the woods, nature carried on. The seasons and cycles played out with expansion, contraction, energy, and then rest. Like beautiful, vivid illustrations I could see nature’s relentless resilience. As a grand tree falls, it takes on the next phase of its life as home for new occupants. The space left behind opens possibilities for new growth. As the months collected and the world continued to feel like it was falling apart, nature continued to display these signs of leaning toward the light, and growth as an ever-expanding, interconnected, and interdependent system.
With life deconstructed, the underpinnings of dysfunction of so many of our systems came more clearly into view. What happens when you realize the world no longer makes sense, and to move forward, so much of it must first come undone? Seeing these signs in my woods built my sandstone of hope. Not just the everyday kind of hope that things will work out, a radical hope, as defined by philosopher Kyle Robertson. “It is a commitment to live a meaningful and good life according to standards of meaning and goodness that we haven’t created yet together. It is a hope that will survive in a world we don’t yet understand.”
Against all the odds, I could see this radical hope in the tiny mushrooms that grew and delicate flowers that bloomed in a web of interconnected diversity. Not because they wished for it. Because that is the way of nature. People spoke of being in it together. In nature, together is the only way. In this small pressure across time during a pandemic, I had a choice again as to what I would look for and what I might see—loss or opportunity, death or rebirth, despair or hope. This last character strength of hope, radical hope, became my rock, anchoring all of my strengths.
The Way Home
We depend on nature not only for our physical survival. We also need nature to show us the way home, the way out of the prison of our own minds. We got lost in doing, thinking, remembering,
anticipating–lost in a maze of complexity and world of problems. We have forgotten what rocks, plants and animals still know. We have forgotten how to be–to be where life is: Here and now.
I had started my search for muchness as if it was a holy grail, a solid object to repossess. In the slivers of time in the woods each day, I walked and sat still. I looked at the forest and the trees, the rain, and perfect cloudless blue skies following the voices of the poets. Yet, it was the framework of positive psychology that eventually allowed me to see what had happened along the way.
My muchness was the collection of my character strengths—curiosity, appreciation of beauty and excellence, love, and radical hope. These were the parts of me that made me feel alive in the here and now and my navigation tools for the stormy and sunny days. With this collection of treasures in my pocket, I learned to see my right path and found my way back home.
This post was originally published in Finding Unshakable Happiness, a collection of essays from WBI graduates collected by Donna Martire Miller.
Alice Dommert is a Wholebeing Architect and the founder and CEO of Prasada, a collective of health, leadership, and wholebeing professionals. The team at Prasada believes that everyone has the desire to thrive—to live a life of health, purpose and joy. They serve as committed guides to help busy people discover, land build wholebeing practices―habits of awareness for mind and body, as the path to grow and thrive. Alice is a licensed architect and exhibit designer, writer, speaker, and consultant with training in yoga and mindfulness, breathwork, and a certified as a Level 1 CrossFit trainer. In addition, she holds a certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute and trained in leadership development with the Preeminent Growth Collaborative. She is committed to continually learning, testing, and living wholebeing practices of mind and body.