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There are some events and experiences that reach well beyond the realm of standard conference fare. These ephemeral gatherings are often a mix of tangible and abstract, of linear and nonlinear. I was the executive producer of one such event recently. For five days, 600 people gathered to discuss the difficult and the beautiful, to explore the lyrical and the literal, and to be both performers and observers. 

For the attendees, it was often moving and intense, a unique experience for many. After five days, as people drifted quietly away and into the rainy Lisbon night, I wondered how they might take their experiences back home with them. How would they hold the transition space between the somewhat magical environment of the event, and the harsh reality of the world?

Preparing for the harsh environment

What would happen when they returned to a job with a cynical boss who is not interested in that “kumbaya-hippie-campfire stuff“? How would they reconcile their inspiration with the financial realities of their life situations? How might they navigate a world still dominated by the type of capitalism that is going strong despite early reports of its imminent demise?

The NOLS program, a global wilderness school that uses the harshness of nature to teach leadership skills, addressed similar concerns in Briefing for Entry Into a Harsh Environment. After putting attendees through a week or more in intense and often hostile conditions in the wild, the organization realized that people struggled to make sense of their experience when they returned to the truly harsh environment of “real life.”

We’ve taken care of ourselves. We’ve been in touch with basic survival tasks. We’ve taken chances with other people, entrusted them with our lives and have seen no reason not to grow close to them. We’ve persevered and put our minds to things that never seemed to end. We’ve learned to use new tools and new techniques. We’ve taken care of the things we have with us. We’ve lived simply.

Briefing for Entry Into a Harsh Environment, NOLS

During this event, attendees were in touch with their deepest emotional survival skills, touching on the meaning of masculinity and vulnerability, of the tension between cooperation and competition. They took a chance in witnessing a disturbing and violent performance that bordered on madness. They trusted others enough to sit alone on a stage in front of hundreds of strangers. As one attendee wrote in a testimony, they had never been asked so often “to look into someone else’s eyes.” 

In other words, attendees exercised emotional hygiene, taking care of their inner lives the way they care for their outer lives, and learning to sit at the threshold of the two. Here are some things they can take back home, borrowed from the NOLS briefing.

Take care of yourself

Even if the crowd moves in the direction of the loudest and brightest, it is imperative to know what is and what is not right for you. Vulnerability is a risk; don’t force it or take it for granted. 

Stay in touch with basics

The world is complicated and increasingly chaotic. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by complexity. There is a global conspiracy against simplicity and elegance. Fight to stay focused on the few things that matter most, and you’ll save your sanity.

Keep taking risks with strangers

Allowing people to get close can result in some of the most delightful surprises.

Consume less. Create more.

You will never have as much satisfaction from consuming than from creating.

Remember you can let go

You don’t have to do everything, be everywhere. In other words, you can let go of others’ expectations. 

Persevere at difficult things

The world is given to those who persevere. Often you will receive no support for your perseverance because everyone else is too busy being confused.

Continue to learn

The “fountain of youth” is in continual learning.

Take care of things

Be what the philosopher Wendell Berry calls “a true materialist.” Build things of quality, mend what you have, and throw away as little as possible. That’s true for material possessions as well as relationships.

Take care of each other

Spend enough time outside your internal world to notice someone needs. Offer a word, a hug, or a silent, fully present recognition that says, “I see you.” You may be the single source of sustenance for someone. If someone offers you these things, accept.

These tenets can serve anyone, wherever you go. You don’t need to scale mountains, or attend fancy conferences, to learn to live these lessons. But sometimes extreme adventures do give you a safe place to experiment and experience them.

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