Drawing from Nature’s Steadfast Spirit to Heal

Drawing from Nature’s Steadfast Spirit to Heal

By Katie Arnold, author of Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World: Zen and the Art of Running Free

I’ve always been happiest outside. The child of a complicated divorce, I sought freedom and solace in my backyard and, as I grew, in the concentric circles of wildness that continued to expand around me. In my teens, I rode my bike and ran around my neighborhood. My father took us on kayaking and bicycling trips, where we camped overnight in pup tents and ate baked beans and hot dogs over a camp stove. In my 20s I discovered backpacking and whitewater kayaking and trail running.

Movement through nature was not just how I moved my body, it was how I moved my mind. As a journalist and writer, I wrote stories in my head when I ran up mountains, walked through the desert, or paddled down rivers.

In my 30s, my husband and I raised our daughters outside as much as possible, introducing them to rivers and canyons, mountains and forests. In my 40s, I ran deep into the backcountry to heal from the grief of losing my father. The wilderness was my safe place and my muse. It was home.

What I didn’t know was it would someday crack me open — and put me back together again.

In 2016, I was in a terrible accident on the Salmon River in Idaho in what was fittingly called the River of No Return Wilderness. Falling from the raft was a sudden break in this narrative. My life, like the raft, went upside down in an instant. My surgeon warned me that I should never run again. If I did, I’d never run the same as I once had — just as I would never be the same. I would have to strengthen my mind to heal my body and my heart. I would have to redefine my relationship with the natural world, patch my shattered body back together, and heal the gaping breach that had opened between my husband and me.

As the impact of the accident set in, part of me understood that this was a good thing — maybe the very best thing.

I’d learned about Zen through running and about running through Zen. Through my long recovery, a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by the late Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki became my constant companion. In it he wrote, “The most difficult thing is to always keep your beginner’s mind…In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” The accident had made me a beginner all over again.

Injury filled me with a curious emptiness. It was like nothing I’d felt before. I tried to name it but it was too slippery for description. If I were to name it, it would become something, when what it was, was an absence.

Facing ambiguity is inherently uncomfortable. It’s human nature to want to know how things will turn out. Motherhood and marriage are protracted exercises in instability. Then again, when you look closely, all of life is this way — we just do a very good job pretending otherwise, and life, for a time, lets us. But in Zen, not knowing is considered a form of wisdom. Being willing to accept uncertainty brings us closer to the truth of life.

I didn’t know what would happen next, but I knew where to look for answers: Mountains and rivers had always been my teachers. They’d helped me heal before, and would show me again.


The first rule of rivers is the first rule of Zen: Don’t fight the current. Go with it, not against it. On any river you need momentum, not brute strength, to move downstream. You have to be fluid, not forceful. If you fight it, you’ll never win. The Salmon River had been more technical than any whitewater I’d ever run, but it was not unfriendly. It was simply itself, coursing through the wilderness. It had been up to us to match its pace. Like the river, you have to flow along the path of least resistance.


There’s no better place to practice surrender than at the bottom of a canyon. Inside a canyon you can’t see out, you can only see ahead to the nearest bend. You have to take the water one rapid at a time. Even when you can’t see where you’re going, a canyon will carry you there. A canyon shelters you even as it tests you.


From a distance mountains tower over you, but as you approach, they seem to shrink, almost disappear. They become the trees in front of you, rocks under your feet, bits and pieces of a bigger picture. In Santa Fe, my daily ritual was running up Atalaya Mountain. I beat the same well-worn path to the top of the mountain, but it was different every day. The unremitting sameness revealed, in fact, that nothing was the same, ever. The famous Zen master Eihei Dogen, a Japanese poet-philosopher who lived in the 13th century, once wrote, “Mountains belong to people who love them.” I’ve known Atalaya so well and loved it for so long, it feels like mine. But the opposite is true: I belong to the mountain.


One night, as I paddled on a lake, Mars was rising above the trees, gleaming orange like the tiny, faraway tip of a matchstick. Venus was sinking and Mars was climbing, but for a moment they appeared exactly equidistant, eye to eye, as though winking at each other from a great distance, greeting each other across millions of miles and millennia. Together, they made a strange, beautiful symmetry. It made my head swim just thinking about it. Amidst all the days of brokenness, injury, and fear, were also wondrous days — I felt part of everything all at once.

Traversing the tender and sometimes treacherous territory of marriage at midlife, while also trying to reconcile my self-identity as a runner with my long, non-weightbearing recovery, was an exploration in nonattachment. Instead of conceptualizing life, I had to be in it — right in the middle of the stream of time unfolding. Living this way, I’m in sync with the energy of life. I’m part of the world and it’s a part of me.

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Katie Arnold is a longtime contributor to Outside Magazine. A Zen practitioner and elite ultrarunner, Katie teaches writing workshops exploring the link between movement and creativity. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN The Magazine, Runner’s World, and Elle, among others. Her new book, Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World: Zen and the Art of Running Free (Parallax Press, April 16, 2024), is a spiritual guide, a tale of adventure, and a philosophical quest into the ultramarathon of life. Learn more at katiearnold.net.