Gerard van den Berg is a certified Wilderness Guide (Level III Arctic WGA, Level II Desert, Level II Boreal Forest) and International Mountain leader (UIMLA). Since 2002 he guides, teaches, learns and facilitates worldwide through his own outdoor company and the European Wilderness Education School.
He sees nature as the best teacher we have. He takes you to environments that are far from the luxury of the modern world and allow you to reconnect with the essentials, explore your own limits and gain new points of reference for your life. The nature experiences with him are deep, joyful and certainly absolutely unique.
Gerard and I met 3 years ago doing a wilderness trail together for a client in the Norwegian winter. We connected deeply instantly and kept this connection up until today. Gerard planted a seed in me. I have always been close to nature, however, he makes me deeply re-think and re-feel my relation to earth and nature. He doesn’t need many words. He creates a magic space to let nature speak its own language allowing insights to evolve.
My conversation with Gerard is about the connection between transformation, vulnerability and the power of nature. He shares with great openness one of his own transformation stories and how transformation will find you when you are ready . Enjoy the read!
Gerard, thank you for taking the time to talk to me, I have been really looking forward to this conversation. So, let’s just dive in.
What does transformation mean for you?
Transformation for me means getting into a state where you become aware of new possibilities, a conscious place from which you have more freedom of action. I think transformation is intrinsic in our beings. Transformation is always connected to challenges, because to become aware of new possibilities we need to challenge our state of being. We need to experience new events and make new experiences. There’s also some risk involved, which is also intrinsic in life. Making new experiences means taking risks. If you stop taking risks, you stop living. You can’t be living always in the same present moment being what you were just one second ago. There’s always transformation.
Can you share a story of your own in which you have experienced a fundamental transformational shift that contributes to who you are today?
I come from a religious family and that shapes my being, especially when I was young, and that created the urge for me to get different reference points in life. So, I started to explore the world. I have been doing all kinds of expeditions, challenging myself, which gave me new references in life, but at the same time that challenging was so extreme that it took me totally out of balance. I started to have sleeping problems. I started to get nervous and I noticed that if I wanted to challenge myself, it needed to be more balanced. I was in a state of tiredness, stress, not being happy, not feeling well with myself and also with my surroundings. I started another approach, which was listening more in my surroundings to people that are wiser than myself, that are at another level.
That really helped me. I changed from a competitive way towards experiencing the now to becoming aware of a lot of “programs” that ruled my life. One of them was ‘calling for attention’. This is what we do when we are born as little babies. The first thing we do is ‘crying’. We are crying for attention because we need the attention of our mother to be able to survive. It’s such an intrinsic program in our beings which is later in life reinforced by the educational system. That’s actually everything we do, we need the affirmation of all the people around us about what we do and how we do things.
One day I was strolling through the house of my parents and I saw that poster of myself with the mountains that I climbed and how I had carefully noted down to whom I dedicated my climbing successes. There was one mountain I had dedicated to my parents. And in this moment, it hit me in my face. I have been trying to prove myself all my life, still within my 30ties I am still proving myself to other people. That was really a big wake-up call that changed my life. I started to listen more to myself becoming aware of all my programs and I did it in a more dynamic, gentle and caring way. I for example asked myself, “Who am I to give my mountains the name of my parents? Who are we to possess a mountain?” This brought me to a higher understanding about possession. Possession can have different meanings. You can see it in a romantic way, like belonging to somebody. But with an open mind there is a difference between having your hand open or closed, holding on to things tightly or having them lying openly in your hands and being able to see, feel and look at them in a non-attached manner. Looking at things how they are, this is what I intentionally practice now, not being attached, being open to everything and everybody.
Not attached to not even your family, your children?
Well, that’s the intention. But of course, I am not fully free of attachment and it’s about becoming aware of that. But you can’t possess a soul and you can’t possess a life. We’re ninety nine point nine hundred ninety nine percent energy, so you will not be able to possess the soul. You can’t get hold of energy in your hands. Never. And why would you want to? Everything is in flow, in transformation all the time. We need to enjoy each moment but let things flow, like water. I am water.
What interconnection do you see between transformation, fear and vulnerability?
As a little child I had a lot of fears. And I always faced my fears face-to-face. For example, if I had a fear of heights, I would start climbing. If I would have a question like why I don’t like to be alone, I would go to the forest and stay for four days in a hole in the ground, in the forest by myself. I always challenged and faced the dragons, at least the ones that I wanted to see at that moment. So, for me challenging and facing my fears is one way of transforming them.
But I found out that there is another way to transform fear. It’s being with the vulnerability that fear brings, which is different. Instead of fighting it, pushing it aside, I stay with it. I see it from an observer point of view when I become aware of it, I consciously not oppose myself to the fear. For example, if you were to have a fear of heights instead of saying “be brave and face the fear” it’s being with it, tuning into it, feeling it consciously. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not about taking bravery away, but it’s not about pushing the fear away but about connecting with it. I think you remember the situation we had with Lars (name changed) this year during our hiking tour. He totally lost himself when we were walking the ridge to the summit. He totally lost control, he was frozen, had to give over. That is the place of transformation: you can’t help but let go and trust in life. Here you get access to new possibilities.
What would be your most important recommendations on how to deal with transformation and vulnerability?
First of all, we need to be aware that we’re all connected. I am you and you are me, and we’re all in the same process. So instead of seeing each other as competition or as a danger we can create a space of trust together where the full spectrum of being and the full spectrum of vulnerability and emotion can be shown without judgement. It’s a space for people being themselves, a space of trust and accepting each of us and nature in life fully as it is.
And then secondly, it’s also a space in which people are allowed to try. People are allowed to make mistakes, which are intrinsic in life as well. Because otherwise we wouldn’t have a risk. So, in this space people can explore, try out, become aware and connect to the self and also take action, because it’s also about action. Action can be interpreted in different ways. For some people, it’s about very concrete actions, and for others it could also be some kind of awareness. It’s being much more aware of our creative power.
According to your own experience, what role does self-care play in a transformation process? How do you take care of yourself?
I started to see my body more as a temple instead of a vehicle to climb high. I started to notice that if I’m in my center I get into a positive attraction state as well and I activate different neurons. I create a different perspective from where I also attract different things. If you are in your center, you are seeing yourself taking care and being joyful. But selfcare is also about accepting the emotional states. It’s about awareness. It’s about taking yourself to places where you experience things. My preferred place is nature, as you know. Selfcare is also about taking care of your environment, because if you don’t take care of your environment, all the health care becomes actually much harder. However, and here the circle closes, if I am in my center that directly has influence on my surroundings.
So, for me authenticity is about observing your surroundings and being conscious about what impact you create and if the impact is positive, it means that you are in a place of beauty and joy.
How would you describe the essence of your work today?
Out of my believe that we are all one, I’m inviting my surroundings to that place. I invite to create more awareness in everything that we do, our relationships with ourselves, the relationship with our environments and with nature. Actually, for me this is all the same. I take people out in nature where I invite them to a space of deep, deep transformation, where they get connected to challenges and risks. There is a challenge factor there and the beautiful thing is that we don’t even have to create a specific challenge, the appropriate challenge will find the person exactly when it is the right time for him/her. And then life hits you right where you are, and from there it creates great awareness and takes action. So, I organize different kind of concepts and formats, that allow you to meet exactly those challenge that will take you further now.
And this also means that people massively get out of their comfort zones when they face their challenges. This manifests in totally different ways as we all are very unique. For example, people sometimes neglect their fear in that present moment and overrule it with default programs, like bravery or other avoidance behaviors they learned. Becoming aware of that in itself is beautiful because it makes those programs “naked”, computable and touchable. And this raising awareness is creating a new space for us in which we can make choices: do we want to continue to neglect and run our default programs or do we want to try something new. However, it also happens that people get kind of stuck in a spiral. They are facing the same dragons and fears over and over again and are becoming more and more aware of them but don’t dare to break the vicious circle. This feels to me more like an addiction. What’s in it for them staying in their spiral? But once you created that awareness you keep on bumping into that fear over and over again. There are deeper layers hidden somewhere that we don’t want to see, but constant dripping wears the stone and at some point you look at it. And you stop losing energy in fighting your fears, but you simply accept them and learn with them.
What are the moments in your work in which you observe real transformation happening?
It is not something that we control, it just happens. For some people, it is in a in a meditation. For other people, it’s becoming naked, losing control, losing the ground under their feet. And exactly these are the moments where they suddenly start trusting and creating a different perspective. But there quite different ways of learning. I have conversations with people today who suddenly had insights three years after the experience they had with me and my team. There is this ancient saying, “the master appears when the student is ready” which describes it very aptly. Sometimes it’s giving water to the flowers and sometimes it’s rather planting a seed, I go with whatever is needed in the moment.
Based on your background and wisdom, what concrete recommendation(s) would you give to people/systems, who have the yearning to transform?
Don’t fear the challenge. Don’t take your awareness away from the fact that risk is inherent in life and it’s actually the most essential and beautiful thing of life. It IS life! It’s like if you are in a roller coaster. How are you going to face the roller coaster? Are you going to avoid it or are you just going to enjoy the ride? I would recommend enjoying the ride. Wholeheartedly!
We know that every upset is an opportunity for transformation and growth. What are the situations in which you are triggered yourself? How do you navigate through this/these trigger situation(s)?
I need to practice patience, understanding and compassion. Speed has always been a thing in my life, go fast, go hard. I am sometimes still in this shadow of speed. I particularly realize that in my interactions with people as some people simply need time to digest and make sense of things for themselves. So, for me it’s about recognizing myself again and again in the situations in which I fall into ‘speed’ and thus becoming more and more aware. And then go to a place of love and self-compassion, that helps a lot. To get to this place of love and compassion I have a morning ritual of doing affirmations: I am compassion, I am understanding, I am love, I am all that… When I notice that I am getting triggered throughout the day, I fall back on my affirmations which works beautifully for me.
If we meet again for another conversation in a year from now – in the meanwhile you have been super happy and satisfied with your contribution to the world – what are you telling me that you did?
I envision my healthy, happy family around me. I have become a connection for our community and beyond, for people becoming more aware on a larger scale. I see our community as a community serving the whole and being very concrete. I see human and nature is in the center of our intention. Instead of money and power our center of attention is on health, well-being, feeling safe, growth and education. We are all living together in an ongoing process, children, students, adults, elderly people, all learning together so that there’s less friction in everything. Maybe even the monetary system disappears because we don’t need it, it’s outdated. That’s what I envision, well, maybe not exactly next year, but for a not too far away future.
Any other question(s) you would like to be asked?
I would like to add that I’m very thankful and grateful for all the wise people around me that have helped me in my way of this fascinating discovery called „Life“ and making me more aware of how connected we are and how much we mean to each other. We are all on this journey together. Sometimes we are not aware of all the wise people around us. Sometimes we only meet one precious moment in life. Sometimes it is a lifelong relationship in which we support each other and grow together. And often it’s something in between. But all of them are meaningful encounters.
I am grateful for my kids, they are the best teachers I can imagine. And I am grateful for my wife for supporting me in that journey and at the same time helping me to support my kids.
Your “private” you (characteristics, likes, dislikes, your uniqueness, etc.)
I like to play and challenge my kids, sometimes I even intentionally irritate and trigger them and they love that. I have a knee problem, so I’m not running that much anymore. I do a lot of biking around here with my friends. I love to go to the beach to chill and take some tapas. But, I don’t like staying at the beach in the sun for too long time. What else? I love to be by myself, but I also love to be with people. At home I sometimes can be impatient. I like absurd humor, but I also like meaningful conversations. I guess I simply love life!
Gerard, thank you so much for your openness and insightful stories, it was a pleasure having this conversation with you.