Slogging Through

Journeys to the edge are often uphill slogs.

Some are successful.

We had started this one before dawn.  We had climbed for hours.  The sweat poured down our faces even as the air thinned.  It was like hiking up a beach that someone – perhaps as a joke – had pitched at a forty degree angle.  Our feet sinking into the ash and scree. Two steps up.  One back.

But by noon, we sat along the edge, side by side, our feet dangling into the abyss with a thousand airy feet below us.  My boy and I – what a gift.

The sun was warm, the air cool.  There was just the wisp of a wind.  Fairly balmy for the 8,300 feet of altitude.

Evidence of the destruction was everywhere, even though the explosion had been more than two decades years earlier.  Nearly half the crater rim had blown away, the trees torn from the earth, scratched and charred by fire. But in and amongst the devastation, there were signs of new life and new growth.  St. Helens was as spectacular as ever.

Giddy, we turned our backs on the summit and plunged down through the scree at breakneck speed.  The loose ash that had been the bane of our existence was now our friend. The reward for a hard-fought slog.

Years later I thought of this experience as I struggled to break trail below the Lion’s Head on Mt. Washington.  The unconsolidated snow had blown and drifted.  Shoulder deep in places, it would not yield to brute force.   The sweat soaked into our down and froze on our faces. One step forward.  Three back.

After hours of slogging and struggle, we turned around battered and beaten but no less satisfied with the experience and the effort we had applied. Tumbling down through the powder, we laughed at our foolish efforts.  It had not been a successful slog.  Yet it so many ways, it had still been worth it.

And for the most part, there’s truth to that, I think: slogs successful or not are worth it. So much of what we do in the mountains – and elsewhere – is a slog.  It’s how we view it that really matters.

In Greek mythology, there is the story of Sisyphus, king of Corinth.  The gods condemned Sisyphus to Hades and to eternal punishment.  Endlessly he had to roll an enormous heavy boulder up a hill – and when it reached the top, it would roll down again.  Over and over again, he struggled to bring the boulder to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down again.   For all eternity.

Aren’t there lot of days when we feel like Sisyphus?  We push our boulders.  Fall fast asleep. And when we wake up, there’s that damn boulder sitting right outside the front door.  Again.

I’m waist deep in it right now.  Being surrounded by folks who are pushing boulders uphill is the grist of what I do.  But the energy is exhausting.  Pushing my own boulder – office responsibilities, household stuff and the unending drama of raising teenagers – is depleting.   My own tendency when it looks like the boulder is about to flatten me is to bolt for the door, plan the escape, plot the next mountain.

But our lives are lived in these places of struggle.

Climbing up through the ash, wading through the deep snow, pushing the boulder. This is what we do.  It is our lives.

John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

We don’t need to like our particular slog.  Many times we don’t.  But when we try to escape the slog – layering it with judgment and resentment – we miss huge portions of our lives.

The trick is to be present to our slog moment by moment.

Charlotte Joko Beck in her book Nothing Special says, “Hell lies not in pushing the rock, but in thinking about it, in creating ideas of hope or disappointment, in wondering whether we will finally get the rock to stay on top.”  “The weight of the boulder, the burden, is the thought that our life is a struggle, that it should be other than it is,” she says.

Wow.  That’s a challenge.

And the point of the myth?  Sisyphus was never really caught in Hades.  He was always free.  His boulder was just his boulder.

Our slog is just our slog.

And unless we are willing to slog up,  we don’t get to enjoy the glissade back down.

How is your slog going?

The image is from the Caucasus Mountains.  Exhausted after a long summit push, I found myself plunging down through the soft snow as another team trudged upward.Slog

 

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.

-Albert Einstein

Newton: Part Deux

Newton screwed up our lives in other ways too:

The corollary to his first law states that, “A body persists in a uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force.”

I know this to be true.  Once I start – once I overcome inertia – I rarely stop.  I barrel ahead.  Full bore. And fall into bed at the end of the day.  Exhausted.

I tend to miss a lot along the way.

I had a secretary once who described me as a hamster on a wheel.  It wasn’t a compliment. (She’s no longer “with us.”) But although I like to think of myself as the Energizer bunny, a hamster is probably closer to the truth.

Remaining in motion does take a toll.  The fast, unceasing pace that most of us keep makes us weary.  It can stress us out.  It can make us sick.

But even more than that, we miss important things.  Like the beautiful muted light that comes on some of these mid-autumn mornings, the smell of the fallen leaves, Jupiter hanging in the cold clear sky, the teenager that needs that rare moment of connection, the partner that needs a hug, the staff member that is suffering with depression.  We skate by.  So that we can get things “done.”

And of course there’s a lot to do.  There’s always a lot to do.  In that great old pocket book by Richard Carlson, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, he tells the story of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Did you know that the folks who maintain that bridge paint it every day?  Every single day.  It’s never done.  There’s no expectation that it will ever be done.  And when they get to the end, they start all over again.

Carlson also reminds us that “the ‘in-box’ is always full.”

So if that’s true, is it really important to capitulate to Newton?  If it’s never going to all get done anyway, do we really need to stay in motion?

Perhaps not.

But let’s peel this back a bit further.  The truth is, we do need to get things done. Most of my clients don’t want to hear that I’ll get to their part of the bridge “whenever.” Our creditors usually won’t be impressed with the notion that the last six month’s statements are gathering dust in our “always full” in-boxes. Dinner does need to get on the table.  There really is a “to do” list that has to get done.

The question, I think, is can we be in motion and still appreciate fully what’s going on in our lives?  Can we appreciate the beauty that is all around us even when our life is a blur of motion?

I love this story:

A monk was walking on a path in a jungle. A tiger started chasing him. The faster the monk ran, the faster the tiger ran. Soon two other tigers joined the chase. The monk ran over to the edge of a cliff, grabbed onto a vine and jumped over. As he hung on to the vine, the monk saw below him three tigers waiting for him to fall. Just then, a rat came to the edge of the cliff and began chewing through the vine that the monk was holding on to.

In that moment, the monk glanced up and saw a beautiful ripe strawberry growing on the vine just next to him.  He reached out, plucked the strawberry, and, taking a bite, thought, “my, how delicious this is.”

Our lives are always right here, right now, even in the blur.

Jack Kornfield in his excellent book entitled After the Ecstasy, the Laundry says, “where we are is the place, the only place for the perfection of patience, peace, freedom and compassion.”  He goes on to say that, “To recognize the perfection of ‘things as they are’ is a radical opening of the heart, an awe of the sacred wholeness that underlies all things.  It is always here and we can awaken to it in any situation.”  Even when the tiger chases us.

Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote the book Wherever You Go There You Are.  It’s a great title, isn’t it?  And it’s true. Kabat-Zinn says, “The best way to capture moments is to pay attention.”  The practice of mindfulness is the key, he says.  We are only right here, right now.  Can we pay attention – and open our hearts – even when the rat is gnawing at the vine?

Thoreau closes Walden Pond with this message:  “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Newton’s a jerk.  But a rule’s a rule.  Can we live with that?

We can find beauty both in the still…

FarmRiverTrees

 

 

 

 

 

And in the blur…

InTheBlur

I exist as I am, that is enough,                                                                                                           If  no other in the world be aware I sit content,                                                                           And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that                                                             is myself,                                                                                                                                     And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand                                                               or ten million years,                                                                                                                           I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness,                                                                   I can wait.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


Fight Physics

Doing nothing, of course, isn’t always a good thing.

There is an old story that goes like this:

The man in his 40s has lost his job.  He’s down on his luck.  He goes to church to pray: “Please God, let me win the lottery.”  This goes on day after day.  As the man’s desperation grows, his pleading becomes more and more insistent: “Please God, help me.  I need to win the lottery.”  Late one night, after many weeks of unanswered prayers, the man is down on his knees in the darkened church begging the Almighty:  “God,  I have nowhere else to turn.  Please let me win the lottery.”  And suddenly, a deep voice – obviously frustrated – speaks to the man out of the darkness:  “My son, please go and buy a lottery ticket.”

Newton’s First Law of Physics:  “An object at rest remains at rest… unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”  This law is also known as “the law of inertia.”

Weeks ago, I had to make a hotel reservation in Mendoza, Argentina for an upcoming trip I am leading.  I had the name of the hotel.  The telephone number was on the hotel’s website. But because I couldn’t remember the country code for Argentina, I didn’t call …  for three weeks.  When I finally grabbed hold of my bad self, it literally took me less than five minutes to look up the country code and make the call.

Today, I spotted a document that has been sitting on my desk for the last month.  I needed to review it and make a change.  For some reason, I kept on shuffling it to the bottom of the pile.  It just seemed to require too much effort and I imagined – in my imaginary world –  that it would take me hours to review this (seven page) document and hours longer to draft the change.  When the document worked its way to the surface once again today – buoyed by my success with the Argentine country code – I reviewed the document and made the change in less than the time it has taken me to write this paragraph.

Damn Newton. Inertia is a horrible thing.

First, nothing gets done.  Second, many of us like to engage in a lot of hand wringing while we kvetch about the nothing that’s not getting done.  And third, the nothing that’s not getting done while we kvetch is taking up energetic space that we could otherwise be using for more joyful pursuits.

Action is required.

I absolutely hate when the alarm goes off at 1:00 a.m. on summit morning.  The sleeping bag is warm.  The tent is safe.  Perhaps it would be better just to stay put. Particularly if the route to the top is tough.

Journeying out on the edge is risky business. The problem, of course, is that if you don’t even start out, no journeying ever gets done.  A journey of a thousand miles and all that… .

Even tougher still is starting out  – taking action – when we have no idea at all where the route will lead us.  That can be downright scary.

Perhaps it would be better to have more information, a clearer map, a better day, a GPS, more food, extra water,  a lighter pack, maybe even a guide.  Yes, a guide would be good.  But that will mean we will have to wait for another day.  And certainly it will be safer – and the route clearer – on another day.

The problem is this:  we rarely, if ever,  have all we need to start out on any given day. The challenge is start out anyway.

The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire writes:

Come to the edge, He said.                                                                                                             They said, We are afraid.                                                                                                               Come to the edge, He said.                                                                                                             They came.  He pushed them.                                                                                                       And they flew…

Many times, we just need to push ourselves out the door and start moving forward.

Executive coach Tony Jeary says, “focus on starting, rather than on finishing.” “Even if you don’t think you have everything you need,” he says, “start anyway.”  Go as far as you can see, and then you will be able to see farther.

“Take the first step in faith,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. “You don’t have to to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”

Damn Newton. Fight physics!

Yes, getting out of the bag is required.

InTheBag

 

Many people die with their music still in them.  Why is this so?                                                        Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live.                          Before they know it, time has run out.

– Oliver Wendell Holmes


Like A Rock

Solid.  Like a rock.

That sounds good, doesn’t it?  Safe, secure, stable, predictable.

We like predictable.  More than that, we like certainty.  We want to know that things are solid and unchanging.

But that’s never the case, is it?

Very little is certain.  And everything changes. Constantly.  The weather.  The stock market. Our jobs. Our finances. Our relationships. Our fitness. Our health.

The old adage is that the only certainties are “death and taxes.” And the Buddha taught that the only certainties are sickness, old age and death.

It is the clinging to certainty – the clinging to what we think should be certain, the clinging to how we think things should be – that causes suffering.  But how difficult it is not to cling.

Charlotte Joko Beck in her excellent book Nothing Special says this:

“We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life.  In flowing forward, a river or a stream may hit rocks, branches or irregularities in the ground, causing whirlpools to spring up spontaneously here and there.  Water entering one whirlpool quickly passes through and rejoins the river, eventually joining another whirlpool and moving on.  Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpool is just the river itself.  The stability of the whirlpool is only temporary.  The energy of the river of life forms living things – a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants – then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the whirlpool is swept away, reentering the larger flow.”

Everything changes. Nothing is solid like a rock.

Joko Beck goes on to say that in clinging – in making proprietary – our own little whirlpools as if they were something of our own, some permanent fixture, we get clogged up, we stagnate. “A whirlpool that puts up a dam around itself and shuts itself off from the river becomes stagnant and loses its vitality,” she say.

It is in the letting go that we create life.  What a paradox.

We have these ideas of how we should be, of how others should be, of how life should be, of how it all ought to unfold.

The challenge is not to get caught up creating these illusory boundaries around our own little whirlpools – our own little concepts and constructs – as if they were something stable and permanent; and instead to allow the flow as part of the river of life.

Pema Chodron writes, “That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything – every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—is always changing, moment to moment.”

The first noble truth, she says, is to recognize that we also change like the weather, we ebb and flow like the tides, we wax and wane like the moon.

How hard it is to allow the ebb and flow.  How hard it is to know that we are the river.split-rock

The image is of Split Rock on the Boot Spur ridge.  Even what looks solid isn’t.

Oh say, can you see?

Perspective is necessary.

Ann and I were in Ireland last week.  We stayed in a beautiful idyllic cottage overlooking the North Atlantic. A place where the quiet sank into our bones.

We did nothing. Well, that’s not exactly true. We got up late; we took long runs along the Coast Road; we made love; we drank wine and ate cheese; and we frequented the Guinness in more than a few pubs.  But mostly we lay in the grass… and read books.  And did nothing.

We got a chance to step back from the fray.  You know the fray:  the work deadlines, the unanswered emails, the unpaid bills, the house chores, the kid chores, the crazy, unceasing demands we face each and every day.

“Can’t see the forest for the trees,” is the old saying.  And it’s true.  When we get in the thick of it, it’s hard to see the big picture. We get lost.

Which is why it’s good to step back from time to time.  To gain perspective.

It’s one of the reasons we climb big hills.  One can see a lot from up high.  George Mallory was asked once why he climbed mountains.  He said, “Because they’re there.”  But Rene Daumal in the novel Mount Analogue said it better:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever.  You have to come down again… So why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs and one sees; one descends and one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

It’s hard “to know” without the time to gain perspective.  All of the great spiritual leaders through the ages have taken time out to get it: Moses, the Desert Fathers, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha.  We need it too.

Time out. The desert experience. The view from the top of the hill.

There is a retreat center nearby.  It publishes a newsletter called “Retreat Forward.” Isn’t that a great title? Retreat is necessary to move forward.

Taking the time to step back is restorative. It renews our spirits, our minds, our souls.  It allows us to lighten our load… and our step. We’re less lost.  We move back into the fray more thoughtfully, more deliberately, with more peace.

It allows us to see. And to know.

The image is from Toe Head along the Coast Road in West Cork, high above the North Atlantic.

OhSay2

 

Many people come, looking, looking, taking picture…No good…Some people come, see. Good!”
– from a Sherpa near Mount Everest, as recounted by Galen Rowell.

Oh say, can you see?