A spectacular death at 15,500 feet

CaptainAwesome

I frequently hear the voice of reason.

It arises in situations where I am presented with the opportunity to take a risk, and it frequently coaxes me toward familiarity. As the years pass and I become more acquainted with my need for stimulation, I also hear the voice more often. It’s not that it actually arises more often, but instead of responding without thinking, I now hear it and challenge it. Hearing that voice of reason makes me question how reasonable it actually is, and it makes me questions the ways in which I hold myself back. What unnecessary messages have I internalized that are more for the purpose of ensuring that I conform to perceived norms than of actually keeping me safe?  Is it the pink zebra phenomenon? (I’m pretty sure I just made that up, but I’m also pretty sure it’s a real phenomenon.) One theory on zebra stripes is that they act as a form of camouflage to protect the animals from predators. However, if occasionally a pink zebra were born, it would (in the paradigm in which it would be born at all) be easily picked out of the herd by a predator.

Why do we conform so easily? Is our greatest fear of being a pink zebra? Is blending in really better, safer or more comfortable? Don’t we revere and envy the people who are courageous enough to live their truth?  Think about people who succeed by whatever measure of success you value. Think about the people who seem larger than life. Think about the people you look up to. Do they inspire you to move in a particular direction, or do you tell yourself stories about how you could never______ because_______.

The pink zebras add colour to the landscape; they attract attention for being different, they wake us up to the fact that we are all different, and they show us unique ways of being in the world. It’s fine if you don’t want to be a pink zebra, but if you secretly want to, but find you hold yourself back, you are in good company. We probably all hold ourselves back in one way or another. It’s easy to tell ourselves stories of not being smart enough, courageous enough, secure enough, wealthy, persistent or creative enough. These are the stories the voice of ‘reason’ uses to keep us out of risky situations.

But those are just stories, and my awareness of their existence raises questions about what would happen if I changed the story. I have come to realize that the story matters, but it doesn’t matter if the story is true. We are held back by untrue stories of inadequacy, so it stands to reason that we could successfully tell ourselves stories of adequacy, whether we believe them to be authentic representations of ourselves or not.

Escape Velocity

Social media is full of tales of people who defy the odds, who accomplish the statistically impossible or who achieve overnight success, but when we look a little deeper, we usually find that the seemingly impossible is actually the result of a lot of hard work. When we put in the effort and do the grunt work, we can reach what I frequently refer to escape velocity. For a rocket to leave the earth’s atmosphere it must overcome the force of gravity. It requires a lot of energy to begin moving upward, even more energy to build momentum and then finally just a little more to sustain the momentum to finally break free of the earth’s gravitational forces. The energy to make change can be very similar.

When we experience resistance to change, that’s like gravity. Every warning issued by the voice of ‘reason’, that we heed without challenge, makes us a little heavier, requiring a little more energy to build momentum. For many changes you think you should make, you will not have the energy to build the momentum to reach escape velocity, but when you find some thing that really fires you up, you will have the energy it requires to escape the forces of resistance simply because it feels good to do it. It’s less about achievement and more about just doing the work because it feels good.

Travel as a form of Escape

I need to travel. I use it as a way of bypassing the resistance to change - to catapult myself beyond the gravitational forces of daily life. Travel provides an instant opportunity to try on a different self or to explore different aspects of myself amidst people who have no expectations about who I am or how I should be. Getting outside of my routines and responsibilities can wake me up to how I function in my lives and how I handle risk.

I recently went to Peru for a few weeks. Before leaving home, I was sure that many aspects of my trip would be outside of my comfort zone, but I had no idea how uncomfortable I would feel. There were risks. How much discomfort would I have to handle and for how long?  Would I be fit enough to hike to Machu Picchu?  What if I got part of the way and realized I wouldn’t be able to do it? What if I got sick?

As a way (I presume) of distracting myself from these worries, I also worried about getting up on time, missing buses, getting lost, losing my passport, and leaving something important in a hotel. To stay focused on having a good time, it helped to keep my stuff organized and to remind myself that I had everything I needed.

Tell a new one or drop the story Completely

In addition to worried questioning about the unknown, I also had many curious questions about sights and history and possible exciting experiences, but those didn’t occupy my thoughts the way the concerns did. I was a worrier. All of the negative fear-based questions cycled through my mind and created a regular practice of me telling myself to set it aside and to deal with one thing at a time. If I wasn’t actually struggling with my health, fitness or stress then I was determined focus on enjoying the experience I was having. While I was enjoying or processing a new experience, I wasn’t generating anxiety for myself, but what I didn’t realize was that I was re-wiring my brain so that I would essentially stop thinking this way.

Near the end of the trip, we climbed to the high pass of Sicllaccasa Mountain. We began this day at around 11,000 feet (3500m) and climbed for 5 or 6 hours. It was a slow climb, and during the last couple of hours of the ascent  I was stopping every 5-10 steps to catch my breath (which never really happened) and to enjoy the scenery, which was a new experience each time. The clouds shifted and the light changed, thereby changing the surrounding scene. In addition, different parts of the mountain had a different feel to them, so it was a full-on sensory experience coupled with the remarkable experience of not really being able to think.

Coca for the Gods

While climbing the narrow mountain trails and stream beds, the only thing to focus on was the next step, and when I stopped, the scenery was as breathtaking as the altitude, so the extent of my thoughts was wow, look at that, and wow, how am I even conscious? followed by ok, 10 more steps. The hours passed and we eventually summited in the cold, wind and freezing rain. I wanted to enjoy the experience, but really couldn’t. I took a moment to make the customary offering of coca leaves to the gods for not taking my life (at least not all of it), and began the descent.

On that mountain I died. In one sense it was an unremarkable passing in that the classic tale of ‘man against nature’ or ‘man against self’ played out quietly. There was no gore or drama, and no procession of mourners filed down the mountain signaling to the villagers that tragedy had struck. It was not tragic at all, but the impact has been rather spectacular. I left home a worrier, someone who was regularly concerned with the unknowns of most situations and how I would possibly not be fit, courageous, attentive or persistent enough to handle the situations I would surely face. The unknowns of travelling created anxiety and then, at 15,583 feet, I (the worrier) died.

On the way down, I realized that the hardest day wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and I wondered why… given that it would surely be a 25km day and that I don’t hike very much, never mind 20+ km …and never mind at 15,000 feet. My pack didn’t feel heavy, despite carrying layers of clothes and a couple of litres of water, my legs were fine, I didn’t have blisters on my feet, and none of the usual aches and pains I deal with at home had arisen. I was tired, but completely fine. How could this be?

Less Resistance

By the time I returned home I had realized that the greatest challenge of this trip was to how I think, and I attribute my miraculous capabilities to not being able to think at all. Oxygen deprivation had me addle-brained and so focused on what was happening in each precise moment that I could think about nothing else. The inability to think shut down the story of how difficult the hike was or would be, as well as any doubts about my ability to complete it. My brain was not functioning in its usual way, which left me open to the following realizations.

 

1.   We are limited by nothing except our fabricated beliefs about truth and reality.

The things we can accomplish are far greater than we know, most of the things we keep ourselves from are neither as painful nor as fearful as we anticipate them to be, and we have a rather immense capacity to handle both pain and fear if we know we’ll be the better for having done it, which is always the case.

 

2.   When we’re doing what we are supposed to be doing and we're fully engaged in doing it (not thinking to the future or past) everything we need to accomplish the task before us appears, as we need it.

Once we know what we must do and the generalities of how to do it, we are best served by just doing. Whatever we have is adequate to begin. We are resourceful beings who are completely adequate in our abilities.

 

3.   Discomfort is just discomfort.

Experiencing discomfort or a bit of pain is not a sign of worse things to come. Climbing a mountain in thinning atmosphere posed a challenge. I felt tired and short of breath the whole time, but it didn’t get worse. None of it got worse or posed any significant additional challenge. Attaching a story to an ache or concern gives it more importance than it deserves.

 

4.   Being physically challenged does not automatically imply the need for self-doubt.

More than a month before leaving for Peru, I developed some pain and swelling in my foot. It was pretty consistent, meaning both that it was consistently present and also that regular activity didn’t seem to aggravate it. I worried that I would experience increased swelling and decreased mobility at high altitude but, in the end, it was minor. In addition, when we left on the trek I had a cold, which left me congested and tired. I had no idea how I was going to hike for 3 days, but I figured I wasn’t the first person on a trek to get sick, so I just took it one bit at a time. On the second day my cold almost completely vanished.

 

5.   If something can be conceived of, it is within reach.

How many times have you heard someone (or maybe yourself) say, it’s nice to dream, but I’ll never be able to______?  If you can dare to formulate the idea or the mental image, it is within reach. You can convince yourself that this is not true, but what if you were to convince yourself that it is true?

The stories we tell ourselves or most often limiting and dismal versions of our potential. What if we decide to tell ourselves amazing fantastical stories about our infinite potential for awesome?  What if the whole point of being alive on the planet is to find the courage to live the most outrageous story of possibility?


This months article on the Captain is written by our guest writer, Tamara.