Sunday has rolled around again. After a year’s hibernation, I’m back attending a Buddhist retreat this weekend called, “Wisdom in Everyday Life.” I’m appreciating being back within the community of the Sangha, which has been a critical part of my existence over the past half decade.
The teachings are giving new fodder for reflection, thought, and understanding as well as many opportunities for conversation. Inevitably, our talks come round to the past year, which for me has been filled with many peaks and valleys.
First off, let me express my heart-felt congratulations to Eric Larsen. I met him in 2009 at the polar training I attended in Iqaluit. He was in the midst of training and preparation for an ambitious year where he would attempt to reach the South Pole, North Pole, and the top of Mount Everest in one year. With the three expeditions, Eric aimed to increase awareness of global warming and the impact of such on the Polar Regions.
Two days ago, Eric got his hat trick with the first fall summit of Mount Everest in four years. With his team the only one left on the mountain, in a tough fall for Himalayan weather conditions, they found a small weather window in which to push to the top. Given the impossibility of a North Pole expedition in the fall, Eric had to plan and execute his Everest climb in the much quieter, less resourced autumn climbing window. I followed his blog daily and what I appreciated most about Eric’s take on the mountain was that he was willing to speak of his fear. Climbing Mount Everest can be terrifying if we are truly awake to its dangers but it’s rare (in my experience) that anyone will speak of the intense emotions that can arise on the mountain.
Eric mentioned the dangers and how he traversed them, both in body and spirit, during his daily updates. Having faced the same dangers and experienced some of the same emotions, I applaud Eric for naming them in public. In the context of Buddhism, we often talk of developing fearlessness by examining the nature of what scares us and choosing to face whatever it is. I’ve often agreed with the quote that goes something like, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to move forward through/past the fear.” Congrats Eric–you pulled it (both managing your fear and your expeditions) off with grace, style and conviction.
In rejoining with dear friends of the Sangha, people have invariably asked what my experience of “The Mountain” was this time. As I answer the question over and over again, I get glimpses of the developing narrative that still has me puzzled about how I went from a sense of great personal strength and preparedness to a state of fragility-laden humility. Yesterday, our teacher, Moh spoke of the origin of the word humility–stating that it comes from the root humus, meaning ground. I’ve often had the experience of being humbled by altitude. The taxing nature of existing in low oxygen slows every task down including thought. For me, altitude grounds my ego and often strips away any veneer of confidence that I might trek in with.
In my book about my 2007 climb, I likened the experience of traversing the Khumbu Icefall with Tibetan Sky Burial.
As the fall steepened, it became almost easier, as rhythms of breath and step could be recalled from other high altitude challenges. Prior to this more vertical part of the icefall, I felt deeply humbled by every step and breath. Fixed lines and ladders appeared, and the process of clipping and unclipping my safety tether focused my attention. No longer could I luxuriate in the suffering part of my mind; instead, the terrain demanded every molecule of attention I could give it.
The experience was picking the meat off my bones in the way that vultures do in a Tibetan sky burial. As the icy shards I was climbing cut deep into the heart of my soul, I wasn't sure how much of me would remain. Armed with my German grandmother’s stubbornness and strength, I knew the only choice was to continue to step through round after round of the icy knives before me and trust that I would survive the gauntlet.
Now, I describe my experience of the 2010 climb as if I were sky buried alive. That the three infections I had on the mountain, were like the Tibetan vultures, that both quickly and slowly picked my muscles, my strength, from my skeleton and left me as pile of glistening white bones. Stripped and humbled to my core, I’ve spent the past months cultivating the seeds of trust and confidence in myself once more. My awareness of this process, of course, is more heightened this weekend as the teachings have centered on confidence and trust.
In the words of Chogyam Trunpa, from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior,
the warrior is…
settling down in your confidence–remaining solid and relaxed at once. You are open and fearless, free from longing and doubt…Your wakefulness and intelligence make you self-contained and confident with a confidence that needs no reaffirmation through feedback…enlightened confidence–not confidence in something, but just to being confident. This confidence is unconditional.
So I see that as my aim now, enlightened confidence: confidence that cannot be shaken or dislodged by bacteria, protozoa, nor circumstance. Confidence that is always there and really, has always been there save for when I cannot perceive it to be. As we are often reminded in the teachings, the sky is always there even when clouds obscure our view of it!
Thanks for listening. Have a great week.