Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mountain Lessons

Oki All! 

So you probably noticed, from the YouTube content, that I recently had an opportunity to go mountain-climbing in the backcountry with my students. I consider myself very fortunate to live where I do, at the junction of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. I remember as a child viewing scenes on the train ride at Disneyland which I now recognize as representations of this place I live. That's how sublime and inspiring it is. On the first night, my students and I slept beside a glacier, without another human for many miles around, but plenty of the other great carnivores and omnivores... the grizzlies, black bears, wolves, cougars, etc. Sleep, in the backcountry, is always punctuated by alert wakefulness at every little sound. The second night, I stayed on a ledge of the mountain itself, where I had less to worry about being eaten, but in exchange more for the possibility of being buried in falling rock

It was my third time climbing to the top of this particular mountain - Ninnaistako or Chief Mountain. It's a peak most prominent among the Lewis Range of the Northern Rockies, and the subject of a great many legends and works of art. This time up, I was paying close attention to what the experience could teach me, what I could take away from it. And in this respect, what I received was a lesson in personal development. It always shocks me to witness that the majority of my students cannot climb to the top of the mountain, regardless of how physically adept they may be. The problem, as I see it, is firstly a lack of confidence, connected secondarily to a feeling of being overwhelmed by the obstacle at hand. For myself also, climbing this mountain is extremely difficult.  But never has it struck me as so formidable that I was ready to bag the effort and turn around. What gets me to the top, I suspect, is that I don't focus so much on the big picture. Rather, I look at what's my next move, what I have to do to negotiate the obstacle I'm currently facing, so I can progress. Often, when I look at a whole wall of rock coming up, it seems very imposing and solid. But examined more closely, there are seen to be so many ridges and crags that it's really not much more difficult to ascend than a ladder. It suspect that most people spend too much time concentrating of the overwhelming wall, or even the whole giant mountain, and far too little attention is given to the little steps that will take one incrementally to the top

This is a very important lesson to walk away with, something applicable to many projects in my life, and certainly to kung fu. Just as with the mountain, one could easily become frustrated at the overwhelming nature of the big picture. In my mind's eye, I have the ideal kung fu man, with Shi Zu as a model of someone who's closer in many respects to that ideal than myself. But in comparison with the kung fu man I want to be, I can't do the splits. In fact, my overall flexibility is poor. And I get easily winded. And I still feel too uncoordinated. Unrhythmic. Slow. Many of my techniques lack power. I'm not as strong as I used to be. I should feel lighter. I should be able to move any muscle as I envision it moving in the smallest fraction of a second, to do whatever I want my body to do, almost instinctually, but also controlled. I should move and feel like the full human animal I was born to be. But I am far from embodying this ideal. And while I'm aware that I have sooo many shortcomings to work on, if I kept my attention too exclusively to the big picture, I might easily give up. The only way to progress is to accept where one is at in the moment, and to address only the next step that will represent progress toward the ideal, however small that step may be. To this effect, I had an interesting break through this morning...

There was a second and related lesson I received from the mountain. As overwhelmed as people may feel by the huge challenge ahead, they can become equally afraid of falling from whatever level they've managed to climb to. This fear can grow so intense as to render them immobile. They get stuck on the rock, and may even require rescue to get back down to a place where they can feel safe and become functional again. Again, I believe this insight can be applied metaphorically toward understanding other kinds of situations. It is ego, isn't it, at the heart of this fear? And is it much different than the individual who works hard to progress to a certain level, perhaps a rank, and then stagnates, perhaps even living in reminiscence? 

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