“Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
“Struggle is nature’s way of strengthening [us].”
John Locke, LOST
I decided to write this post after reflecting on the first six months of my trip. Without an exception, the highlights of my trip have been those things which have been challenges, where I struggled to complete the course, trek or activity. And not coincidentally those are the things I have gotten the most out of.
I don’t like to admit it but in the past I’ve definitely chosen to bail out of a tough situation more times than I care to admit. Whether it’s bailing out of a project at work, not fighting the good fight in a relationship or convincing myself that a radical career change to pursue a dream was just not practical, I’ve just about done it all. And I never thought much about it.
But after battling to walk everyday for a month on the Camino de Santiago last year, I learned firsthand how amazing it can be when I push myself beyond my mind’s preconceived limitations and whatever pains my body might be whining about.
In Australia, I sat for a 10 day silent meditation, Vipassana (http://www.dhamma.org), which is hands down the most difficult thing I have done on this trip. Harder than trekking in Nepal with blistered toes going straight up hill for 8 hours. Try sitting in silent meditation for 10 hours a day, with no outlet for reading, writing or talking. The first day was a constant battle between a little devil perched on one shoulder and a little angel on the other.
“This sucks. Let’s get out of here. Let’s get a beer and a cigarette. Screw this thing.” The devil was very, very chatty that first day. “We’ll try it again later someday.” All very convincing arguments.
“No, no, we’re staying here. Let’s focus on the breath.” The angel was pleading his case. “Breath in. Breath out. Good.”
Thirty seconds later, the devil opens my eyes just a peak. “Everyone else is sitting so still and peacefully; there’s no way we’re going to get like that. And there’s no way Anthony finished his Vipassana in India. I’m sure he quit too. Ok, how are we going to escape?”
Then for the next twenty minutes I planned out in detail my escape from the meditation. I would pack my bags during the next break. Then I would hop the fence during the next meditation session. Again, I’m not proud of this but it is what it is.
Somehow I managed to stay there the whole first day. The second day was tough but not as tough as the first day. The devil was still chatting up a storm but he was more cool with hanging out, not fighting to escape. But he was still quite talkative and I really began wondering how I was going to survive one more week of this endless mind chatter.
Day three was a completely different story. Pure bliss. That’s the best way to describe it. A relaxed, equanimous mind and perfect contentment with where I was. I could have been anywhere in the world, in a warzone, in Siberia, in the middle of a scorching desert, and it wouldn’t have mattered. I was so shocked by this I went to speak to the teacher about it.
“What’s going on? I feel so calm and relaxed today. What happened?”
He laughed. “Emile, you’ve just quieted your mind, that’s all.”
That lesson in itself was worth the struggle of the first two days. It was like I had taken in a wild animal (my mind) and caged it that first day and all it wanted to do was fight against the cage. It was loud, running all around the place. But soon it calmed down, even became somewhat friendly, and then by day three it had completely submitted. (The question of who or what it submitted to is a whole separate discussion.)
And sometimes we need other people to push us along. Last week here in Laos I went rock climbing for the first time along with a few other people who all had years of experience. On my third climb, a more advanced climb than the first two and being already quite beat from the first two, I got half way up the climb before my arms just gave in. Shaking, gripping the wall, I called down to Jason to say I was done with the climb. “No way Emile. The only way I’m bringing you down mate is once you’ve touched the anchor.” I laughed. I knew there was no way I would finish the climb. I was spent and my arms and legs were shaking just gripping the wall, let alone going up it. But just to see how far I could push myself I kept at it. It was really slow going. Climbing one inch, then resting. One big move, then resting for five minutes. Twenty minutes later I look above me and the anchor was just an arm’s length away. I could not believe I had made it.
Then when I was back on solid ground, smoking a cigarette, basking in my accomplishment, Jason’s wife Mary says “Ok, Emile, your turn on this next one.” I pleaded my case about being completely spent. She wasn’t having it. “Just give it a shot. We’ll see how far you get.” I put on my harness and got going. About half way up the climb was an overhanging ledge that needed a pretty nifty move to get over it. And before I said anything, Mary pointed out “and I’m not bringing you down till you touch the anchor.” Crap! Damn South Africans. But again, slowly, taking lots of rest and inching my way up bit by bit, I made it to the top. I really owe it to you both for getting me up those climbs.
Prior to each of those climbs I had convinced myself I wouldn’t reach the top, and rationalized both times that “hey, I’m just a beginner. I’ll try them again later when I’m more experienced.” And the interesting thing is that when I managed for a split second to get the tiredness and pain out of my mind, that’s when I was able to make my next move. Otherwise, while I was conscious of the struggle, I wasn’t able to do anything.
The last thing I want to do here is give the impression that I am now Mr. No-Quit-In-Me. Far from it. I still catch myself quitting more often than I’d like. I had planned on hitch hiking across Australia in December. But when I arrived in Perth it seemed like such a daunting task that I booked a flight to Melbourne instead. I still regret that one, but I try to take it as a lesson now. And even on smaller scales, like not wanting to finish a book I started because the writing is terrible.
But I am much more aware of when I am quitting something because it is an uncomfortable challenge or because the end goal seems so far away. And more importantly I now know what amazing things lie beyond my preconceived limitations I place on myself.
Now, if you will excuse me, me and my little devil are going outside for that beer and cigarette.