Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reflections from Higher Ground

"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, one sees. One descends, 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. "

- Rene Daumal

I had a change of plans in some of my teaching work which gave me an unscheduled weekend and so Kelly and I decided to make an impromptu trip to the mountains. Both Kelly and I share a love of the outdoors and a special fondness for high elevation so we made a plan to head to Estes Park Colorado for a long weekend. We left home on the first flight out of Austin on Thursday morning and were on a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park by 1:30. We hiked about 9 miles that day, 9 miles the second day and another 4.5 miles on Saturday.  We came down into Boulder for a quick group practice in town and a brief lunch date with Amy Ippoliti and Taro.  All in all, a great trip.

I am on the plane ride home now collecting a few of my thoughts from the weekend. One insight I had in the midst of a long,upward climb was about peak experiences, specifically climbing a mountain peak. I was thinking about how often the peak affords an amazing view which can give a hiker much-needed perspective as well as a sense of accomplishment as one surveys the distance they have covered. But having climbed a lot of peaks over the years, I was reflecting on how also, the peak is often very windy, very exposed, very extreme and not always a great place to stay. In fact, I have climbed a lot of mountains with the peak in mind only to get to the top and be sick from the altitude, burnt from the sun and wind and ready to descend fairly quickly after my arrival to the hard-won destination.

I suppose the metaphors are obvious here and once again it seems good and bad is more than a bit mixed. Yes, we need to have the goal to even begin the journey and to give a purpose and destination to the outing. Having  the peak in mind also helps considerably when, along the way, one inevitably becomes tired, fatigued, worn out and/or loses heart in any number of ways.  The view from above also brings with it so much benefit and so much perspective and as the above quote reminds us, what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. So often in life, the daily practices, obligations and activities in which we participate get dry, boring and mundane if not occasionally referenced in some larger perspective or higher context.

And yet, the peak experience is not sustainable. It is, more often than not, a somewhat extreme environment. And while the big goals and the peak moments are important, they can easily overshadow the necessary work that occurs at the lower altitudes where life can be sustained, where there are smaller peaks and valleys and meadows teeming with flowers, animals and the vital diversity of the lower regions.  And sometimes the peak experience gets so much of our attention that we get addicted to the "high" and forget to find the sustenance that the lower altitudes provide.

Of course this made me think of yoga. In a lot of ways, my work in yoga is a bit of "peak experience" work as so often I am teaching intensives, workshops, trainings and other events that are outside the  norm of daily practice for the participants. I think that it is a great and wonderful thing to be part of and I, myself, take advantage of a few of these "going to the mountaintop" kind of experiences every year as a student. I am a fan, a believer, if you will.

But here is the thing- these experiences where we have a gathering, where we consciously deepen the conversation of yoga and deliberately bring an increased focus to our efforts- are like climbing a mountain and sitting up on the peak. These experiences are there to bring us a new insight, to grant a new vista, to pause, to reflect, to recharge, inspire and renew our commitment to ourselves and our lives. The yoga intensive is not meant to become a new norm or an ongoing standard for daily life. The insights from these intensive experiences need to be "brought down the mountain" and integrated into our daily life of practice which involves asana AND returning emails, washing the dishes,  doing the laundry, making phone calls, going to PTA meetings, cooking dinner,watching movies and walking the dog, etc.

So too, with setting big goals, of which I am also a fan. I think having direction can be every useful and articulating it clearly can be very beneficial. I am not someone who worries about "the goal being wrong" or "holding myself back by setting a goal and not letting the universe be magnificent" and all that as, if you watch the example of my own recent experiences I work a goal in a given direction until it becomes obvious I need to regroup and course-correct. To me, having a direction and a plan can also be a fluid, responsive and malleable process. There is no inherent conflict there in my opinion.

However, I think that since, much like climbing a mountain, the majority of the time we we spend in life is in the lower regions of daily activities, it's important to enjoy the process of climbing the mountain, of working in a direction as the actually achievement we are working towards will likely be much more fleeting than the hours that will be required to bring a vision into manifestation. At any rate, my point being, in living, much like hiking, we have to take time to enjoy the journey.

Product and  process. Journey and destination. Content and context. Or like in yoga: sometimes we work on the poses, sometimes we let them  work on us. These various domains of experience are always in a conversation with one another and need not pose conflict or competition.  It is, in my opinion, in that conversation between the domains, in that tension between these apparent opposites, where the work is "brought down the mountain" and integrated in meaningful and personal ways . And again, in the same way no one can walk us up a mountain or down a trail, no one can actually do that work of living our insights for us. That part is all us.

So like that.

"My father considered a walk in the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing."
 -Aldous Huxley


John Norvell said...

I love the idea of bringing the work down the mountain. Thanks for that! (And I love the quotes, too.)

Abby said...

Thanks Christina. Reminded me of the time I spent in Nepal . . . when I got to the threshold of my highest altitude in the Mt. Everest region, we stopped for a final fuel. I had planned for more than a year, trained, traveled and trekked. The woman who owned the lodge where we ate our final fueling meal, having lived at the peak's base for her lifetime, had never climbed up. She was "too busy, serving all the climbers." Peaks are great motivators, but so are hungry climbers.

Christina Sell said...

Thanks, John.
Awesome story, Abby. "hungry climbers". love it.

Anne-Marie Schultz said...

In Platonic terms, the philosopher has to go back into the cave.

In Christian terms, learning to be in the world but not of the world.

Heraclitus says, however, the way up and the way down are both the same, so perhaps there's a peakness in the mundane and mundanity in the peak.

Love in a Big Nut Shell said...

Love this blog entry Christina...LOVE!

Christina Sell said...