Friday, May 28, 2021

Fear of Falling

I'm not afraid of anything. I've said it many times. Sounds rather arrogant. Perhaps I overstep, but honestly, fear is an emotion I have largely learned to manage. It wasn't always that way. I grew up fearful of a lot of things – snakes under the bed at night, bears in the closet, bullies at school, intimidating teachers, public speaking, relations with girls, and so on. But sometime during my service in the the Marine Corps I chose to change my perspective and master my fear response. Since then I have been in many fearful situations, real and imaginary, and through experience and practice I have honed my reaction to the world around me and learned to hold steady at insecure times.

With fear seemingly rampant in the last year and a half during this pandemic contrivance, I have given fear more thought as it invades my space more and more by those around me. It is always an option, especially when I play in high places, but I have learned that it does not serve me well, so I gravitate to other mechanisms to deal with challenging circumstances.

Aside from the instinctive fight-or-flight response, fear is essentially a thought or even an attitude. Since we each chose how we perceive the world, our thoughts and attitudes become the foundation for how we interpret what we perceive as reality. Ultimately, it is our thoughts, imagination, and attitudes which create the world we believe we perceive. Therefore, it behooves us to guard what we think about and what plays in our imagination at all times.

Consider that fear really only exists in our imagination. Without our ability to imagine our place in the future, to work out the consequences of a particular possible outcome in all its gruesome details, we would all be fearless. Those who survive serious car crashes, drownings, avalanches, and long falls from high places generally relate that it all happened so quickly that they did not have time to be afraid while the event was taking place. It's as if so much is happening to you, your mind is being bombarded with so much information that you have no time to imagine an outcome. Survivors tell of things seeming to happen in slow motion, as if the speed at which the mind is operating is affecting the actual perception of time.

However the future unfolds, it is simply a matter of fact, an emotionless reality. What will be will be. It is only what is happening at this very instant that should concern us. All any of us can do is experience the present moment, the now. Any extrapolation of the now into an unknown future is purely imaginary. Deprived of the ability to imagine the future, we would all be fearless. Suddenly, there would be nothing to be scared of. You wouldn't ponder the significance of death or what it might feel like or what happens to you.

In a cataclysmic accident of fall, when things happen so quickly, there is no time to project the imagination into the future. We lose the future, but we also lose the past. Losing all possible reasons for fear, you can't imagine what you might lose or what you might become. Time is frozen during such times of immediate crisis; there is no time to draw emotional conclusions. I'm falling fast. I'm about to die. This is it. That is the reality of the moment, one in which there is no time for the frivilous luxury of fear.

Fear, like balance, in not inherent; it is a learned response. Even the fight-or-flight response is not instinctive; it is a carefully learned response. Anything that can be learned can be unlearned. That is what I figured out during the time I was engaged in the challenges of military training.

Fear can be controlled, rationalized away, understood for what it is, and ignored. All of us do it to some degree, but some are better at it than others. Should you cross the intersection or will you let your impulsive imagination hold you back from action out of fear for what might happen?

Still, fear is a positive, helpful mechanism. It warns us all of the time – watch out here, look out there, slow down, don't do that, mind your step – without which you would likely soon be dead. In a world full of loud, conflicting information continually hammering our minds, it is good to have fear as a sentinel in our minds, always vigilant for the accident waiting to happen, alert for the slightest sign of danger.

The trick is to sample fear. Select the fear that you want or need to react to and get rid of the rest. Examine each fear as it presents itself, understand just what it is warning you about, and then act accordingly. As a mountain climber, one who chooses to play in a world of life and death choices, I operate continually in a state of controlled fear. Only when the level of fear becomes intolerable do I back off when I know I am reaching my limits. At any given moment while climbing I will do whatever action is necessary to avoid fear's alarm, whether it be lunge for a new handhold, retreat, or remain motionless. I will not do something if there is a fear there that I cannot control. Perhaps it is only my belief in control that keeps me moving forward. If a moment arises where I suspect I am losing control, then I know that fear is edging into that fragile balance between my sanity and insanity.

While most people have a fear of death, it is the archetypal forms of dying like drowning, falling, or burning that terrify us most, even though most people have absolutely no experience with coming close to dying these ways. Our imaginations take over and imagine the worst pain and terror during numbing events like crashing a car or plunging down a mountainside when in reality they happen so fast there is no time for emotion. If anything, a catastrophic experience like these is generally experienced as a deep calm resignation of utter helplessness and an emotionally bereft profound knowing that there is absolutely nothing at all we can do . At least that has been my experience with near death episodes of drowning, falling, and severe physical trauma.

Uncontrolled fear is very destructive, gnawing away at the fabric of sanity, screwing one into a frightful aching state of anxiety. Am I good enough? Will I hold up when things get tough? Will I crack under pressure? Will I disappoint? Am I good looking enough? Are my children safe? Am I a failure? Will I appear boring or foolish? Do people like me? Where will I get the money I need to pay the bills this month? There is nothing but sickness in this sort of worry and fear, a sickness of the mind that is nonconstructive and produces no answers or resolution, leaving you in a helpless anguishing limbo. At least with archetypal fears there is the fight-or-flight reaction where adrenaline moves you to act, confronting whatever the terror immediately.

In all that I do in life I chose my fear willingly. I embrace the future and everything it throws at me with open arms and a clear mind, confident that I can control my emotions and succeed. I no longer have parental anxiety, or doubts about business decisions, and no longer identify with the world of the lonely or heartsick. Indulging in these kinds of fears holds us prisoner. They are penance for thinking too much. I say I am not afraid of anything, but what I really mean to say is I am free and in control.

One of the reasons I enjoy climbing mountains is that I can leave behind the world of anxiety. When facing challenges moment to moment on a climb there is no time or room for such unproductive distraction. All that matters as you step forward or reach for another handhold is surviving. Anything other than focus on the moment erodes confidence and may compromise survival. It is a pure and simple way to engage the world.

Living for the moment, for nothing but the present, brings with it an unexpected bonus. It allows one to escape the need to know the future and frees one from the constraints of the past. An absolute freedom arises from living in the moment. Managing simply to exist affords one a greater freedom than one could possibly imagine otherwise. The moment is the only real world worth living in. Anything beyond that is deceptive – including hopes, dreams, ambitions, and expectations.

I attempt to bring the essence of living in the moment back from the mountains to experience in everyday life under every circumstance. I accept a high degree of risk in the mountains and in daily life and fully take responsibility for every outcome. I attempt to bring this into every action I take, knowing full well that I am in control, steering the boat, creating my own reality moment to moment.

There are special moments in the mountains, and in life, fragile transient times, when the borders between life and death seem to overlap, when the past and future cease to exist, and all that remains is freedom... when you seem able to spread your wings and fly to eternity without a care. Edging along the fragile connection between life and death, sometimes it is as if I am immortal, neither alive nor dead. I look upon such fearless moments as being heaven, Nirvana, enlightenment... magical. And so I return again and again to this very real world to taste the nectar of infinity. Fear is all that stands in the way of sharing all of this with more people.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Conquistador of the Useless, Compulsive Addict of the Absurd

Why do I love to climb mountains? It is a question whose answer requires no justification for my part. It is who I am, and what I have chosen to do. If you do not climb rocks and you ask, you will never understand the answer anyway. It's about freedom. It's sensing deep within that being in the mountains hanging perilously from some vertical face is the most liberating experience one could ever know, even though it is quite the opposite of everything the world reminds us is important and worth doing. I share below an attempt at a cogent answer by Joe Simpson on pages 119 to 121, and 232 in his book This Game of Ghosts:

There is a perverse delight in putting oneself in a potentially dangerous situation, knowing that your experience and skill makes you quite safe. To stand with a friend in eerie moonlight at the foot of a vast mountain wall and be certain that you can safely reach the top – that is a wonderful feeling of self-confidence. It might seem an absurdly pointless thing to do, but to have the nerve to go and try it, just to see if you can, is an affirmation of everything noble in humanity. The task has been rationalized, and carefully weighed, and now you must act and do it right; it is a suspended moment. As you step up on to the first hold or drive the first axe blow you step into a new perspective, a world that is absolutely and cruelly real. The power of it is indescribable, as vital on the first step as it is on the last, at the base or on the summit, and the intensity only gradually fades on your return to the valley.

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote: “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is... In Life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait.”

If memory could recall exactly the sense of a past experience, nothing would be done. We would sit out our days and fantasize about the past. Why challenge the present if the past can be so good? Fortunately our memory is kind. It blurs the bad times and softens the good. And as life in the valley, in the real world, if that is what it is, erodes the transient lingering memory of your last climb you understand that you must go back and stand under the shadowed wall again and commit everything.

At the same time there is a taint of insanity about it. How can I possibly justify losing my life, or that of a friend, in the pursuit of something so ephemeral as a passing state of mind, an achievement of the truly irrational? Why ascend a mountain by its hardest, most dangerous face when you can walk, hands in pockets, up the other side? Or, in some cases, sitting in a train or a cable car? If it were simply adrenaline that you were after, you could take a ride on a roller coaster, snort a line of cocaine, or indulge in a fraught extramarital affair, any number of things that have thrills without kills. Why be a conquistador of the useless, a compulsive addict of the absurd?

The eighteenth century theologian and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, developed a theory he called 'Deep Play', whereby what the player stands to lose is completely disproportionate to what he can possibly gain. In climbing there is the death of yourself, or your friends, or the loss of toes and fingers, to set against the transitory pleasure of a summit, the thrill of the adventure, the fleeting satiation of an irrational desire. The fact that the desire can never be fully gratified is the addiction. Perhaps the desire is deeply rooted in the very absurdity of the undertaking. It is so wonderfully pointless and meaningless that it has to be done.

You create the potential for death by going to the mountains and taking the risks, and yet you do not want to die. It seems to make no sense. It makes no sense until you have stepped too close to the edge. Then you understand why you went there and perceive that you have enhanced your life, affirmed what it is to be alive by realizing what it could be like to die. It has been argued that climbing mountains, tip-toeing along the knife-edge between life and death, is a way of looking into the ultimate unknown.

In his book The Great Blue Dream, Robert Reid wrote:  "In the curious playgrounds of their sport, mountaineers learn what primitive people know instinctively – that mountains are the abode of the dead, and that to travel in high country is not simply to risk death, but to risk understanding it."

He goes on to suggest that the reason for death being so essential to the mountaineer is that it enables him to see life for what it truly is. Climbing prepares one for death, leads one towards the edge of another world into which one can look without fear. In the urban world our greatest and deepest anxiety is the fear of death, but in the natural world of the mountains it is possible, he argues, to overcome this fear. Far from being separate from life, Reid believes that death is really a smooth continuation of life, and for this reason the mountaineer can move easily to the edges of each world. In so doing he can discover the true beauty of life through having experienced the essential nature of death.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Living Excessively

 Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.

Edwin Land

If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.

Ayn Rand

Skyrunner's Manifesto

Redefining what is possible.  These are the words Kilian Jornet reads each day before he goes out training:

Kiss or kill. Kiss the glory or die trying. Losing is death, winning means breathing. The struggle is what makes a victory, a winner.How many times have you cried of rage and pain? How many times have you lost your memory, your voice and your judgment because of your tiredness? And in this situation, how many times have you been thinking: Try again! A couple of hours more! Another hill! Pain does not exist, it is only in your head! Control it, destroy it, delete it, carry on! Make your opponents suffer, kill them. I am selfish, am I not? Sport is selfish because one has to be selfish to be able to fight and suffer, to love loneliness and hell. To stop, to cough, to be freezing, not feeling one's legs, to feel nauseous, to vomit, have headache, a shock, blood running down your body... Have you got something better to offer me?

The secret is not in the legs. It is to find enough courage to go out and run when it's raining, windy, when it's snowing. When flashes of lightning hit the trees. When snowballs or ice rain hit your legs, your body and make you cry. To continue, you have to dry the tears from your face to be able to see the stones, the obstacles, the sky. Forget some hours of party, face tens of reproaches, say no to a girl, to the warmth of the blanket covering your face... Send everything to hell and go out in the rain until your legs bleed after having fallen down and risen again to keep running up... Until your legs shout: ENOUGH! And leave you alone in the middle of a storm in unknown mountains... until death.

Shorts drenched by the snow, brought by the wind that slaps you face and freezes your sweat. Light body, light legs. Feel the way the pressure of your legs and the weight of your body are concentrated on the metatarsus of your feet's fingers, exerting a pressure capable of breaking stones, destroying planets and moving continents. With both legs in the air, flying like an eagle and running faster than a cheetah.

Or when you are going downhill, when your legs sink in snow or mud, just before pushing forward, and make you feel free to fly, scream of rage, of hatred and love in the heart of the mountain, where only the bravest rodents or birds can become your confessors, hidden in their nest under the rocks...

They are the only ones who know your secrets and your fears. Because losing means dying. And you cannot die without giving your best, everything, without crying because of pain and injuries, you cannot give up. You have to fight until death. Glory is the greatest thing, you cannot reach it without giving everything you have. You have to fight, suffer and die. Without that, nothing is worth it. The time to suffer has come, the time to fight has come, the time to win has come. Kiss or die.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Kiss the Myth Goodbye

A new creation has unfolded, a spinning of the heart,
Whirling, swirling, spiraling, anew we have to start,
The stories are just stories, never-ending, incomplete,
We cannot give them merit, lest they become concrete.

Let the world with all its troubles begin to slip away,
Release the grand illusion, the time has come to play,
Drop your masks, seize the day, smile at the sky,
Dance with all your energy, and kiss the myth goodbye.

Ever flowing, ever fluid, co-creation is at hand,
A new band of awareness is the key, a strong command,
It comes straight from the Spirit, full of love and full of light,
So open up your heart, spread your wings, take off in flight.

by Lorraine Voss on May 4, 2021, at

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Appreciating Trees

Annie and I moved into a new home a couple weeks ago that is even more verdant than the one we moved from.  We live high up in a world of trees with green vistas that greet us through every window.  The trees that surround the place are becoming my new friends, and I think of them a lot from my vantage point close in and high among them.

“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

Ram Dass

The Limitation of Words

  For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile cha...