October 18, 2010

What the Mountain Taught Me. ~ Karen Lindenberg

Confronting my own mortality.

In the summer of 2009, I visited Mount Rainier National Park for the first time.

During a park ranger’s slideshow and talk on summit expeditions, I was transfixed by photo after photo of mind-blowing views from Camp Muir and the summit. I saw the wildflower-studded, grassy slopes of the foothills; clouds swirling over wide expanses of snow, ice and rock; goggle-clad faces that bore unmistakably triumphant expressions. Seeing all these images in that moment, I was overcome with the desire to experience everything first-hand.

At that time in my life, I was, among other things: recovering from a break-up; reeling from having dealt with my mother falling ill for several months; trying to decide whether I wanted to leave a corporate job that, while lucrative, made me increasingly miserable; and coming to grips with the realization that I was very, very depressed and that I probably needed to do something about it, and soon.

I wanted to rise above all this, and in all ways.

So, just like that, I embarked on a months-long adventure to prepare for a difficult technical climb when I had never before even had the slightest inkling to climb a mountain, much less the highest peak in Washington State. Over the course of the next several months, I did everything I could to get myself into the best possible shape of my life. And that’s exactly how I felt when I pulled up to basecamp nearly a year after my visit.

I felt ready.

We set out from the Paradise Inn, which sits at 5,400 feet, to ascend to Camp Muir, altitude 10,100 feet. It wouldn’t be long before we began our bid for the summit, climbing by headlamp in the icy darkness. Soon after that, attached by rope to 3 other people, I was scrambling up a 45-degree incline with an ice axe in one hand and the other white-knuckling boulders and dirt.  I prayed that whoever was climbing above would not send rocks down the slope we faced, which I was less than pleased to learn had been dubbed “The Bowling Alley”.

It’s pretty amazing to observe your mind in the safety of a yoga studio. It’s a lot more amazing when you’re confronted with thoughts of your mortality. My brain bounced between thinking that my mother would freak out if she understood just how at risk my life was, to hoping I’d return to “save” my floundering relationship, to thoughts about my dog, food, places I’d been, places I wanted to travel to, old friends, new friends, kissing, sex, family…you name it, it probably kicked around in my head for at least a few seconds…if not hours.

Somewhere along the way, something happened. My mind actually took to the sheer monotony of trying to match the steps of the person in front of me while keeping just the right amount of slack in the rope that bound us. This also kept me from freaking out when my gaze would drift towards countless precipices, down which one misstep meant certain injury, if not death. I could still see the whirlwind of thoughts I describe above, but somehow they became more softly-focused, and had drifted into the background of my consciousness.

My head retained just enough cognitive energy to stay calm and filter out thoughts that didn’t serve me. I could focus on what mattered technically in order to not die. I could let go of the danger that lay inches from my feet, and focus only on the area illuminated by my headlamp. My reality was reduced to a moment-by-moment, step-by-step existence, in which the path I walked was quite literally my “life’s path”. And down this path, my body directed enough energy to my muscles to keep walking, no matter what, and simply move forward.

At the 12,300-foot break, I was shivering, unable to control my body temperature despite my down parka, and incredibly nauseous, unable to stomach food or water. I eventually came to the painful conclusion that although I knew I could probably soldier on to the summit, I didn’t have the strength to safely descend.

I didn’t reach the summit.

As a yoga instructor, I often tell people to “let go”. But this experience has given me a deeper understanding of this concept.

More than ever, I realize that life is one enormous exercise in surrender and release.

Every day we shed millions of cells with each swipe of skin against surfaces. We surrender earnings to purchase goods, to meet obligations, to be economically functional. We let go of inhibitions to make investments. Friendships and relationships are investments that require the release of suspicion, judgment, and expectations to be truly healthy. Parents release children to school, to adulthood, to the whims of society, to their own free will.  We make and break connections with people, issues, opinions, places, objects, situations, and memories of everything in between.

I recently lost the proximity of 5 good friends to other states. In the last few weeks I’ve said goodbye to students who couldn’t afford to continue classes. I’ve permanently misplaced articles of clothing. All borrowed gear has been returned to rightful owners. And I’ve spent much of the time since my return sifting through the emotional carnage of a relationship’s demise.

I’ve lost the visceral gratification that mounted as we scaled slope after slope, the satisfaction of knowing that each workout inched me closer to achieving a feat that few even have the desire to attempt. Even remembering the climb itself has been an act of releasing my ability to accurately convey it; although I have photos to remind me of my journey, nothing that I can say, do, or write will ever fully capture the experience.

On the climb, letting go meant pushing mightily to move forward—to literally rise above and advance on the path. Now, letting go means releasing the idea that this experience is somehow incomplete. Each day I release my attachment to my desired outcome. Each day, I move mightily into acceptance of what did transpire, and the possibility of a second attempt. I have a renewed understanding of my capacity to dig deep within and uncover my spirit, my health, my sense of accomplishment, and my resolve to live life fully.

Over the last decade and a half, Karen has worked as a geologist, high school math teacher, dot-com startup geek, IT nerd, and project manager. In 2008 she realized that teaching yoga required her full and undivided attention.
Based in Seattle, she brings yoga to the workplace via her business, Phyzz Yoga, which is dedicated to helping people see “yoga at work”. She has been teaching yoga since 2003 and plans retreats to various Northwest destinations and to Mexico. Follow @phyzzyoga on twitter, or catch her musings on herblog. Oh yeah, and she’s older than she looks.
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