There I was, probably 100 feet from the top of the final peak, when my mom looked at me and asked if I wanted to take a break.
I meant to say no, that I didn’t want to hold her back, but instead I just collapsed to the rocks.
As I lay there (in the same crumpled body position you see when a cartoon character goes SPLAT on the sidewalk) I listened to the horrible wheezy-rhaspy sound my lunges had been making for the last hour. It was like a panting dog, if the dog had severe asthma and was having a panic attack.
The funny thing was that even as I lay there making involuntary animal sounds, my heart racing and my head woozy, I felt… fine.
I had been physically s-t-r-u-g-g-l-i-n-g with this last peak, since it was both the third high peak we climbed that day, and also the highest elevation. Somehow though, I felt curiously unbothered by my own pain and struggle. It was almost like I watched my body fighting this battle from some serene place inside myself, a place where despite the hideous sound I was making and the fact that my legs had collapsed unbidden onto the rocks, I knew there was nothing actually wrong.
Throughout the trip I had many of these moments, noticing my own physical struggle while maintaining a deep inner sense of calm.
At one point earlier on in the day, while hiking to the trailhead for our second peak, I had sat down and uncontrollably wept for a while.
It was as natural as taking a break for water when you’re thirsty. I sat down and the tears simply flowed until they were done. I wasn’t upset exactly, I just needed to cry. We’d been going since before the sun came up, and the terrain was extremely mentally and physically demanding.
When my mom’s husband heard I’d taken a crying-break, he recommended I skip the next peak and just rest. I was surprised, because despite the fact that I still had dirty tear-streaks down my cheeks, I knew nothing was wrong and I would absolutely be able to finish all the peaks. My feeling was that of an unshakeable calm, a steadfast serenity.
While my actual discomfort level was much higher than normal, my anxiety was much lower, and I find that fascinating.
I’ve reflected a lot on this trip and the fierce calm that underpinned the whole experience. What caused this anxiety-free state? Is it always available for me to tap into? Can I purposefully create more of it in my life? Where did this inner calm comes from?
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. Confidence in my own capacity to handle hard shit
I’ve done some terrifying, painful, and challenging shit in my life, so I know that until I’m faced with a new challenge, even I don’t know what I’m capable of. It’s pretty empowering to know I’m carrying around an untapped well of strength and courage inside me all the time, and it certainly comes in handy when I’m trying some new kind of challenge.
Plus, at a basic level… so far, I’ve survived 100% of those moments. I knew I would survive this one too.
My purpose for this trip was always crystal clear, highly motivating, and aligned with my highest values. It never wavered through all the six weeks of training, or four days in the woods: my purpose was to be there for my mom as she finished this enormous accomplishment.
Not just physically there though, but emotionally there too; present; clear; light. (Aka not being irritable, grouchy, whining, or complaining.)
Having a strong sense of purpose— a super strong “why”– is hands down the most important factor when it comes to accessing that state of clear-headed calm.
Had I been struggling that much for no reason, or for a worthless reason like a miscommunication or bad planning, I would have absolutely been throwing dramatic temper tantrums in my head the whole time, like WTF why do people do this shit?!?!
I know this because throwing internal (and sometimes external) temper tantrums is something I’ve done a lot of in my life. Being asked to suffer for a reason that isn’t important to me makes me absolutely, childishly livid.
What’s purposeful or meaningful for one person is completely different than for another though. I don’t like being inconvenienced or uncomfortable to save money for example, because saving money isn’t a value of mine. (You can’t take it with you when you die, y’all.) But I’ll gladly endure all manner of pain and discomfort in service of my work, or spending quality time with loved ones.
Note: This is why I used to think I was lazy and anxious, but it turns out I just didn’t like getting out of bed to do random meaningless shit. Now that my career is linked to my purpose, I’m happy doing everything from IT issues to billing problems to program launches to endless emails. It’s also why a lot of people think they lack “willpower” when it comes to getting in shape, when really what they lack is a strong sense of purposefulness. It seems counter-intuitive, but losing weight and looking good naked just don’t often tap into a person’s core values or sense of meaning.
Which brings me to an interesting insight about the relationship between purposefulness and a general feeling of “resistance.”
3. Lack of resistance
In my day-to-day life, I often have resistance to stuff. Resistance is that feeling when something goes wrong or you’re like no it shouldn’t be like that!! Resistance is the cause of a lot of human suffering, because it creates a feeling of internal conflict that is both exhausting and unpleasant.
Think about resistance this way: if someone punched you in the face, you’d probably be pretty upset, right? But if for some reason you really wanted someone to punch you in the face, then despite the fact that it would still hurt, you’d feel happy or satisfied if someone did it.
In short, we only feel resistance when there is a discrepancy between what is happening and what we think should be happening.
This also explains the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a mandatory part of life. If someone punches you, it’s gonna hurt. But suffering is optional; suffering is the resistance you have to being in pain. You only suffer when you’ve decided that this pain shouldn’t be happening: which is where purposefulness comes in.
* Pain in service of a “why” that makes you feel purposeful is extremely empowering! * Pain in service of nothing whatsoever is infuriating and humiliating.
I was struggling in those mountains, yes, but I wanted to be struggling. I was empowered by my own struggle because it was in service of a “why” that felt pure and right. I never felt any resistance to it or labeled it “a problem” to solve, because I had signed up to struggle in this way.
Without resisting it, the presence of pain and discomfort only served to make me feel more proud and determined as we went on.
4. I’ve learned how to safely feel my feelings
Over the years of doing self-acceptance and embodiment work, I’ve purposefully cultivated a tolerance for my own feelings. (Check out the self-study course I created on feelings to learn more about how!)
It’s amazing how much less anxiety I have now that I can feel my feelings without freaking out.
I had asthma as a kid, and I used to get panic attacks. Doing cardio always used to make me feel like that — like I couldn’t get enough air, like I was going to die. That kind of fear led to panic attacks. I’d feel the initial discomfort, get anxious about the discomfort, panic about my anxiety, panic about my panic, and them BOOM: full blown panic attack.
Being able to tolerate the first stages of physical discomfort— to stay present, and loose, and keep breathing no matter what I’m feeling (aka to not experience resistance to my own feelings)— changes the whole pattern.
Despite all my purposefulness and confidence, fear is a powerful force. If I hadn’t learned to tolerate my fear safely, it might have hijacked the whole show and ruined my trip.
Whew. These were some powerful lessons packed into an intense experience.
Given this experience, the topic of staying constantly connected to meaning/purpose has just become a whole lot more interesting to me!
Can this be the key to feeling inner peace even when life is hard AF? Or maybe these together are the four keys— did I miss anything?
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