August 30, 2011

Scared? Just Add Breath.

Climbing Out of the Crux of Fear

Having recently gotten back into climbing after a long hiatus, my friend Mike had offered to take me on my first multi-pitch climb up the First Flatiron, one of Boulder’s classic landmarks. Mike has been climbing since before I was born, my trust in him is unwavering – a good thing since my last outdoor climb was over a decade ago. I questioned my endurance briefly and didn’t let the stories of the rappel at the end of the climb keep me from ascending. The forecast was perfect, and my level of psych was high.

The experience became a classic landmark for me considering where my headspace had been this past spring. Little did I know how amazingly apt that experience would be. It was a turning point of epic proportions as I learned to really let go, trust and sink into the moment. In my mind it makes perfect sense – all this rational being present banter that I hear in yoga, too – but it was time for me to EMBODY that in a big way in the whole of my body electric which had been more than a little frazzled and short circuited for the bulk my 2011 thus far.

Regarding the past months of my springtime: It wasn’t pretty. I felt stuck and gripped with a mental fear so paralyzing I just froze. Apparently, this was a huge manifestation of a deep old pattern. I had lost much of my noteworthy ebullience and fizzing happiness. I didn’t like being there, but wasn’t clear on how to shift things. Nothing I knew, none of the old tools could move me out of this funk. It was as if my mind was not only bottled, but compartmentalized and boxed and then drop shipped to a far off place with no return address. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what was going on. All I could see happening was the breaking down of all of the old habits and storylines that held me back from shining my fiercest light.

Meanwhile, it was a dark shadow of fear for a long stretch and was a huge unraveling of stories, old ones, knotty ones, and deeply tangled ones that were getting in my way. It got gnarly, and there were many tears from the internal breakdown. “Fear is just excitement without the breath,” I was often reminded. When I practiced that and paid attention to my breath, I realized how stuck I really was: I was barely letting life in out of fear of moving forward into new territory.

I envisioned Mary Oliver asking me: “Are you barely breathing and calling it a life?” “Fact.” I replied in my mind. My creativity was stifled. “Don’t I write about this ALL THE TIME?!” I thought to myself. “Terra Incognita, being connected to spirit, being open to the possibilities, and relaxing into the paradox, doing what you want, what makes you happy, being fearless in the face of uncertainty, being momentous… etc.etc.etc.?!? This is what I help people with as a creative consultant! Geez, Self, this is a huge, living, breathing, embodied lesson for the all of you…”

I can attest: it was the most amazing spring cleaning – ever – in the history of Ali. I liken it to hitting the RESET button.

We got an early start that morning so Mike could show me the ropes. I caught on to the rhythm and the rhyme of the protocols, and proceeded up hold by hold, pitch by pitch. My crux was pitch 5 where my calves burned and I didn’t want to look down in either direction even if I was tied to an anchor. When it was my time to ascend, I just focused on breathing and moving through things that made me wish I could click the heels of my climbing shoes together like there was no place like home. When I met the other end of the line, I was happy to learn that pitch 5 was also the crux for our improv route du jour.

The day was a practice in the pure presence of mind and body as a precursor to clear communication between the lines. There is no room for story on the rock, no room for baggage and bamboozlement. There is only space for a relationship of connection and responsibility in the most seemingly precarious situations that persists through fear by committing to being present. It persists through 10 pitches, a drop-off rappel, hidden horizons – and provides stability at the locus of commitment made at each center to be true and awesome together.

On my way down off the rock, descending a rope length from 2 bolts on my second-ever rappel (the first being over a decade ago), the wisdom of the experience sank in as the rock wall supporting my feet gave way to air, my hands moved rope with calm steadiness, my eyes focused on what was immediately in front of me and I leaned back into the support my harness feeling exhilarated and serene at once. I had learned to let go and trust that I had full responsibility for myself, for my life, and that I could handle the unknown with grace.

When I was off rappel, I moved over to a rock to swap footwear for the hike down the backside of the rock and waited for Mike to land. I felt so amazing in body and mind, as if there was no separation between, as if I was perfectly aligned and on center. My friend Lark calls these adventurous moments ‘a collision of now/here,’ because you really can’t be scattered anywhere else when you’re in the midst of life and death endeavors that call for perfect attention. I felt this strongly as a pure presence of mind and body fully integrated. Scenes from the past few months of spring reeled through my mind, distantly however, as if part of a long-forgotten dream or welcomed dismemberment.

I sat on the trail edge in a Samadhi-like state and noted to Mike, “Life seems so easy after that.” In the wake of the experience, I felt like I had woken up for the first time, breathing deeply into life.

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