St David and Equanimity

Daffodils – a site to behold on March 1st in Wales

Yesterday was St David’s Day. David was a teacher, an ascetic and the Patron Saint of Wales whose last words were apparently “‘Brothers be ye constant. The yoke which with single mind ye have taken, bear ye to the end; and whatsoever ye have seen with me and heard, keep and fulfill’.” Strange last words even if you are surrounded by a horde of your loyal monks. The thing is that they take a certain reserve to utter when your world is about to end. The word equanimity (a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment) came to mind, which is not surprising because I have been wrestling with the word since Michael Howard came to stay. Michael talked about how it is a gateway to developing spirit-will and so I have been thinking about how it might be taught.

Last post I also promised to share thinking on how we might educate the will so here goes.

Somethings are taught by raising awareness, consider my walks into school with Cai of late where we have been looking at the color of the sky and can now fairly accurately predict snow. The deep grey clouds of the mountains to our west and the low sun in the East produces an amazing silver light that seems to generally lose its gleam before flowing down into Denver bringing with it the white stuff. Equanimity however is different and I believe is developed from experiencing duress or at least by being stretched in some way. Let me share two stories from my climbing past.

The first occurred when I was 16. Inspired by tales of heroes I elected to try and climb three routes in a day, each of which had been climbed during or prior to 1945 and were rated “extremely severe”. Suicide Wall and Javelin Blade are well known, there is though a third route that fell into my category called Rowan Tree Slabs first climbed in 1929 and this is where we started. After a warm up pitch on a classic easy slab the initial part of the main pitch is friendly enough. As one gains height the moves become more tenuous and the security less available. About three quarters of the way up this 100 foot pitch I placed what I believed to be a good piece of protection in a crack and clipped a rope into it. Twelve feet higher I came to an impasse. There followed a little dance that lasted about an hour, each time I would move up a few feet and try a move that involved placing my shoe on a rounded placement that did not inspire me with confidence. Try as I might, whenever I placed pressure on that foot with the intention of weighting it and standing up to grasp a hold just out of reach I failed to commit and my mind played games with me until breathing heavily and feeling wobbly I reversed to a small resting ledge. Up and down I went. I usually equate this motion with purpose, like that of a piston and yet in this moment I lacked resolve and consequently the place and time became a nightmare of weak will. Eventually I climbed down a little more before jumping when I could reverse no further. The thing was I expected that after a drop of 15 feet the rope was going to catch me, only I did not feel the familiar stretch and then a comforting cuddle as the harness squeezed my waist and thighs. Instead there was a sickening jolt as my anchor popped, and suddenly I was catapulted upside down bouncing and sliding head first down the slab. The rope slowed momentarily as I reached another piece of gear before it too was jettisoned and I was again on my gravity assisted odyssey. Again, the sense that it was over was precipitated by the sound of whirring and a jolt. I eventually stopped, five feet above a sickening fang of rock. I had fallen 65 feet. Dave slowly lowered me to the stance. I shook and this only incoreased when I flicked the rope and the final nut; the one that had saved my head impacting with the pinnacle, flew out effortlessly. It was a year before I really climbed again.

The second occurred some seven years later, I now had a lot of vertical ground under my belt, some of it done without a rope and again I was inspired by books and what a climbing hero of mine John Redhead called “authentic desire”. At the time I worked at a bail hostel and while drinking coffee in the kitchen I would sit in a window with a view of Ysgolion Dduon framed by an old oak tree. The Black Ladders as they are known are a winter wonderland of dripping ice and frozen turf. The characteristics that make them forbidding in summer weave a matrix of white smears that make for excellent sport in colder months. I took one of my trainees up one mid week day to find perfect conditions and looking at one of the classics “the Somme” I debated whether I should take him up it. I chose to do something easier but vowed to return alone at the weekend.

Light had not yet punctuated the sky and driving up the narrow lane, Tom Petty was singing “I’m free falling” to me; it left a sense of foreboding. Still I walked in quickly, aided by a light sack. As I arrived the hills across the valley collected the sun’s first rays and I looked up to see that a lot of the ice had melted. Filled with initial doubt I questioned myself as to the wisdom of climbing unroped in these less than perfect conditions, yet before long my crampons were fastened to my boots and my axes strapped to my wrist. Again, easy initial ground lured me in but before long I was struggling in a tight crack. For one short spell I clipped into some gear left behind by someone rappelling off the route but the sense of heartache as I had to release the carabiner half way through a sequence of moves severing an umbilical cord of blue webbing was overwhelming. I was now 300 feet above the boulder field and emotionally exhausted, I stopped on a large leaning boulder to drink some coffee from my flask. Other climbers were starting to appear in the valley and as I ate a sandwich I surveyed the slab ahead. Accessing it required precariously stepping over a cleft and committing to a sheet of ice that was a half inch thick. The prospect was extremely intimidating and I thought about waiting for another party to reach me so that I could tie into one of their ropes. The same up down routine ensued, yet this time I stopped and breathed and chose to move onwards. The step across was like springing a trap, however once I had done it, my rhythm returned and soon I was finding that perfect cadence where heart and movement synchronize. The following 150 feet were pure magic as demons were exorcised and I felt the control of a warrior. Without doubt this is one of my seminal moments and one I am so glad that I indulged in. Reaching the top following several hundred more feet of easy ground was one of the most elating experiences and I lived on a cloud for months after it.

The question is what led to that moment of equanimity perched atop a leaning boulder surrounded by crystals of ice and the vast architecture of a wet Welsh cliff? I will have to say it is the progressive momentum of stretching oneself slowly and consistently over time. Each time we show discipline and do something a little harder than we are used to we open the door to equanimity. It is not something to be learned vicariously, it is something that is earned through graft.

What are you going to do to stretch your comfort zone today?

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Thinking and Feeling Will

This post may sound like a double entendre, it is though inspired by Michael Howard again. Michael is the keynote speaker at a conference at Cai’s school and is also staying with us, so we have been having conversations and my mind is particularly active at the moment. One of the things that I have come to recognize in the last few days is that most of the acts I am particularly proud of I have been led to intuitively rather than thought my way into them. The choice of Cai’s school is a good example, deciding to send Cai to a Waldorf school was first inspired by an emotional response to a school I witnessed in my late teens. When we were looking at where to send Cai, we went to a May Fair at the Anchorage Waldorf School and our decision was based on how Kim and I felt there and how Cai appeared to feel. My knowledge of Rudolph Steiner back then was based on having hung out with some hippies who were into Biodynamic farming. One night I  watched in incredulous amusement while they buried a bull’s horn full of urine in dirt and proceeded to have a full moon party where they danced around said buried horn. The thing was, while I did not feel comfortable with their approach or rituals, I did enjoy the huge and highly tasty vegetables they produced by pouring this fertilizer on their plants, I was still not prepared to read Steiner’s books though.

Likewise the next step of my Waldorf journey was watching a sculptor call David Nash create something incredible at a residential center where I worked. “Portal of light” was a huge dying tree, that had its crown cut off and all but one of its limbs removed. This limb was trimmed and then sectioned off with a chain saw, also the trunk around the limb was cut through so that light was visible through it and it look like the limb was floating.

Not the described sculpture still an indication of his methods. Click on the photo for more examples of his work

Nash was part of a cooperative that started the Waldorf school I had originally seen and his sculpture now makes me think of Steiner because Nash can see something within a tree that I can not and when he exposes it the results are incredible. Likewise, Steiner was able to see things within children and the techniques he collected and shared with teachers are similarly impressive because they bring out the “wonder” from within children.

If I had stopped to read Steiner’s work before having felt on a number of occasions the results I now witness on a daily basis, I know that Cai would not be at a Waldorf school. I was just not ready for Steiner’s brand of esoteric mysticism.

So why am I writing about all this? In the last post I talked of how freedom of will requires us to navigate the stream of thoughts that are constantly flowing and this requires us to use meditative practices to develop our skills and understanding (Steiner shared a few different ones designed to develop different capacities of will).  Michael Howard  in his book discusses the difference between thinking-will (head and hand coordination) and feeling-will (head, hand & heart coordination). He clearly states that the intentional development of both types of will in children needs to become the major purpose of education however he in particular focuses on how we can develop feeling-will because this is the piece that is most often lacking. Howard goes farther and suggests that “the defining characteristic of feeling-will is the capacity to live deeply into the inner quality of something outside us, knowing and feeling it as if we are within it or it is within us.”

Now this has got me thinking if I have used my feeling-will to create the decisions I am proud of how can I develop it in others as an outdoor educator? How can I lead my trainees towards this beacon as someone who develops a corporate culture?

Next time around I will share some of Michael’s techniques for developing feeling-will. You can always read his book. Until then, has thinking or feeling provided your best results?

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Freedom is Kayaking Upstream

I am currently reading a book by Michael Howard called Educating the Will; the basic premise being that a well educated child is provided with experiences and reflections that develop the head, the hand and the heart. This is somewhat counter intuitive to contemporary practice that increasingly focuses on the head to the exclusion of the other two faculties. As a sculptor Howard particularly concentrates on using art to develop the feeling will. He also talks about children needing to witness teachers striving towards wholeness, i.e. they themselves are working towards developing their own balance of thinking, feeling and willing. Rudolph Steiner who has shaped Waldorf teacher Howard’s thinking believed that freely chosen ethical disciplines and meditative training would help a person to become a more moral, creative and free individual – free in the sense of being capable of actions motivated solely by love. Steiner is basically a proponent of people being able to experience their higher nature and also that of others.

For me this whole arena is fascinating yet teeters on being hokey and while I have read various accounts of what will is, in particular in relation to the idea of “free will” it is a concept I have struggled with until Michael Howard posited an analogy that spoke to me. Early in the book he paints a picture of the mind being like a river where we are treated to a constant flow of thought that we do not really control; I like this image because I think of what happens over time when we humans try to do just this with dams. He also tells of a time when he watched a group of white water kayakers. “As they paddled downstream they displayed incredible mastery, going wherever and however they fancied. There seemed to be no limit to what they could do, including paddling upstream against the raging torrent. I was captivated as I watched some of them move slowly upstream – 10, 20, 30 feet. Incredibly, some could paddle as much as 100 feet against the current, but sooner or later, even the strongest and most skillful paddlers would run out of steam. Instantly they would be swept back downstream by the relentless force of the current.” Howard goes on to explain that a skillful thinker can navigate the constant stream of thoughts, choosing (will) which ones to engage. Logical thinkers can move freely within the flow and thinkers who grow the inner will to build thought upon thought without being swept along by random thoughts are comparable to the kayakers paddling upstream.

So here are a few random thoughts from someone who used to kayak a fair amount. Firstly, there was once a time when kayaking / canoeing upstream was a necessity, now if I really want to go up river I put my kayak on the roof of my car, it is a lot easier. I think the same is probably true of thinking skills now that we have google. Yet, I was compelled to paddle upstream and there was a reason, it was an opportunity to learn more about how a river works, mainly because I could see what the water was doing in front of me as I worked against it. Kayaking upstream is less about brute force and more about understanding the river, I need to understand how the shape of the bed dictates how the water will flow, I need to feel the pulses that occur naturally and therefore as I learn this I also learn how to feather the angle of my boat, use the river features and time my strokes to gain ground. The exercise gives me a far better understanding of the mechanics of efficient paddling when I am going downstream and cannot see what is behind me or I am accelerating quickly towards something and have to understand what will happen based on the water I am traveling through and what I can see ahead. Likewise meditating, where I spend my time kindly ridding my mind of thoughts as I focus on my breathing, allows me to think much better when I am trying to maintain a modicum of control of a creative process that can look like a heavy handed Jackson Pollockesque canvas with no grace.

Nowhere is the concept of paddling upstream more apparent than going against the tide in a sea kayak, by using features and being aware of the subtleties of hydro dynamics you can gain significant ground in certain situations. There is no way you can fight a current if you do not understand these things.

So the main take home of all this for me is that you are never going to be truly free of your thoughts unless you spend time understanding how the flow of your thoughts come about and this takes graft and a willingness to be spat out. And while you cannot stem them, you can learn the skills necessary to navigate them and freely choose what is good for you and others if you take time and engage in a meditative discipline. No wonder the Dalai Lama can smile while witnessing the wake of destruction in his country, through significant practice like an expert kayaker he has spent more time than most learning the true art of choosing which line (of thought) he is going to follow and use. Also, as Steiner suggests he is exceptionally free, because this discipline has ultimately meant he can shape his actions so that they come from a place of love.

How are you going to shape your freedom?

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