St David and Equanimity

Daffodils  - a site to behold on March 1st in Wales
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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Good talk

A photo of a cup of coffee.
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A few days ago I was walking into work. The sky was an incredible cobalt and I had just been sitting outside the local coffee shop with Cai and my sister. It all felt truly Mediterranean and the boy from Wales (me) was now striding with a skip in his step, appreciative of the incredible weather and how his life has evolved. As I walked I was sipping on coffee and to say the least I was very content.

Walking through a pleasant neighborhood, I greeted an old couple, after initial hellos the gentleman asked me what was in my mug. In my rush to make it to work on time I gave a short and perfunctory response. As I left the couple behind, my mind started to race. What if I had answered with more interest and flair?

Why it is the elixir of the gods; even its fragrant scent lifts the most jaded souls from doldrums. Or maybe I might have quoted Benjamin Franklin suggesting that the contents might “excite cheerfulness without intoxication; and the pleasing flow of spirits which it occasions…is never followed by sadness, languor or debility.”

The thing was that my, “its just coffee” felt flat and somewhat unthoughtful. So for the rest of the day I made an effort to find something worthwhile and uplifting to say. Watching the smiles as I made connections with the people I had interactions with was warming. My highlight though was recognizing a lady’s rather unusual last name and telling her how I had met a girl of the same name a week or so earlier. She responded excitedly and told me that she is “my little girl”. The riposte was automatic, “well mom, you did a great job, she is lovely.” Watching the pride bloom in this lady’s face was magical, and every time I have seen her since she has made a point of seeking me out and saying something that will boost my day.

What are you saying to lift the day of others? What are you saying to lift your own?

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Biomimicry, pesticides and emotions: a fairly profound thought (for me)

Al Anbar Province, Iraq (Nov. 16, 2004) &ndash...
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Walking in to work this morning I had an aha moment; I was watching someone spray their yard with Roundup and memories started to flood back. Sometimes Monkey mind can provide a great journey.

Several years after finishing a degree in Environmental Studies I decided to go travel and teach. My goal was to spend time in Nepal and the first organization to respond to my request to do voluntary work suggested I learn something about Permaculture before arriving in Kathmandu. I chose to study in Australia where the concepts had originated and in particular to go and meet the man who had initially pulled the ideas together. Bill Mollison is an incredible person, not so much an original thinker as a watcher of natural processes and a collector of amazing practices and he had created a two week Permaculture Design Course (PDC). This did more to give me a framework for all the random bits of information that I had collected in my lifetime than 3 years in college ever did and also the tools to make the rest of my travels positive for myself and the farmers I met along the way. Something it might help to know is that Permaculture is based on watching what nature does, recognizing her patterns and endeavouring to have her do work for you.

One vivid memory I have sees me in a remote village in Nepal. I am sat on my haunches on the mud floor of a simple straw hut surrounded by farmers and their sons. I am telling them about how the chemicals they have been sold by western companies to help their crops have been banned in the west, in fact they are known as the dirty dozen; there are tears sliding down my cheeks.

Something I learned during the PDC was to ask why things were happening the way they were. If a certain weed is growing it is providing something that is needed by the soil, if I can figure out what the soil needs then I can take care of it, if I poison the weed, then ultimately I am going to poison the soil around it. The bottom line is that things happen for a reason.

I have another vivid memory of a session in a hot, dry Australian classroom that explained natural succession and planting accordingly. Two years earlier I had planted oak trees for an organization in cold, wet Wales, and it did not seem right. Now half way around the world, armed with a simple model I was able to picture the whole natural succession that allows an oak to grow. Firstly, a weed; often bracken, grows, sending down enormous tap roots, deep mining the soil for minerals and then leaving a dense mulch layer on the top. Then a plant like gorse pops through, it is a nitrogen fixer and is prickly and keeps animals away. After a while, birch pushes its way up through the gorse. Birch grows for 30 years, it spaces the oak and helps these big trees grow straight and tall before it too dies out and gives the oak the space it needs to thrive. The take home lesson is it might be more productive to plant one of the earlier species in the succession rather than the tree you want to grow, especially if the soils are not ready to provide for it.

Wandering past this lady with her Roundup, I was wondering what the soil actually needed, I was also debating what the end result of her actions were going to be. She certainly was not solving the problem, even if the symptom was going to “disappear” for a while. What were the side effects? Was her dog going to notice what was happening to his stomach having inhaled the fine mist? I believe we become desensitized to the idea of pesticides because it is now so mainstream. (Red Herring Alert: How sad is it that I have to go out of my way to buy food that is natural and unsullied by human tampering?)

Here though is my realization. If I consider my emotions in the same way that Bill helped me to see nature then rather than trying to deal with symptoms I need to see what is underlying them. For a number of years I have been trying to fix things that I see as problems, basically I have been spraying Roundup. Now I need a different model for dealing with the “issues” in my life. The difficult part is going to be finding a framework that worked as effectively as figuring out the natural succession of a Welsh oak wood while sitting in a room in Australia. Another friend of mine who is the chair of a psychology department suggested I start with Erikson & Maslow – I love both men’s theories however I am looking for something that I can figure out for myself, based on my own observations, in the same way as I did the oak wood.

I do not have a question for you today, I will though happily take suggestions.

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