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This morning, I’d like to paraphrase a story that I read that helped me to deal with all the chaos in my life, in which I’d gotten a bit caught up.  This isn’t such an enjoyable way to live.  It goes a little something like this:

The was a great samurai who went to visit a meditation master in a cave high on a mountain.  He approached the man on his cushion and said, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell”.

The teacher looked up at him and said, “Why should I ever tell you, you dirty, miserable slob?”

The samurai grew red in the face and angrily insisted that the master deliver his teaching.  The master said, “Why would anyone ever teach anything to such an ugly brute as yourself?”

The samurai, caught up in great anger, drew his sword, and was about to strike the teacher’s head from his body when the teacher looked up at him and said,

“This is hell”.

The samurai, being actually quite sensitive and perceptive, immediately understood.  He fell to his knees and began to weep, pressing his palms together in thankfulness.

The master said, “This is Heaven”.

Hell is the state in which we are so absorbed with ourselves and our problems that we close up in our emotions and can do terrible things, because we see ourselves in opposition to our world and have to defend ourselves and our sense of self from its insults.

Heaven is the moment when something jars us, breaks our shell, and makes it possible for us to take a more expansive view.  This is because our perspective governs how we treat ourselves and others in every situation.  Gentleness, space, and wonder can coexist with our negative emotions if we don’t let ourselves fall blindly into our own stories.

I hope that this will be helpful to some of you.  Enjoy the weekend, and if you can, get outside for all of us who are in the PNW, where it will be raining all weekend.

p.s. this is a bit goofy, but illustrative nonetheless:

Transition periods: they’re a real bitch.  There’s nothing like uncertainty about both now and the future to make your mind feel like it’s just come ashore on some wobbly sea legs.  The key qualities of a transition period are vague direction, multiple possibilities or options, groundlessness, and uprootedness.  Namely, you’ve leapt from one island of safety but have yet to land on the other and meanwhile hang suspended with your gut rising into your chest like Wile E. Coyote.  My gut instinct when in a period of transition is to get out of it as soon as possible: make landfall, find safety, place pro, whatever I’ve got to do to reduce the uncertainty.  But this approach doesn’t recognize the benefits of this state, and as one is often in a state of transition without a controllable end, it’s pointless to lament, and it’s productive to capitalize on what is ultimately a useful state of being.

Security is an illusion. Always.  There is nothing that can’t change and nothing that won’t eventually do so.  To be in a state of transition makes this truth startlingly clear, as the ideas that we normally use to shield ourselves from this fact have been taken away.  This is such an uncomfortable state of being that most people, by my read at least, spend a significant, if not dominant, portion of their time and effort and energy avoiding it like the plague.

Recently I’ve found myself approaching a transition: in a month, the grant that funds my research will have paid me all that it can, and beyond that date I’m unsure of where or how I’ll be employed.  My search for work, especially in this job market, has highlighted for me that mobility is one of my greatest assets in finding a job.  Thus, I’m looking at jobs in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and elsewhere.  The thing is, I don’t know where I’ll end up, or if I’ll even want to leave Portland.  There’s more for me here than my heart cares to admit.

As this transition approaches and I try to find a direction, I’ve asked myself what I believe to by my purpose in life.  Yawn, you say, give me a good YouTube link and I’m out of here.  But I’m not about to offer any conclusions, just an idea about how to get to them, which will perhaps be useful to you.

I often find myself trying to reverse-engineer this problem by asking what it is that I want, and then figuring out how to get it.  Without committing my thoughts to paper, I was vaguely answering that question with ‘free time’, ‘mobility’, and ‘money’.  But I recently attempted an exercise that suggested spending 30-60 minutes writing down every idea that popped into my head about what my life’s purpose might be, no matter how absurd or immoral it might sound.  45 minutes later and with 134 answers, I’d made a bit of headway.

But more than making headway, I made a small but important realization.  It’s not rationally founded, but I think that self-examination on your part might confirm that what I’ve found is true.  What I found is that ultimately my sense of fulfillment comes from releasing the energy that I have inside of me towards a focused end.  No, not the hyper energy, or the sort that comes from coffee, but the driving energy that is the basis of yearning, determination, and willpower.  The object of this energy, i.e. that towards which is flows, changes pretty much seasonally, but my sense of fulfillment and my happiness are greatest when it is flowing.

So, to maximize these states (fulfillment, happiness), there are two paths to follow.  The first is to amplify the energy itself, so that it carries more weight and is less-easily stymied.  The second, and likely more useful in the short-term, is to identify the hindrances to its flowing-forth, and to remove each blockage by whatever means are proper.  The greatest block is fear, but there are others: distraction, poor health, inertia– no doubt you can produce your own list.

What my babbling boils down to is a different idea about how to find direction: rather than picking external aims and working towards them, more returns in happiness and fulfillment will come from eliminating the blocks that hinder expression of your internal energy.  During this process, it may be necessary to support yourself by non-inspiring means, but ultimately, you will have freed yourself to be a creative and effective force at whatever it is that you choose to do.  We can think of the energy that leads to fulfillment like money: to produce wealth in the long-term, it’s much more effective to reinvest in the capital that produces wealth than it is to work at managing the bit of money that you already make.

Recently, I’ve been getting some flak that I’d like to respond to.  I won’t say where from, but let’s just say that some people have seen fit to criticize me for the ideas that I espouse and for the lifestyle that I am creating for myself.  I am indulging myself as much as I am indulging you by responding, and I don’t think that I’ll do it again, but I feel a need to clarify a few points so that in the future I can leave you alone to criticize and not care.

The first point is that I am by no means perfect, or even close to it.  Often, when I am inspired to write and to represent myself and my ideas through writing, I write from the voice of who I wish to be or what I want to become.  I’m not there yet.  I may never arrive.  I don’t live up to my manifesto.  But unlike many of you from whom I’ve received criticism, I’m trying to.

The second point is that if anything I want to inspire you to do things by writing here, not thump my chest and say how great I am.  What I include here is a cross-section of my most amazing experiences, not my average day.  It’s an evolving publication that started in a more wayward fashion and becomes more specific with time.  I hope that my photos and writing make you want to get up off the sofa and get after whatever it is that you know lights your fire.

The third and last point is that I have little choice but to be extreme, both for myself and in opposition to the status quo.  To quote Station 515:

“We work hard because we know we don’t have to. We are angry because we know we could roll over with a whimper and people would tell us that its ok. We work hard as an act of revenge upon the pieces of ourselves that want to be average. We work to become more than what we are.”

We’re all in the same boat:  If we allow ourselves, we’ll look for comfort because part of us is weak and scared and afraid to fail.  I don’t resent the world for being scared and weak, I just resent these qualities in myself.  What I do resent is those who would impose their fears and weakness on me; they hate to see action because it takes away the comfortable excuses that they have for not leaving their shell.  This is why I won’t respond to their scorn again, because cowardliness doesn’t deserve that kind of validation.

In summary, I’m imperfect. But unlike my critics, that’s the burning fire that makes me want to be better.  Forgive me for my grandiosity, my ego, and my insecurity, and then join me.

Fuel for the Fire:

Gym Jones

Project Deliverance

Simple Iron Truth

Station 515

This is the first of more posts to come that contain content from my field notebooks.  These notebooks are just small moleskines in which I sketch, write my thoughts, my to-do lists, my fears, etc.  Some of it, I think, may be worth sharing.  I hope that by sharing notes from the field, I can integrate a little bit more of the field-mind into the city life and perhaps inspire in us both the quiet solidity of mind that comes from a simpler, harder life.

From Caribou Lake, North Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska – July 2010

It’s time to give things the attention that they deserve.

The marsh grasses root beneath the water, their tops rising from the small dimple that they leave on the pond’s polished surface.  The shadow of each cuts the reflected sky like a sharp, black brush stroke.  To look at the clouds resting on the pond’s surface is to see each blade connected to its shadow, a green sliver of life waving its dark partner at the sky.

Though the air is mostly still, subtle wafts move through the grass, stirring the blades and sending small bursts of ripples laughing across the silvery surface.  Farther out on the pond, the shadow of mountain blocks the sky from reflection, and the dark water is punctuated only by the glimmers  of where grass meets water.  The mountain, immovable on the horizon, is on the water tossed about and distorted, its edges chased like an elevator’s steps by the passing ripples.

The mountain’s solidity is the water’s jest, and the grass’s luminance in the sun is likewise mocked on the water’s surface.  Even the fullness of the sky is teased apart by the tiny water-strider, whose crooked path leads to nowhere, but centers somewhere.

From where I sit, I cannot see my own reflection, and beneath me is not water but mineral and soil.  Nevertheless, I know that like the grass and its shadow, so too is my form broadcast into the earth in a natural opposition.  Someday, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, life may lay me down to soil like grass to the water, light meeting dark in a final consolidation as my sleep eternity and by body takes another form.  Inspiration, I suppose.

Inevitability is both a curse and a certain sort of freedom.  Paths may lead away into the sky or the earth, to wherever they please, but always they return to the surface, meeting their reflection.  Ours is a path yet to be chosen.

It’s time to give things the attention that they deserve.

I spent the night last night living my way through every possible contingency.  Rockfall.  Avalanches.  Crevasse falls.  Tripping.  Getting lost.  Everything was so real in my dreams.  I can feel in my gut that I’ve been living deep inside my head, getting to meet my fears as they happen.

The avalanche forecast changed since yesterday.  Yesterday it was low in the mornings, and moderate in the afternoons.  Good.  Now it’s moderate in the mornings, and considerable in the afternoon.  Really questionable.  Considerable is the rating that kill most skiers, because hey, it’s not high right?

The plan is to head up to Mt. Hood in a few hours.  Alex and I will skin to Illumination rock and make camp there at around 9000′.  An open bivy will bring us through the night in the low twenties to a cold morning around 2am.  From there, it’s a dash across the Reid glacier, up the couloir, and across the ridge to the summit.  I think that five hours is a generous amount of time to allow ourselves, which puts us down out of the danger around 9am.  That’s about the time that the freezing level rises to 9k’.  In and out, quick and alpine.

The question is, how do you know when you have to turn around, or even if you can?  The danger’s above, not under your feet.  Retreat may be more dangerous than topping out.  Failing upwards, Mark Twight calls it.

I’m looking forward to sleeping out in the open on the Saddle.  You can see the lights of Portland stretching out to the West, and the Cascades out to the South.  I’m sure though that I won’t have a peaceful night.  If the dreams were bad at home, they should be all the more real when I can sit up and stare down onto the glacier that I’ll have to cross, and up along the chute that we’ll climb.

The last time that we went after this route, we were almost clocked by rockfall even before we got to the saddle.  I don’t want to say that I have a bone to pick with the route, but I will be glad to get it done.  That said, returning unharmed, having headed into the dragon’s lair, is success enough.  I’m not sure that what I’m doing is the right thing, on the mountain or off, but I figure that if I just keep trying to do what I think is best then I’ll at least have given it my best shot.  No living in the shadows– I’d rather meet my end early in the sunshine.

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