Wall climbing (or indoor rock climbing) is an astonishing activity. You might think you mostly use your arms, but that’s not the case: your legs push you up, propel you forward. If you only use your arms to pull you, you’ll be exhausted in no time flat. But your legs are secondary to your mind and its ability to be present in the moment, to plot a path, show you where your feet and hands need to be to position you for the next move, and then the next until you reach the top. Getting to that top is not a pure vertical climb. Sometimes you are spread-eagled on the wall, every muscle in your body taut and engaged, supporting you in your best Spiderman imitation as you move sideways to find that one spot that’s going to advance you up. And when you reach the top? A moment’s exhilaration, then belay back to the ground.
Archery is not rock climbing but to master it requires a discipline of body and mind. Your body needs to be positioned just so: your centre of gravity connected to the earth under your body, your breathing even and smooth; hand, arm and shoulder muscles holding the bow with the perfect pressure: mind on your line of sight, line of intent to the target. Fingers, shoulder, back muscles engaged to draw that bow back and when you sense it to be precisely the right moment, release with the right breath and hear the whooosh! and thwump! of the arrow into its target before you blink. When it all aligns; a moment of bliss.
Kayaking on a lake in Northern Ontario’s cottage country where noisy speedboats and seadoos can’t get to is an entirely otherworldly activity. Unlike many other body-powered water craft, kayaks tend to sit more ON the water than in it, and you — like a talented pattern maker — cut the fabric of the water with the sharpness of the bow. It is your skill with the double paddle that propels you and the craft forward in beautiful, near silent strides. Your upper body, shoulders, arms, hands, working in concert to manoeuver the paddle without a wobble or slip, your mind alert in the moment, your lower body serving as balance. And when you stop to float a bit and let your mind go, you notice it does not go very far. It’s focused in the moment, a moment of bliss.
Life is nothing like rock climbing or archery or kayaking. But I thought of them as I pondered this image of the goat on that rock between to two cliffs. I’m sure the goat knows exactly what to do. I’m equally sure it’s silly to think of being an unsure goat. But I did. Probably because I imagined the many times I’ve been in that position, thinking what the HELL do I do now, and how do I do it and Oh: CALLING ALL RESOURCES!!!!!!
And why would I need to call on all resources if I were this goat? Well, it’s like this: #3 on the list of big fears. That’s a fear of heights. And being stuck up high with no discernable way out? Be still my beating heart.
My fear of heights is irrational. My mother, petrified of heights, convinced me that I was just like her, so, as often happens I acquired her fear by osmosis. But a few years ago, I decided it was no longer a reasonable fear to carry around. It was holding me back and I set about facing the fear. I thought I’d do a parachute jump out of a plane as my first step. Luckily another think come along, a sane one: be intelligent about managing this fear.
Apparently, (to paraphrase a quote of John Holt) intelligence is NOT the measure of how much we know, or how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know something, or when don’t know what do or how to do it.
So I set about facing this fear of heights. I have gone up from ground level to 8,000 feet in cable cars; did a treetop canopy walk that took me 70 feet above the forest floor; stood on the glass floor at the top of the CN Tower and got there by a glass ELEVATOR; climbed up the edge of 5,000 meter hill; stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon; rode a bus that drove round and round the edge of a mountain; stepped to the edge of the Cambrian Shield granite cliffs at Algonquin Park, stood at the top of a castle wall way up on a mountain. Sat on rooftops. (Don’t ask). I use ladders too, and each time I can’t hear myself think for the pounding of my heart. Each time, I live to tell the story.
Moving into the process of getting from ground to the higher spots where I can’t see the safe landing point is scary. What I’ve discovered is that my fear of heights is not exactly about the physical distance between me and the safety of being on the ground. It’s about getting there from here as smoothly as possible, with as little disruption as possible, causing as little hurt and harm as possible.
It’s possible I’ll be managing my fear of heights my entire life. But I confess that my fear is overshadowed by a greater love and of insatiable curiosity of not knowing what to do because in those few moments, there is total, absolute clarity of purpose: get to the next step.
So in those scary moments of being where the goat is, of standing in transition, that place WAAAAY up high between one place and the next, the skills of wall climbing, archery and kayaking, of breathing, stilling mind and focusing on the here and now seems to me oddly useful in navigating life’s rocks, waters and beauty.