Stepping Outside My Comfort Zone

Wow! Kent and I have been accepted as “caregivers” on the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash in the Tibetan Himalayas with Above + Beyond Cancer.  We have been told to expect a challenging experience in physical, cultural, emotional and spiritual terms.

The physical and cultural part I’m not so worried about. Physically, I’m healthy and in good condition.  While trekking has never been my favorite weekend activity, I’ve climbed some significant hills in my time.  I expect 18,000 feet will test my mettle (my highest climb to date was about 14,000), but Kent and I intend to take the training regimen seriously.  If I survive the training, I expect I’ll make it to the top.

As for the cultural part, I look forward to sharing in the life of people who live a mountain existence, with little or no experience of the “mod coms” we take for granted.  I’ve traveled widely enough to know that I can adapt to any sort of accommodations, the absence of plumbing, and unfamiliar foods.

What worries me are the emotional and spiritual dimensions.  As a caregiver, I need to be fully “present” for the cancer survivors who are making the pilgrimage, to get past my own physical and emotional fatigue to support others more tired than me. 

But I am a classic introvert, who needs large dollups of alone time. I suspect that solitude will be an even scarcer commodity than indoor plumbing.  I am also logical and analytical, with a decided deficit of the kind of emotional intuition that lovers of poetry are born with. And while I have studied religion and philosophy for years, I don’t much enjoy yoga and have never learned to meditate.  Will I be able to connect with the changing mood of the group as we get farther up the mountain?

My biggest challenge, I think, is not whether I can make it to the top under my own steam, but whether I can hold up my share of the emotional burden as we make the climb.

Being Mindful

Expectations. What we want to happen. What we hope will happen.

Except things rarely turn exactly as we expect.

Again today, I met with several elderly widows in a nearby retirement community who wanted to hear more about my three years on a sailboat, a story I told in Sailing Down the Moonbeam.

Today’s topic was expectations—the fact that nothing on a sailboat ever goes according to plan. You can’t control the wind or the currents, so you have to live in the moment. Buddhists call it “mindfulness.”

I struggled as I drew up the agenda for the day. I already knew that each of the women had done something quite extraordinary with her life. What insights did my sailing adventure offer that they didn’t already know?

I needn’t have worried. When I mentioned mindfulness and the related Buddhist notion that suffering is a consequence of desire—of wanting something you don’t have, of wanting to hang on to something you once had—it struck a chord. The hour flew by, as they shared their experiences of dealing with change in their own lives.

We never got around to my agenda. They were learning from each other. And once again, I was learning from them.

That was mindfulness in action.

Teaching the Teacher

Will I ever learn to listen to my own advice?

Tonight was the first night of an MBA seminar in which I ask my students to examine their attitudes toward success and failure. Since we’re all surrounded, all the time, by people and situations over which we have no control, it isn’t enough to decide what you want to happen, or even to work hard for what you want.

The brutal fact is that success often relies heavily on good luck. Failure, even if it isn’t “our fault,” is often life’s best teacher.

Having taught this seminar twice before, to positive reviews, I expected my class to be eager and willing. They were not. I was confronted by a sea of faces that almost dared me to make the next three hours interesting. I knew I was in trouble when several of them announced they were taking the class because it was “the only one that fit their schedule.”

Over the next few hours, a few heads nodded in agreement or bodies leaned forward to listen as I raised a topic or idea that seemed to resonate. But overall, keeping them engaged was hard work, harder than I expected it to be.

Hummh. Harder than I expected it to be. Expected based on what? Why would prior years’ reviews be relevant? Every class is different … different personalities, different life situations, different needs. And why would this group care — if indeed they knew — how last year’s class responded?

If this class is to be a success, I have to meet them on their own territory. I have to deal with their issues, not the issues that were important to my class a year ago. I have to get rid of my own expectations.

Requiem for a Lost Tradition

It was a perfect moment.  Vaulted ceilings.  Stained glass windows.  A red-robed choir.  A small orchestra with strings and horns performing Faure’s Requiem.  

Lyrical and inspiring translations of the Latin text, interspersed between choral movements, added to the magic of the moment.

You could not help but be moved by the splendor of the music in that sacred space on Good Friday evening, music composed by a man of great talent who wanted to bring glory to his god.  

It was a moment made for mindfulness.  But I blew it.  

I was saddened to see a church barely half full.  I grumbled about gospel readings that were banal, devoid of the poetic language of the Faure’s text.  I complained, yet again, that so many of the awe-inspiring rituals of the Christianity of my youth have been replaced by bad guitar music and superficial gestures of fellowship. 

Once again, I failed to take my own advice.  Instead of simply relishing the moment of beautiful music, I got caught up in trying to hold on the past.  Instead of being mindful, I slipped into the realm of desire for something I couldn’t control, couldn’t bring back.