Suffering, along with confidence and will, is one of the three pillars of the UltraMental Philosophy. I’ve been thinking quite deeply about suffering lately. Interestingly enough, these thoughts have typically coincided with pretty significant periods of actually experiencing suffering. I tell my wife, who wakes up at 6:15 am for a daily dose of meditation and yoga, that my long suffer-filled walks in the bush are just my form of moving meditation and a practice of being ‘present in the moment’. They last alot longer, which is why I don’t need to do it as often.
I spent the last two days in such a meditation. It was pretty awful. I was working for a new contractor putting in tracking tunnels in the Roa Burn. I won’t go into all the details about what tracking tunnels are or where the Roa Burn is, except to say that it is in the middle of nowhere in the remote wilderness and that the task involved trekking up and down a bush covered mountainside with no trails for 7-8 hours a day. While this might sound like fun–and on some other trips has almost been–the Roa Burn was definitely not fun. To begin with, the weather was awful. 10 cm of slushy snow was present on the tops when I stepped out of the chopper, and it was drizzling from the inside of an massive cloud. It rained all day–a rain that is only a few degrees above freezing. The hillside was steep and the bush dense. I crawled a lot. My gloves were wet through within minutes to the point that I could make a fist every 10 seconds and wring the water out. I was soaked to the bone within 20 minutes, my clothes weighing more than twice what they did in the chopper (yes, fleece will absorb water…). And I was just getting started.
Over the next 8-ish hours as I baited the 50 tracking tunnels, I traversed gullies, descended bluffs, crossed thick swamps, and generally negotiated kilometers of horrible, sodden country where the portion of steps I took on easy, open, level ground is most accurately described by ten to the negative two (10-2). Travelling 100 meters could take more than 10 minutes. Seriously. And then, towards the end of the day, tendonitis in my left elbow (of all places) started flaring up–I’m guessing from using my arm to take weight and/or the near constant grabbing of branches/trees for support.
It was hard going, but then what choice did I have? The thoughts came and went. This is crazy. People could die out here. What do the early stages of hypothermia feel like? It was ugly. But then there were other thoughts: It’s just an experience. What ifs don’t matter–right now you can keep going–the goal of camp is still achievable and time will pass and this experience of cold/wet/pain will pass too. And of course they did. I made camp, and the experiences changed.
I got to the bottom of the valley and crossed the final river, slipping and falling in up to my waist (which honestly hardly mattered at this point), and finding my overnight bag that had been delivered that morning by the chopper. I set up the tent in the rain (one of my least favorite things to do) just at dusk. I stripped out of my wet clothes and was attacked by sandflies. But then I was in my sleeping bag, and eventually, warm. It was time to eat. Unfortunately, the job offer had came at the last minute–Sunday afternoon for Monday morning departure. I’d been spending time with the family so opted not to take my leave to go prepare and just ended up scrounging food from the pantries after the kids were in bed and figuring I’d make it a ‘hardship’ mission–besides, the boss had made it sound pretty easy on the phone–so I was light on food too. I’d had a banana in the chopper, carried a HydroFlask of hot chocolate and licked the peanut butter off the spoon after baiting each tunnel, but otherwise hadn’t stopped to eat. Thanks to my meager rations I experienced hunger too.
I got plenty of sleep–well, rest anyway. Sleep was difficult as it took significant ‘attention’ to try to settle my mind. It was raining outside. My tent leaked a little bit. I was going to have to put back on cold, wet clothes in the morning and do it all again, only uphill. My meditation practice changed gears and focused on letting go of tomorrow’s suffering because, well, it didn’t really exist. I made a pillow out of my HydroFlask, my rather moist fleece hat and a bit of toilet paper in a plastic bag,
I made it through the next day too–using tricks learned over years of racing and adventuring. Chunk things out–one small goal at a time. Break things down. When the bush was thick and progress seemed to halt I’d try to remember that there is no permanence. I will, however slowly, get to better ground. And then when I had it, I’d practice appreciating the few meters of easy going, knowing it was bound to be temporary as well. The hours ticked by, surprisingly quickly, something that means my mind was, more or less, where it should be. It was a pretty good session, considering the circumstances.
Well, until the end–when I heard the chopper heading up the valley towards where I stood, exposed, drenched, shivering, blasted by the wind and rain. I couldn’t see it because the fog was too dense. My overnight gear was back at the river mouth, a 4 hour bush bash away in daylight, assuming food, daylight, energy–the former of which was completely gone while the others were severely depleted. Because then, although it sounded like it was right there, the sound started to fade, until it disappeared.
My wife says if I was truly enlightened I would have accepted such a turn of events, and what they meant, as simply another state of being. But I basically panicked inside.
Thankfully, the chopper did eventually return, doorless (for visibilities sake) and passengerless (just in case). I still have some work to do, I suppose, but I think it can wait until after a week of hot showers.