Wednesday, May 30, 2012


At left, Ella leading the way on a day when I was convinced we were going to be zapped by lightning any second. We didn't even get rained on.

I've been reading Pema Chodron's The Places that Scare You. The title is somewhat misleading, as it might conjure up images from childhood nightmares -- dark basements, ominous closets, that gateway to other worlds under your bed. But no, she's directing the reader to confront that most-scary of territories, our own minds.

The world we occupy lies between our ears, and the conditions we cultivate there will determine the degree to which we maximize, or disconnect from, this experience called life. If our thoughts follow trails through our minds that we've engineered so chaotically as to ensure that there's no easy way to get from here to there, if our thoughts veer off on tangents into uncharted mental wilderness, if we invent detours, circuitous and pointless wanderings, dead-ends or sheer drop-offs, how are we ever going to get on with the trip? Do we set out on a path that's geared to bring us to our destination, or do we see the obstacles and convince ourselves it's not worth the effort to overcome them?

The past couple of years in NEPA (NorthEastPA) we've seen more than our share of thunderstorms, a trend that seems to be intensifying of late. To work in the long hikes to which I've become addicted, I have to keep an eye on the weather and try to anticipate when I'm most likely to have a two to three hour window in which to venture forth with minimal likelihood of serving as a lightning rod. It'd be easy to look out the window, note the ominous presence of black thunderheads to the west, and decide that I just "wasn't meant" to walk today. Certainly it is foolhardy to step into a storm and expect not to get wet or windswept or worse. But to shy away from mere threat of a storm is to forgo the enlivening and invigorating effects of leaning into a stiff breeze (Scotland) or racing down from the Continental Divide to seek shelter below tree line (Colorado) or ducking into a sheep shed to shelter my skull from hail (Pyrenees).

And often the things we fear don't materialize at all -- one day recently I bolted out the door when the sun melted a lighter spot of gray into the gun-metal-colored sky, and was rewarded with the pleasure of walking in a perfect donut hole of sunlight for thirteen miles, encircled by a grand play of cumulonimbus clouds scudding along on gales that whipped my face with the fresh scent of rain visibly pounding the Susquehanna River valley four miles away to the south. Sure, this is a physical metaphor for an internal process, but it's all tied together; you can't succeed even in something so simple as persisting in a physical activity if you don't first develop mental clarity of purpose.

Fear exists only in our minds. It is useful, but only insofar as it serves to bring our attention to the present so that we can evaluate the situation and choose to act as we determine best suits our goals. Fear can be paralyzing if we abrogate our option of making that conscious choice.