Climbing Out Of My Gunk

The other day I was working at my desk when I felt like pressure tipped the scales and slid into anxiety. I had a client project that wasn’t going well, something that I tried to do for a friend didn’t turn out as I hoped, the holiday bills were adding up and I had strange red spots splotching the skin on my face. In response, I was eating all the Christmas candy I could find even though I knew the only way that candy would solve my problems was that it soon would be my biggest belly-ache. So I managed to put down the sugar and I went for a walk.

And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” – John Muir

For all the John Muir and Henry David Thoreau quotes that I love, the person that I often think of when I feel this way is Beck Weathers. I wrote a post about him for this blog back in April – The Power of Stories. He is the Texas pathologist caught in the 1996 storm on Everest that Jon Krakauer wrote about in Into Thin Air.

Beck tells the story that he climbed to escape depression. He’d head out into the mountains because climbing helped alleviate the darkness he was feeling. But it became a cycle of its own – he had to climb bigger and bigger things in order to keep depression at bay. Which is how he ended up at 27,000 feet on Everest in one of the deadliest storms.

I relate to Beck’s story not because I’ve suffered from depression but because mountains have given me relief from my own psychology. I started climbing in my late 20’s because I was bored after breaking up with a boyfriend and yearning for something bigger. I literally turned the corner on a street one day, Mt. Rainier lorded over my view, as it does so often in Seattle, and I knew I had to climb it.

What is it about climbing that makes it such a relief? For me it’s that when I’m having to work so hard to keep my body safe, my mind finally takes a back seat. When I’ve reduced what I have to do to the simple task of putting one foot in front of another and find a rhythm that works, I relax because I have far fewer choices about what to do or say next. At the same time, the perspective puts my ego into check because I’m no longer the main player in the small stage of my life, I’m a microscopic speck on the enormous stage of nature.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

In many senses, climbing was the beginning of my meditation journey. It slows my mind down, it simplifies what I need to do and it puts my ego in its place. To a degree now even walking does that for me when the muscle memory kicks in.

My favorite meditation is one that makes me think back to my climbing experiences. It’s where I feel the weight of everything I’m carrying on my back – the way the shoulder straps dig into my shoulders and the hip belt cinches my gut, the pressure of it all pushing my feet heavily into the ground. And then I take off the metaphorical backpack and sit with it in front of me, emptying out everything I carry one by one onto the ground before me. As I watch myself unload my problems and worries, I get a sense of detachment from them, a space that opens ever so slightly because they have been separated from my back. And then, after a few minutes of unloading, contemplating and breathing, I reload my backpack with only what I need to carry.

I always walk away from that meditation feeling lighter. Like walking and climbing, it gives me a bit of perspective and distance. I still need to return and figure out my problems but I can do it from a more capacious sense.

That happened with Beck Weathers as well. When he returned from Everest, albeit without his toes, nose, most of one arm and the fingers from the other, he was able to deal with his depression more holistically. His story always gives me inspiration – that I can face what’s weighing me down, use the tools I’ve learned from my experience, and maybe even roll it into something hopeful for others.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir

And so it went the other day with my anxiety – I took it out for a walk and it came back in a much more manageable size. One where I could sit with one thing at a time, hold it in perspective to life and the world and then deal with it in its own rhythm.

I only scarfed down just a little more candy along the way.

For more posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com or follow me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

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(featured photo is mine from climbing on Mt. Adams, Washington Sate)


31 thoughts on “Climbing Out Of My Gunk

  1. I think the best writers are ones you can relate to. And that’s certainly what you’ve made happen here, Wynne. I was feeling the angst with you, sitting at your desk, and smiling at the part about you scarfing down candy. Then you got to the middle part, and wow!
    I love the quotes, and the interweaving of Beck Weathers with your own experiences was powerful. New favorite post! 🤍

  2. “At the same time, the perspective puts my ego into check because I’m no longer the main player in the small stage of my life, I’m a microscopic speck on the enormous stage of nature.”

    I find this happens to me too when I go for walks. Walking meditation is great when we get out of our heads and just focus on nature around us. I like to look for patterns, look at how the sunlight plays through the trees, listen to the sounds of the wind and the birds, look for animals and then stop to admire them when spotted. Oh what a healing force nature is!

    1. I love that you say that you look for patterns – what a wonderful way to keep the mind busy while you walk! You are so right, Tamara – nature is a great healing force.

  3. Oh, the John Muir quote, I love this: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” Your description of the grounding of walking/climbing…very potent…and your sharing of your metaphorical backpack ’emptying’ is so good. And within reach for the rest of us to adopt…climbers or not! xoxo! 😊❤😊

  4. Thank you, Wynne, for sharing this account. I hope that you’re feeling better. It’s so good that you can view the anxiety that arises from a perspective that is at least “somewhat” removed from it. I know that my biggest challenges, and the darkest hours, occurred when I felt totally immersed in them. To have even a wedge of distance between the anxiety and true Self is so helpful.

    About the mountain climbing: Eckhart Tolle once related how someone performing what many assume to be a dangerous activity (mountain climbing in your case, motorcycling in mine) can feel alleviated of stress. He shared that it’s because the attention had to be intensely in the moment. There was no room for thinking…which left the perspective of the conceptual “person” our of the matter. He also shared, that this was why people may have felt the almost immediate desire to climb another mountain, or ride another thousand miles or so. This was definitely my case during the first few years of divorce–I moved almost every day. Why? Because my person would have been missing my family.

    I hope you can feel the positive vibes heading to you. 🙏

    1. A wonderful point about motorcycle riding and climbing. Yes, intensely in the moment is a wonderful way to put it. What a relief it is when we first do it and find that we can recreate it. Thanks for reading and commenting, Art!

  5. The link you offer between climbing and meditation is, among other things, one of slowing down. Athletes talk about this a great deal, as well. Slowing one’s breathing and using visualization also come into play as means of slowing down. I imagine another thing you are doing is reducing the number of external stimuli and attending to one thing. Sounds like you’ve given all your readers some good advice! Thank you, Wynne.

  6. I totally relate. Walking is such good medicine and it comes with no doctor’s visit or copay. I’m currently trying to get outside more, to take in more deep breaths of fresh air, to quiet my mind from all the ways it chatters. My grandfather was an uneducated man. He was a cowboy and spent almost all his waking hours outside. I went to school for a lot of years, earned a bunch of fancy degrees, and then spent most of my days inside stuffy offices and classrooms. I often think my grandfather had it all figured out and that my education served me poorly.

    I’ve noticed the world is made of two types of people: Those who are drawn to mountainous places and those attracted to water. I imagine I feel the way about large bodies of water that you feel about tall spots.

    1. I agree with your mountain people and beach people theory, Troy. There does seem to be a natural draw, doesn’t there. And how interesting the contrast you paint between your grandfather and yourself. May we all learn how to correct the parts of life that serve us poorly! Thanks for commenting!

    1. I like your choice of “efficient” as the way nature heals. It’s so true that the healing often sets in right away. Thanks for reading and commenting, Cristiana!

  7. I can totally relate to sugar binging 😳 but also to the call of the woods and bodily movement to help us put things in perspective. Thanks for another great post!

  8. Love this post on many levels, Wynne!
    What a lovely metaphor, “And then, after a few minutes of unloading, contemplating, and breathing, I reload my backpack with only what I need to carry.”
    I like how you have described that although your problems have not gone away, your load is lighter, and your backpack has more room for renewed vigor and a peaceful mind to resolve your earlier problems. “I still need to return and figure out my problems but I can do it from a more capacious sense.”
    Walking and becoming one with nature is the best salve for my troubled mind.
    Love

    1. Thank you, Chaya! I’m so glad that you get the same relief from walking and becoming one with nature. It’s such a wonderful balm, isn’t it? I appreciate you reading and commenting!

  9. This morning I thought I would like to try something new! After reading your blog I have decided- mountain 🏔 climbing 🧗‍♀️! I’m not in any shape yet to begin but I’ll get there! This blog interwoven with nature quotes has to be my favorite of yours, Wynne!!! Thanks 😊

    1. Oh, I love that you have decided to climb. It’s a wonderful endeavor! And thank you for your kind words about my post! I appreciate you reading and commenting!

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