It was February. We were bouncing through the pompa of Argentinian Patagonia, our 4×4 spewing dirt and mud as we made our way south to the end of the Americas.
As we blasted down the most off-road road I’d ever seen, I gripped tighter to the handle overhead – you may know it as the ‘oh sh*t bar’ – and had no idea my entire life was about to go off-road in ways that would make me question reality.
- My 34th year. It was the hardest year of my life, other than my 17th year, when my father died.
I wanted to share a few key lessons I am walking away from 2015 with, partly so I can really get some closure on the year that was, and also in the hopes that something I learned might help you handle something you’re dealing with.
The first lesson showed up on that Mars-like “road” deep in Patagonia….
Lesson One: No ‘oh sh*t bar’ Is Going To Save You.
A thick layer of loose gravel, packed dirt beneath, and potholes the size of a car made up this “road”. We’d gone over a few stretches like this already, always returning to some sort of pavement after 10 kilometers or so.
Then we came upon a sign, “Unpaved road – next 72 kilometers”. Oh. Well ok then.
It was on that 72km stretch of “road” that I had an epiphany.
If things went pear-shaped, holding on to a handle above my head wasn’t going to do more than the safety measures I’d already taken. And once I realized that, I also realized just how much tension I was holding throughout my body.
Gripping that ‘oh sh*t bar’ so tightly was supporting my old pattern – staying in a high-alert (read: high-stress) state of being that had been my ‘comfort zone’ for quite some time at that point.
As we drove up and down mountains, around the sharpest blind curves high on a mountainside, and deep into the dark night on roads that could hardly be called such, I was having a blast – and I was as tense as could be.
When I realized this, I took my hand off the overhead handle. And spent nearly an hour sitting there being hyper-aware of my seatbelt, the motion of the car, and tuning in to my friend’s calm energy regarding his own driving skills. Slowly but surely, I started to feel comfortable – relaxed, even! I didn’t need to be in control, because there was no control to be in charge of.
(Remember, control is an illusion, for more thoughts on this, see Byron Katie)
One of the happy side effects of learning to let go of the tension of trying to control things has been the change it’s made in the suppleness and pliability of my body’s tissues.
You see, when you’re constantly tense, you’re also likely to be driving a sympathetic-dominance in your body (your fight or flight system becomes hyperactive and is ‘on’ all of the time, instead of only when a tiger appears).
When your fight or flight system is hyperactive, as Dr. Seth Oberst puts it, “inhibition of muscles, particularly the extensors, [becomes] difficult, and the athlete cannot get into and sustain a variety of movements because the nervous system is under constant threat.”
Meaning, your muscles tend to stay in a more ‘tense’ level of tone and thus carrying a greater level of ‘muscle tension’ that you might feel as achey-ness.
You also have a harder time breathing well – deep, torso-expanding inhales, and full, long, exhales – when your sympathetic nervous system is hyperactive. This can cause changes to your muscles and your level of stress chemicals, which can assist in causing a painful, achy, chronically-tense feeling body.
This doesn’t mean that ‘letting go of needing to feel “in control”’ is the single savior for tense bodies everywhere. You still have to follow the 3 Tenets of a Good Mover, and you still have to get good sleep and food.
And if you want to make it easier to sustain long-term soft tissue pliability and movement-quality, you’ll want to also get your mind, thoughts, and stress in order.
Once you’ve done what you can do, there’s nothing more to do.
It’s going to work out how it works out. You can’t control the Universe. You’re intelligent enough to make good choices. Sometimes though, you’re going to get blind-sided, and by its very nature, you can’t see a blind-side coming, so you wouldn’t have been prepared for it anyways. But you’ll figure a way out. Or you won’t. Those are your two choices.
Which brings us to lesson number two…learning to prepare.
Lesson Two: You’re Preparing For The Wrong Thing
I’d gotten my affairs in order before leaving Chicago. I’d arranged to live with a friend for a bit after relocating across the country. I was ready, or so I thought.
After arriving in my new home state, the next three months of my life felt like my inflatable raft had been slammed by a wave and was upside down under the surface of the ocean. And it took an immense amount of energy to avoid completely drowning. I was untethered and it was effing scary.
I hadn’t prepared to have something within me that I could tether to, because nobody told me I needed to.
You want to find out where your gaps are in “preparation”? Go through a major life event – moving house, losing a job, birth of a child, death of a family member or spouse, to name a few – and see what comes up.
I thought I had my sh*t together. I thought I was prepared for this life change.
And then I found myself buying a plane ticket to Texas two days before the flight so I could attend a barbeque with friends, and then fly back the next day.
That ticket cost me $567.
That desperate act was me throwing a ‘hail mary’ pass at my mental health. It wasn’t a “baller move”, and it wasn’t a “well I have money to play with so why not” move. It was an expensive attempt to tether myself.
But buying expensive plane tickets in order to change my external landscape wasn’t the answer.
My answer was to start working on my internal landscape.
Your external landscape isn’t just what the trees and grass looks like around you. It’s your routines. It’s knowing how to get around town. It’s having a place to go where you feel of-service and connected.
Your internal landscape is who you feel you are, how you view the world, the stories you tell yourself about your past.
So, sure, get ready for baby by buying the outfits and diapers. Get ready to move house by packing your stuff into boxes according to room. Get ready for worst case scenarios by buying life insurance and having an emergency plan.
But also – get to work digging into what it means for your identity as this change happens.
Who do you see yourself as? Is it true?
What do you believe in? Why?
These mind viruses that pop up when things get funky – why do you have them? Are they true?
Do the work now to explore your internal landscapes because, here’s the rub, they will be changing too. And by exploring them, it becomes easier to handle the inner and outer worlds you’re living in and moving through.
It was really messy for awhile there, and right as I was coming together with my internal landscape, my external one changed drastically again as a business relationship evolved into its natural endpoint.
I was much more prepared to handle that landscape change, what feelings and thoughts came up with that, and how to move through it than I would have been earlier this year.
So, it’s perhaps true that today’s challenges prepare you for tomorrow’s hurdles. I know that this is true, but damn if it isn’t annoying to acknowledge that suffering helps you grow.
(For those not interested in therapy, I’m still doing regular (daily) work on my internal landscapes on my own by reading and listening to Tara Brach lectures (these are a treasure trove), Brene Brown, and Alan Watts. Maybe you’ll find something good in there for you.)
And finally, lesson number three…
Lesson Three: An Invisible Trail Becomes Visible If You Do It Right
We left camp and drove deeper into the Utah desert. Past the last guesthouse (for those who wish to sleep in climate-controlled rooms instead of a hot tent next to a river). On and on until we started to wonder if we had gone the right way.
And then we saw it. The sign. We’d almost driven past it. A right turn up a long gravel road and at the end of that road was the starting point for today’s hike.
The hike for Fisher Towers is relatively easy – except for the start and finish – when you’ll see the place you need to get to, and yet still be lost as to how to get there.
Huge slabs of smooth rock stacked on top of each other made several levels you had to travel in order to get to the straight, smooth, path out to the Towers.
Cairns, little stacks of rocks pointing you in the right direction, were slim to non-existent – or were false – sending you climbing up slabs of rock only to reach a dead end and have to climb back down.
It was frustrating…seeing where I wanted to go, but having no clear understanding of how to get there.
It’s like seeing Mordor from the distance, and knowing you need to go there, yet having no idea how to get there on your own. Frodo knows some good stuff, but he doesn’t know how to get to Mordor. He had to let someone else use their knowledge to help him make the journey.
I know I can figure a lot of things out – and I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t getting back to the parking lot after the hike without Kyle’s help in navigating the path.
The path was invisible to me, I needed someone with eyes that could see what I couldn’t.
When you let another person lead, you’re saying, “I trust your knowledge, you can see better than I can.”
Once you’ve decided to let another person lead you, your job isn’t done.
Now is the time to improve your vision, by learning to see what the person leading can see.
Whether it’s hiring an expert in marketing to help you market your hand-sewn pillowcases to the biggest pillow clubs of America, or letting the person you’re with show you how to read a nearly invisible trail on slab rock, paying attention is how you’ll expand your vision so you can learn to see what was previously invisible to you.
If you’re not sure where to go, ask to be shown the way. As you are being guided, learn to see what the guide is seeing. You’ll be able to navigate more trails in life if you expand your ability to see the various kinds of trails that are out there.
Conclusion On 2015
While it was a highly tumultuous year, I cannot say I regret any of it. I learned so much from even the most disastrous of moments. I had epic experiences this year. I got to deepen my relationships with my dearest friends, and I got to forge incredible new relationships with the most beautiful people. I learned more about how to trust, and when not to. I grew as an entrepreneur, and I got to expand my knowledge in a variety of topics.
Thank you for being here on the journey with me, and for letting me and the FFRL team be on your journey. It’s a true pleasure to take another lap around the sun with you.