Sunday, February 16, 2014

Joining Heaven and Earth

Yesterday I went skiing for the first time in 30 years. That other time was so long ago, and so little memory remains of it, that it would probably be more telling to say that yesterday I went skiing for the first time in my life.

After taking about an hour of basic lessons with groups of children and feeling frustrated with the bunny slopes, we hit the lifts. One of the people in our group is an avid skier and a good coach, and he led us through progressively more challenging (and frankly, at times, downright terrifying) slopes.

By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves on a blue trail—an intermediate course peppered with steeper hills, narrow passages, and moguls (violent little bumps in the snow that some people use to become momentarily airborne).

A Trial by Fire (and Snow) 
The situation was choiceless; we were going down that mountain one way or another, and the best way down was to follow our friend's coaching and learn to carve sharp turns back and forth from one side of the slope to the other, slowing our descent as much as possible. Along the way, there were many falls, but we picked ourselves up, shook the powdered snow out of our pants, laughed off our embarrassment, and continued. All around us, other skiers and snowboarders zipped by, narrowly avoiding crashing into us. At one point, a snowboarder came flying out of the woods through the air and wiped out directly in front of me; I leaned into a sharp turn and navigated around him by an inch or two. Later, an inexperienced skier actually did crash directly into my partner; no one was hurt, thankfully. Gradually, we learned to hold our balance and position our bodies, keep our skis apart, navigate the turns—and the most important skill of all—how to stop (even if, now and then, our stopping sometimes looked more like wiping out).

For those of you who practice yoga but don't ski, imagine doing Utkatasana (chair pose) for six straight hours, in a walk-in freezer, during a violent earthquake, all the while having to jump from one spot in the room to another (without breaking the pose, and with long, slippery, greased sticks attached to your feet) to avoid crazy people who are wildly running through the room trying to knock you over and throwing handfuls of snow in your face.

"You're walking. And you don't always realize it,
but you're always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you're falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time."

- Laurie Anderson

After the harrowing ordeal of the blue trail, we returned to one of the easier green trails that we had been on earlier. But something was different this time. The blue trail had almost made me soil my pants; but I had survived it. Now, suddenly, the green beginner's trail—which had previously seemed incredibly difficult, too—was, literally, a breeze. I went down it once, and gained the confidence to let myself pick up more speed and carve wide turns back and forth. This time, I didn't fall. We went up again and came down a second time, and I picked up even more speed. I had no speedometer to measure—but I think I must have hit 40 mph. I was zipping past slower people and carving half-moons around them. Although there were moments when the speed and the bumps made me fear that I might lose control, I didn't. I stayed relaxed and in the flow. And it was exhilarating. I couldn't wait to get back on the lift and do it a third time.

By now, my regular readers may be wondering what possible relevance all of this has to my usual subjects: meditation, Buddhism, yoga and spirituality. Well, let me tell you.

Joining Heaven and Earth
Skiing is a metaphor for life. Life is not always smooth going. It can be chaotic and messy and terrifying and dangerous. It can—it does—push us out of our comfort zones and takes us to places we think we shouldn't be. Sometimes we lose control; we wipe out and get snow in our pants, or we crash head-on into another person when conflict arises. The situations that challenge us push us to learn to adapt faster. The people who irritate or threaten us challenge us to develop skillful ways of responding: less reactivity and aggression, more patience, compassion, and forgiveness.

"The bad news is: you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: there’s no ground." 
- Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Certain Buddhist traditions speak of the principle of "joining heaven and earth." This is a lyrical and symbolic way of talking about synchronizing mind (heaven) and body (earth) in flowing, present-moment awareness. Through meditation, yoga—and yes, skiing—we can experience the freedom, contentment and relaxation that comes when mind and body are synchronized and we are fully awake to our experience as it unfolds. We stay right here, on the dot of the present moment, even—or especially—as we speed down the mountain and navigate more or less skillfully through whatever bumpy and chaotic situations life throws at us.

May we all become more skillful navigators and experience fewer crashes. When other, perhaps less skilled people crash into us, may we learn to forgive rather than escalate conflict. When the slopes become terrifying and seem impossible for us to ride, may we develop the confidence to stay present—and keep going. And when we fall—for we will fall, and spectacularly—may we always maintain our sense of humor about it.

With Adrian Molina

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