I once climbed Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh twice in one day. It was many years ago now – and a younger version of me was constantly out of breath as I trudged (or dragged) myself up the “hill”. I remember stopping, wheezing, heart beating out of control, my legs heavy. I remember suddenly being hit with allergies – which stayed with me for years – as though contracted on that hill. I felt thick, exhausted, overtaxed and under-run all at once. I remember feeling almost dizzy as I kept my cloudy focus to get to the top.
I made it.
I made it all by myself.
By the time I got back to the hostel, beyond exertion, my friends announced that we were going to climb Arthur’s Seat – to watch the sunset and drink.
My head fell. Sigh. Seriously?
“But I just got back from there”.
And then up we went – together – a joyous group.
I can still see the image of us caught on camera – all linked together. Silhouettes with the sky coloured streaks of orange and purple behind us.
Somehow, in the company of others, and because I already knew the way, that climb felt like less effort than the first. I was still out of breath but I felt like I belonged and that made the trek seem easy.
Thirteen years later I felt drawn to climb it again. Again on my own. As I approached, nothing looked familiar. To my left I could see paths and had a vague recollection of them – softly winding across the landscape. To my right a steep set of stairs and a wider path leading up.
I wanted to retrace the steps from thirteen years ago only I couldn’t remember where they had been. I chose the path to my right and up I went.
Up. Up. Up.
A very different route – easeful in breath this time despite the sharp incline.
Some spots of the path eased off and twisted gently around the edge of the hill and then came the peak.
To say the rocky steps ahead were uneven is a significant understatement – with every step up I could feel myself not wanting to continue. It felt as if the rocks would give way underneath my feet. I constantly had to watch my step. To make sure I wasn’t going to fall off the side of the cliff. People passing by me in the narrowness. It didn’t feel safe or how I wanted to get up there – my steps didn’t feel secure even though I could keep my balance and (amazingly) my breath was pretty even and not strained. I kept reminding myself “this isn’t the path from last time. This isn’t what you wanted to do”.
I even tried to look away a few times over my shoulder to find that other path (where was it? I kept trying to figure out where it could be) but this one demanded all of my focus and I kept having to come back to pay close attention to what I was doing. Apparently my internal world didn’t like that one bit. It screamed out.
My thoughts, with every small careful jagged step, were snapping around with a vicious intensity. They were what was loud and strong enough to flip me off course.
About halfway up I looked at the peak beyond and actively decided to stop where I was. To know it was far enough for today.
Physically I could have kept going. Mentally and energetically something strong was going on and I needed to pause.
My expectations of reaching the peak were different from what happened and I kept telling myself that was okay. I could stop here. I glanced up at the peak a few times, trying to calculate if I could go on. No. I didn’t want to take those steps the rest of the way.
After sitting for a while, taking in the view, and meditating for a while, I looked up at the peak one last time to verify that I wasn’t going to get up there today.
I wouldn’t reach the top.
After a few attempts at trying to find an alternate way back down (each resulting in a dead end at the edge of a cliff) I turned back and went down the craggy steps, carved and worn into the side of Arthur’s Seat.
Halfway down another path appeared. One I didn’t notice on the way up. This one turned away from the edge and lead through a valley – I turned onto it and walked. My pace now was fast. The slow tempo I was forced to keep on the way up being pushed aside. Now I didn’t know where I was. I had no idea where this path would lead or how long it would take.
My thoughts started to ramp up in a different way. Now they were going on and on about all the productive things I could do. Thinking about a chakra worksheet I’d created earlier that day, classes I’d teach, reiki sessions to offer, a whole new chakra workshop with this new worksheet appeared, oh – wait – a book! I could turn it into a book – a series of books! A franchise!
As I walked I had created an entire self-publishing empire. I had even mentally prepared the marketing copy.
The volume of my thoughts had taken over and the longer I walked in that direction the more uncertain I became of where I was. The more aware I became of how I didn’t get back up to the top again. The more fueled my energy and thoughts became by the fact that I didn’t find that same thirteen-year-old path (and if I had, I’d be up there at the peak).
And now I had no clue as to where this path was leading. I walked faster. My breath quickened. My thoughts flooded me with things to “do”. Ways to be productive. To survive.
My first chakra – trying to keep me grounded, rooted, safe – had been flaring up at the uncertainty of the steps ahead. My third chakra shaken by the “failure” of not reaching the peak behind me because I let the need for such intense focus on the the unstable ground (of a path that wasn’t the one I wanted to be on in the first place) shake me off. I couldn’t stay with it. My sixth chakra also ungrounded and overactive as the expectations I had of reliving the past were not met.
No longer needing to stay so focused on surviving the steps now that the way was paved my feet had tried to carry me out as quickly as possible and my mind tried to gather money – resources. All of it designed to get me out and onto a path of security.
It took a while before I stopped myself. Physically stopped. I made myself look around.
“You’re in the crater of a volcano,” I told myself. “I mean LOOK at where you are right now – be here”.
“Be here now”.
I repeated that statement over until I listened.
I could feel the prehistoric fullness of the place. The richness of the land. The magic and mystery of it.
I could see the slants and slopes. The colour of the dark rock and green vegetation, dotted with bright yellow flowers. It was breathtaking.
And my breath was taken, which helped it slow back down.
When I started moving again, my walk was slow – drinking in my surroundings instead of racing through them.
Every time my thoughts started up again, I stopped. I stopped and looked at the nature around me. I stopped and smiled at the details of the leaves on the tree. I took in every detail and became present.
Once I’d stopped I started to see the imbalances and how so many times in life I’ve rushed into productivity when the path ahead seemed uncertain, or long, or when I didn’t know where it would end. Always trying hard to ground – to get as much as I can to stay safe. Somehow being productive then must mean I know where I’m going.
Only it doesn’t mean that at all. That I know where I’m going is merely an illusion. In fact, all it ever did was make me feel stressed, panicked and like I’d never get out. I constantly missed all that was around me as a result. I have done this for a very, very long time.
The path ahead is always uncertain and I’m starting to see safety in that. Safety in that I don’t need to cling to another path – an old path or a worn in one just because it’s there. Chances are (just like the path I couldn’t find from all those years before) it’s not actually there anyway.
And it’s different each time. The first time I went up Arthur’s Seat I struggled with every step. I took one of the less strenuous paths and still couldn’t breathe. I was so wrapped up then in the limitations of my health that I didn’t see what was around me then. The second time I was in community, and the walk was more joyful. Less about an end result and more about simply being with others. Being myself with others. This time I went straight up the hardest path – effortlessly for most of it – even when it looked like I’d be stepping off into the sky.
This time it wasn’t that the path was steep or high – it was the unevenness of the steps at the peak. It made me focus 100% on each step. And I learned quickly that I didn’t like that much focus – at least not on something I didn’t want to be doing. I didn’t like having to focus so intently on each step. That is something to practice more. To find ease in the ability to focus for a length of time – to actually be in the present moment no matter what it’s bringing up.
I’m grateful that the power and drive of survival is built in. I’m grateful that it’s strong in me. It’s so strong that it can take over and blind me to everything else around.
I’m not going to lose that drive – it will always be there. The practice for me is to know when to use it and know when it’s okay to let it go. To trust. Otherwise I will go through the rest of my life ramped up and racing through with blinders on to all that’s around me simply because I’m afraid of not knowing where I’m going or if I’ll be safe and supported.
To continue to learn how to be present with what is.
To actually be here now.