Dealing with our ‘stuff’

In a previous piece called ‘Acclimatising for Life’, I talked about a book that I had read recently about a mountain climbing cyclist[1] and I said there were two things that struck me about his description of the process of summiting Denali.

The first aspect about the climb I found fascinating, and the subject of the previous piece, was the critical importance of acclimatising and the parallels between summiting mountains and our need and desire to reach our own summits or rush to the next level of what we are doing.

The other part of Beaumont’s description of the process of progressing up the mountain which I found very interesting was how his team dealt with their ‘stuff’. Summiting Denali takes at least a month, and the climber is required to carry a huge amount of equipment and supplies – everything that would be needed to survive for a month on the mountain.

The strategy his team used was to drag their gear, about 80kgs worth, on sleighs behind them, and at the end of each day, they would stop and bury the bulk of their gear in the snow and only carry with them what they needed for that evening, so a tent, sleeping bag, and food and clothing for the night. Then the next morning, they would walk back down to where they had buried their things, retrieve them and walk on for the day, and bury them again at the end of the day. So, in effect, they were always doubling back and never far from their stuff.

What fascinates me about this, is how in life we deal with our ‘stuff’, all those things which have made us who we are and which we carry with us through life’s journey. How often do we try to leave our ‘stuff’ behind, or think ‘I’m moving on so it’s going to be different…, I don’t need that, I don’t need this… that was an old part of me, which no longer serves me so I can leave it behind’. Yet, in some way all our ‘stuff’ has served us or will serve us in the onward journey. As much as it might be tempting to permanently bury our stuff in the snow in the hope that it enables us to move ahead quicker, it is what we carry with us, which supports us or in fact forms the basis of our learning which is the thing that allows us to move forward.

This brings to mind the writing of Pema Chödrön in her book “Start Where You Are”[2], where she suggests that it is the things about us that we so badly want to run away from or pretend do not exist which are our greatest teachers, and which can provide the biggest insights and sources of learning and development if we engage with them.

So if I liken ‘burying stuff in the snow’ to what Chödrön is saying, it’s not about burying things permanently and saying ‘I’m leaving it behind’, on the contrary, it’s about knowing and accepting what’s there, moving further ahead and then saying: ‘Yes, I will go back and collect what’s there because it is what provides the foundation for me to move forward from’.

While we may have the sense that our ‘stuff’ retards our progress, it also acts as the frame into which we might paint a new picture. So it might be that I am critical or I am judgmental or I am prone to doubting myself – how do I ‘be’ with those aspects and not say: ‘I bury my self doubt’ or ‘I won’t doubt myself again….’ because to make such statements might be unrealistic. Instead, how do I, on the one hand, recognise that my self-doubt has helped me to make careful and considered decisions in the past, and on the other, notice when my tendency to self doubt is holding me back from new possibilities? When I see the self-doubt ‘peeking out from the snow’, do I rush at it with a shovel and attempt to bury it deeper? Do I dig it up and carry it with me for a while because it might be useful, or do I simply notice it, like I notice the clouds passing overhead and continue walking?

Is it not ‘all of our stuff’, or otherwise stated, our complexity, that makes us who we are, and if this is indeed so, does the question not become: how do we work with [and be with] the complexity, the paradoxes, the inconsistencies… and everything else which makes us who we are? Is it not this complexity which provides the fertile soil from which new possibilities might grow?

And so my questions to you and myself are:  

  • How did I deal with my ‘stuff’ today – recognise it, name it, engage with it or bury it?
  • How did my approach impact on my thoughts and feelings about myself and others?
  • How did my approach impact on my ability to be present and connected to myself, others and the world around me?
  • What thoughts or insights can I take with me into tomorrow?

[1] Beaumont, M. 2011, The Man Who Cycled the Americas, Bantam Press

[2] Chödrön, P. 1994, Start Where You Are, Shambhala Classics

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