“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” – Lao Tzu
This past weekend, I hiked to the summit of South Sister, the third highest mountain peak in Oregon, with 12 of my closest friends. Having recently turned 30, I wanted to do something physically challenging that I hadn’t done before and this seemed like the perfect feat, doable in a day but not for the faint of heart. (It definitely helped knowing there was a hot tub waiting for me back at the cabin we had rented for the weekend)!
To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to make it all the way to the top until we were nearly there. The hike is 12.5 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of over 4,500 feet and at this time of the year, much of the mountain was covered in snow and ice. While I was very proud of myself for thinking to bring trekking poles and lots of warm layers, I hadn’t even considered how necessary gloves and micro spikes would be. The trekking poles ended up being essential to keep me from slipping every step and fortunately I was able to repurpose my second pair of socks to prevent my fingers from freezing off.
We were a bit of a rag tag group of hikers, ranging from highly prepared, in shape, and experienced to not really sure what this whole mountain thing was about. But with such a large group, there was plenty of positivity, camaraderie, and encouragement to go around. I honestly do not think I would have made it without the support of the amazing friends I was with, one of whom reminded me to just keep focusing on the next few steps – you can always take a few more steps.
This became my mantra as we trudged through the last mile, which was mostly straight uphill through piles of scree and ice. I took one tiny step after one tiny step and just kept reminding myself that eventually they would all add up. It’s hard to remember that when you’re literally climbing a mountain, but each little step gets you that much closer to the top and before you know it, you’re huddled behind a rock formation at the top of a 10,000-foot mountain, being bombarded by wind, ice, and snow with absolutely no view to reward you for all your work – huzzah!
Loving your fear
In the weeks leading up to the hike, I had been feeling a lot of fear and had been working on exploring that fear, some of which was centered around the possibility that I was going to die on the mountain. Although this fear was highly uncomfortable, I did my best to sit with it and observe it whenever it came up. Rather than being upset by it, I became curious about it and wondered what it really was that I was so afraid of.
With the help of some good conversations and deep meditations, I discovered that this fear of dying was coming from my inner child, who was afraid that I did not need her anymore. With all of my gung-ho-letting-things-go-because-I’m-30-and-I-don’t-need-that-shit-anymore mentality, I had made my inner child feel unwanted and unneeded, like I was leaving her behind in my new story. She was afraid and she simply needed to feel loved.
When I realized that, it suddenly clicked that it wasn’t that I don’t need her anymore – she in fact is essential to who I am as a person and always will be – it was that I don’t need her to worry anymore. She had been trying so hard to make sure everything was fair, that nothing hurt, that I belonged and was loved, that she didn’t have time to play or just be a happy kid! With this realization during a meditation, I visualized giving her the permission and the freedom to stop worrying and to go play instead, to go explore the forest and the fields and to run around and be childlike rather than focusing so hard on “justice” and “fairness”.
As soon as I let her go, I also discovered that there was a very deep, calm, peaceful river flowing through me that I could access at any time. It had always been there, I just hadn’t known it, and I also realized that this same river runs through every living being and we can access it whenever we want to, we just have to be willing to become aware of it. I can’t tell you the sense of joy and love this feeling brought me! To let my inner child play and explore and just be a kid, to know that I had a safe space within me that I could always retreat to, that I could let go of my fears and worries and just exist – what a weight to be lifted!
One of the friends I had been discussing my fears with had made me a special “fear free” essential oil spray to use for encouragement before the hike. The morning we reached the trailhead, I was dismayed to find that I had left my special spray in my other bag. But after a quick moment of disappointment, I realized that I didn’t need to spray anymore – the fear was gone. There was still some practical fear as I hiked through the ice and snow and worried that I might slip or fall, but the overwhelming, deeply rooted fear that I was going to die and it was going to be soon was no longer there. It was such a wonderful feeling!
I know this whole inner child visualization thing may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but focusing on this storyline has really helped me to make sense of what I was feeling the past few weeks and to process through it. If you have never considered what your inner child may be like, I highly recommend taking a few minutes this week and just sitting with your eyes closed, visualizing your own inner child. How old is she? What is he afraid of? What does she love to do? How can you comfort him when he is scared or sad or hurt? Whenever my ego is acting out, thinking of it as my inner child helps me feel more compassion for myself rather than getting angry at the thoughts and feelings I am having that I don’t like.
Adding up the steps
This whole fear/mountain/small steps thing got me thinking about a lot of the other areas of my life. Sometimes it can feel like our goals are these big huge mountains that seem impossible to climb. Creating a lasting relationship, learning a new skill, building a business…these things can feel so insurmountable and sometimes I feel like it’s already too late for me to do them!
But the truth is that, as big as these challenges can seem, they can all be reached or accomplished by just taking one small step after another and watching as those steps combine to create something much bigger.
As kids, I feel like we instinctively know this. If we see a tree we want to climb, we don’t stand there staring at it and thinking “Well, there’s no way I’ll ever reach the top of that so I may as well not even try!” We just start climbing, one branch at a time. If we want to build a huge Lego castle, we don’t think “It’s going to take too long, why even bother getting started?” We excitedly snap that first Lego piece down and keep going until we’ve made something.
Kids seem to know something important that many of us have lost – that even if we don’t reach the top of the tree or complete the castle, the joy is in the adventure itself, in the pursuit of something great, in the act of creating and playing and building and learning. And if we do end up completing the thing we set out to do – great! If not, at least we had fun doing it and now we can go off and get started on something else.
Just as our lives slip by one minute, one hour, one day at a time, and before we know it we are 30 years old, so can we create the things we want in our lives one step, one date, one blog post at a time. In our society built on instant gratification and quick turnaround, we have to remember that everything worth doing takes time, repetition, dedication.
If you think it’s too late to try something, think about this: ten years from now, what could you be amazing at if you started today? What small steps can you start taking today to work towards the goals you have been putting off because they seem too big, too far away to achieve? Will you let your life be defined by the things you didn’t do, or by the things you did?