At the start of 2019, I made a promise to myself that I would have as many uncomfortable experiences as I could. That is to say, I would intentionally put myself in situations that were less than warm and fuzzy. Why? Put simply: Fear.
So when the opportunity arose to do a 4-day hike on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, I figured, why not. I sarcastically joked, "At least if I fall off the mountain, I'll go out in a cool way." But my morbid sense a humor was merely masking a much deep-rooted fear. What appeared as a fear of heights on the surface, I started to realize, was a fear of falling (and failing) from the passions in my life-- the tops of my mountains, so to speak. A deeper layer to that, which the first two days of my hike shed light on, was ultimately the fear of not knowing myself, especially when it came to pain.
As I write this now, alive and back from my journey, I realize that I will be unpacking this experience for years to come. The layers are almost difficult to summarize in words. There is something to be said for using physical exertion to take apart your mind, only to put it back together in an unfamiliar way. Everything I had expected didn't happen, and everything that happened I didn't expect. The main thing-- excruciating knee pain.
Having no knee pain prior to the trip, it was a hard hit to my ego when on Day 1 (the easy day) my knee was visibly swollen and throbbing after only a few hours. My initial reaction was stress, anxiety, fear, and all of the habitual patterns that are ready and waiting when shit hits the fan back home. Looking back, it's no surprise they made their appearance with me in the Andes. But it wasn't a lesson in pain management I needed to learn-- it was mind-framing.
In the first two days, I would stop to elevate my leg and obsess about resting. At a low point, fear had me bawling and contemplating the worst case scenario of continuing. But what did that accomplish? With the help of some wise reminders from my friends, I returned to my purpose of the trip. "Embrace the suck; sit with discomfort. Face fear." That is where the lesson is.
I was reminded of the quote, "no mud, no lotus." Without sitting in the dark places, we are not able to grow. Another mantra that I would recite across the thousands of steps I took was "this too shall pass." It was in those moments where I felt that things were at their worst, that I would remember that it was all temporary.
So on Day 3 and 4, rather than being limited by the pain, I used it. I found that if I kept moving through it, and didn't stop, I felt the pain less. As I moved, I was more aware of my steps and my breath, and the muscular effort to keep going.The moment I stopped, stillness brought a negative hole of throbbing pain. So I kept moving.
While I wish I could say pain was the only element of challenge on the hike, it was not. My fear of heights joined the party on Day 3, just to be sure I didn't get too cocky about working through my pain. I started to understand that fear is not something you necessarily overcome, at least not right away. You simply get better at handling it. While it can be crippling for many, fear can also be the largest motivator.
Our fears tend to hide in the shadows, quietly influencing our actions and behaviors. Sometimes it takes stepping out of a comfort zone to establish or understand what make you tick. Perhaps it's a fear of rejection that keeps us from making connections, or a fear of the unknown that keeps us seeking answers. Maybe there's a fear of obscurity or, on the contrary, a fear of being remembered for inadequacy. Suppose the fear of missing out (or FOMO) is masking a fear of scarcity, or the fear of losing control leads us to plan and micromanage others. Then there's the fear of pain and death, which can affect our desire for new experiences.
Whatever the fear, it usually makes itself at home in the confines of the mind. And as counterintuitive as it sounds or feels, the path we avoid, is often the one we need to take. When we stop hiding from fears and embrace what we're afraid of, what are the possibilities? What could we be opening ourselves up to if we embrace vulnerability and stare our fears in the face?
Sure, there may be some uncomfortable times along the way, but on the other side of fear is growth. Because without the risk, there can be no return. Without the climb, you'll never reach the top of the mountain.