Yesterday and today I came again face to face with the gap between my true physical ability and the limits of my mind. Whenever I try a physically challenging activity, I hit not a wall but an ocean of warnings: “Enough! You’re getting tired. It’s too much. That’s your last step. You’re already tired. Stop.” Pushing past these warnings, as my mind throws escalating threats at me, is like running a hurdles race. I often find myself wondering, “Should I stop, or is my mind exaggerating?”
Yesterday we kayaked at Elkhorn Slough. The wind slowly strengthened behind us, and my mind began to freak out. Having to stop every few minutes to rest became proof that I am weak, that my arms cannot take the strain. Instead of enjoying the beauty of the day and the harbor seals, otters, pelicans and cormorants around me, I obsessed about whether my strength was about to fail.
I still had energy when we came back to our car, and we decided to go biking in Monterey. The ocean ebbed and flowed beside us. The wind caressed us, alleviating the heat. The bicycle seemed to move on its own, and my heart sang free. Then, my mind began its whispers. “You are going too far,” it suggested. “That’s another downhill you just rode. It will be an uphill on the way back. Would you have enough energy for the return?”
Agh! Such an irritating mind! Why can’t you stop? Let me feel my body tell me what it can or cannot do. Let me sense by myself when I’m tired, when is the right time for me to return. I don’t want your limits, your over- protection. I want to adventure, to fly free, to explore.
Today we kayaked in Santa Cruz. I wanted to go all the way to the pier, but the wind was strong, and waves rocked us from side to side. The voices in my head grew loud: “You can’t make it. Better turn back.” But instead of succumbing to the voices, I made a deal with myself: “One hundred more strokes of the paddle,” I said, “then we’ll see how I feel.”
Turns out I could do one hundred and twenty strokes. Then, after a short rest, one hundred and forty more. The pier grew closer, then loomed to our right. We had reached our mid-destination, and now it was time to return. Paddling for a while, then resting for a moment, I kept going till we’d reached the dock. My arms were tired, but it was a good tiredness, the kind that comes from giving my muscles a chance to work.
I learned the trick of setting a goal and promising my mind that’s only as far as I’ll go from Joe Simpson. (If you’ve never heard Joe’s story, I recommend his amazing book, Touching the Void). With a broken leg, no water, food, or shelter, Joe managed to rescue himself from a crevasse and crawl all the way back across a glacier and the moraines below — five miles or more — back to camp. And he did it by setting himself small, reachable goals.
I don’t always remember this method for quieting the voices in my head, but when I do, I remind myself not to run three miles but only to the rock ten feet away. I paddle only one hundred strokes. When I climb, I only go one more handhold up. That’s all. I only do what I know I can do, what’s before me right now. And somehow, what Nate, my rock climbing guide, always says comes true: Keep coming up and holds will appear. And they do.