On Being Fearless

Mount Lhotse, Nepal - photo by tobias tinker

Mount Lhotse, Nepal - photo by tobias tinker

note: this post is reprinted from my previous blog, Cliffjump!

Warning: this is a bit of a long one, and contains much of my basic philosophy of life, some of the deepest truths I have uncovered in a lifetime of looking… I’m sure it’s not particularly original, but it’s important to me, and seems important to express, so here goes!

The last couple of posts here at cliffjump.net have focused on preparedness – the idea that yes, we are talking about diving into the unknown, taking the plunge, overcoming fear and hesitation and doubt, and perhaps even throwing caution to the wind… but there are limits, and doing something that might be dangerous recklessly, or doing something completely beyond our level of training or ability is not heroic, it’s just dumb.

However. I think it’s time to get back to my main theme: fearlessness. After all, jumping off of cliffs, whether real or metaphorical, is not all about being prepared, it’s also about a state of mind, a way of being. So I am going to travel further back in time, nearly 20 years in fact… and try to get inside my head as a much younger man. A more reckless version of myself, to be sure, a bit wilder, a bit cockier (well OK, a lot cockier)… but in some ways perhaps there is something to learn from him, these many years later.

Cut to the chase: when I was 19 years old, I found myself with a bit of money, after a successful season treeplanting in British Columbia, and no major commitments. I had applied to the jazz program at McGill University, feeling pretty sure of myself, and was not accepted (a few years later I reapplied and got in, just to vindicate myself a little)… so being 19 and not much of a mind to invest the money in something sensible, I thought the thing to do was get on a plane to Bangkok. Which I did… with a more or less empty backpack, and no real plan or even idea of where I would go or what I would do there.

My first few days in Bangkok (makes a hard man humble!) were pretty intense. I was really just a kid from a small town in Ontario, with more hair than sense… and I probably looked like an easy target for all the standard scams, and nearly got into nasty trouble right off the bat by being, well, innately trusting of human nature. Luckily I am also innately pretty cautious and after getting into the silly situation my alarm bells would go off and I would usually manage to find an exit pretty quickly. All of this led to my First Axiom Of Travel: A little paranoia goes a long way. It’s true: a lot of paranoia is no good to anyone, but just a smidgen of constant distrust of everyone and everything when you’re out of your comfort zone will keep you out of most kinds of trouble. Just don’t let it take over the reins entirely…

But I digress. In order to slow things down a bit, I thought a bit of beach time was called for, so I headed south for Koh Samui, a pretty established lazy expat hangout even then. Still a bit sordid, but not the worst of the country’s fleshpots, by a long shot… mostly just reggae, banana pancakes and straw-covered A-frame huts a few feet from the water. Pretty non-threatening, and yet over a couple of weeks there I progressed from wide-eyed and wet-behind-the-ears through panicked-what-have-I-done to maybe-I-should-get-the-first-flight-home. I was lonely, scared, and halfway around the world from everyone I knew. And 19 years old. Remember?

Then I met Tom. Tom was an older guy, from England, at the end of his big Asian voyage, and staying at the same campsite. Over a couple of days, in a very laid-back way he told me some stories about where he’d been, described some of the more atmospheric ones, particularly India and Nepal… and basically gave me something to look forward to – a destination, something worth seeing. Though he later turned out, when I saw him again back in the headier environment of Bangkok, to be dangerous and unstable and generally best avoided, I am indebted to him for helping me find my feet. So, after some wanderings in northern Thailand, and a birthday spent exploring caves and riding elephants, I bought a ticket to Kathmandu. And that’s where this story really picks up…

* * *

My purpose here is not to describe my travels. I may get to some more of that eventually, but not today. I am trying to set the stage for a description of something remarkable that happened in my head, something quite unexpected and, I have come to believe, important. I was not a particularly worldly kid, very inexperienced in most spheres of life. A reasonably privileged childhood, middle-class and in many ways very normal (in others quite extraordinary, but that’s another story). And yet there I was in Kathmandu, visiting ancient temples. And there I was, planning a trek to Mount Everest Base Camp (this consisted of buying a couple of maps and renting a down parka and sleeping bag). And there I was getting off of a tiny plane on a preposterous airstrip in Lukla, after a landing that defies description – to call it hair-raising would be laughable understatement. And there I was hiking through the impossibly beautiful Himalayan foothills to Namchebazaar, the Sherpa capital, and beyond, above the treeline, past cairns and prayer-flags and yaks and barefoot children, up into the realm of the astonishing silent giants…

And finally, there I was next to Base Camp at the peak of Kala Pattar (which simply means ‘black rock’), the closest craggable small peak to Sagarmatha, the Nepali name for Everest, meaning something like ‘forehead in the sky’, though I have heard more poetic translations… and it was there that the something happened in my head. Just to frame the moment: this is a jagged pile of rock whose summit is 5845 metres above sea level. You can see the top half of Everest (8848 m) and a sea of other mountains including massive Lhotse, itself 8516 m, and magnificent Ama Dablam. At top of this pile of rock is a kind of rough chair, whether naturally occurring or man-made I am not sure, and if you sit in this chair and lean back you can stare down a nearly-vertical cliff nearly a kilometre high, down onto the Khumbu glacier. If you are prone to vertigo, you do not want to do this. Personally, being someone who has always enjoyed getting close to cliffs and looking over them, I found it a powerful thrill, but almost too much.

After 10 minutes or so of sitting there, soaking in the overwhelming majesty of the 360 degree view, something struck me: it would be OK if I died. Right there, right then, if I fell off that cliff or was struck by lightning or whatever, I would really be basically alright with that. This sounds trivial but the more I thought about it, the more profound this notion seemed to me. It occurred to me that most people live their whole lives without doing extraordinary things, or things they have always dreamed of doing, and yet here I had kind of bumbled my way through circumstance to this unbelievable place, a place whose impact is impossible to describe to someone who has not seen such things… and so I thought that if I died right there and then, I would be pretty much OK with that, and happy with my life if that were its crowning moment.

I did not want to die, understand. In fact I felt astonishingly alive, more than ever before. Charged with energy, passion, intensity. I was also not giving up on anything; there were (and are) many more things I wanted (and want) to accomplish, experience and achieve. But if I don’t experience or achieve them, that’s honestly alright, I don’t mind, I am not going to feel that my life is less valuable or complete. And it’s not because I went to a mountaintop when I was 20 years old. That was just the trigger, the catalyst. What’s important is being unafraid.

That’s right, I am saying that I am not afraid of death, and that I have not been for many years. In fact it was not like flipping a switch and at first it was not a constant thing. I thought it was just a moment, a flash, something particular to that time and place. Or more exactly I felt like maybe if I was lucky there could be a few such moments of clarity in a life, crystalline moments based on extraordinary experiences, like those mountain peaks soaring high above the everyday world… But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that actually I wanted to feel like that all the time – wanted to feel that alive, that unafraid, that electric – and yet also that calm, unattached, entirely at peace with the world. And I began to think that making peace with the idea of dying was at the heart of that. Not putting myself in harm’s way, not trying to defy death, but keeping it close, a kind of silent but ever-present companion.

Thus began a kind of spiritual exercise, which I continued for several years, which involved imagining, several times a day, ways in which I could be killed, right there and then… and visualizing them, vividly, in detail, making them as real as possible… and asking myself the question: so, would I be OK with that? If my life up to this moment were all the cards had in store for me, do I feel alright about it? How I lived it? Am I proud of it? Not holding onto the possibility of righting any wrongs, making any apologies or doing anything over… what I’ve made of myself up to this moment, right now, if that were all, can I be OK with it? And then I would stop and breathe and let go of unresolved tasks, projects, goals, dreams, let go of people, places, everything… not soon, not after I get home and call my family and tell them I love them, but NOW… rehearse it, over and over, until I could say Yes, I’m OK with it. It’s been a good life, not perfect perhaps but I’m proud of it, as it is, as it stands. I can accept it. Now let’s move on.

I got better and better at this and eventually it would come quickly and easily, that feeling of acceptance, of letting go… and then it became a kind of basic state, which is still with me. I’m not saying I live entirely free of fear (or anger, or frustration, or anxiety, or jealousy) – but I have an easier time not letting it dominate me. Despite not really doing the exercise consciously anymore, I still basically feel like that. Of course I definitely don’t want to die today! I have a family, a little boy I want to see grow up, a beautiful partner I want to grow old with, I have projects that I am deeply committed to carrying through, music I still think I have to give… but if none of that happens, it does not make my life one iota less complete or less worthwhile.

Because the nice thing about the life you’ve lived is this: it can’t be taken away from you. It is accomplished, secure. The future – what is the future? No-one knows. Anything could happen – or nothing! But the past is our great and lasting treasure. If you’re not proud of yours, I would suggest that you do something about that, as quickly as possible. In an important sense it’s all we’ve got, since everything else could disappear in a heartbeat. But if faced with the idea of death, Right Now, you can basically say yes, it was a good life, you did the best you could with what you were given to work with… then what’s to be afraid of?