Thursday, October 28, 2010

When Folding Towels is Training for Ski Mountaineering

I don't always get to train as I'd like. For instance, today, I am stuck in the spa for eight hours with only one massage. It is, after all, the off season.

This is a BEAUTIFUL time to be in the Aspen Valley, its quiet, there is snow on the ground, and you can feel ski season right around the corner. Its not a great time to be stuck in the basement of the hotel when every single piece of you is whining and yearning and straining to be outside moving moving moving my body.

But we know from experience that whining is the same thing as wishing, and if anyone has been paying attention up till now, we also know that Wishing is the same thing as Suffering!!

RIGHT! The definition of suffering is wishing that something was other than it is.

And so, I am inside, I have a good job that I love at a great place in Aspen (boo hoo, Kate!). And today, I am keeping myself busy by stocking linen.

We have a big cart that comes in every night from the Laundry service that is full of towels. The towels all need to be sorted, folded, and stocked into the locker rooms every day. We have all day to do this, and its an easy task, exhausting neither mentally or physically. But when you are wishing that you could be outside, the mountain of towels and sheets seems to make the day interminable.

Here, I have a choice. I can look at this task and use it as a way to increase my suffering, thereby swimming in my own wishes and desires, changing nothing about the fact that I can't go outside today, decreasing the size of the laundry pile by not a single iota, and increasing my distress and resentment at having to fold all this nonsense just so it can get used once and put back in the laundry again, or, I can make a different choice.

There is an old saying, "Nothing is so difficult as that which is done reluctantly."

And so I choose to train for ski mountaineering today. I choose to get hard to work, in my spa uniform and my sensible Dansko shoes. No one knows what I am doing, why I am so intensely focused on the freaking towels every day, and I don't really mind. I'd rather work in silence, but I'm happy to chat and visit and joke too.

But here is what I notice. I set some parameters for myself. There is a job that doesn't want doing, which probably takes an hour and a half to two hours. I make the decision that the job will be done start to finish before I eat my lunch, answer my email, read my new book (Reinhold Messner's Annapurna: 50 years of Expeditions in the Death Zone), write my blog post, or any of the articles, poems or stories that are constantly swimming around in my head.

That's the first part. Work start to finish on the task at hand before reward.

The second part is to observe my attitude and behavior while I am working, and use this time to train some mental discipline.

I recognize the fact that when my small laundry truck is halfway full, I have the desire to push it through the spa to the folding area. But the cart isn't full, and the desire to end this task and move onto the next one is a good example of an undisciplined mind. I'm not tired, this isn't hard, the reason I want to move on is that I'm bored and changing tasks helps keep things fresh.

And so the next rule that I have for myself is that each part of the job, each individual task, must be completed to its fullest extent before moving on to the next step. (This, by the way, is NOT how I run the rest of my life, although maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to borrow a page here. I tend to answer email and face book and write stories and blog posts while doing laundry and cooking dinner and playing guitar and talking to Michael on the phone, leading to a life of blissful chaos in which the occasional personal task gets done and I'm enormously pleased with myself.)

And so, I use a tool that I learned in studying Vipassana Meditation (The art of observing your breath, without changing anything. Also the art, sometimes, of not running screaming from the room because you are suddenly completely alone with yourself and your mind runs like a wild monkey over what ifs and what were's), which is this: I gently call my mind back to the task and ask myself lovingly to complete it. There is no beratement, no judgement, no criticism. I allow myself to laugh or smile at my human folly and my proclivity to want to abandon my task in search of another one, and when I am able to call my attention to this action; to observe my desire to leave the task at hand, I relate it to monkey mind.

Suddenly, I am able to observe myself bending over, lifting the towels and placing them in the laundry cart. There is no time, the task does not begin or end, I leave off marking progress as the level of the laundry in one bin reduces and the level in the other increases. I find what pleasure there is to be found in the methodical repetition of the task at hand, and I am pleased with my ability to step over my desire to leave the task and embrace it wholly. Living in the knowledge that the desire to abandon was fleeting, and that that desire had a front side, and a back side, and that on the back side there was peace, space, and contentment, slowly, the laundry cart empties and it is time for the next task.

In this manner, all of the laundry is sorted, folded and delivered. I am not sad that I have to do it, but I am fascinated with my continual desire to stop.

This reminds me so intensely of what it is like to climb up a mountain before I ski down it. I love to climb, I love to live in the mountains, but there is always, still, for me, a section of the climb in which I wonder how long till it ends, and if I could just wish myself up onto the summit and skip the last third. Mountains have a way of keeping the hardest pitch for last, and as you expend your energy, the task before you often increases in dificulty, either just in physical exertion or in both physical, mental and technical.

Finding that space in your mind where you are moving, continually, you are living in the methodical rhythm of your footfalls, and asking yourself to be present, to observe, and if it becomes dificult, to feel the sun on the side of your body where it is touching, and the cold on the side where it isn't touching, and to come back into your body, and renew your dedication to moving upwards on the mountain, is dificult, and incredibly rewarding.

I think that the reward, (and I'm not talking about the summit here, I'm talking about the small rewards along the way, each time you step over your desire to stop, or you step over your need to go slowly and you manage to increase, and hold your speed, using this trip to train for the next, just like each Yoga class is the foundation for the class that follows, and each meditation is the foundation for the practice which follows), anyhow, I think that the reward is in allowing your spirit to fill with those small victories, and then just as easily letting go of the victory, that pride, the ego, and finding again nothing but the task.

Be it folding towels, be it sorting receipts, be it walking for twenty minutes on the pavement, or climbing a 14er, or an 8000 meter peak, be it tuning your gear well, or preparing food for your family, there is a benefit, there is an opportunity to train into your body the ability to have wells of discipline which you can call on when everything in you is telling you to abandon your task.

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