5 Lessons I Learned While Climbing an Active Volcano
Something about a big birthday gets you in your feelings and makes you reevaluate and recalibrate, asking yourself all the big questions. You know the who, what, when, where, and why. Your 20-year-old self thought your almost 40-year-old self would be conquering world domination with six-pack abs, a head full of hair, and baby-bum smooth skin, no? Just me?
Life rarely allows us to connect the dots while those milestone moments are happening, and she requires us to get to the other side before we can look back and see how far we’ve come or how much more we have left to go. Although things happen very differently, and timing is always way off compared to our timelines, the lessons are undoubtedly always there.
As I planned my end of summer, farewell 30s, hello future Miggie in his 40s Bali Bonanza, I didn’t want this to be a veg out on the beach while I got poop faced, although poop in my face did happen, read my last blog post, type of vacation. Many asked me, why Bali? At some point, I knew the answer, but there is always a deeper meaning behind our answers to the why. Sure, I wanted a lovely beach to be involved in the trip, but I wanted to reconnect with myself.
They say trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, and though I am not a fan of said quote, I must admit there is something to it. It did come to mind when I was amid the emotional end of my 30’s rut. I needed to shake things up and do something for myself, without any particular outcome or reason tied to it, for other than reconnecting with my inner 5-year-old, you know, the part of you that used to live for the moment and fun was always the only goal.
Bali is known for its Eat, Pray, Love vibe, meditation, zen, and yoga, but its ancient history of karmic beliefs and spirituality always resonated with me. Before my trip planning, I felt anxious and overwhelmed and couldn’t remember my purpose for everything I was doing with my life. So, after much financial and logistical planning, I set myself out to the Island of the Gods to answer my question.
Fast forward to my last day on the island, I had felt relatively good about the experience of my trip and with what I call the rejuvenation of Miggie, though as life would have it, she surprised me with a more profound sense of the answer to my why, in the last place I would expect to find it, on top of a volcanic mountain top.
Picture this: it is 1:30 a.m., pitch dark in the jungle, crust in my eyes, and on only 4.5 hours of sleep; sorry, I’ll spare you the deets, and you are wilfully preparing yourself for your own possible plunging death during a mountain trek. I’m known for many things, but a hiker is not one of them. But it would take some discomfort if I were honest with myself if I wanted to understand why I felt such a disconnect when I was back home. If there is one thing I have learned in these almost 40 years of life, it still feels like taking a bullet to the chest every time I say 40 by the way, it is that most times, our head problems are relieved by getting outside of our heads and in touch with our body, you know, the thing that hangs off the lump between your shoulders, yes her that’s your body.
For a hiker, this is about as simple as a walk in the park, but as a dude who has been avoiding heights like the plague most of my life, this was no molehill! The cool, crisp morning air, the clacking sound of my trainers against the rocks, and the chirping crickets helped tune out the thumping sound of my racing, beating heart. As my headlight led the way along with our guide, I began to think of every possible excuse not to go any further.
What’s all the fuss about a sunrise on a mountaintop anyway? There are many more simple ways to catch a sunrise. What if I get halfway up there and realize I can’t keep going and I’m stuck there? Swampy, full of dust, in the dark, drenched in shame. I knew that if I didn’t continue moving forward and tap out, I would not be happy with myself, and not only would I have spent the few hours I had left in Bali beating myself up about it, but I would forever hold this regret. Even though I wouldn’t realize it right away, I would be telling my brain that it is okay to back out of hard things and, more importantly, that I was incapable of going through hard things, and you know what? I’m no quitter! It truly is not indicative of the person that I am. And so trekking I kept!
During each break, after a few gulps of water and a couple of protein bars later, some self-pep talk, my inner hype man is solid; he’s practically a wedding DJ at this point, as I wiped the sweat off my upper lip, fanning myself with my dad cap, all I could imagine is my trainer slipping on a rock, hell a pebble, my 6-foot tall body sliding back as the dirt below my feet begins to rise to my face choking and blinding me, and as I am coughing on my way down, my graceful body hits other hikers the way a bowling ball strikes pins. My half-dead carcass lands on a rock and tumbles onto the edge of a cliff while I hang by my fingertips, dangling and waiting for my rescue. My bad, too many action movies!
I had made it this far, and 1 hour into this, I was doing damn good! I was in one piece, physically, although mentally, umm, well... let us say I realized why God put me on that mountain while it was still dark out. Had I seen its altitude and steepness in the daylight, I would have crawled on my hands and knees back down, as opposed to climbing on foot, right before fainting!
At just about under 2 hours, Mohammed sure did come to the mountain this time, and he was at the top! I had shaky hands, knees, and feet, my black exercise gear was a mustard brown, and I had a dry cotton mouth, and a migraine was beginning to creep in, but as I sat down to look out onto the horizon, I was overwhelmed by what my naked eye was witnessing.
I never would have imagined that Mother Nature could possess such magical panoramic views. Standing at such a monumental body of Earth as you witness the sunrise is indescribable. The grand scale of standing on Mount Batur, overlooking the volcano, the warmth of the beaming golden sun lighting your face, as the calming wind brushes through your body, the low whistle blows against your ears, Mount Batur was a glorious reminder of the minimal scope of your humanity in comparison to the universe, in which you are merely but a spec of a part of. How’s that for perspective? Now, let’s highlight some of my key takeaways.
1- Go deeper when you think you have no more to give.
At many moments throughout my voyage up Mount Batur, the physical me wanted to throw in the towel. I was sore and tired, and my mental and emotional state began to betray me. As the altitude increased and the trail became steeper, windier, and higher, my old friend fear was calling me again. “You know, even if you do make it to the top Miggie, which is highly unlikely, there’s a high and scary cliff waiting for you at the top, and you’re going to be scared poopless!”
In every moment that I wanted to turn around and give up, I thought about all the young people who may not have the physical ability to experience this adventure, who weren’t as lucky as me, or ones whose lives were cut short by illness or tragedy, many who were personal friends and relatives of mine, I somehow gathered a new wind of strength and kept going. I learned that our strength goes beyond the physical and sometimes even the mental. Our strength lies in accumulating years of experience in our hardships and moments we survived. Our power lies in knowing that we can accomplish hard things. For this reason, trust yourself. When you think you can’t keep going, stop, breathe, and say I CAN and I WILL.
2- Your community is your superpower
I did not take on this trek alone. Not only was I gaining strength for those who were not necessarily there with me physically, but I was supported by a group of incredible humans who also expressed fear and tiredness along the way with me, who quite literally gave me their hands to help me take the next step, on the next rock, to climb the next steep hill, and whos back I also had. Pushing my team up ahead or waiting for those behind me, It dawned on me that this was not just a group activity; this was a metaphor for how a healthy life includes a supporting tribe of people who help, encourage, and acknowledge you for you to get through life. The people who extend their hand just for being you and accept you in whatever shape you may be at the moment that is your community, and none of us travel alone in this world: solo or no solo trip. We are not alone.
3-We are a spec in the universe
Is there significance in life? Without a doubt, yes. Especially if you live intentionally every day, with purpose, on purpose, we aspire to be significant in life, and that is a noble pursuit because it is human nature to want to grow and evolve. We want to add value to our lives and those around us. Our fears constantly pull us to search externally to validate the internal. Why am I saying this? Because we are merely a spec in the universe, dust in the wind, and when you are facing the grandeur of Mount Batur or any natural masterpiece in the world, you feel its enormity and the insignificance of our perceived problems.
4- “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” - Desmond Tutu
I know I referred to this quote in my previous post, and with reason. These words have become words to live by in my personal life. Someone once shared this with me, which has stayed with me ever since. So much of this quote can be applied to life. As I took each step and climbed the mountain, I continuously asked myself how I would get through almost 2 hours of this. During one of our short breaks, I took a deep breath and heard, “One bite at a time.”
The point here is that when something is of such a grand scale when you can’t wrap your head around an idea that seems too big for you to comprehend, when you think there is no way something is going to happen for you, remember that Rome was not built in a day as they say, and step by step, bite by bite, with a bit of incremental strategic planning, you will get there. So take your time; rushing makes no sense; you will get there, one bite at a time.
5- Nature is not something separate from us.
I knew I would spend the rest of my life fighting for more moments like these. When Nature surrounds me, I feel more like myself, more human, and more in sync with the things that count: my health, connection with other human beings and animals, the Earth, and the ocean; it is when I feel my most alive. We tend to see ourselves separate from Nature, yet WE ARE Nature. If we saw Nature as inclusive of our humanity as opposed to us vs. them, we would stand up for Mother Nature more harmoniously. Politicians would see it as a US problem and not a THEIR problem. Suppose we acknowledge that when we throw a piece of plastic on the ground, mistreat an animal, or consume more than we need, whether it be food, transportation, etc. In that case, we are inadvertently harming our own well-being, our health, our climate, and the future of other generations after us. Witnessing what Earth gives us with our own eyes will ignite an evaluation of what we reciprocate to her in return.
As we reached the top in just under 2 hours, my fear of heights suddenly made sense to me. It is less about altitude, the fear of death, or slipping and falling. It has almost everything to do with control—the inability to know the outcome and surrender to the moment before you. We have the obsessive need to confirm that we will be okay and make it to the other side before we even take the first step. We tend to automatically assume that if something is challenging, then it is dangerous. We must see the safety net before we leap.
The list of fears: of opinions, the status quo, the unknown, of change are not necessarily the things stopping us. It is the refusal of acknowledgment of those things. Once we acknowledge them, we can change how we see them.
Mount Batur gave me the gift of Liberation from the perceived fear of heights, which I presumed I would have to live with as part of my being, an extension of my identity. It liberated me from the hold of something that only existed by the power of my refusal to face it head-on.
When you get the chance to face that fear, I encourage you to give yourself the gift of Liberation.
What are some fears you look forward to crushing this upcoming year? What are some you have already beheaded? Tell me how you slayed your dragons in the comments; I’d love to hear from you! Until next time.
Your boy, Miggie