It has begun to rain. The wind comes in cycles – building, building – so that at its peak my body wobbles and I contemplate the steepness below me: images of tumbling headfirst down lumps and bumps, through sharp grass.
I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here.
My phone is on the red bar of battery – not that there’s any signal up here. Nobody knows where I am – in Wales yes, but not on the side of this precipice. As I grow fearful, I begin to question the wisdom of this undertaking. I conclude I’m an idiot, and wonder if I should turn around.
Beneath me, the slender path I’ve trodden shows as a lime snake in the deep green of the mountainside. Each step back will take me closer to safety, but rather than bringing a state of peace, I suspect it will encourage feelings of failure. The wind gathers once more and I brace myself. My waterproofs rattle and here comes the shudder, moving through me as though my blood were water in a glass on a trembling table-top.
Bloody hell! I think, and carry on up.
I come to a small sheep pen, which makes me sing because this is marked on the map, which so far I have been struggling to read. Sheep huddle against the far wall. They look at me, bleat, and move as a group in one direction and then the other, until they end up where they started. They watch as I scale the stacked rocks, some of which shift beneath me so that I go: errrg! with images of falling backwards – the whole wall, landing on my head.
Now, I’m crossing the pen with eight eyes glued to me as four, fat, woolly bodies quake. I know what to expect with the wall on the other side, so when the stones shift I think: yeah, yeah! feeling like a bit of an expert. But then I come to stand on a narrow bank with three prongs of a river, frothing by and I’m back to: errrg!
Lower down, the prongs become one – the river like a giant’s fork, resting on the mountainside. I knew it was here from the map, but unfortunately I didn’t know these delicate, blue lines would be racing with urgency, or that the rain would make the rocks glisten with treachery, so that thoughts of stepping across are interrupted with flashes of flying headfirst into grey, whipping water.
Hi there, I say.
It has stopped raining, but that doesn’t change the fact that this river is making me feel uncomfortable. Am I being reckless, or pathetic? Is this simply about not wanting to get my feet wet, or am I in real danger?
Who knows? I think – but I’m concerned I should know.
I begin to pace up and down the bank, waiting for inspiration. I begin to hum and then I see a thick, sodden branch, lying in the grass. It’s heavy, and perhaps it will break in two when I put my weight on it.
I move to the narrowest point of the river, focusing on the first glistening rock, which pokes out of the water. As I make my first step, my humming turns to full on opera singing. I jab the branch down, feeling a very specific moment in my heart, like a held breath, where I wait to see if it will: snap in two, become caught in the current and pull me in, or do its job. It wobbles, I wobble – my singing grows to its loudest point – and then I’m across.
Each prong is noticeably easier to navigate, so much so that as I make the final jump to land I’m already beginning to think I’m a drama queen. What’s the problem with being up a mountain without phone signal and no orienteering skills? Isn’t that life?
I continue higher, to a narrow ridge with a view of the valley below, giving a sense that the land does what it wants: dropping and rising with no attention to health and safety. Here, I wonder if the worst part of fear, or doubt, is not the sensation itself, but how we react to it.
If I am lead by my judgment of fear – this is not the same as being guided by the original instinct.
Feelings, or instincts, are easily drowned out by the mind’s clamour. For months before coming to that mountainside, I’d felt the lure of an isolated place, a challenging landscape. I followed my heart, moving without thought towards a silent sound, which encouraged my soul the closer I came. But as the wind raged, the state of my phone made me contemplate my isolation. Thought shut my heart tight so that I lost my guide and fell into unknowingness.
The way we react to doubt makes us desperate for one thing – to be out. We think, we rationalise, we ask ourselves why we’re feeling like this – but each line of thought takes us further from instinct.
The solution came when I returned to my heart, and sensation. To ask what the hell I’m doing up a mountain, in the rain, is to abandon the feeling that got me there in the first place: I wanted to be challenged, to fear, so that I could move into a greater place of knowledge. My thoughts say: turn back! but my body tells me I’m capable of climbing a little further up.
I begin my descent, which takes me into a forest, forcing me to use my compass. This leaves me with even deeper feelings of uncertainty – but rather than judge these sensations, I’m able to say to myself: oh, this again! – nerviness, panic, the sense I’m on the verge of getting it wrong.
I hate these feelings – they’ve been there my whole life. I wish I never had to have them. But that wishing makes me run from them, into my head. Every time I do this, my feelings remain unexplored. If I can delve into them, when I face them again it’s with understanding, which enables me to remember my sense of humour.
I’ve been exploring fear and doubt a lot as I teach writers about the difference between positive and negative motivation. I’ve experienced periods of manic writing – running from the dread of not writing. It comes like a shiver in my heart, which my shoulder tries to hide by tensing in a way that’s barely perceptible. I follow these sensations, trying not to get carried away with my thoughts – which are all judgements on this state.
I sit in my garden, among my plants, and feel the pressure I put on myself to be more than what I am. I rest on a cushion in my bedroom, playing with my breath, feeling my need to get it right, to do it right. For brief moments, in between all this noise, I sometimes catch a glimpse – like the wondrous dart of a stag between the trees – which is the feeling that we are amazing enough as we are.
On that mountain, I was frozen with the dilemma of turning back or going on – fail or continue? until I realised these were simply thoughts. All I needed to do was put one foot in front of the other and see how I felt.
It’s the same with writing. I can do away with thoughts, concerns, and simply follow my heart. The doubt doesn’t cease – it’s just that when I hear it, I remind myself I don’t need to add another opinion on top.
The discomfort of fear and doubt makes us want to jump free – as if escaping flames – but such a reaction starts us along a path of one rushed decision after another. We end up crossing the river without care, leaping blind from one rock to the other. Chances are, we fall in the water and end up at the bottom of the mountain, wet and bruised.
When you feel doubt, go carefully. Find a log for support. Your thoughts will rush at you, but keep returning to the body, the sensation of lifting a foot and then the other, carefully placing each one down in a secure spot.
This is the way to move out of the discomfort of doubt – careful extraction, like my slow ascent on the mountain, navigating each step, weighing each moment, slowly moving back to a point at which I am realigned with my intuition. Close to your heart like this, there is only one feeling – that of happiness.
Watch out for the next post by my excellent editor who writes under the name West Camel. Each month will feature a new essay on a self published book – from an editor’s perspective!
- Thoughtful Thursday: is doubt stopping you from doing what you really want to do? (samanthawardmartin.com)
- George Saunders wisdom on writing: http://writersonwriting.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/george-saunders.html
- For more posts on my time in Wales last year start here: Maes Caradoc