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.
Undesirable as my current state is – this is why I’m here: to take myself through new doors into unknown rooms that will show me more of myself.
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.
I look back at the sheep who bleat and reposition themselves, then I come to edge of the bank and glance down at the first prong.
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.
In the epigraph to the first volume of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne has a phrase in Greek, which translates as: ‘Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about things.’
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
I had a similar experience while on a school camp last year. During those five days in the mountains I had to face my fear of heights on a number of occasions and kept asking myself what I was doing up there. It was only when I returned home that I realize how beneficial that camp was to me in terms of personal growth. I suppose its the same with my writing. I’m working on a novella now and have to constantly deal with feelings of doubt and fear. I’ve come to realize that if we don’t take a risk with our writing than we should not write at all. Thanks!
What a great comment – it always makes my day when my posts inspire people to tell me their own stories. You are right about writing and risk taking. Writing is about following your true wishes, so it would be dumb to put a filter on them!! Good luck with the novella.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be in one of your writing classes. I think so. As to walking in the mountains this once happened to me. I had a map and compass. A thick fog descended on us and we could not even see our feet. We knew that on one side there was a sheer drop. It was easy to get disorientated, even with the compass. There were no landmarks. Clearly I got down or I wouldn’t be writing this but I remember the event clearly.
What a drastic situation – fog combined with sheer drops! I think we remember so much at these times because fear heightens our perception. As for my workshops, people generally have fun. You should sign up – I’d love to have you along, and I had someone from London yesterday, so I don’t think it’s too far to come…(I seem to remember you’re from London…)
I like the idea of looking for that “log of support” when doubt comes rushing at you. It gives you a chance to take a deep breath and find a way out.
Perhaps I should manufacture a log of support that writers can have on their desk?
My partner and I were discussing this just the other day – we were walking in the forest and had the choice of turning back the way we’d come for a relatively short walk back to civilisation, or taking the much longer, uncertain route. As we followed the track for miles, unsure where we would end up, we talked about how it would have been so much more comfortable to take the easy, known option, but then we wouldn’t have had the same challenge or experience we did have. Still, it was a relief when we found a signpost to say we were on the right track, so I suppose that was our log of support, coming just at the right point in our journey to reassure us.
Andrea, this was a lovely story. I’ve been in similar situations with Dan and we are always grateful for the adventure. But I think the gratitude is always possible because it turned out well – thanks to signposts, logs etc!
Yes, I could have been telling a very different story!
How great to take a trip with you up the mountain. Thank you for putting into words how I feel looking at my blank notebook!
Ah, the blank notebook. Who would have though something so innocuous could induce such feelings as nausea etc.?! And, thanks for joining me up the mountain, Eve 😉
You’re so right that the trick to living is to go back inside the body, and feel what the body wants. When the body gets what it wants we do feel happy, and relaxed – we know we’re on track somehow !
I loved your step by step journey to peace of mind !
Yes, that’s it – a feeling of being on track. For a long time I struggled with indecision, and went around moaning about never being able to know what I should do. I am grateful for all the teaching I have received through my drama training and yoga, which finally led me inside, where the subtle sensations seem to offer all the reassurance I need. Thanks, Valerie – as always – for stopping by and leaving lovely thoughts.
My favourite line (yes I had to choose one) “I followed my heart, moving without thought towards a silent sound, which encouraged my soul the closer I came”. So many times do we fall into our little pit of negativity, the feelings of disillusionment. Every event in our life will be met with a positive or a negative and all we simply need to do is Try. If we can’t over power our fears of anything – crossing a river, writing words on the page, we have nothing. The mere point of trying, to have feelings of self accomplishment no matter how small or how great the task that is ahead. I am glad you kept going and crossed your river my darling. x
Jen – I heartily approve of your line choice. I even tweeted it after your seal of approval!! That pit of negativity is a tough place. I’ve definitely spent my time there. Though, I feel like I’ve explored it enough so that I recognise most of its forms now, and can fairly quickly tell when I’m back these days. Have a lovely week, my dear xx
Great minds it seems 🙂 My week has not been the best and I look forward to the end of it. My last few posts shall explain. I’m glad you know the difference, as we all learn too. xx
As always, thank you for your poetic prowess. I’m gonna start calling you “Brill Blandy”.
Britt, you’ve turned me into my child – giggling with pleasure at having inspired such a compliment! Thanks so much 😉
I kept going back to those sheep, that moved about, away from you frightened and still ended up in the corner they started at…it is life living in fear….or maybe the frustration of uncertainty …
This was a wonderful read, I enjoyed it very much, and I would like to be in your writing class too!
Thank you for a wonderful journey within this morning(my morning)
Take care…You Matter…
I love what you’ve drawn from those sheep! And please come and join my class, it’s always an experience 😉
Whoa! Bulls eye.
Tim, I love it! You’re up next – probably Thurs as I’m off for a few days with my tent, to get a place in the queue for Wimbledon – men’s quarter final!!
‘What’s the problem with being up a mountain without phone signal and no orienteering skills? Isn’t that life?’ Ha! That just about sums it up for me at the moment, Gabs – thank you!
Yes, Alison, life in all its mad glory! xx
Beautifully written, love the style!
That means a lot 😉
I think I had a similar experience a few months ago — operating on very little sleep already, I woke up in a hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. at 7:30 am, which was the equivalent of 4:30 am in California, my usual stomping ground, and needed to prepare for a meeting in downtown Atlanta. Getting up and walking to the shower, I was grateful to have the presence of mind to keep reminding myself “one foot in front of the other,” and focus on the sensation of walking as opposed to how drained I felt.
Chris, this is exactly the deep level of self awareness that I am always trying to teach my students – that moment, when observing something as simple as the way you walk, that allows you to connect to the present rather than lose the way in the bustle of thought.
Your enthralling description of this journey among fear and doubt is so personal yet so universal, Gabriela. I read the whole thing thinking of myself and my current characters, who are going through the same sort of fear/doubt conflicts. What I personally took from it, coming through the rushing waters safely at the end, was that my apprehensions don’t have to cripple, nor do they have to make me feel a hero. They’re part of the process of creation and living. It’s how I change from the experience that makes a bigger difference: could I face the fear again? I don’t know. Maybe I could do. 🙂
I’m not sure if that was the purpose of this post, but I was glad to have the experience of it regardless. 🙂
Mayumi, the purpose of the post is to connect, I think, so the fact that you have got so much out of it makes me happy!! Your wonder about whether you could face the fear again reminds me that even when we learn a lesson in life we can never say: okay, I’m done! because every situation is different. But in terms of facing situations that make us afraid, I think to know that we were strong enough before, is like a little lending hand to at least make it easier the next time. hugs x
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