Sunday, August 1, 2010

Swimming Mount Everest

Timing is everything. Well, actually, it isn't. Pacing is everything.  Well, actually, pacing isn't everything either, but it's far more important than I think we give credit.

I have been thinking about this a little bit since I moved from central Canada to the edge. There is a difference in the pace of life, and I have been wondering why. By a strange coincidence, an answer may have presented itself to me last night when I was watching a TED video. Now if you are not familiar with, you should be. They are some of the most amazing talks I have ever seen, on the widest array of subjects I can imagine. (Be sure to search out Hans Rosling, he's fun and insightful all at the same time.)

What got me, though, this time, was a seemingly fruitless talk about someone's swim across the North Pole. And yes, you read it right: his swim. Actually, I never watched that particular talk, for it seemed to me to be about something fairly useless, although of mild interest to some.

In fact, it reminded me of a story of 'Abdu'l-Baha: the time He met Admiral Peary. The good Admiral had just returned from his trek to the North Pole and was very proud of this fact. According to Juliet Thompson, "The Master spoke charmingly to him and congratulated him on his discovery. Then, with the utmost sweetness, added these surprising words: For a very long time the world had been much concerned about the North Pole, where it was and what was to be found there. Now he, Admiral Peary, had discovered it and that nothing was to found there; and so, in forever relieving the public mind, he had rendered a great service."

For some reason, more than just the fact that the Pole occurs in both stories, I was reminded of this. It was, in my own biased opinion, the utter uselessness of this that linked the two stories.

But I was wrong.

I should have realized that if there were so many incredible stories and talks on this one site, it would have behooved me to give them the benefit of the doubt on that polar swim.

Actually, it still isn't that polar swim that intrigues me. It was his follow-up, his swim across a lake on Mount Everst.
"Swim", I hear you cry, "on Mount Everest?" Yes. You see, the glaciers up there are all melting and one of them formed a small lake at a very high altitude. And Lewis Pugh, the gentleman in question, decided to swim across it to bring attention to the crisis of global warming. Oh, I know that it is in vogue right now to call it "climate change", but let's face it, sometimes change can be good. In this case, it is not. Let's call it what it is and not make it look like it's all ok. It's global warming.

If you want to watch his talk, you can click here: Lewis Pugh's mind-shifting Mt. Everest swim Video on, or you can keep reading and then decide if you want to watch it later. I'm not bothered either way.

Before I go on, though, I want to go off on another slight tangent: habits. I've written about living consciously many times, and being aware of what we do, and why we do it. Just this week I was coming out of a store, heading out of the parking lot, and took the route I usually take. Unfortunately, it happened to not be the route I needed and ended up adding another chunk of time to my already busy day of errands. I was quite frustrated about it, but Marielle, ever trying to console, said it was just out of habit. Well, that didn't really help, but I appreciated the thought.

Mr Pugh, in his epic length swims (anything more than a nano-second in sub-zero water constitutes epic-length, as far as I'm concerned) in cold water learned that what he had to do was concentrate, and then go as fast as he possibly could. Energy, adrenaline and speed: those were the keys to his success.

But swimming in a newly formed lake on Mount Everest, he realized that everything he learned had to go out the window. Speed and aggression don't work up there, because you can't feed your body the oxygen needed to sustain that level of activity.

He made the long trek up the mountain, with his team of Sherpas, yaks and camera crew people, and camped on the side of the mountain. Then, on the fateful day, he plunged into the freezing water and began his swim across. And failed. He swam for all he was worth, gasped for air, and realized that he couldn't breathe. The air was too thin. He went under and would have drowned, except for the fact that the lake is very shallow.

When he made it to the side, his team met him and brought him back to camp to debrief. Oh, and to save his life.

The Sherpas, there on Mount Everest, explained what was obvious to them. It was a concept that was so alien to the others that it never would have occurred to them. You have to take your time. Relax. Allow things to happen. Don't force them. As this is a necessary frame of mind for survival in that altitude, they saw this with such clarity.

I may be mistaken, but I think that all cultures have a perspective to share, along those lines. There is something that has arisen from the environment in which they live that is profoundly beautiful. The desert peoples and the Arctic peoples both have a profound sense of the spiritual because they encounter the mystical in their daily life. One sees it in the mirage, the other in Aurora Borealis. Both have a more natural sense of the mystic than those peoples who don't have such wonderous illusions surrounding them.

Here, the people of Himalayas, knew something profound about how to approach life, and they were able to convey it. And not only did they convey it, but they did it so well that Pugh was able to convey it to others.

He learned to override his habits and swim at the leisurely pace that was needed in that environment.

"Just because something has worked so well in the past," said Pugh, "doesn't mean in it will work well in the future..." Those were the words that stopped me.

He had realized a profound truth and shared it beautifully.

Here I was also reminded of another story of people climbing a mountain, one I've shared a few times in other places. They learn to climb amidst the roots of the trees, and then they need to learn to climb among the rocks, and then again they need to learn to climb in the snow. The previously learned skills are of little use in the new situation.

In fact, in Pugh's case, the previously learned skills would have killed him, had he not been lucky.

And now, my reason for sharing all this: are those skills that we, as humanity, have learned, and successfully used, in the past, killing us today? I believe there are many things we needed to do centuries and millenia ago which no longer work, things which hold us back because we call on "tradition", as if it is some sacred thing.

Isn't that part of Baha'u'llah's message? Isn't that why, in the Kitab-i-Iqan, He says:

Consider how men for generations have been blindly imitating their fathers... Such men... become so veiled that without the least question, they pronounce the Manifestation of God an infidel, and sentence Him to death.
When we blindly follow these habits of the past, we can either lead ourselves to an untimely demise, or even go so far as to sentence a Messenger of God to execution. Fortunately, we are not facing that latter issue right now, but the stakes are still pretty high. We are facing global catastrophes beyond our reckoning, and they will affect us all.

Today, we Baha'is are on a Mountain, the tallest one ever facing our race, and we have plunged into the water. The Universal House of Justice is calling us to use the necessary skills for today, not the ones we needed yesterday. And our job is to try and listen and be obedient, for if we don't, we will be left behind.

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