Vignettes of a Traveler

Aaron A Schultz. Writer and Photographer

Category: mindfullness

Our Suffering Imagination

Seneca, a roman philosopher, once wrote that “we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
I enjoy the rhetorical work of the word “imagination.” I also appreciate the Stoics’ philosophical similarities to mindfulness and Buddhism.

Two meanings of the word “imagination.”We suffer more often in imagination than in reality

First, it means our emotional reactions–our pain, anger, loss, insult, embarrassment–are only imaginary.

By any measure, these emotional states are suffering because they are labeled as “negative.” Often, as part of our fight-or-flight response, our mind manifests this suffering to protect us from harm. Our reactions run the self-destructive gamut of fighting, drinking, shutting down, or running.

If we stop, breath, and then question our ego, we often find we fine, the suffering not as bad as we first thought.

Second, it means our daydreams and reveries, the places where we reply our injuries and insults.

Often, within these imaginative replays, our frustration grows, our anger seeks justice. These scenes are where our imagination reacts when life happens (insults, arguments, misunderstandings, love, etc.). During these scenes, we suffer more in our mind’s reaction than in actual life.

If we stop, breath, and then question our ego, we often find we fine, the suffering not as bad as we first thought. This is the power of mindfulness.

TL:DR

We make life harder because our imagination loves to make us suffer.

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Snowboarding Dawn Patrol

Trail Report. Dawn Patrol. Teton Pass. Wyoming.

The ritual starts the night before by packing your pack, which if you’ve had a good winter is packed already and just needs replenishment. Water. Powerbar. Apple. Chocolate. Layers. Headlamp. First aid kit. Lighter. Multi-tool. Eyewear. Avalanche kit: probe, shovel, beacon, inclinometer. Optional small thermos for coffee on the summit. Keep pack light, but bring some comfort. Next check the weather and the avalanche conditions. Plan your route for time allotted (punch in at work at 8:30 a.m.) and safety. Maybe wax snowboard or wrap duct tape around pointer finger of glove to fix the hole worn from cranking on bindings all season. Drink a cup of tea and stretch. Bed by 9 p.m.

Alarm, 4:45 a.m. Reach over, grab your snowpants and slide them on because every skibum house is drafty and cold in the morning. Next, pull on long sleeve base layer and socks, then bang on roommate’s and backcountry partner’s door. He grumbles and rises. In the living room, slide feet into snowboard boots hoping they dried before the wood stove died. Shiver. They are always a little damp and cold. Now into kitchen, brew coffee, set oatmeal boiling, then dash outside to warm up the truck, which moans twice then sputters and kicks over. Back inside. Roommate’s up. Eat, checking weather and avy conditions for last minute changes. Pour coffee into travel mug and add two ice cubes so it’s a drinkable temperature. Grab pack and snowboard.

 

Outside. Your breath freezes; what doesn’t stick to your hat and beard drops to the ground. A perfect winter morning. Still. Hard. Dark. Look up. So many stars. Look down. Hoar frost on snow reflects the starlight, sounds like crystal in the wind.

Slot snowboards into bed of truck between sandbags, over the tires and into snowdrift behind the cab. Slam door. Shift. Pick proper music for drive, something with a beat. It’s fucking early and you are goin’ fuckin’ snowboarding. You’re pumped.

Track two. Town is dark. Chimneys pump smoke and steam, which billow white, then dissolve into dark. Take right at the flashing stoplight. Clutch. Shift. Fifth gear, track three. Caffeine. Sleepy but alert, always waiting for black ice to kick the truck sideways.

The two lane country roads are dark, black skids through dark grey valley; flat, seductive, a good thing to drive while waking up. Ahead, a black hole in the stars. Mountains. Track four. You will be standing at the event horizon of mountain and stars in an hour. Maybe you pass a car, an early commuter. You are grateful you no longer work the breakfast shift, grateful you only make coffee and breakfast for you and your lovers.

Ahead, the road disappears up, into black, towards the mountain pass. Down shift, fourth gear, start climb. Track five. RPMs and BPM’s increase. You know this road, know the straightaways and the speed of each corner in every condition. Track six; turn it up, nod your head to the beat. Turn one, downshift through switchback. Partner sparks one up, hiking preflight commences. Turn two, plows came early, sand pings off undercarriage. Turn Three, preflight complete. 9500 feet, the pass, your parking lot is on the left. A white F150, a blue Tacoma, a brown Legacy, and a patchwork Dart are parked in the lot. Buckles and boots clicking, shaggy silhouettes move, steam under dome lights and headlamps, last minute gear checks. You know those dudes, but will see them on the summit.

Inversion today, so keep shell and fleece layer in pack. Unzip the vents on your snow pants. Nothing between you and the sky except base layer. You are grateful to be above the valley, above the stale cold and smoke. Still winter up here: must move. Finish coffee, shoulder pack, go.

The boot pack starts at the edge of the parking lot, a ladder of kick-steps up the six-foot snowbank created by snowplows after the last storm. You are not the first hikers this morning. Another group has broken trail through the fresh snow, probably going for a longer tour across ridges and around cirques, probably looking for an untouched line in the middle of nowhere. Lucky bastards. Your consolation prize: freshies and a sunrise before work. Leave headlamp in pocket—plenty of starlight.

Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Check technique. Check posture. Repeat. Follow the staggered, black-manicured craters, your staircase in the snow. At 9700 feet, 5:30 am on a clear day, you walk towards the stars. Breathe.

Left foot, right foot, breathe….

You follow the footsteps before you, each step taking you five inches higher, towards a peak where you will watch the sunrise. Then, when cold and satisfied, you pick any number of lines, dropping off the top, falling from the stars, surfing white noise.

Do What You Love: You Are Saying it Wrong

The Love Affect

“Do what you love.”

We’ve been saying it backwards.

This confusion isn’t our fault because we give and receive this platitude casually, thinking it makes us sound enlightened. On the surface, this bumper sticker sounds satisfying and achievable, like building then sitting by a fire. Looking deeper, however, “do what you love” is more like your last, wet match in the cold rain—frustrating and hopeless.

This command orders us towards some permanent and unattainable bliss. When we do consider this option, we often respond by asking, how we can “do what we love” with bills to pay and family to look after. As a command, “do what you love” compels us to obey, and feel like we have disappointed someone by failing. Having disappointed someone, guilt and shame follow close behind.

In reality, very few people will ever achieve this distant privilege of doing what they love, and these people used a rare combination of luck, privilege, and sacrifice. Good for them. We should all enjoy watching other people succeed—as long as it is an honorable success.

Here’s the problem with “do what you love”—love is a concept or feeling. Love as a destination becomes distant and abstract. When we put “love” at the end of the sentence, we postpone love, saying we cannot be content until we achieve this distant love. This makes life feel hollow and unsatisfied, the opposite intent of those who say it.

However, by flipping “do” and “love,” we set the words in the proper order.

Love what you do.

That’s better, and much more satisfying because we can all love what we do. Now, as the subject, “love” becomes accessible and attainable.

Now, in “love what you do,” we see our real choice and real power to love. Love, after all, is an emotion already within us, not some far off destination we must earn. It’s easy as hugging your brother or smiling at the checkout clerk, easy as cooking breakfast or returning an email. We manifest and give love.

Furthermore, as a word, “do” is the space where we make our change, where our intentions manifest. At the end of the sentence, “do” empowers love to affect change. “Do” is where we affect our lives; it is where we make love.

“Love what you do” takes place now, in the concrete yet malleable present.

“Do” is an act in action.

Chop Wood, Carry Water.

There is a story I heard once.

One summer morning, a young monk and his master prepare the monastery for the day.

“Master,” the young monk says, “how does one achieve enlightenment?”

Turning, the master smiles, then picks up the ax.

“Chop wood, carry water,” he says. Disappointed, the young monk grabs the water bucket and follows.

They walk outside into the pinks and blues of dawn. At the woodpile, the young monk stands a chunk of wood on the splitting block. The master swings, and the seeds of breakfast divide and fall to the ground. They repeat, chunk, split, silence, the steam from their breath swirling and fading.

After a few minutes, the young monk asks, “So, what does a person do after achieving enlightenment?”

Flicking his wrist, the master seats the ax blade into the splitting block.

“Chop wood,” he says, picking up the bucket. “Carry water.”

Love What You Do

If you “love what you do,” instead of striving for an abstract destination, you will find love, right now, in concrete action. Not only is love the path to enlightenment, love is enlightenment, and it is something we can access right now, in the present moment. It is our emotion and state of mind, and it is already within us.

Each moment YOU choose how to feel and how to act. You create love.

Love what you do.

Old Dog Shaky Legs

(I wrote the following last December, 2015. The photo was taken during Winter’s last camping trip, the weekend before she died. Last Sunday, Jen and I picked up Winter’s ashes, a paw print, and a lock of her fur.)

An old dog lies in a campsite by a campfire.

Winter Dog, my friend of 13 years during her last camping trip.

Winter Dog, sweet Winter Dog.

Her hind end has been shaking more and more. Lately, when we go for walks in a Portland park, and she knows it’s a walk and not a sniff and stroll through the hood, Winter follows behind me, her hind legs only there for balance. They move like her pads are sticking to the ground, some herky-jerky movement, a stiff swinging motion uncomfortable when not in contact with the earth.

I love her eyes lately. They’ve always gotten bright with joy every time we go for a hike, or the local park during the last few years. But, there is an extra spark in them, a wisdom, a knowing that something is different. Maybe Winter knows her time with me is limited. I sense this from her. But it’s different, it’s some doggy awareness, its meaning far different from mine.

Dog on a trail

Winter heads towards the Columbia River during one of our trips to 1000 Acre Dog Park.

I think about Winter dying a lot lately, or at least her death is always close to the surface of my thoughts. Sometimes she lies so still on her bed and I reassure myself that she’s going deaf. So, I call her name or give a command like “lets go,” and she still lies there. And, I think, “Oh shit, is she dead? Is it time?” but just for a second, or until I touch her and she startles, looking up from the bed, then slowly, shakily, Winter smiles and rises, ready to go wherever. (December 2015)

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Response to Pulse Shootings

Last night I had a dream. In it, I was searching a hotel, trying to find someone.

Man shoots an AR-15A woman stopped me in the lobby, saying, “50 people were just murdered, shot to death in Florida. It’s a new record.” Sitting down on a nearby bench, I put my head in my hands and started crying, soul sadness pushing out from my heart in tears, then sobs, then emptiness.

I woke up, morning sun and birdcalls coming through the window. From a speaker near my bed the quiet voices of news radio, voices that help me fall asleep every night, detailed things like “hostages” and “terrorism.”

Some people will want bombs. Some will want diplomacy. Some will buy a gun. Some will plead for new laws. Some will want to close the borders. All will blame “those people” foreign and domestic. All will want action NOW. All will skip sadness and anger, searching for strength in righteousness.

All will forget that it is okay to be sad and angry, that it is okay to mourn the dead without calling for vengeance or action. Do not judge how that life was lived–or how it was lost. If you want to honor the dead, then honor your tears and mourn the loss of each person’s greatest gift: life.

Those who call for vengeance, for fear, and for hate do not honor life because they have not taken the time to honor the sadness about the lives lost. Instead of seeing a life lost, they only see death and its darkness; they only see the end and not the life. They lie to themselves and to others in an attempt at control. They say they have the solution, but this is a solution for death, not life.Meat Skeleton

As isolated emotions, fear, vengeance, and hate cloud the mind, leading to irrational decisions in the name of “do something now.” Fear only generates more fear, vengeance only more vengeance, and hate only more hate.

However, if we spend time first being sad and angry without acting, we come to know these emotions as strong and honest. Sadness and anger generate perspective. Perspective, a unique blend of time and information, helps us measure our reaction and create an honorable space for mourning then action (the opposite of reaction).

In this space, we see that the whole of a life lived is a million times bigger than petty, short-term vengeance and hate. By honoring their life, this then becomes a space where we truly honor our dead.

This is the space where true strength lives.

I turned off the radio and crawled out of bed. In my living room, two dogs wagged their tails and my pregnant wife kissed me good morning. I will be celebrating our life by being sad and mourning the loss of others. I will not be listening to the news for a few days.

Dogs on the trail in Forest Park OregonI do not need some biased politician or angry newscaster telling me how to feel. I do not need them to serve me some simple “solution” to sooth my fragile fear and hatred. People look to them for “solutions” when we all know damn well it’s never that simple, that these same, tired “solutions” will never fix anything: these solutions only propagate hatred and murder in the name of righteousness.

For now, I just want to be sad, again, about the tragic loss of life and grateful for 41 years of mine.

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