Life is like climbing mountains

Mount Kinabalu. 27 August. I am walking the steep path to the summit. Going there is a must, friends have told me. This is the highest and most beautiful mountain of Borneo, with views over large rainforests and impressive mountain ranges. I put my foot on a thick tree root, and grab a branch to lift myself up. Be careful, do not grab a loosely hanging vine or rotten tree, but catch a stable tree! One step done. Many more steps to follow. I almost slip on the wet limestone, but my other foot quickly steps safely on a dry stone. I make a deep bow to walk under a bamboo stem hanging low over the path.

My foot steps on white flowers; I look up and see intricate orchids above me, attached to a tree, with their roots in the air. Meanwhile, the sequoias -cricket-lookalikes- are making their prrrting and sissing sounds. I recognise the birds from my other jungle walks, although I have no memory of their formal names. Here is the tumble dryer bird: woosh, woosh, woosh-woosh-woosh-woosh. And there is the mobile phone: tring-tring. I even occasionally hear the what-what frog. Squak-squak! Is that the famous multi-coloured hornbill, possibly even one with something that looks like a helmet on its beak? Like all the time I have spent in rainforests the last weeks, I can hear them but cannot see them. My hunt for the hornbill fails again.

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I look through a gap in the dense bushes and trees along the path. At my right, a ravine drops into the depth of a valley packed with trees in all tints of green. Apparently, some individual trees have not received the note about the required height, as they rise their necks and crowns above the surrounding trees. From the distance, clouds are arriving in the valley, mystifying the valley with mist, like laying veils on a bride. This veil quickly becomes a full-face burqa, as within minutes the valley gets covered by clouds. The air starts to feel thick, and the humidity possibly runs up to 100%. My clothes start to get moist, and quickly get drained by drops of rain. Drip-drip-drip. Flush-flush-flush. Thick straight lines of rain wash my clothes and give the path a muddy make-over.

My breathing becomes heavier. My heart pounds in my throat. I have to stop climbing. Deep breath-in, breath-out, relax, let my heart rate normalise. Walk again. Up the steps, climb the stones, go over the tree roots, push myself through the mud closer to the summit. And stop again to regain my breath and my normal heart beat. OK, let’s go slower. No, I still lose my breath. It is as if my lungs do not get enough oxygen. My head starts to feel light, while a pumping headache starts to grow. This is stereotypic altitude sickness. I know it. Although I have never experienced this before in my life, even when I climbed the much higher Himalaya in Nepal.

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The mountain was hard physical work. When I was climbing the muddy path in the torrential rain, I started to question my own motivations. Why am I going up this mountain? Because my friends told me to? That is not a good reason. Because of the nice views and beautiful nature? Yes, I have seen great nature at the bottom of the mountain, and I will possibly see that later today at the summit or tomorrow when I climb down in better weather. But now, I can only see rain and mud, and I hear nothing else than rain rattling on the leaves. Am I enjoying this? Yes. Or no, I suffer. Does this mean that I want to stop and go down? No. I want to continue. Persevere. Isn’t this paradoxical? Yeah, but the hostel in the mountain is not far. Why do I want to go there? Possibly like the motivation of sports people? They put themselves up for a challenge, and find meaning and pride in overcoming the physical challenge. Yes, it seems like that: I know I will enjoy the sense of “I have done this, despite the challenge!” Am I trying to prove myself to others or to myself? No. I am simply enjoying pushing my boundaries. Authentic meaning via physical achievement and building character. The psychologist Dilthey wrote how the physical resistance and challenge of nature can reconnect us with the totality of our self, particularly the parts we have forgotten when we are too stuck in our mind. We cannot deny the immediate reality of physical struggle, and our ways of overcoming this. Fifty years after Dilthey wrote this, the meaning-therapist Frankl described how a possible pathway to living a meaningful life is experiencing pride in overcoming physical challenges.

It makes me feel alive. Thou shalt live intensively (see Tristan Garcia: La vie intense, une obsession moderne).

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That is, the physical challenge also forces me to be in the here-and-now. I cannot think about the life that I have left at the foot of this mountain, and the challenges that I have left home. I can only think about the next step, about the next breath and the next beating of my heart. People seek physical challenge to feel alive and to reconnect with their body, with nature, with life, with the world around us. Out of our head, into the stream of experiencing. Like the client that I ‘cured’ from his chronic depression by suggesting to join a jogging group. And like the bodyguard of a politician whose very inconvenient agoraphobia disappeared when he started to work out at the gym. Or the woman whose chronic negativity temporarily disappeared when she broke her arm. Our bodies are not made to work full-time at a desk, become rooted in a sofa in front of a flat screen, or to exchange the skin of our hand palms for mobile phones at which we stare all day long. Even here on the mountain, too many young people do not look around, but stare at their phones, make pictures or listen to the loud music coming out of their phone. Contradictory, these phon(e)y boys are at the same time engaging in sports and physical challenges, which are some of our few culturally accepted ways to feel embedded again in the here-and-now (although they simultaneously push the here-and-now away with their phones: they want to experience the flow of being-alive but as soon as it comes they push it aside). Everyone can find their own way of reconnecting with themselves via their body. We are physical beings.

What brings you in the here and now? What meanings do you find in nature?

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