When I was 65, National Geographic nominated me and my 27-year-old partner, Erik Boomer, as one of the “Top Ten Adventure Teams” in the world, for an expedition where we skied, walked, crawled, and kayaked 1,500 miles around Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic. I don’t know of any other athlete, in any sport, who has attained that high a global ranking at that age. Of course, the fact that I nearly killed myself from simple exhaustion, leaping and paddling through ice floes, can be considered foolhardy. But think of it this way: For almost all of the three million years of evolution, every human being on this planet lived a life of continuous adventure in the wilderness. My theory is that by reclaiming a deep relationship with purple flowers and angry polar bears we can find a path to thriving in this politically terrifying, Internet-crazed, oil-soaked, consumer-addicted society. Here’s an example:
One day on the Ellesmere expedition, we were dragging our kayaks across broken sea ice in the Polar Ocean. The ice was melting to form slushy pools on the surface, but the jagged pressure ridges were so rough that at times we simply couldn’t pull the loaded boats forward while standing on two feet. So we crawled.
Imagine the situation: You’re in the High Arctic. Totally isolated. There is virtually no opportunity for rescue. You’ve got 750 miles to go. You move forward, or you die. So you’re crawling through saturated slush and frigid melt-water pools, soaked to the skin, shivering.
How do you manage this situation mentally and emotionally? The only solution is to shut the mind off. Stop thinking; stop calculating miles to go versus food remaining. Don’t even suffer. Just crawl. It’s clean. Fundamental. Cathartic. Don’t try to preserve your dignity. Dignity is a concept from another cosmos. Crawl. There is more power that way.
I do these expeditions because in some deep visceral way, embedded in my DNA, this is who I am, what I want to do, what I need to do. Somewhere along the line, aided by my longstanding friendship with Moolynaut, a Siberian shaman, but probably inevitable even if we hadn’t met, these physical journeys have become a spiritual quest. A quest that is guiding me into old age with some semblance of equanimity and health.
People ask about the pain and the inevitable injuries I have suffered in this sport, and I answer from the great Inuit shaman Igjugarjuk, “All true wisdom is only to be learned far from the dwellings of men, out in the great solitude, and is only to be obtained through pain.” I would disagree that this is the “only” way, but agree that it is one way.
Thus, counterintuitive as it may seem, the pain actually leads to ecstasy, not suffering.
Ecstasy is one of those complex words with contradictory meanings. The party drug Ecstasy helps you slide into a state of great rapture. But rapture is so much more complicated than dancing all night and joining sweaty bodies in the wee hours of the morning. The word ecstasy is derived, in part, from the Latin extasis, for “terror.” Of all the many definitions of ecstasy, the one I like best is this: “It is a subjective experience of total involvement.” You are in an ecstatic state when you are enraptured, terrified, or otherwise “totally involved” with something, whether it is music, prayer, meditation, painting on cave walls, sex, skiing, or even pain.
A friend tells me that I have “discovered” nothing; I just bumble through old truths by beating myself over the head with a heavy stick. Fair enough. Regardless, the only life journey worth making is to find your personal path into ecstasy. I find mine out there on the ice, in a deep reciprocal relationship with nature.
Hunter, Shaman, and Tundra
I spent many months, over 15 years, in Vyvenka, a remote village in northeastern Siberia. My friends and teachers included Oleg, the hunter, and Moolynaut, the shaman. Although no one ever told me in these words, it was obvious that the survival of the community depends on Hunter, who brings home the meat; Shaman, who provides the spiritual pathway; and Tundra—Nature—which is the foundation for everything. Simple. But Oleg and Moolynaut also emphasized that each one of us, individually, has our own balance of Hunter and Shaman. We communicate, learn, grow, and draw strength from Tundra, Mother Earth, on the basis of this personal, unique interplay of Hunter and Shaman that guides us through life.
What you can do
If You Have One Minute:
- Ignore what you think may be more important. Concentrate on a single muscle. Flex it; stretch it; use it. Focus your entire consciousness into that muscle.
If You Have One Hour:
- Ignore what you think may be more important. Find a park, a woodlot, a meadow, or someplace where Nature is expressing herself. Engage in a walking meditation, without talking, and give your think-too-much, know-it-all-brain a vacation from the nasty job of thinking.
If You Have One Week:
- Forget about what you think may be more important. Take a vacation to some natural environment that speaks to you. For the entire week, reduce conversation: look, listen, smell, and feel. Give your mind the luxury to go on vacation and stop worrying about stuff that it doesn’t need to worry about anyway.
If You Have One Lifetime:
- Forget about what you think may be more important. Reach deep inside yourself to find your personal passion, your path to ecstasy. Follow that path.