Seeing the Forest and the Trees

A mule and a camel were put in the same stall. The mule began, “Why do I come stumbling down the mountain frightened, with my pack saddle crooked, and the driver beating me, while you glide over the same grade in pure felicity? Have you been given a special dispensation? Why don’t you ever fall on your face like me?” The camel: “Every smooth descent is a gift. But also there are differences between us. Unlike yours, my head stays high, so that from the top and all the way down, I see the foot of the mountain and every hollow and rise, fold on fold. A true human being does this in life. Your animal eyes see only the next step, what is directly in front of you.”
(Rumi, Book IV, IX; translation by Coleman Barks)
Having just spent a truly nerve-wracking, wrist-whacking, bone-rattling five minutes descending a 20% grade on gravel on a bicycle better designed for flying down twisting, paved roads, I just had to ask my companion’s secret for his having taken half the time with twice the enjoyment accomplishing the same descent.  “Freedom”. Hmm, that was helpful! So I posed the same question to our third friend: “Trust”. This was not getting any better.
Begging a few more details, one took mercy on me and elaborated. ‘You pick a line and let the bicycle carry you down. You’re fighting every inch of the way, riding the brakes, and missing the flow.’ To be sure, both of my friends are avid mountain bikers, downhill heli-skiers, and, if their pocketbooks would support their fantasies, formula-1, race car enthusiasts — all sports where speed, split-second decision making, balance, and probably a hundred other variables mean the difference between an exhilarating rush and a rock, tree, or wall. Nevertheless, the comment resonated –  and I was reminded of Rumi’s story.
It seems to be very difficult indeed to ‘raise one’s head’ and see the larger picture. Back on Italian gravel, I was intently focused on the foot or so in front of my wheel (certainly not the ‘foot’ of the mountain!). Watchful for the next loose stone or eroded rut that might send me ‘endo’ as the parlance goes (polite biker talk for ‘ass over tea kettle’), tight, anxious, and decidedly resentful of having to endure this stretch of road. Relentlessly checking my cyclometer to see just how much longer it would last — not a recipe for enjoying some of the most beautiful, idyllic, and arguably bicycle-friendly (for all but those damned gravel roads!) landscape through which I’d ever cycled.
As coincidence would have it, this weekend my wife and I were discussing a book she’s currently reading, Harvard academic Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life?  In it he explores very similar ground: principally how to stay open to ‘the forest’ (in essence, seeing the whole way down the mountain) while remaining cognizant of ‘the trees’ (the next rock in front of the wheel). A particularly relevant section examines the differences between deliberate and emergent strategies in decision-making. The former refers to ‘the plan’ we all typically bring to a situation — from structuring our day to deciding on a career path. The latter to the serendipitous, accidental, unintended twists and turns that we might take on that path that really serve to determine a life direction.
For example, I’d accepted a one-year position with our local school board in 1974, fresh out of grad school and grateful for anything smelling like a job. The intention (‘the plan’) was to make a few bucks while I finished my doctoral research. In that year, I met Nancy Wilson, a psychologist who happened to be setting up a new department at Stratford’s hospital and happened to be giving a ‘lunch and learn’ presentation at the board office. We chatted briefly; she offered me an interview and 38 years later I’m still in town. No doctorate — but contentedly ensconced in a city many people retire to reside in!  The emergent strategy, the ‘unintended path’, had it been disdained or interpreted as a ‘departure’ or interruption, would have likely been ignored at my peril (perhaps).
What Christensen describes is a stepping back from the compelling, consuming immediacy of a situation — to become more the ‘observer’, open to possibility; and less the overly vigilant ‘participant’, caught up in the control of and reaction to those irritating, distracting departures from our ‘deliberate direction’ — the one we’ve carefully chosen versus explored or allowed. Rather like John Lennon’s famous line about life — that thing that happens, often just ‘out of sight’ (awareness), ignored, unappreciated, while we’re doing other things.
I was struck by the overlap in this approach with mindfulness practice. When we meditate, the extent to which we become absorbed, caught up, attached to the thought, the emotion, the feeling (the ‘rocks’ if you will), the less available we are to the ‘flow’, as my friend called it — less conscious of ‘what is’ and more concerned about ‘what isn’t’. We become constricted, agitated, resentful, preoccupied with how far we’ve ‘departed’ from the prescribed (desired or deliberate) path; less attentive to the actual. Our choice I suppose. Are we camels or mules? Do we ‘glide down with felicity’, heads high, seeing the grand display, the ‘line’ through our lives that’s always been there — but perhaps went unnoticed? Or do we stubbornly ignore the implicit ‘rhythm’, intent on ‘getting back on track’ — even when that track is full of wheel-grabbing rocks?
NOTE (to self): Start mountain biking.

NOTE 2 (to self): Take (or, at least take note of) the road less-travelled

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