“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
― Marcel Proust
There is a mountain only you can climb. The mountain of your life.
I’ve always loved to explore. The best Saturdays I could have in my hometown back when I was a teenager consisted of putting on my ugly running shoes, filling my camelbak to the top, grabbing a couple of snacks from the kitchen, driving to the city’s outskirts, and running towards nowhere land.
Not knowing where I was heading was the fun part. I always found something while running. An old house, the angry dogs of a rancher, little houses scattered in between the hills, and lots of cows.
Chihuahua, my hometown city, is surrounded by mountains. When looking at them from any point in the city, they don’t look that far away. I always wondered what those mountain ranges hid.
One day I decided to head there and explore.
I took my dog Brownie with me. The mountains were way, way farther than expected. Brownie hadn’t had water in hours, he was having a hard time, just like myself. I decided to turn back to the car after a couple of hours but didn’t expect all my water to end so fast. Almost half of the way back was done without water.
Summers in Chihuahua are HOT. Some days they can get as hot as 40° Celsius. That day was a hot day. I had never in my life experienced such thirst, neither did poor brownie. We barely made it back to the car. The drink of water we had back at the house, ah, glorious.
Brownie has bone cancer now, I’ll see him next week for the last time I think, Memento Mori. I’ll never forget that day, it was awesome. Painful, but awesome. Nothing beats a good adventure.
Fast-forward 4 years, I switched mountains. I now work, and hang a lot, in the mountains surrounding Mexico City.
Pico de Orizaba, altitude: 5,636 mts. Iztaccihuatl, altitude: 5,200 mts. They have become my weekend playground now.
I wonder why I chose to surround myself with mountains in my life.
I guess it is because of their simplicity. They are there, they are big, and they present an albeit, not easy, but a terribly simple challenge, go up, touch the summit, and head back, with a whole lot in between. The most primal storytelling, the adventure of going up the mountain and back.
“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains, and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell. I might find somewhere where I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.”― J.R.R. Tolkien
A literal mountain is a fair representation of our lives. The challenges that we face feel very much like those presented in the mountains. Climbing Pico de Orizaba is bloody and excruciating. I hate not being able to sleep. Pico de Orizaba demands you to wake up at 12 in the night to go up. It’s cold, it’s freaking dangerous, and it is exhausting. And yet, nothing beats that view. Nothing in the world beats that sense of accomplishment and of limit expansion. There is a “you”, you can only meet up there, in the pain, in the uncomfortable situations. You’re the best you.
The same goes for life challenges.
They feel like mountains, and they are there to be climbed. The climb itself, the act of climbing, is the path to Self-mastery, towards clarity and understanding.
It’s like when you’re in the middle of the mountain. Until there, you don’t notice that your mind has been playing tricks on you. Yelling at you silently about how tired you are, how unnecessary it is to be up here in the cold. But then you look up and to your left, and realize that sunrise is beginning to happen. It’s the most beautiful thing. Your mind goes quiet. You understand.
The path towards Self-mastery, in Buddhism, has 5 hindrances, 5 challenges that if understood, and overcome, will lead you towards Self-mastery, and the summit.
It is no news that Stoicism and Buddhism are very similar. The hindrances look very much like the Stoic hindrances. Let’s have a look.
The 5 Hindrances
1. Sensual desire (sight/touch/taste/smell/hearing) = Am I addicted?
Something fun to do while being in the mountains? Staying at the wooden cabin with a hot chocolate in your hands while watching the fireplace and feeling its heat on your face, knowing it is cold, cold, cold outside. Laying on a cozy sofa with your cuddled girlfriend by you. Maybe reading a book? The Grimm brother’s stories or Sapiens? Or maybe watching a movie, in the same hot and cozy place while having pizza and beer. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Sensual desire does not refer just to sex, but general desire. Cakes, coziness, food, laying in bed all day, you name it. These things aren’t wrong obviously, you can enjoy them from time to time, but they can become hindrances when you stop climbing because of them.
You cannot stay too much in enjoyment, else you will never climb your mountain. But it is cozy and enjoyable here! You might say. Why would I want to leave this behind? Because the riches you enjoy in sensuality pale in comparison to the riches of the spirit.
My favorite Stoic lesson regarding this hindrance is the following from Epictetus:
“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar — and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?
Obviously, he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.
And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?”― Epictetus
Refreshing, isn’t it? Now you can understand Nassim Nicholas Taleb when he said that a stoic is a Buddhist with an attitude.
2. Ill will / aversion = Am I feeling a negative emotion?
It’s hard to concentrate on the task at hand when you’re too busy complaining. The thoughts: “This is so unfair”, or “this shouldn’t be happening to me”, will get you absolutely nowhere. Trust me, I’ve tried.
This is the third time I sit down to edit this. I needed to read this specific hindrance today. Yesterday, I complained badly about life. It’s funny how you feel you are justified when you do so. Sure, you might be, but that doesn’t change the fact that complaining will get you nowhere.
It’s as if, sometimes, as you go through life, and through the mountains, you get little pebbles in your shoes, bothering your feet as you walk. You can stop and take them off your shoe. But sometimes, this happens so often, that if you’d stop every time you get a pebble, you wouldn’t reach the summit.
Know that the way up is full of annoyances. Don’t let them stop you. Focus.
The Stoics have several points of view in this instance. The first is knowing that you can control your perception of the annoyances, and turn them to your benefit. The more annoyances, the more glory in overcoming them, for example. Great stories can’t happen without a few great obstacles and a whole lot of tiny pebbles.
The second is about control. If you can get the rock out of your shoe. Stop, take it off and keep moving, if you cannot, just keep moving. Know the difference and act accordingly.
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.”― Epictetus
3. Dullness/heaviness = Am I unmotivated?
Life is hard sometimes.
In the mountains, there’s this sickness called altitude sickness. If left unattended, it can literally kill you. Do you remember I told you earlier I hate not being able to sleep in the mountains? It’s because whenever I get little sleep, I know I’m going to get altitude sickness. The lack of sleep and the sickness are closely related.
I begin to get sleepy at the 5,000 meters mark. This is not good when you’re the guide and you have to lead people across deadly canyons. I have to be alert and awake. It’s hard, but so far I’ve managed. All you want to do is to sit down and take a nap, but you need to keep going. You need to push through.
Life is full of similar situations. Depression sometimes creeps unnoticed. You don’t feel like getting up and working. It feels as if you’re an ant trying to find your way out of the sticky honey. You try to move, but moving across the stickiness is exhausting.
You cannot climb like this. You need to drink water, you need to drink electrolytes, replenish yourself and keep going. You need to find out something to lift you up, anything.
You need to take care of yourself so that you can get out of that place. Eat right, train your body. When you’re in a hole, you need to find your way out.
The Stoics advice on this take?
“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.” — Marcus Aurelius
Sometimes it is fucking hard to go on. Your legs hurt, you feel defeated, you just want it all to end. Those are your most important moments, the moments when your power no longer comes from food and body, but from spirit. You rise above. You fight from inner fire and heart of steel until you can find a place to rest and regain yourself again.
4. Restlessness = Is my mind jumping from thought to thought?
When am I going to get there? When? I’ve been writing this article for too long already. When am I going to be finished?
The mind, without reins, will go wild.
When you finish Iztaccihuatl, the mountain I was telling you about, and you’re on the way back to the camp, it’s hard not to think about the moment you’ll get to the car, sit down, take your shoes off, and open a cold beer of victory.
Harm is gone, you just need to focus on getting back, but your mind is uneasy. You cannot appreciate what you’re doing at the moment, you cannot appreciate the view, nor smell the fresh air. You are everywhere but here.
It’s the same when you’re going up. You can’t wait to get to the top. You imagine the pictures you’re going to take up there. How you’ll upload them on Instagram, and how everyone’s going to see how great you are. You start thinking about sending your photos to a magazine, and then you start thinking about becoming an adventure photographer. Then you start thinking about your girlfriend. And so on, and so on.
You know the drill. The mind, unsaddled, will go crazy.
Think about your next step. Breathe, take the next step, breathe again, look around. You need to concentrate, mountains are not easy business and it sucks to not be able to really appreciate what you’re doing.
Life is just the same, we are everywhere but here.
Even if you live three thousand — or thirty thousand — years, you should remember this. You cannot lose any other life than the one you are living now. — Marcus Aurelius
5. Skeptical doubt = Am I indecisive?
Am I ready to climb the mountain?
A lot of people tell me that they want to climb the mountains I climb, someday in the future. Months pass, years pass, and they’re still at ‘someday’.
To tell you the truth, I’m never completely ready for the climbs. I could’ve trained more, ran more, prepared more, but with these things, sometimes you just have to go.
That’s the thing with overthinking stuff. There is never going to be a right time to do anything, the time is now. Prepare all you can, but if you spend your whole life preparing, you’re never going to go up.
“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” — Epicurus
So there you have it.
These are the 5 hindrances to self-knowledge. Stoicism can be diffuse sometimes, not specific. The hindrances of Buddhism show you the specifics.
Good luck on your journey.
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