Monday 27 April 2015

Each Step of the Journey

Walking in the Cotswolds this weekend was both pain and pleasure. And full of the ups and downs you would expect. Before the weekend I was anxious. I was to be assessed as an expedition leader, on everything from my navigation and map reading skills to my ability to lead and be part of a team. I was about to meet 30+ new people and spend the weekend walking and camping with them and be assessed doing so.

I found that with EACH STEP I was able to deal with issues, plan, carry out and evaluate, to be able to move forward and get closer to my goals and keep on the path of development. Much like Kolb's Learning Cycle I went through each step in an evolutionary way. Each step went as follows:

Help & Hope

Skills & Stuff
Technique & Trial and Error
Practice and Perseverance

Expectations: Seeing the Hills in the Distance

The last time I'd done the course was 12 years ago, when I was younger and fitter and expected this time that everyone would be younger and fitter and that I'd spend the weekend playing catchup. It was daunting but all I could do was prepare as well as I could. I read and practised and tried to do as much as I could to manage my expectations and not let the hills in the distance turn into mountains.

It is the same with everyday life. We have expectations of ourselves and what is ahead of us and because so many other people have expectations of us, we can lose sight of the true horizon. We lose focus and find ourselves prioritising badly and measuring ourselves against unrealistic targets and aiming for inappropriate goals. We lose the path before we even get sight of it and find ourselves on other routes we hadn't planned or prepared for and end up detouring or stuck in the mud of our failures and never truly getting back on track again. Even when the turning may be only a few steps away.

Anxiety: Seeing the Hills up Close

As it got closer to the assessment date I had some sleepless nights imagining the hard uphill struggle ahead. I imagined all sorts of ways things could go wrong and at the very least, the task ahead being at a higher level just out of my reach. I didn't really know what to expect and couldn't plan for all possible contingencies so found myself panicking at times and expressing my worries to anyone who would listen. All their reassurances fell on deaf ears because if I couldn't imagine what it was going to be like and I was the one with the most information, how could they know?

These kinds of anxieties are the ones we have to a lesser or greater extent about so many aspects of our lives, from worries about the welfare of our spouses and children to global warming. How do we keep them under control? Again it is through action, thinking alone never got anything done. Action must follow. Sometimes the action is purely to forget about the anxiety and other times its to alleviate it by removing the problem or dealing with the difficulty. Doing something is always the answer. It pulls you out of the paralysing inertia of fear. Even if its the wrong thing, at least you know that now and you can concentrate on fixing that.

Either way it is the elephant in the room, and the one that if you eat it one bite at a time, will finally be gone. Without anxiety you don't even spot the elephant and have no way to know that its something to be dealt with and to be prepared for. Anxiety makes us pay attention and tells us what is important to us. It creates the fight or flight instinct and as long as we control it and not let it control us we can use it to motivate us and spur us to action.

Challenge: Tackling the First Hill

I did it slowly. The first was the hardest and I was surprised that other people found it as hard as I did. I took a strange sort of comfort from that. We were all in it together. One person didn't make it. He stopped and couldn't go on. I was surprised it wasn't me. In fact I was the one at times who kept the others going. It made me realise that just like in the Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition, the group can have different people with different areas of expertise and abilities and when they work together, that's what makes a team.

We are not alone. We have families, friends and communities. We have our roles to play in society and in making the world a better place for us all. There are so many challenges and with any challenge, getting started can be the hardest part, but then you are on a roll and moving forward and the start is over and then the next part and eventually the challenge has been met. And so you face the next. With the first behind, you have conquered it and are ready for the next. Get over that first hill and it will not be in front of you again.

Help & Hope: How to Tackle the First Hill

The lesson to I learned from tackling that first hill was that to overcome the mental and physical barriers in my way, I had to stop thinking about myself. Just as, in any time I have been in difficult situations with youth groups (like when gorge walking in Scotland), because I've been more concerned with their safety and welfare, I haven't had time to worry about myself. This changes the dynamic and although more difficult in a peer group, can be easily applied by switching focus, from yourself to others. And the more you help others in the peer group the more they are likely to help you when you need it. This modelling of behaviour means you get more support when you give it.

Helping others helps you. But if you are not careful you can get in your own way, and hinder any progress you make by a lack of preparation. You are not helping yourself if you are carrying too much baggage physically and mentally. You have to leave behind the heavy tins and equipment you don't need (one of the reasons the person struggled with the hill) and leave behind the hang ups and anxieties that bring you down. Like the old saying goes, 'Hope for the best but prepare for the worst' and remember that it doesn't work without the hope.

Skills & Stuff : What You Need to Get You Over the Hill

There are navigational skills which will take you from A to B but so many more skills ensure the journey is a good one and you arrive in good time, safely, in good humour with a sense of well-being. This requires preparation to have the energy and ability to do it, both of which require the following:
  • Working on fitness and strategies to overcome any injuries whether in the form of a pre-expedition fitness regime or carrying medication and a walking pole. In real life this means being fit for purpose. Darwin and Spencer's 'survival of the fittest' is not survival of the best but the most fit for purpose. So building up fitness makes sense if you are going to run a marathon and if you see life as the long marathon it makes sense as a coping strategy and way of life. Being fit is not only good for physical health but mental health. A great stress buster, ensuring less physical and mental energy is being used and creating a virtuous cycle of adaptation, survival, personal development and progress.
  • Ensuring you have the right equipment for the job, whether in terms of weight or use, and balancing needs is a necessity when carrying your home on your back. A warm sleeping bag means a good nights sleep but may be heavier to carry, and both can cost energy. Boots that are broken-in to prevent blisters and keep you dry are a basic necessity when walking long distances, and then spare socks and blister plasters when that doesn't work. On the assessment weekend one person ended up with six plasters on one foot and another had such wet feet from being soaked in the first half hour, that she got a shock when she touched a gate by an electric fence. In the real world, having the right equipment for the job might be a computer or pen or phone (say for a writer), or whatever you need to get the job done, effectively, efficiently and safely.
  • Getting nutrition right, again balancing the energy it costs to carry the food with the energy needed in calories to do it, is a must. This can mean turning to such foods as protein bars to get that extra protein, porridge for a sustained calorie burn or things like pistachio nuts which have a high calorie value of over 600cals per 100g. And then there's water which is non-negotiable. We need at least 2 litres of water a day to be adequately hydrated for out bodies to function and especially when put under the pressure of sustained exercise. So 2 litres of water means carrying at least an extra 2kg of weight and periodically having to find toilet facilitates. At least in the real world toilets are easier to find than in the countryside of the Cotswolds. But in the real world having the right nutrition and hydration means having enough to see you through from the short term to the long see you through the day, month, year and lifetime. The nutrition needed to be able to not just have the energy to do what you need and want to do but the nutrition needed to have healthy organs, skin, joints and bones to physically negotiate with the rest of the world as well as have the mental faculties to be able to process those negotiations and relay communication. We need fuel (be it food or water) and without it we cannot be. The rule of 3s is that after 3 minutes we can die from lack of air, 3 days from lack of water, 3 weeks from lack of food. But long before that, if we don't have adequate fuel, our bodies and minds don't function as they should and we lose our way and find we end up in metaphorical minefields, not knowing how to get back.
  • Shelter from the elements, is another must, whether in terms of waterproofs (and boots as I mentioned earlier) or a good tent to keep dry and warm. They are not just for protection but again to save energy, rather than wasting calories in loss of heat or getting sick or being too tired or not being able to give the body adequate rest time to recuperate - the idea is that protection mean prevention. Even sunscreen has its place in its ability to protect not just against sunburn and sunstroke but against longer-term skin cancer. Heatstroke, hypothermia and cancer, whether they kill you quickly or slowly, they bring your journey to an abrupt end.
These are some of Maslow's basic biological, physiological and safety needs for air, food, drink, sleep, warmth, protection and shelter. All of which have to be satisfied to go on to attain higher needs of self esteem and self actualisation – the ultimate hilltop.

Technique and Trial and error: What is Learned in the Valley

So you are carrying this big rucksack over hills, trying to remember everything you have learned. You adjust the straps so most of the weight is on the best weight bearing part of the body, the hips. You try to adopt the right posture, pulling in your stomach to create a solid core and keep your hands free to be able to keep good balance. You watch your step on 'ankle-twisting-territory' and the water bladder suction is near enough to remind you not only keep hydrated but make it easy to do so. You adjust your left sock which has a fold and when someone eats, you do too, because you realise that when you are anxious or under pressure, you forget to eat.

These things you begin to learn about yourself. You find your own personal style. The kind of snacks you like or the ones which make you drink more. You find the best ways to go through kissing gates or over stiles. You get the walking pole out when more balance is needed or to give a knee a rest and figure out the best height, not just from the book, that tells you to have it the height of your elbow, but by trial and error. Much like sometimes when a path you choose, looks right but after walking a short distance, turns out to be least you know now. You can eliminate that path which makes it easier to find the right one. In the real world we do it all the time and its how we know what we like and don't like and what works for us and what doesn't. We learn from our mistakes as much as we learn from our successes and maybe even more.

Evaluation: What is to be Applied to the Next Ascent

That feeling of Deja Vu - I've been here before, can help and hinder. Every time I went over the hill and headed into the valley, I was relieved to feel my posture change and feel the pressure come off certain joints and parts of my body where the rucksack had been heaviest. Then I saw the next hill rise up from the valley floor. I knew there were more but if I thought of those, it would have been harder to continue. So I just concentrated on the 'now' with glimpses of the 'next', just to remind me if my back was hurting or my legs were getting stiff that at least the ascent and descent meant I changed my gait and this would alleviate some of the pain at different times. It was real optimism. Not fantasy, where reality is missed out. I motivated myself with the idea that the tiredness, pain and weight I felt would change because it did and would again.

I put everything I learned, every step I had already taken into taking the next and making it easier and every step I took I didn't have to take again.

Practice & Perseverance: The Journey and Sticking with it...Each Step.

Each step we take moves us forward in our learning. We practice that learning and learn more. We persevere. That was what I learned more than anything this weekend. It took every step I've mentioned, on the way, but without perseverance I wouldn't have got there. There were times I wanted to give up and I didn't. So even if I had done everything I said I should do, taken every step I've mentioned, if I gave up it wouldn't have mattered. Or was it because I had done each step before this that I was able to persevere? Or was it that it was more important that I did continue because I had invested so much already?

This I can relate directly to my writing. I've often discussed with others this idea I have called 'habit of thought' where you have a habit of thinking a certain way which can help or hinder. Good habits and bad habits. I'd read years ago that it takes about 3 weeks to create a daily habit. I have experimented with this on many occasions but my most recent experience has been with my writing. I have since September, when I started this blog got into a habit of writing and miss it when I don't do it. This habit of thought that I have, has me on the writing path all the time. I never have to make the decision, do I want to write? I want to all the time so now the decision is, when can I write or where can I write or can I write instead of this? It cuts out the 'middle-man' that can be the barrier to getting what we want done. And with practice it can leap forward to progress with more ease and one day you might find that you are now fitting life in around your writing rather than writing around your life. My habit of thought has got me this far, just one post off my hundredth, so I know I'm on the right path. Where it will go...who knows.

For now, all I know is that I put one foot in front of the other, again and again and keep doing it. I choose my path and with each step enjoy the journey, whatever hills are on the horizon.

Each step I take,
I learn and move forward and sometimes fall
but that's what we did when we first learned to walk,
as beings and as a species
...and look where that's got us!

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