I recently gave up a very bad habit, but in the process acquired two new habits. One of them is definitely a boon; the other is at best, neutral.
The good habit I have acquired is exercise. I have never been athletic, nor have I previously enjoyed any kind of daily regimen of vigorous physical activity. While I have always enjoyed hiking and other outdoor activities, I can’t say that I have done enough of that to keep myself fit, particularly given the sedentary requirements of my current vocation.
So, to help me overcome the bad habit, I have followed the advice of others and taken up exercise as a replacement. It’s something I have already come to enjoy.
A few days ago, I went to the gym after work and took my place on the treadmill which is my preferred form of exercise. Being out of shape and being a smoker, I like the treadmill because it allows me to monitor my heart rate and set a rate that I believe is appropriate. My resting heart rate at present is much too high, so I am working my way up. In the meantime, I set the machine to keep me in the mid-150’s which in my case means maintaining a steady pace no higher than about 4.2 mph.
Because I have to keep my hands on the handlebars of the machine in order to monitor my heart rate, I discovered on this occasion that once I had reached a steady pace, I was able to continue the exercise routine with my eyes closed. This was about half way through my 45 minute allotted time. Maybe it was the endorphins kicking in, or toxins being released from fatty tissue, but after I closed my eyes for a while I had what I consider to be something like a waking dream.
I have to give you a little background for this to make sense.
When I was a teenager around the age of sixteen, my best friend and I were preoccupied with starting our own religion. Perhaps I’ve written about it in the blog somewhere in the past. It’s how I acquired the name I use on the blog. One of the rituals we developed as part of this religion was to designate certain places as particularly “powerful” or even sacred. The most important of these was a place we simply called “The Mountain”. The Mountain is really more of a large volcanic hill, like many that you see in the desert. This one had the advantage of being very close to where we lived and its base was easily accessible. The other thing that made it special was its shape. The Mountain, at least from the south where we would access it, has a very symmetrical triangular shape. If you asked a five year old to draw a mountain, it would be in the shape of this mountain.
When I closed my eyes while on the treadmill, I imagined myself at the base of The Mountain. I wanted to imagine I was climbing it again as I trudged along. The Mountain was always a living metaphor for me. Climbing it was not just exercise, it was a representation of my aspirations. Each climb was a lesson of some kind, and the reward would be at the top. To my younger mind, aspirations of transformation were simple. To achieve transformation, I had only to keep climbing and it would come.
In my imagination, back on the treadmill, I vividly saw the mountain before me. I peered up, looking for a path. Instead of proceeding, I noticed another person walking toward me. The face was familiar and similar to mine; the face of my father now dead for so long.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I came to see you.”
“Are you going up?”
“No. This is as far as I go.”
“Who else is here?”
“I don’t know.”
It was good to see him. A deep sense of well-being and emotions flooded my consciousness. He seemed at ease, and not drunk as he had always been on the few occasions I spent with him. After that moment of clarity the vision of him lost focus. I let him fade away, still feeling warmed and comforted by seeing him. I turned away to start my climb.
Scanning for a route up, I saw another person coming down. I moved toward him expecting him to be a familiar face. Instead, when we approached each other he was a stranger. I asked, “Have you been to the top?”
“Yes. Just on my way down.”
“Why are you coming down?”
“That’s what you do after you get to the top. You come back down.”
“Who’s up there?”
“Oh, lots of people.”
“Why didn’t you stay?”
“If you stay, that’s the end. It’s over. You have to come back down.”
“I always wanted to get there, and stay. I thought I would have gotten there by now.”
“You started out at the top. Everybody does. Then you climb down. You can’t stay up there. You climb down and stay down for a while, then you go back up. And then you climb down again. You can’t stay up there. When you do, that’s the end.”
He smiled and kind of laughed at me, then walked by me and went away.
The dream like quality of my imagination began to slip away, and I noticed myself straining to sustain the setting. I looked for others, to see if anyone else would appear, but the clarity was gone and I opened my eyes and continued my exercise.
My interpretation of my experience, for what it’s worth, was that during my life I have put too much emphasis on the achievement of some great and worthy goal for my life. Now that I am in middle age—a time when one is forced to reckon with one’s disappointments—I see in this a lesson. My living metaphor is more apt than I had supposed. Life seems to require us, like Sisyphus, to keep climbing the same mountain over and over again. We are not in any danger of stopping while we are at the bottom. It’s the top that is dangerous. Which reminds me of one other feature of The Mountain. Once you get to the top, to the east of the flat plateau that welcomes you, is a steep cliff of a few dozen feet or more. Many a time I have stood on the edge of that cliff and imagined that there were faster ways to get to the bottom than clambering back down over the rocks.