A Comment on “Balance” and “Flow”

In a recent essay for the New York Times, performance coach Brad Stulberg advocates for the “unbalanced” life.  He explains that “the times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.” These were times when he was fully consumed by a particular activity, whether trekking in the Himalayas, training to set a personal record in the triathlon, or writing a book.  Sticking with a more balanced lifestyle might have precluded these “formative experiences.”

Brad goes on to quote elite athletes who also urge people to “give it your all.”  The idea is enticing:  who wouldn’t want to clear away distractions and throw themselves passionately into a single special activity?

But whether unbalance is the best strategy is debatable.  There’s a simple approach to allocating time among activities, and that’s to spend the incremental hour where you get the highest pay-off.  Because talents and aspirations differ, what seems balanced for one person might be unbalanced for another.  The more important question is how to achieve a state of inner balance.

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A Comment on “Balance” and “Flow”

Three Hikes to Windham

In a recent post on lichens, I quoted from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:  “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”  I also mentioned that Whitman’s poetry echoes 13th-century Japanese Zen Master Dogen, who wrote: “There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.”  These sages question the modern propositions that big is more impressive than small, that sentience is only a human quality, that loafing around is a waste of time.

My last climb for August would be Windham High Peak, and as I began to plan the hike, I suddenly recalled that unlike many Catskill mountains, the path to Windham is lined with grass.  There would be, it seemed, the opportunity to achieve three goals with one hike:  to reach the summit, to observe the grasses along the way (and perhaps identify a species or two), and to reflect on Whitman’s message.

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Three Hikes to Windham

Some Adirondack Lichens

During a recent visit to the Adirondacks, I couldn’t help but admire the lichens.  These diminutive vegetative creatures (a mix of fungus and algae or cyanobacteria) thrive in the boreal forests that cloak the high peaks.  Why lichens?  Once you learn to focus in on very small scale, you discover a world of beauty and mystery.  This idea was expressed by 13th century Zen Master Dogen using the metaphor of the moon reflected in a drop of dew (“there are mountains hidden in hiddenness”) and 600 years later in the opening stanza of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:  “I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.”  Appreciate the small patterns of nature, and you will never suffer from a lack of beauty, which is why Henry David Thoreau wrote that the “lichenist fats where others starve….his provender never fails.”

With thanks to nature photographer John Franklin for helping me identify the species, here is a sampling of what I encountered:

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Some Adirondack Lichens

Three Miles to KHP

The Grid entails climbing the Catskills’ thirty-five high peaks in each calendar month, and on the drive home from the Adirondacks I planned to swing by and knock out Kaaterskill High Peak, one of two climbs left for August.  But as I pulled into a parking spot on Clum Hill Road, the project seemed suddenly pointless.  When runners cover ground with no particular training goals in mind, they call these “junk miles,” and now that term seemed like the right description for this hike, whose only purpose was to scratch a name off a list.

It didn’t help that Kaaterskill is one of my least favorites.  There’s a long hike in on a wet, rocky path, then you have to cut through the woods to reach a snowmobile trail that’s in truly atrocious condition, and the summit is guarded by steep rock scrambles.  Clum Hill Road offered a slightly shorter route, but I’d never been here before.

I got out of the car, glanced at the overcast sky, and didn’t bother changing into hiking clothes or grabbing my pack, didn’t bring any water, and forgot my compass, but headed out instead wearing a polo shirt received as a birthday present and a clean pair of shorts.

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Three Miles to KHP

Three more ADK high peaks

Emboldened by the successful completion of Rocky Peak and Giant Mountain, I laid out plans for an overnight hike that would bag me three more of the ADK High Peaks:  Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois, with an option to bag a fourth, Mt. Colden, if all was going well.

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Three more ADK high peaks

Giant Mountain

Last August, my friend Dave invited me on a trip to the Adirondacks, and I had so much fun in these gorgeous mountains that here I am back again a year later and this time spending a full week.

In recent months I’ve been doing a great deal of barefoot hiking, in part because of a running injury (barefoot hiking is very slow, and this lets a sore tendon heal) and also because it’s a lot of fun (every step is a small adventure).  On a recent barefoot tramp in the Catskills I ran into a hiker who told me of a woman who had completed the 46 Adirondack High Peaks barefoot.  Predictably, that comment got me thinking, maybe that was an appropriate goal for me, too…

Arriving in the Daks a few days before Dave and his gang, I decided to try one of the high peaks without shoes, and feeling ambitious, I chose the 16-mile round-trip from New Russia Trailhead to the summit of Giant Mountain, which if I made it would also bag me Rocky Peak along the way.  According to the ADK Club website, this route is “difficult” due to the mileage and also 5,300 feet in cumulative elevation gain, but it is also described as “probably the best hike in all the Adirondacks” — and that comment seemed very intriguing.

Here are a few notes from the hike….

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Giant Mountain

August in the Catskills

I’ve been reading a very good biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that’s been encouraging me to think about and try to articulate why I seek to spend so much time on the trails:

  • As modern society is becoming more and more digital, I want to stay physically active, as it seems to me mind and body completely are intertwined, so one can’t be healthy and happy without the other
  • As the world is becoming more and more artificial, I want to spend time in nature, which seems like the real source of joy and exhilaration, of which media and other content are but faint imitations
  • As people are becoming more and more interconnected, I want to cultivate an attitude of self-reliance, not meaning that I shun relationships, but rather how can you interact meaningfully with others if you can’t stand on your own two feet

Which brings me back to the Grid, which is the goal of climbing all 35 of the Catskills’ high peaks in every calendar month.  Heading into August, I was in pretty good shape, with 27 done and only 8 left to go, thanks in large part to my August 2016 attempt to thru-hike the entire 35.

Here are some notes from a recent hike where I completed 6 of the remaining 8 together with my friend Alan D.

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August in the Catskills