Having arrived early in Leh in Ladhak to co-lead a retreat, I had allowed myself a few days to acclimatise. One of the challenges of being more than 11000 ft above sea level is activities you take for granted don’t happen in the same way. Whether it’s walking a few hundred metres which takes so much more effort or waking at 3am in the morning feeling there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe, your perspective is quickly reframed about simple movement, a usual night’s sleep and even the inhale and exhale that keeps you alive. It brings an enforced slowing down, and before long, every exertion prompts the reflection, is it necessary, can it be done more simply, or not at all?
As each day progressed, I found myself feeling much the same, and rather than acclimatising to the altitude, I was having to acclimatise to a new sense of limitation. Any temptation to ignore this and push through was soon dispelled by a body that wasn’t co-operating. What started as an inconvenience was gradually evolving into a teacher, and in the process, I noticed my mind becoming quieter, less scattered, more centred.
As the days moved on and the retreat started, I had been reflecting how this new experience was simply another opportunity/necessity in which to apply the principles of practice that are the bedrock of the Buddha’s teaching.
I realised that what I felt as a physical restriction, was actually an energetic one and if I kept making the effort to keep my mind free and move intentionally with the body’s vital energy, a new-found freedom of movement was possible in spite of the lower oxygen levels. Whilst I was moving in a slower more considered way, none the less it felt effortless and light and there was a sense of space and ease in my mind and body. My sense of limitation and frustration was a question of attitude, not altitude and once I recognised that they disappeared.
At times of change like this we face a clearer view of the nature of reality the Buddha talked about; how impermanent our experience truly is and, how Dukkha feels - that sense of unease, dissatisfaction or suffering with experience that occurs whenever we are in a state of resistance about whatever is happening. All this points us towards practising a different way: a way of relating to ourselves in which we learn to meet resistance with patience, acceptance and love.
None of this is a rational learning but one which asks us to listen rather than solve and to soften around resistance however uncomfortable its manifestation. This is why our formal practice in the yoga and the meditation is all about how we relate to tension, how we meet its edges, how we grow our intuition and direct our energy to soften around these edges and keep smiling. As we do this we learn how to listen in to structures of support and make the effort needed to shift from our habitual states of resistance into a state of acceptance and love.
Our practice can give us brief experiences where this happens; and when it does, we momentarily drop out of our habitual modes of thinking and doing, and recognise we are listening in a way that reveals a spacious freedom and lightness where previously we were caught up in tension and tightness. Each time this happens we experience release and a sense of uplift. This wholesome feeling builds confidence that the effort we are making is worth repeating and shows us we are not as stuck with the identity of tension and all the manifestations of Dukkha as we think.
In this way we can re-orientate ourselves to encounter change with acceptance and love and begin to flow with life rather than against its current as the Buddha taught. As we investigate more and make the effort to listen in a way that opens us up to experience, we will find our teacher in many forms.