Conquering Height - a blog I posted Aug 14 on mindfulmeditationottawa.ca

Meditation and mindfulness have improved my enjoyment of life in many ways. One of them is recognizing habits that are not positive, and working to reduce them. An important one was my lifelong fear of heights.

I have never been comfortable at high altitudes, even modest ones like the roof of our house. Dirty rain gutters? By all means, fetch a ladder. But for heavens sake don’t ever leave the ladder! Just use it to access the gutters directly. Don’t get on the roof and walk around! Not fun!

About 40 years ago, I was hiking in the Rockies with my older brother. We went up a trail that eventually narrowed to 18 inches wide. It had a downward slope to the right of about 45 degrees composed of little bits of shale. If you ever moved off the trail, you would slide down – at an accelerating rate, I suspect. As the trail narrowed, my pace slowed down. Finally, I could not continue I was so gripped with fear. We turned around so we could retrace our steps. Not a pleasant experience.

In 1999, I started to meditate, and in 2001 I retired. To celebrate, I went hiking in New Hampshire with a friend who is an experienced hiker. He assured me, however, that there were no narrow paths with steep sides. On the third day, we arrived at a plateau – a big, flat smooth rock - and stopped for lunch. Beyond the flat rock was a 500 foot cliff descending into a beautiful valley. But we were 15 feet from the cliff, with our backs against a stone wall. Quite safe and comfortable, thank you.

We were shortly joined by two people we’d met the previous day - Beth, early thirties who taught wilderness hiking and camping, and her father who was first time hiking. They stopped for lunch. Noticing the scenic view, Beth began to snap pictures . . . standing about two feet from the edge of the cliff. Then she turned around, and noticed her shoelace was loose. She hunkered down to tie it. Her backside was one foot from the cliff edge. Job done, she began to stand up. . . and noticed her other shoelace was also loose. So, she hunkered down again after moving her first foot backwards . . . toward the cliff edge!


At this point, her father said, “Beth, please come away from the edge – you’re scaring me”. If he hadn’t said that, I was going to. My heart was pounding and my chest felt tight. But I’d been learning that feelings of discomfort in my body were the result of negative thoughts in my mind. So, I turned my attention from Beth to what I was thinking and found in my mind an image – an image of Beth tumbling over the edge and heading toward her death. The thought scared me and, like most negative thoughts, I felt it in my body.

The reality was that Beth had been calmly tying her shoelaces. But, the reality I’d created in my mind . . . and then, in my body . . . was a fear of what might happen – a possible scenario that I recoiled from, out of empathy for this fellow hiker.

That was my first real insight into the power of mindfulness – I felt physical discomfort, so I checked my thoughts. The discomfort was due to the fictitious image I’d created in my mind due to a lifelong mental habit. Cause and effect. Create these conditions and I will respond like this. Automatic pilot. But, the automatic pilot was operating in an unhealthy manner. Solution to the problem – change the mental response to the stimulus and get a different result. How? By directing my attention to reality – by focusing on the actual situation – being on our roof, for example, and very closely watching the roof and my feet. As a result, my habitual discomfort in such situations has been greatly reduced. I have learned to walk on the roof. Perhaps not bend over the edge and clean the gutter, thank you. But I can climb up the ladder, slowly and attentively step off it, and inspect the roof with confidence - confidence instead of fear.

This is one example of a negative mental habit which I’ve come to know and understand through mindfulness, and learned to deal with. I’d known about this habit all my life. But, what has surprised me since I began meditation is the other negative mental habits which I had never been aware of. I began to notice them over the months and years, and have worked to reduce their influence as well. I’m still working on them but the result has been greatly reduced discomfort. Enhanced well-being through awareness and insight. It’s a nice tool to have in my bag to help me deal with whatever needs fixing.

Peter Black
Instructor, Meditation and Mindfulness

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