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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

July 1999, No. 2, Sect. II

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

The Doc explores the power and possibilities when engaging with mountains, real and virtual. There's developing a paradoxical and sensual perspective, becoming more risk-taking along with setting and deviating from motivational goals. Also discovering the zone-flow process and recognizing the danger of arrogance. To good adventures.

The Mountain Is the Message: Part I Ten Commandments for Embracing the Sensual and Exploring the Spiritual

What makes mountains so compelling? Why and how do these prehistoric yet ever changing structures so totally engage our active, risk-taking "yang" nature while also whispering to and nurturing the "yin" within, that is, our receptive and contemplative essence? One doesn't have to be an avid skier, daredevil snow boarder or obsessed or ego-driven mountain conqueror to meander about mountain meadows and streams; or be a peton-packing rock climber to feel the mind-body determination and rejuvenation, if not exhilaration, of a patient yet persistently paced hike. Something primordial, or at least hormonal - as an endorphin or dopamine uplift - kicks in passing a treeline and being enfolded in a vast and otherworldly stillness; surmounting the peak may just be the proverbial icing. (Okay, so I've gradually matured to this realization. Actually, I read of a peak in the Himalayas that is forbidden to climbers. I like that some mystery and sacredness remain inviolate, untouched by human hands and hubris.)

Maturity notwithstanding, pursuing relationships with mountains still means playing it a bit "larger than life." There are definitely moments of living on the edge along with a seemingly eternal and cosmic cycle of highs and lows, ebbs and flows. The mountain experience also invites grappling with humility and wholeness; the opportunity, ironically, of discovering an almost hidden inner voice in the midst of external majesty and roaring yet unspeakable silence.

Higher Power and Vision

Read this essay with both real and virtual-metaphoric eyes. You don't have to immediately book a cabin in the Rockies or the Smokys to construct a mountain journey for challenging a fear of: a) moving beyond a comfort zone, b) risking a new learning curve, c) recovering skills and passion in once inhabited but of late unfamiliar territory and d) imagining your confidence emboldened while your character humbled. And, finally, the mountain path yields three-fold opportunities for discovering the enlightened essence of: 1) human serenity - "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know where to hide the bodies" (sometimes invaluable in the corporate climbing experience as well; my DC cynicism is showing. ;-) Of course, the actual closing line is…the wisdom to know the difference, 2) system interdependence and wisdom - A system (individual, organizational and/or ecological) is wise when it is: a) multi-faceted and diversely talented b) highly mobile c) efficiently and imaginatively interrelating components and processes d) acutely responsive to its environment e) error and opportunity-driven and f) self-organizing, and 3) cosmic wholeness - The differentiation and integration of aptitudes, emotions, information processing styles and unconscious archetypes (for example, embracing one's shadow side, exploring one's introverted nature if an extravert, or confronting one's feminine side - the anima - if a male or one's masculine energy - the animus - if female). This process of becoming a whole or individuated person may be seen as analogous to the chaotic harmony and interconnectedness of the cosmos: "The one in the many, the many in the one."

An oh so splendid silence Defies the spoken word A moment of transcendence A oneness with the world.

Drawing on actual experience and motivational symbolism let me descend from the mountain-generated clouds and ethereal abstractions. Precariously poised between down to earth and sweeping megalomania, here is the Stress Doc's "Top Ten" for developing "Mountain Vision" (Well, the first five in Part I.) Consider the following experiential-existential encounters, methods and strategies. These concepts are tools and guides for allowing and achieving an essential respect, comfort and connection with mountain majesty, mastery and mystery. Follow these trail markers on your evolutionary, creative quest to integrate the cerebral, sensual and spiritual. Go from…

You're not a solo traveler This is a trip for two Can you climb together? Will you make it through?

To…

So two alone together Now embrace the humbling view To envision higher power Both within and outside you.

Higher and higher Can you aspire? Lighter and lighter Spirit afire Deeper and deeper Beyond desire? Deeper and deeper Beyond desire . (For the entire "Mountain Vision" lyric, email stressdoc@aol.com .)

Ten Commanding Concepts

1. Pusuing the Paradoxical. Upon entering a mountain ecosystem one is immediately confronted by an environment that challenges your senses and sense of proportion. A range of experience is possible in a relatively short period of time. Whether it's a mid-July pristine white snow shawl gracing the shoulders of the Canadian Rockies or if its 85 degrees in the valley and 50 degrees "On Top of Old Smoky," contradiction and contrast are omnipresent. By definition, one continuously confronts peaks and valleys; negotiating ups and downs is rarely an option. Both psychological and cardiovascular conditioning and flexibility is needed for adapting to different terrain, altitude (and oxygen) levels and meteorological conditions. And then there's the scale of time. On human time mountains are seemingly eternal, constant objects (though a landslide or volcanic eruption quickly reveals their volatile potential); on cosmic time they are ever-changing.

This mountain spectrum goes from the sensual to the symbolic. There's the primal, "fairy tale" ambiance when plunging deep into the forest. Childhood memories and images for many adults become hiking partners - Heidi, Hansel and Gretel, The Witch, The Wolf, The Three Bears, etc. Another contrast for the senses is, as mentioned, the splendid silence at the heart of the wilderness, only magnified by a vast, panoramic mountain space. Yet, within this stillness, nature weaves the warbling of birds or babbling of streams, not to mention, especially at high elevations, that ever lurking, sometimes caressing, often howling bittersweet Mr. Wind.

But you don't just have a tactile-sound show, especially in the interplay of trees, sun and seasons:

We begin in the forest Enchanted beyond time It's dance of light and shadow Primeval and sublime.

The forest as the artist Trees willowy and bold The brushstrokes of the branches Leaves afire red and gold.

Nature's paradoxical and ephemeral drama is never more vividly portrayed than with Fall's hallucinogenic death march into Winter. Autumn leaves in mountains, especially with the aid of optimal rainfall and sudden frost, become electric. Yet, in a matter of weeks, Mother Nature invariably pulls the plug on this kaleidoscopic trip. Before discovering Prozac, Fall colors always gave my serotonin levels a needed surge; the end of this natural infusion produced "Fallout," not unlike a friendship changing seasons, the downfall of a relationship.

The summer passion fading, a coolness in the air For the moment…The change of colors is a drab Mix-up of mellow and melancholy.

Thank God for cycles!

(Yes, bless our Mother's soul, each year the show is reprised…and never with the exact cast of conditions or characters. Hope, if not hype, springs eternal!)

Shadow and illumination, snow and sweat, heartwarming and bone chilling, roaring silence, peaks and valleys, depression and rejuvenation. Mountains are, to borrow from Charles Dickens', A Tale of Two Cities:

The best of times, the worst of times, The season of light, the season of darkness… The spring of hope, the winter of despair.

The mountain experience is a training ground for thinking paradoxically and holistically, for appreciating gradation, polarity tension and shading and, ultimately, for being both warrior and poet; for harmonizing apparent contradiction and seeking higher truths. (I can't help but recall an old New Yorker cartoon. A youthful, struggling and humble-looking Charles Dickens is being chastised by his nattily-attired, ever so pompous publisher standing by a power desk: "Now see here, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!")

Living on the double-edge, searching for an elegant simplicity within seeming ambiguity and dissonance is the hallmark of mature information processing. As noted American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, observed: "The test of a first rate intellect is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise."

But let's not stop at challenging polarized or "all or none" thinking. The ability to integrate opposition simultaneously, what psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg calls "Janusian Thinking," (for the double-profiled Roman God Janus, god of leavings and returns) not only may yield a higher, paradoxical truth but is a critical component of creative problem-solving. And for author and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, a capacity for experiencing and transforming psychological-biochemical highs and lows is what makes certain creative outpourings radiate passion or be, Touched with Fire. (See Rothenberg's The Emerging Goddess: Creative Thinking in the Sciences and Arts and Jamison's Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.)

It was philosopher and novelist, Arthur Koestler who, in his opus, The Act of Creation, so cleverly saw the mental and vocal connection in higher level processing, such as art appreciation, scientific discovery and humor. All three pursuits grapple with making sense of surprising or disparate elements, combinations and relations. And when we finally get it, in art we go, "Ah," in science it's "Aha!," and when we laugh it's "Haha."

So embracing the actual and metaphoric mountain experience is not just physically invigorating but also priming the mind for imagination and innovation. Surmounting obstacles - physical, psychological, conceptual and otherwise or other worldly - also involves another component of the creative process…risk!

2. Recognizing Danger and Embracing the Unpredictable. In my early 20s, I dramatically learned the lightheaded effects of hiking to the top of snow-covered mountains. We were on one of the mountains ringing the Sangefjord of Norway. Without a designated path, and the mountain rock cushioned by seemingly packed snow and flaky white powder, how was I to know an altitudinal high was impairing my judgment?: "I'll slide down for awhile." Awhile lasted a mere few seconds as snow rapidly turned to wet rock. Now I'm hurtling out of control. My attempt at putting on the brakes only precipitated a tumbling, headfirst collision with a huge boulder. Believe me, the stars came out, as well as a gusher of red. I'll spare the gory details. (Well, at least my hard-headedness was confirmed. For the morbidly curious, email for my essay, "To Sur with Love.")

Clearly, a capacity for sound judgment is life-critical when climbing or hiking in mountains; precarious obstacles are ever in wait. For example, there are often rocks, if not boulders, to climb once past the most-trafficked path. But as much as the concrete blocks and barriers, challenge also lies in the allure of the path itself. So often there's a rustle in the bush or signs of a hidden lake having a hypnotic pull. And before you know it you are off the beaten path. And as recently occurred in the Canadian Rockies, in a matter of minutes and a few hundred yards, you can lose a sense of direction. We wandered away from the small wooden bridge, the only safe passage across a fairly roaring stream. And for a half hour one feels stymied and trapped in rainforest growth and spongy if not swampy conditions underfoot. No bridge in sight. The imagination races. Could the bridge have been washed away? Sure there's anxiety, but is there a greater price to pay trying to live without it? How often do we cut short exploring for fear of confirming a weakness, getting lost or of making a wrong turn; movement ceases unless it's all precisely planned. Too often this design is a formula for inertia or for the constricted path. (And yet…the recent tragic death of John Kennedy Jr. et al. must remind us that poorly calculated risk may have irrevocable consequences.)

Another quixotic element in the mountain ecosystem is rapidly changing weather patterns. For example, on a hike in the Smokys, it wasn't just a driving rain that discouraged further ascent. It was that little channels of water on the path were suddenly swollen streams. And another familiar meteorological monster: dense, low-lying fog, especially in the evening or early morning, which makes switchback mountain road driving quite dicey. One must be prepared to exert intense and prolonged concentration.

So risk is unavoidable in the world of mountains. Blind faith, arrogance, impatience or poor calculation is what leads to disappearing "into thin air" or into ocean depths. But a willingness to explore, to build an open honest relationship or forsake an easy and too safe solution to tackle a more complex and critical problem means engaging with vulnerability and courage, presence and persistence. Risk-taking means listening to "the call of the wild" and stepping up to the mountain challenge.

3. Embarking On the Pioneering Quest. While cruising along the shoreline north of Vancouver, with the verdant forest green, gently sloping Cascade foothills wading at the water's edge, I had the opportunity to pose our opening question to a doctor from Norway: "What makes mountains so compelling?" Now this international health specialist, with two kids in their 20s, had an uncommon perspective: she owns nine Siberian Huskies and competes in mountain dog sled racing. Whether racing or just camping with a small contingent of her canines, she often plunges into the backcountry, to reconnect with self, her animals, the wild and her sense of the religious. In response to the question, she focused on her mythic and cultural traditions, as if following in the footsteps of Norse forebearers: the myth of the hero, the person who must retreat from a world of depletion and alienation. She must wander, seemingly in aimless fashion, with directional and emotional angst and crisis of identity growing and looming large, preventing any light from entering the existential tunnel. Our hero invariably must confront "the dark night of the soul"; is compelled to grapple with inner and outer demons…and survive the fearful trials that spring up along the solitary path. Healed, yet humbled, the hero is ready to come down from the mountain or leave the desert to share her message of redemption and rejuvenation with members of the community, a community in which she no longer feels so isolated. She's achieved the status of "The Intimate Outsider."

The Norwegian doctor next mentioned a traditional pioneering ethos, which evoked echoes of the US frontier experience: What's on the other side of the mountain? New opportunity. Unknown territory. A second chance. Go West. Push the envelope. Go web young cyber-ite!

4. Flowing with Mountain Motivation. Followers of the Stress Doc ™ Newsletter are familiar with this homegrown aphorism: "I don't know where I'm going…I just think I know how to get there!" Hiking in mountains, actually, is often a simultaneous blend of goal and process motivation. There's a destination - a hidden lake, a peak or a mist-ifying falls - along with the hike's projected length of time, distance and amount of elevation or degree of difficulty, the number of streams that must be crossed, rocks scaled, etc. All these shape the motivational picture.

At the same time, there are two factors that invariably temper the goal-driven aspect…if we are so open: 1) allowing for the mysterious and unpredictable nature of the path; as we've seen, a hallmark of hiking and creativity often involves some intuitive, bold or accidental deviation. Uncertainty and mental meandering trump habit. An ambiguous gestalt and process is often the groundwork or wellspring for unexpected discovery and novel connection, and 2) becoming immersed in the natural surrounding beauty along the way, one loses consciousness of time and space. You are in "the zone" - both firmly rooted to and flowing with your path, in tune with both inner and outer space. There's a rhythm to your steps, to your breathing; there's an awareness of tricky stones, yet a feeling that one can seemingly glide over them. You are exerting yet comfortably unconscious of one's body as one flows with a larger gestalt: path-shrubs-trees-forest-mountain face-water flow-birds singing, god-like fingers streaming from above/solar rays caress you both, a touch of nature's love.

Ironically, this process-flow state or being "in the zone" facilitates near effortless movement toward your vision or goal. In turn, two of the closing steps of "The Eight 'P" Path of Mastery" - "Persistence" and "Patience" - help induce a set of relaxed or detached involvement:

Repetition now yields connection The big picture starts making sense Forsake illusions of perfection Grasp the mantra of persistence.

Yet know the wisdom of letting go A time for waste ain't a waste of time Maybe not an infinite virtue, but Patience brings forth the sublime.

(Email for the entire "Path of Mastery" lyric.)

And, if you are on a Canadian Rockies hike ascending from Lake Louise, you don't have to first surmount the "Trail of Six Glaciers" to obtain your just dessert. Actually, your appetite is whetted by a fairly steep two hour hike with stunningly beautiful views of the pastel soft and surreal, shimmering aquamarine lake. Then there's the upward gaze upon snow-covered mountain faces framed by pine trees and a small, lush meadow. And a little further, one discovers a heavenly oasis in the clouds: the quintessential small lake surrounded on three sides by those picture postcard peaks. And perched on elevated terrain, just past the uppermost point of a waterfall, is an alpine wooden cabin. It's a teahouse, serving a most delightful melange of soup, sandwiches, tea and tea biscuits. I had the tomato barley soup (perfect for a hike among snowflakes in July), raspberry mint tea and biscuits covered with fresh raspberry preserves. So one can be a quite civilized "Mountain Man or Woman." Refreshed and refueled, one continues on. (Actually, one of my favorite things about half or full day hikes is the sense of guilt-free entitlement to a hardy dinner followed by crème brulee or some such wickedness!)

Setting a goal, following the path and freelancing along the way, getting into a zone, a persistent flow, experiencing both intrinsic incentives and visceral motivation. Does your life provide sufficient opportunity for the sensual and/or symbolic climbing of mountains?

5. Being On Top. What does this phrase connote: Being the best? Power? Sexual positioning? In control? Superior? Tactical advantage? Of course, in the shadows lie opposite associations: the worst, helpless, pawn, inferior, disadvantaged. Human psyche and symbolic, multi-faceted mountains bring us to an intriguing psychological vista: Is the climb to the top driven by healthy narcissism, competing with oneself, not just against others, or by hostile grandiosity, envy and condescension?

The view from the top is truly double-edged. It can fill or pump an ego or quietly nurture a soul. One can derive confidence and competence from effort and achievement. One also can subject others to elitist pride and haughty condescension. The mountaintop of course is the source for the most cherished Judeo-Christian values. And sometimes the Janusian challenge is to integrate both sides with "arrogant humility."

No matter what your actual altitude, there's always the chance in mountain topography for being "king of the hill." Certainly in Greek Mythology, on Mount Olympus, altitude makes attitude. Now being above the pedestrian din, for example, headquartered on a management mountain, allows for a higher power, if not broader, organizational perspective. One can manage, mentor, coach or come to the aid of those less experienced, the less powerful, the merely mortal. Alas, the powers on high can also meddle with, manipulate and play valley dwellers against each other.

A too quick conclusion is that "higher power and wisdom" correlates with geographic or political achievement and advantage. With access to the "big picture," one righteously knows what those with constrained vision need. Alas, it's so easy to lose touch with the valley dwellers. Case in point, in a huge US Postal Service Processing and Distribution Plant, management was ensconced in the modern, upper floored, well-furnished, always air-conditioned Tower. Most employees felt stuck in the often sweaty and frantic, always moving, never-ending mail cycle that requires pushing-posting-bagging-shipping around a forever dusty ambient air. There were architectural, hierarchical and racial reasons why this organizational structure and setting was not so affectionately called, "The Postal Plantation."

Perhaps this is why the "dark night of the soul" experience is so crucial for the dynamic hero or leader: one must carry humility in the heart. To exercise a healthy and higher power, to share one's talents and triumphs, one also must know doubt and shame.

For the phoenix to rise from the ashes One must know the pain To transform the fire to burning desire.

Being with triumph and disaster…One doesn't have to agree with Kipling's perception of the two as impostors. Embracing both ultimately yields serenity and wisdom: knowing the highs and lows, power and pain, fear and courage, rage and joy makes for true understanding, inner strength and the capacity for love and acceptance of self and other, the crowning achievement of human wholeness. Now that's worth striving for.

And next time we will further explore the path of mountain serenity, spirituality and holistic vision. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

The Stress Doc Ezine The Higher Power of Humor Section...

The second section will consist primarily of material -- humor and otherwise -- that filters down from cyberspace. Let's get another perspective on the cosmic. Enjoy!

Kid's Letters to God Wm. LaRoy Staton, lstaton@mail.intracorp.com Lead Health Services Specialist From: fredsloan@juno.com (Fred A. Sloan)

Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don't You just keep the ones you have now? Jane

Dear God, Who draws the lines around the countries? Nan

Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that okay? Neil

Dear God, Thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy. Joyce

Dear God, It rained for our whole vacation and is my father mad! He said some things about you that people are not supposed to say, but I hope you will not hurt him anyway. Your friend (but I am not going to tell you who I am).

Dear God, Please send me a pony. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up. Bruce

Dear God, If we come back as something, please don't let me be Jennifer Horton, because I hate her. Denise

Dear God, I want to be just like my daddy when I get big, but not with so muchhair all over. Sam

Dear God, I think about you sometimes, even when I'm not praying. Elliott

Dear God, I bet it is very hard for you to love all the people in the world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it. Nan

Dear God, My brothers told me about being born, but it doesn't sound right. They are just kidding, aren't they? Marsha

Dear God, If you watch me in church Sunday, I'll show you my new shoes. Mickey

Dear God, We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday school, we learned that you did it. So I bet he stole your idea. Sincerely, Donna

Dear God, I didn't think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool! Eugene

Dear God, Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry

Seek the higher power of humor...May the Farce Be with You!

And, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Check out his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - www.stressdoc.com  and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc

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