Skiing Lessons

My husband and I visited Snowtrails twice this weekend in the face of impending spring temperatures. It’s a little ski “resort” in Mansfield, Ohio that we have visited several times this year. Small place, but under an hour drive, so pretty easy to go for a couple of hours and duck out when we can’t take the crowds or the lift lines anymore. He’s been skiing since he was a kid, ski club, etc., while I just was introduced at thirty. It’s not inexpensive, though there are ways to make it affordable. I enjoy it a lot – so much that it surprises me. Dangling in the air on the way up the hill, I was relating to my husband the ways in which skiing seems to me to mirror life, and perhaps feeds this attraction.

It’s easier when you start young. I find myself continually in awe as I try to learn to ski on more difficult terrain, and look over to find a pink jacketed three-year old, arms out, no poles, snowplowing down the same hill, or sometimes with feet strapped to a snowboard instead. Wise engineer husband says it is easier for them because they are much closer to the ground and therefore the impact is not so painful. All the brain research I’ve been reading lately would indicate that it’s much more than this. The life lesson: our outlook on life is programmed from a very early age. We all run on a spectrum from the world is a big, dangerous place at one end, to the world is a big exciting place, at the other. Many don’t discover this and will carry extreme scripts until they expire. Some realize they were sold a lemon and work to alter their outlook. Luckily, neuroplasticity means that we absolutely have the ability to rewrite the script. Hence, 42 year old me, with bruises on left saddlebag, learning that no one is immune to falling down. Rather, it’s what you do afterward that matters – see next lesson.

Falling down really isn’t a big deal, once you know how. As you ride the lift up to the top of the hill, you get a unique view of everything going on below. You see the expert and the not-so-expert all making their way down the hill. You see beginners with skis crossed trying multiple to times to become vertical. They have to learn the right way to get up first – 1) uncross skis 2) put skis parallel to each other, perpendicular to the hill 3) lean uphill to dig in edges of skis 4) plant poles on your uphill side and use them to raise yourself up. We watched a dad on telemark skis fall down while filming aforementioned pink 3 year old as they went down the hill – he was trying to move out of her way as she came toward him unexpectedly. You could see the flash of embarrassment, and then irritation as he quickly righted himself. It’s inevitable. No matter how good you are, you can catch the edge of your ski on some ice, you try to get out of the way of a less experienced skier, or someone who can’t stop at the bottom of a steep hill flattens you. Then, you get up and carry on. Knowing this is the first step toward a different way of experiencing life, as well as skiing! You may have heard the story of the little boy whose father tried to teach him to ride a bike. Annoyed father says to son afraid of falling, “just keep pedaling, you’re not going to fall”, then arrives home from work later in the week to find his son riding the bike. “How?” the father asks, to which his son replies, the neighbor kid taught me. He said the first step is you have to fall down a lot.

I notice for myself that when I’ve attributed meaning to the falling down, it becomes really difficult to shake off and then makes me tentative, feeling like a beginner all over again. Everything from “not coordinated” to “it’s too hard today” to “that person cut me off” to “now everyone knows I really can’t ski” rushes past in the stream of thought, in addition to “damn, that hurts”, and there’s a giant psychic bruise to mirror the physical one. Once yesterday, though, I found myself with skis pointed uphill, leaning forward and unable to stop sliding backwards, and finally falling to my left side to stop the madness, and something different happened; I hopped back up and finished my trip down the bunny hill without those thoughts. It was amazing how much easier it was to move on without having my confidence completely shaken for the next few runs. It was nice to move forward without the ego baggage – wanting sympathy for the event or needing reassurance that I can still ski.

Our internal programming can make us so afraid of failure that we are discouraged from trying anything we aren’t certain we will be good at right away – I think this might be why many live lives of quiet desperation. Learned helplessness operates in this way, attempting to keep us safe, but imprisoning us, instead. In general, we tend to attach meaning to the fall that really isn’t there. What if we just thought of it as information for correction of action? “We don’t want folks building bridges that way,” you might say, but viewing failure or falls this way does not mean that we all of a sudden don’t care about the outcome. This is partly our programming – original sin – that we have trouble buying the idea that anyone would try to do anything well without someone standing over them with a whip. That’s another post though, off that soapbox and on to the next lesson…

Face the danger. Or, “face forweard!” down the hill, as Klaus Mair says (imagine Austrian accent). In skiing, as it turns out, you have to do things that don’t come naturally. It’s actually much worse than that – you have do the opposite of your instinctual impulse, which is to lean back (We have a primal response to falling, two, actually, and one of them is to splay out and lean back – read more about it in Lavinia Plonka’s book What are You Afraid of?). So the key to skiing is the basic stance: upper body facing down the hill, leaned forward over the tips of your toes, knees slightly bent, and relaxed posture. When you first strap on skis and begin to slide down the hill, none of the things constituting good form is what your body wants to do. You find that your programmed response is all wrong, and what’s more, dangerous. Lean back and you lose all control and go flying down the hill, stand up too straight and you can tip over sideways during turns, lock your body too stiffly and you fall with the first bump or distraction because you can’t react flexibly. The weather on the mountain changes constantly and drastically, and you have to expect anything from ice to slush, to high winds, to sunburn, all in one day.

All of these things about posture that make skiing easier are relatable to life. Looking down the big hill of life instead of only at your feet as they seem to point in a different direction right now on some detour you didn’t expect can help keep the focus on the big picture – the temporary difficulty will soon be only a memory, maybe not even that, in the end. Leaning into the forces pulling you down the hill of life gives you more control, and more input, into where you go and how you get there. Resist, pull away, or lean back, and you feel as though you are skidding out of control, fear expands and takes over any ability to direct action, and suffering increases as a result. Lock in too rigidly – to your ideas, your wants, comfort, the past, the future – and you find yourself unable to respond to the inevitable and constantly changing conditions. Rigidity also increases suffering. I think I will start using my “relax and have fun” mantra off the hill, too. As we go down the hill, or through life, we can start choosing to think, “relax, have fun, lean into it, face the danger”. Or for short, just “do the opposite!”

There are few things I enjoy as much as skiing now, and I marvel at how it ever came to pass that I am able to say such a thing. My husband is a large part of my easy access to the opportunity and the attitude that makes it possible. Somehow, torn ACL and all, something kept me coming back. I don’t know what it is, but as I stand in my skis at the top of the little hill they call Mt. Mansfield and look out over all the trees and snow and sky, a thrill runs through me. I think it must be the awesome view, being out in nature, the energy of the others there, and maybe most of all – the knowledge that I can go down this scary hill one more time, mastering my primal reactions, training to live life in such a way that I am increasingly able to enjoy all this big exciting world has to offer.

About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, spiritual coaching, and meditation and mindfulness instruction.
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