Buddhist nun Pema Chodron is my favorite teacher of this lesson in the spiritual realm. Her books — including When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You — are wise and comforting guides to navigating the thorny inner terrain into which life sometimes drops us. One key, it turns out, is being present with the difficult emotions we feel when we come up against our edges, rather than trying to avoid them.
I’ve learned the same lesson from my favorite teacher in the physical realm, a century-old cog railway that begins at an elevation of 6,500 feet and ends at the summit of a mountain not far from my home. Now adapted for use by hikers, the Incline possesses a severe beauty and an understated name, climbing more than 2,000 feet in a distance of little more than 3/4 of a mile.
It became one of my favorite workouts more than 15 years ago, but it took me awhile to understand that the Incline was training more than my body. This I realized after figuring out that it was best to ascend the steep staircase nonstop, holding a pace within a razor’s breadth of my anaerobic threshold. That’s the point at which the intensity of a workout pushes the body into oxygen debt, and lactic acid begins to accumulate in the bloodstream, fatiguing the muscles.
Holding that edge is uncomfortable: the heart hammers against the rib cage, the lungs struggle to pull in adequate oxygen, and the legs feel increasingly leaden as the feet keep moving skyward, step after step. When I first started making the trek, I used to do a lot of inner whining about this: It was just too hard. It hurt. It was too much for me. Waaaaaaa.
But I realized before long that, no matter how much I protest, the Incline is not going to make itself easier for me. It is going to be just as difficult, and just as beautiful, as it is; what I do with that reality is up to me. And I came to see my cavilling as a kind of second dart, understood in the Buddhist tradition as the suffering we create by how we interpret and respond to the pain of the first dart, the difficulty itself.
It’s been years since I’ve felt anything but gratitude for the Incline, even in those moments when I’m half-crawling and laboring to sequester from thin air enough oxygen to keep going. I usually pass several other hikers who are obviously struggling to continue, not just physically, but mentally. I want to slip them a piece of paper inscribed with these lines from Rainer Maria Rilke, as encouragement on the Incline, and in life:
Let everything happen to you:
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.