Just as in downhill skiing, concentrate on where you want to go when life’s trail gets bumpy

When I was a teenager learning how to downhill ski, a friend taught me how to approach moguls. A formidable challenge for someone new to the sport, I had no idea how to navigate the series of hard-packed bumps dotting a steep-feeling slope on a popular trail. What made the challenge even worse, especially for a self-conscious teenager, was that this set of moguls was located just under the ski lift.

All eyes, obviously, were pinned on me in my little 15-year-old center of the universe.

He was relaxed and encouraging. “It’s easy,” he said, “You just have to look where you want to go, and your body will follow. Don’t look at what you want to avoid — you’ll naturally go that way. But —” he demonstrated, skiing down a few moguls and then pausing and looking upward, “If you just kind of look a couple steps ahead and keep loose and sort of hop–hop–hop, you’ll get the hang of it quick.”

I, of course, proceeded downslope and made it two or three turns before crashing spectacularly with imagined hoots and jeers coming from the skiers on the lift. But those two or three turns were more than I’d managed before, and I took his advice to heart.

Look where you want to go.

Last weekend, in the hot, dry quiet of a cedar sauna, I initiated an invented exercise with my husband.

“What are things we like? Go.”

He was game, and we took turns free-associating. Later on I wrote what I could remember down in my journal.

A hot meal after a cold day outside. The smell of buds in April. Fall in Alaska. June in Alaska. Good conversations. Fancy dinners out with the kid. Riding bikes downtown to meet friends for a beer. Accomplishing hard things. Feeling like a cog in a well-run machine. Community. Contributing. Sincerity. Sarcasm. Cleverness. Creating and curating things — writing, experiences, art. Feeling fit and lithe.

These were a mish-mash of both of our responses. Some of them overlap; some don’t. But it made me feel good to reflect on both the things I like, what he likes, and what we both like.

My world is made up of where my focus is. All that I experience is through the filter of my own brain and interpretation. I am increasingly aware of this, and of my responsibility for my own life, as I realize that I have outsized influence on my own perspective.

Example: earlier this year, I was extremely — and understandably — caught up in a rat’s nest of logistics and financial stress. Some of that I could have done more to manage emotionally, but some of it was simply the nature of the beast. I accepted that. It was a finite period of time.

But, it was also in service to a bigger adventure. I noticed, though, when I set off on what I’d worked so hard to plan, I carried with me a propensity to create stress.

I was nagging at and poking at things that didn’t need my attention. I was looking for stress because it had become habit and, in its own weird way, comfortable.

I had to do a reset, and give myself the emotional equivalent of coaching down the mogul hill, looking where I want to go and letting myself naturally follow.

It’s a lifelong learning. I did manage to let go and reinhabit the day to day, and moment to moment. And now that I’m back from the big adventure, I’m finding that I need to find the sweet spot between day-to-day stresses and pressures inherent to navigating a life, and the ease and joy of taking in the world as it comes.

I’m finding that I have a lower threshold for feeling bad.

So, I work on retraining my brain. Again and again. I’m not someone who espouses rejecting negativity outright. I don’t even believe that’s possible, although a particular breed of life coaching and “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality would have me think otherwise. I also think in our rapidly changing world, it’s important to stay educated and engaged; not to tap out from what’s happening around me.

But I have to look where I want to go. If I look where I don’t want to go, my body, mind, and life will naturally follow. That’s unhealthy and, in the grand scheme of things, beside the point of living.

I am looking at how the watermelon berries make their ruby-colored zig-zag patterns alongside the trail on a warm, humid Sunday hike.

I’m enjoying the sound of rain.

I focus on what I can give and make better through various facets of the work that I do, from writing and art to consulting.

I enjoy the conversation that runs deeper than the weather.

I fill up my focus and my mind with these things I like, not to crowd out everything else but to shift my main perspective. I hope I can naturally follow.

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