I’ve been struggling to articulate my thoughts on the next concept following the Wards of Sadness. It revolves around having an aim in life and how my aim of climbing changed mine. So to fill the space whilst i’m chewing on that I thought Id try something different and recount one of my past adventures. Something I would like to begin doing for future adventures as well.
Once upon an Easter in 2017, a group of four of us embarked on a four day hike around the Giants Castle in the Drakensberg. A stunning feast of pure awe awaited us.
This was roughly our route.
The Giants Castle is a section of rock that juts out from the more distinct line of the escarpment forming a small peak on a spine whose tail is a prominent feature in the valleys below. The area to the north of this point forms a bowl of large cliffs and converging valleys. The aim of this hike was to summit the giants castle point and the hike back along the edge of the escarment over a large ridge called Mt Durnford and come down Langalibalele Pass. It would give us views of the point and of the bowl of valleys below from two different sides.
We camped in a campsite close to the hotel from which we would start our first day. We were all quite fit and covered the hilly sections of the lower escarpment quickly.
It’s in these early slopes below the towering edges of the plateau where the Drakensberg really starts to come alive. The rolling green grass and magical slopes of the barrier of a thousand spear as it is known in its local Language name. The Giants Castle itself was veiled in cloud that first day but the views were no less impressive.
As we came closer to the mountains the clouds lifted briefly showing the cliffs of the Castle in their full splendor as we hiked passed them on the way to Giants Pass.
The pass was grueling and I was apparently the slowest of our group at ascents. But slow persistence paid off and the views from close to the cave where we would sleep our first night were worth the effort.
In the morning the clouds had closed in thicker, covering the valleys below. We were in our own mountain world now. We had breakfast in the cold and with the mountain air filling our lungs we were ready to explore this dream like world.
Further up the pass we saw just how cold the night had been with these impressive plant freezes a common sight.
We crossed over the bulk of the Giants Castle which was a longer hike than anticipated. The back side of the Castle slopes away from the valleys and we were walking in the pathless and more barren terrain of the plateaux. When we came up the last slope up to the point it seemed that we suddenly stepped out of an elevator and onto a viewing platform.
To our left were the cliffs we had walked passed the day before and the bowl of valleys covered in a magnificent white blanket.
To our right was the rock spine which stretched out into the ocean of cloud which mesmerised us as it rose and fell. Sometimes covering the spine and sometimes revealing it.
Lourens had brought with him the remainder of our friend Schalk’s ashes and we made a cairn of rocks to place them in. A fitting resting place for a dearly loved friend and adventurer. Despite him taking his own life, I will love him until I die. I miss you Bro.
We hiked back off the point and got some good distance in before rounding a ridge which ran along the edge of the plateaux. We camped on its slopes facing the escarpment eager to be shielded from the eyes of the local herders. We had had an encounter that day which left us feeling less than comfortable with their interactions
On day three we would conquer this ridge, Mt Durnford. It was a much bigger slog than I thought it would be. I was constantly lagging behind and need more than a couple of breaks. There was a specific spot we had to crest the ridge at so that we could find the only gap in the mini cliff on the other side. The path down was treacherous but we got right spot in the end.
Whilst crossing through the various valleys of the plateaux that day we had another encounter with the local herders which was tense to say the least, they are pertty pushy and just say ‘give give’ the whole time. All the while covered in ponchos which gave me the impression they were armed and hiding it.
We had planned to camp at Bannerman Cave above Langalibalele Pass but were put off buy the increased density of local herders in this part of the plateaux. We decided instead to push on and come down the pass a bit to camp. For views this was a fantastic decision. The lower slopes of the Drakensberg are truly magical and we all sat and watched them talking of the hike as the shadows lengthened and called us to a deserved sleep.
We had only a small distance to cover back to the hotel and we took our time walking slowly on our tired legs. Savouring the clearer view of the Castle and the escarpment we had hiked through.
There are few times in my life when I’ve felt more connected to the mountains than the hikes in the Drakensberg. They are epic arduous adventures but each time I went I was reminded anew of the awe that I feel when hiking through them. I wish one day to experience that awe again, for I cannot recall the feeling and there are not the words to describe it. I recount this adventure here to remind myself of what I seek. To light a flame of hope in the amidst the chaos. Hope that I may one day be able to do these things again, however daunting the dragons may be.
Thank you for indulging me and I hope that you too experience this awe one day, in whichever form it calls to you in.
In a previous life, chasing my dreams on Panic Room 7A+ which I sent just weeks before the accident Photo by Dan Bates
At the end of the first two weeks in ICU I wasn’t exactly out of the woods yet, but the canopy was starting to thin. The doctor was confident that they wouldn’t need to amputate the left leg as well, the major life and leg saving surgeries were done. My body could now focus on healing, to close the envelope before moving onto fixing the bones. The Monday and Tuesday passed with no new drama, the same unpleasant ben pans, semi-sleep and pain. My temperature was still spiking up into the 38’s at times although my blood markers of infection had apparently begun to drop. I went for what I was told would be the last dressing change in theatre, whilst there was more pain after coming out it wasn’t nearly as bad as the actual operations. I was also starting to wean off the IV drugs in preparation for the ward transfer. The lower level of care would mean that I would need to come off the more dangerous IV stuff and onto Targinact, a powerful oral Opioid. By Thursday my temperature had stabilized and the infection markers in the blood test still continued to fall. A good sign that the infection had been slain.
On Friday I transferred to a normal ward where my wounds would heal. The doctor would monitor them and call for transfer to the next hospital where the orthopaedic surgeons (Bone Doctors) would work on fixing the gap in my tibia.
The epic Journey through the narrow gates of ICU had ended and without the hardcore cocktails of IV drugs and constant surgeries my consciousness stabilized. For the first time my consciousness was exposed, fully and unveiled, to the full devastation the Nothing had left in its path. Choose what ever definition you wish, Self, Identity, Core, what it is to be whoever I was, it was so apparently destroyed that it doesn’t matter. What had once been a focused, spinning, moving, cohesive whole had hit some kind of phenomenological obstacle in its timeline and was shattered into fragments much like the rocks floating in the void when Fantasia was destroyed. My Ego jumped desperately between the larger fragments, frantically seeking the Ivory tower as remnants of who I was crashed unrestricted and unbidden into other parts of me.
The day outside looked warm, the softer light of the late winter afternoon bathed Signal Hill in a beautiful light, above its slopes paragliders lived out their dreams, chasing life and thermal alike. It was a Friday and the conditions looked good. The climbers in Cape Town would be scrambling to get to their projects before the light fades, I was no longer one of them. I had endured psychological pain before, I had been humbled and forced to change who I was, that was dark, but I had persisted. I though perhaps, fortified as i was, I could weather this, I was wrong. My leg was buzzing sharply from the movement from transferring wards. Without the IV drugs my whole body was tingling, aware of every touch, my body ached from the immobility, pain from moving and pain from remaining still. But all that seemed to fade as I looked out that window. Did I need this? Had I not been humbled enough? To what end was all this suffering? As the sun set softly, warmly, invitingly like some kind of sick cosmic joke, I cracked. Memories, dreams, fragments of me came crashing into my consciousness, each time exposing the damage anew. The shockwaves of psychological pain slammed into me, forcing shudders as I cried. I broke that night, there in the artificial darkness of the hospital. I had been forced through the bottom, beyond the meta-structure of life, to a place so chaotic that only raw emotion could exist. A kind of fatal, existential sadness was all I could feel. A sadness that was connected to all things through death. The Sadness of the complete destruction of future, of dreams and of Love. The Sadness that called to the End.
The week after that night felt like eternity, busy with the tasks of living, bedpans, eating, physio (which basically involved me waving my arms around and sit-ups). The days stretched, blank and meaningless, as nothing of the path forward revealed itself. There was progress of a sort in healing and movement with physio and I learnt midweek that the orthopedic surgeon would come to see me on the Friday (an event that would eventually reveal some of the path forward). There were however some moments that broke the tedium during this week in the underworld.
The Doctors changed the dressing whilst I was awake for the first time on Saturday. The anticipation of the potential pain to come was in fact worse than the event itself. Horrified as I was, I confronted every new sight. Seeing the shape and devastation of flesh for the first time was macabre to say the least. The poles of the external fix which held my lower leg in place could be seen extending deep within the muscle to the bone as they penetrated openings in the skin. Once they were powerful machines carrying me into the future, now one was gone and what was left of the other was shattered into pieces, desperately clinging to life.
Tuesday was a day with many people, I saw friends and family and Drs including the trauma surgeon and orthopedic surgeon who screwed my knee back together. In as much as seeing friends and family saved me, the doctors vague answers plagued me. There was talk of possibly a year for the bones to heal. I had no real idea what this meant but the answers weren’t forthcoming. A year in hospital? A year of lying in a bed? Could I do that? I didn’t think so. The doctors assured me that the answers were coming and that there was a path, but lost as I was I could not see it. What was once a life defined by passion and drive was suddenly an empty meaningless vessel with no direction. Frustration infused itself in to the sadness as the nights tormented me. Lying broken in a hospital bed I was forced to witness, again and again, the death of what was.
The dressing change on Thursday was easier and coming off antibiotics after a full 28 days since they were first administered the day I arrived was progress indeed. I also transferred into a wheelchair for the first time, progress for sure. I had been quarantined in the ward as I had been contaminated by some wound colonizing bacteria from the hospital, it was apparently not infecting my wounds however (I don’t understand it either). Confined as I was, despite being in a wheelchair, I could not go further than another spot next to the window in the same room. The same view of signal hill with its paragliders chasing their fucking dreams. I mean thanks God, thanks for this Grief. What was once enthusiasm and a love of life was now replaced by bitterness. Where before I would wake in the morning and say ‘Hell yeah’, I now awoke each morning longing for the Hell to end. By the end of the day I was overwhelmed but also exhausted, I hadn’t slept at all the previous night and the emotions had defeated me. The doctor gave me a different combination of sleeping drugs, thankfully it worked and I found myself pulled by sleeps embrace.
What I was had died, I was no longer the active, climbing, purposeful person I had worked to create, that was clear at least. Who I was I had no idea, pieces scattered in the sand in shadow. I doubted I would be able to reassemble what was left, definitely not something that I’d recognise. Death is never an easy thing to witness and it had taken all of me to pass through that gate. The damage was complete. And I could not bear it.
Finally I slept, I could cry no more and the world disappeared. There was no telling what trials the morning would bring, or who would face them.
My home in ICU with the machines continually feeding me drugs Id rather not take. Photo by Dr Carlien Wassermann
By way of a disclaimer, this post contains graphic images which some may find grotesque. I would encourage you to view them however, they are part of what life is and facing these things will only make you stronger. The same is true of the contents, these next few posts expose a side of life which isn’t easy to face but again you would be diminished for not doing so.
After some rest over the weekend, rest being a relative term, it was back to theatre on Monday evening to have the dressings changed. At this point my left leg was basically held on by my calf muscles and the ex-fix. It would have been too painful and too much risk of infection to open the leg in the ICU so all dressing changes would be done in theatre. Although I came out of theatre feeling drained, it was at least a small compensation that it wasn’t as bad as the last weeks oppereations. Dr Bischof had also cautiously mentioned that they were more confident that they could save the left leg, something which was by no means certain at this stage.
Tuesday brought more emotions, I can’t tell you why it hit me so hard that day but it did. There were so many things that seemed to happen during the day as well. The Anesthetist came to place a new epidural catheter, they need to change them every few days for risk of infection. The placement of the epidural is unpleasant to say the least, a large hollow needle is inserted between the vertebrae and into the area surrounding the spinal column and the catheter is then fed into that space, to find to exact spot the doctor needs to move the needle around a bit and it feels like someone is literally scraping your spine from the inside. the process was further complicated by me not being able to sit forward, usually epidurals are used for child birth and are inserted in a seated position. I needed to roll over and stay in that position for some time, a painful situation for me which was again accompanied by an increase in drugs to compensate. The dull high of the morphine and the reality separating feeling of the Ketamine is a combination I would never get used to. Its as if you fade away from reality, reality becomes dull and feels like its breaking into whatever smaller parts it consists of. It felt to me as if I was being pulled by death’s scythe out of reality and it was out of my control if I came back or not.
The discomfort in my bowels had been growing for days now and with laxatives I finally passed movement again. I had to use the bedpan twice that day and both episodes were amongst the worst experiences of my time in hospital. Not only was turning, lifting and positioning painful, but the actual act of shitting was as well, follow that with the inability to clean oneself and having to have the nurses roll me off the pan and clean up the mess. Each episode left me broken and drained.
I did see Nick and it was comforting to chat to him. I also got new Magic cards which helped to take my mind off what was a very emotional day. The ever elusive fits of sleep with their strange and very real Precedex dreams would flit bout me like ghost of healing, as ethereal as they were important.
Although I had gotten through the emotional rollercoaster of the day before, today would see me in theatre again, looking back on this week I can liken it to going round after round with the devil in an MMA cage. Monday, theater; Tuesday, rest; Wednesday, theater; Thursday rest; Friday Theatre; and Saturday was like judgement day and judged I would be. The operation today was by the orthopaedic surgeon to reconstruct the Tibia head which had broken into three sections. He would open the knee up on the side and manually rearrange the pieces before fixing them together with two castellated screws which would go right through the Tibia head from side to side. The surgeon was encouraging post-op, he said that there was more bone contact than he expected, exactly what that means I can’t tell you, but he seemed to think that the operation went well. My family came to visit again and I spent a long time talking to them and then to the anesthetist, Dr Carlien Wassermann, who had kept me alive in the first operation. Despite the operation, the day passed quicker than the day before and it felt that there might be a bit more light ahead. The day merged with the night in that same way, without ceremony or sunset, in the ICU the only thing that really changes is the hue of the light. It’s just as bright at night and it’s just as busy.
At least I got a bit more rest in today between surgeries, by all accounts tomorrows surgery would be a big one and as events would later transpire, I really needed all the rest I could get. I had another bowel movement which was painful, the rolling and the lifting to get on and off the pan were quickly becoming some of my worst memories of my hospital stay. But beyond that the day was more peaceful, it felt for the first time that there was a bit of space for me to think. I thought of the future, the distant and now unknown future, the chances of saving the leg were growing with each day the doctors had told me. But what did that mean, what kind of functionality would I be able to get out of the leg, would I be able to walk again, or climb again? My entire life had been changed to centre around climbing and it would seem that that was no longer an option. Although these thoughts were heavy and the chaos thick, I did at least have time to think them and the anxiety they provoked only seemed to strengthen my resolve further. Although i didn’t know what the future held, I knew what must be done to engage with it. Having opened some new Magic cards the day before and my continued fascination with stories of mythology, I was perhaps not hopeful but certainly had a better understanding of what may be necessary to move forward: Pick up your Spear and go conquer the dragon that assailed you. The Dragon was life and the only spear I had left was my mind. It may prove a futile journey in the end but that’s irrelevant, the only honorable course of action was to fight. I didn’t know how valuable this day of introspection would be as things took a more dire turn during the night. During the afternoon I received more blood ahead of tomorrow’s surgery. Unbeknownst to me, tests had been returned that showed my infection markers had begun to rise.
The night was terrible, I managed to drift off to sleep early after a quieter day but awoke shortly after midnight with increasing pain the the right leg stump and left knee. It began by feeling sensitive and I could feel more pain with the tiny movements i would do, by morning it had built to an intense pain in the right hand side of the knee. I could also feel I had a temperature, which was confirmed at first light when the nurses did the rounds. Somewhere infection had taken root and Dr Bischof was visibly concerned. She ordered blood to be taken and cultured to try to isolate what type of infection it was. I was put on further antibiotics, these ones they apparently use to treat Tuberculosis but they used them because they have a good bone penetrating effect. The antibiotics were delivered intravenously and the drip bag was kept in a thick silver liner to prevent exposure to light, it was unnerving to say the least. The trauma doctor brought in an orthopaedic surgeon to assess the knee clinically and they decided that if the went through with the surgery, they would literally cut the knee open on the side and go in and manually clean it out to try to stop the infection from eating away at the cartilage in the knee. In the end the doctors decide to proceed with the surgery despite the infection and at 15h30 I went under again, this time for 5 hours. The orthopaedic surgeon opened and cleaned the knee whilst Dr Bischof and her supporting team performed what is called a gastronomicus flap and grafted skin taken from my thigh onto the gaping hole in my flesh.
The gastronomicus flap involves cutting a part of the calf muscle out but leaving it attached at one end, then rotating that flap of muscle around to the front of the leg and suturing it in place. This bulk of flesh serves to close the hole in my leg where the rock had gouged out tissue and further tissue had later been removed as it died off. This large hole left the bone exposed. The bone would not regenerate if not covered by flesh and skin to provide an infection free area with good blood flow.
I would be missing a large chunk of my calf muscle but at least the bone would have a chance of healing. After 5 hours under anesthetic with my body already taking shots, I awoke feeling broken once again. Not for the last time did I have this feeling of being a conscious passenger without agency traveling through this Hell which seemed never ending and tomorrow would prove no different as the source of the infection was brought to light.
Yesterday’s operation had tired me out completely and I actually got some sleep, it was patchy but it helped. I felt a bit recovered when I awoke in the morning but today would prove to be one of the hardest and lowest moments of my stay in hospital. I later looked back at this period and thought about the ebb and flow of a kind of vital life energy during this ICU period, it was as if each operation took all the energy I had and I was barely able to recoup enough energy to be able to make it through the next operation. It was brutal, knowing each time that Id come out feeling broken again but still having to just hold on as the rollercoaster rose and fell, with my consciousness on board, a passive bystander.
The anesthetist came to change the epidural around midday and was surprised to find the epidural site infected. She decided to avoid placing a new line for fear of further infection. She and Dr Bischof were concerned, an infection penetrating into my spine was a dangerous and unneeded complication. I was given a stronger flow of the IV drugs before rolling onto my side so the doctors could cut open the area and disinfect it. Reality once again cracked and distorted, blurring around the edges as the morphine, ketamine and precedex dimmed the flame of consciousness in a most unholy way. I could still feel the cutsa and scraping as the doctors worked but at least there was minimal pain.
Without the epidural controlling the pain sent up my spinal cord and only the IV drugs to dull me, I was far more aware of the sensations in my legs, I would have to ride out the rest of the ICU stay with more pain, and there was heaps of it to come. The anesthetist did inject local anesthetic around my femoral nerve in both legs although i can’t say this helped much.
Dr Bischof wanted to assess the extent of the infection and whether it had moved into the spinal cavity itself. She arranged an MRI scan to determine this. Without the epidural movement was much more painful and I would soon be wheeled into the MRI room and transferred first to a stretcher type bed which could be wheeled into the NRI room (there can be no metal in the MRI room so the normal hospital beds aren’t allowed inside) and then onto the MRI table itself. Both painful transfers after an already pain filled day. To add a further complication, the machines which regulated the flow of drugs into my body were also made of metal in places and I was detached from these stemming the drugs which deferred the pain.
Inside the MRI was tight, hot and claustrophobic with a hard thin board to lie on, add to this the loud alien sounding noise that the MRI makes as it spins and moves and the resultant experience was truly nightmarish. I lay corpse still, alone with the sound, heat and terror of infection. The pain increased as the drugs faded. In total there were three scans done, each lasting an eternity as I waited to be pulled out of the MRI between each. The nurse attending to me administered a dose of drugs buy hand when I was pulled out. Each time she did the pain reduced but so did reality, slipping away into that strange escher drawing like state typified by the ketamine high. It was all I could do to keep my mind from splitting apart as the nightmarish cycle of pain, desperation and mind altering drug trip coalesced. All the while the over loud alien whooshing sound of the MRI threatened to fully derail my sanity. Again I was transferred to the stretcher bed before being transferred back into my hospital bed, this time there were fewer drugs in my system and the pain lanced through me and consumed my conscious field, there was nothing but pain in those few minutes.
When I returned to the ICU I was finished, my head spun and my breathing was erratic. I am certain that the MRI ordeal was as much as I could take. there was no escape and reality was truly too much for me to take. but alas there was more coming, the constipation caused by the drugs was ever present and the discomfort was again growing, my abdomen distending from the pressure within, despite the activity of the day I would find sleep almost impossible due to the discomfort
The only salvation that day was when the head nurse came to offer me some comfort and told me that they had found no evidence that the infection had spread from the surface deeper into the spinal cavity. It is uncertain to me that I would have had the will to fight that too.
I did manage to get a few hours of sleep in the morning before Dr Bischof made her rounds. she reassured me that the infection had not spread and it seemed that my infection markers were dropping in the blood test results. The anesthetist came to change the Main Line from the vein in my right shoulder to my left. They change these IV points frequently to avoid infection, in my case though my body seemed to reject the intrusions faster than most and the site would become clogged or inflamed and would have to be moved. Each day I would have at least one change or blood sample taken, I looked and felt like a pincushion for the storage of doctors needles. The intrusions into my body were a norm but I would never grow used to them.
I did manage to have a bowel movement again, as uncomfortable and distressing as that was, it did bring some relief to the discomfort. However, a new problem emerged when they removed the catheter for the first time since I arrived. The drugs mess with one’s ability to control bowel and bladder functions and the muscles had also not been used for two weeks, despite the build up of pressure, I could not urinate at all. Most of the night was spent trying to re-learn how to pee. Initially my efforts were useless, a terrifying feeling as one as can imagine. Later, I succeeded in passing small amounts of urine which relieved the pressure just enough to be able to find some light sleep. Only to wake minutes later and begin the ordeal again. Moving to place a pee bottle between my legs was painful each time, again and again I fought the muscles needed. After a full twelve hours of effort and distress I managed to urinate and although I would still have difficulty with this in the future, the battle had been won.
The first sequence of surgeries were over and the left leg had been saved, so it was time to start preparing me for transfer to a lower care ward where the wounds could heal before the next phase of the journey began. These first two weeks had taken me beyond what I believed i could bear, but even with the emotions and the drug trips, the journey was mostly rooted in physical experience. Something which would change drastically as I was moved out of ICU. The next battle would be one of sadness and loss. Like Atreyu in the Swamps of Sadness I would know what it was like to lose my Artax.
Concepts are challenging slippery devils to catch hold of. Just as you think you’ve got it pinned down, poof, it jumps out of your grasp and you’re left chasing it around the room as the phone rings and the kettle boils and some wave comes crashing in to upset your day. So how to we pin these things down? Well usually we use words and symbols. Concepts about economics are encapsulated in a body of literature and symbols and it’s customary for people to spend years deciphering these. So to are concepts of life and meaning enshrined in literature and symbolism. Myth, Religion and Culture are filled with examples of these words and symbols. Through the art of the centuries people have been grappling with these complex concepts and experimenting with different representations of their form. Trying to pin them down only to be frustrated by their elusiveness. The concept I’m trying to solidify out of it’s wave state in this post is as elusive as it is important. To try to coax it from its hiding place lets first look at some of the symbols and stories which I think gravitate around it.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep
In the Lord of the Ring’s written by JRR Tolkien, a battle is portrayed as happening at Helm’s Deep. It is a ‘no way out’ nook of the land which has been fortified with garrison walls and is described as the best and last defensible location of the kingdom of Rohan. Rohan is one of two kingdoms of humans on middle earth, the other is Gondor. Both are beset by cunning and massively overpowering foes seeking dominion over Middle earth. The battle that takes place is the first of the battles in ‘The War of the Ring’ and the odds are most definitely not in favor of the humans. Rohan’s foe, Saruman, has by cunning weakened their forces and resolve whilst preparing industriously and intelligently his own force to destroy them. The loss of this battle would ultimately lead to the destruction of one of the two powers left to stand against the coming darkness. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, the humans are able to fight and defend Helm’s deep and although become greatly diminished by the effort are able to prevent the sundering of the two kingdoms of light.
Jacob wrestles with God
This is a direct excerpt from the Bible that I found online, from Genesis 32:
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell was influenced by Jung and studied myths across the globe and from across time, from this he distilled out what he called the Hero’s Journey. A kind of blueprint pattern which seemed to span many myths and cultures. The video below describes it quite well. Although I have never read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I have done some digging into this concept, I would add to the video’s description that the Hero’s Journey is not complete until the new found knowledge or skill gained from the struggle that the Hero endures is reintegrated into the community or society and as such, updates the otherwise stale culture.
Infected Rain: Stop Waiting
Whilst not everyone will appreciate a spot of death metal, they do tend to write about interesting topics. Here Infected Rain use the lyrics”we are…always waiting” and “…get up…get up from your knees….fight…fight for your dreams…”
The Battle of Britain
Even in the realm of recorded history (not that myths and story shouldn’t be thought of as history of some kind), we see examples of this idea. Here Churchill is referring to the coming Battle of Britain which was by all accounts a decisive event in the history of our world. What the world would have been like today if Britain had fallen in WWII is uncertain, although I don’t believe that it would have been quite as liberal as it is today.
Do not go gentle into that good night (by Dylan Thomas)
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Resilience, strength, fortitude, or some other synonym?
So what is this crazy Watson oke getting at here, can’t we just call it strength or something similar and move on? Alas it is not quite so simple. When I awoke in ICU I was very much in survival mode, it was really autopilot stuff. I didn’t have the time or energy to sit and think about how to do things, things were happening too fast and there was too much damage, both physically and psychologically. The physical damage had nearly killed me and could still possibly do so, through infection or some other unfortunate chain of events. The psychological damage was also extreme, one moment i was balls deep in living my dream of being a fulltime nomadic climber, living in nature with my dogs, crushing projects that were beyond my imagination and meeting extraordinary people to share the journey with; the next moment I awoke in an ICU without a leg and the very real possibility of losing the other, pain that was beyond my imagination, the full death of any planned future and of any dreams which I had worked so hard to move towards (and no dogs although they were alive and well). I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. Given this extraordinary set of circumstances, how was it that I was still alive and how was it that I was still what approximates sane? Sure I was beat up, taking shots, but I didn’t feel like I had given up, like Id been crushed by the weight of it all. Not that I like comparing myself to others but there are countless stories of people who go through flood events which are much less severe and turn into little puddles of jelly. A breakup or being fired or a stock that falls can send people into the blackest of holes. But I felt strong and resolute, It wasn’t a hopeful kind of strong for sure but I somehow knew that should I survive, this wasn’t going to be the end of me. Why was that?
During the second week of ICU I had a small break of sorts in the intensity of the operations, quite what made me able to think about these things on that specific day I don’t know. But the timing was fortuitous, the next two days would be one of the biggests tests of my life and to come through it in one piece would prove to be a challenge the likes of which I had not yet encountered. I thought of my experiences climbing and how I had been humbled over the years, of how each time I had been laid low by some event or failure. Through all that I had continued to grind, continued to fight, sometimes without hope. I thought of previous failure, in projects I managed and relationships, even academic failure and more personal failures I won’t elaborate on. Each time I rebounded, I learnt that overcoming such things is paramount in life. Although this time was the most extreme thing I had been through that character, that pattern, still resounded in me. Lying there looking at the rain falling on the city beneath me, crying and utterly destroyed, I understood one thing: You have an obligation, pick up your spear damn you and fight that dragon that assailed you, the outcome matters not, it’s the fight that counts.
So lets unpack these examples above and see if we can pin down this elusive concept. Its not as simple as one might think but definitely worth pinning down.
The first thing that strikes me as obvious with regards to this pattern is that is is completely devoid of hope. Hope, as the Roharim so eloquently said, has forsaken these lands. At Helm’s deep they had no hope of victory, it was a ‘Deus ex Machina’ that ultimately brought victory. When Jacob fought with God, what hope did he have of winning, the fact that God didn’t obliterate him instantly in the story is rather fascinating, but he could certainly not have hoped to win. So to in Churchill’s speech we read a tone of desperation but also of nobility, ‘their finest hour’ speaks to valliant action in the face of overwhelming odds. Even though there is no hope and cruel death is sure to be their fate, even when the Chaos of existence is surely too much to bear and will obliterate one, there remains a mode of being that is valliant, an obligation to transform that Chaos into Order in some way, however small. These stories above are examples of what happens when we do so, we are rewarded. Sure these are examples of the successful stories and no doubt there are countless stories of people who did such a thing and were still torn asunder by the Chaos, in my mind that doesn’t kill the theory though, to do nothing, to give up has never inspired myth or Legend. There is no fairy tale which reads: …and he cracked, sat down, peed himself and began to cry, the evil dragon of Chaos took pity on him and offered him some treasure to make up for the suffering. There is a randomness at work in life that does in the would be heros in a majority of these stories, and so they end. But the stories of success, so commonly presented to us and which seem to resonate with us emotionally are those where some kind of valiant action was undertaken despite the seeming impossibility of a better future. So abandon all hope ye who enter here, it will not avail you. But enter you must.
The next thing that I have come to understand about this resilience or strength is that it is voluntary. You must make a choice to fight, constantly. In Helm’s Deep the King of Rohan has a moment of weakness, with hope lost he gives up the fight, resigns himself to failure. Aragorn reawakens this fire within him by offering him a noble death by riding out against their foe head on, an act which will surely see them killed. In the book better than in the movies, Aragorn’s character was well portrayed as the redemptive man, a Christ like figure who had forsaken his obligations only to realise his faults and rejoin the fight. This was again a voluntary choice and his actions inspired those around him to do the same. When Jacob wrestled with God, it was God who said ‘let me go’, not Jacob trying to flee. Jacob, astoundingly, was fighting with God voluntarily and would not stop before God blessed him. If there is one thing you really want to avoid fighting with its a being who’s powers are described as omnipotent. But yet there’s Jacob, wrestling with him intentionally, the story is preposterous but yet we see it repeated over and over again in many guises. Even in modern art where Infected Rain is screaming at us, ‘Stop Waiting’, ‘Get up’, its a choice we must make despite the death of hope. So choose, will you go gentle into that good night or will you rage against the dying of the light.
But for what reason? Why should we fight, continue the suffering, endure the trial if there is no hope and in all probability no future reward? The answer to that is nothing short of the closest approximation to the meaning of life as I can get to. It is the very substance of our being that guides us into this resilience. Again i paraphrase Jordan Peterson’s words to describe this: There is a mode of being which transcends the suffering of life, and that mode of being is to stand up forthrightly, pay attention and speak you being forward. In other words you fight voluntarily using your best weapons of attention and spirit (or in Peterson’s words Logos, I suggest you dig into the meaning of that word on your own). Fight to turn Chaos into Order, the continuation of which allows you to bear the immense suffering that existence requires and not for hope or reward , simply to bear the suffering, personally. To stand up under the weight and say: I accept this burden and I will carry it until it crushes me completely because it matters that I do. It is understanding this that allows us to break free of the Nihilism of defeat and capitulation. To know that everything we do matters gives us the courage to act valiantly when the world goes dark and all hope dies. It is what the moral or the core that these stories above can be reduced to: If you continue, in every moment, regardless of what came before or what comes after, to fight, to turn Chaos into Order, you will balance the suffering of Being. Perhaps not in the future as the failed stories will attest but at least in that moment you will be able to bear the suffering levied upon you, no matter how great.
So its not Hope that makes us strong, or I would truly have cracked. Its not instinct which shapes how we act, its choice, a stark choice between the light and the dark. And its not Nihilism that builds our strength, its the knowledge that everything you do matters, now, and you had better make meaning of that. Pick up your spear, damn you, and fight that dragon that assails you, because it matters that you do. That’s what these Stories, Myths and Legends are telling us. This is what I drew from, this is why I am still here.
Good Afternoon, maybe not where you are but somewhere in the world. Since my last post so much has changed and in truth it has been all I could do to keep up. Like Alice in Wonderland when she meets the Red Queen, I have been running just to stay in one place. Turns out, that makes you fitter, even if the view never changes. But with a new year comes new hope and a new resolve, I have begun writing again and will hopefully be a bit more on it with telling this tale.
I will still be following the same structure as I laid out before, a narrative of the journey I’m on interspersed with posts on some of the thoughts and concepts I have regarding this journey. However, I feel I should summarise this journey to date and talk briefly about what’s coming.
The Journey so far …
Casting my mind back to 2019, the rock hit me mid July and I spent 3 weeks in ICU, a week in a surgical ward waiting for the wounds to heal sufficiently to move onto the next step. Then a two week stay at a different hospital where the doctors attached a ring fixator to my lower leg, this kept the bones in place so that they could re-grow (a process that would take 5 months). Following that I spent 6 weeks in an intensive rehabilitation centre attached to the hospital. Here I started to learn how to use what little ability I had to live in this new world, a challenging task to be sure.
In early January 2020 I underwent a surgery to remove the ring fixator. Whilst gaining strength I sunk all of my energy into rehab, increasing the amount and type of rehab sessions as quickly as I could manage. Then Covid struck. This definitely affected the pace of rehab and pushed the next surgery I would have, to begin the reconstruction of the knee, out by two weeks. In may I went under again, this time to replace the Lateral Collateral Ligament which is on the outside of the left knee using a tendon from my ankle ( they also tied the bones of my lower leg together with the same tendon) and to replace the Anterior Cruciate Ligament in the centre of the knee with a piece of bone from the knee cap and tendon attaching it to the quad.
This was a brutal 5 hour surgery and I was forced to book in at a rehabilitation centre once again, this time for 6 weeks. I was prohibited from putting any weight on the knee for those 6 weeks to allow the ‘soft tissue’ to heal. This was a major setback as I had begun to stand and even take a few steps on crutches with a prosthetic. Being alone in a rehab centre unable to leave the bed much was psychologically destructive and at a stage Im sure I presented as insane. It would take a further two months of rehab after this initial 6 week period before I would be able to leave the wheelchair fully once again. I then moved into a place on my own, a major challenge but worth the risk. The pace of progress was increasing. A period of relative calm ensued which allowed me to focus hard on rehab and continue building the systems and habits which I believed would give me the best fighting chance.
The prosthetic journey has also advanced, in no small part due to the donations I received from Family and Friends and to the prosthetists at Chin & Partners. I now have a socket which fits well, a microprocessor knee and I’m trying out different feet to find the best fit for me, all in all a massive improvement to the early days.
Further Journeying …
As I write I am facing another surgery, this time to replace the Medial Collateral ligament on the inside of the left knee. Hopefully this will be the last surgery for some time and will further improve the stability of the knee. I can honestly say that I’m terrified. The prospect of another invasive surgery, the risk of covid, the risk of infection, the risk of some other fundamental failure during or post operation is daunting to say the least. In addition I will again be setback in terms of ability, although I won’t book into a rehab centre again, I will undoubtedly not be able to walk and move around in the world as I do now. I cannot express how frustrating that is.
But as fucked up as this joke is, there is at least some light. Having had some time and space to deal with the shrapnel of what’s left of my life and dreams, I have began to lift my head to the horizon. The horizon, unsurprisingly perhaps, is full of mountains. My plan now is to head to Rocklands again in June. If there is a God I doubt even it would know why, but that land is calling to me again. So like the knights of the round table setting out to find the Grail I will enter the woods of life at that place which seems darkest to me. That place is climbing season in Rocklands, the very heart of my dream, a dream which is now dead.
Beyond that there is a lonely mountain in Africa which beckons me forward. A peak which I have summited before, a peak which previously inspired me to dream again after a long drought of hope in my life. Perhaps it will inspire me again. The current plan is to attempt Kilimanjaro in January of 2022. I do not know if this is possible, if I had to guess Id say probably not given my current state. But that’s the plan.
As for Watson’s Journeys, I plan to keep telling the tale of this unusual journey and expand that to include an instagram page and hopefully in time a YouTube channel where I can share the journey more visually.
Until next time as Rudd once sang: ‘I know you are strong, my your journey be long, and I wish you the best of luck’
One crowd…Many individuals (Photo by Jethro Watson)
In the song Pneuma by Tool, Keenan’s lyrics talk about becoming Pneuma. Becoming breath, but breath is the same to all of us. We are essentially made up of the same thing, born of one breath, one spark as Keenan so eloquently puts it. What does this have to do with anything? Well strap in it’s a wild ride.
I’d like to take you on a Sci-Fi journey through a strange thought experiment. I invite you to imagine that you are not in fact Human but Taelon. Whats a Taelon? Back in the late 90’s Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek) penned the ideas for a TV series called Earth: the final conflict. In this universe, the Taelons had come to earth looking for a cure to their mortality. Whilst the plot and intricacies of the series arent relevant here, the Taelons were quite an interesting race. They had evolved into beings of energy and were connected by what they called the Commonality. This was a kind of macro neural network which allowed them to share a collective identity. Whilst still retaining and individual personality and free will they were simultaneously an individual and communal consciousness. You might think it would be impossible to fully imagine yourself as such a being, but lets take a gander anyways.
Lets start with connectivity, the ability to be connected and communicate with others almost instantly. Well we can now do that between individuals, there’s a multitude of platforms out there to connect people. Perhaps that doesn’t seems so alien after all. But what would we be connecting to in this case, an individual or a collective? Whilst communication would certainly be possible between individuals in the Commonality, it strikes me as far more useful to connect to the aggregated knowledge and experience of the collective consciousness. This collective ‘being’ is built up of the minds of not only those Taelons currently living but also those deceased. The insights provided by this collective would be invaluable indeed and would no doubt heavily influence the behavior and thoughts of individual Taelons. However, such information would be on a scale impossible to comprehend through the mind of an individual. How exactly the Taelons were aware of this communal consciousness is unclear in the story, but I’d wager that it wasn’t as cut and dry as we would like it. Perhaps the individual Taelon was not capable of understanding the communal consciousness per say and was influenced by it through a more dream like or unseen process. A process not dissimilar to our unconscious. Mysterious perhaps, but when we watch its action over time and across many individuals we see that there are unmistakable patterns to this unconscious. Perhaps that’s not too alien either. The Taelons created this Commonality to restrict their more animalistic tendencies to rage, violence and darkness, again this is very much how the idea of Archetypes functions in our subconscious. This thought experiment is starting to seem uncannily close to reality. So let us further imagine a full lifespan as an individual Taelon. They are born and assimilate into this communal consciousness and when they die, their experiences remain known to this ‘one consciousness’, the ripples of their lives mixed in with those of countless others, subtly influencing the collective and allowing it, through the aggregate of all its individuals, to experience everything. Allowing it to know what its like to be everything and everyone, ever. Now that’s fascinating, what an alien idea. But its not, let me call this idea by another name we Humans use to describe this kind of all encompassing structure: God. So we have one last stop on this make believe journey, life itself. Never in this story did Roddenberry explain or attempt to explain where life came from. Each individual Taelon was born (through a process of energy) and came into the world, much like we do, suddenly awake in this world of chaos with no idea where they came from. Yes they were given tools and structure by the Commonality, again much like us, but they weren’t given a manual for life and told ‘This is the point to all this and this is how you go about it’. They were still exposed to the same existential problems we face, they too were trying, without reference, to make sense of this crazy universe we live in. They were born randomly into the energy bodies they inhabit and in a time not of their choosing and confronted with the chaos and suffering of facing extinction. They were doing their level best to make sense of that and trying to out run the inevitable entropy buildup in the system which they were inexplicably conscious of. Just like us.
So why am I asking you to imagine yourself as a Taelon? Well partly because its amusing for me to think of people out there going ‘ Im a Taelon, I’m a Tealon’ so just humor me on that front. But mainly because I couldn’t think of any other way to approach this concept without people rolling their eyes, calling me a hippie and running back to their ever entrenched individuality. Its a complex concept which when stated simply tends to get distorted into the ideological. So lets then give this concept a name to define it and then I’ll go through some of the examples which I’ve come across in our Human world: We are one!
By outlining the examples below I’m not trying to convince you that any of them are true in a reductionist sense. I’m pointing your attention at the idea from different viewpoints in an attempt to create a deeper and more nuanced understanding of it.
Ok so throw out the Taelons and lets start with Jung again, this guy is truly fascinating, the more I learn of him the more incredible I find his thoughts. I found this video on YouTube whilst researching for this post. Ill list the four points here so as to continue with the conversation, but its worth a watch.
The experience of the world is just as much psychological as it is physical
The psychic world corresponds in structure to the physical world
Extroversion places deciding weight on the objective factor and introversion places deciding weight on the subjective factor
Just as the physical (objective) world is already there for extroversion to draw from so too is the psychic (subjective) world already there for introversion to draw from
Bear in mind that introversion and extroversion occur to some degree in one individual, otherwise we’ll leave it out for now. Essentially there are two worlds that we experience and both precede us in origin. Its easy to believe that the physical world precedes us, I don’t think that many of us ever really question that. It is however, a bit more challenging to conceptualize a psychic world which exists before and independently of us and yet is simultaneously only perceivable from the inside of one’s self. Jung believed (in as much as I can understand what he believed) that the psychic world was in large part made up of what he called the Collective Unconscious. This ‘a priori’ type structure was common within all of us and jung called its constituent elements ‘Archetypes’. Essentially they are powerful personalities independently at work within us, directing our thoughts and actions on a moment by moment basis depending on the need. Some aspect of this can, in my view, be seen in the actions of ourselves and of those around us, we sometimes act as if we are the same beings. And to the extent to which that is true, can be said to be the extent to which we are the same. Not merely similar as in displaying the similar characteristics, but actually being, in part, the same thing. Its interesting to note that Jung thought that the worlds were of the same value in terms of experience (kinda like saying the same size) and that the collective unconscious makes up almost all of that subjective world. That’s a lot of you that’s actually something else. Or if you turn it around, that’s a lot of something else that’s you. Only that something else is tied into a much bigger structure. For me it’s easy to see how that bigger structure was conceptualised as being a level up in a way. A deity or a kind of meta-consciousness thats built up of our individual contribution to it.
Through the ramblings of Dr Jordan Peterson I learnt of may examples of myth and story which embody the idea of this kind of oneness that we share. Stories like those contained in religious texts, which are in part at least a written record of some of the stories we as humans have been telling each other for thousands of years. Stories like those contained in cultural storytelling like Dostoyevsky, Tolkien or Rowling (which are very similar to the religious stories anyways). Essentially the ‘a priori’ structure is in part, in Petersons view, transmitted to us through culture and its stories and customs. He makes connections between stories in the Bible to this idea of oneness or meta-consciousness. Ideas like man being made in God’s image; that Christ was associated with the logos (the ‘individual’ force as opposed to the all encompassing structure); and that every person could truthfully repent and be forgiven. I think the idea of unilateral forgiveness gives us a good clue here.
Let us look briefly at what we are. You were born into this life fully aware (or moment because you can’t actually remember being born), but you have no idea where you came from or how you got here. These are essentially physical questions, not why, but by which mechanism did you arrive? You truly have no idea, you can believe in some story but in the absence of that, you just don’t have the capability to know where you came from or how. So in that sense we are all the same, we arrive here with no clue and suddenly we are faced with, you guessed it, suffering. Its a raw deal to be honest, even if you’re born rich and powerful you’re still going to hit that suffering at some point. We learn from what is given to us genetically and what is transmitted to us culturally and we become an Ego. We modify the pre-existing physical and psychic worlds slightly, enough to have our own individual or subjective experience of it. An experience that we can, almost simultaneously, recall, influence and plan to modify. Our best bet is to modify those worlds so that we can reduce the suffering inherent in them, or if not reduce it then at least forge a reason for its existence. We are all part of this potential to forge reason from suffering. Each one of us is essentially potential personified. Which isn’t too far from the concept of a Commonality (potential) intertwined with the existence of an individual (action).
So the idea of unilateral forgiveness says that if we truly became aware of our shortcomings or even our own grievous malevolence, genuinely denounced that as wrong and sought to ‘repent’ by seriously turning our thoughts and actions around so as to achieve good or less suffering, then we should be given the opportunity to do so. Why? Well because we all in some way represent the potential to act and change existence. Perhaps we go on to become one of the heroes of the world or even the cosmos, who knows. Its an interesting concept that might be hard to apply in the real world as a human and we might be justifiably weary of believing it blindly. But if we dont believe that each and every one of us shares this potential, we tend fall back into that Egotistical state of contempt, distrust and warring tribes, because of course we possess this potential but its quite clear from the evidence that you do not! And there is quite a lot of evidence out there. Its no wonder that we sometimes come to think that we are so separate to ‘the other’ and special in comparison. So perhaps thinking that we are all equal on some level, the level of potential say, isn’t such a bad idea after all.
We can debate the necessity to tie that belief to some deity, but the idea that we are somehow connected and equal on some level remains. A more way out look at this concept was outlined by Deloris Cannon who, through a process she called Quantum Hypnosis Healing Technique, told of how many subjects recalled the same experience of a higher plane of consciousness and how above that there was another level still. Continued until we reach the source, the One Consciousness which has fractured itself into various sizes and shapes to try to experience all that can be experienced (all of reality) to understand what it is, where it came from and how it got there. I haven’t followed this path of research very far so I may have it a bit wrong. But whilst it sounds whack, an element of it is familiar. Another interesting look at this idea comes from the book The Law of One which was apparently scribed by a team of three people channeling the entity called Ra. Ill include a link to a video describing the seven layers of consciousness and how we all eventually tie back into the one source. An interesting perspective but I wont dwell on it here. The point I’m trying to make here is that although this idea that we are one sounds esoteric, we humans have been thinking about it for quite some time and in many different ways. It seems as if there is a large part of who we are which is effectively someone or something else. It may or may not be conscious itself but to conceptualise that as a Commonality, a ‘one consciousness’ which we are part of but that is not our individual experience, may be useful to use.
I think that to conceptualise this Commonality as being the same entity (The One Consciousness) is phenomenologically true, we can certainly experience it that way with careful reflection either theistically as a god or atheistically as an archetype. But how do we make this leap from similar to the same thing? Thats where this concept of belief comes into play again. We choose to believe it, because that necessitates that we behave in a certain way, the conviction becomes so strong that to act against it feels like committing a sin. That’s the general idea anyways. Many people do actually believe this in some form or another , we have already explored the religious and the esoteric perspective, let’s look at a more social perspective.
We can see this idea manifested in the legal code which governs the ‘western’ world, although it can be poorly implemented at times. This code says that you are innocent before proven guilty and even then are permitted to lay forth any mitigating factors which you think may show your dedication to lessening the suffering after the fact. An astounding concept given that we are so quick to generate contempt through our Egos. We have moved from “He’s on the other side, kill him” to “Ok so he might have done wrong, but let him speak, perhaps he’s the same as us and can help in some small way to ease the way through this journey of suffering”. Even when someone is convicted it seems we are loath the condemn them to death lest they still have some value. Although we do use capital punishment, I’ll wager there are more people in prison currently than ever executed by the modern civilised world. Why bother, if we have decided they are criminals and can no longer help us to create a better world, why not just get rid of them? Well that’s what the Socialists thought in Russia, the Fascists thought in Germany and the Communists thought in China: We are not one and you are beneath us! That didn’t seem to work out well for us as a species.
Another manifestation of this idea is Human Rights. As a collective we have decided that there are certain inalienable rights transferred to each and every human by virtue of them being born. Whilst this idea has not been adopted by the entire of humanity, we in the ‘civilised western’ world certainly do believe this. Institutions like the United Nations and The Peace Palace in The Hague are built in part to protect and ‘enforce’ human rights globally. It is clearly offensive to people if you so much as glance at their sheet of rights, but we struggle to conceptualise the structure of belief needed to bring such a bill of rights into existence.
The way I see it if we are part of one consciousness then there is a cause for hope, hope that the future can be better than the present. Hope that the aggregation of experience over many individual lives will help guide us to a place of greater complexity. If we believe that all people are valuable and that they help to build this complexity then we can begin to see differently, we can see past the Ego and its workings and connect on a much more meaningful level. Even if we cannot identify with an experience, at least we can understand that that experience is necessary for the Commonality. That every experience (which is an act of doing in some way) is a’test’ answer to the existential questions of life and that that experience could just as well have been manifested by our own individual form as by another’s. A failed test, a test of suffering or perhaps successful test somehow but necessary nonetheless.
So lets try another though experiment, this time closer to home. Pretend that you are you, ever so briefly. Imagine that you’ve arrived here in this world and you have no idea what you really are, where you come from and what happens when you die. Thank god this is only a thought experiment right, thats a lot of existential angst to deal with. Now imagine that everyone is like this, with no concrete knowledge regarding the meta-questions of life. In this experiment, I’d like you (remember that you have no idea whats really going on here) to judge and condemn another individual next to you for their thoughts and actions, understand too that they will judge and condemn you for yours (and they also have no idea whats really going on). How did that feel? Hollow in some way, ‘you’re wrong go to hell, but wait so am I in that case and where is this Hell anyways?’. Where would we get the knowledge and experience to judge? Not from our individual selves, we don’t possess the ability to accumulate an understanding of the necessary structure (in one lifetime) to make such judgements. We need some kind of ‘a priori’ structure to guide us. Some kind of accumulated knowledge from many many individuals, perhaps all the individuals, that creates a structure or guide for us to ‘fit’ into. If we, as a collective species or individuals, posit that a core part of this structure is that we are in some ironically intangible way all part of the same thing, we seem to fare better. But we needed all that experience to get to that understanding, all the evil and all the good.
Now I would like to invite you to conduct a real experiment, try to believe this axiom in the next few dealings with other people. Try to believe that the person you are engaging with also has no idea what is going on, on an existential level. That they, like you, were suddenly awakened in this reality and they too are striving to make sense of it all. The probability of them or you being born who you are is so close to zero that it eliminates any specialness that you might possess as you, outside of your own subjective experience. Their experiences are accumulated through a random but mostly deterministic process which has shaped them into who they are. In this way they are you, or at least try to believe that and see how that changes the way you act. When I do that, I become acutely aware that my own limitations as an individual are also the limitations of others. That my problems are also the problems of others and theirs, mine. That on some level we are all connected, we are all God, we are all Complex. On some level, we are all one and its worth respecting that. It certainly seems that when we don’t, all Hell breaks loose.
How often do I actually get that right? Well, I’ll leave that answer up to those who know me. Its not easy to think of that person who has in my mind been incarnated as the epitome of malevolence as being the same being as myself, suffering from the same burden of existence. But if we can manage that or at least move towards that understanding, then perhaps we can tolerate each other long enough to get things done, to live here in the same place and not create Hell on earth, just for a few hours at least.
I think that this principle is one of the foundational reasons for the support I’ve received after the accident. This idea has helped me connect with a wide range of people, people whose ideas are far different to my own but no less valuable. It is this diversity which has ultimately allowed me to find the ideas which prepared me for the accident and support me through its aftermath. Contrast this with my previous conviction to disconnected individual nihilism and its easy to imagine that without this idea, I would never have had the courage, the ability nor the support needed to survive this ordeal.
First, a warning: This post details a time where the realities of life were stark, the gruesome details of the operations were something which I needed to get used to very quickly to keep abreast of what was going on. I debated whether to include images from the operations here but in the end decided to keep with the idea of being as truthful about the journey as possible. Parental guidance is advised.
My Memories of this time lack continuity, partly because the doctors gave me drugs to prevent me from forming memories and partly due to my own reluctance to continuously rebuild those memories. I will try to recall salient thoughts and emotions from this time as write but mostly the information I have has been taken from the accounts of the doctors involved and my own journal which I started keeping on the Tuesday. I was more recording a timeline of major events that detailing my emotional or psychological state, I didn’t really have the energy to do more than that.
Monday 14 July 2019
Firstly, I don’t really remember waking up for the first time. I don’t recall my sister and her husband seeing me awake on Sunday whilst still intubated, in fact I don’t remember being intubated at all. But apparently I did wake up on Sunday, albeit under serious drugs. The initial operation had ended early in the morning and I was in again on Sunday Morning. The first memory I have is of waking up on the Monday morning. Or at least being awake, I don’t fully recall the moment that I awoke. Rather like being in some dream, I was aware that I was conscious but with no real recollection of arriving there. I was alive and that certainly seemed to be a good thing, although there was serious pain. A kind of ‘this isn’t just going to go away pain’. I was also in some shock, there was a lot going on. On top of that I was also high. A kind of dull high Id never experienced before and it wasn’t altogether pleasant. My lips were dry and cracked, my muscles ached, my throat was sore and I could barely move. It was bad, maybe not the worst that there has ever been, but pretty fucking bad.
So what then had actually happened to me? When I arrived in Christian Barnard Hospital, I was in a state called pre-renal Failure, from what I understand its just before your body starts giving in and you get into serious trouble. I had lost a lot of blood, one doctor estimated I received around ten units of blood and a few units of plasma and platelets. About four and a half liters in total, an estimated 80%+ of my total volume of blood. The loss of blood combined with the dead tissue of my right leg was putting a lot of pressure on my body. There is a measure of lactic acid which they monitor during trauma, when I was put under my measure was 10 mmol/l where about 0.5 to 1 is average. This Lactic acid buildup is a reflection of the body’s oxygen consumption outweighing it’s ability to deliver oxygen. An inability to deliver sufficient oxygen and to remove a buildup of CO2 were starting to threaten my life. Apparently when I went under my blood pressure fell quite substantially and to keep me within limits the doctors had to use various vascular constricting and heart stimulating drugs to keep the flow of oxygen sufficient. Despite the drips and ongoing transfusion of blood, the anesthetist manually injected blood and plasma with a syringe to boost the amount of fluids going in and raise my blood pressure. In the end it was pretty close, they didn’t actually need to resuscitate me so I guess it could have been closer, but it was close enough that the doctors were concerned and also relieved when my vital signs showed a large improvement post surgery.
My Left Leg was smashed just below the knee. The head of the Tibia bone, which forms the bottom of the knee, had been broken into three separate pieces and most of the bone directly below it at the ‘fracture’ site was so badly damaged that they needed to remove it. The small shards of bone apparently don’t get sufficient blood supply, then die off and cause infection. Large pieces of the muscle and flesh had also been damaged. They had cut my leg open on both sides to relieve pressure caused by the swelling. The pressure had lead to compartment syndrome and was stopping blood circulation to the muscles. The Fibula had been displaced and broken at the top. The loose bottom section of the Tibia had been stabilized with an external fixation device using pins which screwed into the Fibula and the Femur above the knee, carbon fiber rods and bolted clamps kept the pins and bones secure. The wound was still open but covered in suction bandages to drain off the blood and plasma draining from it. The doctors were as yet uncertain as to whether they could successfully save the leg.
My Right leg was amputated above the knee and the doctors were apparently trying to leave me with as much of a stump as possible although they were concerned with the amount of viable soft tissue available. The trauma had been contained but the leg was not yet closed. Again suction bandages were used to drain the wound.
The initial surgery to save my life and remove my right leg took around 4 hours and ended at 3:07 on the Sunday morning. I was then taken back to theatre later that Sunday by the orthopedic surgeon to fit the external fixator.
To say that I slept on that first night in ICU wouldn’t be quite accurate, its as if I continuously faded into and out of a nightmare. The nightmare part was when I was awake, pain, the effects of the drugs, the constant churning and beeping of the monitors and the machines that regulate the flow of drugs, the business of the nurses and patients coming and going and the shock of being in a hospital with only one leg which could still be amputated.
Tuesday 16 July 2019
Tuesday morning came, although in ICU there is scarcely a night time due to all the activity, and it was back to theatre at 08:20 AM for about three and a half hours, the doctors would continue to work on the left leg . Debriding the wounds, cleaning out more fragments of bone and removing more dead or dying tissue around the wound. Again I came out of the operation in pain and exhausted, it was like all the energy in my body had been depleted, everything I had was used up, maxed out. It was all I could do to try to get through that day moment for moment. I ate some bean soup that evening, although I was not allowed to eat the beans, my digestive system had shut down and the drugs almost guarantee that you get constipated, an issue which would prove to be a problem in the days to come.
Wednesday 17 July 2019
My father arrived from Italy and came to see me in the hospital. It was encouraging to have my family there and without their support during this time, I doubt I would have had the fortitude to continue.
I was taken to theatre again today for the vascular surgeon to do an angiogram of my left leg. Essentially they use an MRI machine and a dye to track the functioning of my blood vessels. They inject the dye into the vein in your pubic area and then uses a pressure bandage to close off the injection site to help stop the vein from bleeding. The anesthetist apparently used some kind of clearing agent drug to wake me from the anesthetic. The effect was to neutralise the painkilling drugs in my system. The procedure wasn’t long but I awoke fast and in considerable pain, post operative shock set in instantly. I was shaking, sweating, cold and breathing in gasps. It felt as if I had just been hit by the rock again, only this time I was already in Hell when it happened. Back in the ICU it took around two hours for me to ‘normalise’ again. Later that evening I had my first real food since the accident, Chicken (lets just leave it at that).
Thursday 18 July 2019
My mother arrived and I saw her for the first time, I also learnt of the amazing amount of support that I had from friends, acquaintances and colleagues outside the hospital. The realisation of how many people I had connected with in my life was staggering.
The doctors placed an ‘epidural’, which is essentially a continuous local anaesthetic applied directly to the spinal cord. They insert a catheter between the vertebrae and into the the area surrounding the spinal cord, a process which is quite unpleasant I can assure you. It did however, help with the pain. For the first time since the accident, my pain was lessened on a more continuous basis. Before then I had had moments that were pain free, but they would be induced by the doctors or nurses giving me some hectic dose of drugs that would reduce or even pause my consciousness. Sure, the morphine, ketamine and precedex were helping to manage the pain, but the epidural really improved things.
I was again taken to theater for around three and a half hours. They continued the process of closing my right leg, they sutured blood vessels and soft tissue and reapplied the vacuum dressings. They also worked on the left leg again, removing further bone and suturing more of the muscles and other soft tissue to try to save the leg. Again I awoke in pain and exhausted, I had this feeling that the world was happening to me and there was in fact very little I could do to change the course of events, I was a passenger on this rollercoaster through Hell and every operation was like a limitless fall further into the black, hot darkness.
Friday 19 July 2019 – Sunday 21 July 2019
Although I technically didn’t have surgery on the Monday, it still felt to me as if i had. I had woken up for the first time in recollection since the accident on Monday and it felt as if this Friday was the first day on which I had not been to theatre, and what a relief. To know that there was a break from this constant in and out of induced unconsciousness and that I could just rest was incredible. The journey to this point had been so dense and chaotic, new people, new experiences and a large amount of learning to stay informed on what was going on. For the most part I just lay there over the weekend reeling from the traumatic events of the past week. The nurses turned my bed inside the cubicle so I could look out the window, although it was raining and cloudy, I could still see the Hottentots-Holland Mountain range in the distance. Once my home and my passion, the mountains now looked like some far away land, beautiful and inaccessible, simultaneously alluring and jeering, as if the world was saying ‘Yea, you want this, well then suffer…’
There were no answers, there was no reason, my emotions ranged far and wide; Courageous, born out of my lessons in climbing; Grievous, born out of the complete devastation of the future; Fearful and frustrated from within the present moment. People often tell me how I was so positive during that time and that that’s what got me though, I can’t say I agree with them, I was just trying to stay with it, trying to hold on to some kind of sanity amidst the sudden and terrifying chaos which had so rapidly consumed me. Perhaps it is just such striving to overcome that is the core of positivity, it has occurred to me before that its genesis is such. There might have been no answers, but by the end of the weekend I was clearly faced with the question: Do you have the will to suffer? You can give up, but if you have the will to suffer seemingly without end, if you truly ask that question, in all its seriousness, through all the sacrifices you will need to make to learn the answer, you do not know what you could become. When all else is washed away, when reality is so overbearing that you get faced with this question in its full undisguised nakedness, the choice between two options becomes quite clear: Suffer bravely and voluntarily, or cast yourself down to the end of consciousness.
Ok so you’re born, you don’t really remember that, which is odd. It’s a pretty big deal in your life and you don’t remember it. Anyways, you don’t quite know nothing at this point but its close, only a few instinctual circuits like ‘SNAKE! AAARGH!’. But as you grow and test the world around you, you learn. You assimilate knowledge which is generated from theory and experimentation. This knowledge is valuable, without it you could not survive let alone thrive. This process of learning is one of our greatest tools, integral to our continued life here. But then something interesting starts to happen, you start to get better at theory crafting. Using your developed knowledge you build better and better theories, emboldened by the fact that most of these turn out to be correct or at least close enough. The theories that you get wrong can even be explained away by your rational mind as exceptions that don’t disprove the rule or perhaps even as the malevolence of others Soon you have theories which are so right that you don’t even need to test them. Theories which have deep roots inside your psyche, perhaps they are not even articulated knowledge but a more primal emotional embodied knowledge. These theories become imbedded in your identity and help to form what is know as the Ego. Congratulations you now have an Ego. May God help you.
term has been defined in many ways and is an elusive concept, partly because we
cant bear to have it attacked in any way (I mean we might get offended right),
and partly because its incredibly difficult to define something, which is of
ourselves, and which we cannot easily see or experience. So what is it exactly,
what does our collective knowledge say about this phenomenon called the Ego?
am not a psychologist, so this is an opinion which I’ve built up from reading
and observation (theory and testing in other words). I view the Ego as a
process of continuation. Continuation at all costs, whatever needs to be
sacrificed or achieved for the Ego to continue is justified by the continuation
thereof. This is a massively powerful force. So lets unpack this process and
define it as clearly as possible.
Ego, in my mind, has the following characteristics which are worth
It is part of but separate to the self (The Ego is not ‘me’ per say)
It can be conscious (often when ‘I’ am not)
It is concerned only with continuation of itself
It can fool me into believing that It is me
It is not ethically bound
It is of and for itself
It is necessary for our survival and for us to achieve
It can be observed and moderated
Carl Jung was one of the most influential thinkers of the last century and he defined the Ego as a process born of the self and only as a component of the self, or as he put it a complex. A complex is essentially a sub-personality operating around one principal or idea. Hunger, desire, anger and our goals and dreams are all nodes around which these various complexes operate. Often these complexes are hidden from us and direct our behaviour in ways we are unaware of.
As I have experienced it, the Ego is essentially the main complex or a collection of the strongest complexes at work in our psyche. I don’t believe that the Ego is the base conscious experience but rather a process at work within us, it is however a very powerful process and can in a sense hijack the conscious experience.
Ego as the Conscious Experience
When our Ego is in
control, we are essentially tricked into believing that we are the thoughts and
emotions which manifest themselves inside our conscious experience. We
experience this as an all consuming emotion or thought, blind rage for example
is a complex operating around anger, we experience this as if we are the rage,
rather than the emotion being present in the space that we experience
everything. We often use the term ‘lost in thought’ when a thought captures us
and we cannot see outside it, it repeats and shapes our reality weather we want
it to or not. As our emotions and thoughts rise up out of our unconscious, our
Egoic process consumes them and uses these complexes as fuel to keep its fire
burning. To continue its existence.
Ego Must Continue
The Ego is concerned
with one thing only, its continued existence. This is its purpose, to analyse
the recourses available and do whatever it takes to survive. In other words it
gathers thoughts and emotions which rise up from within us, organises them and
creates actions to ensure its continuation. So if we are angry, or sad, the Ego
can use that to continue. It tricks us into believing that we are that anger or
that sadness and that we cannot be without it, to let it go would cause a
fundamental shift in our Ego, it would involve our Ego loosing control of the
conscious experience. This drive for continuation is not concerned with
wellbeing, happiness or any definition of good or bad, it is only concerned
with continuation from moment to moment.
When the Ego is in control, bearing in mind that its sole purpose is to continue, it can act in a purely selfish way. Only actions which will continue its existence are considered, if this appears to be an ethical action when observed from outside, it is only because the Ego takes into account all the variable outcomes, including social pressures like humiliation and possible reprimand from the community. At base it is not concerned with the wellbeing of others, only its continuation. If it can execute an action which is harmful to another and not be diminished or reduced by the outcome, it will do so. This is evident in the most extreme cases of Egotistic behaviour, Narcissism. The Narcissistic complex will at any given opportunity seek to create a level difference between two Egos. It does this by generating contempt for the other Ego or Egos. This is a particularly useful tactic for the Ego, what better way to justify this ‘right’ to continuation than to be different and better than all other Egos (people). The Ego is a machine of survival, physical and psychological survival, not of ethical behaviour.
Ego and Time
The Ego is a process which occurs in the present. Although it takes into consideration our past memories, experiences and our imagined future, it only does so to the extent that it can create a continuation of itself. When it is threatened or under pressure to survive, it’s focus can be laser accurate, taking only that which will create an immediate continuation into account. This extreme reaction can be detrimental to our future selves. Eckhart Tolle described this best when he referred to the Pain Body, a body of knowledge and experience which the Ego holds onto and makes us identify with. The more we continue to identify with this pain body, the easier it is for the Ego to create this illusion of continuation. The same can be true of ‘future memories’ which are created by our imagination to guide us to the future that we want. Getting a promotion or achieving some goal or other is an example of a future memory and, even if it is no longer possible, the Ego can hold onto this future memory to create continuation. The Ego is the process that stabilizes our psyche through time, it says ‘I’ve been to the past and seen the future and this is how it all fits together with the present’. When the present moment doesn’t line up with the ‘fully complete’ picture that the Ego has created,it threatens the Ego, then it says ‘if I’m wrong about this moment, then…’. The more threatened the Ego becomes the more likely it is that it will continue to use thoughts, emotions and memories which are detrimental to us to create that all important continuation, moment to moment.
Despite this dark side of our Ego’s which is prevalent and even sometimes encouraged in our society, it is a necessary force. It is what has allowed us as individuals, and therefore as a species, to survive. When our adrenaline spikes and our blood vessels dilate, readying us for either fight or flight, it is our Ego which rises to the challenge. It is our Ego which says ‘I got this, stand aside and let me create continuity’. This can be brought on by a physical threat or a threat to our identity, a challenge to our body or a challenge to our beliefs. Both of these are vital to our survival and the Ego is instrumental in protecting them. When our Egos get too damaged say by a rock or a kind of Damascus experience which fundamentally alters our beliefs, it can cause pathological problems. The Ego can ‘fuck out’ as it were, if we are conscious of it doing so we are left naked and exposed to the raw chaos of the existence, if we are not, then we are doomed to experience the frantic, terrifying death of a part of the Ego which we would be currently perceiving as our self. Having had this occur to me, I attest that it is one of the most mortally terrifying things one can experience. When your Ego says ‘I was wrong, this changes everything’ and then fragments into bits and pieces, re-amalgamating with the chaos from whence it came.
Ego and balance
So we need the Ego but we also cant allow it to have full and unopposed reign. We need to know what its doing so that we can moderate its behavior, either is too ‘on’ or its too ‘off’ (or maybe it’s just broken). How then do we achieve this balance? If you’ve been reading this Blog, then my answer shouldn’t surprise you: Pay Attention. There is a field of consciousness in which all of our experiences manifest, this conscious experience is the base of the self and it is possible for us to rest as that space and observe the things that we experience in such a way that we do not necessarily identify with them. There is a way to be consciously aware of when our Ego is operating and which complex or collection of complexes it is using to create the illusion of continuity. We can stand back, as it were, and observe the truth about reality, we can experience without judgment those things which are occurring inside our consciousness. In general (although I’m weary of generalizing) in our society we are for the most part unaware of when our Ego is active and what it is doing. I might even go one step further and say that we are mostly unaware of what our minds are doing, our attention is for sale and we pass it freely to the agents who will sell it, often to our detriment. It is the rare individual who has sufficient knowledge and experience to be able to continuously rest as that conscious experience and only allow the Ego out when absolutely needed. Most of us, myself included, are dominated by the Ego and it is a rare occasion for us to be able to stand outside it and observe what it is doing. Often when we do, we see that it is acting in a way that doesn’t actually serve our best interests in the current situation or the future.
Meditation is the practice we use train train our minds to stand back form this process and observe it. If we can observe it, we can at least start to control it. Then we can seek the balance which is necessary to create a life more focused on well-being instead of the blind conquest for continuation of Ego. I’m far from an expert, but as I see it, the base of the meditative practice is to pay close attention to the mind, either through use of a kind of mental tether (like a mantra or the breath) or through experienced and practiced will. The idea being that you could potentially become aware of a thought (and not identify with or judge that thought) the exact moment that it spontaneously generates in your mind. Although we aren’t sure where these thoughts actually arise from, I think its linked to this concept of the future you, which is in my mind a process of the Ego. The more we practice this technique of actively watching our minds (and the world around us) and differentiate our consciousness from the things appearing inside our conscious field, the more ‘automatic’ this separation of perspective becomes. This has been one of the most earth-shattering discoveries of my life, to discover that you don’t need to be the thoughts in your head and you don’t need to be the reaction you feel to some truly horrid external stimulus like getting hit by a rock or someone offending you (heaven forbid). You can actually stand back and look at it nonjudgmentally, then you can start to craft a truly constructive future, a future of order and not the chaos of pure instinct. And if you can’t craft the future, at least you can craft the now, you can decide to just be, fully attentive to the current moment, immortal in the now. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
In Rocklands, during the few months prior the accident, I had resolved to take up meditation. I used an app called The Waking Up App by Sam Harris ( https://wakingup.com/ ), which I highly recommend. Although I had never meditated with any conviction previously, I was struck by how quickly and how profoundly I took it it. I created a daily meditation habit almost immediately. This brief spell of practice allowed me to observe my Ego when it fucked out, when it crumbled and went off spinning into the void, fragmenting and dying with the realization of what was happening to me. When the chaos became too dense and the me that was was overcome, when my consciousness was left bare for existence to have its way with, my conscious mind found this habit and to the best of its ability amidst the pain and terror, it crafted what it could of the current moment. The raw conscious experience which I had come to experience through meditation was all I had left to hold onto, and almost autonomously I did that. buffered by this ability to find a meditative state, without the obligation to identify with the frantic terror of the ego and without the necessity of dealing with the overwhelming chaos, I was able to calm, able to focus on staying lucid and conscious. Purely conscious with no past, no future and no judgement. Although I wasn’t able to hold this state consistently whilst lying broken on the mountain side, the ability to al least tap into it for brief periods was enough.
For me Meditation has been a profound discovery, it has allowed me to see the world in a way which I never thought possible. If somebody as flawed and imperfect as I am can find the discipline to create a habit of Meditation, then surely others must be able to do the same. Consider this a challenge, not just to create a habit of meditation but a challenge to shake loose the bonds of your Ego, to challenge your Ego by observing it and starting to recognise what it is and what it does. If we all do this, if we all develop the habit of paying attention, of being mindful, I postulate that we will no longer need to strive to make the world a better place, it will happen automatically. Download the Waking Up App or another app if you please, learn to meditate, learn to pay attention, to what’s really going on, to the truth: THE FUTURE OF OUR SOCIETY DEPENDS ON IT!
Plate V of an artwork contemplating the idea of Fate…By: Jethro Watson
I awoke with such calm. If it is at all possible, this was were I was meant to be. My dogs came in for their morning hellos, a quick cuddle and a reminder that they wanted to go out, there was a whole world out there to explore. I opened my tent and stepped out into the cool Cederberg morning, stunning in its winter clarity. I walked down the road to where it overlooked the dam and waited for my dogs to come back round the corner. I felt an alignment so deep that my entire being was at peace, my dogs, this place, the sacrifices, the training, the transformation, the achievement. It was as if I had discovered some kind of personal cosmic compass and although I couldn’t put it into words, I felt that I was firmly heading in the right direction. I walked back to my tent, made a fresh press of coffee, the click of my gas stove and the smell of coffee in the tent were hallmarks of the life Id chosen to live. A nomadic life of climbing, and living in the outdoors with my dogs, wherever that might take me. I walked over to greet Nick, we were heading out to a new area, time to do some first ascents in Rocklands.
We drove out and parked on the side of the road at the top of the Pakhuis Pass closer to Clanwilliam than most of the established climbing. The amazing vistas which greeted us in that section of the pass were novel and beautiful, ridges of rock and green, and a valley with secrets untold. My dogs were loving the freedom, no paths and large areas to explore as we walked out to find Nick’s project, a proud highball boulder which he said could go at 7C or higher. I wasn’t planning to climb it, just to take photos of him doing so. Id climb something altogether more tame, something a bit safer. The area was a maze of rock we went over the ridge but we didn’t take the most direct path. Nick eventually found what he was looking for but we would have to go round and up to get there. The going was kind of tough and the uphill was tiring. But we were almost at our destination.
The details are a bit sketchy in my mind, perhaps it was the tiredness of the hike and uphill, perhaps my mind just stopped recording to make way for my body to act. I was approaching a ridge of some one and a half meters high, I was trying to circumvent this ridge when I noticed that the rock I was passing was moving too quickly. Going up hill as I was, I was expecting to see first the side then the top of this rock, which I did, but something in my mind clicked that this was happening too fast.
My body moved fast,
especially considering the weight I was carrying, I remember pushing off with
my legs and turning at the same time, desperately trying to put distance
between me and the boulder coming towards me. I remember hitting the ground and
feeling the push of the boulder that kept my momentum going further than my
initial jump. I remember feeling my left leg bend back up and over my knee in a
very unnatural way, the acute snapping noise of the bone breaking and then an
intense pressure on my right leg. My adrenaline spiked, I could feel the rush.
The pain hit me. But what hurt I couldn’t say. My breathing was sharp. The pain
I knew I had issues.
Breathe in, I told myself. Pay attention, assess.
I turned to look
back at my legs, the left was bent out under the knee and was clearly broken,
my jeans were torn and I could see the blood.
Well, that’s not good.
My right leg was
pinned at the knee under the boulder, I couldn’t tell how badly injured it was.
But I knew I needed help, and fast.
okay” He answered.
Nick came dodging
down the mountain slope to me. He took one look at me and went into action,
trying to assess how to get me out from under the boulder.
“I’m gonna get you out of here bud”. He tried to lift the boulder without effect. “Ok I’m gonna try to get your pack off”. My head was reeling and I was breathing hard, the pain and shock taking full effect. But I used the adrenaline rush my body had reacted with to keep me focused, there was work to do. I helped Nick unclip my pack, just to stay with the process more than being useful. He got the pack off me and looked at the pinned leg, digging around it to clear some space. He said I was pinned on a rock underneath, I tried to turn slightly, more onto my stomach, to see if I could get the leg into a better position to pull it out. I think this worked but the pain lanced through me like the fire of hell itself, I realized the damage must be pretty bad.
“I’m going to
try to lift it” which brought me back out of the alternate dimension of
I looked around and saw an exposed rock in front of me, there was a small ridge I could crimp, I readied myself. Nick lifted, the boulder moved, I pulled and was free. By some Power of Greyskull, he had lifted that thing and got me out. He helped me move into a more ‘comfortable’ position on my back. The pain was all too real, It was all I could experience, every other sense dulled by its insistence. I was breathing sharply and erratically, my breath and the involuntary screams controlled purely by the pain.
Nick looked at my
right leg, “Man, you are broken” He said. “I’m going to
I couldn’t see what he was doing, I couldn’t lift my head, my struggle was elsewhere, internal at that point. Trying to drive sanity back through the shock and pain. As he pulled the tourniquet tight around my leg, I screamed. But somehow it helped me back. The pain which had been the unravelling of my mind seconds earlier, seemed to tether me to reality. I raised my head to look at Nick.
“Do I make this
“Do I make
“I’m gonna get
you outa here okay”
He gave me a bottle
of water, I drank some and splashed some on my face. This helped bring me back
into the moment again. “I feel really bad I cant be here but I need to get
help” Nick said.
“You need to do
what you need to do, please hurry, I don’t want to die from loss of blood”
He stood, turned and ran. I was left alone with the pain and the uncertainty of the severity of the injury. I could barely move due the pain, let alone sit and an examine myself. I had no idea if I was at risk of death or not. The pain and the shock were overwhelming, I had no idea where I was. Would I live. Would I walk again. Would I climb again. It was all too much and my sanity crumbled.
From then time
became distorted, my mind went into automatic. It cut out certain elements of
reality to focus on what was necessary. It focused internally, through the pain
and shock, through dreams of the future and layers of the past and found what
it needed to survive. Focus on Consciousness.
Focus of Breathing. Don’t think about the future. I was in uncharted
territory, plunged through that thin sheet of ice that we walk on every day,
down into the deep cold water below. It was Chaos. I had left order and was
firmly in the realm of Chaos. But I was still there, and that pure state of
experience held a special sort of significance.
Focus. Focus. Focus on consciousness. Aaaargh. No. Focus. Focus on the moment, you could do that before…do it again now. Aaaargh. Focus, dammit. Focus on this moment. Focus on your breath. Breathe. You need to breathe. Breath in. Brea… Aaaaaaaargh…ok don’t move…Breathe in…breathe out…slower…breathe in…breathe out…ok this is working….argh…stay focused…drop into that space where its just experience….breathe in…breathe out…but the pain. Argh. Aaaargh. Water, need water.
I craned my neck over to see the bottle, i managed to reach for it. Although every movement cost me pain, I had seemed to gain some composure through this brief journey into this internal world of consciousness. I drank, the cool water did refresh me, but unable to control my sharp breathing I coughed. This was unbearable and the water splashed over my face from the bottle. As the cool water hit my face and it caused me to gasp and then scream. It wasn’t only a scream of pain though. This was different, this was more determined. A scream of anger, a scream of hope, a scream that came from a place of resolve. Had I not been here before? Had I not calloused my mind, as David Goggins had said, had I not put enough friction and challenges in my life before to know how to overcome this? Had I not been humbled enough before to be able to get through this? I laid my head down again, this time more determined. Embracing the pain, I breathed in again.
Breathe in…Breathe out…Breathe in….Breathe out…embrace this moment…don’t judge, just experience…shorten your time frame like Jordan Peterson said…when you’re faced with inescapable suffering…shorten your time frame…if a minute is too long then all you have is a breath…breathe in…breathe out…aaaargh…its too much…no…just breathe…what if I don’t make it out…my dogs…breathe Watson!…
But it was too much again and the world started to spin. Thoughts of the future, the possibilities and the pain overwhelmed me. With my mind racing out of control, a feeling of massive frustration built inside me until it became a rage. This time the scream was intentional, a primal beast of terror and anguish.
Ok you’ve had your moment of weakness now…you got rid of that emotion…no more future now…no more past…just breathe Watson!…Breathe in…Breathe out…slower now…Breathe in…Breathe out…What did Sam Harris say…just rest as that space where things appear…I am not this pain…I am only in this moment
My mind kept to its task now, somehow found a way to stay focused on the moment to greater or lesser degree until Nick came back. “Jethro” he called. “Nick” I yelled. He came back and told me help was on the way. I lay back and focused on breathing, the pain hadn’t subsided but my ability to withstand it seemed to have been bolstered by the meditative state my mind had found. “The medics are on the way” Nick said, “Okay man, I wanna live”. When Timmy from Klein Kliphuis arrived I told him the same Thing “I just wanna live” It had been a long internal struggle to withstand the weight of the all too real situation, but I was determined to fight. The medics arrived sometime later, I’m told it was about two hours from the incident, time had ceased to work in a normal rhythm to me. My reality was breathing and consciousness, punctuated by salient events in real world: James from Alfa arriving, the medics putting up an IV for what I presumed was morphine, the pain lessening slightly, the medics dressing my legs and moving me to a stretcher (both of which caused me to cry out involuntarily in pain). I remember them talking on their radios about the helicopter and our whereabouts, at last we heard the helicopter approaching.
At first they couldn’t find us, the sound of the helicopter growing louder and then fading again several times. Eventually they found us and came in low, they lowered a paramedic to help roll me into a stretcher to be airlifted. He explained that they couldn’t land and I would be lifted along side the helicopter for a short distance and then land to be brought inside. Safely inside the helicopter I realised I was freezing, a problem aggravated by the fact that we needed to refuel and protocol said we needed to have the door open for that. The winter air coming into the cabin was freezing. We landed at Milnerton hospital at 18:40, about seven hours after the rock hit me. They wheeled me into a room with some kind of scanning machinery on the roof. I presumed it was an X-Ray machine. I really wasn’t sure what was going on at this point. I was on drugs for pain, tired and cold. My ability to focus was waning.
To move me from the stretcher to the bed, they game me Ketamine. Ketamine, I later learnt, is used because it dissociates one from reality and reduces pain. It’s effect is powerful but relatively short lived. It helped with the pain and made the transfer easier. But the effects didn’t stop there. I was lying prone, looking up at this X-ray machine which was a very foreign looking thing, grey and white and black. My feeling was gone, I was floating on my stretcher and it had gone quiet, quiet like my hearing had failed. I was suddenly aware that my vision had gone very wide, it was as if my vision no longer had a boundary. When I tried to look for the end of my vision all I found was a repeating sequence of colour. Black and grey and beige, like a repeating fractal or an Escher like construct. It was everywhere, it consumed everything. I can only describe the experience that followed as and Ego death experience. I had heard of this idea in some of my research into taking psychedelics. The idea that the world turns into pure experience, to the extent that your identity ceases to exist. The fractal became that experience, it was in front, on the sides and as my vision looked back through where I should have been, there too was the fractal. It was all there was, repeating, changing and everywhere. And then it began to clear. At some point an ‘I’ became aware again, and the ‘I’ was very confused. Who was ‘I’, Where was ‘I’, and what the hell was going on? It struggled to grasp for any meaning, a thread of what that ‘I’ was. I knew I wasn’t born now, spontaneously. I had a feeling that there must be some nexus which caused this reality to be. I worked back through my disjointed memory of the last events in my mind, each one unfolding before me like a new event in time until I found the boulder crashing down on me. Boom, like knowledge uploaded in the matrix, I had a continuation of self again. A self which was somewhat in shock, in pain, but still determined to live.
I brought myself to, and decided to focus on the outer world for the time being, lest there was another one of these ego-death trips. I didn’t want to have to battle through that again in my state. I made conversation with the people there, I didn’t know if they were doctors or dentists but somehow I got them to play music, Tool of course. In my not so together state I convinced them to play Invincible, a song about feeling time exert its inevitable pressure. Although this seems folly in a situation where time is quite apparently limited, but the correct response to feeling time so acutely is to fight it, not to succumb to it. You fight it by trying, trying to be productive, trying to create, trying to stay alive.
By this point they
had called my sister and she had arrived in what seemed to me to be a very
short space of time, but how could I tell. I was really kind of out of it. I
remember asking, “If I pass out now, have you guys got me?” because I
wasn’t sure if I could maintain this conscious connection anymore. Determined
as I was the drugs and the tiredness were taking their toll. I don’t recall
their exact answer, but I remember that I wasn’t convinced.
They transferred me to Christian Barnard via ambulance. I remember the ambulance drivers were really awesome, friendly and positive. They made the ambulance really warm to help heat me up, I was still cold as stone. At Christian Barnard hospital I was again wheeled into a theatre and here met a very focused and concerned looking woman that I would later learn is Dr Kirsten Bischof. She went to work examining me. She touched here and there on the legs and feet and asked me what I could feel. I answered as truthfully as I could. She discussed something with her colleagues, presumably looking at the X-ray scans done earlier.
She came to me
looking very serious, she said that I was very sick, I had lost a lot of blood
and I was in a serious state. She said the right leg was dead and that the dead
tissue was putting a lot of pressure on my body. “We need to take the
right leg to save your life”. “Well then we need to do that” I
said, somewhat surprised at my response. They were going to amputate my right
leg and this didn’t really seem to be such an issue. It needed to be done so I
could live. Shorten your time frame, I
told myself, I just want to live. First this
then we worry about the future. Dr Bischof confirmed that they were going to
amputate the right leg and, for now, try to save the left. She wanted extra
scans done to make sure and to give her more information for the operation to
come. She added that we need to hurry, that I needed to get into theatre soon.
Whilst it wasn’t quite fear that I felt, I was certain that there was a
pressing need for something to be done to prevent me from dying. Its an odd
feeling knowing that you are at very real risk of death and there is in fact
nothing that you can do about it. It will now either happen or not.
They wheeled me into the MRI room, despite the drugs, the pain when they transferred me from the bed to the dolly was intense. I think by then my ability to withstand the pain of my bones moving and grating against one another had more or less dissolved.
The look on Dr Bischof’s face was grave when she had told me that I was in a serious state, I was certainly not convinced that I was in the clear. Had I come this all this way to die on a theatre bed. No one had told me, “don’t worry, you’ll make it”. It was a possibility I had to consider. So if this was to be my last few moments of consciousness, I had better make peace. I didn’t want to be fighting of fearful when they put me under. Through the haze of pain and drugs, my though process went something like this.
My body is broken…too broken to fix…So I’m going to die…in some sense I have already died…and I need to accept that…At best some part of this identity will survive…at worst, none, and the conscious experience that is me will be no more…Am I ready for that? Well, that’s not exactly a fair question is it…is anyone every ready? I have things I would like to achieve still…but if this is it can I say its been a good life…a life that was actually worth living…..I come from a good home with parents who loved me and gave me a great start to life…They gave me access to experience and education…I’ve overcome adversity, that’s a good thing…I’ve achieved things, built buildings, helped others do so as well…and I’ve climbed, if personal achievement is any measure for life then yes…its been a good one…I could have done more, I could have given back more, but I’ve achieved things I could never even have dreamt of…dedication and sacrifice paid off…if I’m to go now I’ll take that as a win…me 1, the suffering of reality 0…and that’s at least a light to shine in the darkness…perhaps that will inspire people…perhaps that will leave this world just a little brighter than when I arrived…goodbye Watson, you’ve done well my friend…
I remember lying on
the theatre bed looking up at the lights. I was ready, in what ever way I could
be in that moment. I was peaceful at least. One way or another, this life had
come to an end. The anaesthetist said something. The world went dark, consciousness
slid out from underneath me.
The Labyrinth in Hogsback, South Africa. Just a cool image, it doesn’t have anything to do with consistency. Or does it…. Photo by: Jethro Watson
It is said there is no substitute for Consistency. But consistency of what, what was it that led to the changes in my life and to my achievements in climbing? It wasn’t consistency of climbing, that’s a bit vague. To understand what consistency is we need to look at three things: The Present, the Past and the Future. With an understanding of this temporal space, I’ll start to piece together how I think consciousness functions to create habit and why the consistency of monitoring this process is critically important to achieve a life of meaning.
Our conscious awareness allows us to build habits, habits of thought and habits of action, this process of habit allows us to act in a way that brings about our desired future. The synergy between the meaning of habitable or habitat and habit cannot be overlooked, we use habit to create a habitable space for us to live in. Said another way, we use habit to create the future.
Humans have an odd ability which often leaves us quite confused about a specific variable in this universe: Time. We possess an ability which allows our minds (not the same as our brain) to be ‘in’ a different temporal space to our bodies. It allows our minds to be in the Past and the Future (and the present when we are fully aligned). We can switch between these temporal spaces with great efficiency and alarming speed. If we are mindful we can train this ability, often when we do not and it trains us.
What do we know about the present? Well, if you’re thinking about the present, you’re actually not in it. You’re actually ‘in’ the past. To be truly immersed in the present is to be in that space where the infinite regresses of the Past and the Future meet, its not a space you can think about, its a space you have to be in! The way I see it, the present only exists when we call it into being using focus and attention. When we concentrate sufficiently on the moment that our minds are neither in the past nor in the future. This ties in with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow. A state where time actually becomes distorted.
This focus and attention, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the ability to change the present, it just is. The immediate future, the very next micro-moment, is the only thing that we can change (and the past to some extent, but we’ll get to that). We change the future by acting in the present, by using our agency in this world to make a change and bring about a possible future. A future that we have created, first and foremost, in our minds. But how does this process of agency work? We think that in the present, we make decisions, choices between various different options and occasionally creative solutions to problems. I don’t think this commonly held view is quite what’s going on.
In my experience our thoughts and actions in the present appear more as a continuation of habit rather than conscious decisions. Our focus and attention merely let us observe these thoughts and actions for later review. For a time when we are oscillating between the Past and the Future. This idea was born in part from my observations of myself in the present and part from my fascination and research into free will. Whilst I still doggedly believe that we possess this free will, I’m uncertain where this manifests. It doesn’t seem to manifest in the present. Ill give you just two examples.
When I was trying to quit smoking and failed to exercise self restraint, I noticed a kind of duality of being. What I wished was not to take out a cigarette, light it and smoke it, but sure enough, there I was doing just that. I would sometimes observe this in a detached way and ask, ‘where is my free will here, surely if I am acting of my own accord I could stop this behaviour?’. But, alas, that task took me years. Another time I noticed this autonomous, habitual reaction to the present which was contrary to my conscious desires was whilst climbing. Both before climbing a sport route and sometimes during, I would be totally overcome by fear, my consciousness had seemed to decide that it simply couldn’t get onto the climb or do the set of moves that were clearly terrifying. But oddly enough, there I was watching myself performing the actions of tying in and lifting off the ground or automatically engaging with the set of moves. What was going on here, I wasn’t deciding to do these things, so who was? The answer I came up with was that it was in fact my previous self that had made the decision and had prepared my mind in a consistent way that it acted out of habit. My mind was either re-running practiced engrams or was making creative adjustments to previous experiences of a similar nature. My mind had done this before, or at least something similar and faced with the present moment in which I needed to act, it produced an action out of habit.
But are these not
specific examples of the present where we are influenced by some internal
struggle for self control? If we had the will power, surely then we could
overcome the addiction or the fear? To answer this question, lets have a brief
look into the idea of free will. A great deal of our society is predicated on
the idea that there is some kind of personal identity with a ‘will’, a force
which allows that identity to be self determining. From a subjective level this
makes sense, we hold people accountable for their actions as if they have free
will and we all believe that we should be able to determine our own futures.
But how much of this is just a fiction we created to help us in this world of
chaos and how much ‘will’ do we actually have? I’ve listened to Sam Harris on
this topic and his thoughts are hard to dismiss: when we think a thought, where
did it come from? Did we think ‘I’m going to think the following, and then
actually go and think it?’. Its unlikely. So which identity decided to think
the thoughts we think? We might think them but did we decide to think them?
Again the answer I came up with for this strange question was the same, my
previous self did.
So who is this
previous self, he too doesn’t seem to manifest in the present and if he doesn’t
exist in the present, does he exist at all? And if there’s a previous self, is
there a future self? We can use our minds to put us ‘into’ the Past,
essentially reliving present moments gone by. It is in this ‘Past Mind’ state
that I believe my previous self exists, not focused on the present but focused
on the Past. Its as if we allow our consciousness to be consumed by memory and
experience the Past as a very real ‘present’. We use the same process when we
are ‘in’ the future. We can think of this as the ‘Mind’ state of being. It’s
the opposite state of being to the present and I think on average we spend most
of our time in this state. Although this layer of thoughts are actually
experienced in the present, I see it as a separate state to the reality outside
of our minds, the very real Present. I think of it this way, in mathematics
some outcome can be defined as the function of a set of variables, so if thoughts
and actions are the outcome, then this ‘Mind’ self is the function which gives
them form and the variables are the Past and the Future. So how do the Past and
the Future influence what we do in the present? Lets dig into what the Past and
the Future are in our minds.
The Past is complicated for sure. It involves using memories of experiences which both we and others have experienced. Memory can be a fickle and unreliable thing to begin with and we haven’t even got to our biases and potential pathologies yet. But be that as it may, memory and the past is crucial in determining our actions. We can review, analyse and make changes to this ‘real’ Past replaying in our minds. Changes which determine how we might remember things in the present when we need the information to think and act in a certain way.
Each time we recall an event or even an idea, we rebuild a memory in our mind, we can use this ability to analyse the memory and learn from it. We can also change that memory in certain ways, we can alter the memory, we can see the memory with new experience and alter how we feel about it, sometimes we can even forget or, put another way, fail to recall a memory either in part or in full. All these tools help us build repetitive recollections of the same type of memories, grief, our religious convictions, patterns of behaviour, negativity or positivity, who we are and the engram used to climb a certain route. As a climber we go through this process of changing the memory which we will later recall as we make changes to the Beta we use to try to send a route or problem.
In this ‘Past mind’ mode, we have far greater control of our thoughts but there are still restrictions. For example we may recall things erroneously and we cant think an idea we have never been exposed to before (although I think we can synergise ideas and improve upon them to create ‘new’ ideas, this process is subtle and whole new concepts or groups of concepts don’t just spontaneously appear in our heads). So we do need to continually review and question our thoughts to ensure we minimize the errors, this includes having some humility to admit our errors (to ourselves and others) . We also need to go exploring, exploring usually comes in the form of challenging your own ideas, seeking out ideas which are strange or contrary to your own and thinking about them, testing them against what you know and experience and then deciding if they are ideas you want to incorporate.
If this process of Past analysis and habit forming is so important, which ideas should we incorporate then? How do we decide which thoughts to think consistently to form these important habits of thought? That’s where we turn to the Future.
Fist off, its
important to note that the future is a created space, created by us. Everything
that we have done is first created in our minds and then brought into being, it
might not be brought into being in exactly the way we envisioned it when the
future collides inevitably with the restrictions of the present, the
restrictions of reality. However, the process of mental creation or dreaming is
vitally important in guiding us to create the right habits.
So is this just a question of goal setting? I think that’s too simple a way of looking at it. A goal is a valuable milestone for sure, but what happens if you cant reach it or, even worse, if you do reach it? Without a framework to set new goals, you’re doomed to disappointment or the tragedy of stagnation and egotism. Again, I think Dr Jordan Petersons view on this idea of creating the future is the best description I’ve heard to date: Take Aim. He describes a kind of feedback loop which allows you to track and change course as your knowledge and experience deepen (that’s the Past influencing the Future) and as life throws its proverbial curve balls at you.
An important aspect
of the Future is that we create multiple versions of it, so many in fact that
if we didn’t ‘set our aim’ we would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of
possibilities and would flounder in the sea of futures ahead of us. I think
many people are caught in this state where the future is too vague. Their
decisions and actions in the present tend to be erratic and random, leading
them nowhere. Sometimes we build several promising futures and are then forced
to sacrifice one or more of them to make space for the most important of our
dreams. Its in this ‘Future Mind’ mode which we are able to perform this task.
Okay, so at this point I can almost hear you asking, so what? What does this have to do with consistency? When our minds and body are aligned, we are in the Present, experiencing, recording and acting from habit. When we are in the Past or Future, our minds are analyzing and creating. If we purposely put ourselves into this ‘Mind’ state, we can control the process of analysis and creation, we can eliminate those thoughts which do not create in our mind the future we desire and eliminate those past memories which will not build the habits we need to achieve these futures. We can then go exploring for new ideas which will fill the void of those ideas which we have stopped thinking. If we do this enough, we create habits of thought. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, described much this same process in companies which went from good companies to companies which outperformed their competitors for years on end: Dedicated Thought and Dedicated Action. This same concept applies to our mental space. We should mindfully enter the ‘Mind’ state and consistently think about the future we want to create and cultivate the right thoughts and ideas that will get us there, simultaneously we should eliminate the unnecessary. If we then enter the present mindfully we can be prepared to think and act in a way that allows us to physically create the best future given the constraints of the present. If we monitor and repeat this process with sufficient consistency then we can achieve amazing things.
Pay full attention to the present when necessary. Mindfully allow the Past and the Future into your consciousness. Consistently create the future you want and analyse the past strategically in your mind to create habits of thought. Repeat Process. Its actually that simple, in a complex way.
This process has
helped me to send climbs I though weren’t possible for me to send; it’s helped
me to stop smoking and change my diet when I started consistently thinking of a
better climbing future, it’s helped me to make decisions on my work status to allow
me time for climbing and training, it’s helped me to rely on my schedule and
train when I was having a down day and it’s helped me to think the right
thoughts to get me through the day of the accident when my body and mind where
overwhelmed by the present. A state where I didn’t have the time or ability to
rationally decide what to think and do, a state where I could only act from