Eckhart Tolle, celebrated 21st century writer and philosopher wrote a New York Times bestseller called “The Power of Now”. (Tolle, E., & OverDrive Inc. (2010). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Novato, CA: New World Library).
OK, now, bear with me for a moment:
In it, he argues, there exists no past and no future, only the NOW. For as time is only an illusion and every moment that you are alive, it is only ever physically possible to experience the NOW. The past and the future are merely an accumulation of moments, and our memories (past) and projections (future) of time are a construct of the conscious mind, stopping us from accessing our unconscious mind and unleashing our full potential of ability.
I am paraphrasing here.
Now... imagine you are at the start of a race, you can almost taste your heartbeat it’s so high up in your chest, sweaty palms, your mind racing, and you can LITERALLY hear time ticking (countdowns, start guns). If Tolle came up to me at that moment and told me to experience the power of now, frankly, I'd tell him to shove it where the sun don’t shine.
Here is what changed my mind:
In January 2019 I passed the entry exam of the staatlicher ski instructor course of Austria. It’s a two-day evaluation covering a GS race, demo skiing and off-piste skiing, (Note, this is just the entry exam to participate in the actual 12-week course!) You first must pass a GS race (i.e. make a certain time limit) in order to continue to the other examinations. This year had been my second attempt.
I had tried, and failed miserably, last year. I was 2.7 seconds off the time limit. In ski racing that’s as if I had taken a coffee break in between the gates and stopped to reorganize my crayons by color along the way. I was out after the second run, and cleared the field for the more proficient skiers, head down, tail in hand, dreams shattered.
For about a month or so, I considered selling all my gear and start training mini-golf instead, when after some soul searching and career planning I decided to give myself a year, train as hard as I could, spend what would turn out to be all of my money, just to try again. A lot was on the line this time. I had flown in from Japan for the exam which is only once a year, and more importantly, without becoming the highest-level instructor my career options in skiing would eventually grind to a screetchy halt, and it would be time to consider giving it up altogether, especially considering my age and (lack of decent) wage.
The week before the retake this last January, I was race training and turned out to be the worst in the group. I felt hopeless. Every day after training I would go scream-cry in my car, because I felt as though I just wasted a year of effort. Given the practice times there was no way in hell I was going to make it this year, so I even considered not entering the exams. Pragmatism took over however and even though I felt awfully sorry for myself I decided to try anyway, since I was already there.
On race day, the holy trinity of preparation, focus and luck was on my side. I pulled a low number starting bib, I was able to focus through my nerves by visualizing the race, I could barely feel the pain from overtraining all over my body, and I pushed out of that gate like Seabuiscuit at the Kentucky Derby.
It took a second or two, nerves turned into flow, I trusted my body’s instincts and automations and time didn’t stop, but it sure ground down to slow motion. When you experience time in slow motion though, you are still very aware of time itself, so that was not the lesson Tolle taught me. The worst was yet to come.
Day two of examinations. Off-piste mogul runs on race skis. My whole body was aching so much from the exams the day before that even sitting on the lift hurt. After the race the previous day we had been examined on 3 more technical demo runs. Before each one, as I lined up amongst a now much smaller sea of nervous peers, all I heard was the panicky
voice inside my head telling me that I am an imposter, that I will forget how to ski, and that I don’t even deserve to be here because I was just lucky at the race. It’s really, really hard, nay, almost impossible to tell that voice to shut the f*** up.
I was mentally as tired as I was physically. We did one viewing run on the course, during which I had to stop 4 or 5 times because my muscles were cramping and it was...scary. The run was a steep narrow swath, trees on either side, uneven hip deep moguls that were tracked out, rather than ziplined. This means that with each person skiing them, they get worse. At the end of the tree line it opened up into a tracked out field, where we had to show powerful long radius off-piste turns. Snow conditions were the worst they can be. Frozen tracked out old snow, with pockets of fresh wet heavy snow that don’t reveal if it’s a bump, or if it will move and you drop into a hole if you ski into it. All of it had to be done on heavy big radius race skis, and there was a whole other run left to do, so we had to manage our strength.
The examiners are lined up along the whole run, so there is no escape. Apart from ability they also test conditioning, so stopping for an emergency rest is not an option. That would mean I was out. As I lined up at the top I had to trust that enough adrenaline would hit me during my actual exam run, to make it through without stopping. I didn’t.
When it was my turn, I pushed off, and felt surprisingly solid in the bumps. My speed control became a bit too controlled however, and I felt as though I should speed up a bit more to show a more dynamic run. As I was bang on in the middle of the run, exactly in front of the head examiner, I came over a mogul, felt one of my bindings unclip, and fell. I panicked. I shuffled around on the ground like a beetle on its back, breathed super heavily, and felt the weight of the world (the examiners eyes, my peers eyes, people on the lift) on me. I had come so far, and now a stupid mistake like this. Tears swelled up and I felt this massive painful pressure right in the middle of my body.
Out of reflex I quickly scanned through my body to see if I had hurt myself. If you have ever fallen, you know what I mean...arms, legs, fingers, face, back, ....
And suddenly, I was THERE!
There was only me, the Now, and each and every single breath was present. It felt as though I had all the time in the world. I had quite an enjoyable conversation with myself. It went like this: “This is great news Hanni! All is well in your body. You are safe and strong. This is only skiing. And now, that you have lost a ski, at least you can rest and take a minute to breathe. Just get everything back together calmly and slowly. It’s the gift of a mini break to rest. Use it”
I stopped flailing. I got up all cool and collected, looked around a bit for my ski, found it, moved it into place, cleaned the bindings and the boots, looked for one of my poles, and got back into my skis.
I used that time to stretch my calves and thighs, take deep breaths and generally relax. I looked up at the examiners, took a massive breath in and out, managed a bit of a smile, settled into my skiing position, and skied off. I bloody nailed the rest of the run, calm and steady, knowing that they wouldn’t deduct too many points. After all, I fell because of the binding opening, not other way round. Falling isn't the problem, not carrying on is.
It was magical. I went on to my last exam run with another surge of strength, and finished the day, having passed with a place on the course. The relief was instant and I was overcome with gratefulness and actual tears of the truest of joys. Having conquered something that I thought was way beyond reach.
Tolle, that post-modernist, new-age hippie was right.
Something happened in that moment that turned a potentially devastating situation into the lucky break of a lifetime. Maybe it was that perfect intersection of experience (the conscious mind), and instinct (the unconscious mind) ...I don’t know. But wherever it came from, I am quite sure the body and mind need to connect to be in the now, which is why sport is a great shortcut to spiritual enlightenment.
In other words, for the more unsentimental amongst us:
Next time you fall, think:
"At least now I can take a little breather before I get back up."