Leaving a Mark

It's generally a big deal in skiing and snowboarding to get "first chair" up the slopes so you have a chance to make what are called "first tracks"–that is, to ski in fresh, untouched snow, first down a freshly groomed run, or first through a fresh pile of powder. And oftentimes skiers and snowboarders will look back up the run, or watch it carefully from their next ride up the chair, to see the tracks they just made–the marks the left behind.

I will admit that it is somewhat enjoyable to have that experience, yet in the end it's a losing battle, a struggle for a scare resource. Often, indeed, it takes little more than an hour for most runs to be tracked over fairly well, and certainly by the end of a day its almost impossible to to distinguish your marks from those of everyone else.

Such were my thoughts on chair lifts during a trip to Sun Peaks Resort in British Columbia, Canada, a trip that coincided with the first week of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. There, of course ,the world's best winter athletes were competing to leave their own marks on the work–not tracks on the ice or in the snow, but the glory of a medal or a new record in their chosen sport. And perhaps it is that we celebrate their performances because in our own hearts we too wish we could leave such marks on the world ourselves, which is why perhaps we seek out similar if still lesser expressions.

Of course, the opportunity to reach the heights of Olympic fame are very rare, far more than making first tracks at a ski resort. Years of training are necessary to even have a chance to compete in an Olympic venue only once every four years. Granted, the marks left behind will last longer…four years, at least, if not longer with those records that reach near "immortality."

Yet again, to my mind, it's ultimately a losing battle. All records, all medals, all performances no matter how fantastic will invariable diminish in the course of time. How few of us, for example, can name even one champion from Olympics of two decades ago, let alone those of the early 1900s. Today's champions will enjoy their limelight, and yet will someday be eclipsed.

In this context I'm reminded of another outdoor activity, similar perhaps to skiing but with a much simpler equation: hiking. The simply equation is that distance in equals distance out; elevation up equals elevation down. This means, for the usual hike that ends where you began, that the final sum of such measures is exactly zero. You obviously didn't go anywhere or achieve anything of physical permanence. (Even if you do a one-way trip, you probably start and end at the same home.)

Of course, you're probably already saying to yourself, "But that's not why people go hiking at all!" And you're right–there's obviously something more going on: perhaps just distance traveled, or perhaps being able to claim ascent of a certain peak. But these things are matters of the experience we gain in the process, marks that accrue to us rather than marks we leave on the world. Indeed, it's part of the hiking culture to have zero impact on the environment. We don't go to leave our marks on the world, we go so that the world–its mountains, forests, rivers, wildlife, flowers, and all–can leave their marks on us. In other words, the experience of being in the wilderness, or even just at the oceanside, is inwardly transforming.

I've found this to be a very helpful attitude when skiing–to focus on the experience and its potential for the inner transformation. For one thing, it prevents the inevitable and certain disappointments that come if you're always seeking out fresh snow, fresh trails, fresh anything, really. It prevents disappointment when conditions on the slopes are not your ideal (white-outs, or wet, sloppy snow), when your body perhaps doesn't wholly cooperate with your will, or when for some other reason things just aren't as you'd like them to be. (Which, in fact, actually happens most of the time!) So it's helpful, then, regardless of conditions, to see each run down even a well-tracked slope, as an opportunity for a new experience, for a new mark on body, mind, and soul.

To extend the principle even further, the same attitude can be applied to all of life, which is clearly full of countless disappointments. If we only see life in terms of the single, top spot on the podium, and struggle to achieve it, then what we mostly see and experience is a sense of failure–just look at all those silver medalists who cry and pout, who have fixed in their mind that second best in the entire world is yet something to be ashamed of! Its so sad, and yet it is the fate for nearly everyone who at some point in their lives hope to do something really "important" in the world, to "win the gold" in some capacity or another, at whatever level of significance. We must settle for less, for the small crumbs of the utterly scarce resource we've sought.

And yet, this isn't something the world imposes on us: it's a choice we make in how we perceive "important" and how we define or value the "gold." How, in other words, do we define success and achievement? If we choose to value the marks the world leaves on us–the experiences that transform our awareness of life–then we find that there is no scarcity at all. The gold is there in every situation, in every moment, for every person.

Indeed, in this choice we find that outward success and failure alike can be equally beneficial and transformative. Whether we achieve the pinnacle of glory or seem fated for the gutters of shame, the marks that accrue to the soul have far more permanence and significance than anything in the material world. And in that, the choices we make in even the most trivial situations are actually a much more vital test than any Olympic competition. For though the world may never take notice, the soul will never forget.

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