On August 2, 2015 I found myself at a hill overlooking the Black Sea. I’d seen it thousands of times before, but I’d never felt so freakin’ happy at the sight of it!
Sixteen days had passed since we set out on a 650km mountain hike along the Kom-Emine route, traversing the entire Balkan mountain chain in Bulgaria. I was one of 4 people who had made it to the end together, out of 14 people who took the hike at approximately the same time.
I’d never felt this particular type of amazing.
In one hand, I was holding a 1-month old kitten I’d found next to the road in a mountain wood. She’d been my faithful companion for the last two days. She had kept my spirits up in exchange for some milk I got her along the way. And some hope I’d find a good cat life for her (which I did).
With the other hand, I reached in my pocket and drew out a small stone. As tradition holds, I’d taken it from Kom peak 16 days ago in order to throw it in the sea at the end of the journey. Looking at the stone, I got a flashback on everything that stood between me and where it all started. The feet blisters and sores, the piercing pains in my shoulders from the 12kg backpack… Waking up at 3.30am and walking until midnight in dark mountain woods. And of course, the people. Sharing the pains, joys and troubles of my companions, as they asked themselves ‘Why the hell am I doing this to myself?’
I thought I knew the answer in my case. I had promised myself to do this trip when I was 11. Looking at the stone in my hand, however, for the first time I realized there was another reason to be where I was. Together with the stone, I would throw in the sea a handful of mind limitations related to what I need in order to feel good.
The moutain had taught me to stop caring about how comfortable I feel, where I sleep, what I eat, how much money or possessions I have, what others say of me and what I do. A stone, a kitten, a backpack and the sea was all I needed to get tears of joy.
Actually, the mountain had taught me much more. After throwing the stone in the sea, it took some time for the rest of the lessons to crystallize in my mind and start helping me in everything I do.
Here’s 8 of them I’d like to share. I hope they help you take that challenge for which you didn’t find the right time yet. And that you find your own unexpected treasures on the way, just like I did.
1) Respect the unknown.
When starting our trip, I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. Sure, I’d done my research and we had a plan. But boy, did I underestimate the mountain. First day we took the wrong path and spent hours climbing over fallen logs on our way up. On the map the road looked just fine. In reality, it was a nightmare. The mountain had just decided to give us an early warning to take it seriously.
Over time, we learnt to give the mountain its due respect. Sometimes she would be kind to us and send us clouds when we were expecting to scortch in the summer sun. Sometimes she would put us through such hell that we would end up sleeping under the stars in the rain. We understood that anything could happen on the way. And that it’s best to be prepared. As much as we can with our plans, but mostly in our minds.
In fact, the most important lessons had nothing to do with knowing the unknown the mountain sent us. They were related to the unknown side of each of us that kept springing up when we faced hardship.
Sometimes you would discover a supernatural power to heal, keep calm, even save lives. Sometimes, you would find a weakness you never expected in yourself and others. And spend the next 16 hours walking and thinking about what went wrong in order to fix it…
That was a point taken for me: don’t underestimate the unknown around you and inside of you. Don’t fear it either. Respect it. It has a lot to teach you.
2) People do change. Especially when challenged.
I set out on a journey with two friends, both of which had some surprises in store for the next days. One of them was having a very hard time with his knees in the beginning, which meant a slower pace. And tons of negative energy. Every night we went to sleep troubled about him as he’d say that he’d probably be leaving tomorrow. In the morning, however, he would drag himself onward. On the 5th day when he arrived to our final destination barely able to move, there was something different about him.
He’d decided that since he was determined to make it to the end, he’d rather enjoy the experience than punish himself with anger, regret and negative attitude. Next day he was like new, having fun with the same pains he complained about before. We did make it to the very end together!
The other friend we set out with started out physically and psychologically stable as a rock. He’d offer to take some load off a friend in pain, stay with people who kept lower pace in critical situations. He never complained. I felt extremely lucky to have had him by my side when the two of us got lost in a wood in the middle of the night, with no water, no shelter and a single headlight. He was so calm, confident and adequate, pushing towards rational solutions and not allowing any blame to get between us when we kept losing our way.
You should imagine everyone’s surprise when 3 days before the end, one evening he said that this was too much for him. He was not enjoying it anymore, felt he was going to get some physical damage soon and was leaving tomorrow. And sure enough, next morning he was off. His decisiveness was similar to that of my other friend, it just led him in the complete opposite direction. I’m sure it was just as transformational for him, seeing how easy it was to quit when something was not bringing him joy.
Next point taken — we are constantly wrong about people, much more than we like to admit. People are not consistent. In fact, I found that the most awesome people I can surround myself with are inconsistent, constantly changing and surprising me.
3) Is it about the team or is it about the goal?
I’ve always had an issue with finding the balance between helping people and letting them help themselves. I was never really sure where I should stand before I took this trip. You see, every leadership book will tell you how important it is to sympathize with people, to seek to understand and adapt to their needs.
I felt quite bad in the beginning of our journey when I kept leaving behind our companion who was struggling with the pace. Although he had good company all the time, we had started this together. Besides the piercing pain from carrying the huge backpack and the little sleep because of moving slower than I felt we could, something inside me was telling me the right thing to do is keep the faster pace. I felt cruel and non-sympathetic for that.
Until I realized that each of us was playing a role in the specific situation. People around me were joking I was like a mountain goat, always running forward. You have to have one of those in a team to keep up the pace and keep an eye on the goal. You have to have someone who questions this approach and pushes for teamwork. You have to have also someone who acts as a bridge and is willing to give a hand to those who are having troubles. All are important and each of us can play any of those depending on the team dynamics.
I realized that for the first time in my life I’d found the strength to let a person fight their own fight and win it, instead of dragging them out of desire to help.
Eventually, if someone cannot handle the mountain, they shouldn’t be there. The hardship of facing the moutain by yourself can give you the stimulus to change from someone who lags behind to someone who makes it to the end with a smile. Or quits before having some major injury. Whether you are a mountain goat or a hand-holder in a certain situation, you should be at peace with yourself.
4) Why not try love?
Going 650km on foot in 16 days hurts. Period. It hurts most of the time, just the focus switches from one spot on your body to another (if you are lucky). “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…” Johnny Cash said. He never knew it, but he sang for us. We laughed so hard at our misery listening to his song. We made it our anthem.
However, there seemed to be big difference between the amount of pain I was feeling and that of others. They kept on asking me what kind of pills I am taking so that I can maintain the fast pace. I saw them tending their wounds and aches every evening and wished I could help them have as little pain as I was having.
One could say that this was due to the fact that I didn’t have any major injuries in the past. Or that in the last 15 years I’ve been walking 2 hours every day. Or that I prepared well. Or that I had good shoes. If you ask me, though, I believe it was all of these, but there something more important.
You see, I made this deal with myself to run an experiment. I would take 5 minutes every day while I was walking and tell all parts of my body that I love them. My eyes, my nose, my teeth, my legs, my heart, my brain, my ass… Everything I could think of. Whenever I felt pain, I’d also thank it for reminding me to take care of myself, for keeping me aware, for showing me I am alive. I did it every single day. The more time passed, the bigger the difference I felt in my body and spirit.
I was not just using my body, I was giving it all my love. And it loved me back and allowed me to have an amazing time. Me and my body, we were friends instead of enemies. We had fun with this, instead of hating it.
So why not take a chance on love? Some say love hurts, but love also heals, it helps. I know it helped me then. I know it can help me again whatever the challenge I am facing. Lesson learnt — do the same as you would do, but just do it with love for yourself, your body, your soul, your mind. It makes all the difference — take a chance on love.
5) If Mohammed goes to the mountain, the mountain will walk behind him.
There is something that happens to your mind once you take something you see as a challenge and go through it. I felt it very strongly at the end of our journey, but couldn’t really explain it until one of my trip partners said: “It feels like everywhere you go, the mountain walks right behind you.”
He was spot on. After my return, life’s colors had become somehow more vibrant, more noticeable and clear. The things and people that gave me strength, pleasure and joy sparkled and energized me more than they ever did before. And the ones that brought me boredom or misery all of a sudden become just pale and not interesting, I got all this amazing power to simply laugh and walk away.
I had invested all this time and effort to make it to where I was… I had new respect for myself that gave me back my right to spend my energy on things and people that are worth it.
I had zero patience left and in its place, there was a new thirst for the next adventure. The next mountain to put behind my back, so that I can rejoice in life, its amazing gifts and the new person I would find inside myself.
6) There can be no limit for the love you have for yourself.
Before I made this hike, I believed that Bulgaria was a nice country, but there were other more desirable places in the world. I was ashamed of our communist past. I was ashamed of lagging behind the developed world. I liked the things I’d done in my career and life, but the mistakes and failures kept reappearing in my mind. I liked the people around me on the surface, and myself — on the surface.
Once I went from one end of the country to another, though, things shifted. All of a sudden I piled up this endless reservoir of stunning views, amazing people, gestures, experiences. From the beautiful mountain peeks to the golden valleys, from the friendly people who let us in their homes and shared their food with us despite their poverty, to the wild animals, I finally reached the endless blue sea and it struck me. I loved my country more than ever.
I loved our people, who had so much kindness and hospitality and wisdom. I loved our past, I was proud to be from a country that tried communism and failed instead of just complaining about the world not being fair and not doing anything about it. I loved every single amazing or sad thing I saw on the way. It was not a restrictive patriotic love, it was love for life, nature, people, and the world at large. Bulgaria was just part of those. I was part of it. It was part of me.
Loving my country meant loving myself, which meant loving every decision I took, everything I ever created, every person I let in my life. With all my heart. With no limits. With no ‘I like it, but it could be better’. With full acceptance of the beauty of imperfection.
I realized everything is just a mirror of you. If you place a limit to how much you like something in your life, you place a limit on yourself. It’s all connected. You can’t love yourself and kind of like your country. You can’t love yourself and hate your boss. You can’t love yourself and forget your past, because it was not too nice. You either accept and love it all, or you love nothing and no one at all.
7) The impact of things you do extend beyond what you can comprehend.
There are so many stories I could share that blew my mind… There was this doggie we met on our first day in Berkovitsa, where our journey started. The doggie climbed with us for 7 hours, all the way to Kom chalice where we would spend the night. In the morning, at 4am she went together with 2 guys that we met at the chalice and walked with them until the evening to a village, where they took a car to the train station in order for one of them to leave. Shortly after, another guy walked by and the doggie went with him. Jokingly, he asked her to show him the shortcut that would save him hours of walking on the hot asphalt road. She went into some bushes, he followed and found the shortcut that none of the others had been able to locate.
A couple of nights later, we met the guy who had stayed after his friend left and the one who found the shortcut, we looked at the photo of the doggie and connected the dots. These were also the 2 people who finished the journey together with me and my friend. The doggie connected us before we knew each other. And helped one of us save himself from hours of torture. The same doggie that just randomly started walking with us and we didn’t send away…
And then, there was this couple of two awesome people we met on the way. After some days walking together, the girl got some severe wounds on her feet from the endless walking, and they were not really sure they would continue.
I told the girl that I hope to see them in the next hut. And we did. She told me that my words that got her the motivation to keep going despite the pain. It’s amazing how a single sentense spoken from your heart can have an impact beyond anything you imagine. It is such a wonderful feeling.
Probably the best illustration of this principle of unpredictability of the impact of your actions was the funny way in which the mountain kept taking stuff away from us and giving us new things. You lose your glasses, you get a free banana after a long trip. You lose your phone, you find a communist froggy toy. You lose your tourist guide, you find a hat. And all of those things you lost, they stay for someone after you to pick up. And brighten their day with the irony and unexpectedness they bring with them. With the notion that you keep walking despite the things you lost, only to find new surprises on every corner in a strange interconnected world of wonder.
8) Once you take the challenge, you are not alone.
One of the most common reasons we humans don’t do stuff we want to do is that we think we are alone. I want to go to that class, but none of my friends wants to join. I want to go bungee jumping, but I need someone to come with. Taking a two-week journey in the mountain on your own sounds even more insane.
The thing is, the moment you make that decision, it turns out you are not alone. All of a sudden you find someone who wants to join. Then another. And after you actually take the step and head towards the big goal together, it turns out there are even more crazy people who are pursuing it at the same time.
So eventually, not only you are not alone, but all of a sudden you have this new set of awesome people in your life who love the same things as you.
And you end up doing all this awesome stuff together.
Besides the 8 lessons here, I’d say the best gift the mountain gave me was meeting these great people and the time to explore each other like we would never do otherwise.
Reading back on what I wrote, I feel I could have said so many more things. And better. Words just seem so pale compared to this amazing vibrant experience of actually just freakin’ doing it! I know you have one of those memories too and you will understand me. Then, the big question is — what’s next?
Let’s do this again. This is what life is for.
*** Originally published on Medium, 16 January 2016.