This month Dr Balamurali takes us to the beautiful valleys of the Himalayan ranges and shares his experience with us.
The Mountains and Me – Thoughts While Trekking
Around six years ago, I never imagined myself climbing a mountain. I was a gym person and participated in marathons and runs. I felt that climbing a mountain would be tough, exhausting, expensive and what was I going to get in return? As a child I used to climb two hills and walk to school living up an altitude of 5000 feet. I loved those moments of listening to the dogs' bark, the birds chirping, the wind blowing and the placidness of the atmosphere. There was a love for nature in me which always existed. On heading to medical college, in me, I felt the absence of the natural element. After qualifying I spent most of my time like others improving operative skills and progressing in my career and caring for a young family.
Having moved to the United Kingdom and living there for more than 15 years, I was given the opportunity to connect with the nature again through gardening. While my wife’s interest also matched, living in a city, working 10-12 hours a day and with most of my activities tied to the hustle and bustle of the noisy city and hospital life. Hordes of bionic people going about their businesses; not paying heed to the thousands of other people surrounding them, made me feel cluster phobic. Nature was a faraway place that I would sometimes see through the window of my car, but never actually experience it. I returned to India to find things only worser - life was hectic. I felt that my boat was sailing in stagnant waters and I suddenly felt a need to restructure life all over again. I was in a situation where I had to prove to myself that my potential to achieve was way more than what the others and I believed in. It took me some time to realise what lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters to what lies with us. I wanted to do something different and challenging hence relieve myself of the routine. I met a friend who regularly hiked small hills on some Sundays. It was a leisure and fun activity and I thought it will be a good distraction and joined him. It was a very good start but then I wanted more! Suddenly it stuck to both of us that we wanted to climb higher and we decided to climb the Himalayas. Initially it was like a joke, we had no clue where to start and researched. We set a target of 4 months and we decided to go to Everest Base Camp. Most people do it last but being a surgeon you tend to think differently! The very thought that we were going to take up this challenge brought in a new energy, a focus and a goal. Soon it became a dream and the dream came true in February 2014, when I set out on an adventure that would change my view of the world and give me perspective on what is important in life and what isn’t. The ten days of strenuous trek, steep rough path, cliff side walk, extreme weather, knee high snow, lack of toilet and wild environment was worth the mighty view of mountains. What added to this scene were the sounds of nature, animals, birds and water flowing, the beautiful colours of trees, insects, flowers, stones, unbeaten views of the peaks and tons of ‘me’ time and quietness. It changed the way I saw from inside and feeling that can only be experienced. Without the disturbance of your mobile phone, you are constantly thinking, pondering, admiring and reflecting. It is said that this type of reflection is fundamental to living a good life and the ancient wisdom advocated contemplating the vastness of the universe as a way to find your place in it. This broad view then allows you to zoom in and focus on your own existence. I then started to think deeper on many issues. As a busy surgeon, entrepreneur, and an ambitious person, I realised I needed more ways to inspire and feel content. Trekking is the most popular amongst the adventure sports. A survey result shows that the majority of the trekking community is formed by highly educated professionals. Scientists have concluded that the adrenaline rush basically brings a feeling of satisfaction, confidence, and pleasure. This comes when you overcome a hurdle that challenges you physically and mentally. Once you start relishing that feeling, you want more and more. It becomes an addiction. Money or other aspirations do not matter. I thank my friend Dr Subbiah who showed me this path. When climbing one of the highest peaks, all the other mountains and problems that you will face in your life will feel smaller in comparison. Getting to the top is also a success that you can keep in your memory for the rest of your life to inspire you during the moments when you feel downhill. For when the going gets tough in the future, you can look back at this accomplishment and inspire yourself. You pushed hard through this challenge and got to the top, you will be able to do so in other circumstances as well. When things get tough, they can be overcome, just like a mountain can be climbed. Trekking had a tremendous effect on my mind and body.
Climbing a mountain is the ultimate test of your willpower. After having done five peaks I feel it is more of a mind game than the body alone, while of course you have to be fit As you are always climbing further up, the walk gets harder and harder. What you could do easily at lower altitudes, is much harder as you ascend. Just putting one foot in front of the other is an act of conscious will, biting through the pain in order to reach your goal. You even ask yourself “why am I here?, what am I proving? who am I proving too? at that point you learn that willpower is something that you can work on, something that you can control. When you are on the verge of quitting, your mind says “no” and you push through the pain. Your body has hidden reserves deep down under, which you can pull out and utilize to power through when the going gets tough. It’s the same in life, every obstacle in your daily life can be seen as a mountain and I now feel if I have done this I can do this too! Every climb has given a different level of resistance and experience like metaphorically every complex surgery I perform comes with a different challenge. We plan and prepare for the worst in a trek and now the decision making has become easy when I have applied the same to my practice and surgery as I plan for the worst first.
A mountain is sometimes used as a metaphor for life, and by scaling one, you begin to understand why that is. In an uncertain professional world, I have learned to be prepared for failure and the worst. I realised this during our trek to Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest peak in South East Asia. We trekked up for a few days and reached our base to take rest before we went to the summit. It was scary as we had to climb on ropes at the cliffs and I was restless. Most of us didn’t want to hike to the peak and were satisfied with where we had come so far. It’s the same in life when you get comfortable at a juncture, you are contented and comfortable. We accept the easy life and compare ourselves with people below us and have a sense of achievement not knowing we haven’t even pushed ourselves further. Leave alone knowing our full potential. I didn’t want to give up! The two of us decided to go. At 4 am we were all set and geared up, it was dark, sub-zero temperature and cutting cold wind. We walked against all resistance and after 4 hours we realised it was not our day! The sun rose, we had hope in front of us and we wished we were almost there. But we had just gone half way. We decided to quit as we could not face the weather and all we achieved was the satisfaction that we tried. I was disappointed but then success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. The very next year I scaled up another peak in the Himalayas. But this set back taught me many lessons that failure is so important. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.
We speak of success all the time. Power and money is a measure of success given by the society, but true success is what you accomplish by competing with your inner self.
In life the climb to success is steep, tough, experiential and costly, be it personal, collective family sacrifice, leaving your comfort zone, losing sleep, parting money and facing stress, among others as somethings must be given to achieve success. Getting to the top is just half the journey and then descending safely down you have accomplished something, which most people will never do. The descend as you gracefully grow older is more important than the ascend to success. It is easy to crash or collapse along your journey when your egos, friendships, habits, possessions and money gets to your head through attachment.
While on the mountain, you meet a cast of personalities, which helps put your life in perspective. Every time I go trekking, I feel like I want to quit my job just take my family and hide away in the beautiful mountains. It is a wild thought but how can one leave a luxurious, quintessential city life to live an uncertain raw life in the mountains? People do live here too. I observed their living styles They don’t know about the luxuries we know, the entertainment we are aware of, the variety of food we eat and the unwanted ambitions we have and the complexity of our life. Life isn’t easy for them, which makes you more thankful for some of the things that you have. Their expenses are so less and so they have to earn less. They have a decent community life and don’t have to update their status on social media to the world. But we have got used to this, if we didn’t know all this we too can live there, perhaps! Can you imagine being without a smart phone, internet connection, Facebook or WhatsApp? Well I would certainly bargain anything to be off to peaks of Himalayas. On the days you spend in the mountains you don’t worry where you sit, eat, sleep, drink water from or defecate. It happens the nature’s way.
Standing at the top of the mountain, you are at a point higher than anyone else in the world. Around you, a desolate landscape reminds you of the power of the natural world. The experience is further heightened when you realize that it took millions of years for nature to give you this view. Your eyes stop their gaze at the huge swathes of snow and ice that are lying scattered around. The rugged beauty that you see in front of you transports you to another plane of experience, as if you were entering another world. You sense being part of something more powerful than yourself, and it makes you feel a sense of other-worldly awe. This not only connects you to the rest of the universe, but makes you a better person. It connects you to the greater whole, and reminds you how the worries that you have back in the “real” world are unimportant, or even stupid. For where you are living at is not the real world, but instead a fake construction. Nature is the real world. It has been here for millions of years before us, and it will survive us all.
Trekking is the hardest thing I have ever done physically, but also one of the most rewarding ones as well. Paradoxically, this pain is the reward of the journey. By conquering this pain, you prove to yourself that you have what it takes and can succeed at even the hardest things. You can succeed at things that the majority of people are too scared to even attempt. It is all about your mental strength. The journey is long, but beautiful.
Rather than getting burdened by the pressure of society, the hatred of your competitor, the politics of your co-workers, jealousy of your colleagues, I decided to break the monotony. While others focus on their silly and intricate little wars, back-stabbings, and selfish acts, you have pushed yourself and do something real, satisfying and make yourself proud. The satisfaction I get meeting this challenge and being with nature makes a huge impact on the body and mind. I am more innovative, and calm after my return. I am living my dream of being a good medical doctor while being content at the same time. The treks have set me free. I feel light and extremely peaceful in the wild. My priority is my good health than a chunky bank balance If I say that aloud people may think I am crazy or stupid! What do I do? MONEY IS A BI PRODUCT of creating Proposition and I want to create value in healthcare affordable to all.
Trekking/hiking is an excellent exercise. Being regular trekker will definitely make one as strong not just as a trekker but in general as an individual and professional.
Once again, climbing mountains will teach you patience, persistence and gratitude. You will learn never to give up; to know that the reward will be worth the work it takes. Once you make it you will realize what all the fuss is about. It is like reaching a goal, achieving a dream and figuring out that you can do anything that you set your mind to. It’s an addictive feeling that no one can properly explain and one that you have to experience.
Trekking will teach you to enjoy the small luxuries in life and importantly to be positive A grueling six hours of being vertical in the heat, you stop for a water break. It will probably be the best water you have ever tasted in your life and you would never have been quenched like this before. We overlook the small things in life that we take for granted, like water. When you reach the peak but forgot to bring your extra coat you will realize how cold the wind can make you and how important the little things are when they are actually not there. We learn to become more prepared and to respect comfortable things, like not sleeping in a tent on snow for instance.
Mountains are so special; they have such magic to them. Maybe it is a fact they are can be so dangerous or maybe it is because they make us feel so small. They kill your egos and make you grounded. You might find that all the problems in your life dissolve when you are around them or that life slows down a bit. When you do this as a group it is even more satisfying because you develop new friendship, comradeship and team work. My last trek was with a group of eminent spine surgeons from all over the country and the experience was even better. We spoke not only about how to fix the problems in the spine but how to fix the problems in life as a whole. All that I can tell you is that after spending time surrounded by them or climbing them you will feel the urge to come back. Even if you don’t even climb them, they call you. The mountains are calling me all the time, I hear that voice echoing in my ears all the time.
Senior Consultant Spine and Neurosurgeon
Kauvery Hospital, Chennai