I grew up in an average Detroit suburb where no one knew how to ski, mostly because it wasn't part of the social structure, but also because the entire state was flat. I remember the first time I put on a pair of skis at the age of 35, and how incredibly awkward I felt wearing them. I had been given the great fortune of a trip to France with my husband and four small kids while my husband was working there. A friend convinced me that I should drop my kids off at ski school each morning and hire an instructor to teach me how to ski. I arrived at Les Jets ski resort in the Alps not even knowing what equipment I would need to rent. Accomplishing this in my minimal french was the first challenge.
I waddled out of the ski rental building to meet my handsome ski instructor, Jean, who barely stifled his amusement that a woman my age would walk into a super sophisticated alpine resort with absolutely zero experience. We started with the bump they called the bunny hill, though I fell several times just getting there. Jean was kind, but we all knew I was by far the worst skier he had ever met, let alone taught. He was handsome, athletic and elegant; I was a bumbling mess. If Lucy Ricardo had ever skied, she would have been more graceful than I was.
There have been an uncountable number of times in my life when I have felt this kind of awkwardness. Some memorable examples were when a good-looking stranger, now my husband, sat down at my cafe table; my first day on a silent meditation retreat; looking into my sixteen year old daughter's eyes after her first heartbreak; and sitting down next to my Dad after my Mom had just suffered a heart attack. In each situation, I felt scared and I had no idea what to say or do, but I didn't run away. Scared plus staying equals vulnerable, exposed, naked, and awkward. Had I turned away from each opportunity to feel awkward, I might have avoided queasiness, but I would have missed something valuable.
Since practicing mindfulness, I have developed the ability to notice when I feel awkward and not exit through one of my usual escape routes, so I continue to get more comfortable with those moments. I know that when I feel awkward, I am closer to growing as a person. Feeling awkward never stops feeling awkward, it never feels good. But experience has shown me that feeling awkward is a place I want to go. When I feel the fear and vulnerability, and stay with it, possibilities for my life expand, and imaginary limitations evaporate.
"We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down. So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to "stay" and settle down... That is how to cultivate steadfastness." - Pema Chodron, Learning to Stay
On the fourth day of my skiing debacle, Jean took me to the very top of the mountain where the view of the Alps was magnificent. There was a 360 degree view that was breathtaking, and I finally understood why people risk broken bones, fear, and bitter cold to go skiing. Looking back, I don't know how he did it, but Jean convinced me to go down the chute at the very top. I looked up the definition of a ski chute so I could include it here. Skis.com defines it as, "a steep and narrow gully, surrounded by rocks most often. Almost certainly an expert-only run, whether it’s marked or not." It must have been Jean's French charm that got me pointing my skis straight down the hill and leaning into the fear. Yes it was scary as hell, and yes it was an amazing exhilarating experience. And when I got to the bottom alive, I realized that I had moved past an invisible roadblock in my mind and it felt great.
My mindfulness practice is what allows me to see beyond my fear and awkwardness. I know that feeling of discomfort is just a feeling, an impermanent feeling, and so I stay with it knowing that only by feeling awkward can I move in the direction I want to go. If I run away from my awkward moments, I will abandon my dreams. And my dreams are too important to give up just because of a little awkwardness.