Pick Your Mountain

Exploring the challenging, meaningful route to true mastery.
Exploring the challenging, meaningful route to true mastery.
Sedona, Arizona, USA downtown and mountains.

“Let’s climb it!” I said enthusiastically to Jerzy, looking at the mountain in front of us. We were in Sedona enjoying a couple of days, just the two of us. No alarm clocks, no plans, no schedules. Yeah! No responsibilities for two days and three nights.

We left our home and the rainy weather behind, waking up the next morning to red and orange mountain ridges against a clear blue sky, and the smell of fresh air mixed with wood smoke from the night before. It was delicious.

After a nice cup of coffee and a short conversation with one of the concierges, she recommended a thirty-minute hike right outside our hotel. It was easy to persuade Jerzy since the hike was hardly going to be long or tiring. We learned that we were going to a special place where three Indian tribes once lived peacefully, side by side. Positioned in between two mountains—“male and female”—the area was believed to be a vortex with a special energy and intensity. We wanted to experience that power for ourselves.

The desert in spring is quite a delight if you like the outdoors, with shifting shadows, tiny blossoms and hidden surprises like the bonsai spruce growing in a rock ledge. The sun gently warmed our backs on the way to the top. From time to time our eyes were caught by brilliant color from blooming cacti as we passed other hikers like us. One of them, we learned, was named Robert. He was a regular to the Vortex, coming every day to play the flute and charge his energy. He gave Jerzy and me two red rock heart carvings—mine was soft and rounded and Jerzy’s was sharp and spiky. I noticed dust on his pants and realized his pockets were full of these small rock hearts.

We gazed at the male mountain before us. Well, I didn’t have to tell Jerzy twice – he was already carefully placing his feet in between the rocks, finding sturdy surfaces to pull himself up. I stood there looking up at him as he attacked the mountain and suddenly I called to him, “Jerzy, stop! You don’t have to do that.” I realized that our original idea to climb the mountain was really to claim it, and something was wrong with that approach. It wasn’t dangerous, but we were looking at the mountain as a source of entertainment, something to conquer and then take pictures of our achievement. He looked like Spiderman with his arms and legs spread across the rock face as I shouted for him to come down. Finally he heard me, looked back, and stepped down. I could tell from his face that he’d had the same insight.

Then we saw Robert again, and we watched together as he climbed the mountain with ease and efficiency. Although he seemed older than Jerzy, it took him only a few minutes to reach the top. There was no wasted effort; his feet knew the exact best route. It was obvious it was his mountain as he began to play the flute, weaving his body back and forth as the tunes echoed across the mountains, reaching our ears. It was pure joy.

On the way back down the trail, Jerzy and I talked about the idea of mastery, the concept of claiming one area as your own and making it a part of your life, with depth. We had already picked our mountain, and we were respectful visitors to this desert landscape and the Vortex. We had received a strong message not to mistake climbing for claiming in any area of our life. The knowledge that there would always be another mountain, a distraction from what we really need to do, revealed the real challenge. Our hike was in harmony with our surroundings, like “forest bathing,” and we didn’t need to conquer something that wasn’t ours, just because it was there.

We realized that creating The Happy Body for people, over many decades, was the same as what Robert had done in discovering the exact right route up the mountain, one with no wasted effort through deliberate practice. He said he climbed the mountain every day, and his ritual radiated joy. In the same way, we both practice our exercise routine—if we miss it, we’ll lose our chance for that day. We can do the practice the next day but we can’t turn back time or reclaim the vitality and contentment we could have had.


Have you ever caught yourself in “conquer mode”? Can you clearly define what your mountain is, the area you want to master, where you can go deeper?

Leave your response below in the comments.

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  • I really enjoyed this. Thank you Aniela.
    It’s very well written.
    It underlines the importance of being active to find satisfaction through feelings + physicality.
    That they are linked.
    Also, that we are part of nature.

  • Thanks so much for your thoughts. I appreciate your
    Wat of approaching life.
    The Happy Body is my daily gift to my body

  • What ever it is that I attempt, my method is always baby steps, especially if new and unfamiliar. Right now it is learning to lacto-ferment vegetables. So far, so good. Learning as I go. Eventually it will become 2nd-nature, like driving, but you still have to be alert and aware. I am more of a merge-er than a conquer-er. When I am doing THB, I am focusing on each exercise, each part of each exercise, doing it well. I never want to crash through it, but savor it, get the most out of each movement, each release. I value my daily ritual, and also the Thais. In the way that I value each meal, each shower, each dog walk. Small attentions accumulate to larger accomplishments. I very much like your insights, but I also think you could have climbed the mountain, but not to conquer. To gain a new perspective maybe. There is always an awkward first time.

    • Elissa, interesting pursue with fermenting vegetables, makes you closer to controlling how and what goes into your body. In Poland we used to do pickle vegetables and fruits for winter time when fresh produce was narrowed down to root vegetables mainly. It was a special time when all family was involved and I loved it.
      About the climbing the mountain I was making, we were capable and could climb it, but we chose not to. Don’t pick all the mountains you see because there will be too many of them.

  • Some months ago I started reading your book, The Happy Body. However, I eventually put the book aside because weightlifting was far from my mind. I’m 70, by the way, and am a 5th Dan karate black belt in active training.

    As part of my research for my book about youthful aging, I decided to try a self-experiment. My plan is to see what biomarkers have changed after a steep 4-months uptick in exercise. I chose CrossFit and have now trained for one month. It’s hard, hard training, but it suits my body.

    Little did I know when I started that CrossFit that it includes olympic weightlifting, in addition to gymnastics and cardio. Ha! Now your book is suddenly VERY relevant.

    As to ‘conquer mode’: I’ve signed up for an Australian/New Zealand CrossFit competition, the Masters League, and have completed one week of four with surprisingly good results, regardless of age. The mountain I want to climb is to become a competitive CrossFit athlete! I mean, I might as well tackle a really BIG mountain instead of a little hill…

    There is a lot to learn and practice. I’m now going to work through your book and do the exercises regularly.

    Your book seemed to work like a delayed fuse. Thank you for your inspiration!

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