My Competitive Nature on Mount Katahdin and My Failure of Agatsu

Image courtesy of natreb via Creative Commons.
I practice Aikido, a non-competitive martial art in which we learn how to blend with an aggressor and diffuse aggression without harm. One of the concepts we learn about in Aikido is “agatsu,” which means victory over oneself. To me practicing agatsu means focusing on what I need to improve, attending to my own challenges, attitudes, and actions, and not thinking about what others do. I find this very hard.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I awoke at 3:45 a.m. and drove to Baxter State Park, home of Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s biggest and most magnificent mountain. Our plan was to hike the most challenging route: up the Cathedral Trail (so named because of its many challenging spires), over the Knife Edge (so named because of its narrow path with 2,000 foot drops on either side), and down Helon Taylor, an exposed long descent.

When we arrived, the parking lot was overflowing, and by the time we signed in at 7:40 a.m., 300 people had already begun their ascent from just this one trailhead. It felt a bit like Times Square. We began passing groups of people, and because I was so shocked by the crowds, I began counting them. But what started as a way to mentally record the numbers of people turned into a competition. I felt proud that we middle-aged 50 somethings were passing scores of 20 somethings. I’m sure I sped up to pass even more people. A few commented on our speed, reinforcing my competitive nature.

It was a rainy and windy day, and when we got to the peak it was completely socked in. My husband’s glasses fogged up within minutes of wiping them off. We were prepared to tackle the Knife Edge despite the weather, but the fact that my husband wouldn’t be able to see was reason enough to abandon the plan and take a safer route down. I felt so disappointed. So down we went, continuing to pass people. By the time we reached the bottom, only 6.5 hours after we’d begun the 11 mile, 4200’ elevation gain, we’d passed 120 people. Only 3 people – strapping young men – had passed us. We were home by 6 p.m.

As we ate dinner, I commented that I felt like we’d just gone to the gym for a long workout rather than climbed Mt. Katahdin. We’d raced up and down our beloved mountain. Our visibility above treeline was barely 20 feet, so the sweeping, majestic, heart-stopping views that we’d once marvelled at, were just memories from years ago. There was nothing scary about the climb this time because we couldn’t see how far we could fall. I realized that it had been more of a competition than an experience.

On one level we “won.” We’d pushed our bodies hard, and they’d achieved an impressive result. I’d demonstrated (to myself at least) what a small, short-legged, middle-aged vegan could accomplish. I posted our photo from the foggy, rainy peak and the description of passing all those people on Facebook, and received the kudos (in the form of Facebook “likes”) I wanted.

But I’m struck by my lack of agatsu. True victory over myself would have meant the following:
  1. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed by the need to take a different route down.
  2. I wouldn’t have counted those I passed or evaluated the men who passed us as younger and stronger than I.
  3. I certainly wouldn’t have posted the numbers on Facebook of those we passed.
  4. I would have paused and stopped to appreciate the beauty up close, since I couldn’t see the beauty far away.
  5. I would have eaten dinner having known that I experienced Katahdin, not raced through it
Agatsu is a powerful concept, asking that we not compare ourselves to others, but simply work to attend to ourselves, and in so doing, improve ourselves. Next time I climb Katahdin I hope to remember what I’ve written today and practice agatsu more consciously. And I hope to take this lesson into other aspects of my life, competing less with others and practicing victory over myself with more effort and commitment.

~ Zoe

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxConejo talk: "Solutionaries"
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"


Get tickets now for the October 13 NYC debut of my 1-woman show -- My Ongoing Problems with Kindness: Confessions of MOGO Girl -- at United Solo, the world's largest solo theatre festival.

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