Finding your purpose in skiing and snowboarding

No, I haven’t gone all religious and, no, the Mormons haven’t got me since moving to Utah. I did, however, spend the day recently with the #1 Ted Talker, Brene Brown, with surprising results and ski revelations about life purpose and more.

First thing you need to know is that I am not a church going type, I went to fellowship as a teenager to meet boys and even told my parents I was taking my first communion when really I went to a nightclub. Clearly I didn’t think that one through as my good citizen parents attended the church that night as a surprise but got a surprise themselves when I wasn’t there. Oops.

So I was a bit hesitant when I saw the venue for the Brene Brown talk in Denver I had signed up for. The Mile Hi Church conjures up all sorts of tittering jokes but really it was just a venue, not a religious service or a den of iniquity, though if it was this is the kind of place that welcomes all denominations, all genders, all sexual preferences, all races, this is a place that celebrates diversity and spirituality however you define that. I’m not sure you’d get me to a service but they did get me in the same room as Brene Brown and that was fine by me.

If you haven’t heard of Brene Brown, don’t worry I’m not going to shame you, that’s the ‘old me’ and no doubt the soon to be me again. Change is a process, right?

Let’s just say that Dr Brene Brown is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Daring Greatly, Rising Strong and Gifts of Imperfection. She is also a research professor and data collector at the University of Houston in Texas and studies courage, vulnerability, shame and authenticity. Think of her as a thought leader and storyteller who works has works with the White House, the CIA, Pixar, Google, Facebook, Adobe, the US Army and now me!

Brene Brown describes spirituality as “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, purpose and belonging to our lives.”

She says her husband sees fishing as a spiritual practice and that she has friends who see golf as such. Bingo! I thought, this is what skiing and snowboarding is for so many people I know.

Those moments when you make the perfect turn, breathe in the fresh air, the powder over your boot, the smell of the trees, the animal tracks in the snow, the sky above, no one around for miles, when you feel at one with the world and able to conquer anything in your life as a result. Feels pretty spiritual to me.

The bonds that skiers and snowboarders have when they meet far from the snow and discover a common connection in a true love of snow and the outdoors and all it brings. That can definitely feel like belonging.

But here’s where it gets tricky (and real).

There’s a difference between ‘belonging’ and ‘fitting in’. Fitting in is actually a barrier to belonging. Brene says middle school students (year 8 & 9 in Australia) nail it when defining what this means. They say ‘fitting in’ is about others deciding if you’re ok and that belonging is when everyone is mutually ok as they are.

“Fitting in is assessing a situation and acclimatizing to it with your behavior” said Brene. “Belonging is showing up as yourself and sometimes you will connect and sometimes you won’t. But if you have one or two people in your life who truly see you and know you then that’s a miracle to be cherished.”

Belonging in skiing is being accepted for whatever level skier or snowboarder you are. It’s not about being shamed because you don’t powder ski or you have never gone backcountry or you can’t huck a cliff or because you wear Aldi.

Self righteousness doesn’t belong (pun intended) here no matter how good it feels, and it feels damn good, I know. But it is a sure sign that the self righteous person is not feeling connected and may even feel like they do not belong.

Instead they are trying to ‘fit in’ to an image, a perception that the cool kids ski backcountry or I am not a worthy skier or snowboarder unless I have been to Japan or I am better than you because I can both afford to heli ski and can do it without falling over. That is exclusion, not inclusion and connection can’t exist when we are being ‘better than’. Connection happens in the risk, in the vulnerability, in the exposure of our flaws when revealing our fear on the side of a cliff or our embarrassment after a yard sale.

Similarly it’s not belonging if the common connection in a group is a hatred for the same person or same people or same group of types of skiers and snowboarders. Brene calls this ‘common enemy intimacy’ (you only need to be in the USA pre election to experience this).  If you can’t challenge the status quo, if you can’t debate and ask questions then that’s not connection and belonging, that’s fundamentalism.

Belonging is that yearning to have a tribe.

For me, personally, this all made perfect sense for my own ski experience. As a single female with no children and an extended family that live in another country, tribe was more important than I realized. Even as an extravert introvert I still craved connection, it’s human nature.

Skiing has time and time again given me that. I have learned how I approach life by the way I approach skiing. I have also learned how I disconnect from life and reality by the way I have in the past approached apres and the desire to keep on the run from ski town to ski town.

I have been that self righteous person who disconnects from fellow skiers with judgement when really I am judging myself that I am not good enough because I didn’t learn to ski at the age of two.  I have also witnessed the disconnection and the belonging in others. There are entire tribes within skiing dedicated to exclusion, disconnection and fitting in but the common denominator of all these tribes is that we all crave belonging because that is human nature. I think they call this irony.

For many skiing is an addiction, they chase the high of adrenaline and seek out more and more risky behavior to get that high again. Researchers now say that the opposite of addiction is connection and that what addicts are actually craving or needing is not sobriety or abstinence but connection.

Next time I hit the slopes this winter I am going to work on staying within that spiritual moment when I feel that the earth and I are one. I am also going to work on the belonging and stop dancing around others trying to fit in. I’ll let you know how it goes.

So, how do you approach your skiing and snowboarding? Do you feel at one with nature and all that nature brings including the shared experience with other human beings or do you chase the high? Are the two mutually exclusive or can they be experienced together? Do you fit in or belong and do you encourage others to fit in or belong?

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Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.


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