Climbing Yourself

A climber climber herself

I’ve long viewed climbing as a meditation of sorts. It’s my time to focus on perfecting perfectly non-utilitarian goals. It’s all about breath and balance and giving just the right effort to hold on, not more or less. My goal is always to move with as little distinction between mind and body as possible — with what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”

For insight into the relationship between physical action and meditation, I emailed my friend Thomas, a video game developer who lives in Vietnam. Thomas has practiced kung fu for 20 years, on and off, and engaged at various times in kendo, boxing, yoga, and Rinzai Zen practice. He’s climbed a bit, too. When I asked him about the use of martial arts as a way of moving towards higher states of consciousness, he recounted this anecdote:

In both [martial arts and climbing] you could perform strictly physically, or you could get in the zone and then you aren’t climbing. My Zen master had one kensho [an understanding of reality “as it is”] while fighting his kendo instructor. A clean hit stroke against his instructor, after which his instructor bowed to him. It is the only time his instructor ever acknowledged his ability. He describes the experience as ‘It hit.’

To this day in Japan, various physical arts are used as moving forms of mediation. Flower arrangement and tea ceremonies are two good examples. In such practices, the ultimate, selfless expression is described as the “artless art.”

Archery is another classic example. Zen in the Art of Archery, by the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel, is an interesting book on the topic. In the introduction, D.T. Suzuki writes that the practice of archery in Japan is “meant to train the mind … to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.” When archery is practiced in this way, Suzuki writes, “the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.

Herrigel’s book documents his six years spent in Japan studying with a master archer named Kenzo Awa. Herrigel describes the long process of learning simply to draw the bamboo bow with proper form. Still more time went toward learning to release the arrow with the same mindlessness as a leaf in a rain shower tipping to release its water. One day, after years of practice, he succeeded in loosing the arrow such a way. Awa stopped and exclaimed:

“Just then ‘It’ shot.”

In such instances, a simple motion, the result of years of constant practice, becomes the physical expression of a higher understanding. Herrigel had released hundreds, if not thousands, of arrows up to that point, but never without self-consciously doing so. To a master like Awa, the difference was instantly recognizable. Likewise, it is entirely possible that my friend Thomas’ master had hit his instructor in the past, but never before had “It” hit. From the outside, the experience might seem similar, but internally there is a profound difference.

It is very common for climbers to recount such experiences. When working to piece together a climb that rides the edge of our ability, we often enter a state where the movements seem to execute themselves. Holds that once were too far or too small feel closer, larger, right beneath our fingers and toes when we need them most. We flow through the climb acutely aware yet without consciously planning our actions. The climber and the climb, like the archer and his target, finally become one reality.

“Both martial arts and rock climbing require the practitioner to push body and mind … to work as a single entity in the moment,” Thomas wrote in his email. “And any time you do that, you’re scratching at the surface of existence.”

To me, there is no greater experience on a climb.

What about you? Have you scratched the surface? Have you felt “It” climb?

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

16 thoughts on “Climbing Yourself”

  1. That moment when you’re totally pumped, shaking and reaching for a screw when suddenly one tool seems to swing itself higher. And then you have to move your feet, you wanted to go down, but for some reason you’re flowing upwards.

      1. Johnny Dawes is most certainly a man that had many moments of ‘it’! He once tried to sell me his book in a pub ;)

  2. happened to me once indoors. i was struggling on a bouldering problem and suddenly i was picking up everything that people where saying behind my back. literary every word i remember til now. at the same time the problem (on which i had been failing for a good week already) became so easy that i just reached up for the holds as if it was a ladder. and it was done. it was as if my own consciousness were gone but i was just tuned to everything around me. didn’t happen since. it’s reassuring to know that the ‘flow’ exists and maybe, one day, i’d be able to switch it on on demand :)

    1. Nice! I like to think that with practice, we can learn to enter this state more and more frequently. I’m working on another post focusing more on the idea of flow. Stay tuned :)

  3. This experience of flow is one of the best things about climbing, maybe even the best. I love it! What I find really interesting is that there seem to be different levels of flow. Sometimes there is flow but also a kind of meta-awareness and there are other times when I am so deeply absorbed into the movement itself that “I” vanish completely and consciousness only re-emerges after having clipped the chains.

    I think they call this mushin no shin (the mind without mind) in martial arts.

    1. Interesting point. I have never considered the degrees of flow, but I think you’re on to something. I will meditate on it…

  4. I think the idea of “flow” is present in all things we do everyday, not just physical performances. Writing is effortless at times, and others, it just plain sucks. Doing an in-depth, technical study at work may take days to get started, yet the same output may be realized in 15 min. if I were in the “flow” of engineering.

    But sometimes, “flow”, in your definition of the higher state of being is not the desired outcome of the climb or the activity. I don’t climb to seek this feeling. Climbing, for me, is not a meditative activity. Absolutely, sometimes linking a climb at the upper end of my ability is effortless. And that’s when “fow” just happens. But I don’t seek it, nor do I expect it. I try to make every climb as effortless as possible given my psychological and physiological state at the time, but that does not mean I “flow” everytime. I don’t believe I’ve ever experience a “flow blackout” like Daniel describes.

    That being said, it sure is nifty when it happens!

    1. Absolutely! There’s actually an interesting blogger out there named Cal Newport who is very suspicious of flow as a goal in and of itself. He argues flow doesn’t really help you improve. For that, you have to engage in what he calls “deliberate practice.” I have to say, I don’t totally disagree with him.

      Here’s a quote from one of his posts: “The feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement.”

      His site is called Study Hacks. Check it out!

  5. Yes, once, and it was not while pushing my physical or mental limits. For a variety of reasons I have not climbed much in the last several years but reflect fondly upon the years when it was a part of my daily routine. When looking back at some of the big milestones, i.e. taking down projects with 50+ attempts, achieving new grades, surprise onsights, obviously that stuff leaves an impression but the memory that stands out the most to me now is because of what you described above. This afternoon of climbing at the onset seemed destined to be just another regular day of climbing. My brother and I had not set out to go chase numbers or push any sort of limits, or put to bed some project, we decided to go check out a more obscure crag that we heard had great vertical climbs with interesting moves and a short approach, which was perfect as evening was quickly closing in. We got to the headwall and it was everything we had expected, tall and straight with perfect incut crimps all the way up. As I tied in to start the first climb, I had not fallen on a climb of this grade in a few years so there was no fear or nervousness and really I had gotten so used to the idea that the “best” climbs were always the ones with crazy crux sequences or the newest “hard” climb I had just red pointed, there was little expectation that I was about to start my most memorable day of climbing. So, I start climbing and as I climb out of the trees the warm evening sun starts to hit my back and before I knew it I was at the top of the 80 ft climb. There was no pump and today I cannot even recollect a single move on the route but I do remember an odd exposed feeling that isn’t too common for climbing in this part of the country. My brother and I continued right down that wall, climb after climb and the climbing was perfect, great movement, bolts were run out and didn’t interrupt the flow and all the while the sun was setting right behind us. After we had packed up our gear and hiked out in the dark, that night, I don’t remember thinking that I had just experience my best day of climbing ever. But today upon reflection, when I return to climbing, I will chase down memories like that. I think it was the combination of everything, great company, trust in my brother, the physical fitness to allow fear to be pushed back and instinctual movement take over, the expectations of redpointing were a non-issue allowing me to be truly in the moment, and the warm sun on my back combined with the long climbs and great movement. Best day of climbing ever. That was the day I felt “it”.

  6. Yes, I came to the same realization: that climbing is a form of meditation. I first consciously experienced this when I’d just started climbing. I was being guided up the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral in Yosemite, still wet behind the ears. That climb was well within my abilities (I didn’t know that, but my guide did). But for me, it was all new and unknown and I had to give it all I had. At certain points, it was just me, the rock, my stance and the next move. Nothing else. No worrying about work, bills, relationships, etc. That all dropped away. By necessity, it had to drop away—my perception was that my survival was entirely dependent of focusing at the task at hand. It was and remains an uplifting and very alive moment for me.

    Years later, as I developed a meditation and yoga practice, I came to understand that what I’d experienced on that climb (and subsequently experienced on other climbs) was a kind of presence, a state of being wholly mindful and in the moment.

    I get that from climbing for sure. But as I grow and learn, I’m finding that you can get into a present state in just about any situation. Even while paying bills! I go to a bouldering gym and it happens there. I’ve been a long distance runner since I was 11 and that is most certainly a form of meditation. I often get it when just being with my kids too.

    Mark Jenkins wrote an excellent article about this a while back. You can check it out here:

    Thanks for a nice piece!

  7. JR, this post is so lovely and so resonant…just yesterday, I linked some moves that used to perplex and intimidate me. It wasn’t until I was above them that I realized I’d gotten through the sequence–I was so shocked I almost fell right off.

    I was climbing distracted, which, I think, allowed for suspension of disbelief–allowed my body to do what my mind had been telling it was impossible. Quiet, mind.

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