Climbing Back to the Beginning

Gym climbing scene distorted into a circle

Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you have had enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.
— Zen saying

On the first attempt, Lois tied in and climbed the blue route almost to the last hold. Somewhere near the top, she was too tired to sort out a tricky sequence and sagged back onto the rope.

“Aw, shoot!” she shouted, “I almost had it!” I lowered her to the ground.

Lois was a new climber, a woman in her 40s looking to try something different. Like most people coming to climbing for the first time, she was unsure of herself on the wall, afraid of falling, and quick to shout, “Take!” when something didn’t make sense. The route she just attempted was at the edge of her ability. As her instructor, I had recommended she try a new climb, just to see how she would do. We were both a little surprised at the result.

“Nice work up there!” I encouraged her. “Let’s rest for five minutes. You’ll get it next time.”

But when the five minutes were up, and Lois re-checked her knot and began to climb, things didn’t go so smoothly. She managed to reverse every move she had done just right the first time, steeping left foot where she should have gone right, crossing up her hands and having to match on every hold, throwing herself around awkwardly instead of using balance to stand up and reach. Whatever intuition had propelled her up the route on her first attempt was now mired in a fog of indecision. After much frustration, Lois reached the top of the wall and asked to be lowered down.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “Everything just felt wrong. I was trying to remember what I did the first time, and threw me off.”

Lois’ experience is not unusual. There is a funny phenomenon in climbing where your first attempt is near perfect, but your second (and third, and even fourth) are all mixed up. From what I can tell, it’s a case of your body understanding the best course of action and your brain subsequently getting in the way.

Philosophies and religions throughout history have suggested that we must seek to return to some sort of original state. In the Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra identifies this as a central aspect of Zen: “The process of enlightenment consists merely in becoming what we already are from the beginning,” he writes.

In Ecclesiastes, the speaker writes, “God, when he made man, made him straightforward, but men invent endless subtleties of their own.”

In the Tao Te Ching, passages like this one are common:

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Similarly in climbing, I believe most of us carry a certain innate understanding of movement in our bones, but that we have forgotten, or confused that understanding.

Lois, like most of my students at the climbing gym, came to me from a life spent seated: at work, at home, in the subway, in a car…. I don’t believe she had ever done anything much more physically complex than riding a bike on a paved surface or assembling Ikea furniture. In her decades of risk-averse life, she had grown afraid of heights. Any original knowledge of movement had been overwritten by a set of culturally accepted rules designed to minimize risk.

But on her first attempt on that blue route, for whatever reason, maybe because she didn’t have time to think about it, her unconscious self was able to flow freely up the wall. When she tried to remember what she had done, she created layers of anxiety and doubt that muddied the process. Her third attempt was little better than the second, the fourth a bit better still. On the fifth attempt she finally managed to climb better than the first. It took her almost an hour to return to her starting point and consciously understand what some part of her understood almost instantly.

It seems silly, but I think this kind of cycle is necessary. Intuition alone or intellect alone will only take us so far. Each person must work through long, confusing, or awkward periods of trial and error to come back to the place where he or she started. Through the course of a lifetime, we make many such circuitous journeys, on the wall and off, but it is not a case of simple repetition. When we return to our starting point after trials and tribulations, everything looks different because we have changed. We have gained a new perspective to take with us on the next climb.

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

7 thoughts on “Climbing Back to the Beginning”

  1. Nice Post. I just found your site through looking at climbing over training. I have been climbing a few years and love the way it is a lens to view life. Beginners mind is an interesting concept – how to ‘do’ innocence? Reading your post gave me a nice way to look at this – a kind of visual would be awareness swallowing innocence and experience with the result being undefinable assimilation. Iterations of experience being swallowed and digested by life with the backdrop of a rock steady mountain. Great stuff, thanks!

    1. Cool. Thanks for reading! Images of cyclicality — the snake eating its tail or the Yin Yang (light giving birth to dark giving birth to light) — become hard to escape once we start to really see the world and ourselves. W.B. Yeats (“Turning and turning in a widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer”) added another dimension to cyclicality with the metaphor of the gyre, or spiral. He likened the growth of the individual to ascending the steps of a spiral staircase. From directly above, our passage would look like a simple circle walked repeatedly. But from the side, a viewer will see that we are actually moving upwards. As we pass windows in the tower, we see the same part of the landscape we saw before, experience the same things we already have, but now we have a higher and a wider perspective on it.

  2. Nice- the windowed staircase – a cool visual. Seems to me that the higher and wider the perspective, the less it seems to be owned. Although time’s nature is to multiply experience, it has no grip here, yet there is still this sense of progress!
    Along the lines of this post discussing the mind doubting in climbing, I have been thinking lots about muscle memory vs climbing fresh and/or mind control vs free body awareness and/or learned ability vs inherent ability. Looking forward to the bouldering wall later for experimental motion poetry.
    Thanks for the food for thought/no mind.

    1. I have been thinking along similar lines lately. The ultimate performance seems to arise after much work, concentration, and memorization, and then when the body begins to move of its own accord. It reminds me of this great story from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:

      The First Principle

      When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle.” The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

      When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workmen made the larger carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize his master’s work.

      “That is not good,” he told Kosen after the first effort.

      “How is that one?”

      “Poor. Worse than before,” pronounced the pupil.

      Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had been accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

      Then, when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now is my chance to escape his keen eye,” and he wrote hurridly, with a mind free from disctraction. “The First Principle.”

      “A masterpiece,” pronounced the pupil.

  3. Applicable not only to climbing frustrations, but also to frustration in my career as an artist. Pieces turn out so much better when I stop stressing about clients and let my instinct take over. This article has come at a very good time for me. Thank you.

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