Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“My thinking about the case, man, it had become uptight.”
— The Dude

If you’ve spent much time rock climbing, you’ve probably come across a person who wants the send a little too much: he kicks and screams when he falls; while resting, he sits with brow furrowed in stern concentration; he makes excuses for his unsatisfactory performance to strangers with no reason to care; he appears almost upset to be out climbing rocks for fun. It’s always weird to see when somebody seems to be missing the point so completely.

At the same time, most of us want to improve, to succeed on the climbs we try. Why wouldn’t we? It feels good to push out against and expand what we once thought of as our limits. It is a true pleasure of life to overcome a challenge that once felt insurmountable. But to do this, we have to set goals and make plans to achieve them. We have to care, or we wouldn’t bother to try at all. And we have to be critical of our approach in order to improve, refine, find the best path to proceed.

I find what’s needed to really climb well and enjoy it is an alternation between the Playful Mind and the Critical Mind—very much a complimentary pair, a yin and yang of mindsets.

I alternate between these mindsets with work, too. When I work from home, often I descend into uninterrupted Critical Mind for long periods of time. Then my wife comes home and finds me sunk into my chair, typing away with a scowl on my face. She starts to tell me about how her day went and I say, “Uh huh,” “Oh really?” only having half heard what she’s telling me. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I’ve been in my head all day, mercilessly criticizing my own ideas to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and it can be hard to make the transition into a more relaxed and open mindset.

I enter my Critical Mind (which I also call Editor’s Mind) because it’s important to me that I do good work, but it’s not good to be so critical when you’re spending time with your spouse or family or friends. It’s a tight mindset, one that creates tension between the keeper of the Critical Mind and anyone else who isn’t in the same mental space. It also creates tunnel vision, which can move us farther from the very goals on which we’re focused.

“To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things,” says Mark Beeman, a professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Counterintuitively, a more leisurely, undirected, non-goal-oriented approach might actually move us closer to what we desire. The harder we grasp, in other words, the more things tend to slip away. Look at a faint star in the night sky directly, and it disappears into the darkness. Loosen your focus, let it exist in the periphery of your sight, and it will begin to reappear. It is in this state that we can start to see the larger patterns, the constellations as a whole.

So on a new climb or a new task at work or in school, we should come with our Playful Mind first. Explore the options, consider the big picture, the entire constellation of possibilities. Experiment, exert energy in many directions and note the results without judgement. Then, perhaps, it makes sense to apply Critical Mind: decide what works and what doesn’t, analyze the why and the how of things, decide on a game plan and attempt to execute. If your plan doesn’t work, it might be time to return to the playful mind again, in search of other options.

To use only one mind or the other is a mistake. The left and the right, the light and the dark, the active and the passive, the playful and the critical… . It’s by the alternating of one foot in front of the other that we progress. But in either case—in any case—we must not hold too tightly to the ultimate result. As it says in the Tao Te Ching:

[The master] lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.”

Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands
Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”

Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.

I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…

While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.

The same week my wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.

For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.

“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”

Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.

The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.

 

Vertical Dispatch: Climber Questions Ultimate Significance of Sending Project

Man looking down at deer carcass

BOULDER, CO — It was a feeling that had been weighing on Brendan Slater’s conscience for some time, but this Saturday, the weight became too much bear. “What does it really matter if I send my project?” Slater said. “At the end of the day, climbing just seems so meaningless… so selfish.”

Slater, who works at the local sub shop in order to maintain a flexible schedule for climbing, admitted scaling vertical surfaces has for years served as his primary source of fulfillment and self-worth, but that he began to wonder about the ultimate significance of his passion after finding a deer carcass on the hike up to the crag to work on his project.

“I just sort of stared down at that deer’s skull and its bones and those tufts of fur and thought, ‘That could be me,’” Slater explained, adding that the world seemed suddenly like a very big and cold place, and really what else do we have in this life but our good works and our compassion for our fellow humanity, you know?

In an effort to assuage the existential void that gripped him while gazing into the deer’s vacant eye sockets, Slater sought council from a local pastor, who recommended volunteering to help those less fortunate.

“That didn’t feel like the right way to go, either,” Slater said. “I feel like that’s just as selfish, because I’d only be doing it to feel better. I’d still be looking out just for me.”

“For now, I’m going to stick with climbing,” he added.

Here and There

A Honda Element parked in the desert
What truths lie out there, on the road and off?

We were eating breakfast at a bakery this weekend when a plus-sized, gleaming, silver Mercedes Sprinter camper—a creation that resided somewhere on the vehicular spectrum between van and RV—glided past.

“Check out the road-trip mobile,” I said to my wife, impressed. The aproned girl busing the table next to us looked wistfully out through the plate-glass façade and said, “I want one so bad.”

As I climber, I sort of wanted one, too. Or something like it, at least—something that would let me roll to destinations unknown and leave my life and responsibilities behind, all the while taking a little bubble of comfort and familiarity with me.

It turns out this is a common desire, as evidenced by the nearly 84,000 Instagram images tagged #vanlife; blogs about folks who gave up the office for the road, like Our Open Road and Desk to Dirtbag; the Overlandia series on Adventure Journal; Kickstarters like Home is Where You Park It; and numerous articles in Outside Magazine and other publications.

Stickers circulate: “Work Less. Climb More” and “Quit Your Job.” We want to listen to them. They are a siren call. Companies and magazines tap into this thirst for new vistas with hashtags like #neverstopexploring (The North Face) or #daysyouremember (Mountain Hardwear). I can only take that to mean that days spent in less adventurous ways—working in an office, reading a book, tending to chores—are days we won’t remember. I see this as a missed opportunity. We should (must!) strive to make something of our too-small allotment of moments in this life, no matter where they transpire.

The question is, what do we hope to find on our travels? Do we truly believe there is some answer hidden like a geocache in far-flung spots? How many of us in our Ultimate Road Trip Mobiles are driving away from, instead of towards, something? How much more challenging is it to appreciate the inexhaustible newness of the world amidst a routine? I suggest that what really makes the adventure, on the road or off, isn’t what happens to us, but how we experience what happens. A beautiful sunset over strange lands is good medicine, sure, but it’s no panacea. To put it another way, there’s probably nothing wrong with where you are, just with your perspective.

The great poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder considered the idea of exploration, both externally and internally, in his essay On the Path, Off the Trail. In it, he offers a seldom-heard wisdom: “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick—don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”

On July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo II moon landing, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki spoke to a group of students in California. “The first one to arrive on the moon may be very proud of his achievement, but I do not think he is a great hero,” he said, likely in an attempt to jar his pupils from their attachment to goal chasing, patriotism, and pride. “Instead of seeking for some success in the objective world, we try to experience the everyday moments of life more deeply.”

As Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” Then again, sometimes we have to drive 20 miles on a rutted-out dirt road, cross a stream that almost stalls the engine, park, and walk half a day to climb up a big piece of rock to find the Zen we already had inside us.

So you can take that for whatever it’s worth.