The Book of Changes

A flaming log in a campfire.

“Blaming life for changing is like blaming fire for being hot.” I wrote this in my freshman year of college, in an email to my good friend Mike. We were attending schools in different states and had sought out a correspondence to deal with the newness of it all. Both of us were facing what felt like overwhelming changes at the time. We were out from under the watch of our parental units and confronted with all manner of unfamiliar responsibilities and scenarios.

I don’t recall what my point was exactly with that platitude about fire; it was the kind of thing I’d spout in a moment of poetic reverie without fully understanding why. Now though, nearly two decades on, it makes a certain kind of sense to me. Heat can cause problems—it can burn—but it is essential to the thing we call fire, inseparable, and also what makes it useful. Likewise, the mercurial natural of this ride we call life… let’s just say it’s pointless to take offense at such things.

These remembrances of things past come easily to mind of late, I think, because change looms large on my horizon. In a week, my wife and I will leave behind our little blue bungalow in Salt Lake City and move to the California coast, just a few hours north of Los Angeles. I’ll be moving on from Petzl, where I’ve worked happily for almost six years, to Patagonia, a company whose story I’ve been following with interest for over a decade. My wife and our dog will stand as constants, along with some furnishings and sundry books and artifacts, but not much else. Just life doing that change thing again. The funny thing about change is, even when you recognize its inevitability, it’s bound to catch you off guard.

The first response most of us have to change is fear. Change is scary in the same way darkness is—we can’t see what lies ahead, and so we fill in the blanks with phantasms of our own making. But it’s important to remember that there’s no real alternative to change. The things we identify with and attach ourselves to are bound to shift, evolve, and eventually fade away, one way or another. (In Buddhism, this concept is known as anicca, or impermanence, and it’s one of the three marks of existence.) A static world in which we can hold on to anything, even ourselves, exists only as a philosophical concept. Change, ironically, is the one constant we can count on.

So, with that in mind, I’m working to let go of the dualities my brain is trying to bring to this latest set of changes—the pros and cons, the fears and desires. Instead I try to focus on each step in the process and let the change happen, as it will whether I welcome it or not. The past is a memory and the future is a dream—what happens in between is an infinitesimal point that flickers and dances like a flame. The truth of this condition can only be experienced, not intellectually understood nor directly expressed. Some things never change.

If You Want to Be Good at Something

Woman sitting on a bench overlooking Boulder, Colorado

Most people want to be good at something. They want to be like the characters they see on TV: doctors, fighter pilots, FBI agents, writers, musicians… all at the top of their game. Our social order is built around this type of obvious success. Wealth, influence, virtuosic skill that draws the attention of the many. A good number of us want to be good at making money, as this is a proxy for many other types of success. If you’re reading this blog, you probably dream of being a great climber, and choose to center your life around this goal.

But it has been my experience that people who are very good at things, the type of people who most of us look up to and admire for their excellence, are not necessarily the happiest people. Often the focus and determination required to be the best spring from a sort of restlessness, a dissatisfaction with oneself or one’s position in life. It is all too common for a person rich in possessions or achievements to suffer from a certain paucity of spirit. The major religions of the world tend to agree on this point, which is why they like to remind us that the king and the peasant are equal in the eyes of God or gods.

I have met few people who would say they strive first to be good at life. What do I mean by being good at life? I mean to be generally happy, to live by one’s own moral code as closely as possible, to be accepting of the world as it is and people as they are, to be comfortable in one’s own skin, to be balanced and stable yet not stubborn, to be honest with oneself and others, to see with eyes unclouded by fear and desire, etc. I think of a person who is good at life as one who, for no obvious reason, makes others feel at ease; a person who has a certain naturalness and realness. It’s a vague concept, I’ll admit. Like most things of true value, you can’t fully define it or directly measure it.

She who seeks to be good at life cultivates certain skills, I think: patience, self-awareness, the art of putting things in perspective. She should have empathy, without being easily swayed by others. Help others without neglecting herself. She must be flexible, fluid, adaptable. She must strive to improve without succumbing to the delusion of perfection (even the most finely crafted blade is a jagged mess when viewed under magnification). She seeks to learn when to hold fast and when to let go, and how to carry the profoundest things lightly in her heart.

When one endeavors to be good at life first, and good at everything else second, much becomes clear. (Although in practice they are typically parallel, and even interwoven, pursuits.) The world’s greatest baseball player might also abuse his spouse, seek competitive advantage through illegal drugs, or suffer from great egotism or rage. We would say this person excels in his sport, but not in his life. This seems like the most absurd of scenarios, but it is common, perhaps because there’s no organization dedicated to identifying and rewarding those who are skilled in the art of life. Scientists have the Nobel Prize, writers the Pulitzer. There are Emmys and Grammys and all manner of lifetime achievement award. But to win any of these is no guarantee at all of one’s aptitude for living.

It is a bit of common wisdom that one should set his own house in order before trying to change the world. Likewise that a person who does not love herself is handicapped when it comes to loving others. So it is with those who care only about being the best at some external thing while neglecting the internal—they have it backwards. How long should a person wait before turning attention to the real root of their problems? In Buddhism, it is said that our conscious understanding of this world is like a house on fire. As soon as we realize it’s on fire, we need to turn our efforts to getting out. There is nothing lasting for us there.

Academically rigorous minds will likely see these words as fluff… and maybe they are. It is only a sense I get; something I’ve noticed in my decades on this planet, trying to make sense of things. Still, it seems clear that if you want to be good at something, you should first aspire to be good at life, after which everything else will probably make more sense.

9 Reasons to Not Wear Your Helmet

A damaged rock climbing helmet.
This helmet has seen some action.

These days I wear my helmet while cragging, mostly because I’ve been around long enough to hear and see firsthand what can happen when you don’t. I’ve witnessed climbers who hooked the rope behind their heel, flipped upside down, and swung into the wall back first. I’ve heard of belayers dropping their climbers into melon-splitting talus. I’ve watched as climbers dislodged chunks of rock down onto their belayers with bloody results. I’ve seen cobbles spontaneously drop from the roofs of caves as unsuspecting climbers strolled through the landing zone.

All of the above took place at sport crags, where most climbers consciously opt out of cranial protection. Horror stories abound, and yet legion are the climbers who will go to the mats over their belief that helmets need not be standard-issue equipment. Following are just some of the common arguments I’ve heard against helmet use, along with a brief response. I’m happy to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments section.

Not all Cases

“If you get hit by a big-ass rock, a helmet’s not going to do anything anyway.”

The Stone Mind responds: Yes, and if a semi rolls over your car, your airbag isn’t going to help, either. But in many cases helmets will help, so it’s better to wear one (and also to have an airbag) than not.

Pick and Choose

“I only wear a helmet in high-risk scenarios: on multi-pitch routes, crags with known rock fall problems, in the mountains, or on ice climbs.”

The Stone Mind responds: I think of a helmet like health insurance: hopefully you never have to use it, but when you need it you’ll be very glad to have it. Add to that the fact that few of us have the Sherlock-like perspicacity to safely judge when and where we truly need a helmet, anyway. Particularly ill-equipped to make such judgements are all the new climbers flocking from gym to crag. Hence, you’re not only protecting your own dome when you helmet up, but you’re setting an example for all those innocent n00bs.

Born Free

“Climbing is about freedom, and helmets detract from that experience.”

The Stone Mind responds: Motorcyclists make this argument, too. It holds up really well until an accident happens. Then all that freedom is goes the window and you find yourself in a hospital bed, relearning how to use a fork and knife. Plus, how much freedom does a lightweight helmet really suck from your experience on the rock? More than your harness and rope?

Slippery Slope

“Next you’ll say we should be wearing helmets in the car or walking down the street!”

The Stone Mind responds: Probably not. I mean, the car analogy doesn’t hold up because in any modern vehicle you’re already surrounded by multiple layers of safety, like antilock brakes, airbags, impact zones, seat belts, and more. And clearly, walking on a sidewalk and scaling a wall of friable stone with nothing but a strand of rope for protection exist on different ends of the risk spectrum when it comes to the likelihood of head injury. But you know who does wear helmets? Cyclists, skateboarders (in parks, anyway), snowboarders, football players, (most) motorcyclists, race car drivers, and many other user groups who run a significant risk of cranial impact.

Hot Headed

“Helmets make me sweat, are heavy, chafe, and in general aren’t comfy.”

The Stone Mind responds: Maybe back in the day, but modern helmet technology has come a long way. Most major brands now offer well ventilated, ultralight options that weigh half a pound or even less… not much more than that  beanie you insist on wearing even when it’s hot enough to take your shirt off.

Pay to Play

“I can’t afford a helmet; I spent all my money on cams.”

The Stone Mind responds: That is a good point. Can’t skimp on those cams. Still, I bet you can find a brain bucket on sale somewhere for under fifty simoleons. Or your buddy who works in the industry can probably hook you with a bro deal, amiright??!

The Catch

“I heard someone once got a carabiner hooked on their chin strap and then fell and ended up getting hung.”

The Stone Mind responds: This kind of reasoning is often trotted out by seatbelt haters, who suggest buckling up is actually dangerous because it could trap you in a flaming car. I’m sure such tragedies have occurred in the history of the world, but I think we should be more concerned about the scenario likely to happen 99.9% of the time versus the one that happens 0.1% of the time, don’t you? Like the scenario where your helmet prevents injury and doesn’t cause it…

Peer Pressure

“No one else at the crag is wearing one!”

The Stone Mind responds: The standard mom response works pretty well here: if everyone decided to jump off a bridge, would you?! (Don’t answer that, BASE jumpers.) Luckily, helmets appear to be more and more common at the crags, perhaps as a result of a younger generation accustomed to wearing protection on bikes, boards, and skis.

I Do What I Want

“I don’t care what you say—you’re not the helmet police and no one can make me wear one.”

The Stone Mind responds: This is absolutely correct. If you understand that a helmet might help save you from serious pain and suffering, and that wearing one needn’t be a great burden in terms weight or comfort or financial cost, and you still choose not to wear one, then there’s not much to be said. You can also choose to climb without a rope, live without health insurance, and drive without a seatbelt (though the latter is illegal in most states). It is your life and your health—may the force be with you!

 

Disclaimer: I work for Petzl, a company that manufactures helmets. However, as a climber of more than two decades, the views in this post are entirely my own and informed by my own experiences. This blog is in no way intended to advocate the use of any particular brand of helmet over another. Add to that the fact that helmets are not designed for nor capable of preventing all the dangers of climbing. Educate yourself, read the manufacturer’s technical information provided with your helmet, and decide for yourself when and how to use your helmet.

The Climber’s Religion

Devil's Tower at sunrise. Photo by Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography (via Creative Commons)
Devil’s Tower at sunrise. Photo by Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography.

“Climbing is my religion.” I’ve heard it many times, often in an effort to express the depth of feeling the speaker holds for climbing. Other times it’s been a response to the diminution of climbing as “recreation,” a “pastime,” or a “sport,” or to conflicts between more commonly accepted religions and climbing,

Typically, such conflicts have arisen in the mountain West, between Native American tribes and climbers, who by dint of public land use statutes have been allowed to climb on rock formations that various tribes deem sacred. Perhaps the best known such site is Devil’s Tower, where over a dozen tribes claim religious or ancestral ties. Many climbers claim a religious connection of their own in the act of climbing the 1,200-foot igneous intrusion.

I lean towards skepticism when it comes to such claims of climbing’s deeper significance. Just because we love rock climbing and dedicate our time, money, and energy to it, doesn’t mean it’s our religion. A religion has so much more to it, doesn’t it? There’s ritual and context, history and culture. Us climbers, we were just fooling around—albeit in a pretty serious way—right?

But for some reason the idea of climbing as religion stuck with me, maybe because I’ve never been entirely clear on what a religion is or isn’t, anyway. Is a holy book required? Millions of followers? A thousand-year-old history? The Internal Revenue Service defines a “church” for the purposes of taxation or lack thereof, listing attributes such as: definite and distinct ecclesiastical government, established places of worship, schools for the preparation of its members, literature of its own, and more. It would be hard to see climbing fitting this admittedly loose definition… And yet…

In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, the famed late-nineteenth century philosopher and psychologist William James reviews an assortment of specific cases of religious believers. He concludes that there is “a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously,” and that it consists of two parts: “1. An uneasiness; and 2. Its solution.” The first is an uneasiness about ourselves, that we are fallen from grace or under the spell of a delusion. The second is the belief that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”

A connection with higher powers, in the religious context, is often described as an overwhelming sense of oneness with something greater than oneself and a disconnection from the day-to-day struggles and worries that consume our conscious minds. A Christian might call this a direct connection with God. A Buddhist would say it’s a taste of Nirvana. Plenty of climbers have felt such connection high above the earth, moving over rock faces and mountain slopes.

In an attempt to further unyoke such connection from any specific belief system, the contemporary philosopher Sam Harris writes, “Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences.” In his book Waking Up, he defines spirituality simply as “repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self.”

With all this in mind, I might suggest that many climbers (though certainly not all) share this essential human experience that is so often tied to religion but, depending on who you ask, need not be. Many climbers experience an uneasiness with the world as it is and life as it is commonly lived. We also believe we have found a solution in the act of climbing, which helps us connect with something bigger than our day-to-day selves.

Neither the IRS nor practitioners of the world’s many recognized religions are likely to buy climbing’s holy claims. Where is our good book? Our ordained ministers? Our formal code of doctrine? In the end, the only thing we have is our direct experience of the sublime, those moments where the self dissolves into pure being and acting, often in the original and most primal place of human worship: nature.

It may not be enough to garner any official designation, but I think this is the experiential underpinning on which all religions are built, and without which all the hallowed traditions and rituals of the world would seem as flat as filling out a tax form.

Bodhi’s Final Lessons

Bodhi the dog out camping in City of Rocks, Idaho.

If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you might have noticed a post or two about a dog named Bodhi, who my wife and I adopted from an animal shelter back in 2010. Bodhi was a blue heeler, a particularly intelligent, energetic breed of canine designed to tirelessly herd livestock. Heelers are popular among rock climbers, probably for their toughness, obedience, and ability to go almost anywhere. (Dean Potter had one named Whisper, who even joined him on some of his wing suit flights.)

My wife and I picked Bodhi from a row of caged dogs in varying states of distress. He was meek, his tail wrapped tightly under his body, mouth shut and ears back. In the little open air zone where we were allowed to interact with him, he shrank from our touch and cowered at the excited sniffings of a puppy a fraction of his size. Looking back, I think maybe we could have seen that Bodhi had issues, but it was our first time adopting and we assumed shelter life was to blame for his timidity. He would relax, we figured, once he got used to his new home with us.

In those early days, I was excited to take Bodhi to the crag and on hikes in the mountains, a red bandana tied around his neck a la Mad Max. And while he did enjoy hiking, our trips to the crag didn’t go as planned. The first time I brought him out, he got into fights with any dog who came near for a sniff. He growled at people who tried to pet him. At home, he didn’t fare much better, showing his teeth at any prolonged physical contact and choosing to segregate himself from us when possible.

We tried several trainings, consulted books and websites, talked to our friends who worked with dogs for a living, and spent endless hours trying to exercise Bodhi into a better mindset, but his issues only worsened over time. We spent considerably on a training operation that specialized in problem dogs. We boarded him there when we traveled, and brought him there many weekend mornings for “dog socialization,” where we walked around in circles in a large room with other dogs and owners, in an effort to help them grow accustomed to each other and to other humans. All to little effect.

Bodhi was at his worst around his water. He drew blood on more than one occasion when my wife or I put down or picked up his bowl. We spent hours sitting passively by the water bowl, encouraging him simply to come and drink with us in proximity. It never worked. Increasingly he behaved as if everything around him was a threat, and no amount of evidence to the contrary could change that.

“This isn’t normal,” my wife told me. She had a dog growing up who was loving and snuggly and brought joy to the family. I never had a dog, so wasn’t sure how much work and training it was supposed to require. I was willing to put in the effort with Bodhi, and felt responsible for his behavior. When he growled or snapped at friends and strangers, I felt I had failed. Once my friend put his foot close to Bodhi’s food bowl and Bodhi bit it hard. I thought I was mad at my friend for antagonizing our problem dog, or at Bodhi for being so troubled… but really I was mad at myself for not being able to fix what was wrong.

His behavior only worsened. We tried a stricter program at the urging of a trainer. We put Bodhi in his crate and only took him out for structured periods of training, exercise, or feeding. It was hours a day of work, and it seemed only to agitate Bodhi rather than help him. He grew possessive of his crate and would bite at us when we opened or closed the door.

One night during a training session involving food, he bit my wife on the arm and held on, leaving a large, dark bruise. It was the first time I was willing to admit we might be out of options.

We asked the trainer we’d been working with for her opinion in light of everything that had happened. “Every once in a while, you just get a dog with a screw loose,” she admitted.

I spent several evenings after work calling around to other trainers, asking if they might know of specialized shelters or organizations who could take a dog like Bodhi. Maybe a farmer could use him as a work dog, I offered. Everyone said no. Most said it would be irresponsible to re-home a potentially dangerous animal. One women reminded me that many friendly, healthy dogs are put down in shelters every day, simply because there aren’t enough people to adopt them. Bodhi would only live on if we were willing to continue with him, it seemed.

It’s a strange thing, humanity’s companionship with dogs. Through millennia of breeding, we’ve created animals that can exist within our homes and our society, serve as helpers or even members of the family. We’ve created a narrow niche for them to live in our culture, but if a particular dog’s behavior doesn’t fit in that niche, there’s really not much of a place for them.

After almost three years, we chose to euthanize Bodhi. Despite all of the frustration, it was still one of the hardest choices I’ve made in my life. We’d worked for years to avoid the decision and discussed it—argued about it—for months. When the day came, we walked up and down the street out front of the veterinary clinic while they performed the procedure, crying uncontrollably as we paced through the morning light. And it was a funny feeling that came after: a mix of guilt and grief, but also of relief.

I figured we’d never get another dog. I felt like I’d blown it, and that life would be easier without the complication, anyway. But after six months, my wife started bringing up the idea of trying with another pup. I resisted for months more, feeling cold to the idea. Over time though, the friendly dogs we saw on our regular walks started to warm me.

Eventually, our friend tipped us to a brindle-patterned pug with bad allergies that was up for adoption. We went to meet the strange little beast, adopted her, and named her Pebble. She is an amazing being that brings us joy every day and melts hearts wherever she goes. She is happy to be a part of our pack and we’re happy to have her.

It’s been a year since we adopted Pebble, and I see now that my wife was right: our relationship with Bodhi wasn’t normal. There was little love; mostly anxiety and pain. There were moments when we could pretend things were normal—when he was playing fetch or running along side us in the foothills—but reality would snap back with the speed of an unprovoked bite in the car afterwards.

I’ll always harbor a sliver of doubt that we did everything we could have with Bodhi, but that is the nature of decisions in this life. In the theoretical world, there are infinitely many ways things can go. In the real world, we can walk just one path at a time. This tells me two things: 1) that we should always try in earnest to make the best, most informed, decisions we can every step of the way, and 2) that there’s no value in dwelling on what might have been; take the results of past decisions into consideration and refer to number 1.