A Question of Motivation

I was having dinner with my parents not long ago when my dad spoke up, an uncharacteristic formality in his tone. “Do you mind if I ask you about your, uhm, philosophy? I don’t want you to take it the wrong way…” It sounded like the start of an intervention. “You talk a lot about letting go of things, about not caring about goals. But what’s wrong with goals? What’s wrong with working hard and trying to be great at something?” He went on at some length, explaining his view on the matter and arguing for the value of dedication to a craft, of the embrace of goals and striving, of the beauty in taking one’s art form to the highest levels.

By most standards, you could say my dad is an accomplished person. He’s an artist who’s been showing his work since before I was born; he received a Visual Artists Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 90s, before the government stopped issuing such things; he taught as a professor at various respectable universities around the country; he’s co-authored and co-edited multiple books; he even has an Instagram account. He’s also an intellectually engaged fellow and, along with my mom, introduced me to the Eastern philosophies that today undergird much of the explorations you find in this blog.

Therefore, when my pop expressed concern at some of my perspectives, I was compelled to give the matter some more thought.

I think I see what he was getting at. I’ve written repeatedly about an issue I’ve noted in people around me: the achievement-obsessed behavior that leads usually to frustration, momentarily to satisfaction, and always to more goals in a never-ending cycle. From what I can tell, this cycle is the source of much needless human suffering. In last week’s post, I wrote that to be happy you should “loosen your iron grip on things as they are now and on things as you want them to be.” In November I wrote, “I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction.” In July, “Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.”

My dad isn’t the first one to take issue with these sorts of sentiment. One commenter recently suggested, “If we truly accept, we wouldn’t climb at all.” A while back, a friend felt the need to log on and set me straight, saying “The proper motivation to climb that next-level route, to ski that rad line, to get that dream job shouldn’t be out of fear, but out of love! Out of love for living a more actualized life and in sharing that joy. Out of the personal satisfaction that comes with achievement and the intrinsic satisfaction of the accomplished vision.” Which I almost completely agree with, if not for a few pesky words (“more actualized” and “personal satisfaction that comes with achievement” in particular.)

What my dad and others were concerned by, I think, is the seemingly slippery slope that leads from acceptance to apathy, from non-attachment to detachment. But I’m not an apathetic person. On the contrary I’d say I’m very engaged with and moved by the world. So perhaps my words just aren’t matching up with my deeds? I’m hoping a quick trip down memory lane will help clear things up…

When I was younger, I took naturally to rock climbing, but I tended to weigh the experience with unnecessary baggage. I wanted to be the strongest guy at the crag. I wanted recognition for my abilities on the rock. I wanted to burn the other guys off the wall. For years I’d train until my knuckles flared and my rotator cuffs grew ragged and frayed (still paying for that!). On days when my climbing wasn’t going well, I’d feel little more than frustration, my mind focused on my own standards of excellence rather than the reality of what I was doing that day (which should have been having fun climbing with my friends). It was backwards motivation, chasing after an image of what I wanted to be like, for shallow reasons like impressing others or satisfying some urge in myself.

Over time, as I grew older, I learned naturally to give less of a shit. Meanwhile I read books that echoed things I noticed while observing my inner state. I learned, very gradually, to release much of the grip I had on desires and to climb ever more for the simple pleasure of it. I learned to work less towards the goal of sending a harder grade and more towards the perfection of movement, of breath, of the infinite subtitles of balance. I could get lost in these subtleties and find something of lasting meaning there. Sometimes this approach meant I’d climb a harder grade, but often it did not. In the past, I would have been frustrated by my lack of steady “improvement,” but in recent years, it’s become increasingly unimportant, a distraction from what I view as the actual experience.

But does that mean I have no attachments, or propose that you should have none? Definitely not. I’m a realist, not an absolutist. But I do feel there’s a fine line between valuing things and clinging to them. To work assiduously and in earnest, but not be overly concerned with results—here’s the thing that I couldn’t quite express to my dad over dinner. I guess you could say my personal philosophy is more about the means than the ends. It’s not unlike the school of climbing that places style above all else. If you cut corners or do something in bad style, if you focus on just getting to the top or getting there faster and ignore the how of it, you’ll end up missing the whole damn point. An attachment to outcome that’s too strong can pull us out of alignment with the most meaningful things in life.

Wanting this blog post to be great will not make it great. Worrying that it is not great will not help me to write something better. On the contrary, it will likely lead to something less honest, less natural, more forced. Whether it is great or not is arguably an arbitrary distinction, too. So I would posit that the opposite of attachment is not apathy, but clarity and even freedom.

Pesky language! Even this lengthy ramble around the topic is not quite what I mean to say. But I’m OK with that.

Two Kinds of People & Three Things to Keep Close to Your Heart

A photo of the salt flats near Robert Smithton's Spiral Jetty earthwork in Utah
Everything is changing; nothing is permanent—now what?

The way I see it, there are two kinds of people: those who can find happiness when faced with the greatest challenges and tribulations, and those who find unhappiness even when given the greatest advantages and privilege. I bet you’ve known some of each. The first kind, nothing can harm; the second, nothing can satisfy. The former is infinitely capable of acceptance and adaptation; the latter never fails to find fault and assign blame. 

I’d like to believe that we can choose which type of person we are. 

To be the sort of gal or guy who finds peace amidst the metaphorical storm, there are a few important things to keep close to your heart. First, things change. Empires rise and fall. Stars form and expire. Our galaxy is whipping away from every other galaxy in space like spots on the surface of an expanding balloon. You and everyone you know and care about will grow sick, grow old, and die. There are only so many ways of looking on this unavoidable truth. Accept it, fight it, ignore it, or give in to despair. Only the first of these makes sense to me. The second is futile, the third temporary, and the fourth self-destructive. 

OK, everything is changing; nothing is permanent, not even the things I hold most dear—now what? 

Now you loosen your iron grip on things as they are now and on things as you want them to be. Because to find happiness in a world that inevitably takes from you all you treasure, you must be willing to love things for what they are, even as they become something else. You have to love the impermanence intrinsic in everything. You have to be OK with change, because change is constant. Permanence is just a figment of our clever monkey minds.

Another thing to keep near to your heart—bloody and fibrous and built for only a finite number of beats—is that suffering comes from within. The person who’s never happy is an expert at finding fault in the external world. He sees other people or the government or some illness or his bad luck as the source of his pain. The Buddha, so it’s said, noticed that the real source of our pain is internal. Attachment to our idea of how the world should be is the root of suffering, and relinquishing such attachments can offer freedom from suffering. 

Dr. Henry K. Beecher, in a study performed during WWII, likewise noticed the profound role of the mind in our experience of pain. He found soldiers wounded in battle were far less likely than civilians suffering from similar wounds to request analgesics. The answer was in the context. For the soldiers, injury meant an escape from the battlefield; for the civilians, it meant possible disruption of home and work life. “The intensity of suffering,” Beecher concluded, “is largely determined by what the pain means to the patient.” 

A third thing to keep tucked away inside that whooshing, palpitating, four-chambered orb of striated muscle in your chest is the fact that words and arguments will only get you so far. As hard as we may try to snare the deepest truths in our net of language, they always slip away. So too is this bit of writing just a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself. (What is “finger”? What is “moon?!”) Depending on how you look at it, this is cause either for disappointment or delight. Your choice.

Your Own Personal Mount Everest

Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2_PLW_edit

I have a question for you. Are you ready? OK, here it is: What is your Own Personal Mount Everest? I have another question: What did you answer? Never mind; it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, these socks will help you to climb it. Yes, you can conquer your equivalent of the world’s highest, most important, most valuable mountain in some other socks… but why would you? Our socks are authentic and wick away sweat while keeping you warm, but won’t cause blisters, wear out, or discolor the skin of your feet. They will not cause dysentery, like other sock brands, or lead you to question your self-worth.

The truth is, there are No Bad Days in the Mountains™. In the mountains you can find your inner self, hiding huddled in a snow cave, cold and alone, and swaddle him or her in this jacket made of our new ultralight fabric woven from the soft hairs surrounding the blowhole of albino narwhals. This supple yet durable textile is 331% more adventure resistant than any natural fiber known to science. Once you’ve swaddled your inner self, he or she will arise as if woken from a long slumber and stride out onto the frozen slopes, shimmering with moonlit hoar-frost, to ascend to the summit of ultimate understanding. (MSRP $499.95.)

How many times have you found yourself at your desk eating lunch over your keyboard and silently weeping? This is because life as you’ve lived it up until now has been a hollow farce. Quit your job! Set off into the unknown! Follow your heart; like a dowsing rod calibrated for pure adventure, it will lead you to a place where all of your questions will be answered and the mundane crust of life will fall like scales from your eyes. To make this transformative journey, you’ll want MaxoRay® brand sunglasses, which not only block 99% of harmful UV radiation, but also allow you to view formerly invisible wavelengths, penetrating the superficial layers of reality and revealing the gem-like core of existence. They also come with a microfiber pouch that doubles as a cleaning cloth.

Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” but if you’re going that far, you’re going to need the best footwear. Luckily, these shoes were designed by NASA scientists working with our elite athlete team specifically to carry you on a vision quest to meet the you you always fantasized you could be. While wearing these shoes, you will be rendered physically incapable of binge watching Netflix original programming. They will compel you to move! They have soles rated to carry you at least as far as happiness but possibly all the way to Nirvana.

But these pants aren’t just technological wonders fit for the most extreme conditions you might encounter in Nepal, on the PCT, or deep in the cactus-needled expanses of the Mojave—they’re also perfect for a night at the bar, tossing back craft beers with other lean, sun-kissed travelers with knowing eyes and possibly beards. With a patented, four-way stretch, non-toxic, fair trade fabric and riveted pockets that pay homage to our unique brand’s storied heritage, these are more than just pants, they’re an indispensable garment with a timeless look and money-back guarantee.

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Top 10 Posts of 2015

Photo collage of images from top posts of 2015

In his modern masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, British humorist Douglas Adams writes: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” His words spring to mind whenever I find myself marking a birthday or anniversary or some other occasion built around the regular passage of time. Take for example this post, a recap of the most-read The Stone Mind pieces since the Earth last made its whirling, elliptical career around the sun.

Why do we choose a year as the appropriate amount of time for retrospection? Why not 10 days, or three months, or five years? And why put the “start” of this year in January and not in March (like the Mesopotamians once did) or September (like the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians)? ‘Tis arbitrary, true, but in its arbitrariness lies another, related truth: this time is as good as any.

In keeping with the tastes of the internets, many of the posts enumerated below are listicles, how-tos, infographics, or scatologically themed; a few of them are of a more serious and personal nature; and one deals with the death of climber who made it his business to explore the outer edges of life. All of them are incomplete, biased, and come with a strict no-refunds policy. So without further ado:

1. “12 Tips for Making the Climbing Gym Uncomfortable”

2. “Climbing Didn’t Save Me”

3. “Where Do Climbers Poop?”

4. “9 Reasons Not to Wear Your Helmet”

5. “True Rock Climbing Facts”

6. “A Rare and Confounding Thing”

7. “How to Choose Rock Shoes”

8. “11 Predictions About the Future of Climbing”

9. “On the Evolution of Climbing”

10. “Adrenaline is A Fact”

As always, thanks for reading and enjoy. May your next 31,557,600 seconds, no matter how arbitrary, be peaceful, thought-provoking, and fulfilling.

–Justin