Climbing, Baking, and Zen

A climber wearing a white baker's hat
You show up and you bake the bread. That’s it.

“Usually when we practice we expect something: if we try hard, our practice will improve,” says Shunryu Suzuki in a collection of his lectures on Zen called Not Always So. “If we aim at a goal in our practice we will eventually reach it… . This is true, but it is not a complete understanding.”

Usually when we climb we expect something, too. Even if we don’t state it openly, we bring expectations. It is the same thing a student of Zen expects when she sits in zazen. We want to be better. We expect we will improve with effort.

The weather was perfect when I went climbing last week, but I knew snows would soon cover the rocks, so I really tried to accomplish something that was hard for me. That was my goal, but I didn’t reach it. Instead I did a few climbs that didn’t show improvement. Not good enough.

“Even though you say your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now,” Suzuki says, as if in direct response to my disappointment. “Good or bad, it is your practice.” If I give myself over to the climb and try my best, I might not meet my own expectations. Still, there is no other practice for me—at least, not at that moment.

It is difficult to let go of your expectations, whether for one climb, one day, or one season. It feels suspiciously like quitting. After all, who wasn’t taught from childhood that we must set goals and stop at nothing to attain them? But the bridge to any goal must be built on a foundation of failure and doubt. Then again, once we reach our goals, we find they rarely offer the type of lasting satisfaction we imagined they would.

Beyond it all, there is another sort of understanding that can only be expressed through the practice itself, and never quite explained. I think this is what Suzuki was getting at.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.

For the climber, the recipe is: we show up, we put on our harness or lay out our pad, we tighten our shoes and chalk our hands, and we climb. That is all. Some days the climb goes as planned, some days it doesn’t. However it goes, that is your day of climbing.

“We also do zazen with the understanding that the goal is not reached in one or two years, but is right here,” says Suzuki. “Here is the goal of practice.”

Toe Shoes: A Solution

Web

Much venom has been spewed about the “toe-shoe” since its début almost a decade ago. With separate pockets for each toe, they take on the shape of the human foot… or perhaps more accurately the shape of a large, brightly colored hobbit’s foot.

In a world full of shoes with unified toe boxes, the toe shoe is disconcerting, vaguely nauseating for reasons difficult to pin down. As such, the millions of disembodied voices of the Internet have leveled their collective judgement on toe shoes, mocking and berating them as a fashion faux pas, eyesores, and indicators of shoddy character, lackluster intelligence, or worse.

Of course, those who wear toe shoes vehemently disagree. They point to the fact that evolution sculpted the foot to carry us ably and comfortably wherever we might go. Our toes were never meant to be bound up and treated as a single unit, they cry, but as individuals, strong and spirited and each with its own job to do!

Perhaps you’ve heard of The Barefoot Running Book or Born to Run? Unless you make your bed beneath a boulder (and maybe even if you do), you’ve read about the various benefits of “minimalist” running and the attending footwear sub-industry that has sprung up around it. It is doubtful that millions of toe-shoe acolytes are entirely wrong…

Whether you’re for or against toe shoes is a matter of personal preference, but what’s not up for debate is the pain and suffering they can cause the friends, families, and significant others of those who wear and love them.

A trip to the store takes on a darker cast when you feel the judgment of your fellow patrons burning a hole in your Vibram Five Fingers. A night at the movies starts off on the wrong toe when your date looks down and thinks, “Oh god, does he have to wear them tonight?” Your teenage son cancels those plans for a jog the day after you show off your new, reptile-green Fila Skeletoes.

There is a certain irony that a shoe designed to maximize comfort could be the source of such friction. Marriages have crumbled over less.

Luckily, there’s a solution to the toe-shoe problem. Built on the modern spat platform, the Toe BeGone toe shoe cover slides over the top of your foot and and secures with a handy velcro strap under the bottom. The upper, available in a variety of water-resistant colors and designs (from sporty sneaker to casual loafer), creates the illusion that you’re wearing a “normal” shoe, while allowing you the toe-tal comfort and freedom of movement of a toe shoe.

Never have to explain your footwear again. With the Toe BeGone, you can have the best of both worlds.

Kickstarter coming soon.

Nothing Is Unpossible

Kristin after her run

The first time I talked my wife Kristin into going for a run with me, it was around the 1/4-mile high school track by our house in Boulder, Colorado. After the first lap, she had to take a break, partly due to the altitude (she’d just moved out from Philadelphia), and partly because she hadn’t done much in the way of physical activity in her 25 years of life. I don’t think we made it to a mile that day.

Despite at first hating that oh-so-special feeling of heart, lung, and leg exhaustion you get from running, Kristin didn’t give up. She felt it was important to get active and live a healthy life. Plus, we were in Boulder — it just felt natural to do as the Boulderites did.

Over the years, we had an on-again, off-again relationship with running, and Kristin eventually got fit enough to run three or four miles without keeling over. Then, about four months ago, unprompted, she declared she wanted to run 10 miles, whatever it might take. We Googled up a basic training program and started running four days a week, with increasingly longer runs on Sunday. We’d rise at 5:45am to beat the summer heat, pull on our shorts and lace up our shoes, and hit the road. The runs didn’t always feel great while we were doing them, but we always felt refreshed afterward and into the workday. Kristin got hooked on that feeling, the way most people do if they stick with running for long enough.

Just over a month ago, we made it to eight miles, but then Kristin tweaked her foot. She finished her run that day but could barely walk the final block back to our house. She was despondent, afraid she’d never get to her goal. “Maybe my body isn’t made to run 10 miles,” she moped.

We started up running again last week. We ticked off one three-miler and then, on Sunday, halfway into a planned four miles, we decided to just go for it. Nearly two hours later, we finished the elusive Mile 10.

We certainly didn’t break any speed records that day, but we finished, and pretty much off the couch, too. I know: people run 100 miles across Death Valley in the summer, so in the scheme of things, our 10 miles was not what you’d call a “big deal,” but what’s important is that Kristin set a goal for herself, a goal that at the time seemed distant, and she worked until she met it. Sunday’s run was, for her, one big step towards learning to ignore the niggling gremlins of self-doubt that plague us all. Genuine confidence (and, dare I say, happiness) is built on a foundation of moments when you did what you set out to do — when you did more than you thought you could.

Sure, I’m happy — I haven’t run 10 miles in many a year — but I am most proud of Kristin. She is now 10 miles closer to understanding that, with hard work, confidence, and a willingness to just fucking try, all things are possible; nothing is unpossible.

The only question now is, which half-marathon should we do?