“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.
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.
To be honest, I’m not planning to do any fishing, but I am on a little vacation. I leave you with this story called “The Real Miracle,”* about the 17th century Zen teacher Bankei:
When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.
Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.
“The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous power that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?”
Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”
My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”
At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.
There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.
His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…
But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.
“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.
At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.
It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .
Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.
In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.
When preparing for a journey, we must carefully decide what to bring. To pack too much slows us down. Likewise it’s a problem to pack too little and not have what we need. To carry only what is needed is the middle way of packing.
This challenge is at the heart of fast-and-light alpinism (see: Mark Twight). The right balance must be struck to meet one’s goal with style. The climber must excise the extraneous to find that place where skill and challenge, tool and task are perfectly matched; where she would likely not succeed with any less or more than what she’s brought.
It is the same with our minds. The thoughts we cling to are as items in a pack. We should ask ourselves if they’re useful, how do they contribute to our lives: Do they increase happiness and peace? Compassion and understanding? Or are they useless weight, cluttering our mental space?
Among the heaviest thoughts are desires and fears, guilt and regret. Most of us carry far too many of them all the time, everywhere we go.
My grandfather used to say “The things you own end up owning you,” which I always took as a caution against consumerism. It is, but in a more abstract sense, it’s also a warning against attachment of all kinds.
When we carry too much stuff, we’re unable to move freely, instinctively. We’re bound, anchored. In the mountains, this can be fatal. When such clutter concerns our mental state we become distracted and lose ourselves.
A nice exercise is to ask yourself every day, Can I carry less? When packing for a trip, it can help to choose a smaller bag. A smaller bag asks Do you really need that? of every item you plan to bring. (Imagine yourself as a small bag.)
And what about goals? Those carry weight, too. Can you leave even your goals behind and move with total freedom? It is a tricky business…
As far as I know, there is no instruction manual for such things. Just the act of asking Do I need this? more frequently and of everything we value can lead to some important insights. You can start right now.
We Petzl employees are lucky enough to have a bouldering wall at our Salt Lake City offices, and sometimes a few of us use our lunch breaks to put up holds. During one such lightning setting round, I noticed we had a surplus of one particular kind of hold: a rounded, pad-and-a-half edge colored like the marbled paper I used to make in elementary school art class. On a whim, I grabbed all the marbled edges and went to work on a traverse.
My lunch break drawing to an end, I slapped up the edges in a hurry, with only the loosest sense of the moves I wanted to create. In a state of “flow,” I bolted on all the handholds in five minutes, then nabbed a box of foot jibs and sprayed those up even more quickly. Certain I’d have to do some serious editing to this hastily crafted route, I grabbed my chalk bag to give it a test run.
Right away I was surprised. Everything flowed better than I suspected. I hadn’t pictured every detail of the climb, but was pulled by an intuition of the moves as I set them. The result, I think, was a more complete representation of my intent than I could have reasoned out with precise planning and goal-oriented forethought.
In routesetting as in climbing, the best performances often come when following our instincts. First we must assiduously practice our art of choice, of course, but then, when given the appropriate circumstances, we can go beyond what we could have done by willful action alone. Many view this state as the unification of body and mind or even self and universe. Ultimately, this idea of acting without striving or “non-doing” (wu wei) is a cornerstone of Eastern religions, from Hinduism to Taoism to Buddhism.
One of my favorite Zen stories, “The First Precept,” deals with this concept nicely:
The Obaku temple in Kyoto has a carving over the gate which says “The First Principle”. The 200-year-old carving, with exceptionally large letters, is admired by many as a masterpiece of calligraphy. It is the work of Kosen, the master carver.
Kosen would sketch the letters on paper and they would be carved on wood by his workmen. Now, Kosen had a rather audacious student who prepared large quantities of ink for his master. He was often very critical of his master’s technique.
“Not good enough!” said he, about Kosen’s first attempt. “How about this one?” asked Kosen after his second drawing.
“That’s worse than the previous one!” exclaimed the bold pupil. Kosen wrote out eighty-four sheets of “The First Principle”, but none met with the student’s approval. Then the young man stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Kosen thought to himself “Here’s my chance to escape his sharp eye!” Freed of distraction, he hurriedly wrote “The First Principle.”
The student returned. “Brilliant! A masterpiece,” he exclaimed.
It’s so simple: we practice with intention again and again, always weighted down by the desire for a particular outcome. Then, eventually, we find ourselves freed from the desire for whatever reason, and we are able to act from a deeper place. You might say this place is within us, or that its part of some underlying force (the tao), or that they are one and the same. Regardless…
So what’s the lesson then? That to do our best, we must let go of the desire to do our best. It’s another of those pesky puzzles that reason can’t solve. Words can only point us towards the answer, but as the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Instead, quiet the conscious mind and let the answer appear.
I met John Vincent Shrader in the early 2000s in the Red River Gorge. Stocky and muscular, with rectangular spectacles and close-cropped hair, he was studying history, psychology, and Japanese studies at the University of Kentucky. John hailed from Louisville and frequented the Red, ticking scores of the area’s classic test pieces, including Nagypapa (5.13d), Darth Maul (5.13c), and White Man’s Overbite (5.13c). He stood out for his climbing ability, sure, but also for his reserved, thoughtful demeanor. He came off as a mindful person in a place where many were unabashedly focused on their own accomplishments.
One day, I noticed I hadn’t run into John for a while. I asked around, but no one could tell me where he got off to. Eventually, he faded into the haze of memory.
Then one day last year, he appeared in my Facebook feed. A recent picture showed John with bushy beard and hair in a topknot. Clad in a red tank top, he looked thinner than I remembered. Seated beside a small shrine, he smiled broadly, well-worn lines wrinkling the corners of his eyes. The pictures in his Facebook gallery told a peripatetic tale: India, Japan, Mexico…. He appeared deeply engaged in yoga and meditation.
My curiosity was piqued, so I reached out with a message and asked if we could maybe do an interview. He agreed, and explained that he now lived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountain town in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, where he teaches yoga and meditation. It was fun to catch up with an old acquaintance and get a fresh take on the intersection of climbing and philosophy from someone with intimate experience in both.
It appears you’re quite into yoga, meditation, and the philosophy of the East. How did you get interested in this stuff?
My journey into yoga began in college. It was kind of a religious, spiritual crossroads for me then. I had grown up with a Christian background, and many of my friends in college were Christian, and I began to have a lot of questions. Christianity, at the time, simply didn’t have answers for me. It was in learning about Buddha and his message that the spiritual path is a personal one, where only you can provide the answers for yourself, that I became more interested in the philosophy of the East. At the same time, I learned that a good climbing friend’s dad was a master at a Zen center near the Red River Gorge called Furnace Mountain. I went to my first silent meditation retreat there and fell in love. I was fascinated by the simplicity of approaching the ultimate through working with the intimacy of your own mind and awareness. Later, yoga became the perfect bridge for connecting my passion for moving the body with climbing and sitting meditation.
Are you a Buddhist?
Nowadays, I don’t say I’m anything. Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings have had a profound influence on how I see and approach the world and myself, but I wouldn’t consider myself Buddhist. I’m seeing more and more that at the core of any authentic spirituality the teachings are similar and universal. I try to adopt all guidance and philosophies that increase my awareness and help me be a better human being.
When and why did you stop climbing regularly?
I stopped climbing regularly when I went to India after college. I spent a few months climbing at Hampi, in South India, then the journey of India simply took me to other places. It was never by conscious choice, per se, just that logistics and location didn’t allow for regular climbing.
Were you ever climbing and practicing yoga at the same time?
Not as intensively as I would have liked, in hindsight, but I was meditating and starting to do more and more yoga the last few years I was still climbing consistently.
Do you feel yoga helped you to climb better?
Absolutely. I was always shorter in stature, so the increased flexibility was much welcomed for raising my foot to my armpit and ridiculous drop knees on cruxes that taller friends would just reach past! Now, I feel so light and flexible and also super strong in the core, I would love to see how it translates to the rock. Not to mention the mental focus and learning to move from a place much deeper in. I always intuitively incorporated the breath with climbing to work through hard sequences, and now seeing how deep and profound a role it has in yoga, I would love to blend this more consciously again. With yoga, it begins to feel like the subtlety of the breath is moving the body, and not the force and brute of the body. I’m sure this would translate to a super smooth climbing experience.
Do you feel there’s a meditative or yogic aspect to climbing?
Absolutely! The amount of present-moment awareness and control of the mind and body that climbing calls for brings heightened states of awareness and a magnified view of your inner world. I would fall off the crux so many times and was sure that 90 percent of the time it was just one thought, usually negative, rather than physical incapacity, that threw me off. More mental mastery always related to stronger climbing.
Have you experienced a transcendent moment during climbing?
For sure, there are times climbing where time and space fade away, a crystalline clarity of the present moment and a sense of tapping into something infinite, undefinable, yet magical and alluring at the same time. It was this state of flow that was always the strongest pull for me to return to the rock.
You lived in Japan for five years; would you say there’s a different approach towards climbing there than in the US?
I didn’t climb so consistently [when I was in Japan]. When I did though, the climbers were always super stoked. No matter where I’ve been in the world, the climbing community always has this same vibe running through it. In Japan, there was so much psych and enthusiasm, but also this deep calmness when out climbing and I felt more of a respect for nature. More into really making sure they clean up after themselves and, at least when I went, no sense of any competition and a lot of shared encouragement and enthusiasm.
Do you think there’s a natural tension between the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and the typical climbing mindset?
Unfortunately, I would say there’s a certain tension that is present. One of the “goals” of Buddhism is to achieve a state of equanimity and non-reactivity, a mind that is serene despite outer circumstances of pleasure or pain. So often, there is attachment to sending a route or not. If there is failure, there is negative thinking and self-criticism—sometimes subtle, sometimes quite intense and vocal! Oftentimes, one’s happiness and state of mind are deeply influenced by success or failure on routes. I can understand that there is so much physically and emotionally invested in attaining a route or a certain grade, but it’s also silly, of course, in hindsight, that climbers get so caught up in these very transient concepts. I love the Bhagavad Gita‘s teaching of karma yoga. It basically says: give everything your very best effort, no holding back, but simultaneously completely detach from any result or fruit from the effort. I think if climbers approached climbing more like this, there could be more freedom and space in their hearts, and more of a pure joy for the action itself.
Can any activity be a path towards enlightenment?
Yes, this is again the message of karma yoga: that simply acting with the best intention and with all of one’s heart, and maintaining a sense of service towards all without attachment to result, there is a burning of personal karma and the possibility to attain freedom. Any activity, done with this in mind and with a heart of awareness and devotion can be a path towards enlightenment.
What is the importance of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is bringing a spotlight to all the patterns and tendencies of the mind that are the source of our suffering. When doing things with great attention and awareness of our internal state, every moment becomes an opportunity for meditation. Mindfulness is great because you can practice it every moment of every day, and not necessarily have to be doing yoga or sitting meditation—although the former greatly supports mindfulness through the rest of the day. A favorite Zen Master of mine, Hakuin, says “Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness.”
Do you think you could apply mindfulness to climbing?
So, of course, mindful climbing is the future! There is so much opportunity to make climbing into a more meditative experience, and I think many experienced climbers are intuitively doing this. It is the perfect environment: on a natural stone in the middle of nature, already so much stillness and tranquility around—to make the art of climbing into a process of deep mindfulness fits just perfectly. I remember in one of Aldous Huxley’s books, Island, he describes a utopian society, and I distinctly remember he mentions climbing as something of great importance that the community does for self-discovery and training of the mind. They also used a lot of psychedelics! I can’t quite remember the ending, but I think they were taken over by a giant oil company and the climbing and psychedelics stopped… . Maybe we still have a chance.
Do you think one day you’ll return to climbing, bringing with you these new perspectives?
Absolutely, I feel climbing will at some point come back into my life. I’m not sure in what capacity, but as long as we would be living close to rock, then I’m sure I’ll get back into it. There are times now and then when I make it to a gym or occasionally outside and am immediately struck by the organic communion of yoga and climbing. I’m always feeling very whole after climbing even just a bit. To be honest, sometimes I’m even dreaming about finishing up unsent projects and get a little giddy inside. But there certainly isn’t a need to climb like I used to feel. Before, it was always something that I deeply craved, and felt like it gave me balance, perspective and peace of mind. Now, yoga and meditation are bringing this spiritual contentment, so climbing would probably be another dimension of self-expression and connection to nature, or another way to approach yoga.
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I think it’s common for people to get frustrated while meditating. They get distracted easily, their minds wander, the feel they’re somehow doing something wrong. It’s an understandable feeling, as meditation, from the outside, looks like a very idealistic act—it brings to mind pictures of monks who’ve renounced material things sitting bald-headed in old stone temples. It can feel like a lot to live up to.
Something that helps me, when I’m sitting in meditation and thinking about work or some other less-than-zen topic, is to remember that meditation isn’t as much about doing something precisely right as it is constantly returning to one’s breath and the present moment.
The returning is the key.
It’s not that we don’t stray from our practice, but that we return to it—consistently and with patience. Over time, we learn to return with less effort and to remain in the present longer.
I started thinking about the idea of returning while I was bouldering in my local gym. I worked on a tricky problem and felt myself getting frustrated every time I fell, each time my beta didn’t pan out the way I’d expected. But then each time I sat down to start the problem again, I felt my mind clear. I tried to climb each time with renewed purpose, with the best flow, balance, and efficiency I could muster. Each time was an opportunity to for a fresh start, to do my best in the moment, even if that moment didn’t last long.
This returning is a key to something big, I’m pretty sure. It sometimes feels insufficient, like we should be more constant, moving steadily towards our goals. Every time we wander off the path, we count it as a failure. But really it’s just another opportunity to return to ourselves, to recenter.
Are you anxious in your morning meditation? Return to your breath. Fall off your project at the crag? It’s part of the process. Return to yourself and try again. As the Japanese saying goes: fall down seven times, get up eight.
When you get used to this way of practicing, you can do it all the time: in meditation, climbing, during the drive to work, while washing dishes… . With each morning, we can return. With every breath we have another chance to return. When we’re worried or angry or feeling lost, we have the perfect opportunity to return.
One day, we might even recognize that there’s nothing to return from, after all—that we’re always already there. But that’s some pretty advanced stuff.
The first cut of this post was written with pen and paper aboard a Boeing 767 slipping through the air high over the Atlantic. In a small bag under the seat in front of me lies one-third of my possessions for my journey. The other two-thirds hangs in the compartment over my head. Seattle, Texas, France—this is my third trip in just over a month. In the process of packing, unpacking, and repacking, I’ve gotten pretty good at stripping down my affairs to the essentials. It’s helped me to understand just how much—really, how little—stuff I need.
One pair of shoes, a spare pair of pants, a few shirts, a block of socks and underwear approximately the volume of a loaf of bread. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Wallet. A little foil packet containing Advil. Laptop. Sunglasses. Assorted charging cables and converters. An iPhone (music storage device, library, camera, back-up computer, phone, and more, all in one!). A stupidly expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones, which, while indulgent, help make 10 hours on a plane more peaceful.
The more Itravel, the more I’ve grown to regard many of my possessions at home as superfluous. Every time I buy something, I feel compelled to chuck, sell, or donate something in exchange—to balance out the ledger, as it were. In contradiction to the American Dream, my goal has become to have less over time. I want the things I do have to be valuable not in the monetary sense, but in the sense that they enrich my life rather than clutter it. I want things that allow me to accomplish more rather than stand as symbols of accomplishment.
Living out of a suitcase or, as I used to from time to time, a car, can teach us the value of elimination. Extra weight is anathema to travel—it slows us down, bends our backs, splinters our attention as we endeavor track the tangled mess of items both useful and useless. As my grandpa used to put it, “The things you own end up owning you.” Or, as Yvon Chouinard is said to have said, “The more you know, the less you need.”
Of course, traveling light is a practical consideration, and as you might have noticed, this blog rarely deals solely in practicalities. Instead, I’d ask you to consider how the constant reduction of excess in the physical world can be translated into our inner lives. How can we de-clutter our minds to make room for the most important things. Can we organize our thoughts the way we might organize a gear closet, to make the contents therein more useable? And what would happen if we were to continually let go of distraction after distraction? Perhaps eventually we’d be left with nothing but a still mind, the way it’s said the Buddha was.
Thoughts of enlightenment (not just a bringing of light, but a lightening of our burden) notwithstanding, I believe a constant stripping away can help us to see more clearly how sufficient each moment really is; how sufficient are we for whatever situations we encounter on this relatively short trip called life.
In Japanese martial arts, the dojo is a place for formal training. The “do” in dojo means “way” or “path,” and the full phrase dojo means “place of the way.” Similarly in Chinese, tao or dao—as in Tao Te Ching—carries a similar meaning. In Japanese Buddhism, dojo is also used to refer to a hall for Zen meditation. In essence, a dojo is a place where one seeks to learn not just for practical purposes, but for something deeper.
This is how I have come to see the climbing gym. Humble, dusty spaces they may be, often times housed in roughly converted warehouses, a climbing gym can be a dojo, granted you bring with you the proper mindset.
A first step to this recognition of the gym as more than a gym is to remember it is not a place to prove things to others, or to conquer anything. It is “a place where we discipline ourselves and improve ourselves to be a better person,” according to Kendo instructor Masahiro Imafuji. When you think of it this way, it is always a privilege to spend time and a dojo. Every success in a dojo is just a fleeting step on the endless journey; every failure is a gift, at least as valuable as the successes.
It is traditional to bow on entering and leaving a dojo, but it’s important to remember that bowing in this way doesn’t mean lowering yourself in a worshipping sense. Instead, the bow is meant as a show of respect. That respect is not only for your teacher, if you have one, and for your fellow climbers, but also for oneself and for the lessons that you have the honor of learning. (When you bow to an image of Buddha, you do not bow to the physical image or to a man from the distant past, but to the Buddha nature in yourself.)
There are myriad lessons to be had in a simple climbing gym. And under the definition of dojo above, I’d include every crag or mountain, too. In a sense, all the blog posts I’ve written about climbing have been encapsulations of lessons learned in a dojo of sorts. Lessons about fear and ego, about flow and balance, about strategy and respect—climbing can teach us all these things and also things beyond expression.
But climbing is not the only means to such lessons. Martial arts, painting, skiing, woodworking… many—I might even say any—activities can, if practiced in a mindful and disciplined manner, help us to understand and find “the way.”
Simply living life can be enough to find this way, but it can often be more difficult, as life can seem at once too complex and too mundane to teach us clear lessons. Instead, we take one interesting activity, climbing for example, and elevate it to the level of ritual. We find our dojos—the rocks and gyms and mountains—and we train and learn.
This is the power of the dojo. There, we learn not just about climbing but about ourselves. We learn about the things climbing allows us to be, not just to do.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings asks the supercomputer Deep Thought for the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything,” the answer they get, after 7.5 million years of calculation, is 42.
Similarly, climbing’s Ultimate Question, “Why do you climb?” has become an extremely popular one to answer in blogs, videos, and social media posts. Sponsored climbers answer the question in nearly every interview they give. We hope for a response that perfectly elucidates the hard gem-like flame at the center of a driving, lifelong passion. Instead, we get answers like, “Because it’s fun,” or “Because I love being in nature,” or even “Because I like to push my limits.”
Or perhaps we get a simple video showing people climbing. Such videos can be very pretty, but do they really answer anything? Even the most articulate and romantic pieces of prose tend to fall short. I think this is because “Why do you climb?” is the wrong question.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the pan-dimensional beings from The Hitchhiker’s Guide were disappointed by the answer 42, even though Deep Thought assured them it was correct. When pressed, the computer informed the beings that an even more powerful computer was necessary to calculate what they were really looking for: The Ultimate Question. Once that was revealed, everything would fall into place.
Our poor pan-galactic beings were so obsessed with questions and answers, they were blinded to the simple, tantalizing truth of the matter: they were the question, and Life, The Universe, and Everything was the answer. The map is exactly the size and shape of the territory, as it were. Words can do little to distill or condense existence; only intimate, only give fleeting impressions of infinite things.
So then, the real answer to “Why do you climb?” is irreducibly contained within your life as a climber. And to know climbing’s Ultimate Question is simply to climb wholeheartedly; to be a being that climbs. It’s a sort of Zen koan, I suppose: by the time you know what question to ask, the answer will have long since ceased to have mattered.
I was sitting in a vegan diner with my friend Brendan eating a buffalo “chicken” burrito when the topic of stories came up.
“People are geared to think in stories,” he offered as he ate the Gravy Train, an item off the breakfast menu, even though it was lunch. “The odds of getting murdered in Denver are, like, 20,000 to 1, but then someone says, ‘Oh yeah? Well I heard a guy got killed just a few blocks from here the other day,’ and all of the sudden you feel like Denver is super dangerous.”
The reason is simple: we prefer information in this form—it engages our empathy and is easier to remember. (It must have been a successful evolutionary strategy for using information about the past to build predictions about the future.) As someone who works in marketing, I aim to craft memorable stories about sponsored athletes, products, and brands—without a good story to tell, information is only so much noise in an increasingly noisy world.
A story can show us the value of a product in a way that bypasses our analytical centers and goes straight to the emotional ones. Take this Google India video about friends separated by the partitioning of India and Pakistan, for example. By way of a story, a political reality becomes tangible, comprehensible… as does the value of a product.
A story can lead us to a larger truth, the way the story of Eric Garner’s choking death at the hands of police is one polarizing instance of a real problem. The story gives us a relatable entry point into the problem, which is large and complex and troubling. Like the bit of dust around which a raindrop forms, a simple story can allow us to build a more rich and nuanced understanding of a bigger reality. Or it can simply reinforce our pre-held views and lead to further division between groups of people. That’s the problem with stories: they’re wide open to interpretation.
In cases like the one Brendan mentioned of murder statistics in Denver, stories can often lead us to incorrect conclusions. They trick us into feeling something to be true, even when the bigger statistical picture shows just the opposite. “Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal. Thus, politicians use stories to warp our view into agreement with their agenda. The news and social media are clogged with stories selected and crafted specifically to hook our attention rather than convey any particularly important information.
Our entire worldview is encoded in stories. The world’s great religions are built entirely on stories; we spend billions every year on movies, books, and magazines; increasingly we spend our time reading and watching stories on our computers and mobile devices…
But perhaps the most interesting and stories are the ones we create constantly in our head—the stories we generate when we picture something in the future or recount something in the past: Stories about how we’ll perform at work or in a competition, stories about our past interactions, stories about what other people think of us. These stories can create feelings of anxiety or confidence, fear or anger. They can make us behave differently than we otherwise would. Our stories not only color but shape the world around us.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful and problematic. Are we good looking, intelligent, successful… ultimately the way we see ourselves is formulated into a story. We present ourselves through stories, too, but should be careful not to believe them too fully, for fear of limiting ourselves or obscuring important truths. We are not our alma maters or our résumés, we’re not our hobbies or neighborhoods, our relationships nor our criminal records.
Though stories can convey great amounts of information, they can never tell us everything. And there are many stories, representing many different perspectives, to be told about even a single event. This is why we must listen to the stories that surround us with an open yet critical ear, and remain open to revising our own story from year to year, day to day, even moment to moment. I think this is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”
For all their uses, stories can blind us to the untranslatable nature of the world, the essential suchness of being that resists language and narrative and can be experienced clearly only in the pastless and futureless now. As with the motion of a penman’s hand, our lives are written (or do we write them?), but we only truly experience them at the point where the pen’s tip meets the paper. The rest is nothing but stories.
“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
—Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel
We all have goals. We want to improve, be better, have more, do more… This is the natural state of affairs, especially here in the West. The opportunity strive, to rise above, to achieve greatness of stature and wealth—it’s the American dream, isn’t it? The reason so many immigrants have sought a life here…
I think what’s happening is that many of us focus only on the next goal, the next want or need, without considering the foundational goals that are lifelong and fulfilling, that give lasting happiness instead of just a temporary fix. Constantly focusing our energy on small goals and their transient rewards, I’ve noticed, can lead us farther away from where we really want to be.
As a long-time rock climber, I’ve been striving to improve for over 20 years, always chasing some goal or other: a new grade, a particularly proud route, a powerful boulder problem… . When I’m not in shape, I feel a little frustrated and want to climb at least as I did when I was fitter. When I’m fit, I want to climb harder than ever before. Of course, at a certain point, I will climb the hardest route I’m ever going to climb. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but I might have and don’t even know it. It would be hard to accept, but accept it I must—we all will peak and, in keeping with the basic rules of living, decline. What then? Will climbing no longer bring me happiness?
I don’t think people want to ask this question, or they’re come up with a funny answer to deflect the unpleasantness of it. But it’s worth asking, because it can put our motivations in a different context. Just as the man on his deathbed isn’t likely to say, “I only wish I could have bought more stuff,” so will we find few climbers facing their final hours saying, “If only I could have climbed one grade harder.”
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to improve. There are many valuable lessons to be learned in the perfection of one’s craft. But it’s the fixation on the improvement, the numbers and personal bests, that can muddy our vision. It’s the gaining mindset, an addiction to the rush of accomplishment or accolades rather than a steady seeking of a deeper sense of fulfillment that a well-centered, lifelong practice can bring.
Sometimes I’m happy with my climbing performance, and some days I’m not as happy, but I always try to let those feeling pass through me and not hold on to them. Instead of seeking my satisfaction in the latest challenge, I try to let myself enjoy each day as it comes; to be comfortable with myself, my thoughts, and my mortality; to act in accordance with my beliefs and values. Like distant peaks, goals like these can seem impossibly large and far away, but when taken one moment at a time and one step at a time, the become more manageable.
In the end, climbing can lend itself to the goal-seeking mindset, but I think it can also can show us the way to larger understandings, to spiritual fulfillment, if you want to think of it in those terms. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki explains that the practice of archery in Japan and other Eastern cultures is “not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but [is] meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”
Big, right? But by working tirelessly and in earnest for mastery for its own sake, without the desire to hit some specific target (or tick some grade), art forms like archery or climbing can afford us such contact.
If only we can learn to let go of the little goals that obscure the big ones.
I consider myself to be just one among 7 billion human beings. If I were to think of myself as different from others, or as something special, it would create a barrier between us. What makes us the same is that we all want to lead happy lives and gather friends around us. And friendship is based on trust, honesty and openness.
I was at Chicago O’Hare airport, surrounded by thousands of strangers in varying mental states (some relaxed, but most livid, hurried, or harried), when the above quote from the Dalai Lama appeared in my Facebook feed. Suddenly, all of the people around me seemed a little less like strangers and a little more like compatriots in this particular moment in this funny ride called life. His Holiness, or The Big DL, as I sometimes call him, is one of the rare disembodied entities of the social mediasphere whose posts actually make me feel calmer rather than more agitated.
As I waited for my flight to Turkey to board, I looked up towards the ceiling-mounted flat screen television, tuned eternally to 24-hour news coverage. A pair of talking heads sparred on the topic of armed conflict on the border between Turkey and Syria. A sinister new organization called ISIS was storming a Kurdish town called Kobani, perpetrating all manner of horrors, while the U.S. and a few other countries offered a few air strikes as support. Just then, an email warning from the State Department flashed across my phone, warning me about protests, some violent, flaring up across Turkey. The protesters, mostly Kurds, decried Turkey’s lack of support for their brethren on the embattled border.
Again, my faith in humanity started to creak under the strain… Until, that is, I saw another post from The Big DL: “Because of our intelligence we human beings are uniquely capable not only of creating problems, but of doing so on a large scale.” So true, I thought. So perspicacious of him. But he continued: “Therefore, it is important that we use our intelligence in constructive ways. That’s what warm-heartedness and concern for others lead us to do.”
Say what you will about the Dalai Lama, but he does a great job reminding us—patiently and repeatedly—of some very important topics, like our shared humanity, that are so easy to forget when we think only of ourselves. For example, I’d missed my flight to Turkey the day prior and had to wait 24 hours to continue on my journey.
The confusion and inconvenience of it all, when viewed from the narrow and selfish vantage of the individual, is infuriating. “You cost me 200 dollars!” shouted one man at a weary airline agent in a rumpled suit sometime after midnight. There was so much dissatisfaction visible on the faces around me, everyone was laser focused on their own needs: I have a problem! Why did this happen to me? Who will fix my problem? Who will make me happy again? There was little “warm-heartedness and concern for others,” in the air.
For some reason it’s common that we make more problems when we have problems. And because we have such big brains, we make much bigger problems than our fellow creatures on this earth. Remember Ghostbusters 2? Well that river of psychoreactive ectoplasm beneath NYC was a metaphor for what’s in our hearts when we think of ourselves as separate from everyone else, when we think that we’re the only ones with problems and everyone else is to blame. And the supernatural destruction the slime wrought? Nothing more than a stand-in for our own selfish and fearful acts, a manifestation of the poison within.
Since this strange little moment in the airport, I’ve been trying to carry The Big DL’s words in my heart and find the shared humanity in the “other” and the “stranger.” Now in Turkey for Petzl RocTrip, surrounded almost entirely by people from other cultures, I find the shared connection of climbing helps break down that all-too-common barrier so that we can connect and empathize. I’m pretty sure this sort of connection is the seed of a more peaceful and happy world… even if it sometimes seems like a very tiny seed.
As a climber of more than two decades, I’ve noticed there’s often a pattern to my behavior: climb regularly, get stronger, grow obsessed with projects , succeed… and turn immediately to the next project. The quest for improvement drives me ever forward and busies my mind. When I’m not training or eating right, I feel a twinge of guilt. When I’m feeling fit and strong, I’m motivated to train even harder, to push through to that rarefied next level to which I’ve never before risen. And so, fit or fat, topping out or falling on my ass, I’m hardly ever perfectly contented.
It got me thinking: maybe the next level doesn’t involve being stronger, after all—maybe it’s something else entirely: Being fulfilled by each moment, being selfless, feeling not lighter in body but in mind, unburdened, open, free… Maybe climbing, if we let it be, is actually a stepladder to get us somewhere else, where climbing is no longer necessary. (This is just a theory, mind you.)
In the movie Hero, a master swordsman plots to assassinate the king of Qin during China’s warring states period. Addressing his would-be assassin, the king offers his interpretation of the three achievements of swordsmanship: First is “the unity of man and sword.” Second is “when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand.” The third and ultimate achievement is “the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.” It’s counterintuitive that the greatest achievement of the swordsman is non-violence. Or is it? Below, in the style of Hero’s king, the five achievements of climbing:
1. Neophyte – Never having climbed, the first-timer brings few expectations. He or she operates almost entirely on instinct. Depending on his or her fitness level and comfort with heights, the state of “beginner’s mind” can allow the new climber to operate with surprising creativity. Still, having no specific strength or flexibility, the neophyte can only play in the vertical world a short time before running out of gas.
2. Intermediate – Armed with just enough knowledge to get in his or her own way, the intermediate climber often over-grips and uses more advanced climbing techniques at the wrong moments, exhausting him or herself while at the same time battling internal demons of fear and doubt. The limitations of physical strength are still apparent here, as the intermediate climber still hasn’t developed the musculature, tendon strength, flexibility, or catalog of engrams to allow him or her to execute complex movements efficiently. An overriding focus on getting to the top drives the intermediate climber, often at the expense of technique or a deeper sense of fulfillment.
3. Expert – Training and consistent practice have built strength, a sense of body position, and an eye for reading sequences. Now able to quickly decode the puzzle of the stone (or plastic), the expert moves with confidence and grace, occasionally achieving the “flow” state, mistaking it for enlightenment. However, the goal of finishing the climb still hangs heavily in the heart of the expert, creating a fixation on training and on the self-propagating delusion of success and failure.
4. Master – Having moved beyond mere strength, the master’s technique is so complete that he or she can execute even the most difficult moves with perfect efficiency. Having moved beyond the goal-oriented mindset, the master climbs only for the transcendent moment the climb provides. A master has no need to burn off other climbers or to receive recognition for his or her achievements, nor does the master hide from attention. With no ego, the master is happy to help others before working on his or her own project.
5. Bodhisattva – Climbing’s ultimate achievement is the transcendence of the climb in both body and heart. The boundaries between climber and climbed, between self and other, between good and bad dissolve. Any climb is now possible, yet no climb is necessary. The climber is at peace with the world and vows never to chase numbers, sandbag n00bs, or judge others, but instead focuses on bringing peace to mankind.
Boom of dry lightning
rattles this stony canyon,
where stones shift and slide
as they have for eons.
Layered shape of chaos
shape of heated and cooled
liquid folded into solid,
fractured and split, eroded
and uplifted, cleaved and overturned,
ancient and artless: for this
one sliver of time reborn
in the human mind as a climb.
Through all the creatures whose bodies
have grown, grown cold,
and decomposed in its shadow,
never has this rock meant before.
Is this really the first time the wheel has notched into this position?
Things fall apart; the center won’t hold,
but still the stone remains, a koan: if a boulder sits on a hillside and no one’s left to climb it,
does it have a grade?
There are a lot of climbing photos in my Instagram feed, but pro climber Chris Schulte’s have been standing out to me recently. His images aren’t paintstakingly composed and Photoshopped, like those of the pro-photographers I follow. Nor are they focused on the sickest climbing action. Instead, many of the Schulte’s pictures capture the sculptural shape of the stone itself, the climber sharing the scene rather than dominating it. His writing likewise gives off a thoughtful, philosophical vibe, so I asked him to put together a short essay, illustrated by his photos, for The Stone Mind about his explorations and bouldering exploits in the famed desert crack-climbing destination Indian Creek, Utah. His artful reflections follow…
What initially struck me about the “the Creek” was the sheer volume of climbing: there are enough cracks there to live and die for it all and never touch the same seam twice. On my first visit, some 15 years ago, my friend and I climbed what little we could with my rack of doubles, the whole time looking over our shoulders at the blocks scattered across the valley floor. I was struck by the purity of the shapes, the clean stone, the lack of holds… I’d never seen rock like that. Everything looked unlikely. I was a new enough climber then that it was hard to picture lines up such blank shapes
That aspect of climbing still attracts me most: the apparent impossibility; a path through the nothingness; unusual, technical tactics combined with charging thuggery to surmount the most basic, pared-down essence of a block. When there are only two holds in a massive space with no feet, you try as hard as you can without expectation, and things start to happen. You start actually moving up through the nothingness, you start to do an impossible thing—then your whole perspective changes. All these blank, impossible things open up to you… I think of it like the first ship built, or the first planes: suddenly you can sail about where once there was nothing.
The draw to these blocks is, for me, the shapes. I enjoy the movement required, its funky balance between udge and grace, but it’s the pure, crystalline shape of those stones that pulls the focus. A poet from a bygone age once described the stones in the rock garden at Ryōan-ji Temple, in Kyoto, as “bumps pushing into space”; the scattering of stones there behind that old temple has a pattern about it that seems to lead the mind to a state of pliant reception. I think of the stark shapes in the desert at Indian Creek in the same terms: angular, dense, so very present! You can’t argue against these icons of bouldering, they just sit there like the Idea of a boulder: sharp, smooth, impersonal, and yet organic in structure and placement—a bridge between form and function.
Couple that with the possibility of breaking off a flake at 20 feet, and you’re really bending minds! The approach to such problems is a combination of calculation, meditation, and fuckit. Some boulders have no downclimb, no way to preview or clean. It’s a real mélange of perspectives, the setting, the shape, the moves, the goal, and the possible consequences. It’s a lot to process, making for a very rich experience, very dense climbing. And at the same time, there’s nothing to it at all: you just pick a pretty one, and try to get up it.
Apart from the blocks themselves, the area is beautiful and silent. The crowds all go to the walls, and in the cold cold winter there isn’t a soul around, save for the occasional cowboy or FedEx truck rocketing towards the park at the end of the road. The quiet, the empty, the lonesome all draw me. I like to sit and hear the blood pumping in my ears or the crushing swash of crow wings passing overhead. I like being the only one out there, working on the work, whatever it may be, sniffing juniper and fine red sand.
I like to follow the thawing rivulets in the drainages, creek crossings that need another day or two after the snow. Hints of someone else’s vision quest. Signs of life from long ago.
I’m outside of one world that makes me feel like a nanobit, traveling around performing functions in a scintillating field of activity; instead passing through another world, an organism, feeling like blood or sap or creek water, but also an absolutely unnecessary perspective lucky enough to travel through this place at that time and appreciate it at that very moment, be it a megamonumental pillar of awesomeness, or a lizard crunching desiccated groundscore fly, or looking in through the door of a home made from earth and stone, willow and juniper, recalling that for whoever once lived here this life was the only life there was, thanks be.
Chris Schulte has been opening new boulders for 20 years. He is supported by Black Diamond Equipment, Five Ten, The North Face, a knotted string of jobs, and his lady Jackie.
“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.”
“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 weekmy 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.