When I started writing this blog four years ago, I had few expectations. What I had was a need. A need to explore the ideas knocking around my neural net and to share them with other folks who might derive some value from them.
In my magazine editing days, the constant pressure of immoveable deadlines kept me producing finished pieces, thinking, hopefully evolving. Though oppressive at times, I grew accustomed to the rhythms of the print cycle and the increasingly important micro-rhythms of the web and social media cycles. When I left that world, I felt like I’d lost something. Hence this blog, which satisfied my creative habit and also grew to be something more than I’d expected. And yet things have changed, as they always and incessantly do.
Since starting The Stone Mind, I’ve gotten married, switched jobs, moved to a new state, and now my wife and I are expecting our first child in March. The pace of life has quickened. Days, packed ever fuller, seem to tick by like hours. The projects with which I occupy myself at work and at home seem only to grow larger, more complex and time-consuming. Many a Monday night have I sat with my laptop open, mentally and physically wrung out, wondering if I might not make my self-imposed Tuesday deadline.
In the past year or so I started to feel that this blog was actually standing in the way of other projects. The need I’d created the blog to address had morphed. Once an important motivator, the weekly schedule grew to feel like an imposition, leaving just enough time to crank something out after hours, but not enough step back, dig deeper, build bigger.
And so I’ve decided, at least for now, to take a break. That’s not to say I’ll never post again, just that writing weekly posts for The Stone Mind doesn’t make sense the way it used to. I believe that being responsive to our changing inner landscape is key to living well. As Steve Jobs once said, “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
The thought of putting The Stone Mind on ice makes me a little sad; the blog has become a part of my identity and has lead to more than a few great conversations. But it also calls to mind the metaphor of the stepladder that Shunryu Suzuki talks about: “Delusion is necessary, but delusion is not something on which you can establish yourself. It is like a stepladder. Without it you cannot climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder.” Not to say that this blog has been delusional (though, maybe…)—only that it has served its purpose. In fact it has been, for me, essential.
Now that I’m putting aside this particular stepladder, I’m excited to move on to the next one. It’s there, partially formed in my head and full of promise, as new things often are. I might even be posting about it on this site, which I’ll leave up for folks to explore. In the meantime, I’ll continue to share, albeit in an abbreviated manner, on The Stone Mind Facebook page and Twitter account. Feel free to stop by and say hi
So, if you’ve made it this far with me, thanks for your time and your attention. Here’s to the ends, the beginnings, and everything in-between.
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.
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.
I was supposed to be writing this blog post, but instead I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. I started seeing familiar photo galleries and link previews float past, which meant I was at the end of the new newness, which meant the odds of stumbling across something really exciting had just gone off a cliff, so I clicked over to Twitter and started scrolling there.
Sometimes while I’m scrolling, I’ll ask myself in disgust”What the hell am I doing?” as if I’m watching someone else’s thumb pawing at the iPhone’s smudgy screen. I feel powerless to turn away from the procession of partisan rants, clever baby announcements, links to Semi-Rad posts, cat vids and fail vids (or the ultimate: cat fail vids), selfies, and climbing butt shots.
I finally mustered the courage to put the phone down and turned my focus to this post. I had something else half written already, but decided it was boring and starting writing about my social scrolling addiction instead, mainly because I’m guessing I’m not alone.
Do you find yourself spending inordinate amounts of toilet time because you just can’t stop the scrolling? Or showing up late for a dinner because you got caught in an endless social media loop? Or perhaps you bathed your pupils in that Retina Display glow late into the night, even though you had to be up early the next day? Happens.
Turns out social scrolling isn’t (only) a symptom of a weak will, but a natural urge built into us by millennia of evolutionary programming. According to studies performed on monkeys, information seeking as survival tactic is encouraged by the neurotransmitter dopamine in specific areas of our brains. It makes sense. “Having access to more relevant information – such as knowing where the food is located – allows animals to make better decisions,” writes Chadrick Lane in a 2009 Scientific American article. “Furthermore, having access to such information might give us better control over our environment, thus increasing our chances of survival.”
Other research has suggested that anticipation of a reward is even more stimulating to the brain than the reward itself. Further, according to a New York Times article (which was citing this neuroscience study), unpredictable rewards elicit more potent responses in our brain chemistry because, “Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.”
It’s no coincidence that the most popular social media platforms are those that supply an unending and unpredictable stream of content, plus enticing bleeps and bings and badges to alert us of some exciting new comment or like or piece of information that might, for all we know, be changing our lives right now and we didn’t even know it!!
Come to think of it, this endless seeking behavior that’s proved so valuable in the human organism’s quest for survival probably also plays a role in our constant striving, our dissatisfaction with things as they (often predictably) are. Social media today is shaped by and for the mechanism of human motivation, to push all the right buttons that keep us clicking “like.” Social media has evolved into a mirror of the conscious mind. Both build an elaborate world of desire and fear that seems so real, yet ultimately proves illusory.
As Bernard Jaffe says in I Heart Huckabees, “everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.” If you truly understand and believe this, neither social scrolling nor mental striving will have anything left to offer. But that’s a lofty goal. In the meantime, I’ll think check my Twitter feed; maybe there’s a link to an article that will help make sense of things…
After several months without a single day of hard climbing, some friends took me out to a California crag called Owl Tor, named after the UK’s Raven Tor (home to Ben Moon’s great boulder problem on a rope, Hubble). Like its namesake, Owl Tor is steep and bouldery. There’s one gronky 5.11 on the left of the cliff band, a 5.11d in the middle, and it gets rapidly harder from there.
So, feeling out of shape and mentally unprepared, I tied in and spent the whole day working the 11d. I gave the beta-intensive 60-foot celebration of drilled pockets and glue four or five tries before admitting to myself and my companions that it just wasn’t going to happen. I had a good time, but felt demoralized; I used to run warm-up laps on routes of this grade, now I was projecting one.
But every time I start to get down on myself about such things—about my performance or lack thereof—I get a funny feeling. I’ve long harbored doubts about the validity of the underlying motivation that drives me and, from what I can tell, most members of the “type A” clan. 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. It’s an addiction that’s certainly reinforced by popular culture, that holds up select people as heroes for their athletic prowess or intellect or other skills and talents. The successful are addicted to their accolades while the masses dream of being successful one day, as if it might give their lives some rarefied meaning.
“Like drinking salt water to relieve our thirst, trying to satisfy momentary desires just leads to more desires.” It’s a quote I’ve seen around the web, usually attributed to Buddha. Though I can’t verify the source, the concept stands on its own. Many of us will dedicate our whole lives to satisfying momentary desires. The cynical might suggest that’s all there is, the accumulation of accomplishments like the constellation of brass plaques on The Big Lebowski’s wall. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re chasing our tails when we fall into that belief system.
Sure, I want to climb 5.13 again. But after that, I’ll also want to climb the next grade, and the next. There’s no ultimate satisfaction, only the passing affirmation that, yes, I can do that. I can run 10 miles or 13.1 or 26.2 or 100. I can climb route X or make salary Y. I did it. I can do it. I’m special goddamnit! Now onto the next thing.
And maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s nothing else but the eternal hamster wheel of accomplishment. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. After all, at some point we’ll all hit our peaks. Some day we won’t be on the upswing, no matter which key performance indicators we use to measure ourselves. And when that happens, no matter how high our point on the metaphorical mountain, we won’t have reached the top and we won’t have made a dent in the universe.
It seems like a silly question, but I think it’s one worth asking. And sooner rather than later.
While climbing at Owl Tor I felt that, with some effort, I’d likely regain my prior prowess. But I also saw someday that wouldn’t be the case. I looked out ahead and saw a life that, at its longest, would never be nearly long enough to satisfy my human obsession for more. I decided the only sane thing to do is work to drop the baggage that was weighing me down. I climbed with the pleasure of someone who might never climb any better than on that day… and it was enough.
One day. One climb. One blog post. One run. One moment. The past is a dream and the future isn’t guaranteed. There’s not much room in the middle to be overly concerned with bullshit.
Or at least, that’s how it seems to me these days.
I have a simple morning yoga routine I use to help get my blood moving. Every day, I unroll my cheap yoga mat (a Target special) and perform the sequence of 12 poses, my focus tuned to the rhythm of my breath. Lately when I roll the mat back up, I’ve noticed the damn thing is falling apart.
There’s not much to the mat. It’s made from some sort of spongy pinkish purple foam. The foam is textured into rows of tiny spheres about the size of peppercorns. My guess is that the spheres are supposed to approximate a woven texture and perhaps provide extra grip. Each time I use the mat, it breaks down a little more, spreading nodules of foam rubber across the living room, where they seem to disappear (I hypothesize my dog has been eating them).
My yoga mat’s decomposition causes a little twinge of discomfort, as I know I may have to retire the thing prematurely. The thought of putting the big roll of foam rubber in the trash and buying a new one makes me feel mottainai, which is an excellent Japanese phrase “conveying a sense of regret concerning waste.”
I’ve been stricken by the mottainai feeling a lot lately. I’m not sure why, but sometime in the last year I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with throwing away useful things or things not fully used up. For us Americans it’s a cultural norm to buy things we don’t need and “chuck” anything we don’t want. Many of us treat our discarded stuff as if it vanishes once it enters the trash can. Such blindness to the basic consequences of our actions is on sad display at fast food restaurants, where workers constantly empty massive bins of wrappers and napkins and cups throughout the day. That’s mottainai.
As climbers, a more conscious way of consuming is often forced upon us: by the limitations of what we can fit in our packs or our vans, or by what we can afford to buy when living on the road without steady jobs. Like monks of old, we’ve learned to make do with a single bowl (plus a cup, a pocket knife, a spork, and maybe a pot or a pan…). We eat every last nugget of granola or slice of bread. When the cheese gets moldy, we carve off the mold and eat on. The dirtbag’s aversion to waste and excess is born of necessity but holds a wider significance.
With that in mind, I’m going to keep using that old yoga mat until it fails to serve its role, after which I’ll consider getting a new, more durable one… or whether I even need a mat at all. I’ll resist the urge to upgrade the mat now, as the feeling of mottainai is far more troublesome than the aesthetic displeasure of a cheap and battered yoga mat.
I think everyone should be attuned to this sense of mottainai. While uncomfortable at first, it can lead to its own opposite: the feeling of satisfaction that comes from using something fully up and wasting as little as possible. I don’t know if there’s a word for this sense, but it’s one of life’s great satisfactions and worthy of diligent practice.
“Nah, you can just go buck. That’s what most people do,” said Jimmy, handing me a beach towel-poncho hybrid I was to don for coverage while changing into a borrowed wetsuit in the busy parking lot at Ventura’s hyper-popular C Street surf break.
I took off my glasses and immediately realized I’d be flying, or rather floating, blind during this exercise, my first foray into art of riding ocean waves. (“It’s the hardest thing ever,” my climbing buddy Alex had explained, perhaps in an effort to save me from underestimating the nature of the challenge.)
A short wrestling match later and I was in the wetsuit, feeling both comforted and constricted by its strange, rubbery embrace. I hoisted the huge, glaring white foam beginners board up under my arm, barely spanning its breadth. Down to the water we went, picking our way over waterround rocks and into the shallows, where I could not keep my footing on the slick bed of uneven cobbles obscured by recurring washes of whitewater.
It all started that morning in the office when, in true Patagonia Let My People Go Surfing fashion, my boss declared it was time to hit the waves. I closed my laptop and packed my bag, feeling excited, a little nervous, but hopeful. I ended up feeling like even more of a beginner than I imagined. A super beginner. A true gumby (or “jerry,” if you will). Alex estimated he was a 5.8 surfer. I’m not sure I’d even be able to locate myself in the fifth-class scale.
Just paddling was substantially harder than I’d expected, and I kept getting turned around or tipped off into the water. My shoulder muscles were depleted within minutes. I had to rest constantly and feared getting so tired I wouldn’t be able to slog my ass back to shore. The guys I’d started with were already long gone, fuzzy dots in a distant crowd to my uncorrected vision.
I floated around on the periphery of the lineup, trying to stay out of the way, then made a half-hearted effort to catch a wave. Really I was just hoping to get a boost in my landward quest. My arms were too tired to produce the necessary burst of speed to match pace with a cresting wave, much less pop me up onto my feet. I used up the rest of my reserve tank just returning to shore, belly firmly on board.
The concept of “beginner’s mind” is popular in Zen philosophy. The famous quote from Shunryu Suzuki goes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” After my first experience with surfing though, I feel the urge to call bullshit.
While it’s true that I brought an unstructured approach to the matter, paddling into the ocean was so hard for me that I was almost completely occupied with basic survival. My “beginner’s mind” was rather narrow, in fact, focused as it was on not panicking or drowning. I felt none of the pliant openness a newbie supposedly brings to a task. I felt stiff and uncomfortable—flowless, if you will.
There’s a particular discomfort that comes when first trying something for which you have no aptitude. As a climber of 25 years, I’m accustomed to a certain level of comfort with vertical challenges, even ones that require serious effort to tackle. This makes starting at square one in the ocean all the more humbling.
So what’s the point?
The point is, I think, to face up to a new activity without needing to be good at it—in the near term… or maybe ever. And because it’s not “my thing,” I look forward to using surfing as a way to practice an openness and humility that can be hard to bring to crafts with which I’m more familiar, like climbing.
Now that I think of it, maybe that’s the beginner’s mind Suzuki was talking about.
I wakeand it’s dark and I don’t know where I am. I look around for something familiar in the arrangement of half-light and shadow but there’s nothing to anchor me to solid reality. Is this Utah or England? California or Colorado? House or hotel or… . I’m floating in an obscure space. How I got here and why—such facts have yet to resolve themselves, and therefore who I am is still in the process of coming into focus, too. It’s a scary feeling at first, disorienting and tinged with panic.
As my reflex response starts to fade into semi-wakefulness, I take a moment to breathe and except the not-knowing. It’s a strange feeling at first, to be OK with the uncertainty of everything. My mind has already constructed multiple monstrous universes to fill this darkness. I let them all fade and focus on the other, more peaceful side of losing one’s self. Here, in an unexpected moment, I can enter a state of no-mind. I lie back down and go with it, focusing only on my breath and the sensations of being in bed, half covered by sheets, a cool breeze blowing over me. Soon I fade back into sleep.
I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and my wife and I are in the midst of the disruptive process of pulling up stakes and moving to another state. It’s thrown my system a little out of alignment and stirred up reality-scrambling moments like the one above. As I write this, I’m on the second floor of a motel, in a room overlooking a Burger King in the southern Utah desert. We’ve just finished cleaning out our old house and are on our way to a new, unfamiliar one. Literally and metaphorically, things feel very “in-between.”
The thing that can make moving and travel so stressful, I think, is the loss of the identity we form in a place over time. Our home and friends, our job and favorite places, the routine of it all—we build stories around these things, with ourselves at the center. When we leave the familiar behind, it can feel like we’re leaving ourselves behind, too. When we go towards the unfamiliar, the future is obscure, a dark wall on which we project the magic lantern of our mind.
But when we hold our sense of self lightly, and let go of the expectations we’ve been trained to apply to the future, things become less troubling. We can relax into the simplicity of the unending present and live life as it comes. We can look at the unfamiliar without fear and rest easier, if only for this night.
Have you ever heard the story of the blind men and the elephant? There are many variations, but it can be traced back to Asia, where it became a part of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist teachings, among others. In essence, it is as follows:
A king asks a group of blind men to come to his palace and identify the object before them (it’s an elephant). Each man feels a part of the great beast and then exclaims he knows what it is: one says it’s clearly a pillar, another other suggests a plow, yet another says he is holding a brush… . But the first was responding only to the shape of the elephant’s leg, the second its trunk, the third the tip of its tail, and so on.
Each of the metaphorical blind men claim to have a hold on the whole truth based on the limited slice of reality they have before them, but the king sees clearly this is not the case.
Setting aside the strange behavior of the king (was he just trying to give these blind guys a hard time? Having a courtly laugh at their expense?!), I think this little scenario contains some important ideas. Like the blind men, each of us brings his or her own prejudices and perspectives to bear. Each offers judgements based solely on a little piece of a bigger picture. But the problem is that we tend to give our own perspectives too much weight and expound on them as if they be true with a capital “T.”
In some versions of the story, the men fall on each other in violence, as if to demonstrate that all of humanity’s great differences spring from blindness, self-certainty, and the inability to see the much grander reality. We fight over doctrine and ideology, the story whispers from beneath its farcical exterior, but really we’re all talking about the same thing.
Even if the king were to explain the elephant to the blind men, they would be unable to see it as he saw it. Which maybe is the point after all: even the king had only a partial understanding of the elephant—he couldn’t see from the elephant’s perspective, he would never know how the elephant lived in the wild with the rest of its parade, nor could he understand the inner biological processes that made the elephant’s life possible.
None of us will ever see the whole elephant, as it were, so the best we can do is admit that there’s much more to the world than we can understand, and accept that from other angles things might appear quite different.
“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 to 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.