Packing Light

Travelers in an airport - The Stone Mind blog

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 I travel, 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.

The Climbing Dojo

A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Gym, Boulder, Colorado.
A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Bouldering Gym, Boulder, Colorado.

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.

Climbing’s Ultimate Question

 

A climber on the boulder problem Question Mark, in Coopers Rock State Park, West Virginia
A climber on the boulder problem Question Mark, in Coopers Rock State Park, West Virginia

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.

Telling Stories

Telling stories around the campfire - The Stone Mind
Telling stories around the campfire.

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.

Big Goals, Little Goals

A boulderer strives to reach the hold on Round Room, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Photo - J. Roth / The Stone Mind

“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…

At the same time, this goal-focused mind is also the source of a lot of problems. For many, having enough isn’t satisfactory. There is an excess of greed and thoughtless waste. On average, we’re wealthier than many other nations, but not necessarily happier with ourselves and our lives.

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.

The Big DL and the Little Seed

A crowd bustled for position at the gate. O'Hare International airport, Chicago.

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: 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.

The 5 Achievements of Climbing

Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon, via Wikimedia Commons.
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.

Chaos Canyon

A climber bouldering in Chaos Canyon, Colorado. Photo: Justin Roth

Chaos Canyon

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?

Blocks Pushing into Space

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…

Chris Schulte following the tao of Indian Creek blocs.

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

IC-blocs-3way

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.

schulte_IC_bloc_1

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.

schulte_IC_bloc_3

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.

schulte_IC_bloc_2

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.

 

schulte_mugshotChris 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. 

Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“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.”

Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands
Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“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 week my 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.

 

Here and There

A Honda Element parked in the desert
What truths lie out there, on the road and off?

We were eating breakfast at a bakery this weekend when a plus-sized, gleaming, silver Mercedes Sprinter camper—a creation that resided somewhere on the vehicular spectrum between van and RV—glided past.

“Check out the road-trip mobile,” I said to my wife, impressed. The aproned girl busing the table next to us looked wistfully out through the plate-glass façade and said, “I want one so bad.”

As I climber, I sort of wanted one, too. Or something like it, at least—something that would let me roll to destinations unknown and leave my life and responsibilities behind, all the while taking a little bubble of comfort and familiarity with me.

It turns out this is a common desire, as evidenced by the nearly 84,000 Instagram images tagged #vanlife; blogs about folks who gave up the office for the road, like Our Open Road and Desk to Dirtbag; the Overlandia series on Adventure Journal; Kickstarters like Home is Where You Park It; and numerous articles in Outside Magazine and other publications.

Stickers circulate: “Work Less. Climb More” and “Quit Your Job.” We want to listen to them. They are a siren call. Companies and magazines tap into this thirst for new vistas with hashtags like #neverstopexploring (The North Face) or #daysyouremember (Mountain Hardwear). I can only take that to mean that days spent in less adventurous ways—working in an office, reading a book, tending to chores—are days we won’t remember. I see this as a missed opportunity. We should (must!) strive to make something of our too-small allotment of moments in this life, no matter where they transpire.

The question is, what do we hope to find on our travels? Do we truly believe there is some answer hidden like a geocache in far-flung spots? How many of us in our Ultimate Road Trip Mobiles are driving away from, instead of towards, something? How much more challenging is it to appreciate the inexhaustible newness of the world amidst a routine? I suggest that what really makes the adventure, on the road or off, isn’t what happens to us, but how we experience what happens. A beautiful sunset over strange lands is good medicine, sure, but it’s no panacea. To put it another way, there’s probably nothing wrong with where you are, just with your perspective.

The great poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder considered the idea of exploration, both externally and internally, in his essay On the Path, Off the Trail. In it, he offers a seldom-heard wisdom: “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick—don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”

On July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo II moon landing, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki spoke to a group of students in California. “The first one to arrive on the moon may be very proud of his achievement, but I do not think he is a great hero,” he said, likely in an attempt to jar his pupils from their attachment to goal chasing, patriotism, and pride. “Instead of seeking for some success in the objective world, we try to experience the everyday moments of life more deeply.”

As Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” Then again, sometimes we have to drive 20 miles on a rutted-out dirt road, cross a stream that almost stalls the engine, park, and walk half a day to climb up a big piece of rock to find the Zen we already had inside us.

So you can take that for whatever it’s worth.

Room to Relax

A boulderer climbing hard.
Kenny Barker bouldering at the Hawk’s Nest Damn, New River Gorge, West Virginia.

Climbers often think of bouldering as a matter of pure power. There’s some truth to that, but even in a game that the boulderer Ivan Greene once likened to wrestling a Mack Truck, there is room to relax, to lessen the grip, to breathe. The room is admittedly tight, but it’s every bit as important to bouldering well as it is to climbing a long sport or trad route.

The first time you try the moves of a hard boulder problem, you might find yourself expending maximum effort. You might not be able to breathe or you might find yourself shaking as you reach for the next hold. Your heart will beat double-time to shuttle oxygen to and carbon dioxide from your depleted muscles.

But the next time you try the problem, and the time after that, you’ll probably find things becoming a little less taxing. As you get accustomed to the specific holds and movements, to the requisite friction, you’ll start to find the space to relax, the moments to draw a breath or shake out your hand to let fresh blood back in.

Bouldering is about trying very hard, usually for very short periods of time. It is between those moments that you find the space to relax. The longer you climb, the better you get at exploring and inhabiting those spaces. It’s the yin and yang of bouldering: the exertion and the relaxation. Both are required. If you only breathe in or only breathe out, you won’t survive very long. If you never pulled hard, you wouldn’t make much progress on a hard boulder problem; but if you only pulled hard and never loosened your grip, you’d be just as stuck.

Most climbers focus only on increasing grip, forgetting to the importance of holding less tightly. At any given point on the climb, there’s probably a way to give your fingers a break — to put more pressure on your toe or a little more twist to your hips, for example. Maybe you’re just crimping harder than you need to—find that point between holding on and letting go and ride it as closely as possible. Every moment you can cut your effort is a moment you’ll be able to hold better at the crux, or at the top of the problem, when you’re tired and the pads and spotters seem far away.

Even in the heart of the most stressful times in our lives, there is likewise room to relax. It reminds me of the metaphor of the glass jar:

A professor fills a jar to the brim with rocks and asks his class, “Is this jar full?” The students nod in the affirmative, and so the professor pours small pebbles into the jar, filling in the uneven spaces between the rocks. “What about now, is the jar full?” he asks. The students nod more vigorously this time. Then the professor empties a bag of sand into the jar, shaking it to fill the gaps between even the pebbles. “Ah, now the jar is full!” he said. “Right?” A little dubious at this point, the students admit Yes, the jar is finally full. Picking up his mug as if to take a drink, the professor proceeds to pour coffee into the jar, filling the remaining space with liquid.

The point being, even if you feel at the edge of your ability on a climb, there’s almost always some extra space in which you can relax your muscles, draw a deeper breath, or unclench the fist of your mind. But you have to look for it…

Bodhisattva Vow: Lessons of a Problem Dog

faces_of_bodhi

“We should have named him Dexter instead of Bodhisattva,” Kristin said in exasperation.

“At least Dexter is nice to his family!” I replied.

A bodhisattva, in the Buddhist tradition, is “A being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others.” Dexter is a television serial killer who only offs other murderers. The “him” we were talking about was our dog Bodhisattva, Bodhi for short, who has been a challenge in one way or another since we got him at the animal shelter three years ago.

What kind of challenge? you might ask. For one, we were discussing Bodhi’s name while the bruising from his most recent bite was still visible on Kristin’s arm. Bodhi has bitten us both and has intense guarding behaviors around his water bowl, his kennel, and even his body, making it nigh impossible to have that loving licks-and-wags-and-belly-rubs relationship that most people expect from their dogs.

From the start, Bodhi was a strange combination of highly intelligent, fearful, anxious, energetic, and aggressive. We figured he would grow out of his issues, but he has not, and a trainer we work with tells us that for years we may have been reinforcing many of his most undesirable behaviors—by ignoring them or letting him have his way, by failing to give appropriate structure to his life in our home. Now we have Bodhi on an intensive training program that requires hours of work every day, sometimes confronting his nastiest behaviors head on.

The progress we’re making is slow and tiring and fraught with doubts. Kristin and I have had plenty of discussions about what to do if our work with Bodhi doesn’t lessen his aggression. What if we have kids over or decide to have a child of our own? What if the stress of sharing our home with an animal we don’t trust grows too great? Somehow the answer seems fuzzy, and changes from day to day.

Despite it all, I still see Bodhi’s name as apt. Although he seems, at times, as much a Dexter character as a being of sublime compassion, I feel he is teaching us all the same. To work with him we must observe closely—both his behavior and our own. We must be structured and consistent. We must remember that his bite comes from fear and confusion, not from hatred, and that adding our own fear only amplifies the problem. We must learn to be calm and correct Bodhi’s undesirable behaviors not with anger, but out of compassion and for his own good as well as ours.

Dogs mirror their owners’ energies, says dog trainer and TV personality Cesar Millan, and I think there’s some truth to that. When you approach a dog feeling overly excited or nervous or just plain scared, that dog picks up on your body language, maybe even your smell, and responds in kind. How, then, can you expect to improve your dog’s behavior when you are unwilling to examine your own, first? It is like this in all of life: we say, “He made me mad,” or “That traffic ruined my day,” rarely realizing that anger or a ruined day are things that originate from inside of us, not from some external source. Therefore with a problem dog as with any problem, we should always look inward first.

In a way, I see Bodhi as the strictest kind of teacher, using strange tactics to awaken us to different ways of seeing. It reminds me a little of the Zen masters who hit their students, as if to wake them from their delusions.

In the end, though, we must be willing to accept that we might not be able to fix the problems we have with Bodhi. It is difficult. There is a part inside of me, perhaps influenced by the modern Hollywood ending, that wants to believe that no problem is too much to overcome; that with extraordinary effort, kept burning by an ember of hope, even mountains can be moved. But another part of me knows that what we can offer Bodhi might not be enough for him, after all, and that he and we might have better lives if he lived elsewhere.

When I think this way, it feels like failure, which is something I’m not very good at accepting. It’s strange even to write it. But there is a lesson in this possibility, too. I’m just not entirely sure what it is, yet. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Either way, the future hasn’t yet been written. In the meantime, we continue to learn the lessons of Bodhisattva…

Climbing the Stepladder

A climber topping out a sandtone boulder
Soon you’ll find yourself at the top of the climb. But really, you were always there.

I have been climbing nearly a quarter of a century, and sometimes I wonder if I will climb my whole life. Maybe someday I won’t, which seems sad in the way that having a friend move away is sad. Right now, climbing is a tool that fulfills certain needs in my life: the need for an engagement that’s both physical and intellectual, the need to spend time in nature, the need for a routine that’s all my own…

But maybe the time will come when I no longer have these needs, or when climbing no longer fulfills them, or when I have otherwise arrived at a state in which climbing doesn’t make sense for me. In this case it would be only natural to stop climbing, like putting aside a crutch after an injury has healed.

“Delusion is like a stepladder,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So, “Without it you can’t climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder.” For Suzuki and most Buddhists, this life that we’re so attached to, full of desires, aspirations, doubts, and fears, is the delusion. But these are useful delusions, as it were, which can be used to move us towards enlightenment. When enlightenment is reached, we see the delusions for what they are and cast them aside, push the ladder away. As the poet and essayist Gary Snyder writes, “You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.”

Climbing is my favorite stepladder. When everything happens just right, I don’t think about it or worry about it; I just do it. I feel myself approaching a different state of being, where the day-to-day starts to break down. But when I try to bring this state with me after the climb, it quickly fades, like a dream after waking. The more years I climb, the better I become at holding on to the dream, or so I tell myself. I imagine this is what the Zen student does when she meditates—she stills the mind day after day, for months and years, until she can bring that stillness into the world outside of meditation and, eventually, see meditation for the ladder it is.

A koan is a Zen language puzzle designed to confound logic. Some koan-like Buddhist sayings address the act of climbing directly: “If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top,” says one. “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing,” suggests another. These puzzles ask us to reconsider the ideas of challenge and success, internal and external, climber and climbed.

When I can begin a climb at the top, and keep climbing once I’ve arrived there, I think it will be time to give up this old stepladder.

Post Picks from 2013

Image from top posts 2013

As Seth Godin wrote recently, “My most popular blog posts this year weren’t my best ones. … ‘best’ is rarely the same as ‘popular.'” It’s a worthwhile reminder, even though most of us intuitively sense the disconnect between popularity and quality. The problem is, the fast-flowing social Internet buoys up catchy, controversial, or otherwise, “sharable” content, while everything else sifts to the murky bottom. On the other hand, this means that for those hardy souls willing to dive for it, there is a fortune in buried treasure to be had.

For this reason, today I’m sharing not only The Stone Mind’s 10 most-viewed posts of 2013, but also a more personal list, comprised of posts that I’m particularly fond of. In keeping with Godin’s quote, only a few of the posts on the first list would have made the second.

If your favorite post didn’t make either list, consider posting a link in the comments. I’d love to hear what you enjoy reading (and why) and to make this post more valuable to others.

See you next year!

Top 10 Posts of 2013

  1. Thanks, Climbing… 
  2. Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day” 
  3. 10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day
  4. Everyday Climbing
  5. Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing
  6. 10 Rad Valentine’s Day Gifts for Climbers
  7. Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time
  8. How to Make a Climbing Movie
  9. “The Sensei”
  10. The Professionals

10 Picks from the Author

  1. On Balance 
  2. Memento Mori
  3. The Art of (Almost) Letting Go
  4. Hueco Lessons
  5. The Importance of Respect
  6. Climbing Yourself
  7. Good Luck and Bad Luck
  8. Bouldering Alone 
  9. Running It Out
  10. The Mind/Body Problem

Hiker’s Zen

We don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian Pipe plants along the trail and say, “that’s not good enough.”
I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.”

I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.

When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.

This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.

Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.

In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.

Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?

The Mind/Body Problem

A climber focused entirely on grabbing a hold

Have you ever had the experience of pulling into your driveway at home and feeling unsure of how you got there? The repetitive action of your commute was so ingrained that your body could drive you to and from work, only occasionally calling on your conscious mind for guidance—at a tricky intersection or when approaching the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, for example. Yes, indeed, these days it’s common for body and mind to lead very separate lives.

This division isn’t particularly heathy. It’s often the result of a mental pre-occupation with problems or desires, perceived or imagined. This mind/body disconnect is a big source of stress and, in the case of driving, can cause missed exits, blown red lights, even collisions. When the road is straight and the traffic moves smoothly, our autopilot is sufficient. But without a more complete awareness, it’s easy to make mistakes.

One of the greatest pleasures of climbing is the way it can bring the body and mind back into alignment. When we encounter a challenging climb, because of the complexity, physical difficultly, and the possible risk, we are forced to reconnect with ourselves, with the moment. To solve a problem with one’s entire being rather than just one’s brain is satisfying on the deepest of levels.

Beginner climbers have to learn how to move, forging new connections between concept, movement, and result. Experienced climbers can quickly discern the movements, clipping stances, and gear placements of a route. But in either case, there is a very clear mental and physical engagement throughout the process of a climb that tends to rein in our wandering minds.

Of course, there can be value to daydreaming. For me, walking the dog or the hanging out at the crag between climbs are fertile periods for connecting and refining the recent mishmash of life’s experiences into cohesive perspectives, for blog posts and the like. But most of the time my wandering mind is up to no good, generating negative worlds ex nihilo.

Zen is concerned with ideas of oneness—mind and body, internal and external, self and other—and of immediacy—everything is perfect and complete, as it is and in the moment. Climbing, like many other mentally and physically engaging practices (yoga, dance, martial arts, etc.), is an excellent tool for experiencing and cultivating this oneness. Beyond words, each climb exists in the ever-shifting moment, at the intersection of climber and climbed, where mind and body, body and stone, and stone and time lose their distinction.

Start here, and expand outward.

Climbing, Baking, and Zen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless Autumn

A tree in fall with yellow leaves

The cool slant of late autumn light goldens up the world. The ungreened leaves twirl to the ground with a papery music and layer the bouldertops up and down the granite canyon. Amongst the dry leaf litter, under the fractal branches and unimpeachably blue sky, a few climbers play over the stoney surfaces. Winter is coming and the last mellow days of fall take on a special preciousness.

If surfers dream of an endless summer, climbers chase autumn; the pre-winter chill and low humidity make for ideal skin-on-stone friction. In the fall, the climbs we labored to complete all summer long become mere trifles. In a place like Little Cottonwood Canyon, my “backyard” crag here in Salt Lake City, late fall and early winter are the only times of year certain boulder problems can be climbed at all!

So it is that rarely frequented climbing zones begin to accumulate minor crowds in the fall. And a few times in my recent outings, I’ve run into acquaintances who, you might say, are in the late-summer of their years. A little heavier, a little slower to bounce back from injuries, yoked with more of life’s many responsibilities, these experienced climbers expressed frustration with their favorite pastime. They couldn’t do the things they used to do, and it was taking some of the fun out of things.

“Wait till you’re my age,” one of them warned.

I understood well enough. After two decades of climbing, I already have to navigate around recurring injuries and rest longer and longer between days on the rock to feel recovered. But the frustration my friends voiced, while understandable, comes from a problematic perception of the world. It comes from a holding on to expectations and to the past—something I’m always working, with varying degrees of success, to let go of myself.

It is common to think back to our best day of climbing, the day where we climbed harder than we ever thought possible, and to set that as our new expectation.

“I should be able to do this,” we might think of some route that’s giving us problems. “I did something at least this hard years ago!”

One problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not realistic. No one improves in a steady, upward line—we all move in cycles, ups and downs defined by all manner of life circumstance. But a bigger problem still is that such thinking is focused on something in the past and in our minds. Engaging in constant comparison creates dissatisfaction and wastes the short time we do have, to climb and to live.

The use of seasons to represent life stages is a familiar literary trope. Spring is youth, summer early adulthood, autumn late adulthood, and winter old age. For the climber who constantly strives to improve, grow stronger and ascend higher, the turning of life’s seasons can be an especially difficult thing. Accepting the gathering nip in the air is not in our nature.

In my blog, I often refer to Eastern philosophy or religion, and find a certain value therein. But it is not because I subscribe to any particular belief system. Instead I see the perspectives of the East as a counterweight to the dominant ideas of my own culture.

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. I do not deny the raw beauty of his sentiment. But to really be valuable, I think it should be balanced with words like those of the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah, who said: “Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.”

As Westerner with a taste for the ideas of the East, I try to climb somewhere between Thomas’ rage and Chah’s release.