Memento Mori

Memento Mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio, Via Appia, Rome, Italy

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
– Steve Jobs

Free soloing is by all measures a contentious practice. Climbing without ropes at a height guaranteed to be lethal stirs up all manner of controversy amongst climbers and flatlanders alike. The main charge leveled against the free-soloist is that of irresponsibility. Specific critiques include:

  • The soloist does not really understand what he is risking. Here is the assumption that most soloists can’t truly feel or understand how close they come to death. The common image is of a person who is brave as long as his illusion of invulnerability goes unchallenged, but as soon as this bubble is burst, a fear and regret will take hold. If only they really understood the risk, they would not solo. (See the comments on this thread as an example)
  • The soloist is suicidal or otherwise lacks respect for his own life. In this light, soloing is cast as an act of sadness, desperation, or (most condemnably) selfishness, disregard for the living who will be left behind to mourn.
  • The soloist makes trouble for the rest of us. If a climber gets stuck or falls to his death, search and rescue professionals will be dispatched. In the course of their job, it is possible that they also will be injured or killed, and even if they escape unharmed, just think of the financial cost! (An example here)
  • The soloist sets a bad example. For the impressionable of all ages among us, the soloist (and the media enamored of such feats) offers a dangerous message: climbing sans protection is the purest form of the art, the most exciting, and the most impressive. The soloist’s actions, especially high-profile climbers like  Alex Honnold, John Bachar, Peter Croft, Michael Reardon, Dan Osman, etc., entice others less skilled to give it a shot, often without a good understanding of what it is they’re actually doing. (Another example here)

But for all these complaints, many of which contain facets both valid and poorly reasoned, the real source of free soloing’s taboo lies in the observer as much as in the soloist. The free soloist is a living memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality and the fine line that divides life from death. We are attracted to the spectacle of the free soloist as an act of freedom, but at the same time it’s easy to be offended by it — we picture our children, spouses, or friends similarly risking everything. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. Mortality is something we are loath to face.

The Latin phrase memento mori can be traced to ancient Rome. The Romans believed that awareness of mortality helped instill humility, important for a prudent life. It was adopted by early Christians as a way to warn us off sins of the transient flesh and keep us focused on the afterlife. In either case, contemplation on death was accepted as an important part of life. (Little wonder, considering life expectancy in those days was less than half what it is today.) Up through the 20th century in America, it was not unusual for families to keep close quarters with the deceased, washing and tending to their bodies and housing them until the burial took place.

Today, most of us are spared the sight of death and dying. The modern medical system transports the sick and elderly to sterile rooms as the end of life draws near. When an accident occurs, victims are immediately shuttled to the hospital or morgue. When my girlfriend, now wife, and I encountered the corpse of a fallen climber in the Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, it was as if a curtain was pulled aside. A stark patch of drying blood and awkwardly twisted limbs lay before us. We had never seen anything like this firsthand. Later, it struck me as odd; surely people were dying — of old age, of disease, in accidents or homicides — around us every day. How was it they had been so effectively hurried out of view? Kristin and I were eager to move on and forget the incident at the time, but in retrospect, it seems somehow valuable — the original and once ubiquitous memento mori.

I choose not free solo myself; it grips me with an almost paralytic fear and offers little joy in return. And as someone who knows many climbers who free solo at varying levels of difficulty, I admittedly feel a sadness at the thought of losing my friends and acquaintances. But the memento mori reminds us of our shared and universal fate. When we lose sight of this, it becomes all to easy to imagine ourselves living forever, or that our success and wealth will somehow shield us from mortality. Death is the ultimate context, and we must live and act accordingly, whatever that means for each of us.

In the end, the motivations of the free soloist, just like the motivations of any individual in any walk of life, will vary greatly. It is certainly possible for a person to solo out of a desire to end it all. Or to solo without fully understanding the risks at hand. But it is just as possible to solo out of joy, because proximity to death makes the act of living all the more vibrant … or just because it feels right.

In ancient Rome, the memento mori was meant to warn against hubris. In the Christian conception, it played a moralizing role. Perhaps in our time, one in which death is held, for as long as possible,  at a “safe” remove, the image of the soloist — or anyone who risks his or her life for reasons not immediately evident — serves as a reminder not just of our own precariousness, but also that there is no time to waste.

Like any concept, Memento mori implies its own opposite — in this case the phrase memento vivere, “remember to live.” Remember to live particularly because we must die. It’s funny to think that we need such reminders, but, especially now, we do.

On Balance

Balance is central to the act of climbing; it allows for controlled movement, for rhythm and flow from one hold to the next. Balance between a pushing foot and a pulling hand, between two feet pressing against the sides of a chimney, between the downward pressure of a foot and the equal and opposite upward pressure of the rock.

Without balance, climbing becomes nothing but a test of strength: who can haul his poor bones farther up the wall before exhaustion sets in. One who climbs out of balance looks, in climbing parlance, “thrutchy,” which is as graceless as it sounds.

To climb with balance is to climb efficiently. For every degree of misalignment, you must pay with strength. Out of balance and you are out of control, at the mercy of gravity, easily pushed and pulled about in its unrelating warp.

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher,” said the Dalai Lama. In the practice of climbing, gravity is both adversary and instructor. Balance is the language of gravity. The climber speaks it with his body. Fluency comes only through time, study, and relentless practice.

A strong climber might appear impressive, but a climber in balance makes difficult things look easy.

I have a very athletic friend who routinely asks me, “I want to climb 5.13. What do I have to do to get stronger?”

I always tell him the same thing: Don’t worry about getting stronger; work on your technique, your balance. Strength is my friend’s crutch — he thinks it will solve his problems to have more and more of it. In reality, he could do with a little less, as it’s confusing the real issue. He can do many moves using mostly strength, but really, he could do them much more easily if he relied less on his muscles and more on his balance.

The lesson is replayed every time a young couple visits the gym for the first time. The man climbs with his arms, as if trying to pull the wall down to the ground. The young woman dances up the wall, balanced over her feet. “The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao de Ching.

Of course, both strength and balance are required to climb. Too much of one and not enough of the other is its own kind of imbalance. Likewise, the mental and the physical must be balanced. Activity and rest must be balanced.

In climbing and in the rest of life, it is easy to forsake one thing for another while completely passing over the Middle Way. Many of my climber friends have let promising careers and relationships stagnate in exchange for more and more time to climb. Many of my career-oriented friends have let their bodies and their senses of adventure atrophy in exchange for advancement or money. These just are a few examples of lives lived out of balance.

I have found it is helpful to constantly monitor balance and to adjust whenever things fall out of line.

 

 

The Language of Stars

Boulders and stars, Triassic, UT.

If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

This Friday I turned 34. Other than that fact that the first and second digits are consecutive, it was not a particularly significant birthday. Rather than throw a party in honor of the occasion, Kristin and I packed our trusty Honda Element and headed south and east of Salt Lake City, to a bouldering spot called Triassic, which feels every bit as prehistoric as the name would imply.

Located between the rural town of Elmo (pop. 368) and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, site of “the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found,” Triassic is a desert sandstone bouldering area comprised of a few caches of rock in what was once an ancient seabed. The feeling one gets in this desolately beautiful spot is one of timelessness, as if a herd of Allosaurus fragilis might at any moment come lumbering over the crest of a hill.

Triassic: the land that time forgot

Although the environs at first appear lifeless, an attentive eye will pick out the movement of many a creature — little rock-crawling lizards, chipmunks, jack rabbits, and even antelope — all camouflaged in the dusty tones of the landscape. Humans tend to be the least represented creatures in Triassic. Which is half the reason why Kristin and I chose the spot in the first place. We went there to climb, but also to spend the night isolated in a more wild setting, enjoy a celebratory drink in front of a camp fire, and, among my favorite pastimes in nature, stargaze.

That night, the stars were out in their full regalia. By 11pm, the sun was long gone, the moon had not yet crested the horizon, and all the constellations were razor-sharp and twinkling. Through the middle of the sky was a broad swath of diffuse light, the combined glow of billions of stars forming the spiral-armed Milky Way, seen from on edge like a cosmic Frisbee hurtling towards us.

Communing with the campfire

Dinosaur fossils, the pictographs of ancient civilizations, great geologic landscapes like the Grand Canyon or the Himalaya, the open ocean — all of these are magical to behold, but nothing puts a person in his or her tiny, insignificant place quite like a full-blown sky full of stars, viewed on a clear cold desert night.

To each observer, the vast starscape becomes a celestial Rorschach test. What we see in the unfathomable vastness is a testament to what our hearts most want to see. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “How is it they live in such harmony the billions of stars – when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their minds about someone they know.” To him, stars were an example from God of how humans can better carry out their lives. Marcus Aurelius saw them as exemplary of a realm above and beyond petty human concerns: “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Van Gogh said simply “The sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Basic view of the Milky Way

To me, the stars serve as proof that we’re the center of nothing in particular, and that our actions leave not a scratch on the broad side of the universe. In the Zen tradition, they remind me to take “serious” things more lightly, and “small” things more seriously, and remember that our only legacy is the example we set in this life, and our ultimate return to the elemental star dust of which we’re made.

The next morning when we woke, the stars had once again disappeared behind the blue veil of the sky. We approached the day with no particular goal in mind. Alone, in the desert, with some water and a few crash pads, we set off walking to see what we could see. But the stars had left their faint impression in our minds and, at least for a little while, we would follow their example.

Climbing Is (Not) The Best

Everyone is first

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.*

Many moons ago, a friend of mine with a hankering for a good, chewy argument asserted that climbing is the best sport. (I’ll use “sport” here, even though we all know that climbing is a “lifestyle,” or a “way of life,” or even a “metaphysical journey” — it’s just easier this way.)

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say,” I said. “Climbing is only the best sport for those who love it. What about all those people who prefer surfing, or football, or golf? To them, those are the best sports.”

“Those people are wrong,” he said.

“You can’t be wrong about something that’s totally subjective!” I cried.

“Climbing is, objectively, the best sport.” He stated, and then proceeded to tell me why: Climbing is not a competition with others or with a clock; it is a battle against one’s own limits and fears. Climbing combines intense physical and intellectual challenges into one activity. Climbing is inherently dangerous, requiring fortitude and focus in the face of ultimate consequences. Climbing often requires an understanding of physics and weather. Many forms of climbing embody the ideals of exploration, adventure, and self-reliance. As descendants of primates, we have climbing in our DNA. Climbing is a form of communion with the natural world. And so on…

I couldn’t argue with one thing he said. I could only explain that none of that changed that fact that many people – most people – don’t care about much about climbing. You could easily build similar arguments to elevate a thousand other pursuits.

“Whatever. You know I’m right.” He said.

But I didn’t know he was right. I only knew I loved to climb. Over the past 20 years, it has played a role in my social life, my identity, my job… Still, I just couldn’t believe in the intrinsic superiority of one pursuit over another. After all, even within the climbing microcosm we can’t agree: Mountaineering is just glorified hiking. Climbing on plastic isn’t real climbing… come to think of it, neither is aid climbing. The only pure climbing is done naked, free solo, and without shoes or chalk. Bouldering is just practice for full-sized climbs. Friends don’t let friends climb crack. Sport climbing is neither… . If climbing is the best, as my friend suggested, which kind in particular? The farther one follows such an argument, the larger the logical holes become, until there’s nothing left but opinion and empty space.

At the root of this disagreement was something we seem sadly unable to escape in this world: the idea of mutual exclusivity — for one thing to be right, the other must be wrong. If climbing is the best, well, then, something else can’t be the best, too, now can it? Our society, with its irrational fear of relativism and its “unhealthy obsession with winning” does little to dispel this troubling belief.

Here’s a common example a very powerful and subjective feeling against which no one would argue: My wife thinks I’m the greatest guy in the world (or at least, I hope she does!). Obviously, I am not the greatest guy in the world to those billions of women who have never met me, nor to the handful of fine ladies who have dated and dumped me. These differing opinions, luckily, have not the slightest bearing on my wife’s feelings for me or mine for her. We each hold the other to be the best for us.

Most of us are pretty good at accepting the subjective nature of love and relationships. But sometimes – too much of the time – we have a hard time recognizing the subjective in our tastes. Religion plays on this very human weakness – there can be only one truth, say the holy texts of nearly every belief: Our Truth. This is without doubt religion’s most dangerous aspect. Invested in such misconceptions, people of one religion have oppressed and killed people of other religions for millennia. Likewise, belief in the supremacy of one race or nationality over another has spurred genocide. Luckily, in the case of climbing debates, things rarely turn violent… although I have heard tales of punches being thrown and threats being made over issues as objectively piddling as bolting, red-tagging, and chipping.

Looking back, I’m sure my friend was playing the role of devil’s advocate, deadpan as he may have been. Even if some part of him believed that climbing was truly the best of human pursuits, he accepted the fact that not everyone agreed. Just like my wife’s love for me, he knew his admiration for climbing wasn’t mutually exclusive with other people’s equally fervent love for other things.

And in a way, my friend and I were both right. Climbing is the best… but so is mountain biking, ice skating, and sure, why not, cup stacking. As long as there are people to love them, there is no sport that is not the best, thus rendering moot the very idea of “best.”

This type of open thinking underlies Alex Lowe’s ever-popular (and much-debated) quote, “The best climber is the one having the most fun.” If we all spent less time worrying about who or what was best, and more time doing what we love best, well, I believe we’d all be a happier and more fulfilled lot.

I’m also willing to admit you might not see it that way.

 

*This story, called “Everything is Best,” and many others like it can be found in the exceptional Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. 

 

 

Zen Story: Every-Minute Zen

Sandals and umbrella

Every-Minute Zen*

Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

It is easy to live in your head. I have been doing it nearly every moment of my existence, for some 30-odd years. The average human only lives “in the moment” for brief flashes, when facing overwhelming joy, fear, pain, or exhaustion, or during other intense moments of engagement. This “nowness” is one of the things I seek when rock climbing — the singular focus when physical and mental engagement overwhelms my self-awareness, my thoughts of the past and future, my insecurities, my anxieties… .

But living in the moment is not only a function of extreme circumstances. When you practice anything extensively, you can access “flow” states and feel that sort of unconscious action. Athletes frequently speak of it, but artists or the spiritually minded might describe it as a kind of inspired or ecstatic state. Still, it never lasts for long. Many a gifted individual has spent his or her life seeking a longer stay in the perfect moment.

In “Every-Minute Zen,” Nan-in reminds Tenno that understanding Zen is all well and good, but what good is it if you cannot keep it with you always?

After you brushed your teeth this morning, which way did the head of the brush face? When you received change from the cashier, how much was there, and in what denominations? When you drove to work or to school last week, how many blue cars did you pass? If you cannot answer these questions, you do not have every-minute Zen.

Don’t worry, I don’t have it either. I always strive for greater awareness in the moment, but end up loosing track of the simplest things: I forget to put the wet laundry in the dryer and leave my keys dangling in the front-door lock.

The world I inhabit seems very distant from the monastic world of Nan-in and Tenno. I monitor Facebook and Twitter. I send text messages and check my calendar for appointments. I think of things I want to write and then work to create them, slowly and with much hand-wringing. At every turn, something asks for my attention to be directed to somewhere else and to some other time in the past or the future. I am not certain this is so wrong, but to the extent that it causes me anxiety, lack of focus, and confusion, it is something I seek to change.

*      *      *

I kick off my sandals and take note of how they fall, on which side of my umbrella, straining to think of nothing else. But even before they hit the floor, I am adrift — What would it feel like to be enlightened? I ponder. Already I have failed.

But failure lives in the past, which is no longer my concern. We have only to let each moment follow the next as it will; so simple yet so difficult.

Luckily, there is another moment coming — here it is, just now — in which to start the long journey into the infinitesimal nucleus of existence. My thought is, let’s start with one-second Zen and go from there.

*If you find this story to be interesting, please consider purchasing the masterful Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. I have owned and given away three or four copies of the book already. It’s pretty damn good.

You Haven’t Heard of Mary Oliver?

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

This isn’t my first blog post about the poet Mary Oliver, but it’s the first to see the light of day. I abandoned the others because they kept straying into the realm of dry, academic analysis. When writing about serious writers, you see, I tend to get an inferiority complex — do I dare comment on the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with anything less than polished, incisive, and heavily annotated prose? Do I have the right to even utter Oliver’s name without having read and considered carefully her entire oeuvre? And the words of the many critics who have critiqued her work? And her biographical information? Soon, instead of a quick blog about a poet I rather enjoy, I felt like I was looking down the barrel of a graduate thesis.

But then I reminded myself of a few things:

  1. We are all going to die someday. Maybe soon.
  2. This is my personal blog. It is not the New York Fucking Times. And even if it was the NY F”ing T, that still doesn’t mean everything has to be a work of genius — it just has to say something interesting in an interesting way. I’ve read plenty of sub-genius writing in the Times and The New Yorker and National Geographic. Genius is a very high bar; if you’ll settle for nothing less, then you’ll end up with nothing at all.
  3. My goal here isn’t to convince you, dear reader, that I am the world’s foremost Mary Oliverologist or some sort of poetry expert, but to share something cool with you. The truth is, I haven’t read all — or even most — of Oliver’s 26 books of poetry. In fact, I only own one of those books, called House of Light. And that one didn’t even win a Pulitzer (!). But still, I have read enough of her writing over the years to know that she is worth reading.
  4. Oliver, now 76 years old, is both popular (as poets go) and controversial (in that several critics have given her bum reviews, despite, or because, of this popularity). But whatever any critic thinks of her, I find something of great value in her writing. Therefore, I am under no obligation to defend her, only to share what it is about her that I find to be so valuable. If you agree or disagree, I would be honored if you’d opine in the comments section below.

Now, in brief, my explanation of why you should pick up House of Light and other books by Mary Oliver:

First
She is a master of language. After studying literature in college and getting an MFA in poetry, I have yet to encounter a writer who more powerfully evokes the sensual aspects of nature than does Oliver. Three examples of many (many!):

“the mossy hooves /of dreams, including / the spongy litter / under tall trees.”

“Now the soft / eggs of the salamander / in their wrapping of jelly / begin to shiver. … Off they go, / hundreds of them, / like the black / fingerprints of the rain.”

“the soft rope of a water moccasin / slid down the red knees /of a mangrove, the hundred of ribs / housed in their smooth, white / sleeves of muscle …”

Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"
Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"

Second

Oliver uses the images of nature to great affect in exploring the biggest, most unanswerable of human questions. She uses them as a lens through which to view being and consciousness, the existence  (or lack thereof) of God or god-like beings. She ties together the religious and philosophical traditions of the West and the East, mingling thoughts of Buddha (see: “The Buddha’s Last Instructions“) with the images of Christianity (see: “Snake” as well as the various examples of serpent imagery and references to Jesus throughout the House of Light) with the intense love of nature of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. In Emerson’s view, nature was the the inexhaustible source of our greatest understanding. Oliver seems to have taken this to heart, making nature the subject of nearly every poem, the wordless teacher of every important lesson we need to know. In “Lilies,” she even manages to reference a Zen story, which in turn references the alignment between Christian and Zen principles. She writes:

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea. …

Then compare that to the Zen story “Not Far From Buddhahood,” in which a student reads the following Bible passage to his master “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27). The master, on hearing the passage, offers, sagely, “Whoever uttered these words, I consider an enlightened man.”

Lily of the field
Lily of the field

With all of Oliver’s references to Buddhism, it’s hard to imagine she did not read this Zen story. Or, if she did not, it is still hard to imagine she did not read the passage from Luke and see the similarities to what today we would call an Eastern way of thinking. It is a wonderful connection that re-orders the world. We humans could learn a thing or two from the lilies that “melt without protest” on the tongues of the cattle. We could be more at piece with the true nature of our circumstances. But that is not our nature. But we are part of nature. And the serpent eats its own tail…

Third
Because almost every poem in House of Light is about death, in a roundabout way. And since, as I mentioned, we are all going to die (maybe soon), and if you roll that all up with the first two reasons for picking up a Mary Oliver book, you will see that what I am talking about is poetry with an existential purpose. This woman has for over 50 years been intently observing and considering nature, herself, humankind, consciousness, time, and death and has, in her poetry, communicated a vision of the world that very few of us will ever have the time, effort, or talent to formulate. She is offering us an insight into something at once greater than ourselves and within ourselves.

And she does it in a way that is in perfect accord with our times. Unlike the old masters, Oliver speaks in the parlance of our times, in a language that even the least poetically inclined can make sense of without a thesaurus or the help of a teacher. She is carrying on an age-old tradition and doing the poet’s work.

This may not be the golden age of poetry, but that fact does not diminish one whit the value of today’s poetry. Mary Oliver may have sold some goodly number of books in her day, but I do not think most of my friends and acquaintances have been the ones purchasing them. Chances are, you have not been, either. So take this as an excuse to spend a little of that latté money on something with more enduring value. And also, take a walk in the woods.

National Poetry Month and the Head of a Dead Cat

I was standing at my kitchen counter before dawn last week, eating Greek yogurt and listening to NPR, as is my daily feel-good liberal ritual, when the newscaster offered up an interesting tidbit that made me pause. For most people, this news would have passed un-reacted to, but from me it elicited a good old-fashioned knee slap. “Well hey, what do you know?!” I said to the empty room. “April is National Poetry Month!” I was a little bit embarrassed that this had escaped my attention, since I spent two years and many thousands of good dollars earning a masters of fine arts in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Though I may be excused, perhaps, in light of the fact that I also was unaware of Easter’s approach until it was actually Easter (“What’s with all the plastic eggs in the neighbor’s yard?”). Likewise with Passover (“What’s with all the lamb’s blood on the neighbor’s doorpost?”). Still, I’ve had a much closer relationship with poetry than I have with any organized religion.

A masters in poetry is a rare thing, but for all its rareness, it isn’t particularly valued by society at large. Aside from my professors and classmates in the poetry program, I can’t recall ever meeting another person who saw fit to invest in an advanced poetry degree. No, the (sad?) truth is, poetry today is regarded as either easy, rhyming drivel of the sort found in self-help literature and greeting cards, or as an opaque, elitist exercise enjoyable only for those with afore-mentioned degrees. Even in the age of the Internet, where a premium is put on bite-sized content chunks, the imminently digestible stanzas of contemporary poetry are rarely shared. My Facebook friends quote movies, songs, and the odd snippet of philosophy, but rarely do I catch a sonnet, an ode, or even a rhymed couplet ticking by on the feed. (The haiku and the limerick are the most notable counterexamples, but these are typically made to suit less-than-honorable ends.)

Maybe it’s because poetry, really good poetry, if I may be so bold as to judge, doesn’t yield easily to passing glances and cursory interpretation. You have to be in the right state of mind if you want to get the meat out of the poetic nut, and willing to work at it. The poetic form is unfamiliar; it’s not how people talk. Like a magic show, a poem asks the audience to suspend its disbelief. Poetry is not like a piece of fiction, riddled with cliffhangers, or a movie with a simple, arc-shaped plot — it is at once more abstract and more complex, full of quantum possibility. Poetry requires the reader to empty his or her cup, metaphorically speaking, before learning what the poem has to offer. In short, there are so many barriers between the average reader and a poem, it’s no wonder we need a specially designated month just to remind us that poems are out there.

And to make matters worse, not all poems are good. Just as most anythings are crappy, so are most attempts at poetry failures, in that they don’t communicate with even the most ideal, receptive reader. Most poems are full of unexamined clichés and easy sentiments borrowed from the greeting cards mentioned earlier. A good and potent poem really is a rare thing, even rarer than an MFA in poetry.

Sometimes when I think of poetry and its paradoxical value, I think of the story of Sozen, a Chinese Zen master and poet. Sozen claimed the head of a dead cat was the most valuable thing in the world, because “no one can name its price.” The idea being that things of true value cannot be sold or purchased. The value of a poem to the human spirit is much like the value of Nature, with a capital “N”. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature”, “The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape… . This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.”

In the end, National Poetry Month, initiated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, feels a bit like wishful thinking. As if a month in poesy’s honor would rekindle the passions of readers everywhere. And yet… . And yet my own poetic inclinations, long in a state of suspended animation, have begun to stir. (It is fitting that National Poetry Month would be in T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month.”) I think they only needed an excuse. And in a way, any holiday or day of recognition is really no more than that: an excuse to think about ourselves, our friends and family, our countrymen and women, God or gods, or the universe in a different way. After three-hundred plus days a year of routine and rigmarole, it can hardly hurt to pause and appraise things from a new angle. So, in that way, National Poetry Month is a success, at least for this one-time poet who has drifted away from verse.

I get the feeling that now it’s time to dampen the ol’ quill and start scratching away on brittle parchment once again. Or maybe it’s just time to take up some of the many books of poetry I’ve accumulated over the years. In books, I’ve found, the words are static, but the perspective of the reader is different with every read. With this in mind, I’m excited to revisit my old favorites and see how their words sound to me now: Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Yeats, Keats, Bishop, Pound… . I expect I’ll find new and inestimably valuable things in their metaphors and meter.

If you have a poetry collection on your shelf, I can only implore you to select a book long unopened and begin to read. If you have no poetry at your fingertips and no dollars in your purse, turn to the Internet, wellspring of free content. Head to poets.org and look to the right side of the page — the list of popular contemporary and historical poets is as good a place to start as any. I can almost guarantee you will find great worth in their words, at least as much as in the head of a dead cat, the most valuable thing in the world.

Chris Sharma and the Difficult Balance

Letting Go: Chris Sharma and Mark Coleman from Prana Living on Vimeo.

“Some of these things are so difficult, I have to want it more than anything else in the world. It has to mean so much. But that can work against me…”
— Chris Sharma

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, although the title of this blog comes from a Zen story, I’m no Buddhist. Like a bird building a nest from odd scraps and detritus, I take only the parts of Buddhist philosophy I need and leave the rest. The concept in Buddhism that seems to resonate most with me is the lesson of non-attachment.

In the video above, there’s this exchange between Chris Sharma and “Mindful Living Ambassador” Mark Coleman:

Coleman: You’re balancing the intense desire…to achieve something — but as you say you can’t do that and be tight, because it just contracts everything: body, mind, and your climbing — so how do you balance holding a goal, and at the same time not being attached.

Sharma: It’s a difficult balance, because, if you don’t take it seriously, then why even try so hard?

Here the riddle of greatness is stated clearly. And, of course, the video never actually answers any questions, only identifies the challenge. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Sharma. He probably strikes it more often than most, and yet he cannot express how to strike it. It is something you must seek without seeking. You must care, and work, and try… and then it just happens.

In Zen, similarly, to reach enlightenment is the goal, but the means of reaching it involve not focusing on the goal. Like Zen koans, the logical inconsistency is uncomfortable to the brain, like an Escher print. However, with assiduous practice and constant repetition, one can enter the state of doing without trying.

Chris Sharma at RocTrip China
Chris Sharma at Petzl RocTrip China

Many classic Zen stories identify a moment of sudden awakening. For example: a monk is walking through the market and overhears a conversation between butcher and customer. The customer asks which cut of meat is the best. The butcher answers that they are all the best; he carries no cut that is not the best. And with that, the monk is enlightened. (So simple, but what the story doesn’t mention is the many years the monk would have spent in a state of constant effort, trying to understand the nature of existence.)

In my life, I try to hold many goals in mind, but to hold them lightly. A violinist should not clutch his bow, nor a painter her brush. Similarly, to make use of our bodies, we must practice letting go, loosening ourselves until we are pliable like a reed and not stiff like a dry old stick. In climbing, constant tension is the enemy, always defeating us on our way to the top. In life, too, a constant clenching of the mind is self-defeating.

To know this intellectually is simple — just a matter of linking one word to the next. But to live it every moment, now that truly is a difficult balance.

Zen Story: A Cup of Tea

A cup of tea

A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The above story is the first in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones. It sets the tone perfectly, reminding the reader that before the page is turned, it is important to empty one’s mind as completely as possible.

This is very hard to accomplish in our day-to-day lives, because we cling with every ounce of our being to our assumptions, possessions, and desires. The value we place on material things or accomplishments or the opinions of others is gravitational. It is in our genetic code and our cultural code. But as we all must die, and not one scrap of these things can accompany us, it is really for the best that we understand our desires and fears in this larger perspective.

At the end of the 1990 movie Jacob’s Ladder, there is a scene where a sage chiropractor (Danny Aiello) offers advice to the protagonist, Jacob (Tim Robbins). Jacob has been having terrible hallucinations — men with faces distorted and blurred, eyeless doctors operating on him against his will, his girlfriend being molested by a demonic lizard at a party — and we’ve learned that he was a soldier in Vietnam. [Spoiler alert] At a certain point, we come to realize that Jacob was actually killed in Vietnam, and that the entire movie is comprised of the last moments of his tortured consciousness, played out in his expiring brain. The fantastic hallucinations make sense in this context, and the context of the chiropractor’s words: “If you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth.”

In this sense, the entire movie is the efforts of Jacob’s brain to make peace with his life and his death. This is something we all must do, whether we are young or old, sick or in fine health. We should always operate with the understanding that our time is limited. It gives us a certain sense of urgency about things. That we must not pass our days feeling afraid, anxious, or full of regret. Better to fill our time with things that bring us and others happiness. Better to treat every moment as the start of an existence filled with infinite potential.

Although I don’t know if Steve Jobs was a happy or well-balanced man, I do know that he was a powerful thinker, capable of seeing through to the inner kernel of a matter. In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, now very famous, he offered this statement, a bare, resonating filament of truth:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

When Jobs gave this commencement (view it here), he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would claim his life. He spoke as a great mind, but also as one who is forced to look his own end square in the eye. Such an encounter can leave a person hopeless and depressed. (And it is likely that Jobs felt these things, at times.) But ultimately his message was one of acceptance and understanding. More, he saw death as necessary — a thing that actually gives meaning to life.

We are all headed this way, and we have all always been headed this way. Will you attempt to ignore that truth? Will you let it drain the marrow from your life? Or will you use it as a source of energy and meaning, powering you to make the world greater than when you entered it? Every day, we must empty our cup and approach life full of excitement for the time we have. Humbled. Naked.


Zen Story: Not Far From Buddhahood

Buddha and The ScripturesA little Saturday night Zen.

“Not Far From Buddhahood” is one of my favorites. When I was a child, my father used to read to us after dinner from both the Old Testament and from Zen Flesh Zen Bones (the source of the story below; you can purchase a copy here, if you like it). At the time, any similarities between Western and Eastern wisdom were lost on me. Now, I’ve come to believe that a universal kernel of truth resides at the heart of our many human philosophies.

Organized religions always seem loathe to acknowledge that truth is not exclusive to one belief system. Zen tends not to have this problem. I do not think it’s fair to say I’m a Zen Buddhist or Zen practitioner, but certainly Zen is the closest thing to the constantly evolving Open Source Philosophy that I’ve created and live by. This story does a good job of expressing the Zen belief that truth can be found anywhere, from the petals of a flower to the Christian Bible.

-TBL

Not Far From Buddhahood

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: “Have you ever read the Christian Bible?”

“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.

The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these…Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.”

The student continued reading: “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, is shall be opened.”

Gasan remarked: “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”

Zen Story: The Blockhead Lord

Zen Temple

Today’s Zen story is about power, wisdom, ego, honesty, and manipulation. It can be read, along with 100 other great Zen stories at 101zenstories.com.

The Blockhead Lord*

Two Zen teachers, Daigu and Gudo, were invited to visit a lord. Upon arriving, Gudo said to the lord: “You are wise by nature and have an inborn ability to learn Zen.”

“Nonsense,” said Daigu. “Why do you flatter this blockhead? He may be a lord, but he doesn’t know anything of Zen.”

So, instead of building a temple for Gudo, the lord built it for Daigu and studied Zen with him.

Gudo’s tactic of flattery did not go over well. Daigu spoke bluntly, without much tact, and the lord saw this as a sign of Daigu’s superior grasp of Zen. Ironically, the fact that the lord chose to build a temple for Daigu may well have proved Gudo right. Who was the more perceptive of the two? Who the more honest? Perhaps Daigu’s remark was only a more complex form of manipulation. One can never be so sure….

The Blockhead Lord

(*If you like this story, consider buying the excellent book Zen Flesh Zen Bones)

Your head must feel very heavy

Zen Teacher: “There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”

Monk: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”

Zen Teacher: “Your head must feel very heavy if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”

(Full story here.)

The title of this blog was taken from a Zen story published in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Like most of the stories in the book, this one is less than a page from title to closing punctuation. Even so, the story can be condensed into the paraphrase, above, without losing too much meaning.

The Monk’s response is blandly intellectual. Meanwhile, the Zen teacher’s reply is, in the great tradition of Zen teaching, glib to the point of absurdity. The Zen teacher would have known the student’s mind would flow in the direction it did, and his snarky reply was intended to shock the student into awareness. The student’s words were merely symbols in an if/then equation. If everything is and objectification of mind, then that stone is in my mind. But the there’s more to existence than cold ratiocination, and the teacher uses words to point the student (and the reader, of course) towards a deeper understanding. Words won’t get you to enlightenment, but they can illuminate the path.

As a guy with a particularly ponderous stone in my head, I hope to use words as a lantern to brighten my own path and maybe yours, too, dear reader. Just a moment ago, I wrote a long list of topics you should expect to see on this blog, but I deleted it, fearing I’d only disappoint those who’d hold me to it, not to mention limit myself before I’ve even started. Like my life (and, hopefully, yours), this blog is an experiment, ever evolving. Perhaps at some point I’ll be able to say precisely what it is about and who it is for. But for now, the limits are set only by the boundaries of my own interests, which are diverse. Until the next post.

The Blockhead Lord