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…

The Death of Plaid?

2014-01-22 16.12.50-2

Not plaid. Josh Sweeny of Hippy Tree shows off the cutting edge: horizontal stripes.

For the past three Outdoor Retailer shows, I’ve blogged about the longstanding prevalence of plaid shirts in the outdoor industry. This year, I was burned out; I didn’t want to talk about plaid any more. But as I walked the red-carpeted runways of the show last week, I realized I wasn’t alone—lots of people have had their fill of plaid and are ready for a change. So I’ll talk about that instead…

Perusing the show between meetings, some new trends began to take shape. Several plaidternatives were in evidence, from paisley to animal prints, vertical stripes to polka dots.

The simple solid color option, often in subdued grays, greens, and blues, was popular, too. Meanwhile, I noted quite a few button-up shirts with heathered yarns or herringbone weaves or other subtle textures. Several denim shirts were even in evidence.

As with many aspects of modern society, cultural fashion norms at the OR Show appear to be moving ever towards the informal. Where plaid, short-sleeve, button-front shirts once served as the “dress up shirt for the outdoor guy” (to quote Patagonia’s Kristo Torgerson), now wicking synthetic base layers and even T-shirts are becoming acceptable garb for meetings, especially among the younger crowd.

As I stopped passers-by in the crowd to snap photos of their plaidless ensembles,  I asked a few why they had opted to leave the tartan tailoring at home.

“I wear paisley to the show because I don’t want to be just like everyone else,” said one gentleman. “I’ve been boycotting plaid at the show for years,” said another. It was a common refrain.

A confidential source whose spouse works at a prominent outdoor apparel brand confirmed that the coming season’s lines contain more solid colors and fewer plaids.

One friend went so far as to suggest that previous plaid exposés on The Stone Mind may have drawn attention to the trend, spurring self-conscious show-goers to seek other options. It seems unlikely that a lowly blog might move the needle on the outdoor industry’s entrenched plaidiction, but I suppose anything is possible.

Of course, plaid isn’t really dead, just a little less lively. Whereas a few years ago one out of every two men walking the Salt Palace during the OR Show were wearing plaid, now the ratio, by my unscientific methods, is more like one in five.

When I asked a designer for the Seattle-based brand Kavu if plaid was on the way out, she said, “No way—we still sell tons of plaid flannel shirts,” adding that the palette has shifted: towards brighter plaids, comprised of primary or neon colors.

“I love plaid!” declared Sam Krieg, of Krieg Climbing and Cycling, as the show wrapped up. “Seriously. I really do.”

 

PLAID-FREE GALLERY

 

MORE PLAID POSTS

 

A Joke My Dad Used to Tell Me

A man standing on top of his house during a flood

When I was a kid, my dad wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. Among the many corny jokes he told at the dinner table to inspire me towards this career path was this one, which for some reason stuck with me:

A man was in his home when a hurricane blew into town bringing with it high winds and torrential rain. A pair of cops came by in waders and asked him to evacuate. 

“No thanks, officers,” he said. “My life is in God’s hands.”

So the police left and the rain continued to fall. A few hours later and the water was up above the first floor of the man’s house, so the man went upstairs. At that point, a woman came by in a rowboat.

“Let’s go!” she shouted in the man’s window.

“No thank you, ma’m,” he replied. “My life is in God’s hands.”

So the woman floated off in her boat and the rain continued to fall. A few hours later, the water had filled up the second floor of the man’s house, so he climbed onto the roof. Finally, a helicopter flew over and lowered a rope.

“Grab the rope; we’ll rescue you!” said the medic in the helicopter, speaking into a megaphone. 

“No thank you!” screamed the man through the howling wind, “My life is in God’s hands!”

So the water continued to rise and, eventually, the man was swept away and drowned. 

Up in heaven, the man came before God.

“Why did you forsake me, God?” the man implored. “My life was in your hands!”

“What do you want from me?” God replied. “I sent you a police escort, a rowboat, a helicopter…”

Whether you believe in a higher power or not, what I take from this is that we shouldn’t expect things to be done for us. No one will save us if we won’t save ourselves — not our family, our boss, the government, a religious institution, or just the world in general.

The best we can expect is a chance to do things for ourselves. If we’re lucky, we’ll encounter many windows of opportunity in our lives and it is up to us to go through them, to make something of them… Or to not make anything of them and then complain about it.

Sometimes that sidetrack turns out to be the key to something big. Sometimes that person you meet, that letter you write, the event you attend makes all the difference. But only if you let it. Only if you act.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get an opportunity to become a stand-up comedian, just like pop always wanted.

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.

Six Steps for that Sexy Climber Hair

That climber hair. SHRN. Photo courtesy of Arthur Debowski

That climber hair. So hot right now. Photo courtesy of Arthur Debowski.

In the world of fashion, hair that looks artfully “mussed” is so hot right now. Consider the many “sexy bed hair” tutorials uncovered with a simple Google search, or the popular line of Bed Head haircare products available at pharmacies near you. The sort of windswept, salt-sprayed hairdos one finds perched atop the têtes of surfers and other beachgoers is also very much á la mode, enough to warrant a write-up in the New York Times.

But for those committed to the cutting edge, few groups sport wilder coiffures than road tripping climbers, confined as they are to tents or vans for months at a time with infrequent access to soap, combs, or running water. Luckily, there’s no need to be a dirtbag to have hair like one. Follow these six easy steps for a hairstyle equally at home at the crags or on the runway:

1. Stop showering - A key component to climber hair is the accumulation of sebum, a natural fatty acid produced in the scalp’s sebaceous glands. Washing hair regularly strips away sebum and leaves hair dry and boring. Therefore, the first step to cultivating that dirtbag climber look is to stop washing your hair with soap. Rinsing in the shower is OK, but if you want to go the authentic route (and I know you do), squeeze your head under the faucet of a gas station bathroom and then dry off with the provided paper towels. Your hair might feel a little too greasy at first, but give it some time. As my friend Nate used to say, “It’s like your hair starts cleaning itself after a while.”

2. Chalk up - The chalk we climbers use on our hands to increase friction ultimately ends up clinging to our oily, unwashed hair and providing texture and body. If you’re not planning on getting out on the rock any time soon, you can still buy a bag of powdered chalk at your local outdoor outfitter and sprinkle it over your head once or twice a day. As tempting as it may seem, avoid using liquid chalk in your hair—this alcohol and calcium carbonate blend, sometimes spiked with powdered pine resin, is smelly, overly drying, and probably flammable.

3. Sweat it out - A key component of beach hair is sea salt. Luckily, salt is also readily available in a substance that your body produces for you: sweat! For climbers, it’s easy to get sweaty. Just slog up a steep mountainside with a pack full of ropes and biners, then climb a few pitches of steep rock in the direct sun. A few hours of this, and your hair (and face and clothes) will be coated with a fine, salty film. If you’re not a climber, don’t worry: you can still sweat. Probably the easiest way would be to stand in your living room, put on all of your jackets at once, and turn on Braveheart. Every time someone gets killed, do one burpee.

4. Get some sun - The bleaching and drying effects of the sun are a perfect finisher for climber hair. If for some reason you don’t have regular access to the rays thrown off by this massive sphere of fusing hydrogen, consider picking up a sun lamp at your nearest health and beauty supplier. After getting good and sweaty, as mentioned above, pop your head under the lamp for an hour or two. Tanning salons are another alternative for this step (don’t forget your little goggle things!).

5. Wrap it up - For unknown reasons, many climbers wear knit beanies all the time, even if it’s not cold out. This turns that sebum, chalk, and sweat salt into a pungent hair tonic. Probably the most important time to wear your beanie is when you’re sleeping. As you roll around in your bed or back of your van or whatever, the hat will twist and shift, creating just the right amount of Derelicte messiness.

6. Let it loose - When you’re ready to go out, whip off your beanie and give your hair a good tousle. Run your fingers through it, shuffle it around, pull it down into goth spikes or up for that finger-in-a-light socket look—whatever. Just be sure to wash your hands and face to remove all the loose hairs, dirt, chalk, and oils that have accumulated. You’re good to go.

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

10 Gift Ideas for the Prehistoric Outdoorsperson

Ötzi's up for anything!

Ötzi’s up for anything! Photo: © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

The outdoorsy lifestyle existed before synthetic base layers, REI, or even Fred Beckey. In fact, prehistoric humans spent pretty much all their time in nature, if you can believe that. Case in point: Ötzi, a 45-year-old dude whose preserved body was found in a jerky-like state high in the Alps more than five-thousand years after his death. The bearded, five-foot-two inch tall nature-boy made a habit of running up and down the mountains in what is today the border between Italy and Austria.

No ultimate roadtrip-mobile, Whole Foods, or Mountain Athlete Training for Ötzi. But just like the climbers, hunters, and thru-hikers of today, outdoorspeople of old loved their gear. Ötzi was found surrounded by all kinds of sweet kit for his time in the outdoors: a knife and an axe, a backpack, all-terrain footwear, even a bearskin cap. And since everyone else on the Internet has already compiled holiday buyer’s guides for the contemporary outdoor lifestyle, I thought I’d put one together for Ötzi and his kin.

1. Animal sinew – Shredded tendon fiber is super tough and, bonus, shrinks as it dries. It’s just the thing for binding a flint blade into an ash wood dagger handle. When paired with a bone awl, it’s the ideal way to mend broken seams in a pair of well-worn goat hide leggings.

2. Flint from the Lessini Mountains – For crafting into fresh knife blades or arrowheads, or for getting that fire going on a cold night under the stars, Lessini flint is the finest anywhere.

3. Grass and hay – Long strands of supple grass are good for binding stuff together—the wooden supports of a backpack frame or the ankle of your deerskin boots, for example. Meanwhile, grasses cut and dried into hay make an excellent insulating layer in boots. It’s a good idea to keep several handfuls of dry hay on hand at all times, to re-stuff your boots after a stream crossing or long hike through the high-mountain snows.

4. Copper polish – Sure, that copper axe can fell a yew tree in thirty minutes flat, but it’s also a status symbol worth keeping nice and shiny. For a good polish formula, trade with some low-landers for a grass pouch of citrus fruit, as the acidic juice makes quick work of oxidization. Bonus gift: a tab of beeswax. Applied after cleaning, it helps maintain the polish longer.

5. Animal fat – Like Michael Jackson in the 1980s, practically every piece of Ötzi’s wardrobe was made of animal hide, from hat to his loin cloth, from leggings to shoes. To keep everything supple, animal fat can be used to condition leather and hide.

6. Field horsetail – Any seasoned outdoorsperson wants gear that’s lightweight, easy to use, and versatile. Enter field horsetail: it’s abrasive enough to smooth and polish a yew tree bow, yet it can also be boiled in water to help ward off an assortment of maladies.

7. Shoots of viburnum sapwood – Two words: arrow shafts. Boom!

8. Dolomite marble disk – Any copper-age dude hiking around in the mountains with a bow and arrow is going to need a way to carry all the wildfowl he pots. A tassel of leather nooses is perfect for this purpose, but how to affix them to your person? A fine Dolomite marble disk, carved be the small-fingered youth of the region, is a great accessory. Simply thread a leather strap through the central hole of the disk and secure with a stopper knot. Then pass the disk beneath your leather utility belt and you’re all set. Attractive shape and color add an element of class to any ensemble.

9. Bracket fungi – You can never have too much of this Neolithic panacea. The fruiting body of the birch polypore fungus has long been known for its antibiotic and styptic effects, and the toxic oils it contains can ward off pesky intestinal parasites.

10. iPhone – If you were to give our friend Ötzi a bath and a shave, he’d fit right into twenty-first century society, and nothing says 2013 like an iPhone. GPS for way finding, high-res camera for capturing alpine sunsets, iMessaging to check in with the missus or village elders, and the Google app, to make sure those berries weren’t poisonous.

 

More on Ötzi

Just This Move

The Billboard crag

The Billboard, American Fork Canyon.

I had been working a route up at a limestone crag called the Billboard, in American Fork Canyon, about thirty miles south of Salt Lake City. Beeline, the route is called, an old Boone Speed classic that feels pumpier than its eighty-foot height on account of the meandering course it charts through rasping pockets and slots. Slightly overhung with mostly positive holds, an endurance climber might call it soft. But for a convenience boulderer like me, trained on forty-five minute lunch sessions in the gym and weekend projects of eight moves or fewer, it might as well have been El Capitan.

A few weeks ago, I reached a tricky section less than half way up Beeline and asked my belayer to take. I didn’t have an ounce of extra juice to get me through the uncertain sequence. I decided I would have to pick apart the most efficient way to do each move, so that I could eventually race from bottom to top without thinking. If I didn’t make any mistakes, I reasoned, I’d have just enough gas for the trip to the anchors. I dangled from the rope and scrutinized each possible foot hold (there were a lot) and rehearsed the section of climbing until it felt pretty good. Then I climbed on, falling several more times along the way.

My next two attempts were only marginally better. It was hard not to compare myself with my self of eight or nine years earlier, when I warmed up on routes not much easier than this one—it’s a tricky mental trap. At the same time, it was because of past events that I had some strange faith that I could do the climb next try, if only I came at it from the right angle. But what was the angle?

Seven days later, my partner and I returned to the Billboard and warmed up on two of the only quality moderate lines there. It wasn’t long before I stood below Beeline again, wondering if I could beat my highpoint from last time.

I quickly passed through the familiar opening section of the route and through a low crux. At the first good rest hold, I was only a little pumped, but because I had done well up to that point, anxious words began to spin around and around in my head. “Don’t blow it now. You don’t want to have to do this thing again.” Tension locked my muscles, made my breathing shallow and rapid. “You should have done it by now. Don’t mess up this time…”

I was caught in the cycle of worry, but I worked to stop it. “You have nothing in the world to do but this next move,” came the counter to the nervous voice. I started to relax again. With deep breaths, the pumped feeling receded. As I moved on the tension crept back, but I returned to my mantra: “Just this move… Just this move…”

I had to extinguish the sparks of anxiety repeatedly along the route. As I neared the top, I was surprised to find I had energy left. The final redpoint crux, for the first time, felt like no big deal. I pulled through to the anchors, sat back, and called for my belayer to lower me, a little surprised at how the climb had gone.

I knew the route well enough, but hadn’t memorized it move for move. Nor had I gained any significant amount of endurance since the previous week’s session. All I had really done was not fight myself.

You’ve probably heard the saying, attributed to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or the one about the best way to eat an elephant (one bite at a time). Like many adages, they fall on our ears as platitudes until, often all at once, we grok their inner meaning.

A route is composed entirely of individual movements, a life of individual moments, and we really can only deal with each as it comes. It’s so obvious, yet it’s not so simple to climb or to live that way; a constant remembering is required.

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?