Climbing Didn’t Save Me

The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.
The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.

My anxiety didn’t start when I was in college, but it crested then. In middle school and high school I struggled with anxiety about my studies, about the judgement of my classmates, about meeting girls—I gather this is normal, but mine could get pretty bad. When things were at their worst, I lived in a headspace of bleak scenarios of my own creation.

Not long after I moved into my freshman year dorm in downtown New York City, things grew worse. Life came to feel deeply stressful much of the time. This stress affected my appetite, my sleep, my health.

I adopted mechanisms for coping. When I wasn’t in classes, I walked or skateboarded all over the city, burning off the worry and calming myself with steady movement. I sought out quiet spaces like the library, where I could hide and distract myself amongst the stacks. At night I listened to public radio to fall asleep. The calm, even voices (often British at that hour) were a lifeline of reality trailing down into my turbulent dreamscape.

And of course, I climbed.

I’d been climbing since I was maybe 12 years old, and I always found solace in it. I was most engaged by the challenge of hard boulder problems and sport routes, the way they demanded complete focus. The puzzle of each climb temporarily unified brain and body. The way a climb that seemed impossible and frustrating one minute became possible and exhilarating the next give me an inkling of something deeper: that reality is more a product of our minds than I’d previously suspected.

I worked in climbing gyms to more easily get my fix. Most weekends, I escaped the relentless downtown noise with trips to the Gunks.

For an overstimulated city dweller with anxiety issues, there was nothing more therapeutic than the combination of climbing, good friends, and being outdoors. The relief of a fall day on the Carriage Road was intense after many nights of fitful sleep. The brilliant orange sunsets up there had a way of evening out my palpitating heartbeat.

Those trips allowed me to get my bearings, to remain upright in a world that often felt like it was spinning out of control. The lifestyle of climbing, which required rigorous physical activity and frequent trips to the woods, was critical at that juncture. It helped me find an all-important quiet within myself.

Many of my friends were climbers at that time, too. They were confidants, supporters, encouragers. We talked through our thoughts while walking the dirt paths in the shadow of 300-foot conglomerate cliffs.

Eventually I learned that the calmness I found climbing in nature was actually something I carried within me. I read Zen stories and Eastern philosophy and the works of Henry David Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius, all of which suggested that the external world is almost always less the problem than our reactions to it.

It was when I was struggling most with anxiety and finding relief in climbing that I started to form the perspectives that underpin much of the writing on this blog. Sharing this perspective on climbing and on life has emerged (unintentionally) as one of the aims of The Stone Mind.

I called this post “Climbing Didn’t Save Me” not because I wanted to get persnickety with semantics, but because it’s so easy to look for solutions outside of ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that external things, no matter how positive they may be, can only point us to something that’s already there.

It’s been said that We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. I think this is right. The act of climbing helped me to see things differently, to approach the world differently. The perspectives I formed via climbing allowed me to cope with and eventually leave behind the anxiety that had plagued me.

So I guess climbing didn’t save me, but it helped me save myself. Or maybe even better: it helped me realize I was never in need of saving in the first place.

Learning How To Be Happy

Learning How To Be Happy

When I was young, I was a very anxious person. My mind was constantly in motion, straining and toiling with no particular goal. I would worry about one thing, which would lead me to an entirely different worry, and then another, none of which were connected to any real problem in particular.

When I was six or eight years old, I would get up out of bed and walk, still asleep, into the living room, where my parents were watching The Late Show. Then I would start screaming. Night terrors they called them, and in that state I couldn’t tell dream from reality.

In high school, I was so fixated on acceptance and afraid of rejection that I replayed conversations with other kids from days or weeks before, mulling over every word, inflection, and facial expression. I compulsively replayed the past, reconstructing a world as dark as my night terrors had been.

Over time, I managed to release these negative thoughts, to let go of the fear and desire that generated them. It wasn’t something that happened all at once, but gradually and with effort. It has been a progression towards a happier life that continues now. As George Eliot said, “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”

Along the way, I mark important things that helped me as I learned to be happy. Among them, the great stories in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, which my dad introduced to me long ago and which I’m perpetually re-reading. Another was discussions with my old friend Mike, who studied Shaolin kung fu and the philosophy of religion. His sifu taught him to picture his mind like a hand. “When stuck on some idea, the hand is like a clenched fist,” he explained. “All you have to do it relax the fist.”

For some reason, the thinking of the East has always framed the world in a way I liked. What strikes me, to this day, is the directive to look inside yourself for answers. I think this is really important. In his essay, “Find Out For Yourself,” Shunryo Suzuki writes, “I feel sorry that I cannot help you very much. But the way to study true Zen is not verbal. Just open yourself and give up everything. Whatever happens, whether you think it is good or bad, study closely and see what you find out.”

If you’ve read this blog before, you will know that climbing has also been an important tool in my learning. I think there are several reasons:

First, it’s exercise. Many studies have shown the benefits of physical activity for health and mindset. Simple.

Second, overcoming the challenges of climbing can offer a sense of control. This is especially evident when we have “projects,” climbs that are too hard for us at the outset but that we can piece together through mental and physical effort. Relatively quickly, a climb can go from “impossible” to “no big deal.” It is the approach we must try to take towards all the challenges in our lives. In it is the implicit lesson that, at least in part, we create our own reality.

Third, climbing is exceptionally conducive to “flow” states. The eight elements that lead to flow, according to author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who coined the term, are:

1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is key to achieving happiness in everyday life. It’s something that we can experience in our jobs, while boxing widgets or sitting in on conference calls, but that happens most naturally during certain sorts of activity. A few of his examples include reading, making love, playing a musical instrument, dancing, and, last but not least, rock climbing, which he uses as an example throughout his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 

These days, whenever I feel myself becoming overwhelmed with those strange worries that connect to nothing in particular, I might take one of several approaches:

Maybe I’ll simply remind myself to unclench the fist of my mind (meditation or just some deep, focused breathing helps here).

Sometimes I pretend I am dying. This might not seem very relaxing, but, as Suzuki puts it, “Because your are dying, you don’t want anything, so you cannot be fooled by anything.” It’s a way of instantly creating perspective.

Other times, I just go out climbing and see what happens. Often, I’ll find the flow state, but if not, that’s OK — at least there’s the rock and the trees, the sky and the mountains.

What works for you?