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.

Climbing Yourself

A climber climber herself

I’ve long viewed climbing as a meditation of sorts. It’s my time to focus on perfecting perfectly non-utilitarian goals. It’s all about breath and balance and giving just the right effort to hold on, not more or less. My goal is always to move with as little distinction between mind and body as possible — with what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”

For insight into the relationship between physical action and meditation, I emailed my friend Thomas, a video game developer who lives in Vietnam. Thomas has practiced kung fu for 20 years, on and off, and engaged at various times in kendo, boxing, yoga, and Rinzai Zen practice. He’s climbed a bit, too. When I asked him about the use of martial arts as a way of moving towards higher states of consciousness, he recounted this anecdote:

In both [martial arts and climbing] you could perform strictly physically, or you could get in the zone and then you aren’t climbing. My Zen master had one kensho [an understanding of reality “as it is”] while fighting his kendo instructor. A clean hit stroke against his instructor, after which his instructor bowed to him. It is the only time his instructor ever acknowledged his ability. He describes the experience as ‘It hit.’

To this day in Japan, various physical arts are used as moving forms of mediation. Flower arrangement and tea ceremonies are two good examples. In such practices, the ultimate, selfless expression is described as the “artless art.”

Archery is another classic example. Zen in the Art of Archery, by the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel, is an interesting book on the topic. In the introduction, D.T. Suzuki writes that the practice of archery in Japan is “meant to train the mind … to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.” When archery is practiced in this way, Suzuki writes, “the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.

Herrigel’s book documents his six years spent in Japan studying with a master archer named Kenzo Awa. Herrigel describes the long process of learning simply to draw the bamboo bow with proper form. Still more time went toward learning to release the arrow with the same mindlessness as a leaf in a rain shower tipping to release its water. One day, after years of practice, he succeeded in loosing the arrow such a way. Awa stopped and exclaimed:

“Just then ‘It’ shot.”

In such instances, a simple motion, the result of years of constant practice, becomes the physical expression of a higher understanding. Herrigel had released hundreds, if not thousands, of arrows up to that point, but never without self-consciously doing so. To a master like Awa, the difference was instantly recognizable. Likewise, it is entirely possible that my friend Thomas’ master had hit his instructor in the past, but never before had “It” hit. From the outside, the experience might seem similar, but internally there is a profound difference.

It is very common for climbers to recount such experiences. When working to piece together a climb that rides the edge of our ability, we often enter a state where the movements seem to execute themselves. Holds that once were too far or too small feel closer, larger, right beneath our fingers and toes when we need them most. We flow through the climb acutely aware yet without consciously planning our actions. The climber and the climb, like the archer and his target, finally become one reality.

“Both martial arts and rock climbing require the practitioner to push body and mind … to work as a single entity in the moment,” Thomas wrote in his email. “And any time you do that, you’re scratching at the surface of existence.”

To me, there is no greater experience on a climb.

What about you? Have you scratched the surface? Have you felt “It” climb?