Let My People Go Flailing

Wipeout - Lennox Head Surfers - 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons
Wipeout – Lennox Head Surfers – 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons

“So do I wear clothes under this thing or…?”

“Nah, you can just go buck. That’s what most people do,” said Jimmy, handing me a beach towel-poncho hybrid I was to don for coverage while changing into a borrowed wetsuit in the busy parking lot at Ventura’s hyper-popular C Street surf break.

I took off my glasses and immediately realized I’d be flying, or rather floating, blind during this exercise, my first foray into art of riding ocean waves. (“It’s the hardest thing ever,” my climbing buddy Alex had explained, perhaps in an effort to save me from underestimating the nature of the challenge.)

A short wrestling match later and I was in the wetsuit, feeling both comforted and constricted by its strange, rubbery embrace. I hoisted the huge, glaring white foam beginners board up under my arm, barley spanning its breadth. Down to the water we went, picking our way over waterround rocks and into the shallows, where I could not keep my footing on the slick bed of uneven cobbles obscured by recurring washes of whitewater.

It all started that morning in the office when, in true Patagonia Let My People Go Surfing fashion, my boss declared it was time to hit the waves. I closed my laptop and packed my bag, feeling excited, a little nervous, but hopeful. I ended up feeling like even more of a beginner than I imagined. A super beginner. A true gumby (or “jerry,” if you will). Alex estimated he was a 5.8 surfer. I’m not sure I’d even be able to locate myself in the fifth-class scale.

Just paddling was substantially harder than I’d expected, and I kept getting turned around or tipped off into the water. My shoulder muscles were depleted within minutes. I had to rest constantly and feared getting so tired I wouldn’t be able to slog my ass back to shore. The guys I’d started with were already long gone, fuzzy dots in a distant crowd to my uncorrected vision.

I floated around on the periphery of the lineup, trying to stay out of the way, then made a half-hearted effort to catch a wave. Really I was just hoping to get a boost in my landward quest. My arms were too tired to produce the necessary burst of speed to match pace with a cresting wave, much less pop me up onto my feet. I used up the rest of my reserve tank just returning to shore, belly firmly on board.

The concept of “beginner’s mind” is popular in Zen philosophy. The famous quote from Shunryu Suzuki goes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” After my first experience with surfing though, I feel the urge to call bullshit.

While it’s true that I brought an unstructured approach to the matter, paddling into the ocean was so hard for me that I was almost completely occupied with basic survival. My “beginner’s mind” was rather narrow, in fact, focused as it was on not panicking or drowning. I felt none of the pliant openness a newbie supposedly brings to a task. I felt stiff and uncomfortable—flowless, if you will.

There’s a particular discomfort that comes when first trying something for which you have no aptitude. As a climber of 25 years, I’m accustomed to a certain level of comfort with vertical challenges, even ones that require serious effort to tackle. This makes starting at square one in the ocean all the more humbling.

So what’s the point?

The point is, I think, to face up to a new activity without needing to be good at it—in the near term… or maybe ever.  And because it’s not “my thing,” I look forward to using surfing as a way to practice an openness and humility that can be hard to bring to crafts with which I’m more familiar, like climbing.

Now that I think of it, maybe that’s the beginner’s mind Suzuki was talking about.

What Moves You?

processHave you ever had a bad day out climbing? I have. Quite a few, actually, but not because anyone got hurt or any other valid reason. Mostly they were days when I didn’t send some route. (Even worse if this tragedy occurred on the last day of a road trip, and I wouldn’t be coming back any time soon!) Once or twice my day was “bad” because my friend, with whom I was competitive, climbed something I couldn’t. So funny-slash-sad how many times I went home moping because I felt my day spent at play in some beautiful natural spot with my amigos was not good enough, or because I was not good enough on that day.

It’s been more than two decades since I started climbing and I still fall prey to such delusions from time to time, but far less frequently. I like to think that through age, experience, and concerted effort I’ve succeeded in clearing away much of the muck that can obscure the reflective inner surface of climbing. It feels so cliché to have to say it, but climbing isn’t about the goal, it’s about the process. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the process and the goal are one. If you’ve ever felt yourself chasing after something with your climbing, and felt dissatisfied when you didn’t get it, it might be worth taking a look at what it is that moves you.

Karma is one of the central concepts of Buddhism. It describes action in the world driven by egotistical wants or fears. When we do something out of desire for gain or fear of loss or pain, we generate karma. Good or bad, Karma turns the ornate, cosmic wheel of samsara: the cycle of death and rebirth. As long as we generate karma, Buddhists believe, we will be reborn into the universe again and again forever.

Me? I don’t really believe in karma or reincarnation, but I do agree strongly with the idea that the things we see as problems — the sources of our suffering, great or small — exist in our own minds. The happiness and peace we all seek in life can be ours if we learn to look inward instead of outward for answers. When we come to a sense of peace with ourselves, we can free ourselves from the cycle of worry and live a more honest, natural, and contented life. Climbing can be a great tool in this quest, or it can be just another way to play out our fears and desires.

You could say I was generating a lot of karma with my climbing when I was younger, always worrying if I was the strongest or the coolest, always imagining how much happier I’d be if I could climb the next grade or the next. For a time, I climbed half out of some natural love for the act, and half to prove something to myself and others.

To be fair, I think this is all a part of the process. “For the beginner,” Shunryo Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “practice without effort is not true practice. … Especially for young people, it is necessary to try very hard to achieve something. You must stretch out your arms and legs as wide as they will go.” But I like to believe that I am continually learning to climb for less needful reasons, to just let it be what it is: a powerful interaction between my mind, body, and various bits of stone in beautiful places.

Karmic climbing is a powerful draw, no doubt. Many an over-achieving die-hard training addict will fight for their belief that might makes right and the ends justify the means. It’s why some climbers lie about or exaggerate their ascents, obsess, brag, chip, number chase, and downplay the accomplishments of others. But you can’t skip through the process and expect to gain anything meaningful. Without the process of learning and progression through experience, climbing is as hollow as a big booming sandstone flake, and just as likely to send you hurtling into the void.

This is where my understanding, ever changing, lies at the moment. Still, my mind draws me back into manufactured worry, needless comparisons. In the practice of climbing and of our day-to-day life, it seems we must constantly tap ourselves on the shoulder with a reminder to stop generating problems and let the moment be as it is, perfect in its imperfection. Each climb, each move, is a new chance to act without desire or ego, to work at the beginningless and endless craft of action for its own sake.

“Begin anywhere,” John Cage wrote. Begin now. Or now. Or now. It’s never too soon or too late. Repeatedly, we will fail to appreciate the perfect inner kernel of climbing, but, as Suzuki writes, “The result is not the point; it is the effort to improve ourselves that is valuable.”