Tag Archives: Buddhism

The 5 Achievements of Climbing

Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Seated Bodhisattva carved in stone at Hakdoam temple in Seoul, Korea. By Eggmoon, via Wikimedia Commons.

As a climber of more than two decades, I’ve noticed there’s often a pattern to my behavior: climb regularly, get stronger, grow obsessed with projects , succeed… and turn immediately to the next project. The quest for improvement drives me ever forward and busies my mind. When I’m not training or eating right, I feel a twinge of guilt. When I’m feeling fit and strong, I’m motivated to train even harder, to push through to that rarefied next level to which I’ve never before risen. And so, fit or fat, topping out or falling on my ass, I’m hardly ever perfectly contented.

It got me thinking: maybe the next level doesn’t involve being stronger, after all—maybe it’s something else entirely: Being fulfilled by each moment, being selfless, feeling not lighter in body but in mind, unburdened, open, free… Maybe climbing, if we let it be, is actually a stepladder to get us somewhere else, where climbing is no longer necessary. (This is just a theory, mind you.)

In the movie Hero, a master swordsman plots to assassinate the king of Qin during China’s warring states period. Addressing his would-be assassin, the king offers his interpretation of the three achievements of swordsmanship: First is “the unity of man and sword.” Second is “when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand.” The third and ultimate achievement is “the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.” It’s counterintuitive that the greatest achievement of the swordsman is non-violence. Or is it? Below, in the style of Hero’s king, the five achievements of climbing:

1. Neophyte – Never having climbed, the first-timer brings few expectations. He or she operates almost entirely on instinct. Depending on his or her fitness level and comfort with heights, the state of “beginner’s mind” can allow the new climber to operate with surprising creativity. Still, having no specific strength or flexibility, the neophyte can only play in the vertical world a short time before running out of gas.

2. Intermediate – Armed with just enough knowledge to get in his or her own way, the intermediate climber often over-grips and uses more advanced climbing techniques at the wrong moments, exhausting him or herself while at the same time battling internal demons of fear and doubt. The limitations of physical strength are still apparent here, as the intermediate climber still hasn’t developed the musculature, tendon strength, flexibility, or catalog of engrams to allow him or her to execute complex movements efficiently. An overriding focus on getting to the top drives the intermediate climber, often at the expense of technique or a deeper sense of fulfillment.

3. Expert – Training and consistent practice have built strength, a sense of body position, and an eye for reading sequences. Now able to quickly decode the puzzle of the stone (or plastic), the expert moves with confidence and grace, occasionally achieving the “flow” state, mistaking it for enlightenment. However, the goal of finishing the climb still hangs heavily in the heart of the expert, creating a fixation on training and on the self-propagating delusion of success and failure.

4. Master – Having moved beyond mere strength, the master’s technique is so complete that he or she can execute even the most difficult moves with perfect efficiency. Having moved beyond the goal-oriented mindset, the master climbs only for the transcendent moment the climb provides. A master has no need to burn off other climbers or to receive recognition for his or her achievements, nor does the master hide from attention. With no ego, the master is happy to help others before working on his or her own project.

5. Bodhisattva – Climbing’s ultimate achievement is the transcendence of the climb in both body and heart. The boundaries between climber and climbed, between self and other, between good and bad dissolve. Any climb is now possible, yet no climb is necessary. The climber is at peace with the world and vows never to chase numbers, sandbag n00bs, or judge others, but instead focuses on bringing peace to mankind.

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.

The Mind/Body Problem

A climber focused entirely on grabbing a hold

Have you ever had the experience of pulling into your driveway at home and feeling unsure of how you got there? The repetitive action of your commute was so ingrained that your body could drive you to and from work, only occasionally calling on your conscious mind for guidance—at a tricky intersection or when approaching the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, for example. Yes, indeed, these days it’s common for body and mind to lead very separate lives.

This division isn’t particularly heathy. It’s often the result of a mental pre-occupation with problems or desires, perceived or imagined. This mind/body disconnect is a big source of stress and, in the case of driving, can cause missed exits, blown red lights, even collisions. When the road is straight and the traffic moves smoothly, our autopilot is sufficient. But without a more complete awareness, it’s easy to make mistakes.

One of the greatest pleasures of climbing is the way it can bring the body and mind back into alignment. When we encounter a challenging climb, because of the complexity, physical difficultly, and the possible risk, we are forced to reconnect with ourselves, with the moment. To solve a problem with one’s entire being rather than just one’s brain is satisfying on the deepest of levels.

Beginner climbers have to learn how to move, forging new connections between concept, movement, and result. Experienced climbers can quickly discern the movements, clipping stances, and gear placements of a route. But in either case, there is a very clear mental and physical engagement throughout the process of a climb that tends to rein in our wandering minds.

Of course, there can be value to daydreaming. For me, walking the dog or the hanging out at the crag between climbs are fertile periods for connecting and refining the recent mishmash of life’s experiences into cohesive perspectives, for blog posts and the like. But most of the time my wandering mind is up to no good, generating negative worlds ex nihilo.

Zen is concerned with ideas of oneness—mind and body, internal and external, self and other—and of immediacy—everything is perfect and complete, as it is and in the moment. Climbing, like many other mentally and physically engaging practices (yoga, dance, martial arts, etc.), is an excellent tool for experiencing and cultivating this oneness. Beyond words, each climb exists in the ever-shifting moment, at the intersection of climber and climbed, where mind and body, body and stone, and stone and time lose their distinction.

Start here, and expand outward.

Endless Autumn

A tree in fall with yellow leaves

The cool slant of late autumn light goldens up the world. The ungreened leaves twirl to the ground with a papery music and layer the bouldertops up and down the granite canyon. Amongst the dry leaf litter, under the fractal branches and unimpeachably blue sky, a few climbers play over the stoney surfaces. Winter is coming and the last mellow days of fall take on a special preciousness.

If surfers dream of an endless summer, climbers chase autumn; the pre-winter chill and low humidity make for ideal skin-on-stone friction. In the fall, the climbs we labored to complete all summer long become mere trifles. In a place like Little Cottonwood Canyon, my “backyard” crag here in Salt Lake City, late fall and early winter are the only times of year certain boulder problems can be climbed at all!

So it is that rarely frequented climbing zones begin to accumulate minor crowds in the fall. And a few times in my recent outings, I’ve run into acquaintances who, you might say, are in the late-summer of their years. A little heavier, a little slower to bounce back from injuries, yoked with more of life’s many responsibilities, these experienced climbers expressed frustration with their favorite pastime. They couldn’t do the things they used to do, and it was taking some of the fun out of things.

“Wait till you’re my age,” one of them warned.

I understood well enough. After two decades of climbing, I already have to navigate around recurring injuries and rest longer and longer between days on the rock to feel recovered. But the frustration my friends voiced, while understandable, comes from a problematic perception of the world. It comes from a holding on to expectations and to the past—something I’m always working, with varying degrees of success, to let go of myself.

It is common to think back to our best day of climbing, the day where we climbed harder than we ever thought possible, and to set that as our new expectation.

“I should be able to do this,” we might think of some route that’s giving us problems. “I did something at least this hard years ago!”

One problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not realistic. No one improves in a steady, upward line—we all move in cycles, ups and downs defined by all manner of life circumstance. But a bigger problem still is that such thinking is focused on something in the past and in our minds. Engaging in constant comparison creates dissatisfaction and wastes the short time we do have, to climb and to live.

The use of seasons to represent life stages is a familiar literary trope. Spring is youth, summer early adulthood, autumn late adulthood, and winter old age. For the climber who constantly strives to improve, grow stronger and ascend higher, the turning of life’s seasons can be an especially difficult thing. Accepting the gathering nip in the air is not in our nature.

In my blog, I often refer to Eastern philosophy or religion, and find a certain value therein. But it is not because I subscribe to any particular belief system. Instead I see the perspectives of the East as a counterweight to the dominant ideas of my own culture.

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. I do not deny the raw beauty of his sentiment. But to really be valuable, I think it should be balanced with words like those of the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah, who said: “Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.”

As Westerner with a taste for the ideas of the East, I try to climb somewhere between Thomas’ rage and Chah’s release.

Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time

A woman sitting below a boulder getting ready to climb

My wife Kristin is relatively new to climbing. Like most beginners, she faces regular challenges in her climbing, both physical and mental. Recently, we took a last-minute trip to the gym so she could try her project before they stripped the bouldering wall for a competition (a sign, I feel, that she has been bitten by the climbing “bug”). The problem was a tall V2 with long reaches between big handholds on a steep overhang, and she could do all the moves but the last one. Every time she got up to it, her body went slack and sagged, as if she just wanted to drop down instead of powering up to the finishing jug.

“OK, what’s wrong?” I pressed her. “The floor is twelve inches of foam padding, I’m spotting you; you’re safe! What are you afraid of?”

“I guess it’s scary because I don’t know what will happen if I fall,” she answered. “What if I hit a hold on the way down or fall out of control?”

I’ve heard this, and felt it, many times before. When we lack information, our minds fill in the blanks for us, often creating images of pain and suffering. It seems to be a human instinct — perhaps an ancient survival mechanism designed to keep us on our toes in a world full of predators and other threats. But this attachment to or fear of a picture in our minds can be as much a problem as any physical danger.

As the old saying goes, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. In a way, this is a very Buddhist sentiment. Like Kristin, most of us fear one kind of suffering and in doing so generate another.

After a half-dozen attempts and some odd advice from a very nice girl who had no problem leaping through the air and falling awkwardly to the ground, Kristin looked frustrated.

“I’m done,” she said, unlacing her shoes. “It’s just not that fun anymore.”

“Sure, if that’s what you want,” I replied. “But let me just say: I watched you, and I know you can do this problem.” To me, it was perfectly clear that she could make the move that stymied her — that the real problem wasn’t on the wall, but in her head.

Although she looked unconvinced, I guess she decided to try one more time anyway. On her next attempt, Kristin pulled through the opening moves, made a slight adjustment to her foot placement, and then simply stood up and grabbed the finishing jug, slow and in control.

She came down babbling gleefully. Watching her was like watching myself twenty years ago, and it brought back all that old excitement. When you first realize how quickly you can go from seemingly hopeless to definitely successful in climbing, it’s like discovering something new inside of yourself. You start to wonder, “If I can do that, what else can I do?”

Seeing a newer climber make such discoveries can be renewing. Who hasn’t come to the point where some blockage, mental or physical or both, seems to strip the fun out of our game on the rocks? But we should remember that “fun” is a state of mind and not a tangible object in the outside world. The goal is to find fun in as many moments as possible. Or, at least, not lose sight of the fact that fun can lie just around the corner, so to speak, in the next attempt, or the next, or the next…

A Reading List

Books

Eastern philosophy can be a tricky thing for a mind fed on a Western diet. Eastern schools of thought seem to embrace change in a way the West does not. The focus in Eastern philosophy is one’s own internal state more than the external world. In the East, what we call reality is spoken of as an illusion, as nothing more than the upwelling of a fluid, interconnected essence that resists expression through words. “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way,” reads the opening line of the Tao Te Ching.

As true as this may be, that didn’t stop some very wise people from writing some very illuminating texts in an effort to capture and convey the deep philosophies of the East, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Shintoism, Jainism, Taoism, Zen and the like. I have read and taken much from some of these works (all in translation), and since a few people have asked me what texts I’d suggest for someone interested in such topics, I’ve compiled the abridged list below, very much fragmentary and shaped by a mixture of personal biases and pure happenstance.

I feel it is important to approach these texts with an empty cup. When speaking of the Eastern philosophical tradition, we should remember that words are used more as bridges, and vanishing ones at that, that can help make a connection between the reader’s consciousness and the essential nature of reality. It can be tempting to grab on to a catchy quote and assign it literal meaning, but as the Zen saying goes, “Don’t Mistake the Finger Pointing at the Moon for the Moon.”

Do you have any books you’d like to add to this list?

Tao Te Ching – The world of the named is the world of opposites (light and dark, high and low, male and female); meanwhile, the tao (“the way”) gives rise to all of these but cannot be named or described. The tao is the essence at the heart of all things, like a flowing river, ever changing, that brings life to the trees and animals. A short book of verse dating to the fourth century B.C.E. and attributed to the Chinese scholar called Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching instructs the reader to live in accordance with the tao. The low is held up as the root of things, inaction is praised over action — as such, it is the opposite of the Western way. “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know.” Although those of us trained to strive for more and bigger and better will balk at the riddle-like teachings of the Tao Te Ching, I think many of us could use a little more of the yin (feminine/dark/passive) to our yang (masculine/light/active). Two nice English translations are the D.C Lau version (Penguin, 1963) and Lao-tzu’s Taoteching: with selected commentaries from the past 2,000 years, translated by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki – My first exposure to Zen, my dad read from this book at the dinner table when I was young. It has turned out to be one of the most consistently meaningful texts I’ve ever read, although the stories seem to take on a different meaning every time I read them. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones contains 101 short stories, most centering around a moment of sudden realization or enlightenment. They convey the spirit of Zen in very simple, concrete way, avoiding the didactic tone of more technical texts. The book also contains a series of koans, paradoxical mind puzzles intended for the meditating student, and a series of 10 illustrations representing the stages of enlightenment.

The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra – Written in the 1970s, this book was admittedly inspired by consciousness-expanding use of psychedelic substances. The central theory that Capra seeks to illustrate throughout is that the view of the world defined by what he calls Eastern “mysticism” is in surprising accord with that described by modern particle physics. “The two basic themes of this conception are the unity and interrelation of all phenomena and the intrinsically dynamic nature of the universe,” Capra writes. In addition to offering layman’s primers on both modern physics and Eastern thought, Capra reinforces his arguments with quotes from famous physicists like Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein — to the latter he attributes this line: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

This Is It: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, Alan W. Watts - A collection of essays by the British-born philosopher Alan Watts, this book focuses on the idea that the present moment is infinitely sufficient and that the present and the past are mere constructs of our consciousness. Watts’ writing in this book bears the indelible mark of his time and place (California in the 1950s and ’60s), and the collection includes essays with such quirky titles as “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” and “LSD and Satori.” Still, there is something special about Watts’ figuration of Eastern thought for a Western audience. He brings a simple clarity to questions that we tend to make very complicated. This video, containing an excerpt from one of Watts’ lectures, made the rounds on my social media feed a few months ago and it is worth a watch: http://youtu.be/1RyvYSV41t8. Watts suggested that Buddhism, with its focus on internal states, is a form of psychotherapy, a concept reinforced by the fact that Carl Jung wrote the introduction to the 1950 Princeton University Press edition of the I Ching.

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki  – Focused on the idea of “beginners mind,” or the true nature that we all contain and must only recognize to become enlightened (easier said than done!), Suzuki explains both the practical side of Zazen (seated meditation) and the larger philosophical underpinnings of Zen philosophy. The book begins with the popular quote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann – Death seems to be less of a taboo in Japan than it is here in the West. One interesting tradition was the writing of a poem as a farewell to this world. Japanese Death Poems collects hundreds of examples of short verse written by Zen masters and haiku poets. Their sentiments range from defiant, to accepting, to abstract. Many of the poems never mention death at all, but are laden with a sense of finality: “The longest winter night / plum petals fall and finally / the western moon.” The book recounts the story of the great haiku master Basho who, when asked by his students near the end of his life to write a death poem, argued that any of his poems could be his death poem, revealing something profound about the Japanese approach to life and death.

The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo – As much about the history of aesthetics in Japan as about a beverage derived from leaves, The Book of Tea draws parallels and connections between Taoism, Zen, and the traditions surrounding tea. For example, “In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence… If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular…” This fear of repetition extends beyond decoration. The author Okakura Kakuzō writes of the Western tradition of commissioning portraits of oneself, “We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back. We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be a fraud.” Kakuzō was raised speaking English around the turn of the century, and he wrote the book in English for a Western audience, as a way of perhaps preserving a tradition in the face of a rapidly Westernizing Japan.

Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel - Fewer than 100 pages long, this little book offers a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a Zen archery student in 1930s Japan, where art of drawing and loosing the unique Japanese bows was developed to a spiritual level that required decades to master. When the author, a German philosophy professor, was having trouble, he asked his teacher for some pointers. In typical Zen fashion, he received a response that would make sense only after he’d answered his own question: Only by “leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension,” the master explained, would Herrigel succeed in loosing the arrow properly. In his introduction to the book, the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki summed things up nicely: “In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but one reality.”

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo – Written by a masterless samurai at the tail end of Japan’s Warring States Period, Hagakure, which translates as “hidden by leaves,” is a loose collection of thoughts centering around Bushido, The Way of the Warrior. Influenced by Zen, Hagakure suggests that the samurai must not cling to material possessions or to life itself. “The way of the Samurai is found in death,” Yamamoto writes. “We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic on what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice.” Like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Hagakure is uneven and full of both brilliant and bizarre commentary. One example of the latter: “When faced with a crisis, if one puts some spittle on his earlobe and exhales deeply through his nose, he will overcome anything at hand.” 

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.”

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.

 

 

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.