When preparing for a journey, we must carefully decide what to bring. To pack too much slows us down. Likewise it’s a problem to pack too little and not have what we need. To carry only what is needed is the middle way of packing.
This challenge is at the heart of fast-and-light alpinism (see: Mark Twight). The right balance must be struck to meet one’s goal with style. The climber must excise the extraneous to find that place where skill and challenge, tool and task are perfectly matched; where she would likely not succeed with any less or more than what she’s brought.
It is the same with our minds. The thoughts we cling to are as items in a pack. We should ask ourselves if they’re useful, how do they contribute to our lives: Do they increase happiness and peace? Compassion and understanding? Or are they useless weight, cluttering our mental space?
Among the heaviest thoughts are desires and fears, guilt and regret. Most of us carry far too many of them all the time, everywhere we go.
My grandfather used to say “The things you own end up owning you,” which I always took as a caution against consumerism. It is, but in a more abstract sense, it’s also a warning against attachment of all kinds.
When we carry too much stuff, we’re unable to move freely, instinctively. We’re bound, anchored. In the mountains, this can be fatal. When such clutter concerns our mental state we become distracted and lose ourselves.
A nice exercise is to ask yourself every day, Can I carry less? When packing for a trip, it can help to choose a smaller bag. A smaller bag asks Do you really need that? of every item you plan to bring. (Imagine yourself as a small bag.)
And what about goals? Those carry weight, too. Can you leave even your goals behind and move with total freedom? It is a tricky business…
As far as I know, there is no instruction manual for such things. Just the act of asking Do I need this? more frequently and of everything we value can lead to some important insights. You can start right now.
“C’mon now, just try the move; I’m right here,” I said.
We were bouldering in the climbing gym, and my wife Kristin was about eight feet off the ground, hanging from a sizable jug and eyeing down a long move to another jug. To me it was clear that she could make the reach with some momentum and a fat slice of commitment, but to her it seemed beyond reach.
“Nope,” she said, and let her feet dangle, a sure sign she was ready to drop. Back safely on the ground, she explained that she maybe wasn’t tall enough to make the move. “Well, what’s wrong with trying?” I asked; the worst that would happen would be a fall onto a squishy expanse of mats, nothing she hadn’t experienced a hundred times before. She just shrugged.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she urged. Instead of engaging with the uncomfortable, my wife was redirecting her energy towards something less threatening. Upstairs was a steep plywood training wall, packed from end to end with holds on a grid—it was about half as high as the one we were standing beneath. “Upstairs it is,” I agreed. I might be an old dog, but I’ve learned not to force such issues.
Up on the training woody, we tried a game I used to play with my climbing buddies back in New York, each making up problems for the other on the fly. “Now the blue pinch!” I said, stretching to point out a hold while she clung to the wall, awaiting the next move. I was quickly surprised by some of the moves she was pulling—much harder than the one that had stumped her on the taller wall downstairs. I indicated a long lateral pull to a small edge, expecting she wouldn’t quite be able to stick it. But she did… and several more like it before she ran out of steam.
Back at home, we talked about our trip to the gym. I pointed out that she’d done much harder moves on the training woody than on the taller bouldering wall downstairs.
“Yeah, because I wasn’t scared,” she said with a sheepish grin.
The problem was deceptively simple. Fear (mostly irrational) of falling and injury was clearly the cause of my wife’s hesitation on the wall, but how could she change the way she felt?
I think there were several factors that played into Kristin’s fear. One was the fact that she didn’t trust her own ability. She’s still relatively new to climbing, and isn’t used to slipping into the climbing mindset. When she’s on the wall, she brings her analytic mind with her, holding a conversation in her head about the consequences of each move. The makes it hard to just climb, without hesitation and inhibitions.
An idea for addressing this came from my friend Nick. He suggested that whenever Kristin starts to feel scared on a boulder problem, she should look down and, assuming a safe landing zone, drop. This helps her realize that a fall from the spot that was causing anxiety really wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Similarly, I used to take controlled lead falls with a trusted belayer until I was thoroughly accustomed to the sensation. Such techniques can help build a foundation of experiences in which falls don’t result in anything negative. With that in place, letting go of fear becomes easier and easier, freeing us to climb with mind in body in synch, instead of at odds.
Improving strength through specific training—like our little game on the woody, hangboarding, pull-ups, etc.—is also a good way to build a sense of confidence. When you grab a small crimp high above your last piece of pro, doubting your ability to hold on creates stress. Feeling strong and in control can ease the sense of risk and allow you to move up without fear and even use your strength more efficiently. Likewise, playing around with balance drills and footwork exercises will improve one’s sense of security. These are just a few of the many ways in which mind and body are intertwined in climbing.
In the book Performance Rock Climbing, authors Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann talk about the idea of “engrams,” which are complex body movements coded into our neural networks. There’s an engram for doing a backstep on a steep wall, comprising the many muscle actions that need to happen to execute the motion. Same for a big dyno or a campus move. Solving new problems is usually a matter of applying engrams from our libraries to the challenges at hand. That’s why experienced climbers can often perform well even when out of shape or advanced in years—their engram libraries are stocked with high-quality tools, applicable to nearly limitless situations.
If the theory is correct, engrams are another example of the fuzzy boundary between mind and body in climbing. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.” I think this is an important thing to remember when we are working on improving our climbing. We can work on our physical strengths and our mental strengths independently, but in the end we can’t separate them entirely. When we climb, we must use both and work to find ways that the one can reinforce the other in a positive feedback loop.
Kristin seemed excited by our session on the training wall because it allowed her to push her limits without worrying so much about safety. She plans to go back and continue to strengthen the mental as well as the physical. After that, I have no doubt she’ll be able to apply what she’s learned to the taller boulders downstairs at the gym and outside, too. But the most important thing is that she does it because it continues to be fun. As long as that’s the case, nothing is unpossible.
I’m very pleased to share with you the first (but hopefully not the last) guest post on The Stone Mind. This one from a friend and writer Ian Mathias, who knows a thing or two about getting gripped.
Are you a downhill skier, a climber, a mountain biker, or just the type of person whose hobby involves frequent moments of gripping fear? If so, I challenge you to watch the little lady in this video squirm and not get a full-blown flashback—not just to childhood, but probably to sometime in the last few weeks:
Two million views and counting. It’s a cute story, and an inspiring one, too. But I venture to guess that what gets people sharing this video has as much to do with a sympathetic connection, a certain fellowship of the gripped, as it does cuteness and inspiration. Damn if we haven’t all been there before. And the interesting part: That dialogue never really changes. We get stronger and the stakes get bigger, but we still need to torture ourselves before going for it. Fourth grader or fourth-grade teacher, for two minutes or for 20; when truly gripped by self-induced fear, the narrative arc stays the same:
Step 1: Belly up. Stand on the edge. Or sit at the base of the problem. Tie in and put your hands on the start holds. Whatever it is, one can’t really start this absurd routine until the very last possible moment. Any anxiety before then can be shunted by countless other distractions or choices. The only choice now is either send it or bail—or start squirming.
Step 2: Premature self-assurance. “C’mon, you got this.” “Here goes… something,” as the little ski jumper says. No kidding, here goes something is right. Only that “something going” won’t be you anytime soon, as you definitely do not “just got this.” If that were true—if it would all be as easy as saying “c’mon” to yourself—saying it wouldn’t be necessary. Nope, not ready, just pretending to be.
Step 3: Insignificant gear fixation. Ahh yes, now would be the perfect time to get spooked by a trivial equipment issue or other minor nit. Brush the hold you just brushed two seconds ago. Check brakes… again. Adjust harness, then subconsciously readjust it to where it was originally. Rub the life out of the point of a climbing shoe, as if substituting dirt with grease from your fingertips will really improve performance. “My skis are slipping off!” cries the little girl at the top of the ski jump, but her skis are the same as they were 10 minutes ago. Likewise, it’s not your gear but you who are slipping off the edge because you’re acting shifty and stiff.
Step 4: Beta begging. Since it’s quite clear that “the grip” of fear is taking hold and there’s nothing critically wrong with your equipment, it’s time to obsess over process. If a partner’s around, he or she becomes the target of an array of self-evident questions, which he or she (if a true and trustworthy partner) will answer supportively. If solo, now is the time for intense over-analysis of terrain. Stare at that bad landing or big gap. Stare at it! It looks worse up close, as always. This whole thing is so fucking stupid!
Step 5: Stall. The low point. Nothing new to stare at. All equipment has been touched, though not adjusted in any meaningful way. And the 17th “You got this” self-help session has really lost its bite. So just stand there and wallow. Avoid eye contact. Pray for some kind of hand-of-god intervention that would allow a justifiable retreat. Hey, is that rain?
Step 6: The nudging. The loyal partner, getting cold and/or bored, continues with the same lines of support and confidence, but with a noticeably different tone of voice. As in, believe it or not, there is more on the agenda today than watching you mentally fall apart. “C’mon” is no longer shorthand for “You can do it!” but “Come on and do it already.” Also, the best thing that could ever happen to a gripped adventurer without a partner would be the sudden appearance of newcomers, wanting to either observe—or better yet, send the line themselves. That fear of looking timid in front of strangers is a powerful, totally nonsensical motivator.
Step 7: Commit. Ironically, this is often the easiest part. No thinking really required… just living in the moment, doing it—on the way to the send or to the hospital. Either way, the act itself is surprisingly fast, and therefore not as terrifying as the preceding minutes of essentially questioning your entire interest in this dangerous sport.
Step 8: Chatter, NBD declaration. Assuming everything goes well, the moments immediately following the send are for making yahoo noises and blah blah blah-ing idle chatter to anyone who will listen — releasing the stress and anxiety brought on in the name of recreation. “Yes! Wow! Holy shit. Yes! Oh man, I was scared!” The late stages of this chatter must include at least one decree of “that wasn’t so bad” or “easier than I thought it would feel.” Lucky you. Though if it was a lot harder than expected, you’d probably be upside down and bleeding right now.
Step 9: Bliss out. After all that mental stress and physical exertion, after the endorphins wane, what’s left is a glowing, marginally functional victor, good for buying a round of beers and not much else. As Chuck Palahniuk wrote, “After a night in fight club, everything else in the real world gets the volume turned down. Nothing can piss you off. Your word is law.” Whether or not that line really was NBD, the rest of the world certainly is now, at least for a little while.
Ian Mathias is a writer based in Salt Lake City. Every year he contemplates quitting his fancy marketing job and becoming a part-time baker, part-time writer, but can’t bear the thought of waking up so early every day. Read more from him at the30x30.com.
My friend Rick and his climbing partner Adam had just finishedsome mixed ice and rock climbs in Alaska. While on the route Shaken Not Stirred, on the Moose’s Tooth, Rick’s arm had been buzz-sawed by a falling dinner plate of ice, leaving it bruised and numb, and Adam tore his lips open while trying to blow snow out of a frozen ice screw. They climbed another route, Ham and Eggs, and then settled in at basecamp, ready to head home. Unfortunately, some bad weather kept the air taxi from its scheduled pick-up and, after a few days socked in, the pair found themselves nearly out of food, swapping gel packets with another party stuck on the glacier in an effort to keep a modicum of variety in their calorie-poor diets.
During their unplanned stay, Rick and Adam were mostly confined to a small bivvy tent. The snow was falling so fast and heavy that they could hear it cascading over the waterproof shell. So they sat and sipped melted snow, read, listened to music, watched Chappelle’s Show on Rick’s tablet — whatever they could do to ward off terminal boredom and hunger pangs. Every so often, the sound of the wind and snowfall would stop.
“That’s when we played a little game,” explains Rick. “We called it ‘Stopped Snowing, or Buried?'” At some point the storm would pass and their ride would buzz in from Talkeetna — that would be the “stopped snowing” option. But mostly when it went quiet it was because the snow had accumulated enough to cover the tent, burying them. When this happened, it was time to get out and dig.
Eventually the skies cleared, the plane landed, and everyone got home safely. But on the way back, Rick, already a tall and skinny dude, had to walk around Anchorage with one hand dedicated to keeping his pants up, now several sizes too big thanks to the alpine weight loss program.
Of course, none of this stopped Rick from going back into the mountains. He just returned from a trip to the Bugaboos with his wife, and he’s probably already plotting something big for next year — a trip to Patagonia or the like — with his sufferbuddy, Chris.
There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Your worst nightmare is my dream vacation.” Typically attributed to alpine pursuits, it could just as well apply for folks who run ultra marathons, wriggle through shoulder-width, lightless caves deep underground, or plummet down rock-strewn, high-angle chutes on skis. Writing a book or a PhD dissertation could be seen as similarly nightmarish scenarios for the average person.
The truth is, while undertaking any grand quest, you will find yourself at varying points exhausted, frustrated, scared, in physical pain, or just praying for it all to be over. But when it is over, there is almost always a magical moment when the suffering that seemed so present and oppressive in the moment evaporates and you find yourself suffused with a profound joy. Soon, you’ll seek out the same kind of challenge again. Why? Alpinist and writer Kelly Cordes offers the old adage that an alpinist’s finest asset is a short memory. But maybe there’s something more to it…
Both Rick and Kelly admit that, on some level, suffering isn’t just something we put out of our minds to make room for a sense of fulfillment; it’s also an active part of that fulfillment.
“We place a higher value on things we have to work for,” Rick said. “And fear, pain, and exhaustion are very poignant, universally recognizable forms of work.”
Likewise, Kelly lists suffering as an ingredient in a powerful emotional stew: “Only the laziest slob would argue that putting forth effort in something is never rewarding, and so you magnify that effort, require something huge of yourself that includes some suffering, put yourself in the most beautiful places on the planet, rely completely on yourself and your partner and nobody else, no societal bullshit, no people drama, no petty daily toils, and no excuses, and it creates the most lasting memories of your life.”
In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Pleasure is not different from difficulty.” I think this is exactly the strange contradiction that people like Kelly or Rick, or Rick’s wife who is a diehard cross fit practitioner, or my friend who runs 100 mile races through the mountains, understand intuitively, almost compulsively. Seeking to strain out the difficulties of life and leave only the pleasurable and agreeable will leave nothing but a meagre broth behind.
The challenges in life, like the successes, are just a part of an endlessly swirling tableaux of ends and beginnings, discovering and forgetting, creating and destroying. Along the way, hopefully, we use them to learn who we are and what we believe. Without failure and struggle, what joy could we take from any endeavor? What would inspire us? These experiences — the ones my friend Roody calls, “Like fun, only different” — offer a kind of freedom that’s hard to get at in any other way. As Kelly puts it, “Nothing makes me feel so alive as climbing in the mountains.”
Seventy feet up an overhanging arête known as Paradise Lost,deep in the hollows of Kentucky’s steamy Red River Gorge, I hang from shallow horizontal striations streaking the Corbin sandstone like lines of Morse code. I resist the waves of fatigue slowly overtaking me and look up to the crux above, from which I have fallen so many times already. Then I look down.
I’ve skipped a bolt, and between my shoes my last point of protection feels frightfully far away. The rope bellies out from the wall between each quickdraw. As I follow its line down, it appears to grow thinner, more string than cord. At ground level, my belayer’s little face turns up to greet me.
My adrenal gland does its thing, mainlining fight-or-flight stimulant into my system. My heartbeat accelerates, breathing goes shallow, sweat beads on forehead, hands start to quiver.
Nothing about my circumstances has changed except my awareness of those circumstances. The real risk of my situation is small, but I find it almost impossible to climb with a clear mind. My vision funnels in, and around me the possibilities disappear into a haze. In the words of Samuel Butler, “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”
How do you climb when a big fall looms beneath you? Do you tighten your grip? Hold your breath? Lock your muscles as if bracing for impact? It’s only natural.
What you’re afraid of in such situations — what we’re all afraid of, by design — is death and injury. Deep down, we’re programmed to respond this way to threats, real or perceived. This response is probably very effective in some circumstances — if you’re being chased by a predator, say — but it’s not very useful in climbing or in many of the scenarios we encounter in modern life. And while fear can inform our decision-making process in important ways, the survival instinct unbridled can lead us to make poor decisions.
Instead of pushing on, trying to climb as calmly and confidently as possible to the next bolt and accepting that I might have to fall, I attempt to down-climb through a difficult sequence. As I reach back, quaking, for a lower hold, I hook the rope behind my calf just as my I lose my grip.
“Falling! Shit!” I bark as I slip into space. The rope zings across the back of my knee, whipping me upside down and leaving a weeping burn. But the fall is clean, and I quickly right myself before my belayer lowers me back to Earth.
A few weeks later, I come across a Zen story, one of the Buddha’s parables:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
Of course, the Zen story is just a vision of life painted in exaggerated colors. Aren’t we all suspended by a metaphorical vine, with no control over when the mice will chew it through? How do we appreciate the smell of fresh spring flowers with a stressful presentation looming on the horizon? How do we enjoy a meal with family, knowing that at some point there will be no more family, no more us?
One answer is that we try to put any undesirable thoughts out of our heads, ignore or otherwise wish them away. But I think we can only ignore things for so long, and so I can only see one reasonable response to our very natural fear of what lies ahead: to commit to the task at hand with all our hearts. To do our best to climb on with clear eyes, resolve, and with joy, despite the promise of a fall gathering in the space below.
Perspective isn’t just a difference of opinion — it creates the very world we inhabit. Just as one man’s trash might literally be another man’s treasure, so is one guy’s rest-day activity another’s near-death experience. That’s what Alex Honnold is teaching me right now as he climbs away from me effortlessly, hundreds of feet up the steep slab of sandstone known as the Fifth Flatiron.
Or is it the Sixth? Are there even six Flatirons? I don’t know, and I don’t think Alex does either, but this is beside the point. The point is I’m stuck up here without a rope with a guy who free-solos 5.12 finger cracks for breakfast, I don’t trust a single hand or foothold on this whole godforsaken rock, and I’m kind of freaking out.
As I consider my next move like a chess player deep into a death-stakes match, Alex lifts his hands from the stone and deftly steps up the slab, waving his arms tightrope-walker style. I imagine he’s doing this because he wants to prove the climb is “no big deal” (Alex’s catch phrase), or maybe he’s just getting bored waiting for me, nearly paralyzed as I am by an internal voice whisper-screaming, “This was a terrible fucking idea!” I came up here hoping to glean some insights for a magazine article, but now I’m just hoping to survive.
Strangely, the sight of the world’s most accomplished free-soloist cavorting merrily on what might be the last route I ever climb does little to calm me. I settle into a stable stance on the blank stone and close my eyes. I draw breath with slow intention to slow my runaway heart rate. A cold sweat prickles my scalp and soaks my T-shirt. I chalk and re-chalk my hands with rhythmic compulsion. I hold this pose and wait for something to change inside of me.
When I finally look up, Alex is maybe 10 feet away, his eyes preternaturally round, unblinking, as dark as holes into another dimension.He’s pointing to a little flat spot to the right of my right hip.
“There, dude. That’s a pretty good foot.” It looks like a piece of shit to me, but I try to keep it cool.
“Is that what you used?” I ask, voice cracking.
“Uhm. I’m not really sure. But seriously, that’s a solid foot. No big deal.”
I size up the spot Alex has indicated. It’s the diameter of a half-dollar and only slightly less slick. I scan the surrounding rock and realize there’s no other way. I accept with sadness that this moment has become a fulcrum on which my existence rotates. If the friction holds, I will live. If it does not, or if my panic twitches me off the wall, I will go hurtling down.
“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily,” it says in the samurai’s handbook Hagukare. “Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon … falling from thousand-foot cliffs. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” Samurai used this tactic to dispel their fear of death, a hinderance in battle. I try to picture falling over and over, but it’s not helping. I guess it takes practice.
Suddenly, there’s a shift. Without my brain’s consent, my body moves. A quick step up onto that little spot and over. The friction holds and I’m through the simple crux and into the clear. The air in my lungs burns with limitless potential. I want to shout, but Alex makes no sign of acknowledging my momentous victory, so I tight lip it.
“C’mon, we should get down soon. Looks like there’s a storm rolling in,” he says friendly, relaxed, and then continues on. I follow him, humbled, relieved, grateful. We push to the summit and down a crumbling chimney of stone, a mini epic in its own right, to safety and a long slog to our vehicles.
It is common with the benefit of hindsight to feel as if things happened the only way they could have happened. So it is that, back on flat ground, it seems so obvious that Alex and I would have safely completed our climb. Why all the sweating? But this feeling is an illusion. Closely related to the illusion that causes certain types of people to fancy themselves invincible. Every sketchy encounter survived strengthens such beliefs. The really lucky ones live to old age having taken every risk in the book. Others experience a little face-time with death and come away with a new perspective. The unlucky never get a chance to understand how narrow the line between close call and direct hit really is.
I’ve always felt pretty well in tune with my mortality — as a kid, it kept me up many nights. A hypochondriac teenager, every time I went to the doctor’s office, I expected him to break it to me that I had cancer, AIDS, or Ebola. I once had a panic attack when I realized the sun would burn out several billion years down the line. Perhaps it’s why the fate-tempting act of free soloing never held much appeal. (The downside is all too present and the upside is nebulous at best.) Still, sitting in the front seat of my car, face smudged, fingertips raw, sweat drying to a fine layer of salt on my brow, I try something, just to see how it feels.
“No big deal,” I say to myself. With my little outing with Alex filed safely in the past, I almost believe it.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. … This is another paradox: what is soft is strong. – Tao Te Ching
Over-gripping, in climbing parlance, means you’re expending more energy than actually needed to hold on. Usually out of fear, the climber clutches the rock with undue force, becoming tense and and burning through her strength reserves.
Despite a surfeit of effort, over-gripping makes the climber less likely to succeed. It is a case of energy misdirected.
Common wisdom has it that if you want something badly enough, if you push hard enough, you will achieve your goals in life, whatever they may be. It’s all about maximum effort, even force. I won’t dispute the importance of motivation and perseverance, but when our energy is not being directly wisely, we’re likely to run into problems. The over-gripping — or “gripped” — climber works against herself and against the very motion that will bring her most efficiently to the next hold.
“Sport climbing is the art of almost letting go,” I heard someone say once. I thought it was original sport climbing hardman Steve Hong, but when I emailed him about it, he said the phrase didn’t ring a bell. Still, he didn’t dispute the idea that applying right effort — not too little or too much — is pretty important. “When you have to do 40 moves, you have to portion it out just right. Or else,” he said in his reply. It’s how you save energy for the end crux, or the sequence you bungle and have to down-climb. Plus, climbing efficiently is good style and good fun.
A big step to holding more lightly is to overcome your fear. To move more fluidly, you can’t just change your mindset; you have to rewire the connection between your mind and your body through practice. Here are a few ways to start that process:
Climb more. The more time you spend up there, the less freaky exposure becomes and the more sense the safety systems will make. If you’re a normal human, you won’t banish fear altogether, but you will learn to manage it and move smoothly despite it.
Climb with partners you know and trust. Nuff said.
Run through your safety checklist prior to leaving the ground (biner locked, rope end knotted, harness tightened, knot finished, etc.).
Take stock of your situation before and during a climb. ID bad fall zones, the condition of fixed gear, and any other possible objective hazards, like loose rock or a hornets’ nest. Act accordingly. The goal here is to minimize surprises and avoid trouble before it starts.
Breathe steadily and consistently throughout the climb. When you’re tense and your core is locked, you can’t breathe smoothly. Breathing will not only help you maintain a sense of control, but it will force you loosen up.
Practice taking falls to relieve the tension of “What will happen if I fall here?!” (From a relatively safe position, of course! I say “relatively” because where gravity is concerned, safety is a relative term.)
Explore the art of almost letting go by finding a rest on your climb and then holding on more and more gently until you relax yourself right off the hold. You might be surprised how much less you can grip and still hold on. (Let your belayer know you plan to attempt this.)
One can also over-grip when it comes to goals, desires, worries, and the like. Like the physical version, mental over-gripping wastes large amounts of energy without offering any value in return. There’s a Zen story about two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on a road in the rain. They meet a girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross the muddy intersection.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
All day long, Ekido clung to his anxiety. For Tanzan, there was no problem. He acted according to his instinct and moved on. What good was Ekido’s worry? From what I can tell, most of us carry such burdens in our minds. We play out fictitious scenarios behind our eyes, imagine consequences and tactics for dealing with our many “problems.” But, often, it’s not until we loosen our grip that we find solutions — or realize there were no real problems to start with, only interesting challenges. The next move flows naturally from a more supple position.
On a climb, the line can be fine between over-gripping and not holding tightly enough, but most of us err on the side of over-gripping because it feels safer. While we might feel safe momentarily, we’re more likely to get tunnel vision, miss good opportunities, or run out of gas at a bad time — just when we need make that next clip, for example. Learning to apply just the effort needed is a process. As we become more familiar with the ideal balance, climbing grows to feel less like a battle — with gravity, with the rock, with ourselves — and more flowing, like water over stone.
Have 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.”