Where Surf Meets Stone

Surfers at a point break in Ventura, California.

The sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean as my wife and I took our first walk together along the beach in Ventura, California. We passed drifters talking in manic monologues, slowed to a crawl behind shuffles of retirees, and were passed by joggers hustling to make it home before the sun’s light fully faded. We strolled the paved promenade upcoast until we saw them: schools of waveriders undulating in the water at Surfer’s Point Park.

There we leaned on a fence railing and watched them for a while. Scattered unevenly outside the foamy chaos of the break, the surfers watched the horizon intently. Whenever a promising swell approached, a few would rotate and begin to paddle towards shore. One or two would find himself caught up in the lip of a cresting wave, at which point he’d kip up onto his feet and, depending on skill level and luck, catch a ride along shore. The repetitive dance of it was hypnotic.

In the parking lot behind us were old Winnebagos, Sprinter vans, station wagons, SUVs, and minivans, all converted in one way or another for surf life, with racks on top and livable (depending on your standards) quarters inside. There was even a bike leaned up against the rail that some dedicated soul had modified with an improvised surfboard carrier on the side, all plastic piping and foam and duct tape.

A couple of guys jogged up off the beach with boards under arm. At their vehicles, they began the process of peeling back wetsuits and rinsing off sea water. Chatting to each other about the conditions and the rides of the afternoon, they seemed so similar to the climbers I normally found myself with—the lifestyle of it, identities intermeshed with the activity itself, jobs and possessions carefully crafted to enable as much time in pursuit of the passion as possible…

Surfing and climbing have long invited comparison. Both are, despite wavelike peaks in mainstream popularity, largely countercultural, particularly when held up beside big-money sports like football, basketball, soccer, etc. Both are one-player games (the partnership aspect of roped climbing not withstanding). Both take place in natural settings and thereby encourage a certain environmentalist mindset. Both feature a heavy focus on flow states bordering on mysticism. Both inspire questing, dirtbag lifestyles, as acolytes seek out the next great spot—ideally one the crowds haven’t yet discovered.

Of course, there are many differences too, but the similarities are too numerous to dismiss. On the whole, those who live to surf and those who live to climb seem cut from a similar cloth.

I’ve been reading a book called Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan. The author is a lifelong surfer and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his book is an extensive memoir structured around the surf spots that were both backdrop to and integral part of his personal development. Throughout the book, there are passages that could as well be describing the experiences of a climber as a surfer. A few examples:

  • “I did not consider even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would.”
  • “Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.”
  • “I did love the water, and even saw it, from an early age, as my own medium of escape from dull striving, from landlocked drudgery.”
  • “Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”
  • “Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be O.K.” [This one is particularly interesting.]

I suppose my thesis is that climbing and surfing share a certain essential nucleus, even if their specific expressions are quite different. Living here in surf-centric Ventura, less than a half-day’s drive from Joshua Tree and Yosemite, I’m looking forward to testing this hypothesis on a more intimate level.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, too.

The Path of Most Resistance

A climber bouldering in Little Cottonwood Canyon

The hardest thing I ever climbed took me probably 50 tries to finish. It was a boulder problem in the woods of New York, and from start to finish it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet long. Each hold was so small and each move so strenuous that I would frequently spend a whole afternoon just trying to puzzle out one little section.

The irony wasn’t lost on me when, after finishing this climb at the very outer limit of my skill level, I turned and walked down to ground level via the boulder’s sloping backside.

I could have easily walked up this backside in sneakers and ended up in the same spot I got to through weeks of concerted effort directed at the overhanging face. A non-climber might see this and think I had wasted my time, and from a practical standpoint, he’d be right.

But really, the thing that makes any climb worth the time has got to be the challenge. The challenge itself, often viewed as an obstacle, is the source of something deeper. It’s the tool we use to dig into ourselves and find that beating, luminous core.

Things that don’t challenge us often bore us. Art that’s merely pretty is decoration; art that challenges can transform. A job that challenges us is engaging; while one that requires little thought or special effort is monotonous.

Luckily, as with that boulder problem I tangled with, we can find challenges almost anywhere, even where easier paths already exist. The challenge isn’t necessarily inherent to a thing or an act, but is something we create for ourselves.

In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about an assembly line worker who sets challenges for himself that allow deep engagement in his very repetitive job. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we follow master chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his every breath to the perfection, tiny step by tiny step, of the art of sushi making. Both used the challenge of continuous improvement to generate a deeper sense of significance in what could also be seen as workaday employment.

We climbers are sometimes criticized for our obsession with quantifiable improvement, also known as number chasing—indeed, I think a grasping mindset can easily become detrimental to balance and happiness—but most of us are just looking for a well-matched challenge. It’s that feeling of total focus that takes us out of ourselves and while teaching us about ourselves… that fully engages us with the act of living.

As climbers, we choose the hard way not because we’re masochists, but because the path of most resistance is often the fastest route to our true objectives.

Goals vs. Process

goals-vs-process

Climbing is a funny game because it lends itself to a goal-focused mentality and at the same time requires us to be in the moment.

We climbers tend to go from one project to the next, often focusing on doing what’s needed to attain a specific end result. Through this constant project questing, we naturally enter moments of intense presence, when all the training and the preparation fades away into a flow experience.

But it’s easy to spoil the perfect simplicity of these in-the-moment moments when our goals loom up and influence decisions, stirring feelings of inadequacy or disappointment when things don’t go as planned. The goals seem so important, but instead of chasing them, I think life can be more satisfying and free when lived from a core understanding that guides each moment.

The nature of water as it interacts with gravity, earth, and stone is what dictates each twist and turn of a river. So too can our own nature, our own central principles, serve as guides for a sort of effortless action.

In the book Mindful Work, former Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan describes a boyhood fly fishing lesson from company founder Yvon Chouinard:

“He got me to work on my casting, and slowing down, and working on an efficient, easy-to-perform cast as opposed to just going out and trying to hook a bunch of fish,” Sheahan said. “So if you focus on the process and get better at that, you will actually have a happy outcome. You’ll have a better process, and you will catch fish because you’re in tune with what’s happening in the water and your surroundings, instead of going out and just trying to catch fish.”

In other words, the less focused you are on a goal (catching fish, climbing a certain grade, making money, etc.), and the more engaged you are with the process, the more likely you are to achieve your goal. (Paradoxical, isn’t it? It conjures up the Chinese concept of wu wei, or the “flow state” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about.)

Fly fishing gives us a good metaphor for talking about ambition and goal-focused behavior, but I think Sheahan’s story is missing an important component: when your motivation comes from the right place, catching fish at all is not so important. Fish or no fish—send or no send—it’s still a “happy outcome” when your approach is grounded in process and in the moment.

This can be a particularly hard thing to embrace for a CEO, whose job is to make a business profitable, but really it’s hard for us all. If we’re not focused on goals, how do we know we’re improving? How do we judge ourselves against others? How do we know whether to be disappointed in ourselves or proud? The simple answer is, “we don’t.” But maybe that’s for the best… .

After all, what is today’s outcome but another step in an endless process? Where does the process stop and the goal begin? And if life is all process and no goal, what choice to we have but to make the most if it, every step of the way?

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.

Learning How To Be Happy

Learning How To Be Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What works for you?

Everyday Climbing

Jason Danforth on The Mercy Seat, New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo: Teddy Au

The new fall air was just starting to settle into the Salt Lake Valley, so I took a quick solo trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to boulder. After topping out a tall problem, I walked down the backside of the formation, taking precautions not to catch a toe. Even a minor slip up on that sloping surface could have been very unpleasant, likely funneling me down into a pit of angular blocks and ankle-snapping tree roots.

So I was very aware of my body as I moved, as aware as when I had been while climbing the problem itself, and it occurred to me that the walk-off was still a part of the climb. The climbing mindset of focused, unselfconscious awareness, fluid motion paired with steady breath, continued here.

Back on my bouldering pad, unlacing my shoes, the nerves of my fingertips hummed the chords of the rough rock. I straightened my spine and regarded the wind, visible in the wobble of the sun-lit leaves. This too, was a part of the climb.

All at once it was clear that the boundary between “life” and “climbing” is actually quite fuzzy, if not imaginary, and that we probably should resist the urge to divide the two. It made sense to me that we should climb as if eating breakfast — just an everyday thing. Also, we should live our everyday lives as if climbing in some wild place — it is an extraordinary thing.

A lot of accidents happen on the descent from or the approach to a climb, on some easy fourth-class scramble, on the drive to or from climbing, even around the house. I think this is because we let our awareness slacken and treat what we’re doing in the moment as an aside, thus becoming more vulnerable to the mundane catastrophes of the world.

With or without the distractions of the digital era, most of us are just barely aware of ourselves or our surroundings during the day. We run on autopilot, focused on fears and fantasies projected onto the screens of our minds.

One thing that most people mention when talking about climbing is the nowness they experience while doing it, the stilled thoughts and clarity of being. It’s not always like this, of course; we can be scared or bored while climbing, exhausted or preoccupied with problems from work or home. But climbing’s mental and physical challenges can help quiet the noise of what Shunryu Suzuki calls our “monkey mind.”

Where do you draw the line between the climb and your life? Do you write on your Facebook page things like, “In the office, dreaming of climbing”? You are saying that your time in the office is not really living, and that you will live your life at some future moment, and under some special circumstances. This doesn’t seem right to me. I think it’s much better to be in the office (or at a family reunion, or the DMV, or wherever) as if you were on a climb.

Don’t wait for the rock to fulfill you; the rock can only show you what is already there. Carry the stone inside your mind. Let it be part of your life at every moment.

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?