My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”
At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.
There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.
His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…
But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.
“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.
At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.
It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .
Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.
In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.
I met John Vincent Shrader in the early 2000s in the Red River Gorge. Stocky and muscular, with rectangular spectacles and close-cropped hair, he was studying history, psychology, and Japanese studies at the University of Kentucky. John hailed from Louisville and frequented the Red, ticking scores of the area’s classic test pieces, including Nagypapa (5.13d), Darth Maul (5.13c), and White Man’s Overbite (5.13c). He stood out for his climbing ability, sure, but also for his reserved, thoughtful demeanor. He came off as a mindful person in a place where many were unabashedly focused on their own accomplishments.
One day, I noticed I hadn’t run into John for a while. I asked around, but no one could tell me where he got off to. Eventually, he faded into the haze of memory.
Then one day last year, he appeared in my Facebook feed. A recent picture showed John with bushy beard and hair in a topknot. Clad in a red tank top, he looked thinner than I remembered. Seated beside a small shrine, he smiled broadly, well-worn lines wrinkling the corners of his eyes. The pictures in his Facebook gallery told a peripatetic tale: India, Japan, Mexico…. He appeared deeply engaged in yoga and meditation.
My curiosity was piqued, so I reached out with a message and asked if we could maybe do an interview. He agreed, and explained that he now lived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountain town in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, where he teaches yoga and meditation. It was fun to catch up with an old acquaintance and get a fresh take on the intersection of climbing and philosophy from someone with intimate experience in both.
It appears you’re quite into yoga, meditation, and the philosophy of the East. How did you get interested in this stuff?
My journey into yoga began in college. It was kind of a religious, spiritual crossroads for me then. I had grown up with a Christian background, and many of my friends in college were Christian, and I began to have a lot of questions. Christianity, at the time, simply didn’t have answers for me. It was in learning about Buddha and his message that the spiritual path is a personal one, where only you can provide the answers for yourself, that I became more interested in the philosophy of the East. At the same time, I learned that a good climbing friend’s dad was a master at a Zen center near the Red River Gorge called Furnace Mountain. I went to my first silent meditation retreat there and fell in love. I was fascinated by the simplicity of approaching the ultimate through working with the intimacy of your own mind and awareness. Later, yoga became the perfect bridge for connecting my passion for moving the body with climbing and sitting meditation.
Are you a Buddhist?
Nowadays, I don’t say I’m anything. Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings have had a profound influence on how I see and approach the world and myself, but I wouldn’t consider myself Buddhist. I’m seeing more and more that at the core of any authentic spirituality the teachings are similar and universal. I try to adopt all guidance and philosophies that increase my awareness and help me be a better human being.
When and why did you stop climbing regularly?
I stopped climbing regularly when I went to India after college. I spent a few months climbing at Hampi, in South India, then the journey of India simply took me to other places. It was never by conscious choice, per se, just that logistics and location didn’t allow for regular climbing.
Were you ever climbing and practicing yoga at the same time?
Not as intensively as I would have liked, in hindsight, but I was meditating and starting to do more and more yoga the last few years I was still climbing consistently.
Do you feel yoga helped you to climb better?
Absolutely. I was always shorter in stature, so the increased flexibility was much welcomed for raising my foot to my armpit and ridiculous drop knees on cruxes that taller friends would just reach past! Now, I feel so light and flexible and also super strong in the core, I would love to see how it translates to the rock. Not to mention the mental focus and learning to move from a place much deeper in. I always intuitively incorporated the breath with climbing to work through hard sequences, and now seeing how deep and profound a role it has in yoga, I would love to blend this more consciously again. With yoga, it begins to feel like the subtlety of the breath is moving the body, and not the force and brute of the body. I’m sure this would translate to a super smooth climbing experience.
Do you feel there’s a meditative or yogic aspect to climbing?
Absolutely! The amount of present-moment awareness and control of the mind and body that climbing calls for brings heightened states of awareness and a magnified view of your inner world. I would fall off the crux so many times and was sure that 90 percent of the time it was just one thought, usually negative, rather than physical incapacity, that threw me off. More mental mastery always related to stronger climbing.
Have you experienced a transcendent moment during climbing?
For sure, there are times climbing where time and space fade away, a crystalline clarity of the present moment and a sense of tapping into something infinite, undefinable, yet magical and alluring at the same time. It was this state of flow that was always the strongest pull for me to return to the rock.
You lived in Japan for five years; would you say there’s a different approach towards climbing there than in the US?
I didn’t climb so consistently [when I was in Japan]. When I did though, the climbers were always super stoked. No matter where I’ve been in the world, the climbing community always has this same vibe running through it. In Japan, there was so much psych and enthusiasm, but also this deep calmness when out climbing and I felt more of a respect for nature. More into really making sure they clean up after themselves and, at least when I went, no sense of any competition and a lot of shared encouragement and enthusiasm.
Do you think there’s a natural tension between the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and the typical climbing mindset?
Unfortunately, I would say there’s a certain tension that is present. One of the “goals” of Buddhism is to achieve a state of equanimity and non-reactivity, a mind that is serene despite outer circumstances of pleasure or pain. So often, there is attachment to sending a route or not. If there is failure, there is negative thinking and self-criticism—sometimes subtle, sometimes quite intense and vocal! Oftentimes, one’s happiness and state of mind are deeply influenced by success or failure on routes. I can understand that there is so much physically and emotionally invested in attaining a route or a certain grade, but it’s also silly, of course, in hindsight, that climbers get so caught up in these very transient concepts. I love the Bhagavad Gita‘s teaching of karma yoga. It basically says: give everything your very best effort, no holding back, but simultaneously completely detach from any result or fruit from the effort. I think if climbers approached climbing more like this, there could be more freedom and space in their hearts, and more of a pure joy for the action itself.
Can any activity be a path towards enlightenment?
Yes, this is again the message of karma yoga: that simply acting with the best intention and with all of one’s heart, and maintaining a sense of service towards all without attachment to result, there is a burning of personal karma and the possibility to attain freedom. Any activity, done with this in mind and with a heart of awareness and devotion can be a path towards enlightenment.
What is the importance of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is bringing a spotlight to all the patterns and tendencies of the mind that are the source of our suffering. When doing things with great attention and awareness of our internal state, every moment becomes an opportunity for meditation. Mindfulness is great because you can practice it every moment of every day, and not necessarily have to be doing yoga or sitting meditation—although the former greatly supports mindfulness through the rest of the day. A favorite Zen Master of mine, Hakuin, says “Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness.”
Do you think you could apply mindfulness to climbing?
So, of course, mindful climbing is the future! There is so much opportunity to make climbing into a more meditative experience, and I think many experienced climbers are intuitively doing this. It is the perfect environment: on a natural stone in the middle of nature, already so much stillness and tranquility around—to make the art of climbing into a process of deep mindfulness fits just perfectly. I remember in one of Aldous Huxley’s books, Island, he describes a utopian society, and I distinctly remember he mentions climbing as something of great importance that the community does for self-discovery and training of the mind. They also used a lot of psychedelics! I can’t quite remember the ending, but I think they were taken over by a giant oil company and the climbing and psychedelics stopped… . Maybe we still have a chance.
Do you think one day you’ll return to climbing, bringing with you these new perspectives?
Absolutely, I feel climbing will at some point come back into my life. I’m not sure in what capacity, but as long as we would be living close to rock, then I’m sure I’ll get back into it. There are times now and then when I make it to a gym or occasionally outside and am immediately struck by the organic communion of yoga and climbing. I’m always feeling very whole after climbing even just a bit. To be honest, sometimes I’m even dreaming about finishing up unsent projects and get a little giddy inside. But there certainly isn’t a need to climb like I used to feel. Before, it was always something that I deeply craved, and felt like it gave me balance, perspective and peace of mind. Now, yoga and meditation are bringing this spiritual contentment, so climbing would probably be another dimension of self-expression and connection to nature, or another way to approach yoga.
I think it’s common for people to get frustrated while meditating. They get distracted easily, their minds wander, the feel they’re somehow doing something wrong. It’s an understandable feeling, as meditation, from the outside, looks like a very idealistic act—it brings to mind pictures of monks who’ve renounced material things sitting bald-headed in old stone temples. It can feel like a lot to live up to.
Something that helps me, when I’m sitting in meditation and thinking about work or some other less-than-zen topic, is to remember that meditation isn’t as much about doing something precisely right as it is constantly returning to one’s breath and the present moment.
The returning is the key.
It’s not that we don’t stray from our practice, but that we return to it—consistently and with patience. Over time, we learn to return with less effort and to remain in the present longer.
I started thinking about the idea of returning while I was bouldering in my local gym. I worked on a tricky problem and felt myself getting frustrated every time I fell, each time my beta didn’t pan out the way I’d expected. But then each time I sat down to start the problem again, I felt my mind clear. I tried to climb each time with renewed purpose, with the best flow, balance, and efficiency I could muster. Each time was an opportunity to for a fresh start, to do my best in the moment, even if that moment didn’t last long.
This returning is a key to something big, I’m pretty sure. It sometimes feels insufficient, like we should be more constant, moving steadily towards our goals. Every time we wander off the path, we count it as a failure. But really it’s just another opportunity to return to ourselves, to recenter.
Are you anxious in your morning meditation? Return to your breath. Fall off your project at the crag? It’s part of the process. Return to yourself and try again. As the Japanese saying goes: fall down seven times, get up eight.
When you get used to this way of practicing, you can do it all the time: in meditation, climbing, during the drive to work, while washing dishes… . With each morning, we can return. With every breath we have another chance to return. When we’re worried or angry or feeling lost, we have the perfect opportunity to return.
One day, we might even recognize that there’s nothing to return from, after all—that we’re always already there. But that’s some pretty advanced stuff.
I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.
When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.
This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.
Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.
In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.
Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?
“Usually when we practice we expect something: if we try hard, our practice will improve,” says Shunryu Suzuki in a collection of his lectures on Zen called Not Always So. “If we aim at a goal in our practice we will eventually reach it… . This is true, but it is not a complete understanding.”
Usually when we climb we expect something, too. Even if we don’t state it openly, we bring expectations. It is the same thing a student of Zen expects when she sits in zazen. We want to be better. We expect we will improve with effort.
The weather was perfect when I went climbing last week, but I knew snows would soon cover the rocks, so I really tried to accomplish something that was hard for me. That was my goal, but I didn’t reach it. Instead I did a few climbs that didn’t show improvement. Not good enough.
“Even though you say your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now,” Suzuki says, as if in direct response to my disappointment. “Good or bad, it is your practice.” If I give myself over to the climb and try my best, I might not meet my own expectations. Still, there is no other practice for me—at least, not at that moment.
It is difficult to let go of your expectations, whether for one climb, one day, or one season. It feels suspiciously like quitting. After all, who wasn’t taught from childhood that we must set goals and stop at nothing to attain them? But the bridge to any goal must be built on a foundation of failure and doubt. Then again, once we reach our goals, we find they rarely offer the type of lasting satisfaction we imagined they would.
Beyond it all, there is another sort of understanding that can only be expressed through the practice itself, and never quite explained. I think this is what Suzuki was getting at.
in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:
“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”
Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.
For the climber, the recipe is: we show up, we put on our harness or lay out our pad, we tighten our shoes and chalk our hands, and we climb. That is all. Some days the climb goes as planned, some days it doesn’t. However it goes, that is your day of climbing.
“We also do zazen with the understanding that the goal is not reached in one or two years, but is right here,” says Suzuki. “Here is the goal of practice.”