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.

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?