What’s in Your Pack?

Hikers walking on antelope island. Photo: Stacie Wickham
Photo: Stacie Wickham

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.

Packing Light

Travelers in an airport - The Stone Mind blog

The first cut of this post was written with pen and paper aboard a Boeing 767 slipping through the air high over the Atlantic. In a small bag under the seat in front of me lies one-third of my possessions for my journey. The other two-thirds hangs in the compartment over my head. Seattle, Texas, France—this is my third trip in just over a month. In the process of packing, unpacking, and repacking, I’ve gotten pretty good at stripping down my affairs to the essentials. It’s helped me to understand just how much—really, how little—stuff I need.

One pair of shoes, a spare pair of pants, a few shirts, a block of socks and underwear approximately the volume of a loaf of bread. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Wallet. A little foil packet containing Advil. Laptop. Sunglasses. Assorted charging cables and converters. An iPhone (music storage device, library, camera, back-up computer, phone, and more, all in one!). A stupidly expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones, which, while indulgent, help make 10 hours on a plane more peaceful.

The more I travel, the more I’ve grown to regard many of my possessions at home as superfluous. Every time I buy something, I feel compelled to chuck, sell, or donate something in exchange—to balance out the ledger, as it were. In contradiction to the American Dream, my goal has become to have less over time. I want the things I do have to be valuable not in the monetary sense, but in the sense that they enrich my life rather than clutter it. I want things that allow me to accomplish more rather than stand as symbols of accomplishment.

Living out of a suitcase or, as I used to from time to time, a car, can teach us the value of elimination. Extra weight is anathema to travel—it slows us down, bends our backs, splinters our attention as we endeavor to track the tangled mess of items both useful and useless. As my grandpa used to put it, “The things you own end up owning you.” Or, as Yvon Chouinard is said to have said, “The more you know, the less you need.”

Of course, traveling light is a practical consideration, and as you might have noticed, this blog rarely deals solely in practicalities. Instead, I’d ask you to consider how the constant reduction of excess in the physical world can be translated into our inner lives. How can we de-clutter our minds to make room for the most important things. Can we organize our thoughts the way we might organize a gear closet, to make the contents therein more useable? And what would happen if we were to continually let go of distraction after distraction? Perhaps eventually we’d be left with nothing but a still mind, the way it’s said the Buddha was.

Thoughts of enlightenment (not just a bringing of light, but a lightening of our burden) notwithstanding, I believe a constant stripping away can help us to see more clearly how sufficient each moment really is; how sufficient are we for whatever situations we encounter on this relatively short trip called life.

Inside Out

Mountains in the Wasatch

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stare into the glow. My mind races. Images and words scroll by without end. The river of information, of which I see only one tiny rivulet, rages on, a mighty Ganges of human experience from the absurd to the sublime.

As I scan, my mind dances through a chaotic jumble of emotions: delight (kittens, baby sloths), envy (pics from friends’ exotic vacations and climbing trips), annoyance (knee-jerk political posts, chronic over-sharing), frustration (all the intractable problems of humanity’s own making), confusion (what does it all mean?!)… . There is so much information “out there,” but staring into the screen only pushes me deeper into my own head, creating a cacophony of disembodied voices and stoking a sourceless anxiety that feels all too real.

I set down my phone (does anyone else think it’s ridiculous to call these things “phones” anymore?) and drive up into the nearby canyons of the Wasatch. I park my car and walk away from the road as quickly as possible, rock-hoping up a steep talus slope towards a different headspace.

An hour of slow plodding later, perched on a high boulder with the noise of the road a faint shush, I get a view out across the facing slope of the canyon and to higher peaks in the distance. A large bird lands on the twisted old branch of a long-dead tree and watches me across a wide expanse of open air. We sit like this for minutes, both of us the most recent representatives of our respective, billions-of-years-old evolutionary trees. The scale of this place starts to pull my gaze out towards the world, away from my own special blend of worries and desires. The considerations that earlier had filled my entire awareness now feel small and inconsequential.

“How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health!” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal back in 1851. Sitting on a plank of granite, feeling its cool rasp, following the acute green arrows of a hundred thousand pine trees all pointing in unison towards distant peaks and cloudless skies, I cannot help but agree.

Now the metaphors of the natural world begin to present themselves. There are lessons in the talus fields (something about chain reactions and unintended consequences). There is meaning in the bushwhack (a funny realization that you can only really be off-trail if you have a destination in the first place). Looking out over a landscape marked only faintly by human passage, I start to get the sense that the separation between “here” and “there,” between “me” and “it” is much fuzzier than it felt just hours before. Like the moon in the daytime sky, these realizations were always present, just hidden.

My phone is in my pocket, just in case: maybe I’ll score a selfie with the local moose, or need to call for help when that seemingly stable talus block shifts ever so slightly onto my tibia. Later, I’ll use it to map the coördinates of the boulder I found, as big as a McMansion, near the top of the ridge. Later still I’ll open up my laptop and start typing this blog post. I’ll use Google to find that Emerson quote I was thinking of and to look up the etymology of the world talus (disappointingly, it’s French for “embankment”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with the world of the screen, after all, just the eyes with which we regard it.

That night, half asleep in my room with the window open, the crickets chirp so loudly and in such synchrony that for a moment I think the neighbors alarm system has been triggered. A stormy wind respirates the curtain in and out. Thunder rolls back and forth across the sky. The trick of taking lessons from nature is, I think, carrying them with us wherever we go: at home, to the office, in the subway, on the airplane. It’s keeping the perspective that nature offers us on our tiny but integral place in this world and on the even tinier worries that loom large until we hold up a finger and realize they’re no bigger than our thumbnail and no closer than the moon.

Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“My thinking about the case, man, it had become uptight.”
— The Dude

If you’ve spent much time rock climbing, you’ve probably come across a person who wants the send a little too much: he kicks and screams when he falls; while resting, he sits with brow furrowed in stern concentration; he makes excuses for his unsatisfactory performance to strangers with no reason to care; he appears almost upset to be out climbing rocks for fun. It’s always weird to see when somebody seems to be missing the point so completely.

At the same time, most of us want to improve, to succeed on the climbs we try. Why wouldn’t we? It feels good to push out against and expand what we once thought of as our limits. It is a true pleasure of life to overcome a challenge that once felt insurmountable. But to do this, we have to set goals and make plans to achieve them. We have to care, or we wouldn’t bother to try at all. And we have to be critical of our approach in order to improve, refine, find the best path to proceed.

I find what’s needed to really climb well and enjoy it is an alternation between the Playful Mind and the Critical Mind—very much a complimentary pair, a yin and yang of mindsets.

I alternate between these mindsets with work, too. When I work from home, often I descend into uninterrupted Critical Mind for long periods of time. Then my wife comes home and finds me sunk into my chair, typing away with a scowl on my face. She starts to tell me about how her day went and I say, “Uh huh,” “Oh really?” only having half heard what she’s telling me. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I’ve been in my head all day, mercilessly criticizing my own ideas to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and it can be hard to make the transition into a more relaxed and open mindset.

I enter my Critical Mind (which I also call Editor’s Mind) because it’s important to me that I do good work, but it’s not good to be so critical when you’re spending time with your spouse or family or friends. It’s a tight mindset, one that creates tension between the keeper of the Critical Mind and anyone else who isn’t in the same mental space. It also creates tunnel vision, which can move us farther from the very goals on which we’re focused.

“To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things,” says Mark Beeman, a professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Counterintuitively, a more leisurely, undirected, non-goal-oriented approach might actually move us closer to what we desire. The harder we grasp, in other words, the more things tend to slip away. Look at a faint star in the night sky directly, and it disappears into the darkness. Loosen your focus, let it exist in the periphery of your sight, and it will begin to reappear. It is in this state that we can start to see the larger patterns, the constellations as a whole.

So on a new climb or a new task at work or in school, we should come with our Playful Mind first. Explore the options, consider the big picture, the entire constellation of possibilities. Experiment, exert energy in many directions and note the results without judgement. Then, perhaps, it makes sense to apply Critical Mind: decide what works and what doesn’t, analyze the why and the how of things, decide on a game plan and attempt to execute. If your plan doesn’t work, it might be time to return to the playful mind again, in search of other options.

To use only one mind or the other is a mistake. The left and the right, the light and the dark, the active and the passive, the playful and the critical… . It’s by the alternating of one foot in front of the other that we progress. But in either case—in any case—we must not hold too tightly to the ultimate result. As it says in the Tao Te Ching:

[The master] lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.”