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.
Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
It is easy to live in your head. I have been doing it nearly every moment of my existence, for some 30-odd years. The average human only lives “in the moment” for brief flashes, when facing overwhelming joy, fear, pain, or exhaustion, or during other intense moments of engagement. This “nowness” is one of the things I seek when rock climbing — the singular focus when physical and mental engagement overwhelms my self-awareness, my thoughts of the past and future, my insecurities, my anxieties… .
But living in the moment is not only a function of extreme circumstances. When you practice anything extensively, you can access “flow” states and feel that sort of unconscious action. Athletes frequently speak of it, but artists or the spiritually minded might describe it as a kind of inspired or ecstatic state. Still, it never lasts for long. Many a gifted individual has spent his or her life seeking a longer stay in the perfect moment.
In “Every-Minute Zen,” Nan-in reminds Tenno that understanding Zen is all well and good, but what good is it if you cannot keep it with you always?
After you brushed your teeth this morning, which way did the head of the brush face? When you received change from the cashier, how much was there, and in what denominations? When you drove to work or to school last week, how many blue cars did you pass? If you cannot answer these questions, you do not have every-minute Zen.
Don’t worry, I don’t have it either. I always strive for greater awareness in the moment, but end up loosing track of the simplest things: I forget to put the wet laundry in the dryer and leave my keys dangling in the front-door lock.
The world I inhabit seems very distant from the monastic world of Nan-in and Tenno. I monitor Facebook and Twitter. I send text messages and check my calendar for appointments. I think of things I want to write and then work to create them, slowly and with much hand-wringing. At every turn, something asks for my attention to be directed to somewhere else and to some other time in the past or the future. I am not certain this is so wrong, but to the extent that it causes me anxiety, lack of focus, and confusion, it is something I seek to change.
* * *
I kick off my sandals and take note of how they fall, on which side of my umbrella, straining to think of nothing else. But even before they hit the floor, I am adrift — What would it feel like to be enlightened? I ponder. Already I have failed.
But failure lives in the past, which is no longer my concern. We have only to let each moment follow the next as it will; so simple yet so difficult.
Luckily, there is another moment coming — here it is, just now — in which to start the long journey into the infinitesimal nucleus of existence. My thought is, let’s start with one-second Zen and go from there.