The Blind Men and the Elephant

An illustration entitled "Blind monks examining an elephant", an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

Have you ever heard the story of the blind men and the elephant? There are many variations, but it can be traced back to Asia, where it became a part of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist teachings, among others. In essence, it is as follows:

A king asks a group of blind men to come to his palace and identify the object before them (it’s an elephant). Each man feels a part of the great beast and then exclaims he knows what it is: one says it’s clearly a pillar, another other suggests a plow, yet another says he is holding a brush… . But the first was responding only to the shape of the elephant’s leg, the second its trunk, the third the tip of its tail, and so on.

Each of the metaphorical blind men claim to have a hold on the whole truth based on the limited slice of reality they have before them, but the king sees clearly this is not the case.

Setting aside the strange behavior of the king (was he just trying to give these blind guys a hard time? Having a courtly laugh at their expense?!), I think this little scenario contains some important ideas. Like the blind men, each of us brings his or her own prejudices and perspectives to bear. Each offers judgements based solely on a little piece of a bigger picture. But the problem is that we tend to give our own perspectives too much weight and expound on them as if they be true with a capital “T.”

In some versions of the story, the men fall on each other in violence, as if to demonstrate that all of humanity’s great differences spring from blindness, self-certainty, and the inability to see the much grander reality. We fight over doctrine and ideology, the story whispers from beneath its farcical exterior, but really we’re all talking about the same thing.

Even if the king were to explain the elephant to the blind men, they would be unable to see it as he saw it. Which maybe is the point after all: even the king had only a partial understanding of the elephant—he couldn’t see from the elephant’s perspective, he would never know how the elephant lived in the wild with the rest of its parade, nor could he understand the inner biological processes that made the elephant’s life possible.

None of us will ever see the whole elephant, as it were, so the best we can do is admit that there’s much more to the world than we can understand, and accept that from other angles things might appear quite different.

The Freedom of Constraints

Notebook with pocket watch, pen, and whiskey - freedom and constraints - The Stone Mind

I’ve been extra busy lately. On the road for work, helping bring a new employee up to speed, revamping processes in our department. I haven’t had much time outside of work for personal things like climbing and reading books and writing this blog. Such a time crunch is a constraint, a challenge, a frustration even. And at the same time, there can be a freedom in it.

Every week I write a post for The Stone Mind. Sometimes I write it in advance, sometimes the night before it’s published. Sometimes I have free time aplenty to write, and sometimes I have precious little. Often when time is lacking and energy reserves are running low, I feel a certain sense of dread at the task of creating a blog. I fear it won’t be good enough or well received. More dreadful still is the thought that I’ll have nothing to say at all.

And for all that, the truth is that every goal big and small is accompanied by constraints, by parameters such as time, budget, motivation, politics, physics, legality, and so forth. But the freeing thing about it all is when you stop seeing the constraints as your enemies, but as tools for focusing your energy.

For this blog post, time was the biggest constraint. I worked through the weekend at a climbing festival in Las Vegas and arrived home late Sunday to a lingering worry about my ability to put something together before Tuesday’s deadline.

Then I realized I could flip the challenge. Instead of the meandering creative process I usually use to generate blog posts, I decided to go a counterintuitive direction and limit myself even further: I’d give myself one hour or less to write this week’s post, and whatever I could accomplish in that time would be what you’d read come Tuesday morn.

No, this post isn’t full of links to quotes and other bits of researched materials. It’s born entirely from my own firsthand experience. Still, I think it carries as important a message as any post I’ve written.

It’s easy to get preoccupied with all the reasons the task before us is too hard, or to complain that the conditions under which we’re working are not ideal. But the truth that any creative person or entrepreneur will tell you is that there’s no such thing as perfect. We never have all the time or tools or skills we wish for. And while this can seem like a negative, in reality it’s precisely these challenges and limitations that give shape to our goals and keep us focused, keep us from floating off into the infinite vacuum of the possible.

There is no endeavor without challenge, and no satisfaction without difficulty. If things are easy, they’re bland. Viewed from one perspective, adversity is a source of stress, anger, and disappointment. But turned for a different viewing angle, it becomes the texture of our lives.

No one knows this better than climbers. Our goals are entirely arbitrary, and their shape determined entirely by their difficulty. The highest peaks and steepest rock walls are valuable only inasmuch as they give us a foil against which to strive and exercise our will.

I think John F. Kennedy put it well when he described the reasoning behind his goal to send humans to the moon. “They may well ask why climb the highest mountain?” He said. “Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

And so the constraints of my life as it is now have served to organize and measure my energies and skills for yet another week. When taken with this attitude, the constraints are less stressful and more simplifying. I have only a little time, and so I work with what I have.

What else is there?

An Outsider’s Game

A rock climber standing underneath a route in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind
My friend Derrick in the Red River Gorge, taken during one of my early climbing trips, circa 1995.

Polo shirts and loafers, church groups, BMWs, big houses with porticos and sprawling lawns, golf clubs, box seats at the game, Jeeps, ski vacations, baseball caps, football parties…

These spring to mind when I think of my hometown. It was for the most part a white, Christian, yuppy town with a culture of wealth and status. Of course, not everyone in Upper Arlington, Ohio, was well to do, but it was tacitly assumed that everyone wanted to be.

There were plenty of us who didn’t fit (or even understand) this vision of perfection, however. We were the outsiders in a monoculture, chaffing against what we saw as an  inflexible norm. For this reason, after years of straining to keep up on the lacrosse team, full of people I didn’t get along with and coached by a guy I didn’t much respect, I threw myself fully into climbing, even though it didn’t have a well-defined place in the social hierarchy. It was my game; an outsider’s game.

I used to skateboard, too. Skateboarding was a countercultural act in my town. People saw you cla-clacking down the sidewalk and pretty much wrote you off. You were a punk, a druggie, a roustabout, to use a term from the way back. A lot of skaters did it only for the love, sure, but there was also that element of rebellion that drew many of us to it. Like punk rock, it was a middle finger to the established order, even as it was in the midst of becoming mainstream.

Climbing was different though—it was so new in the Midwest in the 1990s that it didn’t carry many connotations with it. This was exactly what I liked about it. It was a tabula rasa of sorts. The fact that it took place in a dusty old gym or out in the woods, where I would never run into any of my classmates, was even better. It was barely connected to the messy world of adolescent preppie-town social hierarchy I was so tired of navigating. The only fear involved was the fear of falling, which seemed so much cleaner and simpler than the fear of not being accepted by my peers. Climbing wasn’t pro or anti, high class or low—it was just something I did because it felt right. And there were others like me…

My dad was an art professor at Ohio State University, and his graduate students were my baby sitters when I was young. Blue hair, piercings, tattoos—my parents looked straight through their appearances and judged on words and deeds. And for the most part, these students were great influences: romantic intellectuals who followed their hearts with rare gusto. They were every bit as moral as the minivan families dressed in Sunday best, but, it seemed to me, even more honest, more free.

I soon discovered there were people like this at the climbing gym, too. Idealists, environmentalists, people who cared about health, about nature, about living in accordance with their beliefs. They were more interested in making the most of life while they had it than keeping up with the Joneses. Climbers and artists alike seemed after something more personally fulfilling and spiritually grander than the whatever it was the Midwestern suburban value system was offering.

I started climbing in the same athletic shorts I wore to lacrosse practice. I bought an Alpine Bod harness and a pair of 5.10 Spires from the closeout bin in the local outdoor outfitters. I wore my ball cap turned backwards, a vestige of my high school uniform. Slowly, I accrued the hallmarks of the climbing trade: a pair of bright red Mocasym rock shoes, Verve pants, a Prana hoody. I built a new identity around the fine art of climbing up a wall. Absent the pressures of a team, I focused on overcoming my own doubts and weaknesses. No coach was there to tell me I was screwing it up; no teammates scoffed at me when I blew it in a drill. I went at my own pace, motivated by my own interest and excitement. It was precisely what an outsider like me needed to grow.

Interestingly, the solitary game of climbing has helped me to become a better team player. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like I used to, or much fear of being judged. I also bring more sympathy and empathy to every endeavor I undertake. Life isn’t simple, and people aren’t one dimensional, I’ve noticed. We’re all more alike than we’d like to admit, and more different that we’re often comfortable allowing…

Now, after 20-plus years in the climbing world, having worked at rock gyms, edited magazines, and hung around with pro climbers, I feel more like an insider than ever before. Somehow, I still feel like I’m playing an outsider’s game, though; it just feels right.

Taking A Break

Panorama of the lighthouse at Fort Williams Park

Every Tuesday for a year and a half, I’ve posted a short essay here. Most of them have revolved around the intersection of climbing, outdoor life, psychology, and philosophy. One blog a week probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have a busy desk job and a home life and a persistent climbing habit, putting in four or five hours a week to write something that you’re not even sure anyone will read and that you’re certain won’t make you any money can, at times, wear on one’s spirits. Still, it’s a labor of love, as they say, and always worth it in the end. I learn something (and not always what I expected) with every post.

But this week, I’m going to phone it in. Why? Because right now I’m on vacation. It’s the first real vacation—during which I sleep late and hang out by the ocean and don’t check work emails—I’ve taken in a while. And you know what? It feels good… important, even.

So I’m not going to offer up any climbing-themed life metaphors or decision trees or top-10 lists this week. This is it—a picture of a lighthouse by the ocean here in Maine and a message to you: If you’re a working stiff, a go-getter with dreams of saving (or dominating) the world, a driven soul who reads and studies and collects experiences like there’s no time to waste, you need to take a break from time to time. It’s as true in general life as it is in climbing. Without rest, there can be no recovery. Without stepping back and away, we can’t achieve that all-important broader perspective.

So what will my perspective be after this little reprieve? I can’t really say. But that’s the point, after all…

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.

Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day”

Photo of the Flatirons. Boulder, CO.

Perspective isn’t just a difference of opinion — it creates the very world we inhabit. Just as one man’s trash might literally be another man’s treasure, so is one guy’s rest-day activity another’s near-death experience. That’s what Alex Honnold is teaching me right now as he climbs away from me effortlessly, hundreds of feet up the steep slab of sandstone known as the Fifth Flatiron.

Or is it the Sixth? Are there even six Flatirons? I don’t know, and I don’t think Alex does either, but this is beside the point. The point is I’m stuck up here without a rope with a guy who free-solos 5.12 finger cracks for breakfast, I don’t trust a single hand or foothold on this whole godforsaken rock, and I’m kind of freaking out.

As I consider my next move like a chess player deep into a death-stakes match, Alex lifts his hands from the stone and deftly steps up the slab, waving his arms tightrope-walker style. I imagine he’s doing this because he wants to prove the climb is “no big deal” (Alex’s catch phrase), or maybe he’s just getting bored waiting for me, nearly paralyzed as I am by an internal voice whisper-screaming, “This was a terrible fucking idea!” I came up here hoping to glean some insights for a magazine article, but now I’m just hoping to survive.

Strangely, the sight of the world’s most accomplished free-soloist cavorting merrily on what might be the last route I ever climb does little to calm me. I settle into a stable stance on the blank stone and close my eyes. I draw breath with slow intention to slow my runaway heart rate. A cold sweat prickles my scalp and soaks my T-shirt. I chalk and re-chalk my hands with rhythmic compulsion. I hold this pose and wait for something to change inside of me.

When I finally look up, Alex is maybe 10 feet away, his eyes preternaturally round, unblinking, as dark as holes into another dimension. He’s pointing to a little flat spot to the right of my right hip.

“There, dude. That’s a pretty good foot.” It looks like a piece of shit to me, but I try to keep it cool.

“Is that what you used?” I ask, voice cracking.

“Uhm. I’m not really sure. But seriously, that’s a solid foot. No big deal.”

I size up the spot Alex has indicated. It’s the diameter of a half-dollar and only slightly less slick. I scan the surrounding rock and realize there’s no other way. I accept with sadness that this moment has become a fulcrum on which my existence rotates. If the friction holds, I will live. If it does not, or if my panic twitches me off the wall, I will go hurtling down.

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily,” it says in the samurai’s handbook Hagukare. “Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon … falling from thousand-foot cliffs. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” Samurai used this tactic to dispel their fear of death, a hinderance in battle. I try to picture falling over and over, but it’s not helping. I guess it takes practice.

Suddenly, there’s a shift. Without my brain’s consent, my body moves. A quick step up onto that little spot and over. The friction holds and I’m through the simple crux and into the clear. The air in my lungs burns with limitless potential. I want to shout, but Alex makes no sign of acknowledging my momentous victory, so I tight lip it.

“C’mon, we should get down soon. Looks like there’s a storm rolling in,” he says friendly, relaxed, and then continues on. I follow him, humbled, relieved, grateful. We push to the summit and down a crumbling chimney of stone, a mini epic in its own right, to safety and a long slog to our vehicles.

It is common with the benefit of hindsight to feel as if things happened the only way they could have happened. So it is that, back on flat ground, it seems so obvious that Alex and I would have safely completed our climb. Why all the sweating? But this feeling is an illusion. Closely related to the illusion that causes certain types of people to fancy themselves invincible. Every sketchy encounter survived strengthens such beliefs. The really lucky ones live to old age having taken every risk in the book. Others experience a little face-time with death and come away with a new perspective. The unlucky never get a chance to understand how narrow the line between close call and direct hit really is.

I’ve always felt pretty well in tune with my mortality — as a kid, it kept me up many nights. A hypochondriac teenager, every time I went to the doctor’s office, I expected him to break it to me that I had cancer, AIDS, or Ebola. I once had a panic attack when I realized the sun would burn out several billion years down the line. Perhaps it’s why the fate-tempting act of free soloing never held much appeal. (The downside is all too present and the upside is nebulous at best.) Still, sitting in the front seat of my car, face smudged, fingertips raw, sweat drying to a fine layer of salt on my brow, I try something, just to see how it feels.

“No big deal,” I say to myself. With my little outing with Alex filed safely in the past, I almost believe it.