Tag Archives: rest

A Climb for What Ails You

Couch crusher

The other day I felt like turds. Lethargic, with a headache, and just mentally and physically unmotivated to do anything. A symptom of too much work, maybe, and not enough rest and play. Still, my wife wanted to go to the gym and do a little bouldering and, it being her birthday weekend, who was I to deprive her?

The first couple of climbs went as expected: lousy. I felt like a damp bag of mashed potatoes. Every warm-up problem required an act of will to overcome. A little balloon of pain expanded and contracted rhythmically above each eyeball. After a rough warm-up lap, I lay back on the dirty pads beneath the bouldering wall and tried to focus on my breath.

About a half hour in, the tendons in my neck started to loosen, and I reconnected with the rhythm of the climbs. I started to finish some more tricky problems, coordinating funky body movements on steep walls. By the time we exited into the swelter of the mid-summer afternoon, I was transformed—a different man, if you will. It was a great reminder.

Often, we choose to do things based on how we feel at the moment. Thirsty? Take a drink. Tired? Take a nap. Overflowing with stoke and energy? Go climb. The problem is, we’re not always in tune with our own needs. Personally, my body tells me it’s always a good time for bad Chinese food, despite having learned repeatedly from experience that this is not the case.

Similarly, few of us grasp that when we walk out of the office or wrap up a marathon study session, despite what our exhausted brains are trying to tell us, we will actually feel better if we go for a climb or run or a bike ride up a steep hill. It’s counterintuitive, but by exercising, we can often feel less tired instead of more*. Climbing has taught me this lesson repeatedly over the years, but studies like this one bear it out, too. Sometimes, like one of those little hand-cranked radios, we have to move to generate energy.

It could be that this modern age—where we live in climate-controlled boxes, obsessively stare into screens, and eat food grown and processed in far away lands—has many of us out of touch with our bodies and our natural rhythms. When I went to the gym with Kristin, I was almost certain I’d climb poorly and feel worse. In reality, getting out and moving was the perfect remedy for my generalized malaise. Remembering that for next time won’t be too hard—but believing it enough to overcome the inertia of feeling like turds? That’s another story.

*Of course, there are times when we’re so wiped, so sleep-deprived or physically over extended that rest is the only answer—but that’s another story… 

You Need To Rest

You Need to Rest

“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”
– Ovid

As I write this post, I’m recovering from a cold. It came on suddenly Friday, starting with a tickle in the throat, and quickly escalated to fits of sneezing, a dripping nose, and glassy, red-rimmed eyes. Today, with flower-print tissue boxes planted all around the house and a dwindling supply of DayQuil, I have almost recovered.

Still, I move through a viscous atmosphere. Sounds and sensations are dampened. When I recline, I slip naturally into a womb-like sleep. In this sickened state, my body requires rest and I have decided not to fight it. What would be the point? To push too hard would only draw out my illness. As the Zen teacher Bankei said, “When I feel hungry, I eat. When I feel thirsty, I drink. That is my miracle.” When I’m tired, I rest. I have learned the hard way the consequences of not doing so.

Climbers are prone to obsessive activity. We want to be stronger and lighter all the time, so we train and diet and train. And because most of us climb for personal reasons and not for any specific competition or event, we don’t usually work in cycles (periodization, in sports training terms). We expect constant progression — every trip to the crag or the gym should be better than the one before. We live by the fallacy that more climbing or more training is always better. Day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, action and rest… everything around us moves to an undulating rhythm, and so do we. When we ignore our cycles or fight against them, we fall out of balance. We only hurt ourselves.

There’s a story* about a man who complains to his teacher, the Zen master Mokusen, of his wife’s unflagging stinginess. Mokusen goes to see the wife and holds his clenched fist in her face.

“Suppose my fist were always like that. What would you call it?” he asked.

“Deformed,” replied the woman.

The he opened his hand flat in her face and asked: “Suppose it were always like that. What then?”

“Another kind of deformity,” said the wife.

“If you understand that much,” finished Mokusen, “you are a good wife.” Then he left.

After his visit, this wife helped her husband to distribute as well as to save.

To this day in America, we cling to a puritanical sense of industriousness that birthed adages like, “Idle hands are the devil’s plaything,” or, to quote Ben Franklin, “Waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” On college campuses, in executive offices, in athletic endeavors, even at home, we live in a culture of burnout. We glorify the epic and the “all-nighter.” We are all in a race, it seems, but for some reason we rarely ask ourselves: Why? To where? Against whom? Metaphysical pondering aside, proper rest has been shown to be critical in maximizing both physical performance and creativity.

After I finished college, I worked in a climbing gym. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from my life, from my career, but I knew that I liked to climb, and that it felt good to improve. So I trained. I trained or climbed (often both) five days a week, sometimes more. For a time, it worked. I scored several personal bests. But my gains were short-lived, and today I still pay the price. My left shoulder pops and aches, and whenever I start to feel fit, its weakness limits my progress. I felt the damage happening, but I was young and surrounded by obsessive climbers; injury was just part of the game. Despite physical therapy, I’ve never managed to return my shoulder to a fully healthy state. I have learned many lessons from this challenge, but none more important than the value of rest.

It is a particularly tricky problem for us climbers — we love what we do and our culture romanticizes the most extreme behaviors as admirable examples of passion and commitment. Because of this, it is easy to forget that balance between effort and rest is, for most of us, the best way to improve and, more importantly, to take joy in what we do.

 

* The story “Mokusen’s Hand” can be found in the excellent book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings.