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