Climbing the Stepladder

A climber topping out a sandtone boulder
Soon you’ll find yourself at the top of the climb. But really, you were always there.

I have been climbing nearly a quarter of a century, and sometimes I wonder if I will climb my whole life. Maybe someday I won’t, which seems sad in the way that having a friend move away is sad. Right now, climbing is a tool that fulfills certain needs in my life: the need for an engagement that’s both physical and intellectual, the need to spend time in nature, the need for a routine that’s all my own…

But maybe the time will come when I no longer have these needs, or when climbing no longer fulfills them, or when I have otherwise arrived at a state in which climbing doesn’t make sense for me. In this case it would be only natural to stop climbing, like putting aside a crutch after an injury has healed.

“Delusion is like a stepladder,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So, “Without it you can’t climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder.” For Suzuki and most Buddhists, this life that we’re so attached to, full of desires, aspirations, doubts, and fears, is the delusion. But these are useful delusions, as it were, which can be used to move us towards enlightenment. When enlightenment is reached, we see the delusions for what they are and cast them aside, push the ladder away. As the poet and essayist Gary Snyder writes, “You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.”

Climbing is my favorite stepladder. When everything happens just right, I don’t think about it or worry about it; I just do it. I feel myself approaching a different state of being, where the day-to-day starts to break down. But when I try to bring this state with me after the climb, it quickly fades, like a dream after waking. The more years I climb, the better I become at holding on to the dream, or so I tell myself. I imagine this is what the Zen student does when she meditates—she stills the mind day after day, for months and years, until she can bring that stillness into the world outside of meditation and, eventually, see meditation for the ladder it is.

A koan is a Zen language puzzle designed to confound logic. Some koan-like Buddhist sayings address the act of climbing directly: “If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top,” says one. “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing,” suggests another. These puzzles ask us to reconsider the ideas of challenge and success, internal and external, climber and climbed.

When I can begin a climb at the top, and keep climbing once I’ve arrived there, I think it will be time to give up this old stepladder.