Routesetting Wu Wei

Holds and an impact driver for routesetting - The Stone Mind

We Petzl employees are lucky enough to have a bouldering wall at our Salt Lake City offices, and sometimes a few of us use our lunch breaks to put up holds. During one such lightning setting round, I noticed we had a surplus of one particular kind of hold: a rounded, pad-and-a-half edge colored like the marbled paper I used to make in elementary school art class. On a whim, I grabbed all the marbled edges and went to work on a traverse.

My lunch break drawing to an end, I slapped up the edges in a hurry, with only the loosest sense of the moves I wanted to create. In a state of “flow,” I bolted on all the handholds in five minutes, then nabbed a box of foot jibs and sprayed those up even more quickly. Certain I’d have to do some serious editing to this hastily crafted route, I grabbed my chalk bag to give it a test run.

Right away I was surprised. Everything flowed better than I suspected. I hadn’t pictured every detail of the climb, but was pulled by an intuition of the moves as I set them. The result, I think, was a more complete representation of my intent than I could have reasoned out with precise planning and goal-oriented forethought.

In routesetting as in climbing, the best performances often come when following our instincts. First we must assiduously practice our art of choice, of course, but then, when given the appropriate circumstances, we can go beyond what we could have done by willful action alone. Many view this state as the unification of body and mind or even self and universe. Ultimately, this idea of acting without striving or “non-doing” (wu wei) is a cornerstone of Eastern religions, from Hinduism to Taoism to Buddhism.

One of my favorite Zen stories, “The First Precept,” deals with this concept nicely:

The Obaku temple in Kyoto has a carving over the gate which says “The First Principle”. The 200-year-old carving, with exceptionally large letters, is admired by many as a masterpiece of calligraphy. It is the work of Kosen, the master carver.

Kosen would sketch the letters on paper and they would be carved on wood by his workmen. Now, Kosen had a rather audacious student who prepared large quantities of ink for his master. He was often very critical of his master’s technique.

“Not good enough!” said he, about Kosen’s first attempt.
“How about this one?” asked Kosen after his second drawing.

“That’s worse than the previous one!” exclaimed the bold pupil.
Kosen wrote out eighty-four sheets of “The First Principle”, but none met with the student’s approval. Then the young man stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Kosen thought to himself “Here’s my chance to escape his sharp eye!” Freed of distraction, he hurriedly wrote “The First Principle.”

The student returned. “Brilliant! A masterpiece,” he exclaimed.

It’s so simple: we practice with intention again and again, always weighted down by the desire for a particular outcome. Then, eventually, we find ourselves freed from the desire for whatever reason, and we are able to act from a deeper place. You might say this place is within us, or that its part of some underlying force (the tao), or that they are one and the same. Regardless…

So what’s the lesson then? That to do our best, we must let go of the desire to do our best. It’s another of those pesky puzzles that reason can’t solve. Words can only point us towards the answer, but as the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Instead, quiet the conscious mind and let the answer appear.

Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“My thinking about the case, man, it had become uptight.”
— The Dude

If you’ve spent much time rock climbing, you’ve probably come across a person who wants the send a little too much: he kicks and screams when he falls; while resting, he sits with brow furrowed in stern concentration; he makes excuses for his unsatisfactory performance to strangers with no reason to care; he appears almost upset to be out climbing rocks for fun. It’s always weird to see when somebody seems to be missing the point so completely.

At the same time, most of us want to improve, to succeed on the climbs we try. Why wouldn’t we? It feels good to push out against and expand what we once thought of as our limits. It is a true pleasure of life to overcome a challenge that once felt insurmountable. But to do this, we have to set goals and make plans to achieve them. We have to care, or we wouldn’t bother to try at all. And we have to be critical of our approach in order to improve, refine, find the best path to proceed.

I find what’s needed to really climb well and enjoy it is an alternation between the Playful Mind and the Critical Mind—very much a complimentary pair, a yin and yang of mindsets.

I alternate between these mindsets with work, too. When I work from home, often I descend into uninterrupted Critical Mind for long periods of time. Then my wife comes home and finds me sunk into my chair, typing away with a scowl on my face. She starts to tell me about how her day went and I say, “Uh huh,” “Oh really?” only having half heard what she’s telling me. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I’ve been in my head all day, mercilessly criticizing my own ideas to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and it can be hard to make the transition into a more relaxed and open mindset.

I enter my Critical Mind (which I also call Editor’s Mind) because it’s important to me that I do good work, but it’s not good to be so critical when you’re spending time with your spouse or family or friends. It’s a tight mindset, one that creates tension between the keeper of the Critical Mind and anyone else who isn’t in the same mental space. It also creates tunnel vision, which can move us farther from the very goals on which we’re focused.

“To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things,” says Mark Beeman, a professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Counterintuitively, a more leisurely, undirected, non-goal-oriented approach might actually move us closer to what we desire. The harder we grasp, in other words, the more things tend to slip away. Look at a faint star in the night sky directly, and it disappears into the darkness. Loosen your focus, let it exist in the periphery of your sight, and it will begin to reappear. It is in this state that we can start to see the larger patterns, the constellations as a whole.

So on a new climb or a new task at work or in school, we should come with our Playful Mind first. Explore the options, consider the big picture, the entire constellation of possibilities. Experiment, exert energy in many directions and note the results without judgement. Then, perhaps, it makes sense to apply Critical Mind: decide what works and what doesn’t, analyze the why and the how of things, decide on a game plan and attempt to execute. If your plan doesn’t work, it might be time to return to the playful mind again, in search of other options.

To use only one mind or the other is a mistake. The left and the right, the light and the dark, the active and the passive, the playful and the critical… . It’s by the alternating of one foot in front of the other that we progress. But in either case—in any case—we must not hold too tightly to the ultimate result. As it says in the Tao Te Ching:

[The master] lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.”

One of the Most Important Things to Know About Snorkeling or Pretty Much Anything Else

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

“Those who can be like a puddle become clear when they’re still,”
– Lao-tzu

The first time I panicked while snorkeling was when I hit the water. Immediately, I felt like I might sink. Or if not immediately sink, quickly exhaust my energy, snorf a lungful of sea water, maybe vomit, and then sink.

Just 30 seconds earlier, I was standing at the edge of the catamaran. I turned to one of the guys working the tour.

“So just jump in?” I asked, peering through the smeared and scratched glass of my mask. He smiled big and reached out to tighten my straps.

“Yeah, just hold your mask when you jump so it doesn’t come off.”

I took a deep breath, peered down into the azure sea as it fwapped against the boat hull, and jumped.

Let me say that I am a poor to mediocre swimmer and had never snorkeled before this trip. Right away, I was in distress. Trying to keep my head up in the air while dumping water out of a snorkel felt way too complicated. At first I used one arm to handle the snorkel and straighten my mask, but quickly realized I’d need both hands to get everything in order. To accomplish this, I pedaled my flippered feet madly, exhausting myself. As if to mock me, the small ocean chop kept slapping me in the face.

You’re not going to drown, I assured myself. I stopped futzing with my snorkel and paddled away from the boat. As soon as my thrashing slowed, the ocean floor became visible through the crystalline water. The sand was pale, inviting, and I could make out the indistinct shapes of sea creatures moving below. Excited to see more, I bit down on my snorkel and started to breathe. It felt funny, not surprisingly like pulling air through a tube. I dunked my face into the water and panicked for the second time.

For some reason, it felt much harder to breathe with my face submerged. I sucked desperately on the mouthpiece just as a wave welled up and filled my snorkel with sea water. I gulped a mouthful and narrowly avoided regurgitating my grilled mahi-mahi lunch. OK, man, time for a reset, I thought. I went to my happy place, found my power animal, and reminded myself that I was not the first person to use a snorkel. Several million people, many much older, younger, more out of shape, and/or worse at swimming than I have successfully snorkeled. I just needed to relax.

It’s amazing what not freaking out can do for you. In a very general sense, freaking out is the best way to make all of your fears come a little closer to reality. When rock climbing, freaking out makes you the worst climber you can possibly be. This also holds true for traveling, cooking, trying to pick someone up at a bar, playing badminton, or pretty much anything you can think of. The only good time to freak out is if you’re an actor whose character is freaking out, or if you’re in a freak-out contest, which I’m not sure even exists. When you don’t freak out, you’re much better at having fun and, not coincidentally, you’re more fun to be around…

Or, more poetically, “When we stop struggling, we float,” to quote Mark Nepo. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a truth to it. Calmer, I found I could stay comfortably on the water’s surface with little effort. I tried looking down again, but since I was no longer hyperventilating, I could breathe.

In my field of view appeared spectacular mounds of pale coral speckled with sea urchins. Some were black and spiny, like balls of lacquered toothpicks. Others had rounded spines like fat pink tongue depressors. A small, dark green sea turtle with a light band around its neck glided by. Big black fish with flowing fins, yellow stripped fish, a long, silvery fish with an eel-like body and pencil-thin nose… A little bit of water flopped into my snorkel, so I puffed it out with a sharp breath, like the guys on the boat suggested. Not only wasn’t the experience scary or hard, it was relaxing, almost meditative.

“Don’t do this,” explained one of the tour leaders before we jumped in, waving his arms and legs in demonstration. “If you’re thrashing around down there, you’re scaring the fish.” So I moved slowly, comfortably buoyant, serene. I dove down into the water-warbled light and gently touched a lipstick urchin. Schools of fish divided unhurriedly at my approach. I was a visitor in their quiet world for a moment and they seemed OK with it. I was OK with it too.

The Art of (Almost) Letting Go

nick_overgripping

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. … This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.
– Tao Te Ching

Over-gripping, in climbing parlance, means you’re expending more energy than actually needed to hold on. Usually out of fear, the climber clutches the rock with undue force, becoming tense and and burning through her strength reserves.

Despite a surfeit of effort, over-gripping makes the climber less likely to succeed. It is a case of energy misdirected.

Common wisdom has it that if you want something badly enough, if you push hard enough, you will achieve your goals in life, whatever they may be. It’s all about maximum effort, even force. I won’t dispute the importance of motivation and perseverance, but when our energy is not being directly wisely, we’re likely to run into problems. The over-gripping — or “gripped” — climber works against herself and against the very motion that will bring her most efficiently to the next hold.

“Sport climbing is the art of almost letting go,” I heard someone say once. I thought it was original sport climbing hardman Steve Hong, but when I emailed him about it, he said the phrase didn’t ring a bell. Still, he didn’t dispute the idea that applying right effort — not too little or too much — is pretty important. “When you have to do 40 moves, you have to portion it out just right. Or else,” he said in his reply. It’s how you save energy for the end crux, or the sequence you bungle and have to down-climb. Plus, climbing efficiently is good style and good fun.

A big step to holding more lightly is to overcome your fear. To move more fluidly, you can’t just change your mindset; you have to rewire the connection between your mind and your body through practice. Here are a few ways to start that process:

  • Climb more. The more time you spend up there, the less freaky exposure becomes and the more sense the safety systems will make. If you’re a normal human, you won’t banish fear altogether, but you will learn to manage it and move smoothly despite it.
  • Climb with partners you know and trust. Nuff said.
  • Run through your safety checklist prior to leaving the ground (biner locked, rope end knotted, harness tightened, knot finished, etc.).
  • Take stock of your situation before and during a climb. ID bad fall zones, the condition of fixed gear, and any other possible objective hazards, like loose rock or a hornets’ nest. Act accordingly. The goal here is to minimize surprises and avoid trouble before it starts.
  • Breathe steadily and consistently throughout the climb. When you’re tense and your core is locked, you can’t breathe smoothly. Breathing will not only help you maintain a sense of control, but it will force you loosen up.
  • Practice taking falls to relieve the tension of “What will happen if I fall here?!” (From a relatively safe position, of course! I say “relatively” because where gravity is concerned, safety is a relative term.)
  • Explore the art of almost letting go by finding a rest on your climb and then holding on more and more gently until you relax yourself right off the hold. You might be surprised how much less you can grip and still hold on. (Let your belayer know you plan to attempt this.)

One can also over-grip when it comes to goals, desires, worries, and the like. Like the physical version, mental over-gripping wastes large amounts of energy without offering any value in return. There’s a Zen story about two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on a road in the rain. They meet a girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross the muddy intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

All day long, Ekido clung to his anxiety. For Tanzan, there was no problem. He acted according to his instinct and moved on. What good was Ekido’s worry? From what I can tell, most of us carry such burdens in our minds. We play out fictitious scenarios behind our eyes, imagine consequences and tactics for dealing with our many “problems.” But, often, it’s not until we loosen our grip that we find solutions — or realize there were no real problems to start with, only interesting challenges. The next move flows naturally from a more supple position.

On a climb, the line can be fine between over-gripping and not holding tightly enough, but most of us err on the side of over-gripping because it feels safer. While we might feel safe momentarily, we’re more likely to get tunnel vision, miss good opportunities, or run out of gas at a bad time — just when we need make that next clip, for example. Learning to apply just the effort needed is a process. As we become more familiar with the ideal balance, climbing grows to feel less like a battle — with gravity, with the rock, with ourselves — and more flowing, like water over stone.