Big Goals, Little Goals

A boulderer strives to reach the hold on Round Room, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Photo - J. Roth / The Stone Mind

“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
—Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel

We all have goals. We want to improve, be better, have more, do more… This is the natural state of affairs, especially here in the West. The opportunity strive, to rise above, to achieve greatness of stature and wealth—it’s the American dream, isn’t it? The reason so many immigrants have sought a life here…

At the same time, this goal-focused mind is also the source of a lot of problems. For many, having enough isn’t satisfactory. There is an excess of greed and thoughtless waste. On average, we’re wealthier than many other nations, but not necessarily happier with ourselves and our lives.

I think what’s happening is that many of us focus only on the next goal, the next want or need, without considering the foundational goals that are lifelong and fulfilling, that give lasting happiness instead of just a temporary fix. Constantly focusing our energy on small goals and their transient rewards, I’ve noticed, can lead us farther away from where we really want to be.

As a long-time rock climber, I’ve been striving to improve for over 20 years, always chasing some goal or other: a new grade, a particularly proud route, a powerful boulder problem… . When I’m not in shape, I feel a little frustrated and want to climb at least as I did when I was fitter. When I’m fit, I want to climb harder than ever before. Of course, at a certain point, I will climb the hardest route I’m ever going to climb. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but I might have and don’t even know it. It would be hard to accept, but accept it I must—we all will peak and, in keeping with the basic rules of living, decline. What then? Will climbing no longer bring me happiness?

I don’t think people want to ask this question, or they’re come up with a funny answer to deflect the unpleasantness of it. But it’s worth asking, because it can put our motivations in a different context. Just as the man on his deathbed isn’t likely to say, “I only wish I could have bought more stuff,” so will we find few climbers facing their final hours saying, “If only I could have climbed one grade harder.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to improve. There are many valuable lessons to be learned in the perfection of one’s craft. But it’s the fixation on the improvement, the numbers and personal bests, that can muddy our vision. It’s the gaining mindset, an addiction to the rush of accomplishment or accolades rather than a steady seeking of a deeper sense of fulfillment that a well-centered, lifelong practice can bring.

Sometimes I’m happy with my climbing performance, and some days I’m not as happy, but I always try to let those feeling pass through me and not hold on to them. Instead of seeking my satisfaction in the latest challenge, I try to let myself enjoy each day as it comes; to be comfortable with myself, my thoughts, and my mortality; to act in accordance with my beliefs and values. Like distant peaks, goals like these can seem impossibly large and far away, but when taken one moment at a time and one step at a time, the become more manageable.

In the end, climbing can lend itself to the goal-seeking mindset, but I think it can also can show us the way to larger understandings, to spiritual fulfillment, if you want to think of it in those terms. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki explains that the practice of archery in Japan and other Eastern cultures is “not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but [is] meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”

Big, right? But by working tirelessly and in earnest for mastery for its own sake, without the desire to hit some specific target (or tick some grade), art forms like archery or climbing can afford us such contact.

If only we can learn to let go of the little goals that obscure the big ones.

A Reading List


Eastern philosophy can be a tricky thing for a mind fed on a Western diet. Eastern schools of thought seem to embrace change in a way the West does not. The focus in Eastern philosophy is one’s own internal state more than the external world. In the East, what we call reality is spoken of as an illusion, as nothing more than the upwelling of a fluid, interconnected essence that resists expression through words. “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way,” reads the opening line of the Tao Te Ching.

As true as this may be, that didn’t stop some very wise people from writing some very illuminating texts in an effort to capture and convey the deep philosophies of the East, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Shintoism, Jainism, Taoism, Zen and the like. I have read and taken much from some of these works (all in translation), and since a few people have asked me what texts I’d suggest for someone interested in such topics, I’ve compiled the abridged list below, very much fragmentary and shaped by a mixture of personal biases and pure happenstance.

I feel it is important to approach these texts with an empty cup. When speaking of the Eastern philosophical tradition, we should remember that words are used more as bridges, and vanishing ones at that, that can help make a connection between the reader’s consciousness and the essential nature of reality. It can be tempting to grab on to a catchy quote and assign it literal meaning, but as the Zen saying goes, “Don’t Mistake the Finger Pointing at the Moon for the Moon.”

Do you have any books you’d like to add to this list?

Tao Te Ching – The world of the named is the world of opposites (light and dark, high and low, male and female); meanwhile, the tao (“the way”) gives rise to all of these but cannot be named or described. The tao is the essence at the heart of all things, like a flowing river, ever changing, that brings life to the trees and animals. A short book of verse dating to the fourth century B.C.E. and attributed to the Chinese scholar called Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching instructs the reader to live in accordance with the tao. The low is held up as the root of things, inaction is praised over action — as such, it is the opposite of the Western way. “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know.” Although those of us trained to strive for more and bigger and better will balk at the riddle-like teachings of the Tao Te Ching, I think many of us could use a little more of the yin (feminine/dark/passive) to our yang (masculine/light/active). Two nice English translations are the D.C Lau version (Penguin, 1963) and Lao-tzu’s Taoteching: with selected commentaries from the past 2,000 years, translated by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki – My first exposure to Zen, my dad read from this book at the dinner table when I was young. It has turned out to be one of the most consistently meaningful texts I’ve ever read, although the stories seem to take on a different meaning every time I read them. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones contains 101 short stories, most centering around a moment of sudden realization or enlightenment. They convey the spirit of Zen in very simple, concrete way, avoiding the didactic tone of more technical texts. The book also contains a series of koans, paradoxical mind puzzles intended for the meditating student, and a series of 10 illustrations representing the stages of enlightenment.

The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra – Written in the 1970s, this book was admittedly inspired by consciousness-expanding use of psychedelic substances. The central theory that Capra seeks to illustrate throughout is that the view of the world defined by what he calls Eastern “mysticism” is in surprising accord with that described by modern particle physics. “The two basic themes of this conception are the unity and interrelation of all phenomena and the intrinsically dynamic nature of the universe,” Capra writes. In addition to offering layman’s primers on both modern physics and Eastern thought, Capra reinforces his arguments with quotes from famous physicists like Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein — to the latter he attributes this line: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

This Is It: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, Alan W. Watts – A collection of essays by the British-born philosopher Alan Watts, this book focuses on the idea that the present moment is infinitely sufficient and that the present and the past are mere constructs of our consciousness. Watts’ writing in this book bears the indelible mark of his time and place (California in the 1950s and ’60s), and the collection includes essays with such quirky titles as “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” and “LSD and Satori.” Still, there is something special about Watts’ figuration of Eastern thought for a Western audience. He brings a simple clarity to questions that we tend to make very complicated. This video, containing an excerpt from one of Watts’ lectures, made the rounds on my social media feed a few months ago and it is worth a watch: Watts suggested that Buddhism, with its focus on internal states, is a form of psychotherapy, a concept reinforced by the fact that Carl Jung wrote the introduction to the 1950 Princeton University Press edition of the I Ching.

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki  – Focused on the idea of “beginners mind,” or the true nature that we all contain and must only recognize to become enlightened (easier said than done!), Suzuki explains both the practical side of Zazen (seated meditation) and the larger philosophical underpinnings of Zen philosophy. The book begins with the popular quote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann – Death seems to be less of a taboo in Japan than it is here in the West. One interesting tradition was the writing of a poem as a farewell to this world. Japanese Death Poems collects hundreds of examples of short verse written by Zen masters and haiku poets. Their sentiments range from defiant, to accepting, to abstract. Many of the poems never mention death at all, but are laden with a sense of finality: “The longest winter night / plum petals fall and finally / the western moon.” The book recounts the story of the great haiku master Basho who, when asked by his students near the end of his life to write a death poem, argued that any of his poems could be his death poem, revealing something profound about the Japanese approach to life and death.

The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo – As much about the history of aesthetics in Japan as about a beverage derived from leaves, The Book of Tea draws parallels and connections between Taoism, Zen, and the traditions surrounding tea. For example, “In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence… If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular…” This fear of repetition extends beyond decoration. The author Okakura Kakuzō writes of the Western tradition of commissioning portraits of oneself, “We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back. We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be a fraud.” Kakuzō was raised speaking English around the turn of the century, and he wrote the book in English for a Western audience, as a way of perhaps preserving a tradition in the face of a rapidly Westernizing Japan.

Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel – Fewer than 100 pages long, this little book offers a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a Zen archery student in 1930s Japan, where art of drawing and loosing the unique Japanese bows was developed to a spiritual level that required decades to master. When the author, a German philosophy professor, was having trouble, he asked his teacher for some pointers. In typical Zen fashion, he received a response that would make sense only after he’d answered his own question: Only by “leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension,” the master explained, would Herrigel succeed in loosing the arrow properly. In his introduction to the book, the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki summed things up nicely: “In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but one reality.”

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo – Written by a masterless samurai at the tail end of Japan’s Warring States Period, Hagakure, which translates as “hidden by leaves,” is a loose collection of thoughts centering around Bushido, The Way of the Warrior. Influenced by Zen, Hagakure suggests that the samurai must not cling to material possessions or to life itself. “The way of the Samurai is found in death,” Yamamoto writes. “We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic on what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice.” Like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Hagakure is uneven and full of both brilliant and bizarre commentary. One example of the latter: “When faced with a crisis, if one puts some spittle on his earlobe and exhales deeply through his nose, he will overcome anything at hand.” 

Climbing Yourself

A climber climber herself

I’ve long viewed climbing as a meditation of sorts. It’s my time to focus on perfecting perfectly non-utilitarian goals. It’s all about breath and balance and giving just the right effort to hold on, not more or less. My goal is always to move with as little distinction between mind and body as possible — with what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”

For insight into the relationship between physical action and meditation, I emailed my friend Thomas, a video game developer who lives in Vietnam. Thomas has practiced kung fu for 20 years, on and off, and engaged at various times in kendo, boxing, yoga, and Rinzai Zen practice. He’s climbed a bit, too. When I asked him about the use of martial arts as a way of moving towards higher states of consciousness, he recounted this anecdote:

In both [martial arts and climbing] you could perform strictly physically, or you could get in the zone and then you aren’t climbing. My Zen master had one kensho [an understanding of reality “as it is”] while fighting his kendo instructor. A clean hit stroke against his instructor, after which his instructor bowed to him. It is the only time his instructor ever acknowledged his ability. He describes the experience as ‘It hit.’

To this day in Japan, various physical arts are used as moving forms of mediation. Flower arrangement and tea ceremonies are two good examples. In such practices, the ultimate, selfless expression is described as the “artless art.”

Archery is another classic example. Zen in the Art of Archery, by the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel, is an interesting book on the topic. In the introduction, D.T. Suzuki writes that the practice of archery in Japan is “meant to train the mind … to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.” When archery is practiced in this way, Suzuki writes, “the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.

Herrigel’s book documents his six years spent in Japan studying with a master archer named Kenzo Awa. Herrigel describes the long process of learning simply to draw the bamboo bow with proper form. Still more time went toward learning to release the arrow with the same mindlessness as a leaf in a rain shower tipping to release its water. One day, after years of practice, he succeeded in loosing the arrow such a way. Awa stopped and exclaimed:

“Just then ‘It’ shot.”

In such instances, a simple motion, the result of years of constant practice, becomes the physical expression of a higher understanding. Herrigel had released hundreds, if not thousands, of arrows up to that point, but never without self-consciously doing so. To a master like Awa, the difference was instantly recognizable. Likewise, it is entirely possible that my friend Thomas’ master had hit his instructor in the past, but never before had “It” hit. From the outside, the experience might seem similar, but internally there is a profound difference.

It is very common for climbers to recount such experiences. When working to piece together a climb that rides the edge of our ability, we often enter a state where the movements seem to execute themselves. Holds that once were too far or too small feel closer, larger, right beneath our fingers and toes when we need them most. We flow through the climb acutely aware yet without consciously planning our actions. The climber and the climb, like the archer and his target, finally become one reality.

“Both martial arts and rock climbing require the practitioner to push body and mind … to work as a single entity in the moment,” Thomas wrote in his email. “And any time you do that, you’re scratching at the surface of existence.”

To me, there is no greater experience on a climb.

What about you? Have you scratched the surface? Have you felt “It” climb?