My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”
At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.
There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.
His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…
But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.
“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.
At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.
It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .
Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.
In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.
I met John Vincent Shrader in the early 2000s in the Red River Gorge. Stocky and muscular, with rectangular spectacles and close-cropped hair, he was studying history, psychology, and Japanese studies at the University of Kentucky. John hailed from Louisville and frequented the Red, ticking scores of the area’s classic test pieces, including Nagypapa (5.13d), Darth Maul (5.13c), and White Man’s Overbite (5.13c). He stood out for his climbing ability, sure, but also for his reserved, thoughtful demeanor. He came off as a mindful person in a place where many were unabashedly focused on their own accomplishments.
One day, I noticed I hadn’t run into John for a while. I asked around, but no one could tell me where he got off to. Eventually, he faded into the haze of memory.
Then one day last year, he appeared in my Facebook feed. A recent picture showed John with bushy beard and hair in a topknot. Clad in a red tank top, he looked thinner than I remembered. Seated beside a small shrine, he smiled broadly, well-worn lines wrinkling the corners of his eyes. The pictures in his Facebook gallery told a peripatetic tale: India, Japan, Mexico…. He appeared deeply engaged in yoga and meditation.
My curiosity was piqued, so I reached out with a message and asked if we could maybe do an interview. He agreed, and explained that he now lived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountain town in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, where he teaches yoga and meditation. It was fun to catch up with an old acquaintance and get a fresh take on the intersection of climbing and philosophy from someone with intimate experience in both.
It appears you’re quite into yoga, meditation, and the philosophy of the East. How did you get interested in this stuff?
My journey into yoga began in college. It was kind of a religious, spiritual crossroads for me then. I had grown up with a Christian background, and many of my friends in college were Christian, and I began to have a lot of questions. Christianity, at the time, simply didn’t have answers for me. It was in learning about Buddha and his message that the spiritual path is a personal one, where only you can provide the answers for yourself, that I became more interested in the philosophy of the East. At the same time, I learned that a good climbing friend’s dad was a master at a Zen center near the Red River Gorge called Furnace Mountain. I went to my first silent meditation retreat there and fell in love. I was fascinated by the simplicity of approaching the ultimate through working with the intimacy of your own mind and awareness. Later, yoga became the perfect bridge for connecting my passion for moving the body with climbing and sitting meditation.
Are you a Buddhist?
Nowadays, I don’t say I’m anything. Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings have had a profound influence on how I see and approach the world and myself, but I wouldn’t consider myself Buddhist. I’m seeing more and more that at the core of any authentic spirituality the teachings are similar and universal. I try to adopt all guidance and philosophies that increase my awareness and help me be a better human being.
When and why did you stop climbing regularly?
I stopped climbing regularly when I went to India after college. I spent a few months climbing at Hampi, in South India, then the journey of India simply took me to other places. It was never by conscious choice, per se, just that logistics and location didn’t allow for regular climbing.
Were you ever climbing and practicing yoga at the same time?
Not as intensively as I would have liked, in hindsight, but I was meditating and starting to do more and more yoga the last few years I was still climbing consistently.
Do you feel yoga helped you to climb better?
Absolutely. I was always shorter in stature, so the increased flexibility was much welcomed for raising my foot to my armpit and ridiculous drop knees on cruxes that taller friends would just reach past! Now, I feel so light and flexible and also super strong in the core, I would love to see how it translates to the rock. Not to mention the mental focus and learning to move from a place much deeper in. I always intuitively incorporated the breath with climbing to work through hard sequences, and now seeing how deep and profound a role it has in yoga, I would love to blend this more consciously again. With yoga, it begins to feel like the subtlety of the breath is moving the body, and not the force and brute of the body. I’m sure this would translate to a super smooth climbing experience.
Do you feel there’s a meditative or yogic aspect to climbing?
Absolutely! The amount of present-moment awareness and control of the mind and body that climbing calls for brings heightened states of awareness and a magnified view of your inner world. I would fall off the crux so many times and was sure that 90 percent of the time it was just one thought, usually negative, rather than physical incapacity, that threw me off. More mental mastery always related to stronger climbing.
Have you experienced a transcendent moment during climbing?
For sure, there are times climbing where time and space fade away, a crystalline clarity of the present moment and a sense of tapping into something infinite, undefinable, yet magical and alluring at the same time. It was this state of flow that was always the strongest pull for me to return to the rock.
You lived in Japan for five years; would you say there’s a different approach towards climbing there than in the US?
I didn’t climb so consistently [when I was in Japan]. When I did though, the climbers were always super stoked. No matter where I’ve been in the world, the climbing community always has this same vibe running through it. In Japan, there was so much psych and enthusiasm, but also this deep calmness when out climbing and I felt more of a respect for nature. More into really making sure they clean up after themselves and, at least when I went, no sense of any competition and a lot of shared encouragement and enthusiasm.
Do you think there’s a natural tension between the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and the typical climbing mindset?
Unfortunately, I would say there’s a certain tension that is present. One of the “goals” of Buddhism is to achieve a state of equanimity and non-reactivity, a mind that is serene despite outer circumstances of pleasure or pain. So often, there is attachment to sending a route or not. If there is failure, there is negative thinking and self-criticism—sometimes subtle, sometimes quite intense and vocal! Oftentimes, one’s happiness and state of mind are deeply influenced by success or failure on routes. I can understand that there is so much physically and emotionally invested in attaining a route or a certain grade, but it’s also silly, of course, in hindsight, that climbers get so caught up in these very transient concepts. I love the Bhagavad Gita‘s teaching of karma yoga. It basically says: give everything your very best effort, no holding back, but simultaneously completely detach from any result or fruit from the effort. I think if climbers approached climbing more like this, there could be more freedom and space in their hearts, and more of a pure joy for the action itself.
Can any activity be a path towards enlightenment?
Yes, this is again the message of karma yoga: that simply acting with the best intention and with all of one’s heart, and maintaining a sense of service towards all without attachment to result, there is a burning of personal karma and the possibility to attain freedom. Any activity, done with this in mind and with a heart of awareness and devotion can be a path towards enlightenment.
What is the importance of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is bringing a spotlight to all the patterns and tendencies of the mind that are the source of our suffering. When doing things with great attention and awareness of our internal state, every moment becomes an opportunity for meditation. Mindfulness is great because you can practice it every moment of every day, and not necessarily have to be doing yoga or sitting meditation—although the former greatly supports mindfulness through the rest of the day. A favorite Zen Master of mine, Hakuin, says “Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness.”
Do you think you could apply mindfulness to climbing?
So, of course, mindful climbing is the future! There is so much opportunity to make climbing into a more meditative experience, and I think many experienced climbers are intuitively doing this. It is the perfect environment: on a natural stone in the middle of nature, already so much stillness and tranquility around—to make the art of climbing into a process of deep mindfulness fits just perfectly. I remember in one of Aldous Huxley’s books, Island, he describes a utopian society, and I distinctly remember he mentions climbing as something of great importance that the community does for self-discovery and training of the mind. They also used a lot of psychedelics! I can’t quite remember the ending, but I think they were taken over by a giant oil company and the climbing and psychedelics stopped… . Maybe we still have a chance.
Do you think one day you’ll return to climbing, bringing with you these new perspectives?
Absolutely, I feel climbing will at some point come back into my life. I’m not sure in what capacity, but as long as we would be living close to rock, then I’m sure I’ll get back into it. There are times now and then when I make it to a gym or occasionally outside and am immediately struck by the organic communion of yoga and climbing. I’m always feeling very whole after climbing even just a bit. To be honest, sometimes I’m even dreaming about finishing up unsent projects and get a little giddy inside. But there certainly isn’t a need to climb like I used to feel. Before, it was always something that I deeply craved, and felt like it gave me balance, perspective and peace of mind. Now, yoga and meditation are bringing this spiritual contentment, so climbing would probably be another dimension of self-expression and connection to nature, or another way to approach yoga.
My anxiety didn’t start when I was in college, but it crested then. In middle school and high school I struggled with anxiety about my studies, about the judgement of my classmates, about meeting girls—I gather this is normal, but mine could get pretty bad. When things were at their worst, I lived in a headspace of bleak scenarios of my own creation.
Not long after I moved into my freshman year dorm in downtown New York City, things grew worse. Life came to feel deeply stressful much of the time. This stress affected my appetite, my sleep, my health.
I adopted mechanisms for coping. When I wasn’t in classes, I walked or skateboarded all over the city, burning off the worry and calming myself with steady movement. I sought out quiet spaces like the library, where I could hide and distract myself amongst the stacks. At night I listened to public radio to fall asleep. The calm, even voices (often British at that hour) were a lifeline of reality trailing down into my turbulent dreamscape.
And of course, I climbed.
I’d been climbing since I was maybe 12 years old, and I always found solace in it. I was most engaged by the challenge of hard boulder problems and sport routes, the way they demanded complete focus. The puzzle of each climb temporarily unified brain and body. The way a climb that seemed impossible and frustrating one minute became possible and exhilarating the next give me an inkling of something deeper: that reality is more a product of our minds than I’d previously suspected.
I worked in climbing gyms to more easily get my fix. Most weekends, I escaped the relentless downtown noise with trips to the Gunks.
For an overstimulated city dweller with anxiety issues, there was nothing more therapeutic than the combination of climbing, good friends, and being outdoors. The relief of a fall day on the Carriage Road was intense after many nights of fitful sleep. The brilliant orange sunsets up there had a way of evening out my palpitating heartbeat.
Those trips allowed me to get my bearings, to remain upright in a world that often felt like it was spinning out of control. The lifestyle of climbing, which required rigorous physical activity and frequent trips to the woods, was critical at that juncture. It helped me find an all-important quiet within myself.
Many of my friends were climbers at that time, too. They were confidants, supporters, encouragers. We talked through our thoughts while walking the dirt paths in the shadow of 300-foot conglomerate cliffs.
Eventually I learned that the calmness I found climbing in nature was actually something I carried within me. I read Zen stories and Eastern philosophy and the works of Henry David Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius, all of which suggested that the external world is almost always less the problem than our reactions to it.
It was when I was struggling most with anxiety and finding relief in climbing that I started to form the perspectives that underpin much of the writing on this blog. Sharing this perspective on climbing and on life has emerged (unintentionally) as one of the aims of The Stone Mind.
I called this post “Climbing Didn’t Save Me” not because I wanted to get persnickety with semantics, but because it’s so easy to look for solutions outside of ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that external things, no matter how positive they may be, can only point us to something that’s already there.
It’s been said that We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. I think this is right. The act of climbing helped me to see things differently, to approach the world differently. The perspectives I formed via climbing allowed me to cope with and eventually leave behind the anxiety that had plagued me.
So I guess climbing didn’t save me, but it helped me save myself. Or maybe even better: it helped me realize I was never in need of saving in the first place.
I think it’s common for people to get frustrated while meditating. They get distracted easily, their minds wander, the feel they’re somehow doing something wrong. It’s an understandable feeling, as meditation, from the outside, looks like a very idealistic act—it brings to mind pictures of monks who’ve renounced material things sitting bald-headed in old stone temples. It can feel like a lot to live up to.
Something that helps me, when I’m sitting in meditation and thinking about work or some other less-than-zen topic, is to remember that meditation isn’t as much about doing something precisely right as it is constantly returning to one’s breath and the present moment.
The returning is the key.
It’s not that we don’t stray from our practice, but that we return to it—consistently and with patience. Over time, we learn to return with less effort and to remain in the present longer.
I started thinking about the idea of returning while I was bouldering in my local gym. I worked on a tricky problem and felt myself getting frustrated every time I fell, each time my beta didn’t pan out the way I’d expected. But then each time I sat down to start the problem again, I felt my mind clear. I tried to climb each time with renewed purpose, with the best flow, balance, and efficiency I could muster. Each time was an opportunity to for a fresh start, to do my best in the moment, even if that moment didn’t last long.
This returning is a key to something big, I’m pretty sure. It sometimes feels insufficient, like we should be more constant, moving steadily towards our goals. Every time we wander off the path, we count it as a failure. But really it’s just another opportunity to return to ourselves, to recenter.
Are you anxious in your morning meditation? Return to your breath. Fall off your project at the crag? It’s part of the process. Return to yourself and try again. As the Japanese saying goes: fall down seven times, get up eight.
When you get used to this way of practicing, you can do it all the time: in meditation, climbing, during the drive to work, while washing dishes… . With each morning, we can return. With every breath we have another chance to return. When we’re worried or angry or feeling lost, we have the perfect opportunity to return.
One day, we might even recognize that there’s nothing to return from, after all—that we’re always already there. But that’s some pretty advanced stuff.
In Japanese martial arts, the dojo is a place for formal training. The “do” in dojo means “way” or “path,” and the full phrase dojo means “place of the way.” Similarly in Chinese, tao or dao—as in Tao Te Ching—carries a similar meaning. In Japanese Buddhism, dojo is also used to refer to a hall for Zen meditation. In essence, a dojo is a place where one seeks to learn not just for practical purposes, but for something deeper.
This is how I have come to see the climbing gym. Humble, dusty spaces they may be, often times housed in roughly converted warehouses, a climbing gym can be a dojo, granted you bring with you the proper mindset.
A first step to this recognition of the gym as more than a gym is to remember it is not a place to prove things to others, or to conquer anything. It is “a place where we discipline ourselves and improve ourselves to be a better person,” according to Kendo instructor Masahiro Imafuji. When you think of it this way, it is always a privilege to spend time and a dojo. Every success in a dojo is just a fleeting step on the endless journey; every failure is a gift, at least as valuable as the successes.
It is traditional to bow on entering and leaving a dojo, but it’s important to remember that bowing in this way doesn’t mean lowering yourself in a worshipping sense. Instead, the bow is meant as a show of respect. That respect is not only for your teacher, if you have one, and for your fellow climbers, but also for oneself and for the lessons that you have the honor of learning. (When you bow to an image of Buddha, you do not bow to the physical image or to a man from the distant past, but to the Buddha nature in yourself.)
There are myriad lessons to be had in a simple climbing gym. And under the definition of dojo above, I’d include every crag or mountain, too. In a sense, all the blog posts I’ve written about climbing have been encapsulations of lessons learned in a dojo of sorts. Lessons about fear and ego, about flow and balance, about strategy and respect—climbing can teach us all these things and also things beyond expression.
But climbing is not the only means to such lessons. Martial arts, painting, skiing, woodworking… many—I might even say any—activities can, if practiced in a mindful and disciplined manner, help us to understand and find “the way.”
Simply living life can be enough to find this way, but it can often be more difficult, as life can seem at once too complex and too mundane to teach us clear lessons. Instead, we take one interesting activity, climbing for example, and elevate it to the level of ritual. We find our dojos—the rocks and gyms and mountains—and we train and learn.
This is the power of the dojo. There, we learn not just about climbing but about ourselves. We learn about the things climbing allows us to be, not just to do.
“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…
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.
“C’mon now, just try the move; I’m right here,” I said.
We were bouldering in the climbing gym, and my wife Kristin was about eight feet off the ground, hanging from a sizable jug and eyeing down a long move to another jug. To me it was clear that she could make the reach with some momentum and a fat slice of commitment, but to her it seemed beyond reach.
“Nope,” she said, and let her feet dangle, a sure sign she was ready to drop. Back safely on the ground, she explained that she maybe wasn’t tall enough to make the move. “Well, what’s wrong with trying?” I asked; the worst that would happen would be a fall onto a squishy expanse of mats, nothing she hadn’t experienced a hundred times before. She just shrugged.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she urged. Instead of engaging with the uncomfortable, my wife was redirecting her energy towards something less threatening. Upstairs was a steep plywood training wall, packed from end to end with holds on a grid—it was about half as high as the one we were standing beneath. “Upstairs it is,” I agreed. I might be an old dog, but I’ve learned not to force such issues.
Up on the training woody, we tried a game I used to play with my climbing buddies back in New York, each making up problems for the other on the fly. “Now the blue pinch!” I said, stretching to point out a hold while she clung to the wall, awaiting the next move. I was quickly surprised by some of the moves she was pulling—much harder than the one that had stumped her on the taller wall downstairs. I indicated a long lateral pull to a small edge, expecting she wouldn’t quite be able to stick it. But she did… and several more like it before she ran out of steam.
Back at home, we talked about our trip to the gym. I pointed out that she’d done much harder moves on the training woody than on the taller bouldering wall downstairs.
“Yeah, because I wasn’t scared,” she said with a sheepish grin.
The problem was deceptively simple. Fear (mostly irrational) of falling and injury was clearly the cause of my wife’s hesitation on the wall, but how could she change the way she felt?
I think there were several factors that played into Kristin’s fear. One was the fact that she didn’t trust her own ability. She’s still relatively new to climbing, and isn’t used to slipping into the climbing mindset. When she’s on the wall, she brings her analytic mind with her, holding a conversation in her head about the consequences of each move. The makes it hard to just climb, without hesitation and inhibitions.
An idea for addressing this came from my friend Nick. He suggested that whenever Kristin starts to feel scared on a boulder problem, she should look down and, assuming a safe landing zone, drop. This helps her realize that a fall from the spot that was causing anxiety really wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Similarly, I used to take controlled lead falls with a trusted belayer until I was thoroughly accustomed to the sensation. Such techniques can help build a foundation of experiences in which falls don’t result in anything negative. With that in place, letting go of fear becomes easier and easier, freeing us to climb with mind in body in synch, instead of at odds.
Improving strength through specific training—like our little game on the woody, hangboarding, pull-ups, etc.—is also a good way to build a sense of confidence. When you grab a small crimp high above your last piece of pro, doubting your ability to hold on creates stress. Feeling strong and in control can ease the sense of risk and allow you to move up without fear and even use your strength more efficiently. Likewise, playing around with balance drills and footwork exercises will improve one’s sense of security. These are just a few of the many ways in which mind and body are intertwined in climbing.
In the book Performance Rock Climbing, authors Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann talk about the idea of “engrams,” which are complex body movements coded into our neural networks. There’s an engram for doing a backstep on a steep wall, comprising the many muscle actions that need to happen to execute the motion. Same for a big dyno or a campus move. Solving new problems is usually a matter of applying engrams from our libraries to the challenges at hand. That’s why experienced climbers can often perform well even when out of shape or advanced in years—their engram libraries are stocked with high-quality tools, applicable to nearly limitless situations.
If the theory is correct, engrams are another example of the fuzzy boundary between mind and body in climbing. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.” I think this is an important thing to remember when we are working on improving our climbing. We can work on our physical strengths and our mental strengths independently, but in the end we can’t separate them entirely. When we climb, we must use both and work to find ways that the one can reinforce the other in a positive feedback loop.
Kristin seemed excited by our session on the training wall because it allowed her to push her limits without worrying so much about safety. She plans to go back and continue to strengthen the mental as well as the physical. After that, I have no doubt she’ll be able to apply what she’s learned to the taller boulders downstairs at the gym and outside, too. But the most important thing is that she does it because it continues to be fun. As long as that’s the case, nothing is unpossible.
As a climber of more than two decades, I’ve noticed there’s often a pattern to my behavior: climb regularly, get stronger, grow obsessed with projects , succeed… and turn immediately to the next project. The quest for improvement drives me ever forward and busies my mind. When I’m not training or eating right, I feel a twinge of guilt. When I’m feeling fit and strong, I’m motivated to train even harder, to push through to that rarefied next level to which I’ve never before risen. And so, fit or fat, topping out or falling on my ass, I’m hardly ever perfectly contented.
It got me thinking: maybe the next level doesn’t involve being stronger, after all—maybe it’s something else entirely: Being fulfilled by each moment, being selfless, feeling not lighter in body but in mind, unburdened, open, free… Maybe climbing, if we let it be, is actually a stepladder to get us somewhere else, where climbing is no longer necessary. (This is just a theory, mind you.)
In the movie Hero, a master swordsman plots to assassinate the king of Qin during China’s warring states period. Addressing his would-be assassin, the king offers his interpretation of the three achievements of swordsmanship: First is “the unity of man and sword.” Second is “when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand.” The third and ultimate achievement is “the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.” It’s counterintuitive that the greatest achievement of the swordsman is non-violence. Or is it? Below, in the style of Hero’s king, the five achievements of climbing:
1. Neophyte – Never having climbed, the first-timer brings few expectations. He or she operates almost entirely on instinct. Depending on his or her fitness level and comfort with heights, the state of “beginner’s mind” can allow the new climber to operate with surprising creativity. Still, having no specific strength or flexibility, the neophyte can only play in the vertical world a short time before running out of gas.
2. Intermediate – Armed with just enough knowledge to get in his or her own way, the intermediate climber often over-grips and uses more advanced climbing techniques at the wrong moments, exhausting him or herself while at the same time battling internal demons of fear and doubt. The limitations of physical strength are still apparent here, as the intermediate climber still hasn’t developed the musculature, tendon strength, flexibility, or catalog of engrams to allow him or her to execute complex movements efficiently. An overriding focus on getting to the top drives the intermediate climber, often at the expense of technique or a deeper sense of fulfillment.
3. Expert – Training and consistent practice have built strength, a sense of body position, and an eye for reading sequences. Now able to quickly decode the puzzle of the stone (or plastic), the expert moves with confidence and grace, occasionally achieving the “flow” state, mistaking it for enlightenment. However, the goal of finishing the climb still hangs heavily in the heart of the expert, creating a fixation on training and on the self-propagating delusion of success and failure.
4. Master – Having moved beyond mere strength, the master’s technique is so complete that he or she can execute even the most difficult moves with perfect efficiency. Having moved beyond the goal-oriented mindset, the master climbs only for the transcendent moment the climb provides. A master has no need to burn off other climbers or to receive recognition for his or her achievements, nor does the master hide from attention. With no ego, the master is happy to help others before working on his or her own project.
5. Bodhisattva – Climbing’s ultimate achievement is the transcendence of the climb in both body and heart. The boundaries between climber and climbed, between self and other, between good and bad dissolve. Any climb is now possible, yet no climb is necessary. The climber is at peace with the world and vows never to chase numbers, sandbag n00bs, or judge others, but instead focuses on bringing peace to mankind.
There are a lot of climbing photos in my Instagram feed, but pro climber Chris Schulte’s have been standing out to me recently. His images aren’t paintstakingly composed and Photoshopped, like those of the pro-photographers I follow. Nor are they focused on the sickest climbing action. Instead, many of the Schulte’s pictures capture the sculptural shape of the stone itself, the climber sharing the scene rather than dominating it. His writing likewise gives off a thoughtful, philosophical vibe, so I asked him to put together a short essay, illustrated by his photos, for The Stone Mind about his explorations and bouldering exploits in the famed desert crack-climbing destination Indian Creek, Utah. His artful reflections follow…
What initially struck me about the “the Creek” was the sheer volume of climbing: there are enough cracks there to live and die for it all and never touch the same seam twice. On my first visit, some 15 years ago, my friend and I climbed what little we could with my rack of doubles, the whole time looking over our shoulders at the blocks scattered across the valley floor. I was struck by the purity of the shapes, the clean stone, the lack of holds… I’d never seen rock like that. Everything looked unlikely. I was a new enough climber then that it was hard to picture lines up such blank shapes
That aspect of climbing still attracts me most: the apparent impossibility; a path through the nothingness; unusual, technical tactics combined with charging thuggery to surmount the most basic, pared-down essence of a block. When there are only two holds in a massive space with no feet, you try as hard as you can without expectation, and things start to happen. You start actually moving up through the nothingness, you start to do an impossible thing—then your whole perspective changes. All these blank, impossible things open up to you… I think of it like the first ship built, or the first planes: suddenly you can sail about where once there was nothing.
The draw to these blocks is, for me, the shapes. I enjoy the movement required, its funky balance between udge and grace, but it’s the pure, crystalline shape of those stones that pulls the focus. A poet from a bygone age once described the stones in the rock garden at Ryōan-ji Temple, in Kyoto, as “bumps pushing into space”; the scattering of stones there behind that old temple has a pattern about it that seems to lead the mind to a state of pliant reception. I think of the stark shapes in the desert at Indian Creek in the same terms: angular, dense, so very present! You can’t argue against these icons of bouldering, they just sit there like the Idea of a boulder: sharp, smooth, impersonal, and yet organic in structure and placement—a bridge between form and function.
Couple that with the possibility of breaking off a flake at 20 feet, and you’re really bending minds! The approach to such problems is a combination of calculation, meditation, and fuckit. Some boulders have no downclimb, no way to preview or clean. It’s a real mélange of perspectives, the setting, the shape, the moves, the goal, and the possible consequences. It’s a lot to process, making for a very rich experience, very dense climbing. And at the same time, there’s nothing to it at all: you just pick a pretty one, and try to get up it.
Apart from the blocks themselves, the area is beautiful and silent. The crowds all go to the walls, and in the cold cold winter there isn’t a soul around, save for the occasional cowboy or FedEx truck rocketing towards the park at the end of the road. The quiet, the empty, the lonesome all draw me. I like to sit and hear the blood pumping in my ears or the crushing swash of crow wings passing overhead. I like being the only one out there, working on the work, whatever it may be, sniffing juniper and fine red sand.
I like to follow the thawing rivulets in the drainages, creek crossings that need another day or two after the snow. Hints of someone else’s vision quest. Signs of life from long ago.
I’m outside of one world that makes me feel like a nanobit, traveling around performing functions in a scintillating field of activity; instead passing through another world, an organism, feeling like blood or sap or creek water, but also an absolutely unnecessary perspective lucky enough to travel through this place at that time and appreciate it at that very moment, be it a megamonumental pillar of awesomeness, or a lizard crunching desiccated groundscore fly, or looking in through the door of a home made from earth and stone, willow and juniper, recalling that for whoever once lived here this life was the only life there was, thanks be.
Chris Schulte has been opening new boulders for 20 years. He is supported by Black Diamond Equipment, Five Ten, The North Face, a knotted string of jobs, and his lady Jackie.
“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”
Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.
I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…
While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.
The same weekmy wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.
For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.
“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”
Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.
The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.
We were eating breakfast at a bakery this weekend when a plus-sized, gleaming, silver Mercedes Sprinter camper—a creation that resided somewhere on the vehicular spectrum between van and RV—glided past.
“Check out the road-trip mobile,” I said to my wife, impressed. The aproned girl busing the table next to us looked wistfully out through the plate-glass façade and said, “I want one so bad.”
As I climber, I sort of wanted one, too. Or something like it, at least—something that would let me roll to destinations unknown and leave my life and responsibilities behind, all the while taking a little bubble of comfort and familiarity with me.
Stickers circulate: “Work Less. Climb More” and “Quit Your Job.” We want to listen to them. They are a siren call. Companies and magazines tap into this thirst for new vistas with hashtags like #neverstopexploring (The North Face) or #daysyouremember (Mountain Hardwear). I can only take that to mean that days spent in less adventurous ways—working in an office, reading a book, tending to chores—are days we won’t remember. I see this as a missed opportunity. We should (must!) strive to make something of our too-small allotment of moments in this life, no matter where they transpire.
The question is, what do we hope to find on our travels? Do we truly believe there is some answer hidden like a geocache in far-flung spots? How many of us in our Ultimate Road Trip Mobiles are driving away from, instead of towards, something? How much more challenging is it to appreciate the inexhaustible newness of the world amidst a routine? I suggest that what really makes the adventure, on the road or off, isn’t what happens to us, but how we experience what happens. A beautiful sunset over strange lands is good medicine, sure, but it’s no panacea. To put it another way, there’s probably nothing wrong with where you are, just with your perspective.
The great poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder considered the idea of exploration, both externally and internally, in his essay On the Path, Off the Trail. In it, he offers a seldom-heard wisdom: “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick—don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”
On July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo II moon landing, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki spoke to a group of students in California. “The first one to arrive on the moon may be very proud of his achievement, but I do not think he is a great hero,” he said, likely in an attempt to jar his pupils from their attachment to goal chasing, patriotism, and pride. “Instead of seeking for some success in the objective world, we try to experience the everyday moments of life more deeply.”
As Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” Then again, sometimes we have to drive 20 miles on a rutted-out dirt road, cross a stream that almost stalls the engine, park, and walk half a day to climb up a big piece of rock to find the Zen we already had inside us.
What kind of challenge? you might ask. For one, we were discussing Bodhi’s name while the bruising from his most recent bite was still visible on Kristin’s arm. Bodhi has bitten us both and has intense guarding behaviors around his water bowl, his kennel, and even his body, making it nigh impossible to have that loving licks-and-wags-and-belly-rubs relationship that most people expect from their dogs.
From the start, Bodhi was a strange combination of highly intelligent, fearful, anxious, energetic, and aggressive. We figured he would grow out of his issues, but he has not, and a trainer we work with tells us that for years we may have been reinforcing many of his most undesirable behaviors—by ignoring them or letting him have his way, by failing to give appropriate structure to his life in our home. Now we have Bodhi on an intensive training program that requires hours of work every day, sometimes confronting his nastiest behaviors head on.
The progress we’re making is slow and tiring and fraught with doubts. Kristin and I have had plenty of discussions about what to do if our work with Bodhi doesn’t lessen his aggression. What if we have kids over or decide to have a child of our own? What if the stress of sharing our home with an animal we don’t trust grows too great? Somehow the answer seems fuzzy, and changes from day to day.
Despite it all, I still see Bodhi’s name as apt. Although he seems, at times, as much a Dexter character as a being of sublime compassion, I feel he is teaching us all the same. To work with him we must observe closely—both his behavior and our own. We must be structured and consistent. We must remember that his bite comes from fear and confusion, not from hatred, and that adding our own fear only amplifies the problem. We must learn to be calm and correct Bodhi’s undesirable behaviors not with anger, but out of compassion and for his own good as well as ours.
Dogs mirror their owners’ energies, says dog trainer and TV personality Cesar Millan, and I think there’s some truth to that. When you approach a dog feeling overly excited or nervous or just plain scared, that dog picks up on your body language, maybe even your smell, and responds in kind. How, then, can you expect to improve your dog’s behavior when you are unwilling to examine your own, first? It is like this in all of life: we say, “He made me mad,” or “That traffic ruined my day,” rarely realizing that anger or a ruined day are things that originate from inside of us, not from some external source. Therefore with a problem dog as with any problem, we should always look inward first.
In a way, I see Bodhi as the strictest kind of teacher, using strange tactics to awaken us to different ways of seeing. It reminds me a little of the Zen masters who hit their students, as if to wake them from their delusions.
In the end, though, we must be willing to accept that we might not be able to fix the problems we have with Bodhi. It is difficult. There is a part inside of me, perhaps influenced by the modern Hollywood ending, that wants to believe that no problem is too much to overcome; that with extraordinary effort, kept burning by an ember of hope, even mountains can be moved. But another part of me knows that what we can offer Bodhi might not be enough for him, after all, and that he and we might have better lives if he lived elsewhere.
When I think this way, it feels like failure, which is something I’m not very good at accepting. It’s strange even to write it. But there is a lesson in this possibility, too. I’m just not entirely sure what it is, yet. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
Either way, the future hasn’t yet been written. In the meantime, we continue to learn the lessons of Bodhisattva…
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.
I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.
When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.
This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.
Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.
In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.
Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?
Have you ever had the experience of pulling into your driveway at home and feeling unsure of how you got there? The repetitive action of your commute was so ingrained that your body could drive you to and from work, only occasionally calling on your conscious mind for guidance—at a tricky intersection or when approaching the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, for example. Yes, indeed, these days it’s common for body and mind to lead very separate lives.
This division isn’t particularly heathy. It’s often the result of a mental pre-occupation with problems or desires, perceived or imagined. This mind/body disconnect is a big source of stress and, in the case of driving, can cause missed exits, blown red lights, even collisions. When the road is straight and the traffic moves smoothly, our autopilot is sufficient. But without a more complete awareness, it’s easy to make mistakes.
One of the greatest pleasures of climbing is the way it can bring the body and mind back into alignment. When we encounter a challenging climb, because of the complexity, physical difficultly, and the possible risk, we are forced to reconnect with ourselves, with the moment. To solve a problem with one’s entire being rather than just one’s brain is satisfying on the deepest of levels.
Beginner climbers have to learn how to move, forging new connections between concept, movement, and result. Experienced climbers can quickly discern the movements, clipping stances, and gear placements of a route. But in either case, there is a very clear mental and physical engagement throughout the process of a climb that tends to rein in our wandering minds.
Of course, there can be value to daydreaming. For me,walking the dog or the hanging out at the crag between climbs are fertile periods for connecting and refining the recent mishmash of life’s experiences into cohesive perspectives, for blog posts and the like. But most of the time my wandering mind is up to no good, generating negative worlds ex nihilo.
Zen is concerned with ideas of oneness—mind and body, internal and external, self and other—and of immediacy—everything is perfect and complete, as it is and in the moment. Climbing, like many other mentally and physically engaging practices (yoga, dance, martial arts, etc.), is an excellent tool for experiencing and cultivating this oneness. Beyond words, each climb exists in the ever-shifting moment, at the intersection of climber and climbed, where mind and body, body and stone, and stone and time lose their distinction.
“Usually when we practice we expect something: if we try hard, our practice will improve,” says Shunryu Suzuki in a collection of his lectures on Zen called Not Always So. “If we aim at a goal in our practice we will eventually reach it… . This is true, but it is not a complete understanding.”
Usually when we climb we expect something, too. Even if we don’t state it openly, we bring expectations. It is the same thing a student of Zen expects when she sits in zazen. We want to be better. We expect we will improve with effort.
The weather was perfect when I went climbing last week, but I knew snows would soon cover the rocks, so I really tried to accomplish something that was hard for me. That was my goal, but I didn’t reach it. Instead I did a few climbs that didn’t show improvement. Not good enough.
“Even though you say your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now,” Suzuki says, as if in direct response to my disappointment. “Good or bad, it is your practice.” If I give myself over to the climb and try my best, I might not meet my own expectations. Still, there is no other practice for me—at least, not at that moment.
It is difficult to let go of your expectations, whether for one climb, one day, or one season. It feels suspiciously like quitting. After all, who wasn’t taught from childhood that we must set goals and stop at nothing to attain them? But the bridge to any goal must be built on a foundation of failure and doubt. Then again, once we reach our goals, we find they rarely offer the type of lasting satisfaction we imagined they would.
Beyond it all, there is another sort of understanding that can only be expressed through the practice itself, and never quite explained. I think this is what Suzuki was getting at.
in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:
“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”
Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.
For the climber, the recipe is: we show up, we put on our harness or lay out our pad, we tighten our shoes and chalk our hands, and we climb. That is all. Some days the climb goes as planned, some days it doesn’t. However it goes, that is your day of climbing.
“We also do zazen with the understanding that the goal is not reached in one or two years, but is right here,” says Suzuki. “Here is the goal of practice.”
When I was young, I was a very anxious person. My mind was constantly in motion, straining and toiling with no particular goal. I would worry about one thing, which would lead me to an entirely different worry, and then another, none of which were connected to any real problem in particular.
When I was six or eight years old, I would get up out of bed and walk, still asleep, into the living room, where my parents were watching The Late Show. Then I would start screaming. Night terrors they called them, and in that state I couldn’t tell dream from reality.
In high school, I was so fixated on acceptance and afraid of rejection that I replayed conversations with other kids from days or weeks before, mulling over every word, inflection, and facial expression. I compulsively replayed the past, reconstructing a world as dark as my night terrors had been.
Over time, I managed to release these negative thoughts, to let go of the fear and desire that generated them. It wasn’t something that happened all at once, but gradually and with effort. It has been a progression towards a happier life that continues now. As George Eliot said, “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”
Along the way, I mark important things that helped me as I learned to be happy. Among them, the great stories in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, which my dad introduced to me long ago and which I’m perpetually re-reading. Another was discussions with my old friend Mike, who studied Shaolin kung fu and the philosophy of religion. His sifu taught him to picture his mind like a hand. “When stuck on some idea, the hand is like a clenched fist,” he explained. “All you have to do it relax the fist.”
For some reason, the thinking of the East has always framed the world in a way I liked. What strikes me, to this day, is the directive to look inside yourself for answers. I think this is really important. In his essay, “Find Out For Yourself,” Shunryo Suzuki writes, “I feel sorry that I cannot help you very much. But the way to study true Zen is not verbal. Just open yourself and give up everything. Whatever happens, whether you think it is good or bad, study closely and see what you find out.”
If you’ve read this blog before, you will know that climbing has also been an important tool in my learning. I think there are several reasons:
First, it’s exercise. Many studies have shown the benefits of physical activity for health and mindset. Simple.
Second, overcoming the challenges of climbing can offer a sense of control. This is especially evident when we have “projects,” climbs that are too hard for us at the outset but that we can piece together through mental and physical effort. Relatively quickly, a climb can go from “impossible” to “no big deal.” It is the approach we must try to take towards all the challenges in our lives. In it is the implicit lesson that, at least in part, we create our own reality.
Third, climbing is exceptionally conducive to “flow” states. The eight elements that lead to flow, according to author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who coined the term, are:
1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is key to achieving happiness in everyday life. It’s something that we can experience in our jobs, while boxing widgets or sitting in on conference calls, but that happens most naturally during certain sorts of activity. A few of his examples include reading, making love, playing a musical instrument, dancing, and, last but not least, rock climbing, which he uses as an example throughout his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
These days, whenever I feel myself becoming overwhelmed with those strange worries that connect to nothing in particular, I might take one of several approaches:
Maybe I’ll simply remind myself to unclench the fist of my mind (meditation or just some deep, focused breathing helps here).
Sometimes I pretend I am dying. This might not seem very relaxing, but, as Suzuki puts it, “Because your are dying, you don’t want anything, so you cannot be fooled by anything.” It’s a way of instantly creating perspective.
Other times, I just go out climbing and see what happens. Often, I’ll find the flow state, but if not, that’s OK — at least there’s the rock and the trees, the sky and the mountains.
The new fall air was just starting to settle into the Salt Lake Valley, so I took a quick solo trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to boulder. After topping out a tall problem, I walked down the backside of the formation, taking precautions not to catch a toe. Even a minor slip up on that sloping surface could have been very unpleasant, likely funneling me down into a pit of angular blocks and ankle-snapping tree roots.
So I was very aware of my body as I moved, as aware as when I had been while climbing the problem itself, and it occurred to me that the walk-off was still a part of the climb. The climbing mindset of focused, unselfconscious awareness, fluid motion paired with steady breath, continued here.
Back on my bouldering pad, unlacing my shoes, the nerves of my fingertips hummed the chords of the rough rock. I straightened my spine and regarded the wind, visible in the wobble of the sun-lit leaves. This too, was a part of the climb.
All at once it was clear that the boundary between “life” and “climbing” is actually quite fuzzy, if not imaginary, and that we probably should resist the urge to divide the two. It made sense to me that we should climb as if eating breakfast — just an everyday thing. Also, we should live our everyday lives as if climbing in some wild place — it is an extraordinary thing.
A lot of accidents happen on the descent from or the approach to a climb, on some easy fourth-class scramble, on the drive to or from climbing, even around the house. I think this is because we let our awareness slacken and treat what we’re doing in the moment as an aside, thus becoming more vulnerable to the mundane catastrophes of the world.
With or without the distractions of the digital era, most of us are just barely aware of ourselves or our surroundings during the day. We run on autopilot, focused on fears and fantasies projected onto the screens of our minds.
One thing that most people mention when talking about climbing is the nowness they experience while doing it, the stilled thoughts and clarity of being. It’s not always like this, of course; we can be scared or bored while climbing, exhausted or preoccupied with problems from work or home. But climbing’s mental and physical challenges can help quiet the noise of what Shunryu Suzuki calls our “monkey mind.”
Where do you draw the line between the climb and your life? Do you write on your Facebook page things like, “In the office, dreaming of climbing”? You are saying that your time in the office is not really living, and that you will live your life at some future moment, and under some special circumstances. This doesn’t seem right to me. I think it’s much better to be in the office (or at a family reunion, or the DMV, or wherever) as if you were on a climb.
Don’t wait for the rock to fulfill you; the rock can only show you what is already there. Carry the stone inside your mind. Let it be part of your life at every moment.
Seventy feet up an overhanging arête known as Paradise Lost,deep in the hollows of Kentucky’s steamy Red River Gorge, I hang from shallow horizontal striations streaking the Corbin sandstone like lines of Morse code. I resist the waves of fatigue slowly overtaking me and look up to the crux above, from which I have fallen so many times already. Then I look down.
I’ve skipped a bolt, and between my shoes my last point of protection feels frightfully far away. The rope bellies out from the wall between each quickdraw. As I follow its line down, it appears to grow thinner, more string than cord. At ground level, my belayer’s little face turns up to greet me.
My adrenal gland does its thing, mainlining fight-or-flight stimulant into my system. My heartbeat accelerates, breathing goes shallow, sweat beads on forehead, hands start to quiver.
Nothing about my circumstances has changed except my awareness of those circumstances. The real risk of my situation is small, but I find it almost impossible to climb with a clear mind. My vision funnels in, and around me the possibilities disappear into a haze. In the words of Samuel Butler, “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”
How do you climb when a big fall looms beneath you? Do you tighten your grip? Hold your breath? Lock your muscles as if bracing for impact? It’s only natural.
What you’re afraid of in such situations — what we’re all afraid of, by design — is death and injury. Deep down, we’re programmed to respond this way to threats, real or perceived. This response is probably very effective in some circumstances — if you’re being chased by a predator, say — but it’s not very useful in climbing or in many of the scenarios we encounter in modern life. And while fear can inform our decision-making process in important ways, the survival instinct unbridled can lead us to make poor decisions.
Instead of pushing on, trying to climb as calmly and confidently as possible to the next bolt and accepting that I might have to fall, I attempt to down-climb through a difficult sequence. As I reach back, quaking, for a lower hold, I hook the rope behind my calf just as my I lose my grip.
“Falling! Shit!” I bark as I slip into space. The rope zings across the back of my knee, whipping me upside down and leaving a weeping burn. But the fall is clean, and I quickly right myself before my belayer lowers me back to Earth.
A few weeks later, I come across a Zen story, one of the Buddha’s parables:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
Of course, the Zen story is just a vision of life painted in exaggerated colors. Aren’t we all suspended by a metaphorical vine, with no control over when the mice will chew it through? How do we appreciate the smell of fresh spring flowers with a stressful presentation looming on the horizon? How do we enjoy a meal with family, knowing that at some point there will be no more family, no more us?
One answer is that we try to put any undesirable thoughts out of our heads, ignore or otherwise wish them away. But I think we can only ignore things for so long, and so I can only see one reasonable response to our very natural fear of what lies ahead: to commit to the task at hand with all our hearts. To do our best to climb on with clear eyes, resolve, and with joy, despite the promise of a fall gathering in the space below.
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: http://youtu.be/1RyvYSV41t8. 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.”