Learning How To Be Happy

Learning How To Be Happy

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.

What works for you?

Everyday Climbing

Jason Danforth on The Mercy Seat, New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo: Teddy Au

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.

Running It Out

The author climbing on Paradise Lost

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.

A Reading List

Books

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.” 

Climbing Back to the Beginning

Gym climbing scene distorted into a circle

Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you have had enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.
— Zen saying

On the first attempt, Lois tied in and climbed the blue route almost to the last hold. Somewhere near the top, she was too tired to sort out a tricky sequence and sagged back onto the rope.

“Aw, shoot!” she shouted, “I almost had it!” I lowered her to the ground.

Lois was a new climber, a woman in her 40s looking to try something different. Like most people coming to climbing for the first time, she was unsure of herself on the wall, afraid of falling, and quick to shout, “Take!” when something didn’t make sense. The route she just attempted was at the edge of her ability. As her instructor, I had recommended she try a new climb, just to see how she would do. We were both a little surprised at the result.

“Nice work up there!” I encouraged her. “Let’s rest for five minutes. You’ll get it next time.”

But when the five minutes were up, and Lois re-checked her knot and began to climb, things didn’t go so smoothly. She managed to reverse every move she had done just right the first time, steeping left foot where she should have gone right, crossing up her hands and having to match on every hold, throwing herself around awkwardly instead of using balance to stand up and reach. Whatever intuition had propelled her up the route on her first attempt was now mired in a fog of indecision. After much frustration, Lois reached the top of the wall and asked to be lowered down.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “Everything just felt wrong. I was trying to remember what I did the first time, and threw me off.”

Lois’ experience is not unusual. There is a funny phenomenon in climbing where your first attempt is near perfect, but your second (and third, and even fourth) are all mixed up. From what I can tell, it’s a case of your body understanding the best course of action and your brain subsequently getting in the way.

Philosophies and religions throughout history have suggested that we must seek to return to some sort of original state. In the Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra identifies this as a central aspect of Zen: “The process of enlightenment consists merely in becoming what we already are from the beginning,” he writes.

In Ecclesiastes, the speaker writes, “God, when he made man, made him straightforward, but men invent endless subtleties of their own.”

In the Tao Te Ching, passages like this one are common:

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Similarly in climbing, I believe most of us carry a certain innate understanding of movement in our bones, but that we have forgotten, or confused that understanding.

Lois, like most of my students at the climbing gym, came to me from a life spent seated: at work, at home, in the subway, in a car…. I don’t believe she had ever done anything much more physically complex than riding a bike on a paved surface or assembling Ikea furniture. In her decades of risk-averse life, she had grown afraid of heights. Any original knowledge of movement had been overwritten by a set of culturally accepted rules designed to minimize risk.

But on her first attempt on that blue route, for whatever reason, maybe because she didn’t have time to think about it, her unconscious self was able to flow freely up the wall. When she tried to remember what she had done, she created layers of anxiety and doubt that muddied the process. Her third attempt was little better than the second, the fourth a bit better still. On the fifth attempt she finally managed to climb better than the first. It took her almost an hour to return to her starting point and consciously understand what some part of her understood almost instantly.

It seems silly, but I think this kind of cycle is necessary. Intuition alone or intellect alone will only take us so far. Each person must work through long, confusing, or awkward periods of trial and error to come back to the place where he or she started. Through the course of a lifetime, we make many such circuitous journeys, on the wall and off, but it is not a case of simple repetition. When we return to our starting point after trials and tribulations, everything looks different because we have changed. We have gained a new perspective to take with us on the next climb.

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?

The Importance of Respect

respect

The first precept of karate is that it begins and ends with a bow of respect. If you respect your opponent, you respect yourself. If you respect yourself, you respect your opponent. Similarly, one of the four principles at the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony, rooted in Zen, is Kei, or respect

I don’t physically bow to the rock before I climb, but perhaps I should start. I’m sure it would draw some funny looks, but it would also be a good reminder of what I’m doing there in the first place: looking for a challenge to help me deepen my knowledge of self and broaden my understanding of the possible.

When mountaineers speak of conquering or doing battle with a mountain or using siege tactics, they use the language of colonialism and war. They confuse the matter by implying that there is some sort of victory or ownership to be won on a peak. Words are easily disregarded as mere labels, but they influence our thoughts and our perspective even as we speak them. When a climber says he wants to “crush” or “take a dump on” a climb, it is funny in one regard, not serious. But on another level, it makes it harder to come to the climb with respect.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great lover of nature. He saw it as our first teacher and a mirror to the self. “Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part,” he wrote in his oration “The American Scholar.” “One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind.” Climbing is an intimate interaction between human and stone — it teaches us through direct experience. Rock and body, nature and mind — all spring from the same source. When we puzzle out the lessons of the stone, we can’t help but learn something of ourselves.

Or at least, we can learn something if we approach the matter with an empty cup. When we come to a climb without respect or an interest in learning, we see nothing but a goal to be achieved. In such a state, we might wish to skip to the end by any means, as a child who moves his piece to the final square of a board game and mistakes himself the winner. We might want to announce our accomplishment or log it on a scorecard, but what we have really learned cannot be verbalized or assigned a numerical value.

I have never physically bowed to a rock, but perhaps I should start. Or at least make the bow in my mind. If nothing else, such a gesture will serve to remind me why I am here in the first place.

The Art of (Almost) Letting Go

nick_overgripping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Year’s Resolution

The view from a narrow part of the Angel's Landing trail, Zion National Park

Dec. 30, 2012 – My wife Kristin tells me how much fun she’s having. We’re out bouldering in the lunar basin of Moe’s Valley in St. George, Utah, and she’s not even climbing — just hanging out and offering moral support, which I think is damned decent of her.

“I like to get away from home … from our day-to-day life,” she explains. “I feel like I can actually see you now, without all the anxiety about work and schedules and things we have to do.”

I feel the same way. We see each other differently out here, surrounded by nothing but dirt and rocks and sky. It reminds me of those early days of our relationship, when there was still so much we didn’t know or assume about each other. We were experiencing “beginner’s mind” — that state of being where everything is new, even if you’ve seen it a million times, as Kristin and I have seen each other.

In one popular Zen story, a teacher pours tea into a student’s cup until it overflows and spills out across the ground. The student jumps back, surprised, and asks the teacher what he’s doing.

“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the teacher answers. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Travel can help empty one’s cup, as it did in Moe’s Valley for Kristin and me. I also think it’s a grand goal to be always working to empty your cup.

Most folks take the turning of the year as a time to reflect on milestones and accomplishments, to set goals and make resolutions. Indeed, the month of January is named for Janus, an ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other to the future. Personally, rather than looking behind or ahead, I like to think of the new year’s transition as a great time to start living precisely in the center, in the eternal Now.

The day after our trip to Moe’s Valley, Kristin and I headed to Zion National Park, about 40 miles northeast of St. George. We wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing, even though we’d heard it could be  sketchy this time of year. In the visitor’s center, a woman told a group of tourists, “Oh yes, Angel’s Landing: people fall to their deaths on that hike all the time!” Which seemed a little alarmist to me. We decided to go anyway.

The hike was mellower than we had expected, not too steep and well-paved most of the way. Towards the end, we donned Microspikes — little chain-and-spike slip-ons that give your hiking boots great traction on ice and snow. We clambered up some steep sections of snow-frosted stone secured with chain handrails. The going got a little hinky, so Kristin hung back on a flat platform under a dead tree where a California condor the size of a small child hunched silently in the sun. I went ahead a ways to see what the terrain was like.

I headed out across a narrow bridge of stone, maybe two feet across. The ground dropped away hundreds, maybe a thousand, feet on either side. Striated red walls reared up again in the distance, forming towers and walls and arêtes. A meager river meandered through the valley to my left. I felt the wide-open void pulling at me. I let the moment radiate out from me and back into me. My thoughts tumbled into space, melting into air as they fell. My cup was empty.

In his essay “Zen and the Problem of Control,” philosopher Alan Watts writes “When the will is struggling with itself and in conflict with itself it is paralyzed, like a person trying to walk in two different directions at once.” It is tempting to look ahead and back, not just at year’s end, but all the time. We see the world in terms of past and potential actions. We’re constantly writing and rewriting the narrative of who we are and what we might be, all the while judging ourselves against this fictional character. I do it. We all do it.

We can reach specific goals through this process, but we can also lose track of the more important things that underlie those goals. We think, If I can just lose weight, or climb a certain route, or make more money, then I will have succeeded! Those are all fine things, but really what we’re after is to feel more like what Watts describes as a person “all of a piece with himself and with the natural world.” We assume we know the path that will make that happen, but for many reasons — because we’re trying to walk in two directions at once, perhaps — it’s easy to misdirect our energies.

Our resolutions may or may not move us towards a sense of deeper satisfaction, but I’d like to take this symbolic entering of a new year as a reminder, like the ringing of a bell in a Zen ceremony, to start this moment with an empty cup. As for the next moment, I’ll deal with that when I come to it.

Things Change

Family panaorama

December 15, 2012 – My aunt Carol sits next to my grandpa Frank at the long, burnished wood dining table in the private dining room of the assisted living center in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Carafes of water and iced tea are arranged up and down the table. Out the picture window on the far wall, the town’s eponymous geyser-like fountain erupts to mark the hour, a 560-foot-tall, wind-blown feather pluming in the arid winter air.

“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” My grandpa, 92, turns his head a few degrees, an indication that his attention has shifted from inner space to his youngest daughter, now grown with three kids of her own. He looks ready to say something. The room — containing my grandparents, my mother, my aunt and two of her children, and my wife and I — pauses to listen.

My grandpa, a decorated WWII fighter pilot, for as long as I can remember has been a quiet man, pleasantly reserved, slim, straight-backed, clean-shaven, early to rise — his military training even now remains tightly woven into the nooks of his personality. He often wears a paper boy cap, harkening maybe to his Scottish roots, and a wool cardigan over a collared shirt. Were he 70 years younger, his wardrobe would let him blend easily with a certain type of hipster crowd.

When I was growing up, almost every time I called my grandparents, my grandpa and I played out the same, brief conversation:

“Hi Justin! How’s Justin?” he’d say. I’d tell him a little bit about my life, and because I lived in Manhattan through most of my twenties, he’d remind me that he once worked there. He used to get up early and take the train in from New Jersey, riding an elevator up to some high floor with a view of the city. I could tell that feeling really stuck with him, of being up above the dozing metropolis at first light, like having a whole world to himself. After about two minutes, there’d be a pause, then he’d say, “Well that’s fine! You’re fine and we’re fine; we’re all fine!” Short and sweet.

He didn’t talk so much, and I, on the other hand, talked too much. Still, as I grow older, I start to look at myself and at my grandpa and think about the role his genes play in me. I also love the city in the early morning. I also love to be up above the world, looking down.

I remember a story my grandpa told me once about landing his P-47 Thunderbolt speckled with bullet holes. I don’t even know what country he was over at the time, but the cool required to fly straight into a dogfight two miles above the earth is something I can hardly imagine. Then again, maybe it’s similar to the way people see the climber — a human speck on the face of a huge cliff, suspended by gossamer thread. Maybe it’s a similar arrangement of neurons and blend of bio-chemicals that lets a person find strange peace and fulfillment at great heights, while skirting the margins between life and death.

Frank King

*   *   *

“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” And my grandpa’s gaze shifts, as if he had been looking down on us all from great a height. He’s here again, on the ground with us, or almost. He processes my aunt’s comment and makes a simple statement so Zen that the three generations of family in the room can’t help but laugh.

“Well,” he replies with a light smile, “things change.” Then he returns to his grilled cheese and tater tots.

That’s all he’ll say for the remainder of the meal. After lunch, I help wheel my grandmother back to their apartment down the hall. My grandfather follows behind with his walker. The family stands around and chats in the apartment for a while, my grandmother lively despite having weathered several strokes that make it difficult for her to express herself through language.

Grandpa looks a little tired, so my mom goes over and says, “It’s OK, dad, you can take a nap.” He shifts his attention towards her and says, “Oh, OK. Thank you,” and then leans to one side on the sofa and quickly drifts to sleep, a smile on his face. It could be a symptom of his particular brand of dementia, but I’d swear he’s made some sort of peace with the changes that are slowly but surely whelming over him and his wife and everything he’s known in his long life on this tiny blue speck.

I was raised without any particular religious belief. Around the winter holiday season when I was young, we read Bible stories and Zen stories alike. We had a Christmas tree and also a menorah. More than anything, my parents and I used the time as an excuse to just be together, to take a break from the chronic business that afflicts most working people in the modern world and remember the more profound pillars of a human life — love, honesty, sharing, togetherness, thankfulness … the simple, if not a little sappy, stuff at the heart of most Christmas movies. My wife and I are partaking in this fine holiday tradition as I write this.

Our visit to see my grandparents, though not on Christmas proper, was in keeping with this theme. Just a sharing of time and place, a simple show of love and appreciation that’s all too easy to put off when schedules are full and family scattered across time zones. Regardless of how many words are exchanged, this is the most valuable thing any of us can give each other. All the more because things change.

What Moves You?

processHave you ever had a bad day out climbing? I have. Quite a few, actually, but not because anyone got hurt or any other valid reason. Mostly they were days when I didn’t send some route. (Even worse if this tragedy occurred on the last day of a road trip, and I wouldn’t be coming back any time soon!) Once or twice my day was “bad” because my friend, with whom I was competitive, climbed something I couldn’t. So funny-slash-sad how many times I went home moping because I felt my day spent at play in some beautiful natural spot with my amigos was not good enough, or because I was not good enough on that day.

It’s been more than two decades since I started climbing and I still fall prey to such delusions from time to time, but far less frequently. I like to think that through age, experience, and concerted effort I’ve succeeded in clearing away much of the muck that can obscure the reflective inner surface of climbing. It feels so cliché to have to say it, but climbing isn’t about the goal, it’s about the process. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the process and the goal are one. If you’ve ever felt yourself chasing after something with your climbing, and felt dissatisfied when you didn’t get it, it might be worth taking a look at what it is that moves you.

Karma is one of the central concepts of Buddhism. It describes action in the world driven by egotistical wants or fears. When we do something out of desire for gain or fear of loss or pain, we generate karma. Good or bad, Karma turns the ornate, cosmic wheel of samsara: the cycle of death and rebirth. As long as we generate karma, Buddhists believe, we will be reborn into the universe again and again forever.

Me? I don’t really believe in karma or reincarnation, but I do agree strongly with the idea that the things we see as problems — the sources of our suffering, great or small — exist in our own minds. The happiness and peace we all seek in life can be ours if we learn to look inward instead of outward for answers. When we come to a sense of peace with ourselves, we can free ourselves from the cycle of worry and live a more honest, natural, and contented life. Climbing can be a great tool in this quest, or it can be just another way to play out our fears and desires.

You could say I was generating a lot of karma with my climbing when I was younger, always worrying if I was the strongest or the coolest, always imagining how much happier I’d be if I could climb the next grade or the next. For a time, I climbed half out of some natural love for the act, and half to prove something to myself and others.

To be fair, I think this is all a part of the process. “For the beginner,” Shunryo Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “practice without effort is not true practice. … Especially for young people, it is necessary to try very hard to achieve something. You must stretch out your arms and legs as wide as they will go.” But I like to believe that I am continually learning to climb for less needful reasons, to just let it be what it is: a powerful interaction between my mind, body, and various bits of stone in beautiful places.

Karmic climbing is a powerful draw, no doubt. Many an over-achieving die-hard training addict will fight for their belief that might makes right and the ends justify the means. It’s why some climbers lie about or exaggerate their ascents, obsess, brag, chip, number chase, and downplay the accomplishments of others. But you can’t skip through the process and expect to gain anything meaningful. Without the process of learning and progression through experience, climbing is as hollow as a big booming sandstone flake, and just as likely to send you hurtling into the void.

This is where my understanding, ever changing, lies at the moment. Still, my mind draws me back into manufactured worry, needless comparisons. In the practice of climbing and of our day-to-day life, it seems we must constantly tap ourselves on the shoulder with a reminder to stop generating problems and let the moment be as it is, perfect in its imperfection. Each climb, each move, is a new chance to act without desire or ego, to work at the beginningless and endless craft of action for its own sake.

“Begin anywhere,” John Cage wrote. Begin now. Or now. Or now. It’s never too soon or too late. Repeatedly, we will fail to appreciate the perfect inner kernel of climbing, but, as Suzuki writes, “The result is not the point; it is the effort to improve ourselves that is valuable.”

On Balance

Balance is central to the act of climbing; it allows for controlled movement, for rhythm and flow from one hold to the next. Balance between a pushing foot and a pulling hand, between two feet pressing against the sides of a chimney, between the downward pressure of a foot and the equal and opposite upward pressure of the rock.

Without balance, climbing becomes nothing but a test of strength: who can haul his poor bones farther up the wall before exhaustion sets in. One who climbs out of balance looks, in climbing parlance, “thrutchy,” which is as graceless as it sounds.

To climb with balance is to climb efficiently. For every degree of misalignment, you must pay with strength. Out of balance and you are out of control, at the mercy of gravity, easily pushed and pulled about in its unrelating warp.

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher,” said the Dalai Lama. In the practice of climbing, gravity is both adversary and instructor. Balance is the language of gravity. The climber speaks it with his body. Fluency comes only through time, study, and relentless practice.

A strong climber might appear impressive, but a climber in balance makes difficult things look easy.

I have a very athletic friend who routinely asks me, “I want to climb 5.13. What do I have to do to get stronger?”

I always tell him the same thing: Don’t worry about getting stronger; work on your technique, your balance. Strength is my friend’s crutch — he thinks it will solve his problems to have more and more of it. In reality, he could do with a little less, as it’s confusing the real issue. He can do many moves using mostly strength, but really, he could do them much more easily if he relied less on his muscles and more on his balance.

The lesson is replayed every time a young couple visits the gym for the first time. The man climbs with his arms, as if trying to pull the wall down to the ground. The young woman dances up the wall, balanced over her feet. “The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao de Ching.

Of course, both strength and balance are required to climb. Too much of one and not enough of the other is its own kind of imbalance. Likewise, the mental and the physical must be balanced. Activity and rest must be balanced.

In climbing and in the rest of life, it is easy to forsake one thing for another while completely passing over the Middle Way. Many of my climber friends have let promising careers and relationships stagnate in exchange for more and more time to climb. Many of my career-oriented friends have let their bodies and their senses of adventure atrophy in exchange for advancement or money. These just are a few examples of lives lived out of balance.

I have found it is helpful to constantly monitor balance and to adjust whenever things fall out of line.

 

 

A Moon for Halloween

Moon and Tree - photo: © Justin Roth

 

The night before last, I was standing in an empty field just as the full moon rose through the branches of a tree. I took this picture. A grand, pale orange form as it mounted the horizon, the moon appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as it rose, until it hung like a bare bulb in the sky above us. The sight conjured a Zen story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The lesson, as always, is one of perspective:

The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Happy Halloween…

– The Blockhead Lord

Climbing Is (Not) The Best

Everyone is first

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.*

Many moons ago, a friend of mine with a hankering for a good, chewy argument asserted that climbing is the best sport. (I’ll use “sport” here, even though we all know that climbing is a “lifestyle,” or a “way of life,” or even a “metaphysical journey” — it’s just easier this way.)

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say,” I said. “Climbing is only the best sport for those who love it. What about all those people who prefer surfing, or football, or golf? To them, those are the best sports.”

“Those people are wrong,” he said.

“You can’t be wrong about something that’s totally subjective!” I cried.

“Climbing is, objectively, the best sport.” He stated, and then proceeded to tell me why: Climbing is not a competition with others or with a clock; it is a battle against one’s own limits and fears. Climbing combines intense physical and intellectual challenges into one activity. Climbing is inherently dangerous, requiring fortitude and focus in the face of ultimate consequences. Climbing often requires an understanding of physics and weather. Many forms of climbing embody the ideals of exploration, adventure, and self-reliance. As descendants of primates, we have climbing in our DNA. Climbing is a form of communion with the natural world. And so on…

I couldn’t argue with one thing he said. I could only explain that none of that changed that fact that many people – most people – don’t care about much about climbing. You could easily build similar arguments to elevate a thousand other pursuits.

“Whatever. You know I’m right.” He said.

But I didn’t know he was right. I only knew I loved to climb. Over the past 20 years, it has played a role in my social life, my identity, my job… Still, I just couldn’t believe in the intrinsic superiority of one pursuit over another. After all, even within the climbing microcosm we can’t agree: Mountaineering is just glorified hiking. Climbing on plastic isn’t real climbing… come to think of it, neither is aid climbing. The only pure climbing is done naked, free solo, and without shoes or chalk. Bouldering is just practice for full-sized climbs. Friends don’t let friends climb crack. Sport climbing is neither… . If climbing is the best, as my friend suggested, which kind in particular? The farther one follows such an argument, the larger the logical holes become, until there’s nothing left but opinion and empty space.

At the root of this disagreement was something we seem sadly unable to escape in this world: the idea of mutual exclusivity — for one thing to be right, the other must be wrong. If climbing is the best, well, then, something else can’t be the best, too, now can it? Our society, with its irrational fear of relativism and its “unhealthy obsession with winning” does little to dispel this troubling belief.

Here’s a common example a very powerful and subjective feeling against which no one would argue: My wife thinks I’m the greatest guy in the world (or at least, I hope she does!). Obviously, I am not the greatest guy in the world to those billions of women who have never met me, nor to the handful of fine ladies who have dated and dumped me. These differing opinions, luckily, have not the slightest bearing on my wife’s feelings for me or mine for her. We each hold the other to be the best for us.

Most of us are pretty good at accepting the subjective nature of love and relationships. But sometimes – too much of the time – we have a hard time recognizing the subjective in our tastes. Religion plays on this very human weakness – there can be only one truth, say the holy texts of nearly every belief: Our Truth. This is without doubt religion’s most dangerous aspect. Invested in such misconceptions, people of one religion have oppressed and killed people of other religions for millennia. Likewise, belief in the supremacy of one race or nationality over another has spurred genocide. Luckily, in the case of climbing debates, things rarely turn violent… although I have heard tales of punches being thrown and threats being made over issues as objectively piddling as bolting, red-tagging, and chipping.

Looking back, I’m sure my friend was playing the role of devil’s advocate, deadpan as he may have been. Even if some part of him believed that climbing was truly the best of human pursuits, he accepted the fact that not everyone agreed. Just like my wife’s love for me, he knew his admiration for climbing wasn’t mutually exclusive with other people’s equally fervent love for other things.

And in a way, my friend and I were both right. Climbing is the best… but so is mountain biking, ice skating, and sure, why not, cup stacking. As long as there are people to love them, there is no sport that is not the best, thus rendering moot the very idea of “best.”

This type of open thinking underlies Alex Lowe’s ever-popular (and much-debated) quote, “The best climber is the one having the most fun.” If we all spent less time worrying about who or what was best, and more time doing what we love best, well, I believe we’d all be a happier and more fulfilled lot.

I’m also willing to admit you might not see it that way.

 

*This story, called “Everything is Best,” and many others like it can be found in the exceptional Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. 

 

 

You Haven’t Heard of Mary Oliver?

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

This isn’t my first blog post about the poet Mary Oliver, but it’s the first to see the light of day. I abandoned the others because they kept straying into the realm of dry, academic analysis. When writing about serious writers, you see, I tend to get an inferiority complex — do I dare comment on the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with anything less than polished, incisive, and heavily annotated prose? Do I have the right to even utter Oliver’s name without having read and considered carefully her entire oeuvre? And the words of the many critics who have critiqued her work? And her biographical information? Soon, instead of a quick blog about a poet I rather enjoy, I felt like I was looking down the barrel of a graduate thesis.

But then I reminded myself of a few things:

  1. We are all going to die someday. Maybe soon.
  2. This is my personal blog. It is not the New York Fucking Times. And even if it was the NY F”ing T, that still doesn’t mean everything has to be a work of genius — it just has to say something interesting in an interesting way. I’ve read plenty of sub-genius writing in the Times and The New Yorker and National Geographic. Genius is a very high bar; if you’ll settle for nothing less, then you’ll end up with nothing at all.
  3. My goal here isn’t to convince you, dear reader, that I am the world’s foremost Mary Oliverologist or some sort of poetry expert, but to share something cool with you. The truth is, I haven’t read all — or even most — of Oliver’s 26 books of poetry. In fact, I only own one of those books, called House of Light. And that one didn’t even win a Pulitzer (!). But still, I have read enough of her writing over the years to know that she is worth reading.
  4. Oliver, now 76 years old, is both popular (as poets go) and controversial (in that several critics have given her bum reviews, despite, or because, of this popularity). But whatever any critic thinks of her, I find something of great value in her writing. Therefore, I am under no obligation to defend her, only to share what it is about her that I find to be so valuable. If you agree or disagree, I would be honored if you’d opine in the comments section below.

Now, in brief, my explanation of why you should pick up House of Light and other books by Mary Oliver:

First
She is a master of language. After studying literature in college and getting an MFA in poetry, I have yet to encounter a writer who more powerfully evokes the sensual aspects of nature than does Oliver. Three examples of many (many!):

“the mossy hooves /of dreams, including / the spongy litter / under tall trees.”

“Now the soft / eggs of the salamander / in their wrapping of jelly / begin to shiver. … Off they go, / hundreds of them, / like the black / fingerprints of the rain.”

“the soft rope of a water moccasin / slid down the red knees /of a mangrove, the hundred of ribs / housed in their smooth, white / sleeves of muscle …”

Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"
Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"

Second

Oliver uses the images of nature to great affect in exploring the biggest, most unanswerable of human questions. She uses them as a lens through which to view being and consciousness, the existence  (or lack thereof) of God or god-like beings. She ties together the religious and philosophical traditions of the West and the East, mingling thoughts of Buddha (see: “The Buddha’s Last Instructions“) with the images of Christianity (see: “Snake” as well as the various examples of serpent imagery and references to Jesus throughout the House of Light) with the intense love of nature of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. In Emerson’s view, nature was the the inexhaustible source of our greatest understanding. Oliver seems to have taken this to heart, making nature the subject of nearly every poem, the wordless teacher of every important lesson we need to know. In “Lilies,” she even manages to reference a Zen story, which in turn references the alignment between Christian and Zen principles. She writes:

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea. …

Then compare that to the Zen story “Not Far From Buddhahood,” in which a student reads the following Bible passage to his master “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27). The master, on hearing the passage, offers, sagely, “Whoever uttered these words, I consider an enlightened man.”

Lily of the field
Lily of the field

With all of Oliver’s references to Buddhism, it’s hard to imagine she did not read this Zen story. Or, if she did not, it is still hard to imagine she did not read the passage from Luke and see the similarities to what today we would call an Eastern way of thinking. It is a wonderful connection that re-orders the world. We humans could learn a thing or two from the lilies that “melt without protest” on the tongues of the cattle. We could be more at piece with the true nature of our circumstances. But that is not our nature. But we are part of nature. And the serpent eats its own tail…

Third
Because almost every poem in House of Light is about death, in a roundabout way. And since, as I mentioned, we are all going to die (maybe soon), and if you roll that all up with the first two reasons for picking up a Mary Oliver book, you will see that what I am talking about is poetry with an existential purpose. This woman has for over 50 years been intently observing and considering nature, herself, humankind, consciousness, time, and death and has, in her poetry, communicated a vision of the world that very few of us will ever have the time, effort, or talent to formulate. She is offering us an insight into something at once greater than ourselves and within ourselves.

And she does it in a way that is in perfect accord with our times. Unlike the old masters, Oliver speaks in the parlance of our times, in a language that even the least poetically inclined can make sense of without a thesaurus or the help of a teacher. She is carrying on an age-old tradition and doing the poet’s work.

This may not be the golden age of poetry, but that fact does not diminish one whit the value of today’s poetry. Mary Oliver may have sold some goodly number of books in her day, but I do not think most of my friends and acquaintances have been the ones purchasing them. Chances are, you have not been, either. So take this as an excuse to spend a little of that latté money on something with more enduring value. And also, take a walk in the woods.

National Poetry Month and the Head of a Dead Cat

I was standing at my kitchen counter before dawn last week, eating Greek yogurt and listening to NPR, as is my daily feel-good liberal ritual, when the newscaster offered up an interesting tidbit that made me pause. For most people, this news would have passed un-reacted to, but from me it elicited a good old-fashioned knee slap. “Well hey, what do you know?!” I said to the empty room. “April is National Poetry Month!” I was a little bit embarrassed that this had escaped my attention, since I spent two years and many thousands of good dollars earning a masters of fine arts in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Though I may be excused, perhaps, in light of the fact that I also was unaware of Easter’s approach until it was actually Easter (“What’s with all the plastic eggs in the neighbor’s yard?”). Likewise with Passover (“What’s with all the lamb’s blood on the neighbor’s doorpost?”). Still, I’ve had a much closer relationship with poetry than I have with any organized religion.

A masters in poetry is a rare thing, but for all its rareness, it isn’t particularly valued by society at large. Aside from my professors and classmates in the poetry program, I can’t recall ever meeting another person who saw fit to invest in an advanced poetry degree. No, the (sad?) truth is, poetry today is regarded as either easy, rhyming drivel of the sort found in self-help literature and greeting cards, or as an opaque, elitist exercise enjoyable only for those with afore-mentioned degrees. Even in the age of the Internet, where a premium is put on bite-sized content chunks, the imminently digestible stanzas of contemporary poetry are rarely shared. My Facebook friends quote movies, songs, and the odd snippet of philosophy, but rarely do I catch a sonnet, an ode, or even a rhymed couplet ticking by on the feed. (The haiku and the limerick are the most notable counterexamples, but these are typically made to suit less-than-honorable ends.)

Maybe it’s because poetry, really good poetry, if I may be so bold as to judge, doesn’t yield easily to passing glances and cursory interpretation. You have to be in the right state of mind if you want to get the meat out of the poetic nut, and willing to work at it. The poetic form is unfamiliar; it’s not how people talk. Like a magic show, a poem asks the audience to suspend its disbelief. Poetry is not like a piece of fiction, riddled with cliffhangers, or a movie with a simple, arc-shaped plot — it is at once more abstract and more complex, full of quantum possibility. Poetry requires the reader to empty his or her cup, metaphorically speaking, before learning what the poem has to offer. In short, there are so many barriers between the average reader and a poem, it’s no wonder we need a specially designated month just to remind us that poems are out there.

And to make matters worse, not all poems are good. Just as most anythings are crappy, so are most attempts at poetry failures, in that they don’t communicate with even the most ideal, receptive reader. Most poems are full of unexamined clichés and easy sentiments borrowed from the greeting cards mentioned earlier. A good and potent poem really is a rare thing, even rarer than an MFA in poetry.

Sometimes when I think of poetry and its paradoxical value, I think of the story of Sozen, a Chinese Zen master and poet. Sozen claimed the head of a dead cat was the most valuable thing in the world, because “no one can name its price.” The idea being that things of true value cannot be sold or purchased. The value of a poem to the human spirit is much like the value of Nature, with a capital “N”. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature”, “The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape… . This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.”

In the end, National Poetry Month, initiated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, feels a bit like wishful thinking. As if a month in poesy’s honor would rekindle the passions of readers everywhere. And yet… . And yet my own poetic inclinations, long in a state of suspended animation, have begun to stir. (It is fitting that National Poetry Month would be in T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month.”) I think they only needed an excuse. And in a way, any holiday or day of recognition is really no more than that: an excuse to think about ourselves, our friends and family, our countrymen and women, God or gods, or the universe in a different way. After three-hundred plus days a year of routine and rigmarole, it can hardly hurt to pause and appraise things from a new angle. So, in that way, National Poetry Month is a success, at least for this one-time poet who has drifted away from verse.

I get the feeling that now it’s time to dampen the ol’ quill and start scratching away on brittle parchment once again. Or maybe it’s just time to take up some of the many books of poetry I’ve accumulated over the years. In books, I’ve found, the words are static, but the perspective of the reader is different with every read. With this in mind, I’m excited to revisit my old favorites and see how their words sound to me now: Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Yeats, Keats, Bishop, Pound… . I expect I’ll find new and inestimably valuable things in their metaphors and meter.

If you have a poetry collection on your shelf, I can only implore you to select a book long unopened and begin to read. If you have no poetry at your fingertips and no dollars in your purse, turn to the Internet, wellspring of free content. Head to poets.org and look to the right side of the page — the list of popular contemporary and historical poets is as good a place to start as any. I can almost guarantee you will find great worth in their words, at least as much as in the head of a dead cat, the most valuable thing in the world.

Chris Sharma and the Difficult Balance

Letting Go: Chris Sharma and Mark Coleman from Prana Living on Vimeo.

“Some of these things are so difficult, I have to want it more than anything else in the world. It has to mean so much. But that can work against me…”
— Chris Sharma

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, although the title of this blog comes from a Zen story, I’m no Buddhist. Like a bird building a nest from odd scraps and detritus, I take only the parts of Buddhist philosophy I need and leave the rest. The concept in Buddhism that seems to resonate most with me is the lesson of non-attachment.

In the video above, there’s this exchange between Chris Sharma and “Mindful Living Ambassador” Mark Coleman:

Coleman: You’re balancing the intense desire…to achieve something — but as you say you can’t do that and be tight, because it just contracts everything: body, mind, and your climbing — so how do you balance holding a goal, and at the same time not being attached.

Sharma: It’s a difficult balance, because, if you don’t take it seriously, then why even try so hard?

Here the riddle of greatness is stated clearly. And, of course, the video never actually answers any questions, only identifies the challenge. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Sharma. He probably strikes it more often than most, and yet he cannot express how to strike it. It is something you must seek without seeking. You must care, and work, and try… and then it just happens.

In Zen, similarly, to reach enlightenment is the goal, but the means of reaching it involve not focusing on the goal. Like Zen koans, the logical inconsistency is uncomfortable to the brain, like an Escher print. However, with assiduous practice and constant repetition, one can enter the state of doing without trying.

Chris Sharma at RocTrip China
Chris Sharma at Petzl RocTrip China

Many classic Zen stories identify a moment of sudden awakening. For example: a monk is walking through the market and overhears a conversation between butcher and customer. The customer asks which cut of meat is the best. The butcher answers that they are all the best; he carries no cut that is not the best. And with that, the monk is enlightened. (So simple, but what the story doesn’t mention is the many years the monk would have spent in a state of constant effort, trying to understand the nature of existence.)

In my life, I try to hold many goals in mind, but to hold them lightly. A violinist should not clutch his bow, nor a painter her brush. Similarly, to make use of our bodies, we must practice letting go, loosening ourselves until we are pliable like a reed and not stiff like a dry old stick. In climbing, constant tension is the enemy, always defeating us on our way to the top. In life, too, a constant clenching of the mind is self-defeating.

To know this intellectually is simple — just a matter of linking one word to the next. But to live it every moment, now that truly is a difficult balance.

Zen Story: A Cup of Tea

A cup of tea

A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The above story is the first in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones. It sets the tone perfectly, reminding the reader that before the page is turned, it is important to empty one’s mind as completely as possible.

This is very hard to accomplish in our day-to-day lives, because we cling with every ounce of our being to our assumptions, possessions, and desires. The value we place on material things or accomplishments or the opinions of others is gravitational. It is in our genetic code and our cultural code. But as we all must die, and not one scrap of these things can accompany us, it is really for the best that we understand our desires and fears in this larger perspective.

At the end of the 1990 movie Jacob’s Ladder, there is a scene where a sage chiropractor (Danny Aiello) offers advice to the protagonist, Jacob (Tim Robbins). Jacob has been having terrible hallucinations — men with faces distorted and blurred, eyeless doctors operating on him against his will, his girlfriend being molested by a demonic lizard at a party — and we’ve learned that he was a soldier in Vietnam. [Spoiler alert] At a certain point, we come to realize that Jacob was actually killed in Vietnam, and that the entire movie is comprised of the last moments of his tortured consciousness, played out in his expiring brain. The fantastic hallucinations make sense in this context, and the context of the chiropractor’s words: “If you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth.”

In this sense, the entire movie is the efforts of Jacob’s brain to make peace with his life and his death. This is something we all must do, whether we are young or old, sick or in fine health. We should always operate with the understanding that our time is limited. It gives us a certain sense of urgency about things. That we must not pass our days feeling afraid, anxious, or full of regret. Better to fill our time with things that bring us and others happiness. Better to treat every moment as the start of an existence filled with infinite potential.

Although I don’t know if Steve Jobs was a happy or well-balanced man, I do know that he was a powerful thinker, capable of seeing through to the inner kernel of a matter. In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, now very famous, he offered this statement, a bare, resonating filament of truth:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

When Jobs gave this commencement (view it here), he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would claim his life. He spoke as a great mind, but also as one who is forced to look his own end square in the eye. Such an encounter can leave a person hopeless and depressed. (And it is likely that Jobs felt these things, at times.) But ultimately his message was one of acceptance and understanding. More, he saw death as necessary — a thing that actually gives meaning to life.

We are all headed this way, and we have all always been headed this way. Will you attempt to ignore that truth? Will you let it drain the marrow from your life? Or will you use it as a source of energy and meaning, powering you to make the world greater than when you entered it? Every day, we must empty our cup and approach life full of excitement for the time we have. Humbled. Naked.


Zen Story: Not Far From Buddhahood

Buddha and The ScripturesA little Saturday night Zen.

“Not Far From Buddhahood” is one of my favorites. When I was a child, my father used to read to us after dinner from both the Old Testament and from Zen Flesh Zen Bones (the source of the story below; you can purchase a copy here, if you like it). At the time, any similarities between Western and Eastern wisdom were lost on me. Now, I’ve come to believe that a universal kernel of truth resides at the heart of our many human philosophies.

Organized religions always seem loathe to acknowledge that truth is not exclusive to one belief system. Zen tends not to have this problem. I do not think it’s fair to say I’m a Zen Buddhist or Zen practitioner, but certainly Zen is the closest thing to the constantly evolving Open Source Philosophy that I’ve created and live by. This story does a good job of expressing the Zen belief that truth can be found anywhere, from the petals of a flower to the Christian Bible.

-TBL

Not Far From Buddhahood

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: “Have you ever read the Christian Bible?”

“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.

The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these…Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.”

The student continued reading: “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, is shall be opened.”

Gasan remarked: “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”

Zen Story: The Blockhead Lord

Zen Temple

Today’s Zen story is about power, wisdom, ego, honesty, and manipulation. It can be read, along with 100 other great Zen stories at 101zenstories.com.

The Blockhead Lord*

Two Zen teachers, Daigu and Gudo, were invited to visit a lord. Upon arriving, Gudo said to the lord: “You are wise by nature and have an inborn ability to learn Zen.”

“Nonsense,” said Daigu. “Why do you flatter this blockhead? He may be a lord, but he doesn’t know anything of Zen.”

So, instead of building a temple for Gudo, the lord built it for Daigu and studied Zen with him.

Gudo’s tactic of flattery did not go over well. Daigu spoke bluntly, without much tact, and the lord saw this as a sign of Daigu’s superior grasp of Zen. Ironically, the fact that the lord chose to build a temple for Daigu may well have proved Gudo right. Who was the more perceptive of the two? Who the more honest? Perhaps Daigu’s remark was only a more complex form of manipulation. One can never be so sure….

The Blockhead Lord

(*If you like this story, consider buying the excellent book Zen Flesh Zen Bones)