Zen and The Art of Rock Climbing

It’s true that I was a bit hung over when the puerto rican invited me to go “rock climbing” at an indoor gym nearby. It wasn’t exactly the preferred regiment for nursing a post alcoholic condition—a situation normally requiring gallons of water, bananas, and a Netflix account to fully cure. However, it was only the night before that she and I, the german, and the korean had partied hard, and somehow, this pursuit of extreme exercise seemed like the best way to earn our guilt-free-weekend cards. The truth about it is, we’ve all managed to make it this far without becoming the horrible embarrassing failures our parents warned us about, and we aren’t about to start now.

Little did I know what I was in for. If you’ve never attempted rock climbing in its purest form, called “bouldering”, which is essentially free climbing without ropes or harnesses, get ready to ride the little bus to school. The intensity of the sport itself is enough to faze even the most jaded Black Ops addict. Yet, the way in which this physical challenge demands of you is actually a lot more subtle. Free from the complexity of conventional rules and equipment, it’s really the simplicity of free climbing that kills you. And the shock isn’t merely physical either, there’s a mental meltdown associated with the  juxtapositional relationship of a simple task that proves to be extremely difficult. Much like the infamous challenge of merely sitting still during meditation, rock climbing presents a similarly unique demand with a simple stupid objective: “Get up there”. But getting up there requires no real previous knowledge or special training—it doesn’t even require huge muscles (I’ve got almost no surplus muscle mass and I’ve seen people leaner than I get to the top like they were walking up a damn flight of steps).

People talk about training and innate athleticism, but these don’t mean anything when it comes to rock climbing. Everyone who climbs for the first time, does so with a relative handicap. If your arms are big and strong, your fingers are not. If your fingers are strong, they have never gripped rock so hard, and your skin will tear and blister. If your skin is tough and weathered, your forearms will fatigue and give out. If all is well with your arms and fingers, your legs are clumsy and your toes will not grip. If all is well with your body, you lack the mental strategy to choose the best path. Though people could tell you what it’s like to climb, from the ground, you can’t solve the challenges of where to put your hands and feet, the pain of fatigue, and the fear of falling. And so, you must climb.

Truly, the only way that one can conquer the wall is simply to climb, and climb, and climb, and eventually, they will train themselves naturally to traverse the many rock holdings and footings that lead to the top. To be sure, the holdings and footings vary in their size, shape, and helpfulness, but they never change. We cannot will them into being what we want them to be. Much like the many events in our lives, the places we put our hands and feet to lift us higher do not change at our command; they exist only as they are. It’s how we use them that decides both our ascent or our downfall.

The journey upward is an intense battle I had not anticipated. The puerto rican, with her lean muscle and long limbs, and the german, with his massive upper body and adept coordination, were seasoned climbers. The korean and I, on the other hand, were dead weight. We were those people you see in the movies that get cut from the rope just to save the others. Everyone’s sad for a minute, but we all know those dudes had to go. It’s the only way. Yet, though we were pathetic, we never gave up. There’s a purity to the whole process, and even the process itself—to some degree—is purifying. It’s the kind of thing you hear about when people are on their death beds—suddenly, everything important becomes obvious: money doesn’t matter, careers don’t matter, and neither does how many chicks/dudes you banged in college. At such times, all the illusions and delusions that once crowded your vision, are swept away and you end up living in the pure clarity of the moment.  

Needless to say, what preconceptions I had about my athletic ability, coordination, and physical intelligence, was put to shame. If you’re ever in a masochistic kind of mood and looking to destroy your self esteem, rock climbing is a good start. The korean and I had our small victories, but we spent most of our time watching the puerto rican and the german hang upside on walls with a 45 degree back pitch. The back bending walls created the ceiling of a cave that the german navigated with expert senses, drawing bodies and eyes to his direction as onlookers marveled at his perseverance and calm. His better half, the puerto rican, drew equal admiration for the elegant wielding of her slender limbs in the fight against gravity. They were spectacular. They were what we all wanted to be, both on the wall and in our own lives: a working body of calm, together, in a dance of excellence with natural forces.

Though we watched in awe of the masters before us, the korean and I were not yet defeated. It came just as we had given up, the muscles of our forearms bulging in desperate pain. Just the mere thought of having to grip yet another stone made us weak at the knees and reaching for a white flag. Truthfully, we were done. But, then, the korean had an idea: she wanted to try one last time to climb a full wall before retiring for good. Naturally I encouraged her, but dared not to reveal my doubts.

There was hope in the early part of her ascent, but trouble quickly came as she neared the top. An extended reach upward with her right hand to the next rock, her fingers slipped, leaving her entire body to the mercy of her failing left hand. She screamed. The slip had shifted the weight of her body, throwing her away from the wall and into the greedy arms of gravity. It looked like she was done for, that perhaps (were there not a crash pad below), in the following seconds, we’d be mopping her off the floor. But, just then, something happened that I didn’t expect: the korean didn’t die. No one called for the mops or the buckets; we wouldn’t be needing those. Amazingly, the korean pulled herself back to the wall with her anchored hand and grabbed the next hold, pulling herself to the finishing point. She had overcome and made it.

So inspired by her triumph and victory dance, I could find no way to refuse climbing one more time, despite my muscle fatigue. When I approached the wall, I was almost 100% certain that I wouldn’t make it to the top, yet, the korean’s calls of victory and encouragement from the sidelines got me high. It took only 10 seconds to reach the top. I had made it.

The beauty and calm found in rock climbing lies with its fundamental demand of your complete focus. This simple, yet challenging task is one that allows no room for distractions, and so, in that focus, one can find true peace. Much like meditation, it is this singular focusing ability, cultivated over time, which enables the climber to align themselves with the natural tune of life.

Final Thoughts.

You know, ever since the Internet became the new kid on the block it’s been able to sell us this idea that complexity equals value. We’ve marveled so much at our own creation, at the flickering lights of seemingly magical intricacy, that the philosophical conclusion, “More is Better”, seems to be the only one that makes sense. These days, people don’t want to hear about responsible food, clean water and loving relationships; they want their protein shakes and HD cable bills, processed cereals, and internet sex chats; they want to go to fitness centers and electrolysis appointments, and wait for two hours to get on a ride that lasts 30 seconds. And so, we don’t just passively allow for the circumstances of our own demise, we actively participate in them; we actually insist on filling our lives with lots of extras in the hope that some combination will yield this elusive state we call happiness.

It’s no secret that concepts of simplicity and moderation scare most people—mostly it’s because they give the implication of hindering one’s freedom to make choices—to always choose more and more. We worry that simple is boring, or that, in the practice of moderation we are missing something. We get crazy about these ideas and try to intellectualize everything instead of trusting our intuition. Often times, we imagine that there is more to the story. We have trouble accepting the way things are and we loose touch with ourselves and how best to find balance and focus. The truth is that simple things help us to cultivate focus. Intensive singular focus activities like rock climbing, reading, and meditation are not just fundamental ways of relaxing and relieving stress, they are methods of transforming how we see the world and how we live our lives.

Matthew Rosario

American / Writer / Musician