Zen and the Art of Rock Climbing
A sort-of book review
Back in the autumn of 2021 I climbed my first 7b sport route, the culmination of a year and a half of dedicated effort. After breaking my leg in a serious trad climbing accident in Spring 2020, I had finally dragged myself back from the very bottom. The day before the accident I had redpointed 7a+. 18 months later, after 3 months in a cast, 2 surgeries, countless hours of physio, and even more hours of training, I’d finally done it: I had climbed by hardest ever route.
I lowered off, stripped the route, sat down to take off my shoes and felt…empty. I tried not to show it, pretending in front of my partner to be riding high on the stoke of the send. But inside something was definitely wrong. For the rest of the trip I felt blocked, stiff, unable to move freely, or to even really enjoy anything else I got on. A deep depression set in.
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A few months later I was climbing in southern Spain around New Year. I was trying to ‘find the joy’ again, and so was mostly just attempting to onsight 6c’s for fun. One afternoon I slipped off a polished 6b+, and the rage set in. Kicking the rock. Pissing and moaning. “Why am I so shit at climbing?!” I shouted at myself. A little while later, a girl who had been climbing nearby asked me “hey, were you on England’s Dreaming at Blacknor North last October?”. Guilty as charged. How did she know? She recognised me from my moaning.
This was a revelatory moment. It was just so embarrassing. I made such a scene when frustrated with my climbing that a complete stranger recognised me because of it. I tried to laugh it all off, to make fun of myself. But on the inside I felt waves of shame.
Something, I knew, had to change. I just wasn’t sure what.
Side-effects Not Goals
Luckily, when returning to the UK a climber friend, upon hearing these tales of woe, suggested I check out Arno Ilgner’s classic The Rock Warrior’s Way, and lent me his copy. (Which, erm, I’ve as of yet failed to return. Sorry mate!)
It was a watershed moment.
Ilgner’s core lesson is that, contrary to appearances, the truly committed rock climber is not simply trying to get to the top of any given climb. What the truly committed rock climber is seeking is ever greater mastery of the skill of climbing. After all, getting to the chains, or topping the boulder, or finishing the trad lead, are not the point. Getting to the top of some given lump of rock is itself ultimately arbitrary, without meaning. What gives the whole thing meaning is the cumulative process, over time, of developing profound skills of movement, poise, and control, and via the exercise of which one accesses unique forms of mental and physical release - of freedom.
Or as another friend recently put it to me: clipping the chains is not a goal, it’s a side-effect.
Beginning to see things this way initiated in me a profound change in perspective, albeit one that was by no means easy or quick, and which I have had to make a continuous efforts to consolidate over the past year and a half. But the benefits to both my state of mind and my climbing performance have been huge.
After all, if the goal is not simply to get to the top, but to continuously get better at the skill of climbing over a lifetime of effort, then if I fall off this redpoint burn, or don’t top this boulder, then it inherently does not matter. As long as I’m learning and improving then the day is by definition not a waste, no matter how many dogs and DNFs go into my logbook.
Likewise, screaming in frustration and making a huge scene at the crag becomes self-evidently of waste of time. That isn’t learning; it isn’t helping me refine the true goal of mastery and improvement. So what’s the point in it? Just let it go.
And why was I ever behaving that way in the first place? Because my ego was desperate to tick the route as a way of achieving a temporary, fleeting form of validation through a crude goal-reward mechanism more fit for a dog than a human being. And when I failed, and was flailing around screaming, what I was really trying to impress on other people was that I hold myself to higher standards; I can climb harder than this; honestly, please believe me, I’m good at climbing!…an ego trip in the most banal sense. After all, nobody else at the crag ever gave a fuck whether I sent or not. It was all in my head. My ego. What a mess.
Letting go of all that (slowly, haltingly) has been a liberation.
The Zen of Climbing
Enter Francis Sanzaro’s new book The Zen of Climbing, which I picked up by chance in an independent book store a few weeks ago.
In many ways, The Zen of Climbing covers the same ground as The Rock Warrior’s Way. That might seem like damning with faint praise – but nothing could be further from the truth.
First, because for my money The Zen of Climbing does a better job of imparting the fundamental insights on offer than RWW. I never actually managed to finish RWW, largely because Ilgner goes in for a level of mystical woo-woo that my brain, tempered for too long in the fires of Anglophone analytic philosophy, simply cannot get along with. (I’m not alone in this; many people find the mysticism of RWW grating.) What’s refreshing about Sanzaro (who holds a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, and it shows) is that he guides the reader through some of the insights available from Zen philosophy in a direct, bullshit-free manner. Like all the best philosophers, he understands that being profound and sounding profound are often two very different things.
Second, because even if The Zen of Climbing in many ways teaches the same fundamental lessons as RWW – the importance of skill, of practice, of climbing not for the ego or for the rewards of goal-ticking, but for the deep satisfaction that can only come from achieving greater perfection for its own sake – it is important to have these lessons re-stated. Around the time I first read RWW, I also started going to therapy, mainly to deal with long-standing issues around depression and anger. Unsurprisingly, many of the goal-driven pathologies I exhibited in climbing also featured in other parts of my life – most obviously, organising my sense of self-worth around my academic output and my status in the field. (“If only I can send 7b/publish another paper in a top journal, surely then I’ll finally be happy…”).
What my therapist has helped me to see is not only that this is all a hiding to nothing, but that it’s also no surprise to find it incredibly hard to break free of the mental trap of thinking this way. He calls it the skill of ‘remembering to remember’. That it’s one thing knowing, in the abstract, that one’s behaviour is counter-productive to making oneself happier. It’s quite another to remember to remember, in the moment, that one is indeed sabotaging oneself. (Or as he also puts it: ‘if any of this was simple, I’d be out of a job’.) What The Zen of Climbing is outstandingly good at is helping one to remember to remember what one might already think one knows about why one climbs, but which it is so incredibly easy to forget.
Third, it is no bad thing if The Zen of Climbing and RWW end up in basically the same place so long as that place is the right one to be in. Over the past year I’ve been increasingly struck by how many seemingly different intellectual traditions – from ancient Stoicism, to vipassana mediation, to the psychoanalytic school of logotherapy, to Zen Buddhism, to the moral philosophy of Adam Smith – end up converging on the same answers regarding what makes life finally fulfilled and happy. (Spoiler: decreased attachment to the ego and to fleeting material rewards; increased focus on being present in experience and finding contentment in what one already has.) Sanzaro, after all, isn’t actually trying to be especially original in this book. He’s trying to show climbers what they can learn from a tradition that is already several millennia old. And he does it very well.
I’m aware that I haven’t really said much about what The Zen of Climbing is actually, y’know, about. And that’s kind of on purpose; I think the book would be much less good than it is if I could effectively summarise it in the style of a typical book review. Really, I just recommend reading it for yourself and seeing what you get from it.
Nonetheless, the following is worth stating up front.
Against the popular common misconception of ‘being zen’ as a sort of apathy, a withdrawal or detachment from the world, Sanzaro emphasises that Zen is in fact a mode of being within the world. The central way that he characterises this is the distinction between ‘small mind’ and ‘big mind’. Small mind is the petty, ego-attached, way of being in the world that wants gratification, validation, goal-ticks, and tangible rewards. It’s the way of being in the world that most of us have spent most of our lives cooped up in, thinking that this is just the way life is.
Big mind is the invitation to exist in a different mode: one that sees the beauty of these movements, in this time and in this place – of this experience – as something not to be snatched and bagged and claimed as an achievement for me, but just to be experienced as what it is.
Back to the Rock
This is in danger of sounding awfully pretentious, so let me dial it back in.
A couple of weeks ago I was climbing in Kalymnos, trying a beautiful 7b at Odyssey. Unfortunately, on my first redpoint go I decided to run it out and skip a bolt, fluffing the sequence to a thank-god jug, and taking a monster whip. Despite not having my leg behind the rope, there was so much slack in the system due to the run-out that my heel caught it anyway on the way down, and I got flipped upside down, slamming back-first into the wall. (Yeah, turns out that is possible.) Not fun; not pleasant. Certainly not Zen.
Determined to get straight back on the horse, I opted to try and redpoint again the very next go. Despite having cruised the lower section on the previous tie-in, this time things were (unsurprisingly) not going so well. I felt blocked, tense. My biceps were cramping. I was nervous about falling again, and getting hurt (what Sanzaro calls the ask – the prospect of real hazard that gives climbing its unique edge). I pulled into the big hands-free rest beneath the crux, and my mind was racing all over the place.
And then I did something different. I stepped back and checked in with myself. These racing thoughts, these feelings – all the product of small mind. What if I tried big mind instead?
I rested for 5 minutes. I thought about how lucky I was to be on this island, at this amazing crag, enjoying the freedom to move on this rock. I thought about how I’d feel if I clipped the chains, and how I’d feel if I didn’t. I thought about what I’d learn either way. I thought about how much more skilled I’ve become than I was a year ago, let alone 5. I thought about how it was OK to be a little fearful, so long as the fear didn’t rule me. Then I tried not to think for a little while. I tried to let big mind be my mode of being in the world.
Calm and now focused, I pulled on and dispatched the crux. Then I fought to the top. And it was a fight. Zen isn’t the same thing as being indifferent or lax; there is a time to try hard, as well as a time to not try hard (as Sanzaro himself emphasizes – though interestingly, I hadn’t gotten to that part of the book yet). I of course felt satisfaction at clipping the chains. But not the satisfaction of merely ticking the route. The satisfaction of existing in the world, for a little while, for the sake of the world rather than myself. At having become a little more shokunin (I’ll leave that one for you to find out about for yourselves).
And that’s the paradox that The Zen of Climbing engages so wonderfully, and helps show us how to make sense of. That to climb your best, and to have the best climbing experiences, you ultimately have to stop wanting it so much. You have to learn when and how to let go, as itself a way of better taking hold. Not that it’s always straightforward: you have to keep remembering to remember. As with climbing, so with being the best climber you can be: if it was easy, it wouldn’t be hard. And then, what would be the point?
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