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A Taoist Approach to Rockclimbing
By Rick Medrick

The popular image of rockclimbing depicts a desperate clinging to small holds poised on the verge of a bottomless abyss--rather than an avenue for joy and self-transcendence. Yet it is this very death-defying paradox which attracts both the novice and the expert, rarely but sometimes fatally, to this seemingly perilous but alluring sport. To be poised, instant upon instant, on the edge of imminent dissolution brings to one's sense of the present a new immediacy, renders petty concerns immaterial, and focuses one's attention as few other activities can. It also provides an opportunity for accomplishment, of mastery over fear, over self-limitation and the mundane, that approaches the sublime. To take one's heart in hand, to direct one's mind and impel one's body over the seemingly insurmountable, is one more evidence of our human ability to transcend our earthbound mortality.

I doubt whether very many climbers, beginning or experienced, mull over such abstractions in the middle of a steep rock face or even a gentle friction slab. Yet, in retrospect, most people with experience of climbing voice some of these thoughts or emotions. For rockclimbing, more than any other single outdoor activity, appears to tap the subconscious fears as well as the heroic aspirations that lie hidden within most of us. The reliving of past ascents or anticipation of future attempts brings to climbers its own form of existential anguish, especially fear of failing and fear of dying. The intense relief at emerging intact, the ecstatic sense of achievement at a successful ascent, gives meaning and purpose to the agony and struggle.

There are those who speculate that rockclimbing as a sport is a throwback to our early primal days in the jungle or in flight from the sabertooth tiger. For these advocates, it is our rise above this primitive state which allows us to surmount the challenges in our lives, whether in the corporate world or perched in insignificance on a high mountain wall. Tom Patey, a famous Scottish climber, suggested that to climb with ease and abandon we need to allow the primate within us to emerge and produce a flow of movement which is as natural and instinctive as the impulse of a one year old to climb over furniture and up stairs.

The implications of this, and the lessons to be drawn from such experience, can have a profound effect on how one views one's life and choices. On a rock face, one is normally alone with the selection of each move, a specific problem to be solved and woven into the fabric of the whole. Each step involves a decision to move ahead or make a judicious or even frantic retreat. Each situation offers an opportunity to take one's life in hand, to act out each move in a complicated vertical dance, and to face one's fears and seek inward the resolve to press forward. To come to trust one's judgment, to direct one's own moves, and to take responsibility for one's choices are some of the rewards of this challenging sport.

How does all this come about? By what complex internal process does one develop the ability to act even while afraid, to focus one's complete attention on the accomplishment of a single task, to muster the wit and energy to overcome the seemingly insurmountable? In Patey's opinion, it is a "letting go" rather than a "making do." Others would suggest that it takes a finely honed control of one's mind and body to apply muscle and balance in just the right combination. I would like to suggest that it is neither and both, that the process of mastering one's self is an ineffable blend of control and release, of the practical and the ideal, of determined action and a yielding acceptance which allows one to step outside the immediate moment and view one's circumstances with a degree of dispassion.

This does not imply that climbing is a simple endeavor. Careful preparation and training is necessary to engage this sport with safety and success. As many a frustrated novice has discovered, strength is not enough or even a prerequisite for some of the most complicated and demanding climbs. More essential is a clear headed assessment of the challenge, a sense of balance, and the ability to use one's physical attributes in an economical and efficient manner.

How does one train for such a challenging sport? Climbing has such technology--from complicated equipment to knots and rope systems--that the more internal aspects of the sport often get obscured. Brightly colored slings, shiny carabiners and complex hardware, multi-hued ropes, chalk bags, and colorful clothing gives an arcane air to the social milieu in which climbers function. When all this is put aside, however, it is still one person at one moment in contact with the rock and its challenge or complexity. How each individual deals with this encounter is the essence of the climbing experience.

How do we direct attention to the internal aspects of climbing? How do we build within each climber the state of mind and resources to assimilate the learning that embraces every moment? One suggestion is to utilize the techniques that have revolutionized teaching alpine skiing and other precision sports. Using these "tools," dramatic "breakthroughs" are possible for athletes at all levels of ability. This process develops the awareness of each student to the effect of small movements and specific postures on balance and performance. It encourages the student to experiment with new concepts and engage the sport in a spirit of open dialogue and play. Advanced climbers, for example, spend hours or days, with frequent falls, to leam and refine a specific sequence of moves.

To acquire such awareness requires that a student free his or her mind of preconceptions about the sport and blocks to moving freely and taking in information which may be unfamiliar or strange. In the language of Tai Chi--a Chinese form of moving meditation and martial arts training closely akin to movement on a rock face--this means "emptying one 's cup" so that one is able to take in new information and expand one's range of perception and personal possibility.

A second vital concept is the notion of having a personal center or balance point from which all movement originates and to which one is able to return after each series of moves across the rock. This is both a physical and mental focus which allows one to feel secure or "in balance" in the midst of chaos or stress. Key to this is the ability to relax, to let go, so that one is free from tension, able to breath fully, and flexible enough to explore the entire range of movement and postures available to the human body. This is closely akin to the martial arts notion of "relaxed-alert" which enables the trained martial artist to respond to any force with just the appropriate amount of energy and effort. In climbing overuse of muscular strength and emotional energy can precipitate fatigue and failure. To apply just the correct amount of energy and strength to perform a movement with ease and grace means that one has more in reserve. Such economy of movement is the "dancing up the rock" which we observe in the expert climber.

These skills must be developed and practiced prior to approaching the rock. Fear of heights is so common that many people cease thinking effectively even a few feet above the ground. They become tense and rigid, using valuable mental and physical energy just to remain connected to the rock. Searching for a range of hand and foot holds or striving to climb smoothly and graceflilly is impossible to imagine. At such moments, one must recognize one is "off center" and recapture the sense of balance, flow, and positive adventure which allowed one to try climbing in the first place. One's ability to "re-enter" can be invaluable in many life situations.

To prepare a student to achieve this state requires careful nurturing and growing awareness on the learner's part to bodily tension and breathing, as well as a willingness to look at the mental interference which is fear generated and usually unfounded. While there are certainly objective dangers in climbing(such as falling, rockfall, failure of equipment) most of these are climber induced and can be controlled, especially in a beginning climbing situation. If the approach to the rock is carefully graduated, if the challenge of the climb and rate of progress is matched to the ability of the student, much of the threat and reason for fear can be alleviated. Because it can be so controlled, rockclimbing is actually one of the safer activities for a novice to attempt!

Preparing to climb the "centered way" involves a series of mental and physical exercises similar to those practiced in different forms of meditation and movement such as Tai Chi and yoga. Progressive relaxation training and "range of movement" stretching postures also free one for balanced movement on the rock. Exploring different modes and patterns of breathing is equally valuable, since the first response to fear is to limit one's breathing. Matching one's breath to a motion or to fill a specific need focus one's effort. Helping climbers free their minds of distractions and heighten awareness of their surroundings opens each individual to new possibilities and capacities within themselves. This kind of mental and physical preparation has proven itself highly effective for athletes in highly focused and precise sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. Such training--to relax rather than strain, let go instead of force--represents a form of psychophysical re-education--learning new, more efficient and successful patterns of functioning under pressure and stress. From a Taoist perspective, this results in wu wei, effortless doing that conforms to the whole and appears both natural and complete.

Because climbing is a sport based on patterns of movement, there is considerable value in practicing centered movement, in individual segments and in rhythmic sequences, prior to approaching the rock, and then to continue this process on the rock from the lowest angle slab to steeper and more challenging pitches. This becomes the "dance" of climbing, the graceful exploration of one's environment which dignifies rockclimbing as a form of "vertical Tai Chi."

While exploring such movement, one must continually monitor one's responses and be aware of tension, breathing, and mental distraction. By inducing such a meditative state in a safe setting away from the rock, one can become familiar with how it feels to be centered and confident in one's ability to move freely and without effort. Usually this comfort transfers to the rock, particularly if the introduction is to easy, low angle rock which one can almost walk across. As confidence builds, it is then possible to raise the level of challenge and introduce the use of ropes and belays.

To be burdened with details of equipment and procedures prior to encountering the rock as a benign and receptive partner in one's climbing intrudes technology between the climber and the element with which one must communicate. Too often a novice is frightened and dismayed by the needless complexity of a sport before having the opportunity to explore its more personal components. To approach such an activity with an open mind, to explore its connections with one's inner self before dealing with external confusion, allows one to engage this sport in its simplest dimensions. It opens the way, with considerably less trauma than being tossed into the water to learn to swim, to learning in a manner and at a pace that fits each person. It provides each individual with the power of choice and the opportunity to derive whatever value and meaning is appropriate for that activity. Insight and transcendence cannot be forced upon another but the steps to that possibility are ones to which each of us can profit by being gently led. This is a distinctly Taoist perspective which allows us to connect with our surroundings, participate in the unfolding of our immediate future, and merge with energies and forces that are inherent in nature and larger than ourselves.

The Centered Climber, which I have named this approach, is not unique. It is a universal process practiced by every athlete who has achieved some degree of skills and accomplishment in a sport. Nor does this climber always reside in a place of unbounded bliss. Inherent in the act of climbing, and living for that matter, is facing those obstacles or challenges which temporarily disrupt our balance and composure. The challenge, on skis, in a kayak on a moving river, on a rock or in a stressful social situation, is regaining one's sense of balance and belief in one's capacities to function effectively.

One of the great virtues of rockclimbing as a sport and recreational activity is that it can provide one with the repeated opportunity to experience and practice this process of regaining one's self. Even in the face of the most intense fear, each of us has a place from which we can continue to function, where the will to live and excel is ever present as a possibility. Sometimes it seems that the more extreme the risk--real or perceived--the more capacity we have to claim more of our own nature, to experience more fully the reality of our own potential.

Rick Medrick, Ed.D., is a psychologist, professional climbing guide, and founder of Outdoor Leadership Training Seminars which offers rockclimbing seminars and guided climbs in the Colorado mountains and others areas of the west. He practices Tai Chi both on and off the rock. OLTS offerings can be viewed at www.olts-bt.com or email sent to rmedrick@olts-bt.com for further information and dialogue.




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