It’s easy to feel we have ‘let go’ of our fears in meditation. But if you really want to test the idea, says Shraddhasiddhi, try climbing the nearest rockface
I have just returned from a climbing trip to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. It took us about three hours to drive from urban Los Angeles to this remote location, where the high and low desert meet. Picture dramatic snow-capped mountain peaks set alongside the eerie Joshua trees themselves and the warm sand of the desert floor. This is a place where dope-smoking hippies live side by side with climbers and walkers, drawn together by a wilderness where the coyotes cry from the rocks and roadrunner birds sprint manically between the desert shrubs.
Nothing in the gym really prepares you for outdoor climbing. The wind flying through your hair, the sun on the back of your neck, the rock so raw and unpolished hurting your hands and your feet as you try to place both as carefully and skilfully as you can. It is truly exhilarating, and as with any activity you try to master, most of it is in your mind. Every day that we climbed, I would really see how well as I working with my mind. You have good days and bad days: some days I would give up in despair, my body feeling tight, my mind proliferating like mad: ‘Why can’t I make that move? Why is it not working today?’ Other days, on other climbs, I would soar like a bird.
My first experience of rock climbing was a case of clinging on for dear life – aged twelve, pulling my body up the dark, steep rock-face of a quarry in north Wales. My second was no less a case of clinging on for dear life, although this time I was 38, scaling a gym wall in an old converted church in north Manchester.
So they had that clinging in common. But that second time, something struck me: there is something in the experience that turns everything on its head. It’s a strange juxtaposition, something you never really get used to: harnessed to a rope, you’re perfectly safe, but every instinct you have in you is saying you’re not. What I noticed as I clung to that wall in north Manchester was that my ego rose up very strongly. ‘I hate this,’ I thought: I felt so vulnerable and desperate, so hopeless. But what would it be like, I wondered, if I tried to master it? I had found something that I felt like a complete beginner at, and that was refreshing. It reminded me of the last time that had happened, about fifteen years ago, when I took up meditation at the London Buddhist. Centre. So for me, clinging onto a wall in North Manchester I knew intuitively that I had discovered something worth pursuing, and just as meditation had been immensely good for me, so too would climbing prove to be.
It reminded me of the tightness and clinging that we often find so hard to let go of in meditation. In meditation we’re looking for a state of energised calm, where all our energies are running together.
And climbers often chase this state of ‘energised calm’ too (traditionally called ‘Samadhi’), although in sport it’s referred to as ‘flow’, or being ‘in the zone’. When all our energies are running together like this, we’re able to access an enhanced state of awareness. The football feels larger, easier to kick; the tennis ball and racket are somehow in suspended animation and hitting the sweet-spot is effortless. Even our sense of duality is weakened, so in climbing, you can feel like you’ve merged with the rock or the wall, and there is no real separation between you, your body and the surface you’re holding on to: they’ve somehow become enmeshed. It literally feels like ‘you’ have managed to get out of the way, and there is just a body that is climbing.
There’s a trap in this, though, just like there is in meditation. When you feel that you have mastered it, you forget all the struggles it took to get you there. Over those six days of climbing in Joshua Tree, I had a more vivid experience of the highs and lows of my mind. The trip kept me grounded: there is so much more to discover, so much more to experience. There’s the fear, the sense of failure when you can’t make a move, the sense of flow when it all comes together. There’s all this humanness to work with.
If you want to know how far you’ve come towards the perfect equanimity of the Buddha, try climbing up a wall. It shows you both how far you’ve come, and how far there is to go. ■