Essay: The Dharma of Dirtbag — Five Principles of Rock Climbing & Buddhism

bhuddism and rock climbing

Picture your most recent big climb: you are high on a mountaintop, the wind blowing in your face, with the utmost stillness of the universe beckoning your consciousness towards the emancipation of realization. Oh, and you’re also Elvis-legging as you try to jam that red C3 into a finger crack above you.

How does your breath feel now?

Although the parallels between rock climbing and Buddhist practice can seem to end at the earthy likenesses of two people standing in the same Whole Foods line, the often overly sensationalized sport and philosophical principles of Buddhism align perfectly. A practitioner of both high altitude experiences, whether dharma or dirtbag,  I have found myself hearing professional and more casual climbers alike espouse tips on mental training that sound eerily similar to lessons I’ve learned on the cushion in retreat.

Take this quote from the veritable heart sutra for climbers, The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbing, by Arno Ilgner:

Performance is most easily improved not by adding things, but by removing obstacles. Maybe.

Take that one back to your Zen koan cave and call me in two years.

Not convinced yet? See how these five basic elements of Buddhist practice overlap serendipitously with rock climbing and maybe you’ll find yourself practicing walking meditation in a more vertical sense next time.

1. Suffering

Ask any climber about “Type-2 Fun” and you will get an instant grin.

This ubiquitous phrase, while not exclusive to rock climbers, can be easily described as fun that’s not enjoyable at the time but will be at the end. Akin to the distillation of the First Noble Truth that life is suffering, discomfort and pain are a prerequisite for climbers and, for some grizzled alpinists on big mountains, it is the ultimate goal.

Physical forms of suffering for climbers often take precedence and may take the form of bleeding, pushing your muscles to their ragged end, or being caught in a torrential downpour. Lesser known by those unacquainted with the sport is the rigor of mental suffering demanded by all who truly push themselves on the sharp end of the rope.

Arno Ilgner again suggests that

Difficult experiences are the way we learn, and they also are the way we can appreciate ease. We understand brightness by its contrast to dimness, happiness by its relationship to sadness.

This sounds strangely similar to Vietnamese monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s seminal advice of “No mud, no lotus,” which suggests that rather than running from suffering, we must hold it dear to us and allow ourselves to grow from it.

2. Impermanence

While Buddhist practitioners may have a thorough knowledge of the impermanence of all mental and physical forms in the cycle of Samsara, they may still learn something from climbers.

Those well invested in the art of vertical ascent will tell you that there is no shortage of moments in which they have known with absolute certainty that they could not do a move or finish a climb; their bodies and minds were absolutely spent and there was no hope of moving forward. And yet, these stories often continue; they merely stepped up on that one miniscule foothold or pulled up on that ridiculously small quartz crystal and moved forward.

Climbing, just like Buddhist practice, forces our minds and bodies to push through the vicissitudes of our physical and mental experiences. While in meditation we may experience extremely discomforting mental forms but if we sit long enough and apply enough focus, we realize these always pass. As with a difficult climb, the only answer is to stay and apply our practice in the face of ever-changing circumstances.

3. Flow

Some Buddhist practitioners are more familiar with this concept than others. In the Zen tradition, of course, flow is paramount and refers to the stillness of mind that feels effortless and ongoing. This is perhaps most associated in popular culture with professional athletes, who often self-describe the flow state as merely being “on,” and can be thought of as the cumulative experience of being so deeply in touch with your craft, through rehearsal and practice, that you do not even have to use your thinking mind to execute perfectly.

Perhaps most associated with flow in the climbing world is famous free-soloist (climbing without ropes or any safety gear) Alex Honnold who once told an interviewer that, “I’m not thinking about anything when I’m climbing, which is part of the appeal. I’m focused on executing what’s in front of me.” Honnold’s climbs typify the flow state, which demands being fully present. He must execute every move perfectly, being completely aware of his body moving through space, in order to survive.

4. Acceptance

Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, asks,

What would it be like if I could accept life—accept this moment—exactly as it is?

While we as Buddhists may struggle, if irreverently, towards the type of acceptance Brach outlines, rock climbers are often forced to come to these terms with little choice. When on a wall there is no lying to yourself or others about the thunder and lightning that may be edging its way closer and closer up the valley. The luxury of denying the truth or refusing to accept current circumstances is simply not available.

For more seasoned climbers this also entails a genuine recognition and acceptance of ego, which may be hurt or shamed when physically or mentally unable to finish a certain climb. These veteran dirtbags will tell you that there is no use in pretending you can perform a move or know a skill on the rock that you don’t because the consequence could quite easily be death.

5. Death

Perhaps interwoven most closely with acceptance, for both Buddhists and climbers, is the notion of death.

While some Buddhist practitioners spend their lives meditating on the reality of an end to the human experience, rock climbers also have to face this every time they rope up and start ascending a wall of granite.

A mentor of mine, who also happens to follow his own yogic tradition seriously, told me that before he and his partner leave the house before a climb they always say the goal is to get home. This is because each time one goes out climbing there is a possibility of death, from a loose rock to a silly mistake to merely not wearing your helmet. The act of climbing itself requires a deep respect for one’s own mortality, for to climb itself is to flirt with that which is inevitable. While some may spurn climbers as risk-chasing adrenaline junkies, many of us would say that we climb because we understand a preciousness of life, rather than in spite of this knowledge.

As the seminal Tibetan Book of Living and Dying tells us,

When we finally know we are dying … we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of  the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being.

This is, perhaps, the penultimate amalgamation of these two practices: that climbers ascend because we understand the fragility of existence and, like those on the cushion, we feel the need to test every part of that fragility to hold it all the closer.


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