Without even stretching the elasticity of your contemplative prowess, I’m sure you could come up with a dozen different reasons one might want to climb. The view from the top is unmatched, the workout alone can give you the body of Adonis, and of course there are puzzles that would make the most stubborn bridge troll retreat in anguish.
(Check out that finger strength)1
Exercising both brain and brawn is an advantage of climbing that most activities cannot compete with. And like most, these reasons motivate me to climb as well. However they are more side-effect than cause, more symptom than disease.
My primary reason for climbing can be boiled down to one simple word…FLOW! We’ve all been there before, and it’s a madman who wouldn’t want to return. Flow is a state-of-being, prescribed by masters predating the ancient sages of the Far East. They recognized it and made it the center point of their theories regarding the happy life. There’s a connection between climbing and The Flow. And given the right mentality a rock can act as the conduit to transport its climber to THAT place. In the Taoist tradition the Master’s would call it Wu Wei. In the 1980’s psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his team would officially term “Flow”, and it has been the poster child for positive psychology ever since.
While there are mountains of descriptions, papers, analysis, and data to help characterize The Flow, I’m partial to a simple example:
Imagine traveling on an airplane to some particular destination, as you sit, perhaps uncomfortably in your seat, bags stowed beneath the seat in front of you, tray table up, and seat-back forward in its upright and locked position, you notice a fly just chillin’ on your shoulder. From an outsiders perspective you’re moving through the air in an uncomfortable metal can traveling at 938 km/h. But that fly doesn’t understand that at all; to the fly he’s just there. Chillin’ on your shoulder.
That’s why I climb!
That’s The Flow!
To get a bit more technical Csíkszentmihályi and his team describe six components of experiencing Flow.
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
- Merging of action and awareness.
- A distortion of temporal experience.
- Experience of the activity as autotelic (deriving meaning/purpose from within).
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
Of course there are gobs of activities that can induce Flow, but I’m not sure of anything other than climbing whose effectiveness is so immediate and sustained.
As a philosopher, getting out of my own head can be paramount to pushing the rock of Sisyphus2. In most situations this is ideal, but there are some circumstances where a break from one’s own boiling mental stew becomes cardinal to their well-being.
(Image: The Myth of Sisyphus)
Not long ago, I experienced one of those years where it felt that I had been thrust into a whirlpool of my own demise. I felt like I was drowning, stuck in a riptide in which I couldn’t reach the bottom nor swim up for air. Within a matter of months, my grandma had died; I held my father’s leg as I watched him gasp for his last breath; and my partner, my accomplice, my life-mate, of almost a decade disappeared without so much as a goodbye. Yep, there are some circumstances where a break from one’s own boiling mental stew becomes cardinal to their well-being indeed.
I can still remember the last words my grandma whispered to me before she passed, the last moments that I held my father in my arms, and the last conversation I shared with my partner before she vanished. These events can play like a tragic loop on repeat, and of course we all have our own crosses to bear, our own stones to push, but sometimes each and every one of us deserves a break.
When I’m pushing myself on a climb… my face never more than a few inches from the wall, toes on a chip that is too small detect with visual acuity, fingernails stabbing into a crimp sharp enough to cut, and throwing to sloper that is too smooth to grasp. In that moment, I become that fly on your shoulder.
When I’m pushing myself on a climb, my entire world is compacted into 14 inches of space. Past and present become extraneous, I become my movement, my purpose becomes my goal, limitations are superfluous, and I draw no distinction between my self and the rock.
Those 14 inches become my entire universe. “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”3
To escape the pretense of a dichotomous world in which people tend to push the rock or get crushed by it, I opt out altogether. In my 14 inch universe there is no push, there is no pull, I am the rock, the rock is me. It is precisely because we all have our crosses to bear, and we all have our stones to push, that in the end “One must imagine Sisyphus Happy”. 4
That’s The Flow!
That’s why I climb!
- Troll Ave N, Seattle, WA 98103
- Albert Camus The myth of Sisyphus
- Albert Camus (Shit the bed could that man write)