Learning To Stay, To Climb, To Practice

paintings and text by Jessica Stammen

On this day last year I was driving home, winding the opposite direction of downeast, traveling up-west along the coast of Maine from Acadia to Camden. Three days of adventuring in the national park with a crew of designers, marketers, and athletes from Northface had my body buzzing and my imagination captured. Our primary mission had been to wear as much gear as possible — hats, coats, pants, shorts, and shirts — put it through the rigors of rock climbing, standup paddle boarding, sailing, hiking, and lobster baking, and then provide feedback on performance and style.

The outside wilds of Maine were our playground for a short time before the inside pathways of my mind became a staging area for further expedition. Even on the drive home, strapped in by a seatbelt, I felt daring, adventurous; I decided, without thinking, to pop in a CD a friend had left under my windshield wiper more than a few weeks earlier at the local YMCA. A clear, and unfathomably calm voice came on and announced itself: “Learning To Stay, with Pema Chodron.” Yes. Yes, I know. That’s why you remained untouched in my center console for so long, I said to myself. I may have rolled my eyes even; but as the CD continued to spin I realized with a sheepish giggle that its ideas and timing were useful.

I could use this, I thought. Wait, I could use this? It was true; I could use this to write about rock climbing, the activity in Acadia that had captured my imagination and sparked my thrill the most.

While I had climbed indoor at the local Y a handful of times before, Acadia was my first outdoor session. Eli Simon of Atlantic Climbing School and Mark Synnott, a Northface team athlete, alternately belayed me. Not bad right? If only I had known. My memory of Eli when he was in elementary school interfered with my clear understanding of how professionally accomplished he had become. And Mark? Well, I couldn’t even remember Mark’s first name until the last day of our gear testing adventure. This is the same Mark Synnott who has onsighted 5.12, red pointed 5.13, and climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan twenty times. I may know where Yosemite is but its been a year since I’ve read Mark’s bio on the Northface website and I still need to look up onsight and red point in order to remember what they mean. There’s no fooling you, dear reader; I can’t pretend to know much about rock climbing if I don’t know a Mark Synnott when he throws me over a cliff’s edge.

The amazing thing is that without knowing Mark I did  let him throw me over a cliff’s edge — and then subsequently haul me up a difficult section of the 5.10b Drunken Sailor route. 5.10b is not too shabby for a beginner, by the way, despite the help I received. Apparently I climbed like a champ on that June morning one year ago, an admittedly debatable fact that, if true, is less an evaluation of my actual performance and more a result of my willingness to say yes. “Wanna go first, Jess?” Yes. “Wanna give this route over here a try?” Yes. “Wanna put your right hand there?” Yes. “Wanna try and stretch you left leg up to that crag…yeah, that one there, the one that’s impossible to reach?” Yes. For some reason I spent the morning not thinking when challenged with so much new and unknown; I just acted. I failed fantastically in many small moments, but I never stopped taking action all the same. An amazing physical and spiritual high built in intensity throughout the session. I thought I had found my new calling. Pema Chodron confirmed it.

I listened on the drive back home as she told of her “lousy” practice of meditation, of learning to stay in the eternal present as she also put it. Sure, Pema, whatever. But I felt I was on the inside of her joke when she lovingly laughed at the customary invitations into meditation or prayer — sit down, get comfortable, relax — and at the direction to use awareness of one’s breath to bring a wandering mind back to the present. Impossible! says Pema, who learned early and fast that she was almost never present. After thirty years of practice “you think I’d be really good at [meditation],” but it’s precisely because she’s no longer concerned with being “good” at it that she’s able to say:

…That’s why I have this lousy meditation that doesn’t bother me anymore because whatever arises is the fresh and I know it’s absolutely true and, you know, I just have this hopelessly unworkable non-meditative mind and I’ve devoted my whole life to it…It’s completely absurd!

She exclaims this and then laughs along with the audience. I laugh too. “Whatever arises is fresh.” What a relief! If my mind wanders in meditation, that’s the revelation. If my foot slips in rock climbing, that’s the experience. My foot slips a lot when climbing. But because it can slip, it slips less and less over time. Adding heavy and cumbersome baggage to thoughts and actions by feeling the need to qualify them as good or bad, right or wrong, is like clinging onto sheer rock, wrapped in so many layers of to-be-evaluated Northface gear that I can’t even move. Better to slip, to learn, and to shed those layers than remain paralyzed, yelling fearfully for Mark and Eli to tighten the belay.

Learning is never easy.

Last month I traveled out to the Pacific Northwest to spend time with my brother Greg, who had been childhood friends with guide Eli. I bragged to him about my impressive climbing with Mark Synnott, maybe even exaggerating the 5.10 to 5.12 somewhat unintentionally; I swear I simply couldn’t remember the significance of the numbers! (What do you expect? I already admitted to not knowing much about rock climbing.) Whatever the number, I was clearly relying on past performance to anticipate and judge future experience. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Truly.

I stood on the side of Mt. Erie, on the Island of Fidalgo, in the Puget Sound and I shook as I stepped into my borrowed harness and laced up my borrowed shoes. Judge and jury were present and they were only me despite my effort to shift blame on Greg or one of his five unsuspecting friends climbing with us. None of them turned out to be sponsored pros, but I was completely unnerved. I judged my every move, my every twitch, my every attempt, how long I was taking, how often I was hesitating, and what was I even doing here in the first place — imposter! — thinking that surely Greg and his friends were similarly frustrated by my sub-par performance. I’m quite certain they were not. I’m quite certain that they, unlike me, were simply having a good time as the foggy morning dissolved into brilliant and warm afternoon air.

For surely the setting for our climb was jaw-droppingly beautiful. The audible experience of crashing waves at Otter Cliffs found its visual equivalent here on the west coast with the successive tide of islands and inlets, islands and inlets that seemed to roll in from the south horizon right up to the base of Mt. Erie. I was perched just a few feet above the start of a 35-foot route when I turned stiffly, saw this, really saw it, and let the joy of my surroundings finally break the praising, panicking duality of my judgmental thoughts. I faced the wall again and became light. My breath relaxed, my mind calmed, and just like that my spirit became playful. I stayed for a moment in this sensation; I remembered having felt it before. My body circumvented my brain with a smile as it realized how utterly ridiculous it was for a human to be dangling from a rope on the side of a mountain. And then I began to move.

I have no idea how much longer it took me to reach the top of that route on the Power Line Wall. I stopped keeping track and without thinking, just said yes. I was alive in the present for the first time that day.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I did, in fact, stay with each breath as I climbed. Was I meditating? I intentionally yet intuitively breathed each yes movement — yes I will go, yes I will put my hand there, yes I trust my toe to support me, yes. If it happened that my toe did not support me and I slipped, staying with my breath freed learning to happen in my body, not my brain, protecting me from fear and judgement, preparing me to simply continue saying yes in the very next moment. It was a sea change of awareness.

And so it took me a year to learn that there is not only a connection between mediation and rock climbing, but also a third interface with decision making. I’m sure the response from most rock climbers here is, Well duh. I’m also quite aware there are probably a million and one essays, stories, and poems out there about rock climbing and this very topic. I have read only one and it did speak of breath, as if the act of breathing was the body’s decision to concentrate.

As I continue to write I could start to second guess myself here, to judge and let performance anxiety take over just as it did on Mt. Erie. Instead I will breath. I will smile and remember that there are at least a million paintings of apples in the world, but that this doesn’t stop any artist from painting yet another one.

We like to qualify our efforts — be they painting, writing, climbing, or meditation — as either good or bad instead of staying with them, instead of being in the discomfort of wow-that’s-pretty-bad-but-holds-potential. I mean, you should have seen the rough draft of this essay. C.S. Lewis writes:

The human mind is generally far more eager to praise and dispraise than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value; hence those fatal critics who can never point out the differing quality of two poets without putting them in an order of preference as if they were candidates for a prize.

What if I took all that Northface gear we spent three long days testing and simply rated each item on a scale of good or bad, offering no more feedback from my experience? What a wasted opportunity for a great conversation and improved product! Welcome to the human condition and to the tendency that both Pema and Clive Staples warn about. How do we get beyond good and bad to the richer region of description and definition? To describe is “to write down, copy, represent.” Just as there have been a million and one apples, and essays, and routes, and soundings of the gong, the answer here is simple but profound. The answer is to paint, to write, to climb, to breath, over and over and over again. The answer is to practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice is perfect. Perfect is a judgement, an illusion.

Last month when we drove home from Mt. Erie I asked my brother Greg what he loved most about climbing and he responded as if someone had slipped a CD of his teachings under the windshield wiper of the car. He said his favorite moments were when he felt the most fear because, in them, he could practice quieting his mind and freeing his capacity to act. It was a decision he could learn to make and then call up in the cockpit of his jet when facing moments of unknown outcome. “By climbing you learn about the rock, but you learn more about yourself.” Okay, Pema.

Could it be that I learn to move beyond my brain by letting a rock define me, by letting my experience of it and practice on it show me my perceived limits? How does this practice expand or explode those limits? Does the rock help me practice me?

A year ago, walking over to Otter Cliffs from the parking lot in the silvery morning light, Mark Synnott asked how tall I was. When I replied that I was 5’9″ he commented that I walked taller. I told him how, in high school, the basketball roster listed me as 5’10” in order to intimidate other teams. As a hopeful freshman it also set my heart reaching for the impossible handhold of such heights. Truth is, with the last sputters of puberty long gone, I’m not even 5’9″. No matter. After that very first morning of climbing in the fresh ocean air I felt like I was 5’10” — 5’12” even!

Maybe we’re all 5’12” with a lot of practice and a little disregard for what those numbers mean anyway.