Climb Better—And Keep Your Significant Other Happy—By Staying Mindful

Mindfulness—I like to talk about it. I talk about the role of it in my climbing in interviews and in my writing. I talk about accepting emotions, thoughts and feelings as they arise and then acting from a place of self-awareness. I like to think about when to listen to those thoughts and feelings and when to redirect and commit attention to the task at hand. The mental game has always been a fulfilling aspect of climbing for me. But sometimes I think I like to talk about mindfulness more than I like practicing it.

It was already early afternoon on July 4th by the time my girlfriend Tara and I got to the Wizard’s Gate crag. At 10,000 feet and northwest facing, this crag provides a respite from the heat and boasts some great granite sport climbs—and we arrived to find a not-so-surprisingly crowded holiday hang.

We set down our packs and I began scanning for open warm-up climbs. There weren’t many. The sounds of the rowdy groups amplified from the crag’s cave and corner features. Familiar tightness and agitation began in my body. “This is a problem. I’m not going to get what I want. I’m not going to get my needs met. This is impossible. I’m going to be frustrated and tight feeling all day.” Then, my well-worn, knee jerk response: Suppress! Stop breathing fully! Try to ignore the feelings! I pretended nothing was amiss, covertly trying to control the situation in an effort to get my needs met, afraid all hope was lost. Often this path “works” for me—but not with Tara. She immediately recognizes if there is any mismatch between someone’s outward behavior and their emotional state.

Tara wanted to have a snack and a moment to sit still. She wanted to look at the topo. She wanted to talk about it. She wanted to understand where each friggin route was. She fussed over her dog, Lola. She didn’t show any signs of putting her harness on. She was being a pain in my ass!

I tried to get her on the program. I ostentatiously dropped the rope at the base of the nearest open span of rock and started suiting up. I dismissed her efforts to look at the topo and told her that if she would just get ready, I would show her the routes she needed to know. She just looked at me. She asked why I was rushing her. She asked if I was in my—we-just-arrived-at-the-crag-and-now-I-am-antsy-and-possessed-and-in-compulsive-sending-turmoil. She reminded me that she’d just been patient with my last-leg-of Everest pace and need for multiple low-blood-sugar snack breaks on the approach. She reminded me that when I take my climbing turmoil out on her, she cries and gets too upset to climb, and that she wasn’t interested in just belaying today. She kept eating her apple. She still wasn’t unpacking her harness. I softened my tone and backed off a little. I know that crying thing—and it’s legit. Often she’ll let me climb the first few pitches to support me shifting into a more pleasant climbing partner. I was counting on this.

I backed off and gave her the five minutes to get ready that she wanted, but I was still super agitated. Finally we were both ready and tried to figure out a warm-up climb. There were ropes and people everywhere. Everyone was being so loud! What on Earth could we climb that would work for Tara but not leave me even more bored and antsy? A woman above us was loudly cheering herself on as she pulled a roof. I felt like I was exploding internally. I snapped at Tara. She stepped back, raised an eyebrow, and said, “I dare you to meditate right now. Five minutes.” I smile-grimaced at her and kept putting my shoes on. Tara doesn’t meditate. She clipped out of her GriGri. “No sitty, no climby.” F*$#&! She’s serious. She’s cornered me against myself. All furrowed-brow pouty-child, I countered with, “One minute.” She raised me: “Three, Miss I’m-All-About-Mindfulness-In-Climbing. 180 seconds.” F*$#&.

Goddam mindfulness. Why do it? Why practice self-awareness?

The idea is that we can use our strengthened awareness muscle in our daily lives to stay more aligned with our true intention, how we really want to live and carry ourselves in this life. Training mental fitness can be like going to the gym: sitting on the proverbial cushion, doing endless reps of focusing and refocusing the cantankerous mind muscle. Recently I became a certified Warrior’s Way instructor. Warrior’s Way is a program designed by Arno Ilgner that emphasizes awareness as the basis for all learning. I chose to become part of the Warriors Way community because it provides a structure for converting stress to comfort and tools for helping climbers improve their ability to stay in process and balance their ego’s orientation to the best end result.

While climbing is my most regular practice in mindfulness, it’s full of ego traps and competing priorities. I’ve spent some solid hours sitting on the pillow; I’ve tried to develop a daily practice, have attended talks at the local Buddhist watering holes in Boulder, I’ve listened to guided meditations and spent up to 10 days at a time on silent retreat, walking and chewing more slowly than I thought possible, noticing and noticing and noticing. A few times I’ve used my cushion skills to sit quietly and visualize when preparing to send a route. But mostly, it’s actually climbing itself as a mindfulness practice that has benefited how I handle the rest of my life. But sometimes my ego becomes entrenched in attaining certain climbing goals, and then inevitably comes fear and then frustration and less energy focused on being present in the climb. That’s when I’ve looked for other resources.

Tara set a timer. We sat down on the rope. I fiddled around a bit and thought about how one minute of actually CLIMBING would work sooooooo much better than this. I heard the other climbers. I closed my eyes. I opened them. I noticed a few people look at us. I shifted uncomfortably. I thought about crag etiquette and why this was inappropriate to do when open routes were at a premium. I tried to look like I was doing something “crag acceptable.” I thought about how that’s “bad” meditation behavior. I stopped myself. I began to settle in. I peeked at Tara. She was all eyes-closed, not moving, looking serene. I got a little pissed. Jealous. Competitive. I tried to meditate better than her. And then I heard the birds. I noticed the air on my skin. I scanned the sensations in my body. I noticed my breath. I noticed it again. I stepped into enough calm to recognize the fear story that had been driving my compulsive, antsy behavior. I began to feel into the space around it. My chest unclenched. My face relaxed. The timer went off. 

3 minutes. 180 seconds.

The climber belaying next to us asked if we had been meditating. We had a brief but lovely conversation about how it’s rarely the wrong decision to take 180 seconds of still silence. We laughed and exchanged tactics for dealing with grumpy climbing partners. We climbed. I noticed that when I started the first pitch from a place of mindful awareness, rather than using it to create that mindstate, there was more ease. More awareness of the texture of the rock under my fingers. More pleasure in waking my body up to different angles and demands. I wasn’t irritated with the neighboring party and their nonstop chatting and cheering. And I lowered to a belayer who smiled and laughed, and even flirted with me. And it was good.