Sometimes when I go (rock) climbing, life becomes delectable: time flows clear as clean water, swift as light streaming by on a summer drive, yet luscious and rich as the thickest cream. Its own miracle of milk and honey. Every movement becomes saturated with purpose; every sensation brims with meaning; every detail noticed fits into a larger coherent whole; every effort given stands simultaneously as its own reward and as a pointer to a yet greater reward to come. Sometimes, when I climb, I imagine Heaven can surely be no better than this – that no “better” is needed, nor nothing different. (It is, and it’s not.)
I had one of these experiences this past week. I’ve been traveling recently, visiting friends and family. It’s a good experience, as far as it goes, and that’s the official line. I don’t feel in my heart that things are going badly, so when people ask, I say they’re going well. But like also, let’s be real: it’s lonely and uncertain and confusing, and I feel vulnerable at the deepest level – vulnerable to the whims of those hosting me, dependent, afraid. I wonder about the future, get hit hard by the longing for safety and solidity, experience a waxing and waning heartbreak and homesickness that feels all the riper for its slipperiness. I haven’t talked much about how I feel because I can’t really grasp on to it, or give it form that would make it (maybe only in my mind) justified and acceptable to others. More days than not, recently, I’ve felt lost, like I’ve walked into an old room in my house to retrieve something I’ve meant to find – only suddenly I can’t quite remember what. Didn’t it have something to do with purpose? Didn’t it have something to do with love?
Some days, climbing feels like a world apart from all that. A few days ago, I showed up at the climbing gym here for the first time, figuring I’d boulder on easy problems, not push myself too hard, be responsible you know, restrained, virtuous. But then I arrived and warmed up and a familiar sight caught my eye: two guys trying a problem rated a little harder than I meant to climb that day. It was the kind of problem I needed that day. Start on a large, thick rail; move to two small but highly positive holds; then a powerful move to a wide edge, a move requiring momentum (to get there) and tension (to keep my feet on the wall) and patience (to move my whole body over once one hand was on the target hold).
I tried it a few ways. One way, I held my left hand on a decent edge just above the start and put my right on a tiny crimp (meant as a foothold) below the big ledge I was trying to get to. Swing down, swing back, swing up – and, wham, I was there, losing my feet but holding the swing. The language of climbing is revealing; “powerful” is exactly what a move like that makes me feel. “You made it look easy” is universal climber praise, and that move earned it for me. Reluctantly, I admit part of the joy of climbing – a part that feels impure, contingent, ultimately useless – is the opportunity to earn that kind of admiration.
Anyway, that approach to the problem didn’t work because getting into the starting position for the big move was too tiring. Instead, I lifted my leg up high and hooked it (heel down, toes up) onto the starting hand hold. Then a big swing and a sucking in of air (the better to press the foot into the hold, to avoid it slipping) and I was again there. It felt a bit more desperate, but it worked. From there it took one or two tries to maintain the focus and energy output to reach the top of the wall.
And then, that was it. In Buddhism (Zen maybe?) there’s this concept of the “dharma gate,” basically a descriptor of any experience the close examination of which can yield insight into the true nature of consciousness. Spoiler: it’s basically any experience, though the closer it comes to seeming like an ultimate source of fulfillment, the more potent the insight on offer. Climbing for me has opened wide in that way. The intense joy of a difficult problem, especially of completing a difficult problem or finally cracking a hard move, really is one of the greatest rewards life has to offer. The intensity fills me up so fully that at times I’ve craved it like air, like love – I mean desperately.
I notice that that joy can’t be possessed or produced reliably, though; the more I “need” it, the less likely it is to arise (although, on the other hand, the more I actually need it, perhaps the more likely it is to arise). The point is that any effort to hold on to it after the fact, or produce it intentionally, blocks it, curdling its sweet spontaneity into a bitter and embittering clinging.
Which is cliché but sucks more than the vague impression of the words conveys. The futility of clinging and control means in particular that I am not ultimately the master of my experience. It means sometimes my mind interprets experience as a prison from which there is no escape – and that assessment is correct, in that there’s no reliable way out except through. And that “out” or “through” just leads to more experience, in all its ever-changing, ever-flowing, never-possessed sublimity. (The flip side of that is I don’t have ultimate responsibility for the contents of my experience, therefore need not be ashamed of it. Although of course, that doesn’t stop me.)
Respect for the ultimate non-mastery of experience is basically the opposite of the ethos I initially brought to bouldering. Climbing was a gift to me from someone I loved with most of my heart, someone who didn’t love me, at least not the way I wanted to be loved. That was what made the gift possible.
The direct experience of love and its siblings (connection, affection, friendship, longing) and cousins (acquaintanceship, tolerance, friendliness, lust) has absorbed me in a new way recently.
Partially it’s because I spent December living in a small intentional community with very strict rules. For a good long while, since middle school or something, I identified as having “problems with authority,” saying it almost as a point of pride. “I walked in here as an individual,” I said to one of the other community members early on in my stay, annoyed that I was being made to follow some rule. “And I’m gonna walk out of here as an individual.”
Which is of course true. But the way I hear that now is: I want to stay in my perspective, in my identity, here where it’s safe; it doesn’t feel safe for me to come out and meet you and be fully in this experience of community. If I follow your rules, do I thereby become a slave? If I eat and exercise the way you want me to, will my body look and feel the way I want it to look and feel? If I do what’s right for you, or for us in connection, instead of what I want to do that moment, does that make me weak, dependent, engulfed?
If I admit (in every sense) how good it feels to be with you, how will I make it through when you leave me? Or when I leave you.
When I embraced the desire I felt to be part of the community – fully part of it, which to me meant assenting to its strictures – following the rules suddenly became much easier, and the experience of it positive and freeing. “I’m here,” I said to myself. “And while I’m here, I want to be fully here.” My heart opened, and fear was replaced (largely) by love, kindness, and warmth.
Something similar happened when I visited my family for New Year’s Eve. I’ve carried a lot of bitterness toward them over the years, which has made it hard to truly connect with them or feel their love or express my own love for them. This year, it was so easy and light and free that I was amazed it had ever been any different. A lot of what I had felt in their presence now seemed like dead weight that I was happy to let go of. Good riddance. I’d much rather embody loving-kindness with them, letting the warmth that is already in me flow fully into me and out into the world. And when I’m feeling annoyance, I’d much rather notice it and still reach for the acts of love, as a steadying hand.
If that was all I felt, however, I doubt I’d be writing this post. Instead, I’d probably be congratulating myself on finding the way out of the labyrinthine horror that’s been one major aspect of most of my relationships. Or not, because self-congratulation just doesn’t feel fulfilling when the riches of the outside world descend to me like mana from Heaven.
I haven’t found my way out; I know that. I know because I’m still hiding so much from all of you, so much from myself. Because I get so lonely sometimes that I think I’ll drown in the terror of it, be smothered by that tightness right in the middle of my chest that just won’t fucking go away. And not the sweet melancholic loneliness that’s the amber color of late afternoon and sung to the tune of “Grace Cathedral Hill,” with a generous accompaniment of tears; no, the wordless screaming loneliness that has no color, that knows neither sound nor feeling nor consolation.
Because when I Skype with any of you I’m still tempted to look at that little photo of me to avoid seeing you. Because the words I want to speak still stick in my chest, the messages I want to send get written and deleted and rewritten until they feel okay to send. Because, let me just say it right out for once, I’m terrified of you, and the more I love you, the more I want your continued presence in my life, the more fear I feel in connection with you.
(It’s not that I don’t feel that other stuff I told you I feel, by the way. It’s just there’s the fear that I won’t name, because it’s always there and let’s face it, isn’t it a bit boring to feel fear all the time and just go on and on about it?)
So there’s that. And I’m sick of it, as you could probably tell. And the “sick of it” is itself a form of avoidance, a manifestation of fear. And on and on and on through the maze.
Acceptance, letting go, on the other hand, feels like cutting the Gordian knot. I don’t need to stop my fear or escape from it. It just is, like all of experience just is. Whew, what a relief. And yet, this moment of sick-of-it-ness, of fed-up-ness, of wordless screaming, of inconsolable and irrational panic, is also part of that experience. And the not-wanting-it, too.
I guess I’m running out of words and concepts to communicate whatever inner force is writing this post. Maybe that’s what happens at the edge. Reluctantly, I’ll take this post for what it’s worth, take your presence – lover, friend, acquaintance, anonymous reader – for what that’s worth, and keep on trudging, running, skipping through whatever experience lies waiting later today – and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.