Beginning A New Journey

Borobudur Sunrise copyright (c) 2012 Prayudi Hartono using a Creative Commons License.

Borobudur Sunrise copyright (c) 2012 Prayudi Hartono using a Creative Commons License.

“We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains” — Li Po.

I have been conditioning almost every day since the new year, taking regular 5-mile walks to the park and back, with two sizable hills to overcome along the way. While I walk I sometimes listen to lectures by The Teaching Company, and yesterday I listened to a couple of lectures on Buddhism. Doing so inspired me to really commit myself to the Buddhist path.

Buddha Entwined Copyright (c) 2012 Echiner 1 using a Creative Commons License

Buddha Entwined Copyright (c) 2012 Echiner 1 using a Creative Commons License

I have been reading about and adapting my life to Buddhist philosophy for about twenty years now, mostly on an intellectual level, but never fully committing myself to it. I don’t meditate much, I only occasionally pick up a book on Buddhism, and yet I know it is the one ‘religion’ for me. I believe in compassion. I believe that much of the world is based on human illusion and misunderstanding. Buddhism effects me on a soulful level that nothing else does. Nonetheless, I have still been reluctant to commit myself.

I realized as I walked and listened to the lectures that there is much about the act of mountaineering that gives it a commonality with Buddhism. It requires the practitioner to be fully immersed in the present moment, it requires courage, it requires dedication and commitment. In some ways one could say that alpinism is a form of walking meditation. So it dawned on me that I could somehow merge the two, Buddhism and Mountaineering, and perhaps write a book about my experiences.

I made the decision as I walked. I would become a full Buddhist, rather than a semi-Buddhist.


Truthfully, I don’t know what this entails exactly, except that I will immerse myself more fully into Buddhist literature and — most importantly — begin a practice of meditation. My walks, in a sense, can be a form of meditation, although for now I will still continue to listen to lectures for the most part. Yet meditation must become a regular part of my practice.

How will this effect my climbing, my adventuring? I don’t believe it will hinder anything, in fact, I believe that there is a rich mine of untapped Buddhist ideals behind my risky adventures. After all, one of the principles of Buddhism is the study of our own mortality, and that is, in a sense, what drives many of us to take up these higher-risk sports. By facing death, we feel our own lives more keenly. I have always found that for me, going kayaking, rock-climbing or mountaineering has a much larger element of spirituality than plain-old fun. A lot of people do these things because they are fun, and that is it, but for me, stepping onto a mountain or crag or paddling down a river is much more about seeking unity with the universe. When I am paddling well, I flow with the river as if I am part of it, when I climb well, I am essentially doing a form of vertical yoga.

Yoga In The Mountains Copyright (c) 2012 Lulumon Athletica using a Creative Commons license.

Yoga In The Mountains Copyright (c) 2012 Lulumon Athletica using a Creative Commons license.

I am seeking something larger than myself, yet I am also trying to understand myself in the deepest way possible. Hopefully this new direction will allow me to expand that quest, and I truly believe it will.

The path awaits. It is time to enter upon it.



The Tao of Kayaking

The flow. That is what draws me to kayaking. I love rock climbing and mountaineering, and even though I always manage to get into that particular state of mind known as ‘the zone’ when I am climbing, it is still very much a struggle and a grind. You are constantly fighting gravity, always waging war with the forces of nature trying to slow or even stop you. There is very little of this when you kayak.

I also love whitewater rafting, but this still lacks the feeling of grace and unity with the water that you get when kayaking. My analogy for rafting compared to kayaking is this: Rafting is like driving a school bus through the rapids, it just plows through or over them, while kayaking the same current you are very much immersed in the act; it is more like driving a Ferrari. The big waves either crash over you or you flow over them. You really get an intense feel for the river.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the river, equal to or exceeding the respect I feel for mountains or rocks, except with one major difference. For the most part, high peaks and crags change slowly, certainly mountains change from week to week and even day to day, but they are not constantly in motion like the water is, and that is a huge factor in the danger of river running compared to climbing. I explained it to some of my non-kayaking climbing buddies: Imagine if every hold you were reaching for shifted under your feet and hands.

Even though this makes kayaking in many ways more dangerous than climbing, it is also what compels me. That feeling of smooth flowing oneness with the water is such a bitchin’ rush, a powerful soul-narcotic, a liquid addiction. I have not kayaked nearly enough, and certainly I have far less experience as a boater than as a climber, but I am hoping that this year, especially since I now live on the North Umpqua, will see me gain a lot more knowledge and skill as a paddler. I have gotten out in my hardshell several times already, but since I do not have a skirt for it, I am limited to what I can do. And since I haven’t learned how to roll yet, this also limits my ability to use it in the big water.

This means that I am essentially limited to kayaking with my friends who have extra inflatable kayaks to use, not a particularly bad thing considering that my friend Brandon, whom I have kayaked with the most, lives about ten miles away and is generally available to run the river fairly regularly. My friend Scott, despite having moved to Texas several months ago, visits the area around once each month and he too, has spare boats for me to use.

There is something so magnificent about hitting a standing wave correctly, or choosing the right line for a big drop, it feels so incredibly good when you’ve done it right, and that is what I mean by the title of this blog. Taoism is about unity, but also duality, and that is the essence of kayaking. You are separate from the river, a (seemingly) solid being floating on liquid, and yet neither you nor the river is completely one or the other. You flow together as a unit, and become one. I can feel this so perfectly when I am on the water, and not just when I am crashing through whitewater either. In the flats, with the crystal clear river-bottom moving silently beneath you it is just as apparent, perhaps even more so. Fish dart past, river otters watch you cautiously before slipping below the surface, eagles and Osprey glide overhead, and you just move so easily from scene to scene, immersed in beauty and wonder.

It isn’t all flowing, of course, you have to fight very hard to stay in balance, you have to paddle like a crazy person to keep your boat from being tipped, tomb-stoned or tossed by the massive power of these huge rapids, but even this struggle is not the same struggle one finds in rock climbing. To run the gauntlets correctly, you have to find a line that will allow you to struggle/flow all at once. It is both, and it is neither, and that is another essence of Tao.

Let’s think about what the word Tao means. The most commonly known interpretation translates loosely to ‘the way’ or path or route (the Hanyu Da Zidian dictionary has 39 meanings for the word.) When kayaking (or rafting for that matter), you are taught to ‘read’ the river, to find the appropriate line through a passage of chaos, and I feel like this is where the path of river Taoism is best exemplified. When the water is calm, you can float almost anywhere on the river without worry of consequence, but when the rapids commence, picking the right way through is of absolute importance. You must find that line where you can be unified with the river, or else you will pay the price. Isn’t life the same way? Without some sense of unity and flow in our lives, we are beset by chaos and struggle, but when we find the way, things just tend to flow, and life is easier and more serene, even when times of conflict occur. We move smoothly when we are unified.

I will leave you now with a quote from 365 Tao, a daily reader of Taoist thought written by Deng Ming-Dao: “Therefore, tuning ourselves  to Tao is the basic task. We must make ourselves the perfect instrument, much in the way a beautiful harp has all its strings adjusted. If we are less than perfect, how will we harmonize with the universal music? Once we are attuned, we can become open to Tao. Where it leads, we follow without hesitation. Just as a musician expresses individual talent and understanding and yet blends with the swelling magnificence of the orchestra, so too does the follower of Tao remain human and yet in harmony with the universal.”


The experience of Zen in climbing.

Dragon Bell by Tiberius Dinu.

I first felt the spiritual side of climbing on my very first mountain climb. Mt Thielsen (aka Lightning Rod of the Cascades and originally known as Hischokwolas), which is for the most part nothing more than a steep hike, but becomes quite vertical on its final eighty foot pitch, and it is a bonafide rock climb to reach the tiny, precipitous summit. Many people elect to use a rope for this last section, but on this day (and also on every subsequent climb I have made on Thielsen), we would be forgoing the use of rope. I remember standing at the base of the summit pinnacle, staring up at the final pitch which was swarming with climbers, and feeling tremendously nervous at attempting the climb. I talked to some experienced climbers who were leading the climb for the Mazamas, and they reassured me that I was capable of completing the ascent. They also told me to grab a hold of their rope if I needed to.

After gathering my courage, I set out. What I experienced in the short time it took me to climb up to the summit was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and it would change my life forever. Time stood still. Conscious thought fell away. I became aware of only a few things: where my hands and feet were, and where they were going to go next. Nothing else existed. I was utterly absorbed in the moment. I was completely focused, which for me was a huge, huge deal. Focus has never been my strongest asset, and what I discovered on that climb was that for me to really have that kind of mindless concentration, I need to be at least somewhat scared.

The summit pinnacle of Mt. Thielsen. The climb goes up the left side.

I topped out on Mt. Thielsen, feeling elated but still painfully aware that the climb was far from over. I was standing on a table-sized summit with a no-joke 4000 foot drop on the north, and smaller but still fearsome cliffs on every other side, and after just a few minutes, I decided I needed to climb back down, and the down-climb took me to an even greater state of focus. Once back down, however, a huge sense of elation swept over me, and it would last for over a week after the climb. Probably due to having Asperger’s syndrome, I have always been painfully self-aware, completely locked in my head, and climbing the mountain took me outside of myself for the first time. I finally knew what freedom was, and I was hooked. Before that day, the idea of climbing a mountain was something that seemed like an interesting novelty, something to try because it seemed like a cool thing to do. After that climb, I knew that this would become a way of life for me, a path to follow, a calling.

I experienced that feeling of Zen, again and again, even on easier mountains that did not have technical aspects to them. Just the act of grinding out long miles up steep slopes would put me into that state, maybe not as intensely, but the repetitive motion of one foot in front of the other, over and over again, also can put me into a semi-meditative state. It is what high-level athletes often call ‘the zone’. I feel so fortunate to have found something that just automatically allows me to go there, and that is why I yearn to climb as often as I can.

I experience much of the same state when kayaking. Taking on a huge standing wave or running a six-foot drop transports me outside of myself and yet brings me more deeply inside at the same time. Which is why I have become almost as obsessive about river running as I am about climbing.

In my perfect world, I would climb a mountain on a weekly basis, I would kayak, rock climb and hike on nearly a daily basis, just to find that joy and freedom more often. It is a form of moving meditation, and for me, that is the perfect type of meditation.

Today I will leave you with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful little book The Long Road Turns To Joy: “When we practice walking meditation, we arrive in each moment. Our true home is in the present moment. When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders. Breathing in, we say to ourselves, “I have arrived.” Breathing out, we say, “I am home.” When we do this, we overcome dispersion and dwell peacefully in the present moment, which is the only moment for us to be alive.”


Myanmar, Pindaya: 8000 Buddhas cave by Rene Drouyer

A change of direction

Layered masculine mandala by Patricia Fatta

I am trying to take my writing more seriously, and I have been doing a lot of research, reading advice from other, much more successful bloggers and writers on how to generate more interest in my work, and the one bit of advice that keeps popping up is that for a blog to have more success it is necessary to work on it every day. I haven’t been doing that, I have pretty much been writing only when I have had some adventure to write about, which, given the weather and my (formerly) painful condition, was only occurring a few times each month. The fact is, I have a lot I would like to say about outdoor adventure, but especially when it comes to climbing. I am so passionate about it, I think about it constantly, I read my guidebooks until I have them memorized, and I even dream about climbing on a near-nightly basis. I have been thinking about what aspect of climbing I might be able to write about that would appeal to a broader audience and not just to fellow climbers, and what I have come up with is the spiritual and healing side of climbing and outdoor adventure. Since I have gone through some pretty terrible pain and have managed recently to make my life virtually pain-free, I realized that I really have a lot to offer to other people who are suffering, whether or not they are climbers or outdoor recreationalists. Climbing is my metaphor. It is the very real symbol of what a person can achieve, even if they have depression, fibromyalgia, or any other type of suffering. I have gone through a lot, I have had my share of heartache and struggle, and yet I have managed to keep my dreams alive, I have climbed so many mountains I would have once thought impossible, I have taken on whitewater, rock climbed and snow-shoe’d despite agonizing pain, a crippling lack of self-esteem and I have done it all on a shoestring budget.

From this point on, I expect to write something regarding this aspect of adventure on a daily basis, drawing inspiration from my favorite writers and spiritual leaders such as the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sogyal Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, Eckhart Tolle and Wayne Dyer in addition to many others. I will also cull information from my climbing guides, and write reviews of the many books and movies I either own or have seen. There is so much to write about when it comes to outdoor adventure, whether it is climbing, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, caving or even swimming. I hope you will join me in this new direction, and even more importantly, I hope to hear from each and every one of you who reads my blog. I really mean that. I am open to anything you have to say, even if it is criticism. Thank you for being a part of my journey, hopefully we will climb many mountains together, with words and pictures being the rope that binds us together. Namaste.