climbing on donner summit – photo by josh horniak
i’ve been climbing a lot lately. rock climbing that is. which is strange, given that the months of april thru october don’t really provide farmers with a lot of disposable time. and with most of my monday thru friday taken up on the farm, my weekend hours have become these precious little morsels of freedom – freedom from worrying, weeding, planning, and planting – that i must protect at all odds. so driving in a car to some windy summit, then donning a funny-looking harness and uber-tight shoes, has got to be pretty darn appealing if it’s going to take up my whole saturday. but i guess it is, because i find myself heading up there most weekends.
a couple of years ago i went on one of those 10-day meditation retreats. ten days of silence. ten days of deliberate walking, slow-motion in front of the meditation hall, and ten days of sitting, for hours, in the attempt to empty the mind. on the outside, everything looked calm. but my mind was racing. i made up elaborate plots to movies. i had mock arguments with my then-boyfriend. i fell asleep sitting up. i thought about how many minutes, and then how many seconds, until lunch. i thought about all manner of superficial and inconsequential topics. sometimes i thought about nothing, which was nice. i had insights into my habitual patterns of thought, and was able to shift some behaviors that were no longer serving me. that was also nice. and sometimes i felt a deep sense of peace and joy from just being alive enough to watch a deer move slowly through the woods, to hear the creek down below the meditation hall, to sleep deeply and soundly all night, even though it seemed as if i’d done nothing all day.
but i am convinced that rock climbing would have been the buddha’s preferred activity.
i’m surprised it’s not mentioned in the ancient texts. because nowhere else, doing nothing else, do i feel that sort of release from suffering that the buddha talked about. on the rock i am alone. just me and the breeze. my mind empties of thoughts, the farm becomes a distant memory, and all that is in front of me is all that matters. the rock. where to place my foot. the next bolt. the rope. the wind. my own breath.
(it looks like this)
but i’ve got to give the buddha some props. and i don’t mean a rope and a harness, i mean respect. as meditative as it is, i know i can’t be rock climbing all the time, and it’s not realistic to rely exclusively on climbing remote crags in order to get my zen-on. there’s just too much real life that happens off the wall. there are bills to pay, orders to fill, flowers to plant, dinner to make, birthday cards to write, plumbing to fix, pets to pet – all the activities and projects in between those calm, quiet moments where i must remember to breathe. and let go. and relaaaax. i can’t trail around a rope on my waist and expect it to catch me when i fall. i have to have other safety measures. i need to learn to go with the flow as i hoe the never-ending aisles of amaranth. i need to breathe as i plant the salad mix, practice walking deliberately on the farm, and train in the art of trance-like meditative states in order to survive a trip to the local co-op store (the single most socially overwhelming place in our town, second only to the annual county fair).
it’s just that the act of climbing brings a sort of equanimity that feels so rare. but i recognize that it is also one practice among many that makes peace possible. or a little more possible. so does sitting quietly for a few minutes after lunch, watching the western tanagers flashing yellow through the trees. or taking an outdoor bath after work, in the woods, listening to the goats shout and the mosquitos hum and the bumblebees pollinate the wild raspberries. or just drinking a cup of tea in the morning without checking email or watching a youtube video. basically doing anything that inserts a moment of sanity into the insanity of a day.
it is told that the buddha sat under the bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. what the ancient texts must have left out, is that after sitting under this tree, and after his remarkable transformation, the buddha climbed it. he wrapped his hands around those smooth branches and hoisted himself up in the the boughs. he looked at the leaves moving in the breeze, the tigers passing underneath, the ants marching single file up the trunk. he climbed and he meditated and he felt great peace. but he also climbed down. he stepped back into the fray of people and things, and he traveled and taught what he had learned. i’m not sure the buddha had to meditate much after his enlightenment. but i do expect that every few days, or at the very least on his weekends, he’d go for a climb.
a rare photograph of the buddha climbing