Learning to Live through Rock Climbing
By Jen Nichols
Most days my brain is flooded with a long list of things that need to be remembered, things that need to be done, thoughts of what I’m going to make for dinner, when I’m going to get to the gym. They are as constant as the staccato of colliding pebbles on a river shoal. I need to remember to pay my credit card bill. I should do yoga in the mornings, make an effort to eat better, drink less, run more. I really need to try to be on time to work today and I completely forgot to take the laundry out of the wash three days ago. Can I make it to the grocery store today? I should so I can make lunches and save money. I still have to walk my dog and make a cup of coffee. Will that leave me enough time for a shower? Then starts the list of calls I need to make when I get to the office.
Annie Dillard says “you bide your time…and think…‘next year…I’ll start living; next year…I’ll start my life.”
It’s predictably safe in this world and really it’s not so bad. My head generally bobs along, just above the waterline. I work a job that doesn’t pay a whole lot but has a positive impact on my local community, I get out for hikes, go to the gym, I try to buy local, I climb, do yoga, I occupy myself by juggling whatever is within reach to convince myself of the quality of my living. I make plans with friends. Sometimes the plans are big. Let’s drive to Argentina, take three months off to go to Australia. Annie Dillard says “you bide your time…and think…‘next year…I’ll start living; next year…I’ll start my life.” And I do, I’m waiting until my lease is up, until I save up enough money, until I’ve been at my job long enough. The list of justifications for putting off the call to start living are endless and the thought of stepping out blindly over the precipice of change is paralyzing.
As I pull myself on to the first holds, it’s like pulling myself from the flood waters that rush me from hour to hour each day, year to year. My muscles engage and I feel the solidity of my bones. Fear of falling greases my palms yet I have faith that what I need will be there. Sweat forms between my shoulder blades, the droplets raising on my scalp. I find my feet and then solid footing. I weigh the risks as I go and decide to take them. My hands gain enough purchase to make the next move and my brain urges me on. All of my thoughts are dedicated to this one endeavor.
“When I climb, I inhabit my body…”
The floodwaters dissipate entirely and with them the illusions I’ve created of living. When I climb, I inhabit my body. My self-consciousness recedes, shutting down all of the distracting messages about what I should be doing or how I should experience something. Instead, my brain and body coexist in the same experience.
For me, climbing opens the door on a practice of deescalating my fears, acknowledging them and moving through them all the while with a safety net. The experience of facing my fear of the unknown becomes less overwhelming with the support of my belay partner or spotter, with the knowledge of how gear functions, a guide book that let’s me know a path does exist, though it’s up to me to find the way. These reassurances combine with the toolbox of physical and mental skills I continue to develop in my practice to create a scaffolding. I reach out from my scaffolding to ply the very edges of what I am truly capable. When my practice ends for the day, I carry with me it’s lessons and my imagination blossoms.
“I have pushed the boundaries of my small, predictably safe world to encompass both hemispheres, new cultures and languages, jobs that had never entered my mind as possibilities.”
In the seven years since I began climbing, I have also begun finding my way into living. I have pushed the boundaries of my small, predictably safe world to encompass both hemispheres, new cultures and languages, jobs that had never entered my mind as possibilities. I embark on each journey, with a harness and shoes in my pack. Anytime I feel self doubt or like I couldn’t keep pushing through all the challenges ahead, I can always find my climbing community and reestablish that simple connection between my brain and body reminding me what it’s like to live entirely in the present moment.