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The first ten feet

March 23, 2009

imgp34441p10802121Today, I am alone.  My boots crunch along the surface of the thick sun crust on the late-winter snow, which supports my weight for the most part.  Making my way uphill through the trees, I notice the first signs of spring.  Solar heating  and subsequent melting has exposed frozen moss around the larger rocks and tree trunks, and for the first time since the winter’s first snows, I can smell the earth, the plants, and life.  It is much nicer than the usual stink of climbers and their clothes at the belay, the only smells that seem to permeate on cold midwinter days.

I can feel the sun’s energy on my neck as I stop to adjust my bootlaces; it’s higher in the sky now despite the early hour.  A long approach has left time for my mind to settle somewhat, and by the time I adjust my crampons I have taken the first crucial steps toward the quiet mind that comes to me on these days of solitude.  The daily thoughts of trivial matters, many frustratingly identical to those I had the day before, slip away almost unnoticed. A cacophony of thoughts irrelevant to the task at hand is slowly replaced by an emptier mind that is less unproductive and more receptive to the present.

The process continues as I begin climbing, one tool in the sunny funkiness on one side of the pillar, the other in the more brittle shady side.  My crampons easily gain purchase in the sun-rotted surface ice.  As usual, sudden doubts enter my mind about the usefulness of the activity, the risks involved and the looming consequence of an error.  I want to keep going but I hesitate, searching within to understand if the will to keep going is real, or even there.  I am hesitating a body length up, believing that my will is necessary to continue.

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless!  … What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will.  You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”

– Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery.


A move or two higher and I have forgotten these thoughts as quickly as they came to me.  I’m not certain I answered the questions, or even really considered them, but my mind somehow becomes quieter still. It is detached from my actions but as aware of them as it is of the pump in my forearms and of the birds singing in the trees below.  Ten feet into the climb, my mind undergoes a transition from willful actor to casual observer.  With this detachment, focused and aware at once, I continue upward toward the top after climbing the first ten feet.

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