We have a tendency to think we need to separate from the world to become more spiritual, like living in a cave in the Himalayas. We go somewhere away from the usual world to find our spirit. The same can happen with mental training. We think we need to separate from the usual climbing we do and do free-solo climbing, a form of climbing that requires an extreme amount of mental focus.
The best training for our spirit, or the mind, is applying ourselves in the usual situations we experience.
We become more spiritual dealing with usual life situations; we become more mentally fit by dealing with usual climbing situations. We don’t create illusions of how situations should be; we practice in how they actually are.
For example, I was climbing recently at El Arrayán, near Santiago, Chile with our Spanish trainer, David Villegas. We were climbing several routes to determine which ones to use for teaching a clinic. Next to us was a climbing team on a moderately difficult sport route. The leader clipped the first three bolts, and then climbed another twenty meters to the top without clipping any more bolts, while the belayer dutifully fed out the rope as if the climber was still on belay. David and I were curious why he did this. So David asked the belayer why the climber didn’t clip anymore bolts. He told David that the climber was practicing his mental training.
This climber was allowing his mind to use a trick of being tied into a rope to diminish the stress of free-soloing. He also gave himself the option to clip into a higher bolt if he was too scared or too tired. His mind was motivated toward seeking the comfort of being tied into a rope and escaping the realistic free-solo situation, so he could achieve the end goal of being mentally fit.
This type of motivation is dangerous and goes counter to the learning process. Motivation needs to move us toward engaging stress and processing ourselves through it. We’re motivated to be in stress; we’re not motivated to be comfortable, or escape stress.
Practice and reality need to be as similar as possible. What kind of climbing do we usually do? Do we do sport climbing or free-soloing? If we sport climb, then we find ways to practice in usual sport climbing situations. If we free-solo, then we find ways to practice in usual free-solo situations. Our motivation moves us into the stress of the experience, not toward tricks that keep us comfortable and escape stress.
Sport climbers clip bolts and are aware of their motivation. Instead of using tricks to circumvent the stress of falling, such as rushing from bolt to bolt, they deliberately slow down, allowing the mind to deal with the possibility of falling. They’re intentional with how they choose to focus their attention. They practice in realistic yes-fall zones. They notice the mind distracts their attention toward rushing through stress and then stays committed to slowing down. They focus their attention on breathing and relaxing so they’re present for stress, facing their fears and the stress of falling. They also practice falling because falling is a realistic outcome for climbing in yes-fall zones.
Free-solo climbers climb without ropes and are aware of their motivation. Instead of using tricks to circumvent stress, such as the climber did at El Arrayán, they don’t use a rope, allowing the mind to deal with the stress of being high above the ground, facing the possibility of death. They’re intentional with how they choose to focus their attention. They practice in realistic no-fall zones. They notice the mind distracts their attention toward tricks, such as using a rope, to escape stress and then stay committed to facing the reality of death. They focus their attention on being in life/death situations facing their fears and the stress of dying. Doing this helps clarify their motivation for free-solo climbing. They also practice down-climbing because retreating is a realistic option for climbing in no-fall zones.
In James Salter’s book, Solo Faces, two climbers are talking about climbing the Eiger in Switzerland. One climber says, “I suppose everyone wants to climb it.” The other responds, “They don’t want to climb it, they want to have climbed it.” “Wanting to climb the Eiger” points toward a motivation to engage the stressful experience of climbing a realistic, dangerous face. “Wanting to have climbed the Eiger” points toward the comfort achieved once the stressful, dangerous experience is finished.
If we remove the consequence of our decisions, our motivation shifts toward achieving goals and being comfortable. It’s the full impact of the consequence, which includes death for free-solo climbers, that clarifies our motivation and realigns it toward engaging stress and focusing on learning. Are we really willing to die to climb the Eiger or free-solo? If so, how can we engage these stressful experiences in realistic, small steps that engage us in the stress of the actual experience?
One day our achievement motivation will get us into a situation where we have to face reality, when we don’t expect it. We’ll be shocked back to reality, being pumped, high on a free-solo climb, facing death. That situation will provide the opportunity to realign our motivation, from achieving goals and being comfortable, toward engaging stress and focusing on learning, if we live through it.
We don’t live in a cave in the Himalayas to become more spiritual. We practice in usual life situations, like paying attention to how we act in realistic interactions with others and the stressors of usual life. If we’re sport climbers, we don’t free-solo to become more mentally fit. We practice in usual sport climbing situations. We pay attention to how the mind distracts our attention due to the possibility of falling. If we’re free-solo climbers, we don’t use a rope. We practice in usual free-solo situations. We pay attention to how the mind uses tricks to circumvent the stress of dying.
Being motivated this way allows us to do mental training that is grounded in reality. Our motivation is aligned toward living and learning, because we’re closer to reality and the consequence of dying. We don’t create illusions of how situations should be; we practice in how they actually are.
Practice Tip: Usual Mental Training
What kind of climbing do you usually do: sport, trad, bouldering, free-solo? What are the typical distractions of attention in this type of climbing?
Shift your motivation from seeking achievement and being comfortable, to engaging stressful learning. Identify small action steps you can take to diminish the typical distractions of attention. Doing this will help you live through the experiences you choose to engage in.