In 2015, my friend Jeff Lodas and I went into the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming to climb on the East Face of Cloud Peak.
The East Face is a 1000-foot wall of granite, crisscrossed with black and white dykes. We set a goal to establish a new route on the wall. We packed a week of supplies into 70-pound packs and started the 13 mile hike to the mountain. Needless to say, we began to suffer.
There’s a difference between physical and mental suffering. Physical suffering is a given. If we want to climb a big wall, then we’ll suffer physically on the approach, the climb, and the return. A lot of physical effort will be needed to accomplish the goal. However, mental suffering is optional. If the mind is focused on resisting the physical suffering, then we’ll suffer mentally.
Suffering increases as our attention shifts out of the present moment. The body is always in the present moment. To minimize physical suffering we focus our attention on the quality of how we engage the body. We do this by relaxing into the stress of the moment. We focus our attention on breathing, proper posture, relaxing as much as possible, and our senses. If our attention is focused in the body and what we perceive with our senses, then it won’t be focused in the mind, thinking about escaping the stress.
The thinking mind thinks in the present moment, but the thinking process itself focuses our attention on past experiences and future goals. This is necessary for effective information gathering, planning, and decision-making. However, once thinking is finished and we decide to take action, we need to position the mind as the observer. The mind observes the body while it’s engaged in stressful situations. We suffer mentally and lose mental power if we allow the mind to think during action. The mind does this in several ways.
- First, instead of accepting stress as part of the experience, the mind will focus on wishing the situation was less stressful. The mind will wish the approach hike was a shorter distance instead of 13 miles, or that the trail was flat instead of hopping over glacial moraine boulders. If we allow the mind to focus our attention on wishing, then our power will diminish. Part of our power will be applied by the body to deal with the stress and part of our power will be distracted by the mind wishing the situation was less stressful.
- Second, the mind has a tendency to focus on what we want to get from the situation instead of focusing on what we can give to it. Achieving any goal requires us to give effort. Achieving a goal occurs in the future. We lose power by allowing the mind to focus on the future achievement. If we focused on achieving the goal of establishing a new route on the East Face, then we wouldn’t be focused on determining where each pitch went, how to find the necessary protection placements, and doing the necessary climbing. To be powerful, we need our attention focused in the moment, on the effort itself.
- Third, the mind tends to resist stress and be motivated toward comfort. It will shift our attention to a past or future time where we’ll be comfortable. Rappelling down after our third day on the wall, the rope got stuck on a directional sling we’d forgotten to unclip. We couldn’t retrieve our rope. Several attempts to solve the problem didn’t solve it. It was getting dark and our minds began thinking about why we’d made such a stupid mistake. We were beginning to get frustrated with each other. Our minds began to create mental suffering, thinking about the stupid mistake, getting frustrated and our desire to be back at our comfortable campsite. We needed to keep our attention focused on using our minds to think of possible solutions and then our bodies to act on them. It took an hour of focused attention to find a solution to retrieve our rope.
In each of these cases, we need to improve our awareness. We need to improve our ability to notice when the mind distracts our attention from the present moment. Instead of allowing the mind to wish the situation was less stressful, we accept stress as part of our choice. Instead of allowing the mind to focus on future achievement, we focus on the effort itself. Instead of allowing the mind to focus on a future comfortable situation, we focus on solving the stressful problem facing us in the present moment.
We reclaim our mental power each time we notice the mind shift our attention out of the present moment. If we need to think, then we focus on utilizing past experience to create possible solutions to problems. When we need to act on those possible solutions, we relax into the stress of the moment and process ourselves through it. We allow physical suffering to occur, even relishing it. Joy comes from feeling the body work and observing the mind think effectively to solve problems. We embrace physical suffering and allow the mind to observe the whole experience. Doing this makes us more aware that mental suffering is an option, an option we choose not to take.
Practice Tip: Little Steps
Mental suffering can occur because you allow the mind to focus on achieving your goal. The mind will think about all the stress that separates you from your goal. Instead, find little steps you can take toward your goal.
Identify a little step you can take that will allow you to take action now. Then, identify the next little step you can take. Doing this shifts your attention from the future goal to taking action in the present moment. You’ll achieve your goal before you realize it.