I like to do some work when I fly. Once, flying to Puerto Rico, I was reviewing a lecture on my laptop that I would give to climbers there. So, I was a little annoyed when someone sitting next to me began asking questions about what I do for a career. After I gave him the basic description “I help climbers deal with fears,” he wasn’t satisfied and asked specifically how I did that. I described how climbers are afraid of falling, resist practicing it, and that I teach them how to fall.
We talked for about 15 minutes, but he still didn’t understand. After being initially annoyed by his questions, I became curious. The popular phrase “a picture is worth a 1000 words,” describing how we understand something better by seeing one picture than describing something with 1000 words, popped into my head.
I decided to take the phrase further. If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a video must be worth 1000 pictures. And, taking it still further, if a video is worth 1000 pictures, then an experience must be worth 1000 videos. As we shift from language, to visual images, to moving visual images, to us moving through an experience, we understand reality more clearly. My flying companion had helped me stumble onto an interesting progression for an important tenet of The Warrior’s Way: we know something when we experience it, not before. Intellectual knowledge must shift to experiential knowledge to know something.
Let’s use falling to examine this tenet. It seems crazy that we would think we know how to fall without experiencing it. Yet this is what many climbers do. We wouldn’t make that mistake with something like climbing 5.12. We wouldn’t say “I know how to climb 5.12” without having experienced many 5.12s.
Climbers often take inappropriate risks because they only think about falling. When facing a fall on overhanging terrain, they look down and assess the fall intellectually. The typical intellectual conversation goes like this: “I’m just going to fall into air; I’m not going to hit anything; so, it’s safe to fall.” One mis-conception is thinking that we fall straight down. There are many more, but let’s just use this one to examine how intellectual knowledge needs to shift to experiential knowledge to know falling.
Fears manifest themselves in climbers in various ways as they transition into a fall, and in belayers as they react to catching a fall. Some climbers push away from the wall in an unconscious desire to separate themselves from the situation. Others stay close to the wall in an unconscious desire to stay close to something familiar. Compound this with various ways belayers react to catching falls, like contracting or giving a cushioned catch, and various weight difference between climbers and belayers, and we have multiple scenarios for what climbers actually experience in a fall.
Experiencing falling changes everything. We learn that we don’t fall straight down; we fall in an arc. That arc varies based on how we transition into the fall and what kind of catch we receive from the belayer. If we push away from the wall we create a bigger arc and experience more impact into the wall. If we receive a cushioned catch from the belayer, then we lengthen the end of the arc and diminish the impact into the wall.
Experiencing something means we engage the body; we experience reality through the body’s senses. We see the reality of the fall as we look down; we feel the reality of the body in space as we transition into the fall and impact the wall. The body is present for the falling experience so it can learn how to fall. We need to make sure that the mind is present also. We accomplish this by making sure the mind doesn’t think, creating mis-conception, while the body is engaged in the experiencing process. The mind needs to be aware and wait for the experience to be completed. The mind shouldn’t intellectualize during the experience; it should simply pay attention.
Experiencing falling converts an intellectual understanding of falling into an experiential understanding of it. Once we’ve made this conversion we can use words again. We can describe falling, perhaps using 1000 words, but those words will represent reality more accurately because they’re based on experiential knowledge. Yet, the recipients of those words will need to experience falling themselves if they want to know it.
Words, pictures, videos, experiences… This progression is a helpful reminder that we know something when we experience it, not before. I didn’t make much progress with my flying companion’s mis-conceptions about falling. So, I suggested that he go to a climbing gym and experience climbing, and falling, for himself.
Practice Tip: Focus on Yourself
We should consider this words-pictures-videos-experiences progression the next time we post comments on Facebook. Are our comments based on words we’ve heard, pictures we’ve seen, videos we’ve watched, or experiences we’ve had?
Realizing that we know something when we experience it is a healthy reality check for turning the focus of what we know back to ourselves, so we can learn to clarify our own mis-conceptions. It’s best to pay attention to our own learning process, rather than convince others about what they need to learn.