Imagine yourself between protection points on a challenging climb. You’re at your limit, pumped, and doubts begin to swirl in your mind. You may begin to perceive that you’re in a threatening situation, a kind of existential threat. Your survival instincts of fight or flight kick in, to fight through the threat or flee from it. What do you do?
Difficult climbing situations like this challenge us to our core and reveal how we deal with stress. Mental training helps us become aware of our stress-coping mechanisms, identify limiting ones, and replace limiting ones with ones that are more helpful.
We tend to react to threatening situations as if we only have an “either/or” choice. We think we have to choose between either fighting through the stress or fleeing from it. This manifests in climbing as either rushing to the next protection stance or escaping back to the last one. We process stress by rushing to the future or escaping to the past, which is not really processing it at all.
“Either/or” thinking is a reflection of a dualistic mind, which views reality selectively. “I want positive thinking, but not negative thinking.” “I want to succeed, but not to fail.” “I want the good in life, but not the bad.” Stress is necessary for learning and improving. It exists within the negative, in failure, and in the so-called “bad” aspects of life. Selecting only the positive, successful, and good experiences limits our engagement in life and our ability to live it.
A Unitary Mind
Life includes everything: the positive and negative, the success and failure, the good and bad. A unitary mind is one that thinks in ways that are aligned with life. It’s designed to see all of reality, to embrace all of what makes up life, accept it, and work with it. We access the unitary mind through “both/and” thinking. We perceive both positive and negative so we can see reality in its most complete form. We accept both success and failure as necessary for our learning. We work with both good and bad aspects of life so we can be present, do the work, and enjoy our learning journeys. Unitary mind and “both/and” thinking build a better and more resilient core foundation for our stress-coping mechanism. How do we build it?
Fight and flight are natural reactions to stress and we can work with them. However, instead of either fighting or fleeing, we both fight and flee. Fighting is a movement forward; fleeing is a movement backward. We don’t move when we combine them; we stay in the current stress. Doing this gives us time to be aware of our internal state and stress-coping strategies. Pausing—delaying the urge to fight or flee—allows us to stay in stress and perceive with more clarity. We notice our tendency to seek comfort either in the future or the past, and shift to seeking comfort in the present moment. Pausing and staying allows us to shift from fight or flight to vulnerability, which helps us remain open so we can learn.
Effective work can now be done because we’re vulnerable and open enough to perceive what’s occurring inside us. We’re naturally driven to move toward comfort; there’s nothing wrong with being motivated that way. Rather, it’s a matter of when we seek comfort: in future and past, or in the present. Pausing, staying, and “both/and” thinking help us seek comfort in the present moment.
We need a tangible tool for applying “both/and” thinking. We do this by practicing tough love. We are both tough and loving with ourselves. By pausing and staying in stress, we give ourselves space and time to work with it. We stay in stress and are honest with ourselves about our weaknesses and limitations. That’s tough. And, we love whatever is revealed by being compassionate with ourselves when we make mistakes, don’t progress as quickly as we’d like, and when our efforts fall short of our expectations.
When we’re at the edge of our comfort zones—at our limit, pumped, and doubting—we notice our tendency to either rush through the stress or flee from it. Then, we pause, stay, and use the unitary mind to shift to “both/and” thinking. We’re no longer pursuing only a select reality of positive, successful, and good experiences. We know life is tough. Yet, we can be both tough with ourselves about life and loving with ourselves as we navigate our difficult life journeys. It simply boils down to when we seek comfort. Instead of seeking it in the future or past, we seek it in the present so we can engage in the full reality of what life is.
Practice tip: Tough and Loving Coaching
How many times have you heard your belayer say “You’ve got it.”? How helpful was that for your learning and improvement as a climber? Rather, tell your belayer to coach you with tough love.
Climbing can be stressful, causing you to get upset, frustrated, or discouraged. Let’s say your tendency is to get frustrated after falling; you want to escape that feeling by immediately being lowered to the ground. Tell your belayer about this limiting tendency and work out the tough love coaching beforehand:
- Be tough: If you react and want to be lowered, then your belayer can ask you to pause and stay where you are for a minute. If you say you want to be lowered after that minute, then the belayer will honor your request. This is tough; it helps you pause. Your belayer might remind you that climbing is difficult and that’s an important reason why you like it.
- Be love: Your belayer speaks with honesty and compassion, reminding you about what you need to focus your attention on, but in a kind way. This is love; it helps you accept whatever helpful instructions the belayer suggests.