On Belay, Buddha?

I’ve recently started top rope climbing and bouldering at Brooklyn Boulders. It’s been challenging, humbling, and a ton of fun.  I highly recommend Stacie as an instructor for the Ropes and Sessions classes!

I’ve also recently started expanding the scope of my mediation practice beyond mindfulness of breath to include observing states of mind without getting completely overwhelmed. Huge thanks to Marlie’s weekly guided mediations that help me to settle and safely explore my mindstuff.  

What’s not so recent are my attempts at drawing connections between the methods and teachings of my contemplative practices (yoga, meditation, Buddhism) and my work, hobbies, and lifestyle choices. So here is a look at how my experiences climbing are analogous to mindfulness meditation. On belay? Belay on.

Even when empty, the climbing space at Brooklyn Boulders bombards your senses with stimulation — high ceilings with brightly colored walls, hanging ropes, variety of surfaces to stand on, and a smell that kind of reminds me of a high school locker room. On a busy day, there are hundreds of people (and loud children!) on the walls, standing and observing, and walking around the facility. There is A LOT going on, all of the time. It overwhelms me instantly when I walk in. 

This is not unlike my mind (and probably yours, too). Racing thoughts, ideas, plans, memories, daydreams, checklists, processing incoming stimulus, reacting to sensations, and feeeeeeeelings. There is A LOT going on, all of the time. When practicing mindfulness of breath meditation, you are working on keeping your awareness on your body breathing. In mindfulness of mind mediation, your practice expands to allow your rapidly changing states of mind to be there in the open. The work is to observe the existence of your thoughts without entertaining any specific one. This practice of being an observer of your own mind used to overwhelm me every time I tried it.

Not to try to mix too many examples here, but this feeling of being overwhelmed by my thoughts is similar to what happens every time I go surfing. As I walk out into the ocean and eventually begin to paddle out, instead of bobbing up and down slightly in co-existence as the waves pass by, I get pummeled, pushed underwater, dragged along the rocky sand bottom, and my surfboard hits me in the head as I surface for air. The waves control me. 

Back to climbing. When you are belaying — where you’re on the ground handling the ropes so your partner can safely climb — you have to be 100% focused on watching your partner’s journey up the wall. Your right hand never leaves the rope. Your left moves swiftly to remove the slack. Your gaze is up, locked in on their movements. You’re listening carefully for the sound of their voice commands. You’re so tuned in to the relationship you have as a climbing team for the duration of the route, that your attention is not interrupted by any of the distractions around you. 

Belaying a climber is a lot like mindfulness of breathing. Your breath, or in this case the responsibility of belaying a climber, is the anchor for your attention. Amidst all the stimulus, and opportunities for distraction, your attention stays honed in on the methodical movements of the rope and your climber above. It's a meditative state. 

Photo proof that I didn't drop Abby! 

Photo proof that I didn't drop Abby! 

After a few rounds belaying my friends, I took a break to rest my hands and scanned the room. There is a dude taking a selfie midway up the wall. There is a group of kids clapping and cheering. There is chalk dust floating in the air. Instead of feeling overwhelmed like I did when I arrived, I was able to watch and observe while maintaining a boundary between my mind and the stimulus around me. I was able to do this because I had just spent time in period of intense focus.

Whether it's climbing or meditation, you want to start and end on the ground. Before expanding the challenge for your awareness to include your entire state of mind, start with basic breath meditation. I solely worked with breath meditation for months before I was able to constructively add in new layers for my attention to focus on. And during every practice session, I begin and end with narrow focused mindfulness of breath with more broadly focused scopes of awareness sandwiched in between.

Breathe on! Climb on!