“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” (John Muir)
“One does not climb to attain enlightenment, rather one climbs because he is enlightened.” (Zen Master Futomaki)
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” (John Muir)
One of the assignments for a course in my graduate program in transpersonal psychology was to complete a “Journeying Exercise”. The purpose of this assignment was to bring students out into the wilderness and encourage them to connect with the sounds, smells, textures and the experience of the outdoors in a deeply spiritual and “Zen” fashion (absorbed, meditative). Part of the instructions read:
“Spend a day walking (or half a day—minimum 3 hours). You can choose any place that you want—right outside your door, in a park, in the woods, anywhere. Walk without an outer goal or destination. As you walk, let your attention be inward as well as outward. Let the external landscape and the physical phenomenon of walking be a mirror of your inner landscape and your spiritual journeying. The balancing act is being open to what your outer journey and your inner journey mirror about each other without requiring that they reflect anything in particular, or even anything at all. Simply walk and simply observe.“
Fortunately for me, the wilderness, the outdoors, have always played a very significant, deeply personal role in my life. All but one (birth of my son) of my most powerful, meaningful, spiritual, epiphanous and transcendent life experiences occurred in the wilderness, with a near death (NDE) and out of body experience (OBE) falling off the Stawamus Chief topping the list. Therefore, the Stawamus Chief in Squamish BC has played an extremely powerful, personal, meaningful and spiritual role in my life ever since I started to climb on it around 1981. Now that I currently live in it’s shadow and can see this 2000′ granite monolith from every window in my home, I feel complete, at home, united with this “Spirit Rock” which has fostered so much of my own inner transformation, spiritual development and psychological evolution. Although I spent more than 12 years climbing on, sleeping under and falling off this giant rock, I had never slept on the top. This has been on my mind for many years and so when I learned about having to do this “Journeying Exercise” there was only one option which had been determined long ago. I would hike the back-trail to the Stawamus Chief and spend the night on the Second Peak. Although I wrote a great deal about the 24 hours I spent on this “journey”, what is written here is the abbreviated version submitted for the assignment and so it contains some background material as to why the wilderness, and particularly the Stawamus Chief, are so important to me. I have also only included thoughts and experiences during the trip down from the top, but plan to write much more, and in detail, at another time. What I will add though is that on the night of September 4 2012, while warmly buried in my sleeping back, staring up at the stars towards Mount Garibaldi, I was given a very rare, spectacular gift – an hour-long display of the Northern Lights! Rarely do we see the Northern Lights this far south and after having spent 30 years, off and on, in this area, I have only seen them once, very, very faintly, one night while sleeping at the base of the Grand Wall. However, on the night of September 4 2012, after two previous attempts to start the trip the previous week, I was gifted a spectacular, incredibly rare light-show from the Northern Lights. I was literally moved to tears and words simply cannot convey the epiphanous, transcendent, spiritual power and beauty of that night, that divine moment.
The Spirit of Wilderness
It was during the most painful and traumatic period of my young life, between 1974 and 1976, that I first developed my life-long love of the wilderness. While my home and family environment were a source of pain, abuse and fear, the mountains of North Vancouver BC offered me solace, comfort and safety. During those painful and lonely years of my adolescence, I had few friends, other than four dogs: Chester, Ladybird, Sinbad and Wolf. During this time I also found comfort in reading stories about the Sasquatch, famous game hunters and infamous animals who found ways to escape the fate of the hunters who sought them out. Around this time I was also introduced to the shamanistic writings of Carlos Castaneda. The circumstances of my home life, the topics of my favorite reading material, a fascination with animals and indigenous cultures, combined with the readily accessible wilderness literally in my back yard, naturally led me to the wilderness where I spent most of my free-time. In the woods of upper Lynn Valley and the slopes of Grouse Mountain, I would stalk animal markings, seek out game trails, listen for the sounds of any creature and even fantasize about spotting a Sasquatch. In my home environment I felt fear. In the wilderness I feel safe, at peace, surrounded by wonder, life and “spirit”. At the time I really had no idea what this thing called “spirit” was, but I always felt a presence, a sense of privilege, a sense of divinity while in the wilderness. It was also during this time that I began to learn, and practice, meditation. I had no idea it was called meditation at the time, but after reading various books by Carlos Castaneda I would spend hours sitting silently in the dark, particularly around twilight, trying to “shut off my internal dialog” which was described in the Castaneda books. Clearly this was a meditative practice; I just did not know it at the time.
I have always connected with the wilderness and have never been afraid of “wild” animals. Every single time I am in the bush, particularly when I am alone and far from the sounds or others signs of civilization, I feel as if I am where I am supposed to be. I am calm, I listen intently to the sounds around me, I see and smell every little indication of activity, something stirring around me. Once the sun begins to set, I become even more silent and within my own thoughts. My thoughts don’t race; I have no “Monkey Mind” like I might have when I am at work, at home or in the city. The wilderness has always been the place I will go to when I need inner peace, quiet, calm and reflection. The wilderness is where I feel the most connected to a natural spirit, an Earthly, grounded, perennial spirit of life.
The Stawamus Chief – A Sacred Mountain
At just a little over 2000’, The Stawamus Chief is the second tallest free-standing granite monolith in the world, second only to El Capitan in California. It is a world-class rock climbing destination visited by tens of thousands of climbers from around the world every year. The rock was named after an early First Nations village of STA-a-mus at the north end of the Squamish River. The Stawamus Chief has significant historical and cultural value to the Squamish Nation people and stories told by elders tell of the significant spiritual meaning of “The Chief”.
The Spirit of Rock Climbing
“In a sense everything that is exists to climb. All evolution is a climbing towards a higher form. Climbing for life as it reaches towards the consciousness, towards the spirit. We have always honored the high places because we sense them to be the homes of gods. In the mountains there is the promise of… something unexplainable. A higher place of awareness, a spirit that soars. So we climb… and in climbing there is more than a metaphor; there is a means of discovery.” (Rob Parker)
I spent more than 12 year’s rock climbing on the Chief, and experienced my most significant and spiritually meaningful event where I had an out of body and near death experience during a long fall. Therefore, I cannot look upon the Chief in any other way than spiritually. The cracks and protrusions of its many climbing routes have carried me both vertically as well as internally, spiritually, for many years. Each time I was faced with a challenging technical problem, my mind would cast aside all thoughts, all problems, all memories and I would become absorbed with a singular, crystal clear and profoundly focused attention which spanned a few square feet of rock in front of me, and NOTHING else. There could be nothing else – my life depended upon it. The ONLY subject of my attention during that moment would be the shape or angle of the rock, the depth of the small crack or protrusion, which cam would best fit as protection, the position of my body and a visualization of how my body, my arms, my legs, would slowly, deliberately shift into the next position and gradually take me one step closer to the top, or the next belay station.
“To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life. Perhaps this is one reason why climbing has become increasingly hard as society has become increasingly, disproportionately, coddling.” (A. Alvarez)
When you spend hours, days, sometimes weeks so completely and totally focused on such immediate and narrow sections of space and time, a sort of inner calm, inner strength and profound clarity of mind seems to develop. You might spend hours slowly, deliberately and sometimes painfully choreographing all the moves and positions which will successful take you to the top. But once you are finished for the day, once you sit 1000 or more feet above the valley floor below, and you let your legs dangle over the edge, feel the wind in your face, hear the sounds of a raven or an eagle gently soaring on the warm wind currents below you which glide up the face of the rock, you know you are witness to something sacred. You may have been talking, encouraging, chatting up a storm at different times on the way up with your climbing partner. But then you reach the top, your hands and fingertips sensitive, scraped, bleeding and covered in white chalk, your calves aching from the strain. Your body begins to relax, your thirst quenched by a gulp from your warm water bottle, you begin to turn inwards. No talking, no words, there is no need. You glance over at a small pebble on the rock next to you and you notice the curve of its shape, the shadow it casts from the sun, the texture and color of its surface. You pick up the pebble and place it in your hand. You wonder if it was once part of the larger rock, the Chief itself. You wonder if it fell from some spot above you, possibly when another climber knocked it loose when he placed his foot into a crack. You think about what you have learned about the nature of the Universe, how every element of everything originated in the stars. You realize, you feel, you KNOW that the pebble in your hand, the rock under your body, the tree next to you, you yourself, have all originated from star-dust. You, the pebble, the Chief, butterflies, ocean tides, peanut butter, puppy dogs, are all part of, all originate from, exploding stars and the Universe. Everything is both part of, and exists within, the Universe. The Universe exists within everything, the Universe exists within you. This is a sublime and profound realization of deep personal significance – and it all came about from the simple, even mundane act of “climbing something”.
“To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.“
Once you get past the physical and technical aspects of rock climbing, all that is left is an inner journey often revolving around focused concentration, awareness of the moment and the psychology of fear. After finishing a lengthy, airy and challenging route, you realize you have exalted your body, your mind, your soul towards something more than everyday existence. You have felt the gnawing, nagging pull of fear and doubt begin to creep into your mind at those moments where your survival sense may have instinctively believed it was most needed. But you knew differently, you knew exactly what was needed to solve the technical problem and not fall. You knew there was no place for fear. No role for doubt other than to disturb your resolve, shatter your confidence until your hand shakes, your foot slips and you begin to plummet towards the ground hoping your protection will hold and your partner will assume his role as savior today. But not today. Today, fear will wait, you have other plans.
“If there are any remaining fears, they stem only from the realization of my own staggering insignificance.” (Tyler Smith – Never Cry Wolf)
At first, it seems so childishly simple, even mundane – go climb something. But if you stick with it long enough, at least until the physical and technical aspects become secondary, you may then experience a transformation of consciousness, an evolution of spirit. Every new climb, new technical problem, becomes an exclusively personal, private, internal psychological challenge of will and concentration. Somehow you feel whole. The space between the doer, and the thing being done, dissolves. You literally, physically and psychologically “become one” with the rock and exist within a single moment in time – a Zen moment. A moment in time which, if measured by a clock, may be no more than a few seconds, or a minute at most. But when measured by the timeless clock of crystal-clear, singularly driven and focused attention, it is neither a short time nor a long time – you are inside of eternity. There is only one word which can describe this state – spiritual.
My 24 hour excursion, my “Journeying Exercise” to the top of the Second Peak of the Stawamus Chief on September 4 and 5, was filled with many personal, psychological and oh-so-physical moments. I have been writing at length and so for the purpose of this blog entry, I am only going to focus on the hike back down. There are a few reasons for this. Since I had not hiked the 2000’ back trail for over a year, and was now carrying an additional 45lb pack, the physical effort to get to the top was incredible and took me around 5 hours. There was little time for quiet contemplation other than those few minutes of rest I took frequently at various points along the way. Although I used those moments to gleefully greet everyone I met with a full smile, joy and an shared acknowledgment of the beautiful day, for the most part I was concentrating on getting to the top without injury or loss of motivation.
On the morning of September 5th, I woke from a restful sleep at the top of the Second Peak of the Chief around 05:30am just as the sun was starting to glow on the eastern horizon to my right. The night before was incredible and I made this Audio Recording just before the show of Northern Light’s around 11:00pm. When I listen to myself I can’t help but hear the joy, the happiness, the calm, sublime and reverent experience, the Zen moment, of spending a night on top of the Stawamus Chief, in the tone of my own voice. I was very, very happy and content that night. When I woke, I felt FABULOUS, at peace, rested and I was not even aware of any soreness in my legs but I knew that would come later. I was so calm, comfortable, at peace; I did not want to do anything except remain in that spot, in that state. I could hear a small bird jumping from branch to branch in the tree next to me. The wind was ever so gently blowing up from the south with a cool ocean smell as it came up from Howe Sound. Although I could also hear the highway and town of Squamish 2000’ feet below me, I was more attuned to the sounds and smells right in front of me. After a eating an apple, a fruit bar and drinking some water for breakfast, I packed up my sleeping bag and all gear so that I could take some time for a morning meditation on the top of the Chief. I pulled out my partner’s cell phone which I had borrowed, launched the Insight Timer and settled down in a comfortable position, not quite crossed-legged, and waited for the starting sound of the timer gong.
The start of my morning meditation almost went unnoticed. It was like stepping from one side of the pool into the other. Really, how much of a difference could it make? You are already in the water, you can feel the temperature, sense the smell of chlorine. Stepping three feet to one side is not going to make a difference in your “water” experience. “Officially” starting to meditate, placing my body in a particular position, starting an electronic device with 5 minute gong sounds, was actually more disruptive to the natural “flow” of the moment than it was meditative. I was already in a deep, pervasive and serene state of meditation from the moment I started this “journey” and so the only real difference was that now I labeled what I was doing as “meditation”, sat in a particular position and used a meditation tool – a timer. Really, what was the point? How could I possibly distinguish what I was doing a moment ago, listening to the birds, feeling the wind on my face, eating my breakfast, totally absorbed in a Zen moment, from what I was about to do now? But I carried on and did manage to shut down my internal dialog briefly, but thoughts did keep slipping in, mostly in the form of “oooooo”, ”ahhhhhhhh”, “oooohhhhhmmmmmmm”. Nice breeze, that’s a bird, that’s a squirrel, I hear a chainsaw down below, I need to do this more often. I did not try too hard to keep out the thoughts; mostly I just stared out into the space beyond the rim of the Chief and towards the far mountains across the valley. Before I knew it, the double-gong went off and after arranging the pack on my back, I started the long hike back down to the valley floor below.
I really took my time negotiating the steep route along the top, down the ladder and various chained sections which end at the top of the south gulley between the first and second peaks. It was not all that long ago when there were NO chains and the exposure to a potential slip and fall were much greater. Although I have on more than one occasion whined about how “touristy” the back-trail has gotten, I sure appreciated those chains today with my heavy pack and wobbly legs! I really found my legs a bit more “rubbery” than I expected but since it was such a beautiful morning, and I really had nowhere else to be, I took my time with slow, careful and deliberate steps making sure I always had three points to the ground: both legs and at least one hand bracing something to keep my balance and arrest any potential slip. It was tough going through some of the more exposed, narrow and steep parts, but within the hour I was out into the top of the south gulley at the start of the trail down.
Once I made it down the steep, exposed and chained areas into the very quiet upper south gulley, I stopped for an extended rest. The exposed and risky sections were behind me and all I had to do now was take my time, one step at a time, stepping careful to keep my balance and avoiding any potential ankle twisting which was one of my weaknesses in the past. One of the things that often happens with climbers, or hikers, is that once they have done all the hard work getting to the top, and are now on their way back down, their focus and attention begins to relax. This is often a very natural state since one would reasonably consider all the work, all the hard stuff, all the requirements for the effort and concentration, to happen on the way up. Once the climb or hike is completed, people tend to relax and just pound their way down a mountain with little thought to any potential dangers. Unfortunately this is often when injuries or accidents occur since one is mistaken into believing there is less risk now and they begin to think about getting to the bottom. Concentration wanders, focus drifts, gravity starts to yank you down under your own weight and so it is easy to slip, fall or twist an ankle on the way down. I was not going to let that happen today and since it was dead quite between the two peaks at the top of the south gulley, no sounds from the highway or town below, I sat in quite, contemplative mediation for 15 minutes or so – just me, a chipmunk, a raven and the wind through the trees.
On the way down the trail I was totally focused on each step. Was the ground angled? Did I have to step over something? Did I have something to hold on to with one hand? Which foot should I lead with and land first? Although I had left my ski poles near the top so I could use them on the way down when I needed them most, someone who came down the night before must have figured they were accidentally left behind and took them down the mountain to make it easier for the person who “lost” them, to get them back. What the Good Samaritan didn’t know was that they were left behind intentionally so an old fat man with a pack could get back down safely. I simply took my time, concentrated on each step, each broken rock and each log I stepped over and made sure my pack did not shift its weight too far, throwing me off balance. The entire trip down was a profoundly meditative state of intense concentration on a small area of ground directly in front of me and focused on that precise, current moment in time occupied by each step. This has always come natural to me. An ability to focus intensely on one thought, one image, one moment in time. Whenever I stopped to sit for a rest, and relieve the strain on my shoulders by taking off the pack, I simply took a long, deep and slow breath, held it in briefly and then let it slip out ever so gently, quietly. My blood pressure and heart rate would drop noticeably and I would just sit there listening, smelling, and feeling my body, my legs, the slight soreness of my back. By the time I made it to the bottom, I was simultaneously physically exhausted, legs wobbly, but I wanted to turn around and do it all over again. Maybe next week…..
I think over again my small adventures,
My fears,Those small ones that seemed so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach;
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.
The Dream of a Rock-Climb
Then following the dream of a rock-climb, vertical, overhanging, boltless, with many small holes and wrinkles-perfect free-climbing on a sheer wall, with an infinity of air around you.
At such moments you are gloriously aware of your fingers, your muscles; of the toes of your Fires winning a hold on the rough granite rock; of the wall, close to your face, shining black, brown and bright ochre amid the grey-like flower patterns in a carpet-and all of it above the scree down there at the foot of the climb.
You are enmeshed in a bright web of thought on which you climb ever higher, pulling yourself upwards from hand-hold to hand-hold, foot-hold to foot-hold, towards an ever increasing freedom while everything below falls away as you exalt yourself.
Down at the bottom you see the shadows of the towers lengthen, and you feel that you belong to the mountain with every fiber of your being and yet, at the same time, here, high above the abyss, utterly free of mind and spirit, you are acutely aware that you have arms and legs – and a body to waft you upwards, because you have learned to overcome fear.
(Kurt Diemberger – Summits and Secrets)