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The Zen of Climbing

Photo Credit: Francois Lebeau

Why do we climb? There’s undoubtedly a few quick answers to this question that come to mind, such as the physical benefits, the feeling of accomplishment, the camaraderie of climbing with friends; but there are other, deeper elements that hover just below the surface that sometimes escape one’s immediate understanding.

Climbing is freedom. A uniquely personal freedom of the mind that comes from mental and physical acumen working in unison to complete one half of a relationship. The other half of that relationship comes from the rock face, the route being ascended. Total focus is required in order to make this relationship work, without that, the connection is broken. With a healthy connection however, the rest of the world and its problems fades away. Ask me when the last time I was climbing up one of my favorite routes thinking of something like an upcoming utility payment, or some perceived slight made by a coworker, the answer is never. Climbing allows me to escape all the noise and be fully present in the moment like nothing else. You’ve all been there, the feeling of climbing a route you’re familiar with, moving from hold to hold without even really needing to think about it. It's an incredible dichotomy, to be exerting one’s self physically while having absolute peace of mind.

This feeling, this connection between mind and body, where one is completely immersed in a task, is what psychologists call flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who is largely credited with coining the term “flow” for this application, gave this definition to Wired Magazine, “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Tell me this doesn’t describe how you feel when you’re climbing?!

Now, I bring all this up because I noticed something happening in my past few visits to Coastal since they’ve opened back up. I was incredibly frustrated with myself for how far I had regressed in my climbing strength and was immediately placing the utmost emphasis on getting back to climbing the grades I was working on before the shutdown. I entered into this weird competitive mindset, where I was competing with myself in an unrealistic, unhealthy way. It was honestly a bit of a shock to me when I realized this. I love climbing not because I can climb a certain level or grade, but because I love the act of climbing; moving from hold to hold and getting to the top of the wall, plain and simple. I realized I wasn’t getting the same level of mental absolution from my sessions that I had before, so I started doing some digging on how to get back into that flow state, specifically for climbing.

As I looked deeper into it, I found a pretty cataloged relationship between rock climbing and flow state. More so than other sports, climbers have been found to quickly enter this state, which seems to have a lot to do with the narrow field of focus that climbing demands. While one must always be aware of environmental factors and the overall route of the climb, a climber’s focus is largely within the reach of their limbs, roughly a three foot radius from their body. That, combined with the intense mental puzzle undertaken to successfully perform a climb almost requires one to enter this flow state in order to succeed.

All this being said, I was still having a hard time getting back to this place mentally, and maybe you are too, so here’s some of the steps I found that can help get a climber back into the state of flow. First off, climb slower, don’t rush through something just because you know you can do it. Second, do your best to sense the holds as much as you look for them. This second step of course only works on problems you’re familiar with, and know where to place your hands next. The third step is in my opinion the hardest, but undoubtedly one of the most important, which is forgiving yourself while you climb. Its ok to fall, its ok to not nail that new climb the first time you put your hands on it. You can’t judge yourself too harshly, it’s so important to be able to let things go or you’ll become your own worst enemy when trying to get into a state of flow.

The idea of “letting go” is something we’ve all encountered at some point in our climbing careers. There’s that one climb that you just can’t get out of your head, no matter how many times you try it that day, week or even month you just can’t seem to finish. Now I’m certainly not telling you to give up on a climb that you’ve set as your goal, but maybe your beta is flawed, and after trying to do it 30 times a certain way you just need to take a step back and reassess. Here’s where the letting go comes in, its hard to reprogram your body after you’ve done something the same way so many times in a row, but were all undoubtedly capable of doing so.

The more I dug into this concept of letting go and as it relates to climbing, I was led to this relationship between rock climbing and Buddhism. Interestingly enough, Buddhists have been accessing and teaching their own version of “flow” long before Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brought it into modern culture as a psychological term, but there was something else I found that I thought played really well into the idea of not judging oneself to harshly on the wall. The Buddhists have a concept called Shoshin, or the “beginners mind,” which means adopting an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions while studying a subject, even while studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. I couldn’t imagine a better attitude to approach a casual climbing session with. This doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t be striving for improvement, the two mindsets are not mutually exclusive, but it does mean being open to the possibility that everything might not go your way every time you attempt a route. It means looking at a route with a wider focus than just the first set of beta you figured out. It means not being overly hard on yourself, and enjoying yourself on the way. If you ever need a reminder of this, just take a second to appreciate the Tibetan prayer flags on your way into Coastal, their meaning is steeped in Buddhist tradition.

So to bring all this back to the question I posed at the beginning, I think it’s fair to say that I climb because climbing in itself is its own meditative practice without a spiritual motivation. It allows practitioners to be completely present and focused in the moment, embracing the state of flow. It also encourages people to move slowly and feel their way through their moves, to embrace the ideas of letting go and not judging too harshly, and lastly to strive to approach each session with the openness and excitement of going climbing for the first time. I love these concepts, and having the ability to work on all of them each time I climb gives me courage that I can better apply them to other areas of my life.

Mountain Mind

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The mountain is fully climbed in each step

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Your own face before you were born

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When the climb loses all sense of quality

Reality emerges as the sport of mere awareness

Equanimity–>Loving–Kindness–>Compassion–>Maximal Elated Action...

Apply this to each moment of your life

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