Monday, September 12, 2011

Climbing the Wu Wei

"... at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance."
~T. S. Eliot

"The natural is sufficient. If one strives, he fails."
~Wang Pi

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter about climbing. 

tweep1: Gnarly bruise and knot, plus a sore elbow, from fighting my way up a crazy 11c yesterday. :) #climb
@Paukku: Tsk tsk. You shouldn't be fighting. Flow with the route. Become the route.
tweep2: I'm a big proponent of having the ability to both flow and fight, then you can get thru whatever the route dictates

@Paukku: I find that if I think a route dictates 'fighting' I am climbing it wrong. I am very wu wei when it comes to it.
tweep2: but there are routes out there that require full extension lunges and low lock-offs, which many would call "fighting"
@Paukku: Semantics. Fighting is purposeful violent conflict meant to establish dominance over something. Not how I climb.

Semantics indeed. One could argue that I could just accept that "fight" in this context was being used to indicate "conscious exertion of power" and move on. Some routes are 'harder' and require different movements and more effort, right? But to me that is not the point. To me, climbing is not about power or winning or conquering. And it is certainly not about fighting.

Wu Wei
One of the seeming paradoxes of Taoism, a school of thought I greatly admire, is the concept of Wu Wei. It is a concept of effortless action or action without doing. Non-doing. Put another way, it is action in which there is no division between the object and the action that is done. It is action that is both spontaneous and effortless without being passive.

Got that?

From a climbing perspective, this translates to graceful climbing. And I admire graceful climbers. I love watching the flow - another key for understanding Wu Wei - of a climber who does not fight against a route. Each move is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and creates greater harmony and balance within the climb. Capturing that beauty of form and movement is how I approach climbing.

This is key to the mental character of climbing - a constituent element of climbing that is sadly overlooked by many, especially as this sport becomes more and more popular.

Climbing in the Wu Wei is not the absence of action, but rather the absence of conflict. It is climbing without combative or egotistical effort. This kind of climbing is like water that flows over and around the rocks in its path; it does not try to force a path, but works with the natural rhythm of its surroundings. Water is yielding and soft, yet it is powerful and shapes the world.

Rather than seeing a particular move within a climb - a lunge or a lockoff - as an obstacle, I see it instead as an opportunity to understand the flow of the route. Those moments of clarity - those wonderful aha moments - when a route seems impossible and then suddenly becomes possible are never about how I can fight harder; they are about realising the flow of the route and then matching it. They are about accord.

Am I just splitting hairs?

I don't think so.

To characterize climbing, even a very challenging and difficult climb, as fighting is contradictory to the very essence of why I love climbing. I am not getting into the arena with an adversary who must be subjugated or defeated; I am journeying with a friend.

As Benjamin Hoff states in The Tao of Pooh:

When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit into round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn't try. It doesn't think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn't appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.

That is how I approach climbing. And that feeling, when I am in the moment of a climb, when I am following the lines a route reveals to me, letting them lead me so that I flow, is one of the best feelings in the world. It makes me peaceful and present. I am the point, the still point.

One of the nicest compliments I have ever received is when someone told me that I make climbing look effortless. I could not do that if I was fighting.



Andy said...

Great post! During my first visit to a rock gym, and my second time climbing altogether I sat mesmerized by a man bouldering. It was as if he somehow was defying gravity and floating peacefully up the route on the wall. That was an "aha" moment for me. A moment where I said to myself, "that's how I want to climb." It's exactly the type of climbing that you describe in this post. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Lovely. I love that quote from "Tao of Pooh." I'd say that We Wei is one of my favorite concepts in taoism as well. Although I've thought about this in relation to life and people many times, I've never put it in the context of my climbing. Something that I will take with me next time for sure.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. :)

Paukku said...

Andy, glad you liked it. As a new climber, you have the advantage of being able to tailor your journey into climbing with just such concepts in mind and taking them from an abstract into practice. I wish you all the success and joy there is to be had, my friend. Climb on!

Eliz, this is why we're friends. I look forward to hearing about how applying the concept of Wu Wei affects your climbing. Thank you for the kind words.

Audrey Price said...

I share this exact view with you, not just because it makes sense, but because at times I also use to "fight" when climbing and with almost all those "fights" I never made it to the top. Fighting only caused me to think harder rather than more clearly, I almost would always hold my breath as well. Removing that thought process from my practice lead me to be a much better climber, even if I don't make it to the top.
I am not familiar with We Wei until you mentioned it and have always called it "dancing on the wall" I love to watch effortless movement and find it quite beautiful and I admire those you carry that flow when on the wall as I know that is what I strive for when climbing. I feel far more connected.

Paukku said...

Audrey, I agree with you. When I find myself not following the flow of a route and working against it I feel weak and off balance and I also notice I often stop breathing. It is like all the energy gets blocked up.

They way I climb, the attitude with which I approach it, is an extension of how I live my life (to varying degrees of success, of course). Being able to apply Wu Wei to climbing I attribute to my early climbing partners, both girls, who were very good at pointing out when I was fighting a route rather than climbing it. (


Fascinating blog. And an interesting approach to climbing. I have to agree that climbing is at its best when you are flowing, having learnt the movements necessary to glide between holds with minimum effort. I often employ a power scream and good old raw power to complete a boulder problem, however ;-).

Paukku said...

Samuel, Thanks! And as to as your power scream and raw power, as long as they are appropriate to the climb and the moment, I say go for it. Round peg, round hole and all that. :)

Haley @ Climb Run Lift Mom said...

Excellent post!!!! I really admire people who can climb like that. I really try to, but when I start to struggle I tend to get angry and have to "conquer" the route. It's something I'm working on. I'll try to think of you next time I'm climbing and try to resist "fighting" the climb :)

TAB56 said...

I know my climbing is where I want it to be because I'm already doing this. I hadn't thought of it in these terms, more that I'm just one with my climbing, enjoying the movement rather than worrying about what the grade is or whether I'm conquering it. Needless to say, I'm a much happier climber than when I was fighting my way up climbs. I love the way you put it.

Paukku said...

Haley, thanks! Please let me know how it goes. I think you'll see a difference in your climbing if you are mindful about the relationship you have with each climb.

TAB56, that is great! I am very happy that this post resonates with you. Thank you for your comment.

@cunningham_mark said...

Well said! I agree climbing is "like water that flows over and around the rocks". Has anyone coined the expression "climb like the wind"? Thats also a natural force flowing without restriction by gravity. Watching skilled climbers move upward with an illusion of almost effortless levity is mesmerizing as each move flows higher and higher. We climbed Olive Oil in Red Rocks, Vegas last January. As I belayed and watched the leader top out the sixth pitch, clouds crept in with the wind, mist flowed thickly around us then ascended up-route, beckoning us to follow, through the arete and chimney then turned out of sight....

Stephen W. Weiss said...

Great post as always! As I am progressing in the sport I am finding some frustrating moments where I think I would be able to conquer some routes/problems if I could just find the flow, rather than rely on my strength. I would agree flow is more important than strength to progress in the sport, but sometimes it is hard to understand the flow!