By Chrissy Vadovszki
The First Noble Truth in Buddhism states that there is suffering. Life is impermanent and fragile. Nothing will last. We will lose it all. We care about and grasp onto much of what will ultimately change. In addition, life and climbing are full of injury, aging, sickness, losing loved ones and death. There is suffering in life. There is suffering in climbing.
We cling to rock climbing because it gives us some sense of joy and control. Initially, we all get to experience so much success: learning, growth, community and more. Ultimately though, how you perform or feel in this moment cannot provide lasting happiness because it is constantly changing. You progress until you plateau and feel frustrated. You onsight your hardest grade one day, get completely shut down on an easier climb the next and get upset or overly bummed. How you are climbing or how the day is going affects your mood. If these experiences are causing you excessive emotions and frustration, perhaps you've become too attached to how you currently feel and are performing. And this does tie your happiness to variables that you cannot control.
In the last year, my climbing has been impacted by a number of injuries, evolving symptoms and diagnosis. There have been countless physical therapy sessions, imaging, multiple doctors and gathering of their opinions on my various ailments. This was preceded by one of my best fall climbing seasons ever. It would be easy to throw my hands up and give into the negative thinking or frustration as I am currently not sending nearly as hard as I was a year ago. It is okay to feel these emotions as improvement is not always easy or guaranteed. Sometimes we need to dig deep on how we can best learn and grow from our experience at this moment. It is easy to wonder “why me” and “what's wrong with me”, but a lot of this is simply the human experience. Life is suffering. Injuries and set-backs happen to everyone and we must remember that we are both not immune to this, but also not alone.
It's important to understand that every moment of life provides a pathway to both happiness and unhappiness and that climbing performance is much the same. When you send a particular climb, you may feel happy for a while, but then thoughts might creep in. You think: "What is the next project?", "What if it was a fluke?" or "What if I'm not really as good of a climber as I think I am?" Or perhaps life throws you a curve ball and you lose strength and fitness. You might be upset for a while, but then a feeling of optimism pops up and you think, "Maybe I can train and climb hard again". Or "When I climb this grade or this route, I will really enjoy rock climbing, go on this trip and be able to do all the things I want to do."
You can experience great joy by sending a project, and immediately feel empty at the loss of direction in your climbing. These feelings are two sides of the same coin and are contained within each other. Climbs or grades that once brought you much joy and feelings of success, can on a different day be the cause of great frustration or defeat. It’s all a matter of perspective and when you realize this truth, based on your own experience, you can begin to step outside of this attachment to performance or feeling and learn to reduce the overall suffering in your life.
When looking at suffering more closely, we can begin to differentiate between inevitable vs. optional suffering. Inevitable suffering is a result of external change, outside of our control and is often connected to things that are very important to us. You bleed and bruise. Your skin hurts. Your muscles are sore. Climbing is physically demanding and a certain level of inevitable suffering is present depending on how you push yourself and to what extremes. More deeply though, there will be climbs you never do, trips you never make. You will have to make hard choices. Your body will change. You will get sick. You will die. You will have the last climb with a dear partner or friend, and will not get to know when that is. There will be the last time you climb a certain grade, ever. There will be climbing areas or walls you will never visit or never return to again. There will be the last time you ever climb. Sadness, loss, and frustration are built into being alive, and of course, into climbing. This is inevitable suffering.
Optional suffering is different from inevitable suffering because it is internal and within your control. It comes from your reactions to situations, whether they, themselves are inevitable or otherwise. Optional suffering is extra. It is added on to whatever is happening. You feel fear, insecurity, or frustration on a climb, and react by taking it out on those closest to you, often your belayer or spotter. Another climber is rude to you at the crag, and it ruins your entire day and potentially the day of those who have to put up with you after the fact. Your expectations are unmet in some capacity and you are upset by them, and these feelings continue to linger and interfere with the future. You get injured or sick, and you ruminate on how unlucky you are and how unfair life is. It is easy to fall into these downward spirals and cause much optional suffering to oneself, as well as to others around you.
It’s inevitable that I’ve faced a number of physical set-backs this year. I’m not special in this regard and it will happen to the best of us. Optional suffering is the potential reaction and added on suffering to these events. I could get sad, and dwell. I could beat myself up over it. I could tie up my self-worth and identity in climbing a certain grade or particular climb. I could lose motivation, stop training, stop trying hard, stop pushing myself to grow and learn, I could blame myself or my environment for my unfortunate circumstances.
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There is a story of a great Buddhist named Won Hyo that shows the influence of one's mental attitudes toward optional suffering. As a young man, Won Hyo was traveling in the great dry northern plains of China in search of a master to learn and understand the truth of human nature. One evening, while crossing the desert, he stumbled upon a small cave and went to sleep in it. In the middle of the night, he woke up and was thirsty and searched around until he found a bowl of rainwater. He drank it with pleasure and gratitude and went back to bed. In the morning. he woke up and realized that the bowl was in fact a broken skull with dried blood. He realized he had satisfied his thirst with bloody rainwater with dead bugs floating in it, and immediately proceeded to vomit. He also realized that instead of spending the night in a cave, as he thought, he had slept inside of a coffin. He was horrified.
In this moment, Won Hyo came to the deep realization that both his suffering and happiness came from within. Neither of these reactions came directly from drinking the water or where he slept, only from the mental attitude he had toward these events. The skull was always a skull, and he was grateful for it until his past experience caused him to judge it as “bad” and a bowl as “good”. The coffin was neither inherently good nor bad. Though these were the same objects and the only difference was in his perception of them. Since reactions come from within, he realized the option to be happy and the option to suffer were of equal opportunity at any moment in time. It was thoughts that labeled things as "good" or "bad."
Here is another example that perhaps might resonate more with you. Let's say you hate slab climbing (especially if it's run-out!). If only you didn't have to slab climb, you'd be happy. Slab climbing is slow, tenuous, scary, and frustrating. You are also terrible at it. Who wants to cheese grate down a slab? But where is the source of suffering? It's within you. You are the one filled with dislike and resentment, not the slab or slab climbing itself. Real rock or plastic, slab climbing is a series of impermanent actions: pulling on small holds, trusting small feet. It doesn't have the power to make you happy or miserable as those reactions are within you. Happiness and unhappiness come from your mental attitude toward that type of climbing, not from the climbing itself. If you don't realize this, you might spend a lot of time disliking slab climbing and wasting time and energy focusing on this variable that triggers this experience of suffering. Ironically, the slab is not responsible for your suffering, you are.
Let's look at another example. You are super close on your project. You love this project and are excited to get back on it. But when you arrive, your project is swarmed with other climbers to the point that you will not be able to get on it today. Even if you wait them out, or cycle in, conditions will not be favorable for your success and you immediately feel despondent at the situation. Now the thought of your project makes you feel frustrated instead of happy. Where is the suffering? It's not within the climb or the people. Your project does not have the power to make you happy or sad. The power is within you. But if you continue to think that the source of happiness or frustration is the climb itself, or situation, you will continue searching for happiness where it can't be found and continue allowing the roulette of life to cause you optional suffering.
So what is the solution? Don't care so much? The answer is yes and no.
It is okay to care. You've put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this sport, your life, and these experiences. They have great value to you. Of course, you care. It is okay to be invested. It is okay to feel emotions: disappointment, frustration, sadness, happiness, excitement, and inspiration. It is okay to be happy and celebrate. It is okay to suffer and feel pain, and as initially stated, suffering is part of life and a shared, inherently human experience amongst us all.
That being said, every challenging situation you encounter offers an opportunity for how you react. It is a chance to grow, learn and appreciate the life you are leading, the climbs you are currently climbing, the places you are visiting, and the people you are sharing time with. Even though a lot of suffering can't be avoided, it can be reduced significantly with how you relate to it. You can learn to minimize the extent of optional suffering, for that is what is within your control. This can be done by cultivating mindfulness and awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions, practicing acceptance of both the situation and where you are in this moment, and choosing to act within your values. You can remember that things change, and this situation, too, will pass. We can appreciate each moment more deeply, being more actively aware of life's inherently transient nature.
With my own injuries, I can also work to grow and learn from them. What areas can I still focus on now and improve on? What is most important that I am doing now that will set me up for success in the future with my climbing goals? How does this fit into my bigger picture of me as a climber or coach? What do I need in this moment or is best for me? How do I enjoy, appreciate and make the most of today?
- Notice the ways you suffer: over normal life events, what grades you climb or how you are performing or feeling. How much of this is inevitable suffering vs. optional suffering?
- Notice the transient nature of your climbing sessions and impermanence throughout your day. Watch how climbs, thoughts, and feelings come and go. Do you notice anything that doesn't change? How does becoming aware of impermanence change your relationship with how you climb and how you feel about yourself or your performance?
- Notice what triggers suffering within you when climbing. What are the situations that trigger these feelings? How do you react to them?
- Consider what it would mean if this climb was for the first time or the last time. Imagine yourself a beginner. Imagine this is the last opportunity for you to touch these holds. Both of these scenarios are true. This is the first time you will touch this climb, in this moment, under these conditions. This climb could also be your last. With this awareness, what would you do differently? How would reactions to the situation change?
The first noble truth acknowledges that there is suffering. We will dive deeper into the root of suffering: our attachments of desires in the second noble truth and how this fits into climbing performance and training in another article.
ABOUT CHRISSY VADOVSZKI
Chrissy is a high-level and dedicated rock climber originally from New Jersey who resides in Colorado, and has been sport and trad climbing for over 12 years. She holds a Masters of Science in Physics, an M.A.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, is a Certified Performance Climbing Coach as well as a Level II USA Climbing Coach. Chrissy’s passion for climbing has led her to travel as far and wide as trad climbing in Arapiles, to sport climbing in Kalymnos and alpine in the Bugaboos.
Chrissy has coached all ages of climbers from the competitive youth circuit through accomplished adult athletes, and takes her athlete’s training and success as seriously as she takes her own. Her nerdy past causes her to spend great amounts of time researching strength metrics for climbing, training methodology and movement analysis.