Mediations On Climbing



Intent is important. Intent guides outcome. To put this into the realm of climbing, one gets out of the mountains what one puts in. The mountains can be a crucible of transformation, but only if one brings something they are willing to let be transformed. 

The author on the summit of Ampersand Mt in July of 1991 (This photo was constructed perfectly, the ground is only inches out of frame)  photo by Harry Sauerhaffer

The author on the summit of Ampersand Mt in July of 1991 (This photo was constructed perfectly, the ground is only inches out of frame) photo by Harry Sauerhaffer

My own intent for climbing has changed a great deal over the years.  My first foray into a world above the ground was climbing trees as a young child. In those earliest of days my intent was to be like my Dad who I spotted one day high up in our backyard’s cherry tree, trimming branches. As a slightly older child, still climbing trees—but now at school—my intent was solitude above the harrowing din of my classmate’s play along with developing a pride in being able to climb what others couldn’t. As a young boy scout embarking on my first rock scrambles, which started on the slabby Adirondack pink-hued Anorthosite surfaces of Ampersand Mountain’s summit, my intent was to have fun and compete with friends as to who could climb the furthest.  As a fiercely thin teenager my intent was often to pull the plastic holds of the Rockventures climbing gym as fast as I could, taking particular joy in being able to climb routes the muscle bound dudes struggled on. In my twenties, spending many of my days in the Gunks, my intent was learning the crafts of gear placement, anchor building, route reading and efficient rope work as well as ticking routes off the lists in the back of guidebooks.  And if I am being totally honest, there was a small part of me that wanted to make a name for myself doing something in the mountains no one had ever done before.  More recently, as I find myself increasingly confined to the Earth Treks climbing gym in Rockville, MD due to the welcomed constraints of fatherhood and career, my intention often settles on physical fitness, breaking grades and making friends.

These can all be worthy intentions, and for the most part have served me well and kept me coming back for more. Yet over the years there has been a subtle whisper that finds ways to transcend all my intentions. A whisper that suggests a deeply rooted hunger. A hunger that is hard to put words to, that is hard to pin point, a hunger that is nearly revealed in silence during climbing, that is revealed in those moments when intense focus confronts real fear.  In rocky places high above the Earth’s floor, where the wind howls so loud it creates its own kind of eerie silence, the realm of raptors, an ever shifting landscape, vulnerable to time and weather.  The more I climb, the more I realize it awakens something, something deep within.  As I press my back against the rock and stare out at the world below, a kind of all-encompassing harmony emerges, things makes sense in a place beyond words, something that resonates with the soul, a kind of pure joy, as if creation itself is trying to tell you something, trying to let you in on some kind of secret, and if one were to listen just hard enough, a mystery might be revealed.  These whispers challenge all my original intents and seek to forge within me a new intent, it has challenged me to explore what kind of intent might be brought to climbing, and what the crucible of the mountains might very well reveal.  


If I can take this a step further, this deep hunger is spiritual.  Spiritual—or spirituality— is a tricky word these days, one that tends to mean different things to different people, so if I can, what I mean by spirituality is an exploration of things that are inherently unknowable in any meaningfully rational way like philosophy or science or law. The Spiritual is a realm best approached by song, creative narrative, poetry, and/or esoteric meditations.  More specifically, engaging in the Spiritual is pointing towards a deep abiding unity with the world and with something many—but certainly not all—have, over the course of human history, called Divine in a myriad of diverse ways. 

It should be noted that my vocation is spiritual, and lately, my understanding of what spirituality points to is shifting, transforming really.  I am a Presbyterian Pastor and have been serving in congregations for about 7 years and have been a devoted student of theology for nearly 15 years.  Over the past few years, as I have started to pay more attention to the brief moments of clarity that emerge either during climbing or meditation or good worship or singing I have started to come to terms with some things about theology, primary amongst those things is that the way I have been approaching theology has been a bit askew. 

Much like my climbing intentions over the years, my pursuit of religion has had various intentions over the years, from simply following my mother to worship, to seeking expertise in pursuit of a leadership role: through the various intentions I have always come into the company of something deeper, something that pulls me through all my other intentions to something I can’t quite get my finger on. If I am totally honest, my earlier intentions for religion have not been enough to keep me coming back Sunday after Sunday for worship, or day after day for sitting meditation.  

Yet something does keep pulling me back, and it is not systematic theology or dogma or creedal statements or a desire to wear a robe and stand in front or even a desire to preach on the scriptures that I always thought brought me to place I am now. To try and put it another way, its not Christianity—the organized belief system of culture, morality and spirituality—that brings me back, it is something underlying it all that keeps me coming back, something more universal, something that—when it is at its best—Christianity can help point towards and even illuminate, but that is not limited to the Christian religion.  

Even more deeply is the realization that my role as a pastor, the role I play in the community I serve, it is a role that pre-figures Christianity, or even Judaism or really any religion that is extant today.  The role I have been called to is something far more ancient, something far more unspeakable, something that points towards the deep thirst that emerges, paradoxically, in both moments of peace and stress, silence and noise. The vocation that has been deemed “pastor” by the faith tradition I grew up in is something that is more akin to a guide, someone who walks with others, who helps point them in a general direction towards something, but in the same way a climbing guide can not explain the moment of achieving a summit, or the experience of a conquering a difficult snow blown pitch in a golden post-dawn hour, pastors can not truly explain what it is they are leading folks towards, they can only talk around it, and help draw it out.


In other words the “destination” is undefinable and eternal and formless, it speaks in the language of paradox, it hints at itself with barely noticeable whispers.  And much like a guide, a pastor may be more tuned in to getting to the destination, but they can’t stay there, like the oxygen deprived air of Himalayan summits, one can not stay at the destination, at least not in this life.  For a little while now, I had this sense that I was describing God to people while preaching, that I was some holder of knowledge passed down through apostolic lineage leading back to Jesus. I mean I am not, nor have ever been close to conservative in my religious beliefs, I have always held interfaith work and inclusiveness and justice as central to my calling, but something has shifted lately. That is certainly part of the impetus for writing these meditations, but more importantly I want to stress that as I feel like I have gotten closer to what that great formless Mystery is, the less I understand it in any rational way. And I want to make that clear going forward, these words are not meant to be conclusive in any sense, they are meant instead to be exploratory. One practices Spirituality because one never really perfects Spirituality. If I succeed in anything it is to help the reader resonate with something deeper, to realize that one is not alone in their own spiritual hunger. Whether a climber or a faith leader or a devote atheist, I hope there is something here that speaks to the soul, that points towards something infinite and yet surprisingly present in the moment. 


As a point of clarification, I am not particularly concerned with discussions about whether God exists or not. One can not prove the existence of God one way or another in any conclusive way. In my own experience and certainly due to the tradition I grew up in, the formless and infinite aspect of reality I have referred to up to this point is something that I consider God. Yet this concept of God is not something apart or other, rather it is something that is in unity with humanity and creation. I could easily see how someone else could encounter this same experience and declare that it is not God, and rest in the title atheist easily. 

Yet I trust in the fact that there is something there, that is equally apart of me as it is greater and more expansive than me.  This is part of my shift in understanding and engaging in Theology. For a long time I felt as though God was something separate, worthy of worship because of its expansive goodness, its infinite agape love. It was something to humble oneself before, and to declare oneself unworthy, to into the inherent sinfulness of human nature. I am feeling that humility coming from something else now, not a feeling of being less than God, but in the reality of being united with God. That I am fully worthy, and that inherent sinfulness is not something that needs to be bravely accepted, but rather the inherent sinfulness is a kind of attachment to the self, a difficulty in recognizing unity with this formless void, as though the self will be lost in the midst of it. The self is not lost in the void though, rather the truest self is found in the formless aspects of reality.  The fact that one lives in the world means that the struggle between the self and the true self is ongoing, and that it is this struggle that is sin, a separation from God. 

Throughout these mediations I will use terms like God and Divine, but they are not meant to be particularly theist, rather they are intended to be short hand for pointing at that deeper place, a place where unity is experienced in a most ordinary transcendence, if it is more comfortable each time God or Divine is encounter, one is invited to exchange it for universe, or infinite or the Zen term void. My hope is that these mediations can remain accessible to those who consider themselves atheists or agnostics or skeptics or seekers or anyone from any other faith tradition that is not Christianity. And although I will be using words like God and Divine, I will at the same time be staying away from some of the particular Christian motifs that have helped to ground me within my own journey, they have been useful to me, but I know those same motifs have ways of creating exclusivity, and if the gospels have lead me towards anything it is the importance of inclusivity.

I do not feel a need to defend this notion of the infinite void or the Divine, and I do not feel a need to try to hard to explain it in any concrete way. I am not worried about that sense of the Spiritual being Christian or Buddhist or as I have been trying to allude to, I am not even overly worried about whether that sense if cultivated within a traditional theistic sense. I trust that the Divine, unknowable, unspeakable, is there and that everyone can access it and discover their own unity with it.  Instead of feeling any need to defend or define God, my hope is to encourage. To maybe offer some gentle nudges, some personal experience that may or may not be helpful.  Maybe I can offer a confirmation of something someone has already been sensing on their own. No one has ever had to convince anyone else of the immense beauty of the sunset.

The Question

Perfect Summer Day in the Gunks

Perfect Summer Day in the Gunks

Which brings me to the very question that these meditations are intending to explore. In the same way that ancient contemplative traditions have brought me to this point in my relationship to the Divine, in the way intentional spiritual practice has helped to atune me to the nuances of the Infinite, can climbing serve as an enriching spiritual practice in the same way?  In the ways I have felt that unity with creation while stumbling onto that perfect tri-cam placement in the middle of a pitch that feels like it is just flowing into the heart of existence, when all that exists is you, the rock and the gear, that the effort feels effortless, thoughtless—can those glimpses of a larger reality be cultivated more intentionally? What would it take to make climbing an intentional spiritual practice? Are the pitfalls that lay in wait for the self (the little-self or the ego-self) too much to guide one towards true-self? And if climbing can be transformed into a spiritual practice, does it need some sort of ancient tradition as a partner? What would it look like to offer some form to climbing that can lead towards enlightenment, the deep sense of unity with the universe that swirls around each of us?

The reality is that these are all impossible questions to answer, but I believe they are worth exploring.