Creating Balance

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There’s nothing I love more than circuit soloing. Hours and hours of endless movement without pause… it’s a genuine delight. The only time I’ve found that on a rope is while simul-climbing, and there’s a very select few people with whom I can practice that type of climbing. During my time in Chattanooga this Thanksgiving, I had a return to that style. Surveying the scene from the top of The Pinnacle after soloing a lap up comfortably numb in my approach shoes… I felt free. The same kind of freedom that I felt in Devil’s Lake, but with a million times more security and friction.

I hate the S-words. Should, supposed to be… the only thing climbing is supposed to be fun, and the only thing you should do is follow what stokes your mojo. And my mojo gets stoked by precisely this sort of day. Just easy scrambling with nothing more than shoes and a bit of water. I know this place so well that I didn’t even bring a guidebook, so there was no pause from the flow.

Soloing requires a very particular type of headspace. I’m fortunate that I’ve developed the sort of mind where I can sustain that headspace all day long, at a moments notice, whenever I want to. A ten hour day on the rock is like a ten-hour meditation session. Or maybe more of a ten-hour yoga session. Thoughts drift in and drift out, but I’m busy. All that matters is this hand-hold, this foothold, the twist of my body, and a million sources of input. Body awareness. That’s my single point of focus.

Folks get caught up in the view of some wise man sitting on a mountaintop chanting “om.” While that certainly IS meditation, at its heart, mediation is just single-pointed focus on something. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all meditate sometimes. When you’re sitting in the middle of a stretch, focusing your mind inward on releasing that muscle and causing it to relax… that’s sixty seconds of meditation. If you perform ten stretches, that’s ten minutes of meditation, whether you intended it to be or not. That’s why yoga is so mentally clearing for so many. It’s not the asanas, it’s the mindset. Your mind is calm because you had to calm it to follow the instructions during class and to pay attention to all the subtle details that can make or break your alignment.

Practicing peace and alignment in the steeps of “Eye Sockets (5.10)” at Crowder’s Mountain

Practicing peace and alignment in the steeps of “Eye Sockets (5.10)” at Crowder’s Mountain

Each move up the wall is just another asana. The goal of yoga is not severity, but rather to find peace within the severity. It’s to put yourself in this strenuous position, but find a way to move your body so you may relax as much as possible there to deepen your sense of equanimity despite discomfort so that this discomfort dissolves away. In doing so, you build a skill that comes with you everywhere. I used to feel a lot of pain owing to the fact that my carcass has been beaten up rather a bit over the years. To keep doing what I do, I had to allow that pain a space of its own where it could just do its thing and leave me alone.

Through neuroscience, we know that pain has a physical component and an emotional one. Learning to control that emotional component so that stubbing my toe doesn’t result in a tantrum full of Ondra screams and enough swearing to make a tower-hand blush… that came in bit by bit. Sixty seconds at a time. Peace within the severity.

Climbing to me is likewise a path to peace. What is bodily economy on the wall other than finding peace within the severity? You can't find peace if you're not being economic. What is mastering the fears involved with heights and falling other than learning to sit with discomfort and learn to let it go, so it does not control you? Yeah. That’s right. You’re a fuckin meditator! Own it!

Nowadays, I don’t feel pain so much. So I’ve started performing that same exercise with the sensation of cold. Today is December 16th, and I haven’t worn a jacket all season. I’ve taken this down to seventeen dungarees Faren-spite. Granted it was only for 5 minutes, but that was five minutes of deepening my ability to relax rather than allow discomfort to rule me.

Discomfort of any kind is universal. Mastering any discomfort gives you a base of ability that transfers to other types of discomfort. Thoughts of inadequacy and self-hatred are uncomfortable too. These skills from the wall have given me tools and weapons to fight a mind that wants to kill me. Fuck you asshole, I’ve got shit to do. 

This is the most useful skill that I’ve ever developed. The ultimate wisdom I’ve learned from climbing is simple: While there are many times in life that it’s perfectly reasonable to freak out… I have yet to find one where it’s productive. And so I’ve crafted a crisis response where my mind defaults to a state of calm when the shit hits the proverbial fan so that I can THINK instead of just reacting. Quite useful when you're 90ft off the deck and your foot slips.

Practicing my foot-slips 90ft off the deck - “Comfortably Numb (5.9+)” Sandrock, AL

Practicing my foot-slips 90ft off the deck - “Comfortably Numb (5.9+)” Sandrock, AL

I’m not always perfect with it, and sometimes I get overwhelmed… sometimes success is less about fortitude and more about knowing yourself and setting up a structure around your life that encourages success... Setup is key. I physically tied my morning medication’s pill bottle to the door handle of my apartment, so it’s literally impossible to forget, no matter how scatterbrained I am in the morning. When I’m traveling, I set it on my dashboard right by the speedometer so I can’t help but spot it.

When you do what you do and stick to your guns, it’s incredible how far you go. I started off climbing by flailing on beginner climbs. Turns out this thing called climbing, just like that thing called life, is more about the long grind and dedication rather than predisposition and unnatural talent. Everything I’ve gained in climbing came from blood, sweat, tears and years of grinding.

Dave McLeod says that the difference between the pros and us is 4%. Not that they're 4% stronger, but that they give 4% more every day. They hold on 4% longer, and they try 4% harder every single day. And we know via mathematics credit card debt that compound interest is one helluva thing.

Just yesterday during a training session, I was regularly failing on one move of a particular boulder problem. It occurred to me that I was expecting it to happen, so maybe perhaps I was letting it happen. So I dug deep and tried it with everything I had. So on my 4th set, fatigued from the prior three sets, I stuck that move and carried on to the top for the first time that day. Then I stuck it during my 5th set too. That's where I got my 4% for the day.

You may not start out with much space in your comfort zone, but if you gain one extra square foot per day.. that can add up to acres over time. In this case: trying hard is a skill and its one that I'm not comfortable with on account of the fact that I spend so much time soloing. If you're trying hard on a solo, you're proper fucked. But if I'm to train with maximal efficiency, then it's a skill I'll have to develop, so I don't leave anything on the table.

At present, I live in an apartment that’s halfway between the office and the climbing gym, and that was basically the only criteria I had while selecting a place. You’ve got to set yourself up to succeed. Sometimes dedication is less about how much motivation you have, and more about how you set up your life to remove obstacles. I’ve got that depressive brain which tries to rob me of joy at any opportunity, so I set myself up where it’s easier to do what’s necessary to stay happy than it is to skip out on it. In the past, when I lived far from the climbing gym, I set up a bunch of homemade wooden training devices in the basement which made it look like a dank dungeon. Setup, that’s the easiest path to success.

Tom Randall setting himself up for success with the Dungeon of Doom in his own basement

Tom Randall setting himself up for success with the Dungeon of Doom in his own basement

In a lot of ways, this episode isn’t just a season-ending, but it’s also a rumination about the entire past year, and the past year was not perfect by any means, so I can’t honestly end it like that. It’s 28 hours in total not including food and fuel stops for the full driving circuit between Chicago, Mississippi, and Houston during my holiday travel. That’s a lot of time to be alone with one’s thoughts. As mentioned in the previous episode, thinking is something I find important. As mentioned in episode two... Another thing I find important is being earnest.

Firstly, I’m going to take a brief detail because I’d like to be clear on one point that I think may be ambiguous, and thus might make me seem a bit bitter. I have a running joke about sponsors I the opening of the podcast… but that’s because I think sponsorship is a joke at this point. I don’t really care about sponsorships. You see, I’ve already got a sick sponsorship where I show up in this building at 8am Monday morning… and stay there till 5pm… and if I repeat that till Friday, and keep doing that every week… a bit of money just shows up in my bank account. It’s the damndest thing! I’m very fortunate in that I actually like my job. A lot of people don’t. Sponsorship would be a delight for those people, but as for now… I’m actually happy for the first time in a long time, but it was very hard won. And that brings me back on track. I don’t need happiness, I just want to be satisfied with life and accepting of myself. Acceptance. That’s my moonshot.

A year ago I spent Christmas alone on the floor of my apartment with a bottle of whiskey. I had been so depressed that I never bothered to acquire furniture even after six months. Bipolar II is like having a pair of cartoon shoulder angels, except they both suck and they borrowed a halo to hide the horns. Mania sits on one side say “this sounds like a bad idea! Let's DO IT!” While depression sits on the other saying “This sounds like a good idea! Let's NOT DO IT!”

A lot of carefully planned self-sabotage had led me to that point in life. Then reality came crashing into my head like a hammer. Mania led me to act in ways counter to my own values, and depression made sure that I could think of nothing else as soon as the realization hit me. Actually, thinking back... crashing my head into a hammer probably would’ve stopped hurting a lot faster. Waking up is extremely painful.

That’s the crux of mental health. From the outside looking in is that it’s easy to think “snap out of it!” Waking up is hard because once you do, you find it hard to see yourself as anything other than your failings as if they are your true core being. Some worry that I and others are soloing for our egos. One friendly commenter who goes by “Boots” recently left some kind words. “God damn, man. I hate to ego stroke, but you’re the fuckin dude.” No worries friend, it’s virtually impossible to stoke my ego, because five minutes later I’ll remember that one time I fucked something up and fixate on that instead!

In reality, our identities aren’t those failings, but rather we are the inner core being which *sees* those failings. It’s analogous to meditation. Meditation isn’t perfect focus, meditation is noticing when our mind drifts. Our core being is that thing noticing WHEN we drift, not the drifting itself.

Depression replays failings, and that can be extremely overwhelming. Like trying to take our first leader falls. Friends will say “just snap out of it and let go!” But it’s not that easy. Letting go may be extremely helpful to future progress, but the mind is too overwhelmed to do so. Just like waking up. When reality comes crashing down, morality can become twisted against us and we may feel that we deserve some sort of punishment for all the mistakes we’ve made. Our past actions make us feel unworthy. That sense of unworthiness and self-hate won’t take us anywhere we want to go. It never did for me, or anyone else that I know, but even knowing this… Disengaging that loop once it gains momentum is often too much to do in the moment. Hell, as y’all heard earlier in this episode…. Letting go of that fear when I’m trad cling is *still* too much for me. But you also saw how I was able to work with it, just a little bit. Admittedly that was an extreme example. It’s not wise for most folks to terrorize themselves to that degree, I’d practiced long so that I could get away with that.

“Don’t Look Down” unless you want to practice clearing your mind, that is

“Don’t Look Down” unless you want to practice clearing your mind, that is

How many times have you walked through a doorway today? You have no idea, do you? Similarly, we have no idea how many negative thoughts have drifted through our minds. They are painful and uncomfortable, so we try to avoid them. Like the rock climber who feels fear of falling, and rushes to the next anchor point to clip, when we are overwhelmed by those destructive patterns we can think of nothing but escaping that situation.

But this is not an all-or-nothing medium. It’s not zero or one hundred and forty. Discomfort is a universal sensation which manifests in many different ways. Through a decade of soloing, I’ve inoculated myself to discomfort. Not always in the soloing itself, but in the training and preparation for that purpose, I had worked with my mind, and only recently has it started to bear fruit. I’d known for a long time that the lessons learned on the rock could transfer into life, but I didn’t quite understand how to make that happen most effectively. Instead, those skills would transfer into my life by accident rather than deliberation.

Three and a half, now almost four years ago, I very nearly died in Yosemite. No, not like that. On a rope. Long story. Anyhow, the impact from the head first fall sent a concussion through my cranium which packed sufficient force to remove my equilibrium and the hearing in my left ear. Don’t worry, I’m mixing these podcasts in mono! Anyhow, the hearing on that side was replaced with a perpetual ringing. I thought I’d never hear the sound of silence again. Everywhere I went it was noise noise noise… and rushing thoughts. For the first time in nearly four years, I heard silence again. You know that moment after you park your car and turn off the key? When suddenly everything quiets? I only noticed that I had lost that moment because I regained it. It’s not like I’m some guru who sits on a mountaintop cushion and chant’s “om.” I’m not going to quote one of those stupid meme photos which show trees and pills and says “this is antidepressant” and “this is shit” respectively. No. When the storm was at its greatest, when I came face to face with the existential threat of my own mind working against itself, the medication gave me that first foothold of quiet. Something I’d not had in a long time.

Taking a moment to appreciate the silence on “Dalai Llama (5.12c)” Denny Cove, TN

Taking a moment to appreciate the silence on “Dalai Llama (5.12c)” Denny Cove, TN

With injury, whether it’s physical or psychological… it’s hard to see the way back. So I choose not to instead, I see what I have. And I work outward from there. So I stuck my nose to the grindstone and trained. That’s what I always have, even when I have nothing else. I trained, and I focused all my efforts towards deepening the peace I feel on the wall so that I could take it to the next level. What I didn’t realize then, was that it would finally give me the skills I’d need to climb my way out of this hole. I’d trained myself, and I’d struggled before… but the combination of self-work with medication finally brought me to the place where I’d felt peace for the first time since Yosemite. Only now as I write this have I come to wonder… maybe that impact shook something loose more important than just my equilibrium… Hindsight is a helluva thing. Maybe the quiet I thought was lost wasn’t something auditory, but something much much deeper.

My theory of mental training is to meet yourself where you are. Somewhere that the obstacle holding you back measures at only 4/10 in intensity. So I’ve realized that these sick and destructive patterns... they’re not always overwhelming. Sometimes they’re something less, like a 4/10. But to see that 4/10, we have to pay attention to every time we pass through a metaphorical doorway. We have to notice each negative thought so that we may create a small space after where we evaluate and decide “can I work with this? How bad is this one?” If it’s moderate enough... I remind myself “you made a mistake, but you have learned.” And rather than let my mind repeat my failings on a sick type of auto-pilot, instead I deliberately I repeat that thought under my own direction, just as I repeat an uncomfortable move while practicing for solos. I repeat the move, and say “you are solid, feel the rock, feel your strength.” I repeat the thought and say “you made a mistake, but you have learned. You have learned, and thus you don’t need to worry about doing that again. You have learned, you may let go.” On the wall I let to of anxiety “you are solid, you are controlled.” Off the wall, I let go of that pain “You have learned, you may let go.”

Clearing the head and gaining clarity during an onsight solo ascent of “Sweet Home Boltabama (5.11a)” Sandrock AL

Clearing the head and gaining clarity during an onsight solo ascent of “Sweet Home Boltabama (5.11a)” Sandrock AL

A move may give me anxiety, so I repeat that move while turning my focus inward to the body awareness as I repeatedly remind myself that I’m solid. A thought may give me anxiety, so I take control and repeat that thought deliberately.  With each repetition, I remind myself that I can let it go because I have learned my lesson. That’s why it hurts because I learned better. So the fact that it hurts, in a way, means I can let it go. 4/10 I repeat the thought again. “Let go. You’ve learned” 3/10” Let go, You’ve learned. 2/10 Let go You’ve learned 1/10. Now we’re talking. I just gained control of this move, so when I solo it in the future.... that thought won’t tear me apart.

For those of us who aren’t naturally endowed with it, I believe that self-acceptance is a learned skill. One piece of wisdom I gained along the way was from Kris Hampton’s Power Company Podcast. As he once stated there, skills are built through sets and reps. As most of you will note, stretches spent with family aren’t always action filled in every moment. There are spells of quiet where you’re left with your own thoughts. Being left with my own thoughts hasn’t always been pleasant, so between those hours and the hours spent on this long driving circuit… I’ve practiced a lot of reps. And as I did, I think I chipped the rust off a few derelict portions of my brain, hence this post episode soliloquy.

Some act as if soloing is the devil’s art. Some think it’s about as remarkable as taking the trash out to the curb. And some others think that the life of a soloist imparts some sort of ancient wisdom, but that last one has always made me bristle more than the other two. I think that’s because I feel like soloing itself hasn’t granted me any particular insight. If I have any insight, it’s due to the preparation. And that preparation can be done not just by any climber, but by any human.

John Bachar on “Father Figure,” becoming the first person on earth to solo 5.13a

John Bachar on “Father Figure,” becoming the first person on earth to solo 5.13a

According to legend... and I don’t’ know if this legend is true, but I love the allegory nonetheless… but anyhow, according to legend… John Bachar once pulled up to a gas station near Yosemite. Unknowingly, another climber pulled up to the neighboring pump. After a few moments, he recognized John and blurted “Holy shit! You’re John Bachar! How do you solo all of that crazy SHIT!?”

John reflected for a moment and took the pump out of his truck. Turning to the man, he said simply, “you’re soloing right now.” Then turned the ignition and drove off.

I like to stick to that perspective. You’re soloing right. Now.

Austin HowellComment