Free Solo and Beginner’s Mind

I recently caught the documentary Free Solo at my local theater. The film follows rock climber Alex Honnold in documenting some of his rock climbing feats, leading up to climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. What makes this feat so impressive is that Alex climbs this 3,000 plus foot wall without any kind of ropes or support. To prepare, he climbed El Capitan numerous times while figuring out his route. Once he had a route established and memorized, he climbed utilizing the moves he had worked out beforehand.

Go and see Free Solo if you’re able to. It asks a lot of interesting questions about what it takes to climb like this, about Alex as a person, and whether his kind of life is reconcilable with the needs of his romantic relationship. The film also lends additional perspective to Alex’s uncanny abilities. Far from being the mediated experience many of us expect in the outdoors, Alex is thousands of feet in the air, with vastness all around him.

As I was watching the movie, I got a sense of the way in which Alex’s creativity on the rock mirrors some of what I’ve learned through meditation. Zen’s free-form approach to inquiry provides space for our own effort and is similar to Alex’s approach.

When we go to a Zen center and begin to learn meditation, there is no fixed idea of what we have to learn there. The teachers there never told me that I had to learn anything from meditation or that I had to accord with any kind of group belief. We do have to internalize specific social rules so that we don’t disturb anyone’s practice (i.e loud breathing, constantly moving on the cushion, etc.). If we are staying as part of a community, we will have to learn certain ways of living in and contributing to it. We also take the rules of sitting posture seriously since these are crucial to this type of practice. Beyond that, we are allowed room to explore.

Similarly, without any kind of climbing dogma, Alex is attuned to the things that interest him. He has developed a custom set of techniques around these interests. These include visualization, keeping detailed records and journals, and athletic conditioning. All of these things are uniquely calibrated to contribute to his goals. Alex uses these as a way to expand himself and his field. He has taken climbing’s history and technology, and completely remapped what is possible within it.

In order to do this, he appears to always keep himself open to what he learns. This is an example of “beginner’s mind,” a phrase used by Shunryu Suzuki and featured in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is a short and wonderful introduction to Zen. Beginner’s mind connotes a mind that is dynamic and responsive at each moment, without fixed ideas. It may take a great deal of practice to see beginner’s mind in ourselves within those fixations.

My experience of beginner’s mind emerged once I started to understand my own insubstantial basis. In meditative practice, we are drawing closer to that mystery which underscores human accomplishments in every field. In St. John of the Cross’ diagram for Ascending Mount Carmel, the phrase “Nothing, nothing, nothing, and on the Mount, nothing” appears centrally and vividly. The more I meditate, the more I have come to feel that I too am this nothing. This realization has prompted some interesting consequences to the way I think, feel, and experience life in general. The discoveries shed light on the precipitous climb that starts on our own self-centeredness and culminates in looking into our source. We are reaching towards something The Zohar calls “end of thought.”

The way this insight changes everything is that realization that we are that something called “end of thought” creates a different sense of life in which there is nothing that can’t be rewritten or relearned. Alan Watts has a wonderful story that demonstrates this about a Zen priest and a geisha, with each demonstrating beginner’s mind.

A Zen buddhist priest was attending a dinner party one evening. The guests were all seated on the floor around a low rectangular table. On the table in front of each guest was a small hibachi grill filled with hot coals. The diners were cooking their own servings of meat and vegetables, which they took from various bowls on the table.

Several geishas were serving the guests. The priest noticed that one of the geishas conducted herself as if she might have had some zen training.

He decided to test her, so he called her over.

The geisha knelt across the table from the priest and bowed. The priest bowed in return, and said: “I would like to give you a gift.” Using his chopsticks, he reached into the hibachi, picked up a hot coal, and offered it to the geisha.

She hesitated for a moment, then finally pulled the sleeves of her kimono down over her hands. She grabbed the coal, ran into the kitchen, and dropped it into a pan of water. Her hands were not hurt, but the beautiful kimono gown was ruined.

The geisha went back to the table and knelt across from the priest. She bowed to the priest. He bowed in return. Then she said: “I would like to give you a gift too.”

“I would be honored,” the priest replied.

She picked up a pair of chopsticks, removed a hot coal from the priest’s grill, and offered it to him. The priest reached into his robe and took out a cigarette.

As he leaned forward to light his smoke he said, “Thank you. That is exactly what I wanted.” (Text courtesy of Reddit)

Alex’s incredible climbing prowess reminds us of the power of each of us to do this on a daily basis. If someone offers a method, it invites reflection. But don’t assume that this method is a substitute for our own efforts. We may find something different when we do the same thing for ourselves. Being alive is responding to ever-changing conditions, and the capability to try the new every day. This ability to respond becomes even more important as we communicate with others and grow into this uncertain future together.

Congratulations to Alex. You can buy his book Alone on the Wall from Norton here. Alex also has a charitable organization called the Honnold Foundation that installs solar energy in needed communities. You can donate to his foundation here.