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.

Wild Wild Country

This article contains spoilers for the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.

My wife and I recently finished watching Wild Wild Country, a documentary series on Netflix that examines a controversial commune established by Osho (formerly the Bhagwan) and his acolytes near Antelope, Oregon.  Due to the commune’s recent formation, the producers of the show have a stunning amount of archival footage to work with, and manage to get illuminating interviews with many of those who participated.  The series is well worth a watch.  It is a detailed look at how communities form around religious teachers, and some of the sociological dimensions of these kind of communities.

I was not familiar with Osho’s work before watching the show. I was particularly interested in seeing Osho describe his efforts “trying to help people to be awake.”  His desire to freely explore subjects such as sexuality was important and remains so to this day.  He also had a palpable way of being with people which comes through in the documentary.  Not being there, I can only surmise what it must have been like to meet him in person.  Especially in today’s internet saturated culture, where spiritual writings and videos are instantly accessible, it must have been a unique and special event attending his lectures.  He no doubt introduced many to meditation that may not have practiced it otherwise.  

The converse of this is that Osho’s image and mannerisms appear contrived, and his community’s shrewd manipulation of financial currents demonstrated their ability to capitalize on that image.  Osho got his start in India, but after problems with the government, his community migrated to Antelope, Oregon.  There they began functioning in many ways as a religious state.  Christened Rajneeshpuram, it had its own law codes and police force.  One of the most striking images of the show is the commune’s acquiring and practicing with automatic weapons.  From this image emerges one of the most interesting tensions of the show, with reconciling the humane and compassionate teachings of spiritual insight with the exigencies of group living.  

Working at a corporation for close to a decade has impressed on me the need for a hierarchy in the day to day functions of the job.  Without officers within that organization who are managing the time and work of other people, and given the ability to enforce the organization’s rules, many shared tasks would be difficult to coordinate.  It would seem that in many ways we are highly sensitive to the flow of information within that hierarchy, and seek to leverage these situations in order to receive the benefits of power.  There is often a delicate balance in play between our own needs and the need to contribute to group survival, moderated by those in charge.  Those balances are part of the dynamism of group life.    

The questioning of core concepts involved in spiritual practice can look deeply threatening as it undermines the rationales of the group.  Since both leader and follower are connected and inform the other, hierarchies can be seen through as the practicalities they are. It’s hard to reconcile the desires for position within the group with an understanding of the interconnected and equal nature of all phenomena.  As the poet Ryokan has said:

In the landscape of spring there is neither high nor low.
Flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long.

This is a challenging paradox, and one that is not easily resolved.  I noticed this frequently in the archival footage, as Osho’s group grew too large for the experimental ideas that it was founded on.  Osho seems to have given management of day to day activities to his lieutenant Sheela, and Sheela responded with maximum aggression. She intrusively monitored the commune’s activities, and even conspired to murder Osho’s doctor Deva Raj.  Watching Rajneesh member Mel Shanti B calmly discuss this attempted murder is one of the most chilling moments in the series.  Elaborate plans are implemented that involve giving food poisoning to the residents of Wasco County to influence an upcoming election, and bringing in people off the streets to grow their commune’s numbers to increase their political sway.   Osho was forced to leave the United States in 1985 under pressure from the government.

 

These tensions within the community are one of the most interesting parts of the show. There is a lot of footage of Osho demonstrating his status symbols, from an expensive diamond watch to numerous Rolls Royces. It appears that Osho is a typical human deeply enmeshed in the undercurrents of power that affect all human communities.  Osho seems to be caught in the middle and trying to have it both ways – being able to retreat into silence regarding the workings of his own community, while enjoying its support and benefits.   It’s difficult to see this in a non-abusive light, as the leader enjoys gifts, status, and food through active manipulation of social relationships. Osho did not emerge from silence until after Sheela leaves the community, but by then it was too late to salvage the situation.  In one of the most ironic moments on the show, Osho ordered the tenants of Rajneeshism burned.  This merely fulfilled the promise that helped begin the community in the first place. 

Watching the community grow and hearing its members individual backstories was another show highlight. I’m sure that there are diverse reasons for people wanting to join religious communities.  However, I’m also struck by the sheer amount of people who seem to be hurting, with lives full of suffering and loss, looking for a group and a practice they can call their own.  One of the most moving testimonies comes from Swami Prem Niren, a lawyer who joined Osho’s group.  In one of the show’s later episodes, he says that it was a place where he found “an experience of being loved and accepted totally for the first time in [his] life.”  One of the most interesting things that emerges from meditation practice is the ability to explore and integrate the traumas that afflict all of us.  These deep sufferings are part of all life. The ability to listen, both to ourselves and others who come seeking similar things, is paramount.  Since so many of us have experienced trauma, it can be incredibly meaningful when someone listens to us, responds with compassion, and helps us get to work on the things that need the most attention in our lives.  

Let’s learn from the example of so many religious teachers and not abuse that.