I recently returned from an eight-day trip to El Potrero Chico in Nuevo León, Mexico. During my time there, I had an abundance of time to think about something far too common in our community: death, and mortality in general. Rock climbing has given me the unique opportunity to contemplate these once horrifying ideas and helped turn them into a positive driving force.
Commonly in the United States, death has presented itself in a way best described as a cold shadow. It’s scary, always just a few steps behind you, and best not to speak of. When we mourn we wear black. We feel the lingering effects of a stopwatch ticking its last moments and think of when death’s icy fingers will reach another loved one. It’s very bleak prospect .
Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t mourn. Death and the lasting effects that follow are only natural, and I’m not one to explain how you should deal with it. Rather, I want to present how contemplating death from my perspective has impacted my life in a multitude of positive ways, and suggest that dwelling on this elusive idea might not be such a dark experience.
“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing , mummified”-Alan Watts.
Duality is a key staple to life. Words only have their definition because of their opposite. Light implies dark, up implies down, and so forth. Just the same, then, does life imply death or rather death imply life. I like to think of life as a drama, an idea first presented to me by my all-time favorite philosopher Alan Watts. The idea follows the thought that life is playful. We entangle ourselves in an abundance of life’s gifts, like climbing, your family or your job, and we forget that life was meant to be playful. It’s vital to remember that it was all just for fun, just for the experience of feeling whatever you want to experience. This train of thought helps me live life in a fashion that isn’t so tense, that helps push me to climb a bit further past that last clip or maybe lead that next pitch that you know you’ll take a whip on. Either way at the end of the day it’s imperative for me to think back and remember one day the curtains will drop and I will be able to say that this was one hell of a show.
Another concept that has played an important role in my life has been understanding the role of impermanence. Japanese cherry blossoms are known well in Buddhist history for their metaphorical meaning. It takes a full year to cultivate the immense beauty that the cherry blossoms give. But in a two-week span of time, these trees explode with color, an intoxicating fragrance, and radiance. Then, just as fast as they blossom, they leave. They represent the fragility of life and serve as a beautiful reminder of our own impermanence.
There were many “what ifs” in the short time I was on my climbing trip in Mexico. For example, we experienced three distinct rock falls against which a brain bucket would have been no protection. Even to those on the ground not climbing, this would have proven the fragility of life. A car wreck, a heart attack, or an illness are all a number ways life can come to an abrupt end. We should not waste it dwelling on the possibilities of life ending.
This is our only constant: it is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent that are not.-Nhat Hanh
This idea of impermanence draws me into each moment. It helps me remember to look with the eyes of a newborn, full of wonder and awe — to remember the incomprehensible beauty of life — to never take each day for granted.
“A Muerte” a phrase you’ll commonly hear ring through the walls of El Potrero Chico, one I’ve come to fully love. Through rock climbing and my experiences with friends over this past year I’ve changed quite distinctively, a change to my views on death only amount to a fraction of the person this sport has helped me become.
The way I view my own mortality by no means is “the right way” nor even how I think others should live their life. Rather, it is simply what makes the most sense based on my experience . I hope instead that these words have given the opportunity to contemplate, to live life fully, with ambition and in full color.