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Rediscovering a Beginner's Mind

The other Friday night at Rocktoberfest here in the Red River Gorge, I started trying to relearn how to walk a slackline. I first learned how to do this in Mexico probably seven or eight years ago, prompted by the efforts of the camp host. At twice my age and a tad overweight, he started trying to learn to slack wearing cowboy boots. Blast! I had no excuse if he was going to learn, and we began a friendly sort of cooperative competition to see who would make it across the line first. This fun competition also encouraged me to learn some Spanish, as he would inquire every day (in Spanish) as to how many steps I’d managed to take on the line. By the time I left, both of us could walk the arbitrary distance of his slackline—and I don’t think I’ve ever done it since. Fast forward to Friday, when this incredible slackliner (is that even a word?) named Andy ended up in my cabin at Red River Outdoors on the first night of Rocktoberfest. I felt somewhat obligated to go over and try his setup after hanging out with him. After I put in probably an hour’s worth of thwarted efforts in walking the line, I watched in amazement as he performed back flips and landed them on the line, and also jumped from slackline to slackline, among other tricks. Wow. After Timmy O’Neill, the event emcee, pointed out his antics to everyone and got everybody watching, I felt sort of silly stepping on the line afterward, like, “Om, and now, Alli Rainey will demonstrate how she can walk about four steps on the line before losing her balance and plopping her barefeet back into the mucky grass. Oooh.”

Still, though, I was determined. I soaked in everything everyone around me who was better at slacklining than I was told me to do. Andy said, “Wave your arms in the air like a monkey,” and I did. Kevin said, “Try bending your knees more,” so I did. Andy told me, “Try softening your vision and looking straight ahead toward the end of the line, keeping your feet in your peripheral vision,” so I did. “Breathe and relax,” another person said, and I did (and isn’t that one of the keys to climbing hard, too? Hmmm. Sounds familiar). I persisted and persisted and persisted, probably for about three hours total, focused and determined.

I never did make it all the way across the line that night, but I did improve dramatically, probably making it about three-quarters of the way across before I started getting really tired and ended up heading up for a good night of sleep. As I walked up the hill to my cabin, I started thinking about what it means to have a beginner’s mind, and how much that was helping me in relearning the fine points of how to walk across a slackline…and then, I started thinking about how much this is really the optimal state of mind for any rock climber to maintain, no matter how long he or she has been climbing.

The beginner’s mind is open and nonjudgmental, with no expectations or limitations, but with a strong desire to learn and absorb and retain as much knowledge in a given subject area as possible. The beginner’s mind is willing to try anything at least once, if not more than once, just to see if it will work. The beginner’s mind has no qualms about failing or falling or looking silly or stupid. The beginner’s mind assumes that anyone and everyone has something to teach and that something worthwhile can be gleaned from every experience, whether on the surface it looks like a failure or a success.

Isn’t this the perfect mindset to cultivate in rock climbing, always? Whether a rock climber has been climbing for two days and two decades, they can always learn something new and improve their skills and ability level. That’s the beauty of rock climbing (or any lifelong learning endeavor). It’s only when a person starts to think they have nothing left to learn or no room to grow, or that they’re an “expert” who need not listen to the advice and wisdom that others or the rock has to teach them, that they stop growing and improving at their game.

At a crossroads in my climbing right now, then, after climbing for nearly 18 years, the slackline mindset lesson came at a perfect time for me, as a perfect reminder of all that I strive to achieve with my mental state of being both on and off the rocks, and what I mentally encourage in every climber I work with in a coaching setting. The next days out climbing, I found myself in a genuinely relaxed and open-minded state, ready and willing to just get on the steep routes that have intimidated me for so much of my climbing life. I didn’t know what would happen or how I would feel or how I would do—I just knew I felt totally willing to try and to just open my mind to the possibility that this could actually be fun for me.

With nothing invested and no outcome expected, I quickly found myself reveling in this relatively new discipline as I let my being just experience the steepness and move over the stone with a less fearful and more excited and open perspective than I’ve honestly ever had before. With no tightness or sense of being scared of the results, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I actually LIKE this kind of climbing—I’d even go so far as to say I love it!

I have so much to learn and so much more to gain from climbing on this relatively unfamiliar terrain here in the Red River Gorge, and it’s absolutely exciting, like having a whole new world of rock climbing opened up to me, one that I’m just starting to understand. It’s different from what I’ve focused most of my years of climbing on, and so I have much more to gain here than I do from climbing on the more familiar angles (vert to gently overhanging), holds (little pockets and crimps), and rock (dolomite) that I’m so accustomed to and trained to climb on.

All I want to do now is just seek out the steep classics here at the Red and do as many of them as I possibly can on this trip, learning anything and everything I can from the experience, absorbing as much information as possible, and being always willing to try something new and to learn from those around me. I feel like I’m on the edge of leaping off into a whole new chapter in my climbing world, as though I’ve just read the introduction and am about to discover something fantastic and magical, another dimension of climbing that I didn’t even realize existed. With a beginner’s mind, I embrace the possibility and the potential for my growing love of steep climbing, while enjoying the process in the present, every step of the way.