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Climbing with Chris Sharma

It was a hot, sunny day, the day I took my first climb on sun-drenched granite rock. We were up in the hills above Carlsbad where boulders of yellow, cream and rust peeked out of dark green shrubs.

But this was no ordinary day of climbing. I happened to be with Chris Sharma, arguably one of the foremost climbers in the world today. Our guide was Beaver, co-founder of the clothing company Prana and owner of this remarkable land. We were also accompanied by a camera crew. We were filming for Prana as part of a series called the Inside Game. This series focuses on an exploration between the inner art of climbing and its relationship to mindfulness and meditation. (www.prana.com/mark-coleman )

As we took our gear out to the alluring rocks, I first felt intimidated by the sheer walls of the granite, some of which had barely a mark that seemed significant enough for a hand or foot hold. This was not the stuff of climbing gyms where the holds seem obvious and the fall is cushioned by soft pads.

Still I was in the hands of a world class expert so on went the climbing shoes and off we went. Prior to filming our conversations, Chris warmed up on several boulders, and after working out on a few easier slopes he decided to climb some routes on boulders that had eluded him for more than a dozen years.

It was a marvel to see him ascend impossibly hard climbs with the ease of Spiderman. He climbs with elegance, ease and quiet determination. It is always a gift to be in the presence of a master at his work. This particular day, he made his first successful ascent on a boulder that he’d been working on for over a decade. He then climbed a route on a boulder called ‘the fridge’ with effortless grace. He is the only person among many a world-class climber to do that particular route.

And then I take my humble turn on the rock. With a few pointed tips from Chris, I found I was able to trust not only my footing, but the rock itself and began climbing with some surprising ease. Of course I was on easy routes, but it was amazing to me how, with skilled instruction, I could develop a confidence on the rock.

Equally interesting was our conversation about the inner game of climbing, especially talking to Chris after he had just finished some of his ascents. We talked of the parallels of climbing and meditation–how for both disciplines a balance of mindfulness, concentration and energy are needed. We also spoke of the need to both have a strong, clear intention, and at the same time, the need to not get tight or contracted around the goal, but more attending to the flow of the moment.

And climbing, like meditation, is so much about working with your mind, especially when it comes to dealing with fear. There’s a powerful imperative in climbing that forces you into the present moment, that cultivates a high degree of embodied awareness and demands that you work skillfully with fear or it will seriously jeopardize the climb itself.

We concluded the day with me teaching a sunset sky-gazing meditation where we take in the vastness of space all around us. It reminded me of how throughout our day, and our lives, we focus mostly on the microscopic, and often fail to remember the big picture. Both perspectives are necessary. And no matter what we get involved in, it is important to remember this vast space and presence is always available, and allows for everything that unfolds in our life.

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