The lessons I have learnt from climbing – Climbing as a metaphor for life

It’s not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves”

                                                                                          Edmund Hillary

I have done a lot of sport over the years having competed in over 30 triathlons and 7 marathons and every training session, every race I’ve competed in has taught me something about myself.

I thought I’d learnt everything I needed to learn about sport and the ‘inner game’ and then I fell in love with climbing…

I’ve now been climbing for more than a year, both indoor and outdoors.  It was my 8 year old daughter who got me into it when we threw ourselves at a climbing wall at a fun fair.  I immediately found that years of hard physical training, yoga and dance and a decent power/ weight ratio stood me good stead.  It also helped that it doesn’t really occur to me to be afraid of heights.  There are, after all, so many other hurdles to overcome in life.  Within a week I’d committed to climbing regularly at a climbing centre with a club called Iota Climbing with regular camping/climbing trips to Swanage, Portland, Kent and the Peak District.  I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it.  Not least, spending time outdoors with my daughter and like-minded people of all ages felt good.

Initially I progressed quite rapidly through the grades then things went pear shaped as my naturally competitive nature kicked in and I strove to improve.   Week after week I pushed myself harder at the climbing wall, but my progress just seemed to decline.  I vented my frustration somewhat impotently on the wall but the only reward for my efforts was strained muscles and ligaments, and umpteen bruises on my knees and shins.  The harder I tried and the more I focused and obsessed on the goal, the worse I got.  I even embarked on the infamous INSANITY workout programme in an effort to improve my strength and flexibility in the hope that it would somehow make me a better climber.  This only made things worse and my climbing became jerky, less fluid and more labour intensive as I tried to bully my way up the walls

In disgust, I took a sabbatical from climbing and decided to reassess my ‘relationship with the wall’.  To my great surprise and amusement I then discovered exactly what I have been teaching my patients and clients for the past two decades.

So here are some of the  lessons I have learnt from climbing:

  1. LESS IS MORE – I found that the more I relaxed, the better I climbed and the less I wasted energy. In life we often apply too much effort to getting things done.  This might sound odd when we live in a ‘try harder’ culture.  All of my chronically exhausted clients, for example, have ended up at my clinic because they are perfectionists, trying too hard, nothing’s ever good enough.  They present with bruxism (nocturnal teeth grinding), neck and shoulder tightness, stress and exhaustion which often tips into chronic fatigue.   My work with them is often, ironically, about how learning how to apply less effort to achieve more.   I show them how to stop, become aware of when they are getting into a state of ‘contractedness’, how to back off, breathe, release the tension and then move forward.  In doing so, they begin to build intermittent rest and recovery into previously relentless days.  And the end result?  Greater productivity, zero burnout.
  2. ANALYSIS VS INTUITION – In climbing (and I accept I’m still very much a novice), there’s a balance to be struck between analysing how you are going to climb a route and intuitively ‘feeling’ the route and finding a rhythm and flow so that it becomes a dance. In life, and certainly in running my own consultancy for 13 years I’ve had to learn how to navigate between creating goals and trusting my intuition.  Letting go and feeling the flow.  Relinquishing control or at least, accepting that we don’t always have control of how we’ll achieve our goals or whether we’ll even get there.
  3. LAUGHTER – I’m still learning that when it becomes all about just achieving perfection, I forget to laugh.  It becomes less joyful.  For a while, climbing became yet another stick to beat myself up with.  I am constantly learning how to laugh at my mistakes, how to embrace imperfection.
  4. A LEAP OF FAITH – umpteen times the climbing wall has shown me that I can achieve what I might have thought was impossible.  Just daring to reach a bit further, the impossible becomes possible.  In climbing it helps to have a strong core.  In life too it helps to have a strong inner core of safety, call it faith or an inner sanctuary.  A reserve that we can draw on when our limits are being stretched.
  5. EMBRACE THE FEMININE – my inspirational climbing instructor uses the words ‘grace, poise and elegance’ to describe how he would like me to climb (vs. the aforementioned ‘bullying my way up the wall’ technique).  Most of the sports I’ve ever done have required a strong masculine approach so it felt natural to apply this to climbing.   How astonishing to learn that a softer touch, letting go of over-controlling the desire to achieve, relying on feel, and, dare I say it, climbing with love versus a macho idea of ‘being the best’ could actually enhance my climbing.
  6. STAY IN THE PRESENT – to climb well you have to be 100% in the present and that’s one of the things I love about it.  I can’t think of anything else but the next move and my monkey mind is finally quiet.

Someone once said ‘The past is history, the future is a mystery and the present is a gift, which is why it’s called the present.’  Cheesy but true.  It’s so easy in these chaotic times we live in, especially in the run-up to Christmas, to constantly live in the wrong time zone (ie the future).  Much of my work with stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia comes from exactly this – living in the past or the future.  All we can do is remain in the present because the reality is this is all we truly have any control over.  Be here NOW.

For many, 2012 has been a year of highs and lows. WIth the economic downturn, many people have found themselves facing tough challenges and uncertainty.  Could climbing offer us some metaphors for how we could choose to live in 2013? 

 Nerina Ramlakhan

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