Letting Go

February 25, 2015


A few weeks ago, I attended the annual dinner of the American Alpine Club. I look forward to it every year because it is the one day when passionate climbers from all over the world crawl out of their tents, peel themselves off vertical faces of rock and ice, and trek to a common location—this year it was held in New York —for a weekend of lectures and gatherings, formal and informal, and a chance to swap camp stories. From these meetings, there are many flashes of brilliant insight.

Such was the case with the weekend’s special guest and honoree, Reinhold Messner, the most famous living mountaineer in the world. Messner gained renown as the first person to make a solo ascent of Mount Everest and as the first climber to ascend all fourteen eight-thousanders (mountains 26,000’ or more above sea level) without supplemental oxygen, at a time when this was thought to be humanly impossible. At the AAC dinner, he spoke about some of these amazing feats to an audience which included many of his mountaineering friends and peers, people who, too, are intimate with and motivated by the underlying philosophy behind those feats.

“Obstacles energize me,” he said. “The main power to reach a summit is not muscles, it is willpower.” He talked about the power of the mind and working “in the zone,” also known as “flow.” Messner considers this state of total, energized absorption a bridge between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release, to success.

While I have never come close to his mountaineering achievements (like comparing someone who plays on a local softball league to Derek Jeter), in at least one way I am like him: I enjoy hard work and a deep commitment to facing physical challenges. But here is where we differ: whenever I am very near to achieving a great success, mere steps from a summit or reaching a long-sought PR with a barbell, a little voice inside me whispers “no.”

I’ve never been able to give myself over to a state of flow. I have been near that point, but, unlike Messner, I’ve always thought of it as a precipice where self-control must come in and save the day.

Have you ever been close to success and then, for no apparent reason, listened to that little negative voice? How do you let yourself pass from a state of self-control into “the zone”?

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1 Comment

  • Reply Cathleen Cox March 8, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    I think you’re describing the state Paul Simon is talking about in his great song, “Slipsliding Away. ” I imagine all of us know the feeling, but I especially appreciate your lifting it into awareness because I think most people would guess that competitive athletes, which is as close as we get in our culture to projecting a godlike superiority, don’t experience this –as mere mortals like the rest of us do. But no. In my own experience with such moments I find what helps most is the mindfulness practice of non-attachment. If I can shift into openness to whatever outcome arises, paradoxically I am most likely to get the outcome I desire

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