Blog #57: Fully Alive on the Edge of Death

Blog #57: Fully Alive on the Edge of Death

Lately I've been watching rock climbing videos on YouTube. There is one climber in particular who is really fascinating, and his name is Alex Honnold. He specializes in what's called free soloing, which is climbing without any ropes or mechanical aid. Obviously, if one falls off a vertical wall of any significant height, the plunge will result in violent death of the body, since there is no belay to catch the plummeting free soloist.

Alex is constantly asked questions about how he deals with the severity of such a looming consequence, and here is one of his typical responses: "I don't think it's any different than a race car driver driving super-fast close to the edge of the track, which to me would be terrifying, but to somebody whose spent their whole life racing cars, I'm sure it's totally casual."

So, what he's saying is that the risk is much lower than what people might suppose, precisely because he thoroughly trains and prepares for the ropeless ascents. The possible consequence of death doesn't get removed, but the likelihood of death occurring is greatly mitigated by the physical and mental skill that is exercised on the route. It makes sense.

I haven't done much rock climbing, but when I worked in Alaska for a summer, I did climb a 30-foot wall we found on a hiking trail. I was feeling cocky and did it without a rope to impress a friend who was watching. If I had fell, it probably would have resulted in broken bones. I was also drinking a lot during that time, and it was not a wise move. I wasn't prepared or trained properly.

Another time, I was drunk and riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle speeding down the highway. I was all hyped up and decided to climb on the roof of the car while it was cruising at 70+ mph. Again, another moronic move that was playing dangerously with risk and adventure.

As I've said many times before, I don't think sobriety and spirituality are meant to kill the adventurous spirit. All that changes is the channeling of the primal desires into safer, more reasonable, and more creative modalities. Incidentally, Alex Honnold is completely sober and doesn't drink a drop of alcohol.

When it comes to climbing, there is a spiritual connection even in the language itself. Transcendence, which is a word I use in the AYP for Recovery motto, is derived from Latin root words meaning "to climb across". Instead of climbing across the face of a mountain, we are climbing across the knots and entanglements of suffering, which are in place from limited identification.

In recovery, the identity of being an addict or alcoholic begins to be passed over, much like Honnold deftly navigates the footholds and cracks embedded like scars in the sheer granite of a precipice in Yosemite National Park. Much skill is required to arrive at the top. It's not just a matter of checking out into abstract headspace, or claiming final victory over the journey that has been traversed. It requires diligent effort, flawless technique, and most importantly, relentless devotion to the ongoing pursuit.

In some sense, Honnold is mastering being on the edge of death. Accomplished yogis have done the same thing. Paramahansa Yogananda once said: "Breathlessness is deathlessness." What he meant was that during deep states of stillness, breathing will actually cease as the vital energy withdraws from the organs and into the central channel of the spine. It doesn't get much stiller than that. And stillness is eternal, beyond death. (Note: We don't directly pursue breathlessness in AYP; it's just a side effect that may happen during Deep Meditation.)

In his book Alone on the Wall, Honnold writes: "What keeps me motivated is an insatiable hunger and curiosity. The best way I can sum it up is to paraphrase the end of my op-ed piece for the New York Times: The mountains are calling, and I must go."

Sober enlightenment is calling me, and that's where I must go.

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating comparison of two arts. I’m always reading your (very interesting and heartfelt) material with an eye to Christian analogues. As we grow through the peace of Christ, his peace grows in us. Frequently, gentleness is the result. And so we could view this as a safer relationship with desire in the everyday life of a mature Christian. But what each person is called to may not be safe at all. In fact, acts of charity, truth, and justice often put the “yogic” Christian at considerable risk and discomfort. However, skill, courage, and support make the grace of God come into fullness, and the Christian who follows his vocation is unshakable happy and at peace.

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