When my sons were young one of my favorite recreations was to go indoor rock-climbing with them. We went to a reconditioned warehouse where climbers had looped ropes over the rafters and fitted the walls with a system of rock-like grips. One of us would fasten an end of a rope around his waist and scale the wall. The other anchored himself to the floor, threaded the free end of the rope through a safety device at his waist, and took in slack.
It is an eminently safe pastime. If the climber slips he is instantly suspended by the rope from the rafters (assuming his partner is paying attention). The technical term for this type of climbing is “top-roping.” I’ll never forget the first time I anchored my son to the floor, checked my top-rope, and began to climb.
This is relevant to the principle of letting go, because you have to not grasp in order to climb well. From fear and lack of knowledge, novice climbers seem to grip the wall with their whole body. Their arms are tense, they hunch their shoulders around their ears, every muscle strains to pull their weight into the wall. They tire quickly and fall often.
With more experience you learn to only grip with your fingers, letting every other part of the body rest. Climbers call this “using skeletal strength”; they know that as long as the fingers and toes hold to the wall, the rest the body will stay attached.
It is absolutely liberating to discover this. Magically, you stay up by not trying so hard. I have had similar feelings in dreams when, falling from a dangerous height, I discover that I can effortlessly pilot my flight down.
This a central lesson in many sports and in yoga asanas. Apply effort wisely; let nature and your nature take care of the rest. Besides enhancing performance, it also allows a deeper benefit. With the body relaxed and engaged in careful doing, a part of the mind is free to simply observe the miraculous energy within and around it.
I have discovered countless problems that only yield when I stop gripping them so hard. This isn’t usually as easy to learn or do as in rock climbing or dreaming. Releasing unmet career ambitions, letting go of a failed marriage, abandoning my old idea of fatherhood as my son’s estrangement stretches on… this letting go sometimes seems like a long grieving process. But in the end it often seems to be the best or only way through.
Long after my indoor rock climbing days, I am starting to learn the lesson of letting go. Here’s how to ascend: grip as little as possible, relax everywhere else, and know that your top-rope really does stretch toward the stars.
I am breathing, eyelids lifting.
I am brushing hair from my face.
It is your soft hair, who stayed all
night long without my asking.
The shower still set to my warmth, cereal
waiting in the clear jar within reach,
socks and shoes, favorite belt –
this not having spoken.
I dream the ferry’s froth and calm,
boarding the wonder of water
lifting tons of shapely steel:
effort absent, simple strength.
From your dream you are murmuring, “I want…I want,”
But I am seeing our room lit by Sun’s
relentless explosion, the boiling core of Earth
spinning compass needles north.
To wish to keep such things is only human.
But you and I may also let them go, and so
wake up a hundred times this very day,
to live in a world loving nothing more than life.