For the 5th edition of Los Lunes Son Para Libros, I want to talk about The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers. This book was written by professional rock climber Arno Ilger. From the beginning of his climbing career, Arno made himself standout by climbing a lot of sketchy and scary trad-first ascents. His ability to do so came from a mixture of physical strength and mental strength. Wanting to know more about the workings of his brain, and the mental toughness he was able to exemplify, Arno dove deep into research. His goal was to create a guide for rock climbers who wanted to improve their head game– their control of fear, critical thinking, awareness etc. What he came up with is a synthesis of modern science, philosophy, and Eastern Religion. His book, The Rock Warrior’s Way, is not only a textbook on how to be more focused and not afraid of falling when rock climbing. Almost all of his anecdotes, examples, and techniques can be used in the day to day life. However, I may or may not make that connection for the reader. So if you’re not a rock climber, keep reading, and be open to the opportunity of stripping away the rock climbing context in order to have it make sense for your own life.
Ilger begins his book in a very formulaic way. He introduces the rock warrior’s process in seven relatively easy-to-understand phases. I’d like to share these with you, their basic tenets, and then go on to explore more deeply some of my favorite golden nuggets that are hidden within the book.
(1.) The first phase is Becoming Conscious:
The first thing a rock climber (or any person for that matter) needs to do in order to become more successful is to become more self-aware. This process is based entirely in observation and introspection. It is awareness of our inner dialogue, (self-talk), the grounds on which we place our own self-worth, and how to avoid attention and power leaks. More on the idea of leaking attention and power to come.
(2) The next step is titled Life is Subtle:
In this section of his mental toughness workshop, Ilger preaches the importance of taking into account the subtleties in the external world. Applied specifically to rock climbing, he is referring to the colors, textures and features that we take for granted if we are not highly aware. He also urges us to be more aware of our subtleties in our bodies. Our breathing, posture/body language and facial expression.
(3) Third phase is all about Accepting Responsibility:
This is exactly what it sounds like. Taking and accepting the responsibility of any situation places the onus on our shoulders. We accept the potential risks and success that may arise from the scenario. We do not wish it was over. We do not blame other people if something goes wrong. “Wishing and hoping take power out of our hands.
(4) The fourth step is called Giving:
To sum up this section of his mental toughness guide, Ilger writes, “you ask what you can give to the performance rather than what you might receive if you succeed”. Our attention should be placed on options and possibilities rather than obstacles.
(5) The fifth phase focuses on our Choices:
Up until this point (aka the previous 4 stages), we were only preparing. In the fifth phase, we enter into the moment of truth. We take action, whether that be beginning to climb, entering into an interview or speaking in public. In this phase, “you choose to either direct attention away from the risk or into the risk”. For Ilgner, it is better that we focus our attention into the risk. We do not stray away because after all, we are conscious, we are ready to examine the subtleties, we’ve taken responsibility, and are prepared to give all our ourselves to the experience. But if for some reason, we are not ready to take action, and choose to back away or postpone, it is crucial to understand that declining to take the risk is not failure.
(6) Now that we are in the act, we are Listening:
Listening for Ilger is not merely something we do with our ears. It is a fully body, physical, mental and emotional process. Now that we entering into the unknown of an experience, we need to learn something. If we commit to listening, we commit to a learning process. We must trust in this process. Ilger proposes that the ultimate goal of a warrior is to learn something about the self.
(7) Finally, the seventh phase is The Journey:
“Once in the chaos of risk, you focus on the journey, not the destination. When you’re stressed, you are tempted to rush through the stress. Yet, if you prepared well, this stressful situation is exactly why you came here in the first place”
Some of my favorite aspects that arise from this portion of The Rock Warrior’s Way revolve around our self-image and self-worth. This two might sound the same, but for Ilger, are very different and no doubt connected. Our self image is our sense of who we are and what we are able to do. Self-worth on the other hand is how valuable we feel. Ilger explains that much of the value we feel normally manifests itself externally. Meaning we seek value from other people, other experiences. We are motivated from external sources. To the contrary, we should actually be seeking internal motivation. One way we do this is by creating internal value structures and holding to them. Looking inward for value, motivation and rewarding ourselves when it is due.
Another important duality Ilgner writes about are what he calls ‘power sinks’ and ‘power leaks’. I really like these concepts. Power sinks are “energy sapping elements of our personalities.” We often sink attention and energy into ego promoting thoughts and actions. Our self power sinks when we use it to selfishly bolster our self-importance. Ilgner explains that “another way to lose power is to fritter it away in ineffective mental habits, limiting self-talk, reactionary behavior, or hoping and wishing behavior.” These are power leaks. We often do this with ineffective mental habits and poisonous self-talk. These are passive states. “By indulging in passive mental processes that don’t help create the outcome you want, you are actively leaking away power that could otherwise be applied to the challenge at hand”
The general idea is to become conscious of how we construct our self-image and from what sources we draw our self-worth. Additionally, it is to become aware of power sinks and leaks so that we can perform at whatever task to our maximum ability.
Life is Subtle
This section of his book is all about how the little things matter. I know we’ve all herd his a million times, but Ilgner brings some interesting nuances to the cliche that give it some life. My favorite part about this phase is the proposition that the mind and the body are interrelated (body-mind). Ilgner argues, “body language sends messages not just outward to others, but inward, to you”. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I think this is a rad idea and one I hadn’t yet thought about. I’ve always understand body language as an external expression, not necessarily internal.
Anyway, Ilgner talks about a concept he calls ‘poise’. There are 3 parts to our poise: body, breathing and mind. The body part is simple. It’s all about our posture and how we physically present ourselves. Ilgner talks about how ‘soft eyes’ are important when rock climbing (or doing any strenuous activity). Soft eyes help maintain an open awareness– scanning or opportunities and possibilities. Where as an angry and crunched facial expression might close us off to those things.
In order to correlate the body-mind, we use our breathe. This goes for sports and walking down the street. If you really pay attention, your breathe is often a physical representation of your mental state. Ilgner writes,”breathing connects the body and mind. It is the only bodily function that can be totally voluntary or totally involuntary—totally conscious or totally unconscious. As a result, breathing works in two directions. Your unconscious breathing expresses the state of your bodymind. Conscious breathing influences that state.” In other words, if we can be consciously aware of our breathe, we can also have more control of our mental state. This is crucial in high stress situations such as rock climbing or sitting in traffic.
The third element of poise is the mind. It is our inner dialogue and internal behavior. Ilgner argues that our self-talk should always embody an attitude of possibility. To explain this relatively cryptic idea, he provides some really helpful examples. One is the difference between saying to yourself “remember your keys” or “don’t forget your keys.” For Ilgner, the latter is how our inner dialogue should be. Why? Because it maintains autonomy and control over the situation. Not forgetting is something we can have direct control over. Remembering on the other hand implies that something external or someone will have to remind you. Another dialogue example is the difference between saying “don’t fall” and “keep moving.” Like the first example, saying “keep moving” preserves us in an active state of climbing, of looking for possibilities and continuing forward. “Don’t fall” closes us off to an attitude of possibility and drains our attention and power into the negative outcome we don’t want. Lastly, Ilgner quotes a good friend of his: “trying is lying”. Saying to yourself, or so someone else (like your belayer) that you are going to try the route automatically implies a the possibility that you won’t make it to the top. Before you’ve even gotten off the ground, you’ve limited yourself and limited your personal power. “You willingly give away power to a mysterious something outside of your control.” Instead, the dialogue should that, “I will empty all that I have–my effort, focus, strength, love etc.– into this next rock climb.”
In this phase of his mental toughness process, Ilgner attaches three important facets to the act of accepting responsibility: the climber, the route, and the fall consequence. In non-rock climbing jargon, this could be understood as: the actor, the act, and the possibility of failure. Accepting the responsibility of the climber is accepting the strengths and weaknesses that we ourselves possess. What element of my personality will help me through this my first day on the job? What’s my weakest rock climbing technique and how will impact me on this next rock climb? Understanding what we bring to the table and where we fall short is crucial for accepting responsibility over ourselves and the experience we are about to be apart of.
The next part is the route, or the act/ experience. In accepting responsibility, we understand what the experience has to offer to us. We understand the parts where we will succeed and parts where we will struggle. One way to do this is to describe things objectively. Ilgner argues that fear, perhaps of falling, is the product of non-objectivity. We get wrapped up in unrealistic associations or metaphors, wishful thinking or victim mindsets. We fail to understand the route objectively and how to approach it as empowered and responsible actors. When we do this, we fall prey to what Ilgner calls ‘phantom fear.’ For him, phantom fear is “a vague, nagging fear of unknown origins.” And that, “there may be no substance to such fear.” It has no substance because we’ve failed to see the challenge ahead of us objectively. Instead we’ve pumped it full of ‘what if’ questions and passive thinking. Instead, we should focus on diminishing phantom fear’s power over us. We can weaken phantom fear by understanding completely the risk, and describing it objectively
The last part is the fall consequence of possibility of failure. One way to take responsibility of failure or falling is accepting that they both are totally okay outcomes (unless of course the result is death. Which in that case, something had gone terribly wrong in the previous steps). For Ilgner, falling and failure create learning opportunities. In fact, it’s normally our bad life decisions that teach us the most. If the goal is learning, then should we really call them ‘bad’ if they taught us something incredibly valuable? Perhaps its the ‘good’ decisions that are ‘bad’ because they’ve taught us nothing. Either way, this argument is futile for Ilgner because he doesn’t believe in using relative terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Nonetheless, accepting responsibility for the fall consequence and being genuinely okay with failure is how we learn the most. “As we accept these responsibilities, we grow to accept a great truth: life is difficult. Once we fully accept difficulty as natural and normal, we cease to be offended or daunted when we encounter a struggle or test. We can embrace these tests as opportunities. Difficult experiences are the way we learn, and they also are the way we can appreciate ease.”
“The warrior process of giving uses discovered facts, and acceptance of them, to actively create a powerful attitude for entering the challenge. The giving process helps us focus on what we have to give to the effort rather than the difficulty of the challenge.” Ilgner makes the argument that as humans we are socialized to practice ‘receiving mindsets’. In other words, as we develop, we become accustomed to thinking and acting in ways that portray entitlement to receiving things. This may or may not be true all the time, but I know for sure that I personally exemplify this receiving mindset. Instead, Ilgner proposes that we should focus on fostering a giving mindset with the challenges and experiences in our life. My favorite part of this phase is wrapped up in this quote: “The giving mindset is rooted in the attitude of being grateful for what we already have. We can’t manifest a giving spirit if we feel slighted.” For Ilgner, the more we give– the more we pour ourselves into our endeavours, challenges, relationships etc– the more we receive from them. Specifically, the more we learn from them. “It’s the combination of giving and learning that brings happiness.”
According to Ilgner, at every decision point throughout a rock climb there are only two outcomes: climbing through the risk or falling. This is true for other risks we take in our lives, such as asking a pretty girl to go on a date. Whatever the outcome, we must make the choice to fully accept whatever outcome. For the most part, this entails making the choice to take risks in the first place. Risks are lurking around every corner in the human life– some more than others, especially if that one is climbing a rock face. This may seem daunting and scary, perhaps even reason to live a sheltered life. But Ilgner argues the opposite. Perhaps paradoxically, he says that “taking risks actually increases our safety and comfort.” Furthermore he argues that “we gain comfort and security by expanding our comfort zones, and we expand our comfort zones by venturing into the risk zone.” I really enjoy what Ilgner has to say here. In a way, it sheds light on why people do “stupid” things in the first place, like base jumping from bridges. In the risk zone we learn. In the risk zone we expand that which we know about ourselves, our capabilities and the possibilities we can attain. As we leave our comfort zones and find success, those zones and parts of us expand. Therefore, we feel more comfortable in more situations because we ventured outward into the mysterious and taken with us skills and tools to help us on our next journey.
This lifestyle, however dangerous, sounds much more interesting and fulfilling than the previously mentioned sheltered life. This lifestyle creates and sustains passion. Have you ever met a person who on a daily basis risks their lives or health in pursuit of something courageous and fulfilling to not be completely passionate and in love with doing it? This question makes me think of extreme-sport athletes or practitioners, but I think the same could be said for people who don’t lead such an outwardly risky lifestyle. As long as risk and mystery is somewhere to be confronted, whether its on top of a ski slope or in the office, passion and love for learning whats on the other side of that risk is present.
“Loving what you do, being in touch with what you truly value, will help you make choices in any area. A path with heart is essential when making choices about risk. A possibly dangerous choice should not be made carelessly. It must be aligned with a person’s innermost predilections, stripped of the dangerous and superficial trappings of the Ego and self-delusion. Love-based motivation creates a situation without regret. When you make a choice, you choose to live life the way you most want to live it.”
Listening is not just something you do with your ears. It is an attitude of receptivity. The action of being receptive to all things, not just sound. In this part of his book, Ilgner begins a discussion about intuition. Specifically, how we can look out for and listen to our intuitions and their processes. For Ilgner, intuition is specific and crucial. It is our connection to hidden information and our unrealized potentials. “Intuition, being outside our logical framework of ideas, is free from the agendas and preconceived definitions that limit us. Intuition is a precarious point of access to the unknown, which is the ultimate source of all new knowledge and power.” Furthermore, “if you block out intuitive flow, you block our very important information.”
To help flesh out his thoughts on intuition, Ilger shares a quote from Gavin de Becker, “curiosity is the way you answer when intuition whispers.” When our intuitions whisper something to us, we when have a gut feeling, when we mysteriously feel that one decision or course of action is better than the other, we must answer with curiosity and with trust. Ilgner explains that trust bridges the gap between the ability to assess the risk beforehand, and your ability to rise to the occasion when the challenge presents itself. We need to place trust in this listening process. Trust in the intuitions that whisper, however softly, in our ears and guide us to make decision, however big or small. This could be intuitively deciding which tiny edge of rock to place your foot in order to reach the next hand hold, or suddenly changing the path of our walk home in order to possibly avoid a dangerous part of town. “Remember, your highest goal is learning, and only in action does true, experiential learning occur. This is what you climb for. In order to transcend risk, you need to learn something, and you’ll only be able to learn by staying open and receptive.”
To open up this section of the rock warrior’s process, Ilgner explains that “the warrior is the ultimate realist. He knows that life is a journey, and rather than rushing blindly forward to the next destination, he appreciates the journey itself and consciously lives within it. He utilizes this metaphorical heuristic in order to broach a discussion on the difference between ‘destination thinking’ and the ‘journey mindset.’ This is another one of the cliches we hear so often. That we should enjoy the journey as opposed to the destination. Once again however, Ilgner is able to breath new life into the cliche that enhances is potency. He explains that “success and failure do not exist in the present, only effort and action exist.” What happens then when we continually think of the success or potential failure at the end of a rock climb (or new job promotion etc.), we throw ourselves into a disjointed process. Destination thinking– becoming obsessed with the end instead of the means– bifurcates our performance. The body cannot help but act in the present moment. It is climbing, walking, talking, writing its way through the present experience. The mind on the other hand can’t stop thinking about how good the beer will taste after a long days work or how liberated you will feel when you clip the anchors and lower down off a hard and scary rock climb. When this happens, the body-mind is not one. This hinders us and obstructs our ability to perform at our maximum potential.
In order to wrap up his book on an influential note, Ilgner turns his audience to meditations on the death. Like his book, our earthly journeys must also end. He explains that the warrior uses death as their ultimate advisor. Each moment is precious. “Death advises us to always use attention on what is important– learning and growth.” He goes on to explain that, “all living things, you included, are created, grow, and then die. Since you already have been created and aren’t dead yet, you are most in harmony when you align yourself with positive process in between—growth. You live in a dynamic world. If you are settling in to a rigid comfort zone, then you are dying—slowly, but still dying. To stay vibrant, you need to engage life and take risks, not for the conquest of some elusive mountaintop or redpoint, but in order to learn and grow.” This I think is beautiful. And if I am being honest with myself, it is also scary. Learning for experiences and loving life is literally all we can do. I would also add that building and cherishing social, familial and romantic relationships is extremely important. It is a personal journey– from bottom of the corporate ladder to the top, from friendship to love, from the ground to the anchors, and especially from cradle to grave. Accept it. Be at peace with it. Walk your path, be observant, learn and grow.