By Trevor Husted
The opportunities and benefits that meditation can bring to our mountain climbing experiences
If you’ve navigated to this mountaineering focused blog, there is a high likelihood that you’re interested in improving your performance in the alpine and perhaps overall quality of life. One of the more intriguing ways to boost our mental and physical health is through the ancient Eastern practice of meditation. I am no health expert or psychiatrist. I am a mountain guide striving to find a balanced life working and playing in the mountains while maintaining positive mental health. Sharing my own experiences and those of my fellow guides, may lead others to growth and clarity in the mountains. In doing so, perhaps we can learn to create stronger connections between the mind, body, and reach that effortless momentum or “flow state” that we constantly strive to find in the alpine.
What is meditation?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, meditation is the act of engaging in contemplation or reflection; to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness. While meditation comes in many different forms both non-secular and secular, the act of meditation can be linked as far back as 5,000 years according to the Project Meditation Organization Website, an organization dedicated to helping millions of people globally to learn to improve their mental, physical and spiritual well-being. The practice migrated west in the 19th century and recently the practice of meditation according to The Good Body Website, has tripled in the United States since 2012 making it the second largest mind and body practice behind yoga.
How does it relate to climbing mountains?
Being in the mountains and experiencing elements of the unknown while pushing body and mind through discomfort (also referred to as type II fun) can be nerve-racking. Our bodies are designed to react to stress by releasing cortisol from the adrenal gland, which is one of the body’s main stress hormones. Think of this system as a built in alarm that perceives risk and reacts in ways that link back to our hunter and gatherer days when threat of predators was a common concern. Today, the body still makes these connections and reactions, but modern predators take a much different form such as a large car swerving into your lane on the highway or perceived risk while crossing a ladder over a gaping crevasse on Rainier. Most people who have experienced a rush of cortisol know how jarring it can be. When high stress is a constant companion, the negative health efforts are myriad. Meditation can help to lower stress levels and create a general sense of calmness and potential clarity in these instances. In fact, meditation benefits nearly all facets of life. Sitting in silence focusing on the breath for five to ten minutes a day can relieve stress, manage pain and anxiety, and boost mood, energy, and immunity.
For mountain guide Jayson Simons-Jones, who has spent 22 years guiding, meditation has been a grounding force both in and out of the mountains. He learned a form of Tibetan Buddhism Meditation while at college in Ithaca where he worked at the infamous Moosewood Restaurant. The restaurant and the city helped to house and employ Tibetan refugees who in turn taught different aspects of Tibetan culture to the community. Since then, Jayson has practiced a zen style of meditation that brings awareness to the breath.
“I feel less sketched out on the sharp end of the rope,” says Simons-Jones referring to some of the benefits that meditation has brought into his guiding and personal adventures (the sharp end of the rope typically refers to the person on the rope that is leading in the front and who typically carries the majority of the risk).
“Meditation has been super helpful to be present with all the emotions – fear, anxiety, excitement, etc. making it possible to look at these emotions with a removed perspective, and without any attachment to the feeling,” he says. Simons-Jones has noticed that even with all of his guide experience, meditation has added a different dimension to guiding that helps him to feel more grounded and less nervous in sketchy situations. While he may not always have time to sneak away to meditate on trips, he will often throw his earbuds in while going to sleep and spend about 10-15 minutes using a meditation app like Calm to wind down.
“A lot of times as guides we stay super busy and keep moving as a way to deal with the discomfort of being with our thoughts,” he says, “meditation can be super beneficial in learning to just be present with oneself.”
How to get started?
Sometimes the hardest part of jumping into something new can be figuring out how and where to start. Luckily, with more attention being brought to the mind and body space, there is no shortage of resources and materials to guide you in a direction that can be beneficial for your lifestyle. There are over 15 types of meditation styles in the world today and it can seem a bit overwhelming when starting out. As a beginner, take it slow and be patient with yourself. It can be pleasant to start out with guided meditations and these can be found in online videos or in such apps like Headspace, Insight Timer, 10 Percent Happier, Buddify, etc. Set small goals for yourself and be willing to accept that progress takes time.
Throughout my journey as a meditation and mindfulness teacher, it took time to learn how to rewire patterns and the habits of my mind. Even today, it is still a work in progress. The most helpful practice I learned and still practice daily is focused attention meditation. It allows me to focus on my breath while acknowledging and bringing a non-judgmental perspective to thought. If thoughts arise during the practice, you simply bring the focus back to the breath without ruminating on any specific thoughts or feelings. In guiding, this style of meditation has allowed me to be more present and in the moment, while also creating an unwavering ability to focus and be attentive to stressful situations, approaching them with patience and thoughtfulness. The process brought light to resilience, energy, adaptability, and many other qualities present in life in and out of the mountains.
Perhaps the next time you are trudging through a thick cold storm; the elevation greeting your lungs with uncertainty; your calves burning hotter than fire, and a good part of you wondering ‘‘what the heck am I doing here?’ maybe stop and ask yourself – what meditation can do for me?