It was so nice at the beginning of the last meditation period, listening to Bokushu and Seizan giving beginning meditation instruction to some of the newcomers. I first received meditation instruction in 2001 or 2002, and I am so grateful. It was so small, and the consequences have been so boring and so profound. It’s like a solar sail, the pressure it exerts on my life is subtle and yet it’s always pushing in the right direction. Over time, it’s brought me to a completely different place than I would otherwise be.

My name’s Jiryu. I’m a senior student here. I’m going to talk about climbing. I talk about climbing a lot in my Zen talks because I’m learning so much about Zen from climbing at an indoor climbing gym. Today I want to talk about fear.

A couple months ago I learned a more advanced technique for climbing. Before, I’d been doing something called top rope, where I’m attached to a rope as I climb up the wall. The rope loops around a pulley at the top of the wall, and then my belayer has the other end of the rope tied to a ratchet around her waist. As I climb towards the pulley at the top of the wall, the belayer takes up the slack on the ratchet. And that means if I fall at any point, which is pretty common, I’ll only fall a couple of feet because the belayer has been taking up the slack, and as soon as the rope goes taut she catches me. So it’s not very scary.

But I’ve graduated to a more advanced style called lead climbing, which is much more realistic. It’s much more like outdoor climbing. With lead climbing, I start on the ground next to the belayer and we are attached to each other by a rope without much distance between us. And as I climb up the wall, I take the rope with me. It’s not looped around anything at the top of the wall. I have to take it up as I go.

Every few feet I’ll reach a clip, a carabiner that’s hanging off the wall, and pull up a loop of rope. I’m holding onto the wall with one hand and I pull up a loop of rope with the other hand and clip it through the carabiner. And now I’ve achieved some degree of safety. The belayer pulls up the slack and now if I fall after that, I’ll only fall as far as below the last carabiner that I managed to clip.

But it still kind of freaks me out because the falls that you take when you’re lead climbing can be quite a bit greater. You’ll fall down past your last clip and then past that even further. Depending on how much slack and how bouncy the rope is, you might fall 10 or 15 feet before the rope catches you.

I took my lead climbing class without a lot of difficulty. Passed my certification test. I have this climbing coach that I see about once a week and he was so excited, “You’re lead certified now. Let’s go climb in the cave.”

The gym has a huge indoor cave made out of plywood and covered with plastic climbing holds. You can only climb the cave on lead. You go up from the ground in the back of the cave and climb up into the ceiling so that you are eventually hanging upside down like a sloth, 20 feet above the ground. As you go, you clip the rope every few feet, so that if you fall, you’ll just end up swinging in the space in the middle of the cave.

My coach got me on this climb and I started doing it and it was so exciting. I felt like a real climber, like I saw in the movies. And I was doing great. I was remembering the technique. How to hold onto holds, how to keep my body weight evenly distributed, even though I’m upside down in this very difficult and unnatural position, clipping the rope into the carabiner as I go.

Then I reached what, for me, was the hardest part, which is: I reached the end of the cave, its mouth. And I needed to get around the lip that formed the mouth of the cave and up onto the wall, the vertical face that the cave had been sort of excavated from. So I needed to go from hanging from the ceiling to hanging off of a vertical wall, head up.

The route setters who had designed this climbing route were really pretty brutal. Because I’d been climbing for many minutes—I had covered tens of feet, my hands were exhausted, my forearms were pumped full of blood. And just at this moment they decide to give me a couple of really terrible holds. You can’t wrap your hand around them. They’re called slopers because they’re just textured blobs on the wall. You don’t grab them, you just press your hand on and hope that the friction will keep you from falling.

So I’ve got one hand on one of these slopers, and then with the other hand I now have to get to the first clip outside the cave. I’ve got a lot of slack now behind me, maybe five or six feet. And of course in order to get a loop of rope to attach to this carabiner I have to pull up even more slack. This is the most vulnerable moment.

And now I’m starting to feel afraid. I can feel my legs quivering. My heart is racing. My breath is tight and short, if I’m breathing at all, who knows? I’m sweating, which is the worst part, because my palms are now starting to create a thin layer of mud formed by climbing chalk and sweat, which does not stick to that slopey hold at all. And I feel it start to slip. I’m trying to get this damn rope into the carabiner, and the carabiner’s at an awkward angle, and with just one hand I can’t get that loop of rope through gate of the spring-loaded carabiner and safely through it.

At the moment that my left hand starts to actually begin to move, I just shout “falling!” and I fall. And I’m fine. Maybe it’s a little comical, but I end up swinging 10 feet off the ground like a yoyo that just failed its trick, over the head of my belayer.

I say, “Can I continue? Is there any way to get back on the wall from here?”

And my belayer, my coach, says, “No, you’re coming down.” He lowers me. He had such a look of startle. He said, “That was the worst place you could have fallen.”

You know how a little kid, when they fall, they’re shocked, and they stare into their parent’s eyes? And if the parent is calm, the kid’s fine. But if the parent is afraid then the kid completely loses it. That was me. I was fine until I saw the look on my coach’s face. Then all of a sudden I was losing it. I was like, “Man, what could have happened to me?”

I think in retrospect I misinterpreted it. It really was safe, but it scared me at the moment. I didn’t get right back on the wall then. I walked away with this queasy sense, like something had gone wrong. Something could have—I could have been hurt.

A few days later was the next time that I tried lead climbing, and I was surprised at how scared I was. All of a sudden this thing that I’d been doing without trouble a few times before, now it was freaking me out. Just strapping on the gear for that style of climbing already started my heart beating a little bit faster.

As soon as I started climbing up the wall and clipping the rope in, I got distracted by anticipating thoughts. Starting to visualize, “I’m going to fall here. I’m going to fall here and my finger is going to get caught in the clip and I’m going to rip my skin. Or I’m going to fall and hit my butt on a hold and it’s going to break my pelvis.” Disaster is flashing through my head. I was sweating, and hyperventilating, and the slightest fatigue in my hands would suddenly make me feel like I couldn’t possibly continue the climb.

Very often, for the first few weeks when I was getting over that scare, I would be on the wall, trying to climb and I would panic. And I would be unable to continue. I would be trying to make that clip. The closer the situation was to the moment that I’d fallen first—if there was some bad hold in one hand and I couldn’t get the rope into the clip in the other, and I felt tired—like all of those aspects of the original trauma, the more of them that resembled that, the more likely I was to switch over from manageable fear to unmanageable panic. I would shout, “Take up the slack!” and would lower myself down a couple of holds and deliberately fall, because I could not continue.

Fear happens all the time. Fear is something that we can practice with. Panic is when we can’t practice with it, when the self that is capable of intentionally working with the fear is blown away and all that’s left is the fear and the helplessness. That’s panic. Panic is an animal experience of being alone and naked and disoriented in the dark. Paralyzed.

But if we say that panic is when you’re so scared that your self is obliterated, maybe that’s a good thing! The project of Zen is to liberate us from our sense of an isolated self, to recognize that we are one with all of this. So maybe that experience of a loss of self when we panic, maybe that’s great! Maybe we should try to practice that more often. After all, the first koan that we study when we begin practicing Zen is “What Is Mu?” And you cannot answer that question while viewing yourself as a separate “I.” So maybe we should be panicked all the time.

There’s this excellent Chinese Zen teacher named Sheng Yen. He was born in China and taught in Taiwan. He died in 2009.

Sheng Yen wrote,

The purpose of practice is ultimately to let go of the sense of self, but in the beginning we need to affirm the self as the vehicle for practice. We settle the mind by contemplating the breath going in and out of the nostrils. We are aware of who is breathing. To affirm your sense of self, use the awareness of your whole being as a point of reference.

With a strong sense of self you have a foundation for taking up “What is Mu?”

So Sheng Yen says we need a very strong sense of self. That makes sense, because we have to practice with such determination. We have to keep promises to ourselves. How else could we practice except with a strong sense of who we are? Otherwise we’re just going to get knocked off of our practice the first time we experience something unpleasant, something scary, something that we would rather distract ourselves from.

For me, the main reason that I have distracting thoughts during zazen is anxiety about the future. Some small fear—What am I going to say in my dharma talk tonight? What am I going to say at the meeting with my boss tomorrow? How am I going to solve that problem?

My obsessive need to think about these things that might go wrong, and to try to solve that problem by thinking, is the main distraction that I struggle with during meditation. I think that this is true of a lot of meditators, and I think it’s been true for a very long time. There’s a line in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra which was written maybe 700 AD. The line goes, “If you arouse your mind, even momentarily, anxiety over the material world will come up first.”

So we have to face our fears in order to practice. And when we face these fears, we actually need a very strong sense of who we are, in order to deliberately confront these fears. To allow ourselves to experience it without letting ourselves get caught up in distracting thoughts.

We have to prevent panic. Panic as a dissolution of the self, it’s very different from samadhi. Samadhi is a liberation that expands the self to be the entire world. Panic shrinks it until all of experience is just fear. Samadhi is not knowing, but it’s a not knowing that is omniscient. And panic is a not-knowing that is helpless and disoriented in the dark.

The courage we need to face our experience, but not panic, that courage is actually born of a strong sense of who we are.

A couple years ago I did a week-long meditation retreat, a sesshin, that was the most intense of any that I have ever done. I went into it with—I had completely lost confidence in my life and in the choices I had made. My relationship with my partner was bitter and resentful and silent, and I didn’t know if we could fix it. At work, the company that I’d worked for for six years, where I’d been so successful, suddenly I was disrespected. My ideas were dismissed. I had reached a dead end in my work and I thought I might have to quit. I didn’t know where I would go.

I sat with these two feelings of complete “not knowing the answer” for a week. The temptation was so strong to think about these two problems. “What am I going to do?” Instead, I kept putting those thoughts down, and returning the feeling, which was fear. I have a problem and I don’t know how to fix it. It was a tingling in my stomach, sweating, the heart beating fast, breath tight, a line of heat going up from the pit of my stomach to my heart, and the flame going up in an endless cycle through this line of fire.

By the end of a week of that, when we finally finished the retreat and I was ready to talk again, I could not wait any longer to start fixing my life. I talked to my partner. I described what had happened. Within a year we were in therapy and starting to turn our ship around. At work I began the process of switching teams to find a team where I could contribute again.

But that was a hell of a meditation retreat. A few months later when I was going to do another week-long, I was kind of apprehensive. I thought, “Am I going to have to spend another week with that line of fearsome fire burning in my body?” But at the same time I was sort of excited. Something was finally happening in my meditation practice! It’s not the same old boring drowsy daydreaming crap. It’s intense and emotional and unpredictable.

So, great. Let’s do this. We started the meditation retreat and….zilch. You know, just the regular old daydreaming. Back to business as usual. Kind of disappointing. Turns out my practice is just like it’s always been.

Ordinariness is a monster, too. And I run from that monster, too, when things get too routine. I need to start taking risks, maybe swerve a little closer to a car in traffic or take on some project at work that I actually don’t think I can succeed at. I need some fresh challenge. Some risk. Because ordinariness is scary. As soon as it sets in I start to panic. I think, “What if this is all there is from now on, forever?”

You know Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit? Hell is people stuck in a room forever. There’s no torture. It’s a nice drawing room. They have coffee. The horror of it is it will always be the same.

And this happens to us, too, when we get bored. Boredom is also scary.

I remember when I did my first week-long meditation retreat, 18 years ago or so, I was afraid of it. And maybe you’ve been afraid too. Maybe you remember being afraid the first time you did a day or even half an hour of meditation. What was scary? It could have been pain. But it might have been boredom.

When I have been afraid of starting very long meditation retreats, often the thing that I’m afraid of is being bored. Which is a funny thing—it’s like a paradox—but it is scary. This is meditation’s main teaching, though. To accept boredom. Not to fix it by entertaining ourselves but to sink into it and see what its contents actually are.

I see people walking around all the time preventing boredom like it’s a matter of life or death, like they must be terrified of boredom. Very often at my office when I go to the bathroom, the men on either side of me at the urinals are all looking at their phones while they pee. They are steadying their penises with one hand and they are scrolling with the other. What poor, nervous, terrified people that they might risk a moment of ordinariness. And how desperately they are searching their phones to make this moment special.

But I don’t do that, right? We don’t do that. Because we’re Zen students. We know that this moment is special already. The miracle of the kidneys, the gift of water—this moment will never exactly recur. We should value it.

Besides, any moment that you can practice is worth practicing, because these ordinary moments are a good time to train. The moment of panic will come, sooner or later. And if you wait until then to learn how to accept and concentrate on this experience, if you wait, it might be too late. The panic will come—the naked, alone, animal fear; the darkness.

So I’m determined to keep working on this fear. Climbing is a wonderful opportunity because now I’ve got something I’m afraid of and I can do it. My strategy is to work at 90 percent panic level. So: Pretty afraid, but still, I know who I am and I can practice and work with that fear. I can essentially do meditation on the climbing wall.

Because if I hit 100 percent, I’ll panic and I’ll give up. I’ll say, “Take up the slack,” I’ll lower myself down. The reflex that responds to that situation by paralyzing me, that will only get stronger the more I let it happen. So I get right up to the edge and then I work through it. Even though I’m shaking and sweating, my hand is barely holding on, and I can’t get the damn rope into the fiddly little carabiner, I just stick with it and I do it. And then the next time I’m a little less afraid and I can try a climb that’s a little harder.

The two techniques that are really working for me when I’m climbing are, first of all, to just concentrate on what I’m doing. What my disorganized mind really wants to do is visualize accidents that are about to happen. That’s clearly not helpful. The other thing it likes to do is to come up with reassuring thoughts: you’re on a rope, you’re safe, your belayer is paying attention, you won’t fall very far. That is also not helpful.

What’s helpful is to really feel my body, my hands, my feet, to look at the carabiner, to look at the rope, to remember the exact motion that will get that rope past that spring. Just concentrate on this exact moment and the skill that I am practicing.

The other thing that helps of course is to breathe. Slowly. Especially to slow down the out breath. Phhbbbtt. Doing the horse breath actually really helps. You’ll often hear climbers do this. Phhbbbtt. You can try putting your hand over your heart. Phoooooo. You’ll actually slow it down. You can feel it. The space between the beats is greater as you exhale slowly. Try it next time somebody is taking your pulse. It’s kind of fun to trick them. “Wow your pulse is only 50? You must be a marathoner.” Phoooooo. It really works.

There will come a time when the panic will come, and this will help. Even if it’s not falling off a wall or turning your life upside down. It can just be the ordinary anxiety that comes up as we meditate. Right? The thoughts about, “How am I going to deal with that problem tomorrow?” “What does that person think of me?” We can do the same thing there.

Just phoooooo letting the breath out really slowly and deliberately. If the thoughts are coming up, catastrophizing or planning or trying to reassure you, you can drop those.

A technique that we often teach is to count the breath. Phoooooo. “One,” in your mind. And then the next one. Phoooooo. “Two” in your mind. All the way up to 10, and then start over at one again. That helps keeps us here, breathing, concentrating on what we are actually doing, the experience of our bodies in the room.

The self that can work with fear in this way is the self that we’re going to use as our raft to get us to the liberated shore. This self has the determination to work with the fear, to face whatever we’re going to see on these meditation sessions of half an hour, or days, or weeks. Ihis self is determined to keep facing ourselves, confronting what we really are, in order to liberate ourselves from this scared and isolated little being that we’re trapped in.

When the panic comes, it risks killing that self. Maybe it’ll be the actual death at the end of our lives, or maybe a little death of that moment when we’re obliterated and can’t work with our fear anymore. That’s the ultimate test of our practice.

The Zen teacher Mumon says this about that moment:

Know that coming out of one husk and getting into another is like a traveler’s putting up in hotels.

In case you are not yet enlightened, do not rush about blindly. When suddenly earth, water, fire, and air are decomposed, you will be like a crab fallen into boiling water, struggling with its seven arms and eight legs. Do not say then that I have not warned you.

Image: Sam Bald