Tag Archives: Climbing

On Strength

I first tried to climb the black route on lane one at the climbing gym some time ago. After weeks of alternately attempting and staring at the tricky holds in dismay, I climbed it. The next day, I tackled the purple route, the one with the big sloping handholds. I got higher than I ever have, fell, and then climbed one hold higher. While I had developed my strength since that first attempt, I have also become more deliberate and more precise. In climbing, as in much of our lives, this makes a difference.

Feeling stronger has me thinking about what strength means and where I have found it over time. As a friend once pointed out, I have written about human fragility and vulnerability but I have not focused nearly as much on strength and resilience. I think there are good reasons for this, but that was then. Now is a different time.


I would like to talk here about physical strength in the sense that it takes mental strength to grow physically stronger. I’m reading The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner right now and much of what I’m reading aligns beautifully with my experiences learning meditation. The mind has a remarkable influence on the body and, as Eastern philosophy suggests, there may not be any separation between the two. When I’m feeling happy and positive, the world looks prettier. So too, my body moves more easily. Conversely, when my shoulders are cramped from hunching over a desk and my mind is already in a rut because my shoulders are sore, my body responds unhappily when I ask it to move and my mind continues to complain.

But there is more to strength than the link between mind and body. There is, for example, the sensation of soaring when the two work in concert.

Strength is the feeling that whatever comes next is within my grasp. It is reachable. It is possible.

Strength is the feeling of trust in myself and courage in the face of difficult choices. Strength is the commitment to this thing right here right now rather than acquiescence, resignation, or tacit agreement.

Strength is the ability to challenge oneself and to ask, as I learned in a Coursera course during Singapore’s circuit breaker, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. Listening to the answer to that question is far more frightening than asking it, but crucial to ask if we are to learn who we are and what we are capable of.


A long time ago, I knew a group of people who measured worth, achievement, and level of respect due someone based on their estimate of the person’s 5k run time. It didn’t matter if you were better than them in any other thing; you couldn’t run a 5k as well as they could. To these young men, speed was the form of strength.

I have been running for about ten years now and I, too, measured my running in terms of speed. A good day was a fast run and a bad day was characterised by a slow run, regardless of how much I might have enjoyed it. Taking time off running, whether for injury or travel or anything else, was sapping the physical strength that defined my understanding of how strong I was or could be. Slowing down, be it physically or mentally, was a sign of weakness, despite how much I might have needed it.

I am older now, older, wiser, and a bit more beaten around by the world than I was back then. I took seven weeks off of running and recently started again, very slowly. But I breathed the air, felt the heat from the sun, and experienced the expansiveness of my heart that comes from being along the water and moving my body in the company of strangers doing the same. Would I have noticed this in the way I did without the time off?

This ability to notice, and then to see, is a sign of strength. Otherwise, I am merely going through the motions without ever doing the hard work of asking why. And without noticing, I fail to take the opportunity to learn.

To be strong means to attempt, to err, and always aim to learn. We are in this life to grow and to leave the world a better place than we found it. Having the humility to recognise that others have things to teach us and that we do not know all is a form of strength.


Recent global events have tested my capacity to tolerate, to embrace, and to be flexible when confronted with things I disagree with, dislike, or wish were different. Personal experience has taught me that while it is important to know what I can and cannot tolerate, there is also a difference between cannot and will not. In many ways, this is a choice.

And I believe I am stronger for having learned that.

And I believe I am stronger for looking at those black and purple climbs and asking, “What if I?” instead of telling myself, “You can’t”.

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” -Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

Interlaken, Switzerland – December 2019

Climb On

In the last couple years, I’ve (re)discovered my love of rock climbing. As a child, I always enjoyed the climbing walls at summer camp, and I spent a fantastic afternoon at a climbing gym during a visit to a friend many years later. I should have put all of this together and taken the opportunity to go to the climbing gym down the road in my town, but I did not. And then finally, just two years ago, I went to a climbing gym here in Singapore after encouragement from a few friends who climbed regularly.

It literally rocked my world. Climbing has put my mind and body in places I didn’t know I could go. And now that those feelings have been part of my world, I never want to lose them. There is focus on the breath, shutting down of the chatter in the mind, and direction of physical forces to balance the body. There is deliberate movement, tiny adjustment, and sometimes a jump that will either end in a hold or a fall. There’s fear to contend with, certainly, and there’s trust in my partner to catch the fall. Ego crops up more than I’d like and I’m learning to know when to trust the body and when to admit that I am out of my league, when to just reach for the next move and when to take time to rest.

This has been a strange summer holiday but one benefit of it is that I have been able to spend a lot of time climbing after ten weeks off during the circuit breaker. I have felt my body move and stretch and reach and I have grown strong again. The blisters on my hands have hardened into callouses. The strength in my fingers continues to surprise me – there are times when I’m strong and times when I’m not. My legs are bruised. There are scrapes on my elbows. The skin on the fronts of my toes is rough. I have worn through one pair of shoes and started to break in new ones.

Being in Singapore for the summer has also meant that we have been able to get out to the Dairy Farm quarry during the week when relatively few people are out. It rained a lot during the month of June but that has tapered off in the last couple weeks and it has been dry enough to get outside.

This is not what people think of when they think of Singapore. And this is not what you’ll find if you never step away from the MRT stations. But this is here. And it is beautiful.

Climbing outdoors feels very different from climbing indoors. Real rocks are part of the world and they have been weathered by time and the elements rather than bolted on a wall in neat patterns. Routes that would be relatively straightforward if colour-coded inside require thinking and problem-solving outside.

There’s a real humility to looking up and then recognising that the only way forward is to look for the next foothold, the next handhold, however tiny they are. The way forward is to understand how the rock is shaped and formed and how to respond to it. The rock has been there for all of time. I am just a visitor.

The experience of climbing – the smell of dirt, the feel of rock, the sound of leaves in the wind, the tiny toe holds that make all the difference, the exhilaration of being so much a part of the world – this is a way of being that I have come to know. And it is beautiful.

Two Things I’ve Given Up

Growing up, I was highly motivated by sticker charts. Need to do something I didn’t like doing? Make a sticker chart. Counting down to something? Sticker chart. I liked the sense of accomplishment and I loved the stickers, especially the really intricate, detailed ones that you had to carefully peel off the backing paper and painstakingly adjust before sticking down because there was no peeling them back up again.

In my adult life, I’ve maintained slightly more advanced versions of sticker charts. There’s a minutes meditated counter in an app on my phone, a 1000km running challenge in a different app, and I can set my annual reading goal on yet another app. (And there are my blog statistics, but I’m going to leave that out of this discussion.)

Recently, I’ve started giving up those external motivators because it felt like the right thing to do. I spent the weekend out of town, mostly without wifi, doing yoga and eating spicy food and it gave me time to reflect. The post below explores what I have learned.

Annual Reading Goal

It’s no secret that I read a lot. I find it interesting to keep track of what I’ve read because I can look back on patterns and try to fit what I was reading into my memories of life at a certain time. Additionally, it’s helpful to look back on my book list to figure out when certain ideas changed and consider why that might have been.

For a couple years, I used Goodreads to set a reading goal and I noticed a change in my reading when I wasn’t sure whether or not I would reach it. Does this book “count” or is it really an extended essay or article? Do I start this shorter book that I’m sure to finish or do I invest myself in a long one? Do I take the longer train ride to get in a few more minutes of reading?

When I started riding my bike instead of taking the MRT and realised I was fretting a little bit, I decided a reading goal was no longer a good idea. The point is that I read what interests me, I learn and I talk to people, and I learn some more. The point is not to read a certain number of books.

Last year, I didn’t set a reading goal and found that I was much more impulsive choosing books and reading several books at once. They took however much time they took, and I found myself doing a variety of different things with my leisure time. Rather than read on the treadmill to make sure I was keeping up, I stopped on my outdoor runs to meditate by a nearby pond. Rather than sit in cafés over the weekend to read, I rode my bike, cooked dinner with a friend, and settled myself down to people-watch.

I still read something every single day, but I no longer feel guilty if that something isn’t a book that can count on my app. Rather than collect trophies, I’m trying to balance the time I spend in the book world and the time I spend in the real world. It’s a lot easier to hide in a book but I’m glad to experience the world where I am, too. There’s a lot to learn out there!

1000km Running Goal

I started running when I was in university as a way to deal with stress. Many of my friends ran and although it was a real chore for quite some time, I felt better when I exercised than when I didn’t. I’ve gone through occasionally obsessive periods in which I have to run and get really antsy when I don’t. These moments still occur (it has recently come to my attention that the itchy, visceral need to move my body right now is not normal) but I’ve calmed down a lot when it comes to running.

This shift has been gradual and likely has something to do with living in a climate where running is usually really unpleasant. Maybe all of this will change when I’m no longer living on the equator. But for several years, I participated in a 1000km challenge through an app and I steadily met the goal. I used to get a little anxious when I realised I was falling behind or when I started to count how many times I’d have to run over a particularly busy period in order to stay on track. Getting anxious over running, however, was completely counter to why I started running in the first place.

I got into rock climbing about a year and a half ago and immediately recognised that I enjoyed climbing and what it did to my body far more than I enjoyed running. Running got me outside, which is high on the list of reasons why I continue doing it, but the climbing gym (and real rocks when we can arrange it) worked my body and mind very differently than running ever had.

2019 was the first year I didn’t complete the 1000km challenge and I opted not to enter for 2020. For a long time, running was the way to feel strong physically and the way I judged my fitness and compared myself to others. Climbing, however, showed me that there’s a very different type of strength, fitness, and agility that actually suits me much better. I still dance and practice yoga regularly and that’s what my body does well.

This is not to say I’ve stopped running; I haven’t and I likely won’t. But it’s one of several active pursuits now and not the one that dictates the pace of a weekend morning or the flow of an evening. And surprisingly enough, I actually like it a whole lot more.

Conclusion

There’s nothing wrong with stickers. But there’s a lot wrong when the pursuit of a sticker detracts from the original purpose of an action. I’ve grown a lot more adept at figuring out what I need and I’ve grown more confident choosing X over Y. Just because I usually do things one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way, and just because something used to be my primary driver doesn’t mean it will always be.

Over the last little while, I’ve learned to balance. I’ve learned to maintain routines that fit and adapt those that do not. I’ve learned to be more spontaneous and less concerned with maintaining something that, for all intents and purposes, I was maintaining mostly out of habit.

And I’ve also learned that there’s comfort in pattern and sometimes, when I’m feeling out of sorts, the best thing to do is to return to those patterns and reset.

It’s nice to take a moment to breathe, isn’t it?