The Dharma Gate: a rock climbing love affair
Article by Rupesh Chhagan
Rock climbing is my longest relationship. Like any long-term relationship, we’ve gone through our ups and downs. When I first met her, my jaw dropped to the floor. I got heart palpitations. The rest of the world fell away. I dreamt of her day and night. Skipped school and worked only enough to pay for gear, gas, and park fees. She was my love. She was my obsession.
In the beginning, we were on our best behavior–always considerate and filled with wonder for each others’ quirks. I was a beginner and she forgave my clumsy overtures. But slowly, over time, my happiness started to depend on how sweet she was to me that day. If there was progress on a climb or a send (completing a climb without falling), all was right with the world. I had value. She loved me. But if she spurned me…If there was regress or failure on a climbing project, I was lost. My worth creaked in the winds of our meetings, like a dead tree branch with a tenuous hold on the trunk. The torrid love affair started to fizzle. She grew tired of my lapdog fervor. Things were off and strained, but I pretended like I didn’t notice. Over and over, she spit me off the rock until my shoulder was torn, my adrenaline-addled brain was mush, and my skin exploded in hives. Eventually, I got the point. She wanted a divorce.
I conceded that we needed time apart. “Let’s just try being separated for awhile. We can date, try other things. Just don’t give up on me baby. We used to be magic. Please?” She agreed. For a year, I wandered lonely as a cloud, trying to enjoy being single again. It was a dark time, living with my parents, working the night shift at our motel, and nursing an obliterated rotator cuff. But a curious thing happened. I remembered that I could read. I dabbled with Tai Chi. Saw an acupuncturist. Developed a crush on Chinese Medicine. In time, I actually fell in love with energy medicine. I dove into Chinese Medicine with the whole-hearted obsession that I once gave climbing. I actually forgot about her for awhile. I started thinking it may be over. She wasn’t good for me anymore. She brought out the aggressive side of me. She callused my hands and dulled my sensitivity. So I turned my back on her. I turned my back on the incessant goal-setting, the competitive covetous side of me, the need for high stimulation to feel alive. Eventually, I broke it to her. “Sorry, I’m done with you baby.”
But she would come to me in quiet moments. I’d remember the ferocious beautiful dance across horizontal roofs. The ebb and flow of muscle and tendon and kinesthetic geometry flowing through Nature. I’d remember the moment blazing with single-minded focus, karate chop explosions, followed by steady rhythmic breathing. So I’d see her every now and then. Just for kicks. Nothing serious. Something was different this time though. Rather than blame her when I got hell-bent, uptight, and possessive, the thought arose: “Maybe it’s me who needs to change, not her…”
Which brings me here to why I chose the name, “Dharma Gate,” for my latest rock climbing project. Here’s the definition of dharma:
a. The essential function or nature of a thing.b. The principle or law that orders the universe.c. Individual conduct in conformity with this principle.
Climbing fits me like a second skin. I’m a climber. It’s my dharma. Doing it feels natural. Together, we are communion–a beautiful blend of strength, flexibility, daring, meditation, puzzle-solving, exploration, and Nature expression. And it reveals my shadow side. My covetous nature, obsessive-compulsiveness, unquenchable thirst for intensity, and relentless yearning for legacy and fame. And this shadow side is my dharma as well. It’s my dharma as a human being, an animal competing for resources and making meaning out of the meaningless.
If you choose to notice, a climbing project can reveal yourself to yourself just as time on a meditation cushion can. All these mental states that working on a project produces can be mindfully observed, becoming springboards to greater awareness. Turning your attention towards your sensations, attitudes, and thoughts is a turning towards the way the universe works. How so? We are waves in the ocean of the universe. Rising up in apparent individuality for a time, then returning back into Oneness. Often lost in self-centered absorption, we forget that we are inextricably part of it all. And when you get mindful about how you tick, you glimpse how the big picture ticks. Perhaps this is what Dogen hints at with this quote: “To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.”
So the shadow side teaches me about what creates suffering. Chasing after first ascents and legacy…ahhh, hello suffering mind of vanity. Fantasizing about moves instead of being with the loved ones in front of you…ahhh, hello suffering mind of distraction. Needing the euphoria of standing triumphantly on top of a rock…ahhh, hello suffering mind of craving. In this very personal way, the Way of the universe is revealed. This begets that. This cause, that effect. The dharma of the universe.
No matter the success or failure, all moments are dharma gates, entry points to an awakened mind. Hence the name, Dharma Gate. There’s a line within a famous chant in the Zen tradition: “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.”
So, with this climb, I took my time with the process. I went home without the prize in my hand many times, disappointed, but never crushed by the outcome. I stayed curious throughout. In the end, the send was not pretty. It was not poetry in motion as I had imagined in my mind. Yet this too, is another dharma gate. The fantasy I had and the actual reality that arose.
She’s a wife now. I’m committed to her. I love spending time with her. But we also do our own things now. Give each other space. It’s the dharma of relationship.
About the Author
Rupesh Chhagan, MSOM, Hakomi Grad: founder, healer, walker of the heart path and avid rock climber.
“I’m dedicated to the art of happiness, personally and professionally. My goal is to help bring relief, insight, awareness, and empowerment to my clients. Depression, anxiety, addiction, and sexual abuse trauma are my areas of expertise. I combine formal training in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Hakomi with years of study in yoga, Buddhism, meditation, improv acting, group therapy, and living a mindful life.”