Zazen, or the Art of Sitting

My girlfriend and I have been in Chiang Mai for two and a half weeks now.

“If this were a normal trip, you’d getting ready to go home about now,” my mother said to me, on the phone—free international communication being one of the luxuries you can easily enjoy in a city as connected as Chiang Mai. “Your bags would be packed.”

This is true, from a salaried, 40-hour workweek viewpoint. That’s the American way— two weeks, paid vacation. Not a second more. Most people don’t even take the full two weeks.

There’s too much to be done. Never enough time.

That mentality remains even when Americans are on vacation— we are over-programmed, trying to cram in so much, check off so many boxes, that nothing really registers. You can fly through New York City in a week, do twenty things, and leave without any real appreciation for the place. I took that trip, last year, in New York. I love New York, but the magic escaped my companion. We are not taking that approach in Chiang Mai.

After nineteen days here, I barely feel like I have my feet on the ground.

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I love lingering over my — often WITHOUT a laptop.

My everyday routine looks something like this: Wake up late. Get breakfast, or get lunch and call it breakfast. Grab a coffee or two. Read. Write. Linger. Grab dinner, maybe a few drinks. Take in a Thai street performer covering Western songs. Go home early in the evening, catch a weird English movie on TV, and hit the hay. Wake up at some ungodly time, work a few hours on U.S. time, then go back to bed. The sun’s rising over the city at this point.

My sleep schedule is shot, but I don’t mind it.

What else do I have to do?

I am ostensibly doing the same things in Thailand that I was doing in the U.S.— eating, sleeping, dating, working, and writing. I brought my two most important possessions with me: my laptop and my climbing gear. I didn’t sell everything else, but I probably should have.

What else do I need?

I am living the same life I was in the U.S., but I am saving more, eating better, and learning more than I was in the U.S. I am living better, for a quarter the cost.

Why would I be anywhere else?

Life here is only beginning to click. The pulses and rhythms of daily Thai life are getting their tendrils around me, and my mindset is beginning to relax. I plan to take up a daily meditation practice. Free of the cultural cage, my brain is beginning to breathe.

Doi Suthep Thailand Prayer Flags car port

Zen Buddhists call seated meditation “zazen.” Zazen is the practice of clearing one’s mind. It is the process of accepting; of “just sitting.” It is the simplest concept in the world, and simultaneously it is completely incomprehensible.

Zen isn’t sensible. By it’s very construction, Zen cannot be understood logically.

To the owner of an overactive brain like mine, it can be an extraordinarily appealing philosophy.

The Buddha is everywhere in Thailand.

Gold Buddha Images in Thailand

Here, things are slower; simpler; regenerative. The possibilities are endless, but pursuing them never feels necessary. A day spent sitting in conversation over food and coffee is just a day. In the states, I might feel like I was negligent with the day, working too little towards my future. On a shorter trip, I might feel like I wasted the day by not pursuing a unique activity. During long-term travel though, that’s not a good day or a bad day. It’s just a day.

How long has it been since you had a day like that? Don’t keep reading— sit, really take a moment and consider the question. It will be further past than you think it is. Not an average day: a daily day where you breeze through it, half present and half-worried-to-death. When was the last time you just lived a day, quiet, content, and totally mindful of the experience?

Those periods of content are few and far between, especially as a young person. I’m not sure most millennials know how to experience that feeling, with social media malevolently tugging at your marionette strings.

The magic of travel, for me, so far, lies in the feeling of escape from the puppetmaster. Travel is an experience which transcends social media— I am still playing the game, but I know it is futile. There is no way to accurately portray this time in my life. It’s impossible, and everyone knows that. It cannot be communicated through a photo, which is perhaps why travel often makes people so jealous.

Photos are the worst part of the experience.

As a consumer of someone else’s travel, you always want to know what is beyond the frame. As the traveler, you always feel frustrated being unable to properly portray what lies beyond those artificial borders. It is unsatisfying for all, which is why your friends rarely discuss their travels in details when you ask. It is fruitless.

Real life isn’t the highlight reel: it’s the out-takes.

The two-week vacation is highlight-reel travel. By making such an effort to curate and edit your experiences, you often can return home having experienced nothing at all.

Since arriving in Thailand two and a half weeks ago, we have visited exactly one tourist attraction, the Wat Doi Suthep. The experience was enlightening, the tourist crush a loud, obnoxious contrast to our quiet, reserved, and altogether everyday experiences elsewhere in the city.

Naga Stair Doi Suthep

Although the sort of stuff pictured above is what you will see on Google when you search for info about visiting Thailand, to me, Thailand is a good cup of coffee. It is walking down unremarkable alleys in search of a new restaurant; it is the workmen all around who are ALWAYS building. Life as a nomad passing through this city for more than a little while is not about tourism; it is simply about living life, as quietly and as best we can.

Obviously, the longer we remain, the more things will change. More connections will form, and routine will set in, in some way, as it always does. But those things aren’t necessarily bad. Standing brunch dates, Skype calls, and co-working sessions will emerge— some have already begun. A life is coalescing around us.

The key difference, I think, can be glimpsed in the phrasing I chose: “coalescing.” A word which came through my fingertips without any thought— simultaneous prose, a perfect word. Life does not coalesce, in the states. You are constantly pushed to be better, to do better, to MAKE a better future for yourself. This pressure comes in many forms, obvious and subtle, but it comes from all angles. From the moment you are born until the moment you make peace with your life, you are cooking under pressure.

And if you decide to ignore that pressure, you are often shunned. Those that see a good life coalesce around them in the states are ostracized, accused of privilege and not earning their spot. Misplaced belief in meritocracy dominates the U.S., and it’s hard not to buy in.

“I know I’m amazing,” your monologue says. Your parents say. Your culture says. And when the external world doesn’t validate that internal monologue, things start to get unpleasant inside your head. Everything gunks up, and you start questioning things which should be automatic. Self-esteem and cultural validation kick in, and suddenly you aren’t even getting that many Instagram likes so what is wrong with you why is it soo deeply rooted and will you ever overcome it?

Your brain becomes deafening. And amidst all this noise, it becomes impossible to take the steps which need to be taken to placate that self-doubt. You become trapped by your culture, and yourself.

Being surrounded by a foreign culture forces even an overactive internal monologue like mine to hibernate, while baser brain functions come into play. This is the great benefit of travel. It instills a sense of focus and calm, almost like a meditative state.

Here, one can just sit.

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Why the Dawn Wall Matters

Kevin Jorgenson on the Dawn Wall

Professional climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson topped out on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall route today. For the two climbers, the summit was the immediate product of 19 days spent assaulting the legendarily difficult route up one of the world’s most recognizable big walls. The duo were the first to successfully free climb the wall— meaning that they only used ropes and gear to protect from falls, not aid in the ascent.

Many in the hardcore climbing community had thought the wall would never go free. Caldwell and Jorgeson disagreed.

Caldwell and Jorgeson spent nearly three weeks living on the wall, a story-line which attracted the notice of the mainstream media. But to say that this feat only took 19 days would be horribly disingenuous.

Jorgeson and Caldwell have been projecting this wall together since 2009, making this ascent a project which was seven years in the making. Seven years for a climb might sound ludicrous, but there is something about climbing which tends to take over a life. And by any standard, the Dawn Wall was a difficult project.

The Dawn Wall route

The EASIEST climbing on the Dawn Wall is graded at 5.12— already a grade which few climbers ever reach. The route features SEVEN pitches of 5.14 climbing with two pitches of 5.14d— polished stone and practically pure vertical. Near impossible.

But the technical aspects of the climb, although impressive, aren’t important. People don’t climb to chase numbers or to break records. Sending a 5.14d is not why people will leave their lives behind and hit the cliffs in search of Nirvana. Climbing is a physical way to come to terms with the Unbearable Lightness of Being. Something about the sport, about ascending, allows the human soul to touch the void.

Just look at one of the many updates Kevin Jorgeson wrote from the Dawn Wall:

“My battle with Pitch 15 continues. After 6 years of work, my ‪#‎DawnWall‬ quest comes down to sending this pitch. Last night, I experienced a lightness and calm like never before. Despite failing, it will always be one of my most memorable climbing experiences.”

Kevin Jorgeson on Pitch 15 of the Dawn Wall— El Capitan

THIS is why the Dawn Wall is important. THIS is why the New York Times covered the story. And THIS is why I will climb until the day I die.

It is not an explicit sentiment. I can’t put the idea into words for you; at least not more succinctly than I am doing now. That lightness is something implicitly understood; an unspoken fraternal bond between anyone who chooses to rope up again and again. Climbing is a metaphor for the human spirit.

Yes, there are ropes which can be used to ascend the Dawn Wall. Yes, it must be frustrating to project the same wall for seven years and not send. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, ascending a rock face, even an extremely slick one, won’t change the world.

None of that needs to matter.

And in a way, climbing represents a rejection of all that.

It is a zen.

Jorgeson and Caldwell summiting the Dawn Wall represents not 19 days, not seven years, not a decade of work, but a lifetime. Their quest represents the human spirit soaring to the heavens in a way which is not often seen in our everyday, grocery-store type existence. Sending the Dawn Wall, despite the media circus, represents a deeply personal moment.

The two deserve congratulations, sponsorship deals, and the film which will inevitably be coming. They of course deserve all of that. They accomplished an incredible feat— free climbing El Cap is plenty difficult without choosing the most difficult route. But nothing which we can say about these men matters much: they have freed themselves.

We would do well to take notice in our own lives.