Stoicism is an interesting school of thought for me and one that I really find helpful on a personal level. My first introduction to a “stoic” way of thinking was at a more difficult time of my life, a broken relationship that resulted in moving countries and searching for a new life.
I’d already been climbing for five years at this point and knew immediately that the best catharsis was to have some time climbing and in the outdoors. So I immediately donned my ice axes and crampons and went adventuring.
At this point I ended up in the Samoëns region of the Alps and it was an immediate relief, but I really started to wonder why. Why this exposure to nature and the activity of climbing specifically had such a wonderful effect. It was then I happened upon Stoicism.
Stoicism can be explained not only as a school of thought but as a way of life, as it is about applying the learnt philosophies to normal living. It has been defined in many different ways, but ultimately “Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by logic and its views on the natural world”. There is a quote from Marcus Aurelius that sums it up quite well: “Objective judgement, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, at this very moment. Willing acceptance of all external events. That is all a man needs.”
My reason for presenting climbing as an activity that is very stoic in nature is because it forces us to focus on the present, with the moves we make, the routes we read, following our beta on route and having to deal with the unexpected; a rock falls, a hold breaks, gear pops out or you’re way above your gear and can’t find any pro! We’re forced to deal with a current happening situation and resolve it there and then.
Epictetus (A famous Turkish Stoic who lived about 2000 years ago) states that the single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not.
What I take from this is that if we can really focus on the present, appreciate what’s going on around us and deal with the situations that are in front of us, we can learn to adapt to and sort out problems as they arise. This in turn will allow us to be happier in ourselves.
Going back now to the context of climbing, it’s the perfect place to practise this as you have to be present to be able to climb. The wonderful thing about this is that it applies to all types of climbing. It could be indoor bouldering in England, mixed climbing in France or big wall climbing in Yosemite, the important part of climbing is that you have to be focused on what’s happening presently and working out the difficulties you’re currently facing.
The important part after is how to transfer those practices back to everyday life. If we can deal with a hard crux sequence, rock fall, scary run outs then we can become more resilient in life, gain more clarity about the important things that matter and hopefully have more peace of mind in what we do.