I was taken by surprise when a spiritual friend of mine said, "How could Dean Potter call what he did a spiritual practice? Where's the compassion? It took his life! I just don't get it. How can that be considered spiritual?" It wouldn't be the first time I'd hear this discussion arise in the days following Dean Potter's death. I am a meditation guide, and so spiritual practice is my field. I have been a yogic nun, practiced zen sitting, mindful loving kindness, Taoist chi cultivation, invocation, prayer, Tai Chi, and more. I have ghost written self help books, yoga books, and authored my own meditation books. However, before my foray into these known and respected spiritual practices, I plead guilty to finding peace in death defying high risk activities. And I did find them spiritual. In fact, it was all I knew of spirituality.
As a trapeze artist, I found solace in the rush of adrenaline I felt climbing the shaky rope ladder up to the three story high perch. I found peace soaring through the air -- joy and aliveness -- and dangling from just a metal bar or rope. I trusted my grip, my body, myself. I experienced deep trust as I let go of the metal bar, flew through the air, only to be caught by a friend I trusted, hands clasped, and we soared through the air, two as one.
I loved climbing high mountains and standing at the top of a peak, held to the edge of rock by only the gentle and perfect embrace of gravity, not too strong as to crush me, not so weak as to let me float away.
I felt a connection to Dean Potter and his dangerous spiritual practice. I know he felt peace, aliveness, and presence as he did what he did. But how could I communicate that to my spiritual friends who had never attempted such a feat? How could I help those who only found peace on cushions in quiet rooms accept the spirituality of Dean Potter?
I once had a meditation client who found peace only driving race cars. Only within the moment of exhilaration, knowing his life was in danger, knowing if he made one mistake he could perish, could he find deep peace. His past, future, worries, troubles, and pains vanished. And yet he was at a point in his life where he could no longer risk his life toward the gain of peace for the sake of his young family. And so his spirituality naturally evolved, deepened, and he sought a meditation practice that was not precariously risky. Could others perhaps accept the idea of spiritual evolution? Very few of us on planet earth begin perfected, after all. Perhaps we come here to discover or reveal the deeper truths of ourselves, not to be constantly and unshakeably perfected. Isn't that understanding the foundation of compassion?
Are high risk activities merely a taste of what is spiritually possible without them? Is the stale crust of bread just the enticement a beggar needs to seek a full meal through other means? Or is that a belittling perception of a true and deep practice? Would you deny a beggar a crust of bread because it is not a full and balanced meal?
I found myself at Stronghold Climbing Gym in Los Angeles, and I found myself in awe of the employees there, who were not only physically strong, but emanated peace, patience, and natural confidence. They all seemed like equals, treating each other respectfully. I had no idea who the manager was, who the owner might be because there was a natural air of equality and respect among them. Casually chatting, I found them all to be grounded and friendly. I first asked climber and instructor Russell Lauden, "Do you feel climbing is a spiritual practice?"
Without hesitation, he replied, "Absolutely. Because you're naturally producing a great deal of adrenaline. And you have to be able to control that adrenaline. And the consequences are built in: if you can't control yourself, you will fall."
Standing with us, Tessa Jane adds, "I'm also a yoga teacher, and I definitely feel the spiritual connection. Internal battles of the mind often end up unresolved and causing psychological stress. In rock climbing, the struggle is external, it is real, it is rocks beneath your fingers. And with each struggle, there is a satisfying natural resolution, a success. And if you're outdoors, part of the natural reward is a breathtaking view. You might have to deal with wind, heat, and sunshine. Self control comes into play. Enhanced focus and presence in the moment are necessary to succeed. Resisting the moment, resisting 'what is' will result in a fall. You have to accept the contents of each moment, and deal with them. Accepting and flowing, you can make it. And there's trust, too. Someone is holding your ropes. There's energy flowing through that rope, and it's your lifeline. You are either trusting someone with your life, or you are holding someone else's rope, and you have compassion and patience for everything they're going through. You have to want for your climber to strive, survive, and succeed their climb, and you have to stay focused on them. Compassion is naturally built in." So are trust, focus, and remaining present.
I've been to spiritual retreats and spiritual centers where the people yell at each other, become holier than thou, or generally act in negative ways. There isn't a natural check and balance built into the spiritual world of indoor cushion sitters. Inner and outer corruption can grow. One can fool oneself into believing anything. One can act and dress in a spiritual way but behave in unconscious and abusive manners. There is that trap. In the natural world, there seems to be a natural balance in place.
"But Dean Potter died!" I can hear my friend saying. "Was giving up his life worth what he got out of it?" It seems life is fatal for all of us. Living itself is risky. Accidents happen. Illnesses happen. Perhaps the deeper question to ask is not whether one will live or die, because we will all die at some point sooner or later. But what is the quality of the life being lived? Is it a fearless life? A free life? A happy life? Is there love, connection, compassion, and passion in that life?
Out of the blue, Russell asks me if I'm a vegetarian. I am. "Is it because of compassion?" He asks.
I explain, "I don't deny death. It will come to all of us. And I don't feel eating meat is unnatural. Tigers eat meat. I love tigers. Wolves eat meat. I love wolves. But I'm not okay with the cruelty we humans inflict on animals."
He asks, "What does it mean for an animal to live a good life, a free life?"
I consider his question. "I guess I see a good life as being lived freely, hopefully in the sunshine without suffering. And cruelty free death comes at the end of a good life, and I hope the death is quick and painless."
I realize suddenly I hope this not only for animals, but for myself, and for any being alive on this planet. I guess that includes Dean Potter. As far as this blogger can tell, at this point in my own spiritual evolution, Dean Potter lived a life he loved passionately, freely. I hope we can all say that when we face our own endings, howsoever they may come. As to whether or not his practice was truly spiritual, I suppose only he can answer that question. I will have to rest in knowing perhaps I don't know. After all, without the mystery, there can be no mystics. What is your impression? Please comment below.