GET OUT: Silencing the Storm

By on November 24, 2015

How meditation can make you a better mountain athlete.

Author contemplating his next move in the Peruvian Andes. (Photo: Dani Perrot)

Author contemplating his next move in the Peruvian Andes. (Photo: Dani Perrot)

Jackson, WY – Good athletes take care of their physical body, but great athletes sharpen their minds as well. For many, the off-season provides an opportunity to rest your muscles after a full summer, but can also be a chance to calm down your monkey mind. Meditation, often talked about but rarely practiced, can be a needed release of stress and a way to tap into the silence beyond the storm of daily living. Learning how to pause our minds not only improves the quality of our lives, but also enhances our performance in the mountains.

When we encounter risky situations in the outdoors, our ability to think clearly improves our chances of survival, much more than how many pull ups we can do in the gym. As athletes, we spend the bulk of our time training our bodies for peak performance, preparing ourselves for when it counts in the mountains. Why, then, do we not train our minds in the same way?

Meditation is like mental push-ups that can teach us to stay calm when our lives are on the line. Research shows that regular meditation strengthens the connections between the “assessment” center and “fear” area of the brain, according to Rebecca Gladding a psychiatrist at UCLA. So when a person who regularly meditates confronts a threatening situation, they are more prepared to examine the danger from a logical and rational perspective. For example, when anxiety hits during a crux move of a climb, previous meditation will help the climber to see a way out of the conundrum without becoming consumed by fear.

Still, many people will never start meditating because they do not believe they are patient enough or have the time in their day. However, meditation is defined as “turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment.” Therefore, no extended time requirement is needed to meditate and this simple process can be done at any point of the day. Meditation at its roots is about training your brain – you are in charge of your actions and will not let your thoughts bully you around. All meditation takes is focusing on one point of reference; such as your breath, bodily sensations, or a single word. When remembering what is necessary to meditate the memorable acronym PBR is helpful: Pause your mind, Breathe out, Repeat. Practicing this deceptively simple process is the best preventative medicine for overcoming obstacles in your life and in the mountains. Learning how to steady your breath will teach you how to steady your mind and that could make the difference between life or death. When we see our thoughts as opinions instead of facts, impulsive actions wane and we see a more clear view of reality. According to Dr. Dan Seigel of UCLA, regular meditation improves the connections and communication between the two sides of the brain, giving us quicker and easier access to information.

However, we will still need to overcome a built-in negativity bias in the brain that sees the potential problems in all scenarios. This bias has helped our ancestors to survive for millions of years, but also creates a glitch in our decision-making processes. In caveman terms, our chances of survival increase if we spend more time worrying about saber-toothed tigers than the delicious berry bushes around the corner. According to Rick Hanson, a psychologist at Berkeley, this bias of focusing on problems instead of positivity stems from two-thirds of the neurons in the amygdala, “smoke detector” of the brain, being primed to receive “bad news.” Hanson states that mindfulness and meditation are the best ways to counteract the alarm bells in our brains that overreact to perceived threats in our environment.

As often happens in the mountains, small mistakes lead to bigger mistakes, partially due to the initial stressor hijacking our critical thinking skills. Once we label something as “bad” during a ski tour or climbing trip that initial anxiety provoking thought can cascade into bad decisions. Mindfulness, simply defined as “noticing without labeling,” can help us halt worries from avalanching into fear-based behavior. Taking an objective view of the situation can take the emotions out of the equation and help us to see the full picture. In the heat of the moment, clear decisions are more likely to come if you have practiced the skill of staying calm previously. Meditation and mindfulness are two tools that teach us how to stay focused in our daily lives. After all, if we can’t stay composed on the valley floor then we stand little chance of succeeding in the high alpine realm. PJH

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