“Fuck you. You’re a wimp. You’re a hack alpinist.”
I feel like a sadistic acupuncturist is driving 10-inch needles into my thighs with a wooden mallet as I ascend the steep, north slope of Mt. Dana, ragged breaths punctuating my movements like a death cough. I take a gulp of the crystalline air, and suddenly my organs rebel; I am lost in spasm, propped up on hands and knees and retching the last of my peanut butter along with a teaspoon of phlegm onto the carpet of white snow.
“You’ll never be fast enough. You deserve to lay down in the snow and die.”
In my left ear, the void is murmuring his (yes, his) predictable monologue of assholian rhetoric, and I am masochistically laughing in his face as he shouts insults at me. My laugh looks a lot like a slow death with a puckish grin and a hell of a lot of gasping for oxygen. I need this. I think we all do. To assassinate our egos and boldly make friends with the void.
The privilege of staring down our demons and the nature of death itself often enough to smile at their inevitability is crucial, whether it be through climbing, psychedelics, or screaming poetry down an empty drainpipe. The loyal, familiar nature of my friendship with the void has left me bemused and relatively impervious to his emotional toll. After all, how can death hurt you when you’ve accepted its loving indifference?
Our culture has long forgotten the art of dying – and with it, the art of living. We toil away our best hours in offices as we save to relax and explore at the ripe age of 65. We assume that we’ll ward off death and discomfort until well past that point, so we curate our safety in convenient, climate-controlled boxes within cities, and we shove the sick and the frail into different climate-controlled boxes with people mulling about to tend to them.
Critiquing this process is not new or disruptive. In fact, it’s one of the first things hippies and burnouts will do to convince themselves that their free love, #vanlife existence is one of moral superiority. I’d argue that we need to start taking it one step further. Instead of running from them, we need to actively splash around in the gutted feelings that the void conjures up and make peace with them. To flirt with the utter pointlessness of being. It’s edge play not in a fetishistic sense, but in a lifestyle sense.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs readers on the art of dying. It carefully directs those at the moment of death to face the clear light (the void) like a cloudless sky, and, “at this moment, know thyself and abide in that state.” Buddhist philosophy morosely assumes that the only constants in life are change and pain, and in so doing, it flips the narrative to make them both more bearable. The ouroboros of upset lies in our struggle against inevitability. We need to calmly harbor a sense of cheerful nihilism if we want to relearn how to live well and smile more.
The truth of it is, we’re all dying. Every goddamn minute of every goddamn day. Whether I climb or recline, there’s no denying that the process is the same. We invented a thing called a clock that slowly ticks seconds away from our bodies and into oblivion. Now, wouldn’t you rather spend those seconds with the wind whipping your cheeks into a pink frenzy while you overlook the Yosemite high country from above? Or asking for the sexual favor you always feared too perverse to say out loud?
Ask the void out to dinner. Learn to love his crooked smile. He is dark and handsome and wants you to lean into his sweet-smelling chloroform and fall to your knees to join the rest of us playful savages groping around in the dark and laughing our asses off.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has noted the upswing in people choosing opiate pleasures like television over pursuits that offer challenge and therefore stimulation and growth. He warns that for these individuals, “life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.” “The secret of contentment lies in controlling one’s consciousness, and anybody can learn to do this,” explains Csikszentmihalyi. Studies have shown that how we interpret and explain our life’s experiences ultimately determines our mental well-being and resilience.
Now, Csikszentmihalyi‘s research primarily focuses on how humans create and behave in flow states, but what is flow, other than transcendent acceptance of the now, brought on by intense activity? Befriending the void is a version of the same concept – transcendent acceptance of the way things are, which leads to an emotional flow state as we move through our day-to-day heartsick and frustrations.
Perhaps the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, said it best when he mused, “I must die. Must I then die lamenting? …Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?” There’s a strange sense of glee that washes over a person when they not only accept the discomfort and emptiness of existence, but also actively begin thanking each discomfort as though it were a gift-wrapped treat for their own amusement.
Long line at the post office? Say thank you. A driver rear-ends you in morning traffic? Give thanks. You didn’t get that job you would have killed for? Praise be. Why? Because any one of these misfortunes might have saved you from a far more tragic fate, but mostly because you have no choice. When we wrestle with the inescapable, we add unnecessary anxiety and misery to our lives.
So, if our dissatisfaction stems largely from the alienation and cruel nonchalance flung at us by the modern world, why not embrace it? Indifference is the kindest thing we can ally ourselves with, for therein lies limitless possibility. After all, the void holds no apprehension, no judgments, and no persuasive rhetoric designed to nudge us into unwanted obligation.
“Breathe into the pure, untainted empty,” I remind myself as I cling to the face of a rust-colored sandstone cliff, 80 feet above the ground. It’s what we all came from. It’s what we claim to wish for when we yabber away to our therapists about wishing our parents didn’t push or pull us in one direction or another. The unflinching absence of expectation.
It is this strange, heartbreaking limbo of earth’s utter dispassion that I find myself addicted to as I return to the mountains again and again to climb. In the wild woods and hilltops, I am permitted to stare down my own impermanence and humble myself before giants. I prostrate myself on granite towers and return to the city cleansed. My intimate moments with the void have made me whole.
I believe that true freedom lies in knowing that there is no answer, no miracle secret to filling life’s inner void, and learning to smile through the dark to find our planet’s tiny pockets of light. Our love and acceptance of the unknown are in direct proportion to our willingness to preserve it. Once you know that there is no purpose and you still enjoy the search for purpose, anything becomes possible. It’s Sisyphus optimism on steroids.
“How hollow and futile life can be when it’s founded on a false belief of continuity and permanence.” – Sogyal Rinpoche