The Angry Corrie 37: Jun-Jul 98

TAC 37 Index

Zen again

Ken Crocket's TAC36 article Frozen Zen asked for feedback, so here's what has come in thus far:

Phil Harmston, Eaglesham:

I too have had similar experiences regarding trance states while climbing:

(a) Climbing in the Andes. At about 20000ft, bitterly cold, and on a rather boring trudge before the "real" climbing cut in. It was the coldest I'd felt while still being active, and, as we were in shadow, the sun couldn't nullify the effects of the wind. The sun had reached a col a mile ahead, and I focused on that as an objective. Similarly to Crocket, I had no recollection of the section climbed, but the overwhelming feeling was not calmness, but more of relief at having reached the sun. Relief, and excruciating pain as my hands warmed up.

(b) In Fiordland in New Zealand. Similar lack of awareness of a section travelled, though I put this down to acute tiredness / endorphin overload, as I'd been out for about fourteen hours.

(c) Also in New Zealand, climbing Mount Ruapehu: a winter ascent of a volcano, probably the most repetitive kind of altitude gain. Not so much a trance state, more just my mind going off by itself, while my body got on with the job at hand.

I think this kind of experience is particularly unusual. A number of friends have mentioned that, while driving on a motorway, they are so distant from the act itself that they are unaware if they've passed their exit or not. (Interestingly, the subconscious seems to keep an eye on things, so that you never do actually miss the turn.) Even as far back as Aristotle it's been noted that viewing the sun through the spokes of a spinning wheel can lead to a state of euphoria. And surely the practice of Transcendental Meditation relies on repetition to generate a mesmeric effect. An interesting question extends Crocket's article from repetitive acts to more complex forms: "Is it true to say that time flies when you are having fun?" This ties in with the area of flow theory, comprehensively described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in The Psychology of Happiness, ISBN 0 7126 54771. He deals with climbing in some depth, suggesting that it isn't only repetition that leads to a trace state, but also being able to balance task complexity against skill level, to "lose oneself" in the subject.

Paul Hesp, Vienna:

The state described by Ken Crocket seems very similar to something that used to happen to me back in Holland, while cycling at night along unlit rural roads. The same leg movements all the time, the whine of the dynamo, the little circle of light dancing in front of you; at some point you become frozen in time. Then you come to a well-lit crossroads, something snaps, and you wake up. There is a peaceful, maybe slightly flat feeling.

The "boot heel syndrome" Ken mentions I also know well, so I avoid walking right behind somebody on the hills. But although I'm not a medical doctor - in fact I rarely had pass grades in biology - equating increased consciousness during a hillwalk with sensory selection is rather narrow, I feel. I have on a number of occasions briefly experienced a state of heightened awareness (not total awareness, as it has been limited to sight, sound, and - sometimes - feeling) where I should apparently have been a candidate for a high degree of sensory selection. These experiences occurred during different types of hard physical work (in the infantry, in a kibbutz, and on the hills), but the process has always been the same. A fairly long stretch of work has to come first: "it" has always happened in the afternoon, or at dawn after an all-night march. There is a very intensive simultaneous experience of all that surrounds you. You are "present", the walls crumble. Colours somehow become stronger, space becomes spacier (spaced out?) - as if you're inside a balloon that's being blown up. The wind in the trees makes your hair stand on end. Your sweat-soaked shirt feels ... well, as only a sweat-soaked shirt can feel. Far from being in danger of falling asleep, you are 100% awake. In all cases, the only hallucinogenic substance taken was plain water. Speaking of water, I don't know why taste and smell were lacking. Maybe you have to be a trained gourmet to attain that type of "presence"; in the occupations mentioned above I was/am merely concerned with filling my face. Enlightenment is still a long way off...

Val Hamilton, Stirling:

Ken Crocket's description of a hypnotic state seemed very familiar. I read his article straight after returning from a ski-touring trip in Norway where I experienced this almost daily - always as second person on an ascent, either wearing skins (on the skis that is - even back-to-nature skiers have discovered the North Cape Factory Sale), which makes climbing very mechanical and rhythmic, quite akin to an easy step-kicking snow plod, or on gentler, skinless gradients, where it is necessary to ensure the skis are firmly placed so that you don't slip back. In these circumstances, I often count paces, especially on a long ascent, and I kept finding myself "coming to" somewhere around 57, not at all certain what had happened to the previous numbers, and slightly disturbed as to whether I might have been cheating in my counting. I'm not aware of what broke me out of the trance - probably a change in gradient or grip. In general, it was a mind-clearing sensation as in yoga relaxation, slightly tinged with uncertainty about how long I had been in that state.

Ed. - There appear to be two divergent aspects: immersion in repetition, and "extreme" objective circumstances - Ken doubts he'd have had his gully-trance in a more mundane situation. Indeed, my own TAC36 input divided this way: the walking down the street example akin to the repetition feedback, but the chess timescramble being a much weirder state, born of panic almost. Or fear of panic. It's maybe akin to those urban myth type stories of some scrawny punter lifting a car clean off an accident victim, because they needed to.

Phil's comments on motorways, and Val's "cheating" worries, recall a common experience of my own. Driving down a road, usually single-carriageway, moderately busy: suburbia. Alert, looking in mirrors often, back and side: there's a lot of other-car action. There's been a car close behind for some time: I become familiar with it, to the extent of noting its type and colour and number of occupants. At some point I vaguely wonder if it should be allowed to overtake, since maybe this is what it wants. I glance at the road for umpteenth time, then back in the mirror. The other car has gone. It hasn't passed, nor was there any obvious turning, nor did it seem to be slowing as if to pull into a driveway. This I find unsettling. It throws up two worries: (a) has the car vanished because of some terrible smash, which I inadvertently caused and which I've completely missed seeing? Or, (b), since (a) is unlikely, surely I must have left a longer than usual gap between mirror-glances, such that the car had ample time to turn off un- noticed. This kickstarts worries re what else might have happened in that missing time. How long was it? Have I near-missed or even hit any pedestrians or cyclists? Overall, the feeling is unnerving because of the juxtaposition of disciplined high-level concentration with very evident "drift". On balance, a sub-conscious ability to drive must be dominant and in control throughout, but the apparent lack of conscious self-control is worrying - yet oddly soothing in retrospect. Similarly Ken, in his technical gully, made highly-skilled moves (beyond the scope of even advanced driving), had absolutely no recollection, yet made them competently and safely.

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