I spoke recently with Nick Nasca, an ex-client of Legacy who now works at RedCliff, a wilderness program in southern Utah. Nick began rock climbing as a Legacy client in 2016 and has since become a very strong climber. I was interested in hearing from him how rock climbing relates to recovery, what the sport means to him, and how it has helped him find purpose in his life.
At first Nick was not attracted to climbing. “This hurts. This is not fun,” he remembers thinking. Why would anyone do this for fun?” But after enduring the physical pain and successfully climbing his first rock wall, something shifted. “There was a feeling of accomplishment, the first real one I ever had. I stood atop a beautiful stone wall that towered over the valley below. I was there actually experiencing the moment.”
To experience the present moment completely is one of the most difficult challenges in life. It means allowing one’s experience to be as it is, not wishing it could be different, and fully feeling whatever pain is present. Rock climbing might be seen as a school of the present moment. As Nick realized early on, the activity is initially very painful, but persevering through the pain, not giving up and going back down, not fantasizing about something off the rock that is more comfortable and less engaging, brings the significant reward of a kind of union of man and rock. The sense of being a separate someone climbing a separate something disappears. “In those moments, it’s not the climber and the rock any longer,” Nick says. “It’s just happening, there’s just the experience.” This union cannot be imitated. Desiring this oneness may not necessarily bring you closer to it. Union of man and rock is a natural byproduct of staying focused only on the current ‘move’ and nothing else.
The metaphor here with recovery from addiction is clear. The addict or alcoholic desires some kind of union, an experience of true connection with something greater than their familiar self. Failing to find this true connection, they settle for a false substitute in an addictive substance. Even union with a destructive, life-denying force, which temporarily takes away their sense of separateness only to magnify it ten-fold later on, is preferable to life lived completely within the bondage of self. The alcoholic flees all forms of discomfort. When he feels alone, he drinks to feel connected. When he is in despair, he drinks to feel hopeful. When he is frightened, he drinks for liquid courage. When he is bored, he drinks to find life interesting again. When the world overwhelms him, he drinks to deaden his awareness and sensitivity so he can cope. In recovery, he must learn to focus on the ‘move’ he is engaged with, the experience he is currently having, and not move immediately away from it. To find the union he seeks, that true connection with something greater than his familiar self, he must persevere through whatever pain he is suffering in the moment. He must trust that it is better to be where he is, his hands and feet on the solid rock of real life despite its often extreme though always temporary discomfort, than to wish for the unreal softness and lifeless ease of addiction’s lies.
So, both the climber and the recovering individual must learn how to trust. The individual in recovery learns to trust that other people, sponsors and mentors and members of the community, will support him on the difficult road to sobriety. The rock climber learns to trust the rope system and his belayer. “As I trust my system more, I trust myself more,” Nick tells me. “I evaluate my risk versus reward. Can I handle this climb or not? It’s a very calculated decision. If I decide to go ahead with the climb, I know I’m going to face the fear, stay present, and get through it.”
Trust in the climbing system on the wall can bring a greater trust in life off the wall. “I feel this knowing deep in the marrow of my bones, deeper than my physical self, of the existence of a force greater than myself,” Nick told me. “I don’t know what this force is, but I believe in it, and I feel that nothing can shake this faith. I believe that this force has good intentions and runs through me and through you, and that it is built on the foundation of loving-kindness.”
Addicts in the throes of addiction know walls. Walls may be all they know. They know how to build them, but they don’t know how to climb them, how to reach beyond them and overcome their self-imposed isolation. They don’t know how to let them fall, how to let the hard rock shatter and allow their fragile hearts to be pierced by the flashes of sunlight that shimmer in its shards. Nick, in his recovery from the immense suffering of addiction, knows walls. He knows how to climb them, where to place his feet, how to ascend to the top. But more importantly, he knows where he has been and where he is now. In the past he had attempted to escape the trials and conflicts of life through descent into the dark cave of addiction. Now he climbs upwards not to escape the ground of the earth but to come closer to the ground of his own true nature.
“I had an experience one of the last times I got high. I understood through this experience that I was going to either kill myself or die because of drugs, and in that moment I realized something important. I realized that I was put on this earth with my only responsibility being to play in this beautiful playground, and I chose to climb the fence. I didn’t want to be here; I wanted to get high. Now I want to be here; I want to climb the next rock. I want to do the next thing I’m supposed to do. Either climbing will be a lifelong passion, or I’ll move on to something else. For now I want to let climbing be my passion, but I’m okay with letting something else become that passion.”
We earthbound travelers are glad of this, that Nick has allowed climbing to become his passion, and we rejoice in the insights and discoveries he is making along the way. May he continue to climb the next rock, walk his own path, lean into life and learn to trust that sustained contact with what is real and solid will help him become ever more solidly and truly himself: a unique and irreplaceable person, here on this earth for reasons he is coming to find and live out.
December 20, 2017