Rock Climber Chris Sharma: Playing with Peace & Chaos

He has climbed some of the world’s toughest routes, walked over 750 miles on a Buddhist pilgrimage, and still connects with the fear of a beginner.

To the audience of mass media, Chris Sharma is a fearless athlete who defies gravity with the strength of just his fingers on cliffs, high (very high!) above a dark crashing sea; though if you ask rock climbers who’ve followed his progress the past 15 years, what they will note is that the man who carries the monk-bestowed named Sharma has conquered some of the hardest physical landmarks in the sport with incredible modesty and playfulness. Under these layers, you’ll find a story going back to when Sharma was just 17 and suffered a major knee injury that opened the question: why am I doing this?

You undertook Japan’s Buddhist pilgrimage, the Shikoku, walking over 750 miles to 88 Buddhist temples. What was the inspiration for that?

When I was 20, I had all this success in my climbing career, and had done pretty much everything I had dreamed of doing. I’d even climbed the first ascent of Realization. [At the time, the sport’s hardest line outdoors in the world, 5.15.] Between when I was 17 to 22, I was having a difficult time. On top of that, I had some serious injuries, and was questioning everything that I was doing. So growing up not only in Santa Cruz, but in a household that was Buddhist, where that was our tradition… that was my way of trying to get to the bottom of it all. So I took a trip to India, and on one of my first trips to India, I met this Japanese guy, and he told me about this pilgrimage. It sounded amazing. Right after I had done Realization, I went to Japan and…I did it. It took me about 6 weeks, and was a really powerful experience. For a week I was shown the rituals that you do, the whole process, then I did it by myself for 5 weeks.

Those kind of experiences I fall back on when I’m having a hard time, you know, to figure things out. All of that had a big impact on who I am.

Especially in the Western world, we have this image of spirituality and meditation that you are “at peace with everything”. But a part of working on ourselves is  daring to face things we are not comfortable with.

Is there any one lesson that comes to you, when you think back?

I think all the experiences are all personal experiences, and that in the end we have to be with ourselves, our confessions or our relationships, with what we’re experiencing for ourselves. It’s a personal thing. And it all comes back to just breathing, in those times that we feel like everything is total chaos, and to be in the middle of that you breathe and find peace in those moments. When you’re on a hard climb, and you’re really pumped [a term climbers use to describe the feeling when lactic acid causes the muscles in your arms to fail] and get to a hold and try to shake out, you find that space, you be in the moment, with the relationship we have with our experiences and ourselves.

You talk about pushing yourself only for yourself: true, the very act of pushing yourself is a personal experience – why do you share it?

Climbing is so unique in a way [that we push ourselves], especially for me. There’s so many different sides to us – one side is very personal, and one side is very public, and sharing my climbing with the world is important: it’s a way to contribute and be a part of the world, and inspire the people who also can find importance. So it’s not just about yourself: it makes it meaningful to share that with other people.

You mentioned breathing, earlier, to find peace in chaos. Do you meditate to find that center?

I go climbing. There is traditional meditation, too. But climbing is my way to tap into that. It is, in some ways easier for me, because climbing is fully engaging, it forces me to find that spot or center, it’s an easy way to access that state of mind…easier than sitting down and meditating.

I think all the experiences are all personal experiences, and that in the end we have to be with ourselves, our confessions or our relationships

You balance your life very well, the public and the personal. What wisdom can you share about balance when we are pulled by many winds at once, shadowed by clouds, found by storms – those myriad things that challenge us to stay on the path?

It is important to make time to have that moment of meditation, and it’s important to have that to bring us back to the center. But you know, on the other hand, life is about embracing that chaos, too. You don’t want to get swept away by it, but putting ourselves out of our comfort zone is very important. Chaos can throw us off-balance, and finding that peace helps us through it, but that balance of both is where we grow the most…I think it’s a way of confronting ourselves, as well. Especially in the Western world, we have this image of spirituality and meditation that you are “at peace with everything”. But a part of working on ourselves is  daring to face things we are not comfortable with. 

You talk about those moments of peace within chaos. Where does fear find a place?

I take deep breaths, and stay centered and connected to reality. I’m able to talk myself out of fear. I can look at my knot the rope, everything I’m doing, and know that I’m safe or not. If not, I really shouldn’t be there.

That’s something a lot of magazines ask me, and I look at fear as a warning signal. I’m always trying to be safe, and really what I do involves a lot of judgement and body position, so it’s all calculated risk. In the moment, we should be very aware of those risks. Even when you are calculated enough, there is still some fear. Too much fear is a sign that maybe you’re doing something wrong, that maybe you’re in a situation that you shouldn’t be in; and for most people stepping out of their comfort zone, pushing themselves, it’s normal to be intimidating by things like height, and you need to deal with it by adapting to those situations, trusting yourself and your equipment, getting comfortable bit by bit. As someone who’s been climbing for so many years, sometimes when I’m in a very high place, it can be intimidating; I can still relate to beginners.

Do you find a strength in doing what you love that connects to everything in your life?

That’s a great question. There’s something I try to emulate in people I know, like in my friend Beaver, from prAna, and others, like Boone Speed, these people really try to be at a really high level in everything they do – it’s almost more a mental state than a particular talent, and it is a particular talent the way they control drive towards different goals, whatever they may be. That’s a really cool thing, and in that way I have huge respect for so many different people; it’s precious to have so much passion, and assertiveness, and really go for it. That a mental state is a precious thing, whether it’s in climbing, or art, or academics, or science, or whatever, being able to transfer that mindset to something else is really interesting. For me, though obviously I have that for climbing, it’s interesting to channel that into other things, and in everything I do, to use that as an example, to bring that practice and focus to everything I do.

Last, Omprakash. Your middle name is profoundly linked to your beliefs, lifestyle and past. Has it become symbolic in your life?

Well, it’s Omprakash Sharma, they are both Sanskrit names, and when my parents got married, they were married at Mount Madonna Center by the monk Baba Hari Dass. He gave them the last name Sharma, and when I was born, I was given the name Omprakash. It means something like “sacred light”. It’s a name I don’t use so much, but it is a part of who I am, and a connection to yoga and the Buddhist tradition.

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