I have been rock climbing for over fifteen years. Not only is the climbing fun, it provides some metaphors for the spiritual journey.
In this article, I'd like to explore a climbing-inspired technique called "chimneying."
There are times, when rock climbing, that you find yourself wedged between two parallel rock walls. Sort of like Santa Claus stuck in a chimney.
To climb up, you use a technique called "chimneying" — you put a leg on one wall, and the other leg on the opposite wall. You inch up your right leg, then your left, right, left, right, left, slowly moving up between the walls.
In this technique, you need both walls — and you need to use both legs. It takes both sides to climb.
The Spiritual Climb
Let me now share how this ties into the spiritual journey. When I began my spiritual practice, I thought that the inner work was all that mattered.
For thousands of years, people had been sitting around in caves, meditating their way into enlightenment. No problem, I thought. I figured that spirituality was like training for a sport: you did your inner work, and you achieved your goal. The more personal effort you put in, the more successful you were.
So I started doing the work.
I learned to meditate, eventually working up to a point where I could meditate for hours a day. I read A Course in Miracles and other spiritual texts — reading so much that I was able to quote sections of the Course from memory. I combined spiritual and psychological techniques into new exercises, and ran through those exercises over and over.
This was all very good. In fact, it produced some positive results. But the results were maddeningly temporary.
I'd do my inner work, and find some peace — but then, within an hour or so, it would be gone. I'd slip back into a state of misery.
I'd work at opening my heart, and feel some love flowing — but then I'd slide back into anger and conflict. I couldn't seem to hold any of the results. What was I doing wrong? For years, I was baffled.
Then, one day, I saw part of the problem. I was only using half of the chimney. The inner work that I was doing was important — even essential. But it was only half of the process. The other half involved relationships.
As I see it now, releasing blocks is great. Studying spiritual texts is helpful. That type of inner work is empowering. But that work is just a prep for the next step. Having done some inner work, we're immediately able to enter into deeper, more loving relationships with each other — and that's what keeps the momentum going.
Relationships were the half of the chimney that I was missing. I didn't realize that other people had anything to do with my spiritual work. It seemed to be an entirely personal process. But I was missing an important point. The only way to really transcend the ego — the limited, separate sense of self — is to join deeply with each other.
Stay Out of the Cave
Let me share an often-quoted spiritual story that sheds some light on this process:
In this story, there's a spiritual seeker who meditates in a cave for a long time. Finally, after many years, he attains a transcendent level of peace. He walks out of the cave in a state of great joy.
The man wanders down into the town. As he walks into town, through a crowd of people, someone accidentally bumps into him — and suddenly, the man's joy is replaced with a flash of anger. He immediately realizes how flimsy his "enlightenment" was. So he takes a deep breath, and walks back into the cave to start meditating again.
No, Mr. Seeker! I want to say. That's a trap. Don't walk back into the cave — instead, turn to that person who bumped into you, and strike up a conversation. Connect with him or her. That person who bumped you is the gateway to real enlightenment. You've done some good inner work; now connect with that person and take the journey together.
That was the message I was missing. A Course in Miracles frequently encourages us to form "holy relationships" — relationships based on mutual forgiveness and support. But for a long time, I misunderstood that teaching. I thought that I first had to do my inner work, and then I could have good relationships.
Now I see that we do these in parallel. We can use every bit of inner work as an opportunity to improve our interpersonal connections. As we release our inner blocks, we're able to extend greater amounts of kindness and love. That, in turn, inspires us to release more blocks, which frees more love to flow. The momentum continues.
The spiritual chimneying technique builds on this idea. You could say that it's a two-step spiritual dance.
In the chimneying process, you release some inner blocks — some unloving thoughts toward yourself or others. Then you use that opening to immediately join more deeply with the people around you.
You inch up the chimney: releasing a few blocks, extending some loving thoughts. You release more blocks, extend more love, release, extend, release, extend. This works both sides of the chimney, and keeps you rising up.
Again, my tendency was to do my inner work by myself, and then go do some more inner work by myself. I'd work and work in isolation, and wonder why I felt so lonely and separate. I didn't realize what was going on. I didn't understand that I was missing the real goal — the experience of spiritual connection.
To make this practical, let me share a simple way that you can try the chimneying process.
Let's say that you're in a restaurant, and your waiter or waitress comes over to you. You suddenly have an opportunity to chimney up to some spiritual heights.
You can begin by noting any unloving thoughts that are present in your mind. Thoughts like, "The prices are so high here," or, "This waiter probably doesn't like me," or, "I have to watch what I eat so I don't gain weight."
Try to release those types of thoughts, even if just for a moment. Try to allow a greater sense of peace to flow into your mind.
Then, having done that inner work, immediately extend some kindness to the waiter. Use the inner opening to outflow some love. You may simply smile at the waiter, or ask him how his day is going, or let him know that there's no rush to take your order.
It's quite likely that he'll appreciate your kindness — but even if he doesn't, you've just strengthened your spiritual climb. You'll feel the warmth of your own kind thoughts. You'll feel the strength of your increased interpersonal connection.
You can then drop another set of unloving thoughts, and extend some more warmth and kindness to the waiter. That will strengthen your ability to drop more blocks, and share more love. By doing this, you clear the way for a powerful "holy encounter" — an experience of deep interpersonal connection.
When I've tried this while dining out, I've ended up leaving the restaurant feeling quite uplifted. I imagine that the waiter or waitress felt uplifted, as well. By combining our inner work with interpersonal joining, we chimney — together — on up to higher ground.