In the 17th chapter of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” the narrator ascends a mountain in Montana and muses on different ways to climb. I’d like to outline and reflect on the two approaches described — ego-climbing and selfless climbing — and how they provide two different paradigms of leading our lives.
Imagine your life as the process of climbing a vast mountain.
The driving motive of ego-climbing is reaching destinations for the sake of self-glorification. The ego-climber treads along to impress others, to polish a facade that they have created over themselves. The ego-climber is good at making first impressions and showing their teachers the shiniest sides of themselves. They are practiced at navigating social spaces and making sure that they are in people’s good graces. They are adept at climbing to destinations with high gates and great prestige, driven by the massive ego boost it offers. I’d posit that many on campus have profited in the past from climbing to a destination in order to impress others, be it a respected figure or the Yale University Admissions Office. I know for parts of my journey, I have.
The ego-climber still makes progress up the mountain, oftentimes significant progress — it’s a curious fact about human nature that the prospect of bolstering our egos can motivate us to do remarkable things.
Yet the climber who climbs for themself will not make it as far as they might want to, and the punctuations of pride will be against a background of pain and unfulfillment. They constantly clamber onwards to prove a constructed image of themselves. They may act the part, but are never truly satisfied by the present, always looking at higher reaches. When one climbs a mountain to prove how big they are, the victory is hollow. To maintain the victory, they have to prove themselves again and again in some other way, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fears that the image is not true and someone will find out.
Every step is an effort, both physically and spiritually, because they imagine their goal to be external and distant. Yet what they’re looking for is in fact all around them, but they’re unhappy because it is all that’s around them.
The selfless climber often appears indistinguishable from the ego-climber. Both climbers put one foot in front of the other. -But the selfless climber climbs for the beauty of being on the mountain, for the holiness of the path they take. They accept that the destination is a mirage — a rock ledge may crumble or an avalanche may destroy a scenic overlook — yet they revel in the pleasure of climbing in a direction they can control. They climb with other people, not for other people’s admiration.
The selfless climber is destined to keep moving up the mountain. Sometimes their trail may indeed align with that of the ego-climber. But while the ego-climber wants to be farther up the slope, the selfless climber will notice the beauty of the sunlight filtering through the leaves. The ego-climber may even have more physical strength and intellectual willpower, but the selfless climber will be propelled by the climb itself. The climb is not about them, but the mountain.
Yale has both ego-climbers and selfless climbers. Most of us are probably a mix of both. Some days, we’ll find that the ego-boost of a grade or a chance to impress is a particularly powerful motivation to get us moving. Yet in the times when we stumble and come up against a sheer rock face, when we’re most cognizant of the false images we’ve built but might not be able to fill, then we must take heart from our own selfless climber. I sometimes find myself faltering due to too much consideration of the opinions of others — what if they don’t like me? What if a project or essay or column isn’t transcendentally impressive? In these moments, too, the selfless climber supports our emotional well-being.
As the selfless climber turns to continue up the slope, they relax how much they care about receiving the approval of others and try to care a little more about their mental health and deeper needs. Perhaps by curbing the ego, we might ascend the mountain, more joyful and fulfilled.
Tony Liu is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .