When I was younger, starting in high school and continuing through college or so, I had a thing for Jack Kerouac. This was nothing like the thing I had for John Stenbeck (that was sort of an obsession). The thing for Jack Kerouac was sort of a deep-seated envy for a traveling, free-wheeling, by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of life. Doing what you want, howling at the moon, etc. I have since developed some issues with that type of life– the women in his books rarely are allowed to really participate anyway. But I can still read my favorite, “The Dharma Bums,” and appreciate what I loved in the books.
At one point in the book, the main character, Dean, and his friend Japhy are going backpacking (there was another friend, too, but it’s a long story…). They started with an all-day trek up to their campsite, and in the afternoon they needed to continue through a valley of nothing but rocks. Kerouac describes a scene here that has stuck with me for years.
“With my sneakers it was as easy as pie to just dance nimbly from boulder to boulder, but after a while I noticed how gracefully Japhy was doing it and he just ambled from boulder to boulder, sometimes in a deliberate dance with his legs crossing from right to left, right to left and for a while I followed his every step but then I learned it was better for me to just spontaneously pick my own boulders and make a ragged dance of my own. “The secret of this kind of climbing,” said Japhy, “is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.”
Which it was. We didn’t talk much now. It got tiresome on the leg muscles. We spent hours, about three, going up that long, long valley. In that time it grew to late afternoon and the light was growing amber and shadows were falling ominously in the valley of dry boulders and instead, though, of making you feel scared it gave you that immortal feeling again. […] Meanwhile our roaring creek was still at it, but thinner and more quiet now, running from the cliff face itself a mile up the valley in a big black stain I could see in the gray rock.”
— Jack Kerouac, from “The Dharma Bums” Chapter 9
As I read this again, I feel the magic of it, “that immortal feeling” felt in the presence of mountains, boulders, and other grand parts of nature. But I think the reason this rock-hopping scene has stuck with me is because it is beautiful and practical in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical sense.
A Ragged Dance of My Own
As much as Dean idolizes Japhy, it won’t work for him to copy Japhy’s steps– that would actually mean looking away from his own steps and probably falling. What works for someone else does not always work for me. It is wonderful to admire someone else and to be inspired by them, but we need to make our own way, ragged and uncertain though it may be.
The section where Japhy talks about Zen sounds a lot like the state of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name. Flow is a sort of mind and body state that can occur along with another activity when the right conditions exist. The condition is that the activity needs to be in the sweet spot where it is difficult enough to keep you busy and interested, yet easy enough that it does not become frustrating. We all have something like this, a hobby or task that we get “wrapped up in,” where time passes without us realizing it.
For me, one flow-producing activity is swimming in the ocean. On one hand, it’s easy. I swim a stroke that I have known since I was a child. On the other hand, there are all the things to keep in mind that I am learning about swimming form and positioning of arms, etc. Then there are waves and maybe fish and seals to keep things interesting. I can get “in the zone” when I am swimming and almost forget I’m doing it, as if I could go on for ever. In the swimming pool, I sometimes have trouble with getting bored doing laps, and I think it’s because it is on the easy side of flow without the waves and other challenges.
“Don’t think. Just Dance Along”
Japhy is the wild sage of this book, the leader of the story, though not the narrator. He’s the guy who goes out backpacking by himself and lives in a sweet hermit shack which I need to have some day. He knows– the best thing in this kind of a touch-and-go situation is not to think. Just start moving and let your body guide you in that instinctual, natural way. Everything will take care of itself.
This definitely is the best choice for literal rock hopping. At the time I was reading the book, “Flow,” we lived in a building that had a huge field behind it, strewn with bushes and boulders. My then-boyfriend and I would go out there and hop from rock to rock, and it was absolutely the best. There was an element of danger with some rocks being tippy, but with careful yet easy movement, it was not difficult to dance along. Thinking, especially about falling, causes you to pause, which can cause you to lose your momentum and then your balance.
I tend to be a thinker and a planner, but there are those situations in which you should just act, and trust yourself and your instincts. You won’t lead yourself astray. All the back and forth and second-guessing just gets confusing and adds to the pressure. Don’t think. Just dance along.
“Cute Little Problems Present Themselves”
It’s this little line that reminds me so much of flow. These cute little problems are the ones that keep the rock hopping from being boring, and so much more satisfying than, say, walking on stepping stones. These are the little quandaries that exercise the brain and intrigue us.
Flow is not just doing something and losing track of time. What makes it special and desirable is the deep and pervasive sense of joy that comes with it. To be engaged in this way, and to be exactly as challenged as you can manage– this is one of the elements in a happy life.
As soon as I read about flow, I thought of Japhy and Dean and rock-hopping, their nimble feet, their quiet and engaged minds. I’m thinking now of miles of boulders and the long dark valley in late afternoon. To be honest, there are parts of my life right now that feel like a long rocky valley that must be gotten through. We stay nimble, we dance along in our own steps. We stay engaged, but we don’t let our own thinking get in our way. And then…we sleep under the stars.