Coffee, Mountain, Pleasure, Pain, Phaedo Quote, Take Home Point, Slide Show, Hipster PDA.
…For more on keeping note cards in your pocket…
I have skipped coffee so I can sleep before sunset. The pain appears to pay off when I, without fuss, pass out before 7:30 and wake, widely, to a starlit tent. My arm sweeps for my cell phone. I am proud of my sacrifice and eager for my auspice.
The phone lights.
My face crunches. 8:30?!? I spend the day with a crown of thorns and a trigger temper and all you give me is an hour nap sure to spoil the night’s sleep?
I slow enough to see what an awful lot coffee does for me. I offer the apology I’d offered all day: I’m sorry. I just…just haven’t had any coffee.
I focus on my right foot’s fourth toe but, after 20 minutes, I still see ‘Eureka’ above me on the flysheet. I’d brought two books for this but neither one puts me back out. (After the meditation, reading Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations In Right Livelihood feels like a carnival.)
At some point in prayer, around 2:30, my ideas speed up and spread out just long enough for me to wonder where I am when, around 3:00, I wake to Paul taking down his tent. The sound reminds me where I am and my pulse preps for our plan to make the trail by 4:00. I help it along with cold coffee—the Starbucks we’d halted through so many Vail roundabouts to find. The stuff kicks high, even when old, so the first five miles are cocaine.
The caffeine and exercise make my thoughts quick and kind.
So lucky to live so close to mountains, so lucky to be hiking with such a fine friend, yellow asps will be around me when the sun comes up; my god, the stars when I switch off the headlamp.
My thoughts gain speed. They stretch for more than what’s so kindly in my reach. I am sure I will have a revelation. Some rock or river will cue a metaphor for something higher. Some sense of it all will come out in a single image I can see at once and remember forever. The image will stay sharp and steady all my life. It will convince me all’s well, pain’s false, death’s gonna be a laugh and a hand clap.
The greedy faith overtakes me and I’m moved to talk to Paul.
Want to play philosophical 20 questions?
Paul’s silent for the nine seconds it takes for me to see how mindless it would be to play a geeky road trip game beneath a sky so lit with stars.
Yeah. Right. No. I agree. Let’s save games born from near unbearable boredom for the drive back when the goal is just to keep out of the wrong lane.
I pull a note card from my pocket. As I hike, I scribble, trying to make more of what I see. (The next day, I can’t discern a single word from the card’s marks.)
Paul, perhaps apologetic for the silence, perhaps energetic from the coffee, volleys back. Favorite philosophical book.
Um. Well. We know it’s a dialogue from Plato. I’m pretty tediously taken with him these days. Um. I guess Phaedo. Yeah. No. Phaedo. Definitely Phaedo.
Paul asks why and I say some wholly vague remarks about how Phaedo is Plato’s fullest defense of (and critique of) the philosophical life; how it shows the value of thinking about (and through) death; how it shows the importance of the metaphorical nature of language—remarks that would embarrass me were I to hear myself say them in a coffeehouse. Remarks that seem to stretch beyond what’s before me, beyond what I can know, as if I were reading lines from a play about gods and forgetting I were not one.
Then I remember Phaedo has one of my favorite passages in any book, period. I realize I do not doubt whether the content of the passage is beyond what’s before me. I tell Paul something like,
and it’s got that one passage on pleasure and pain and I think that’s really true and important and goes a long way toward figuring out how to live a good life.
But, now that I have the book before me, here’s the passage in full:
What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be its opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. Yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other also, like two creatures with one head. I think that if Aesop had noted this he would have composed a fable that a god wished to reconcile their opposition but could not do so, so he joined their two heads together, and therefore when a man has the one, the other follows later. This seems to be happening to me. My bonds caused pain in my leg, and now pleasure seems to be following. ~ Socrates from Plato’s Phaedo, (60b-c)
There’s something about the pattern of pleasure following pain and pain following pleasure that seems so closed to doubt. I do not know what will happen when I die, whether it will be a heavenly hand clap or a lifeless giving back. But I do know what will happen when I skip coffee: I will feel the pain that follows the pleasure and, when I get back on the stuff, I will feel an even greater pleasure, which will follow an even worse pain the next time I go without. I do know what will happen when I climb up a mountain: I will feel the pain of the ascent, followed by the pleasure of the summit, followed by the pain of the descent, followed by the pleasure of arriving at the car, eating three hummus sandwiches, drinking a half gallon of water and trading boots for sandals.
So much of life seems to take this shape: ask the soul to do something hard and painful and what was once difficult becomes easy and pleasant; ask the soul to do something easy and pleasant and what was once simple becomes hard and painful. But certain parts of life—coffee and mountains, for example, but also meditation and yoga—make the pattern clearer.
For me, the pattern is closed to doubt but open to effort. I know running will make future climbs all the more pleasant. I know yoga will make the sitting all the more focused. I know drinking tea for awhile will make coffee all the stronger. Still, today, I have sat without stretching, missed my morning sprints and just sipped coffee so I can post before sunset.
Because it is difficult to lean toward what’s (seemingly, at first) difficult. But knowing which way to lean in a pose is a steady message, kindly put right before us. And having mats (and mountains) to practice our poses on is a good thing, for which I’m grateful.
For a critical take on coffee, see Heather Lounsbury’s ‘Coffee: Evil‘.
For a more positive take on coffee (and pornography), see Waylon Lewis’ ‘Top Ten Images: Coffee Porn‘.
For how to roast your own coffee beans, see Michael Levin’s ‘Roast Your Own Coffee‘.
For a blog about coffeehouse culture in Boulder, see anons’ Boulder Coffee Shops blog.
For photos, routes and trip reports for Mount of the Holy Cross and other Colorado peaks, see
Bill Middlebrook’s excellent site 14ers.com.
For an excellent book on Colorado’s higher peaks, see Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteener’s: From Hikes to Climbs.
For more on keeping note cards in your pocket, see Merlin Mann’s blog post ‘Introducing the Hipster PDA‘.
Cues For Comments:
(1) I suggest above that we should always lean toward what is more difficult and (initially) painful. But there’s trustworthy talk of a ‘middle way’ between asceticism and aestheticism. Any thoughts as to where the way lies?
(2) Caffeine: awesome or awful? Stories about giving caffeine up? Thoughts on how caffeine affects meditation or yoga?
(3) Any thoughts on death?
(4) I want to start including an MP3 of a robotic voice reading my posts. Any good apps for that?
Dan Slanger recently moved to Boulder to be with mountains and friends and to pursue a career in the intern industry. He enjoys biking and meditation and his one big desire in life is to have sustainable desires. He has a premature blog with two posts (one of which is just another elephant article) and no update in sight.