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The Art Of Representation (Part I): Stillness

I recently saw the move, Free Solo (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary) and have been thinking about it, a lot. As Siskel & Ebert used to sometimes say, "Two thumbs up!".

What is so compelling about the movie? Well, first of all, it's a true story about an incredible young man--Alex Honnold--who climbed the face of El Capitan (an enormous granite wall in Yosemite Valley). Alone. Without ropes. Without any safety gear. Climbing almost 3,000 feet, in just under 4 hours!

Secondly, the movie is not something created by Hollywood, to achieve an effect. The photography is heart-thumpingly vivid (shot by a handful of other climbers) and the ample glimpse it gives us into the world of extreme rock climbing is nothing short of spectacular. The vertiginous shots of a lone human being hanging above the valley floor thousands of feet below, clinging to a flake of granite by his fingernails, is both terrifying and riveting.

But I think the reason Free Solo continues to resonate for me, is the abiding sense of stillness that exudes from the climber's complete concentration, and the preparation that was the foundation for that concentration. In this day, when action films and action-based video games seem to rule, the stillness borne of incredibly detailed preparation is--hold for the drumroll--refreshing.

Stillness is so-o-o underrated! As law students and young lawyers, we are all taught the importance of preparation, but the importance of stillness as a precursor to preparation, seems to have been lost as a critical part of the learning process.

Stillness. Resting quietly. Time for reflection. Clearing one's mind. Call it what you will--it's all meditative. Not meditation, but most certainly meditative. The difference between meditative moments that may come to us during exercise or strenuous activity, and the awareness that is unique to meditationis our intention--which is neither accidental nor inadvertent.

Stillness is critical not only to the art of preparation, but also, to the practice of meditation--putting aside the distinction raised above about intention. In legal parlance (traditionally Latin), stillness is the sine qua non of both preparation and meditation--the two may differ in practice or purpose, but they both begin with stillness.

For Alex Honnold, rock climbing apparently helps him achieve stillness, but does that stillness deepen into meditation? I doubt it--at least, while he's climbing. Stillness is not the same as meditation, but it's a close cousin. Stillness quiets the mind, but meditation takes us beyond stillness. Meditation is purposeful and rigorous, in a qualitatively different way--it's brain-training.

But I digress--Free Solo is a tremendous film. It's more than just a piece about rock climbing. It's also quite thought provoking, and it provided me with a new appreciation of stillness--a quality that is foundational to both the practice of meditation and the resulting state of mindfulness. Not to mention the art of preparation!


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