Arno Ilgner is the author of the famous The Rock Warrior’s Way and Espresso Lessons: From the Rock Warrior’s Way books on mental training, a comprehensive mental training program for learning how to focus your mental resources during a challenging climb, and step-by-step guidance on motivation analysis, information gathering, risk assessment, mental focus, and deliberate transition into action.
Arno has been climbing since the 70s on the lime-stone and sandstone cliffs in Tennessee, U.S.A., at a time when the ways and means for doing this activity varied greatly from today. Then it was most about climbing, not falling. He distinguished himself as a pioneering climber, doing lots of bold and dangerous first ascents.
Not being satisfied with his work life, and wanting to develop something meaningful in climbing, Ilgner took a deep look into his specific talent of dealing with fear. After a thorough search of the literature and practice of mental training and the great warrior traditions, in 1995, he formalized his methods, founded the Desiderata Institute, and began teaching his program full time.
His books are available for buying in English on his website, here.
We contacted Arno in August 2020 for a discussion on various aspects of metal training, and he was very kind to make room in his schedule for us.
Because there were so many things to talk about, we split this video interview in three parts. We hope you will enjoy them, and find them useful.
Below is a fragment of the extended discussion we had with Arno Ilgner about The Rock Warrior’s Way concepts.
Proprioception – how important is it when climbing?
Proprioception is how we understand our body’s position in space, how it’s related to its various parts. Even just sitting here, if I close my eyes, I can be more aware of how my legs, and my torso, and my arms, my head, are all related to each other. That’s a simple example, but you can see how this could be critically important in climbing, in mountaineering, or in any activity that we do. So, it’s very important to develop awareness of our body proprioception.
I’m glad you asked that question, because I think that one of the most important things in mental fitness to work on is to get more experience of our bodies. In other words, mental fitness and how Warrior’s Way approaches this has to do with attention. And so, we can have our attention lost in the mind, thinking about the past, worrying about our fears, and we kind of live life from our neck up. We’ve lost contact with our bodies.
I think something that’s very important in mental training is to develop some body awareness drills, that we can do daily, to experience more of our body’s proprioception.
Seeing – it’s not only seeing the hold, but also seeing how your fingers are connecting with it, and making sure your attention is here, and not in the mind worrying that the hold is too small, it’s not going to work, I’m going to fail, but keep it there in order that you can work with it the best that you can.
Hearing – like you can hear yourself breathe, and hear when you may be holding your breath, and then you can take your control back.
And then of course feeling – how you’re actually paying attention to the subtleties of how to grab the hold in the best way.
Motivation, either ours or others’, over- or under-motivation. What role does it play in our performance?
I think it’s critical, because motivation is what moves us to do something. Climbing is movement, we need to move through the experience to the end. So, motivation is critical to fueling that engagement. It’s important to understand what the origin of the motivation is, where it is coming from. Why do I want to do this, is it something that is important to me, or is it something that others consider that I should be doing? Am I motivated because I don’t want to fail, I want to meet other people’s expectations, or am I motivated because I want to get on this climb because it inspires me?
It is also important to understand two basic types of motivations – one is more extrinsic, something that is external to ourselves, like I want to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, something to do with the height, or the nature of the climbing. This external goal helps guide our actions, direct us towards something that’s important to us. If I don’t set a goal like that, I might just climb a bit over here, a bit over there and maybe never realize more of what’s important to achieve for me.
And also, an intrinsic, more internal motivation, where I want to be in the middle of the work, of the stress that is along the journey of that climb. I don’t just want to be at the top of El Capitan, I want to be on the 1st pitch, on the 2nd pitch, on the 3rd pitch and enjoy working with the stress that’s there, the experience, learning.
These two motivations can work together, in fact they need to work together, one giving me direction and inspiring me and the other doing the work so that I can learn more about myself and enjoy that experience.
Being honest with ourselves about why we’re buying the gear – are we buying enough in order to make sure we’re taking appropriate risks, have enough equipment to protect ourselves as we progress in climbing, or are we just wanting to display what we have to impress other people? One thing to keep in mind is, we can approach this with less is more. Like less equipment can give us more of a fulfilling experience. In general, if we look at what can I do here with the minimum amount of equipment that’s probably going to require more of relying on my own skill, and my creativity, my problem solving ability, so when I finish that experience I’m going to have more meaning and more fulfillment because I had to dig deeper into myself to do that.
Is climbing a form of escapism?
It’s an interesting thing to consider. I think there’s a yes and a no, or maybe it’s a both. It’s an escape if you’re escaping just the expectations of society, like what society, other people expect that you should do with whatever is important to you, or how you should live your life. But it’s not an escape when you actually want to do this, and if you take responsibility for whatever choices you’re making.
Each of us needs to decide what we need to be responsible for, ourselves, our actions, our behavior, our family, our community. And make this a conscious choice.
Climbing can seem rather useless – you climb this rock when you could’ve done something more productive, right? But anything that we’re really doing in our life is like that. We’re choosing an activity that moves us into the direction of something difficult, something challenging. And that gives us the means for doing work, for understanding more of our limitations, our strengths and then becoming more effective in dealing with stress, with challenges. Those skills can translate to being a parent, being helpful in the team when you’re in a career.
There is always an external journey, and an internal journey.