Of Mountains and Misunderstandings


Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind–our drunken brother, our schizophrenic sister, our tormented animals and friends. Their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape.

In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it. We move toward it however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die. –Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

I had a dream, early in my life, of walking in the mountains. I come from the very beautiful mountains of West Virginia, and I have since been in many other mountains, including the French Alps and the heart-stopping landscapes of Alaska, but the mountains in that dream were the same…and yet different. They were beautiful in a way that went beyond the visual, a quality of light that was not perceived only by the eyes, but by all the senses, and by that inner sense that is activated when we experience something that goes beyond the ordinary, as when we read a poem or see a painting or hear a piece of music, and…everything stops. The universe cracks open. But that wasn’t all about these mountains I was in, in that dream: there was a quality of peace, of homeliness, of rightness…of forgiveness and acceptance…of the love that will not die….that made me want to stay there forever. I was home. I walked down the mountain into a valley, and I found there numerous people I’d known, but the only one I remember was my piano teacher, who at that time in my life was one of the few holy and righteous people I knew. She was stern and uncompromising in some ways, but she knew who she was, and she knew where she stood, and she had that quality, that understanding that permeated that valley. If I were to live there, I would live with people like that, and I wouldn’t be afraid of them any more.

The first time I went on retreat, I wanted to go right up the mountain and come to realization and end all my pain. My teacher would not let me go for quite some time, and it must have been, at least partially, because I did not realize that in going up, I would actually be going down.

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