Posted on November 4th, 2022
Imagine a mountain.
Seen from a great distance, the presence of the mountain is otherworldly, majestic. It’s obviously there, yet a mirage-like unreality hovers around it.
Coming closer to the base of the mountain, activity is energized. Springs and streams flowing down from the mountain make the soil abundantly fertile. It’s easy to sustain life, so many have settled here. Over time a city has grown, complex and rich with possibility for success in industry and commerce, in technology and in arts, in social life and individual activities. One can choose any number of pursuits here—artistic accomplishments, professional development, financial accumulation, power- or fame-seeking, the ever-more refined articulation of any aspect of daily living, from gardening to cooking to collecting, any heightening of the rhythms and preoccupations of daily life. Living in the city offers endless possibilities for fulfillment.
Because the pastimes of city life can be so absorbing, many people living in the city never look up to see the mountain. Even among those who do look up, the consensus is that the mountain is an unexplainable anomaly, an alien presence. Images of the mountain are incorporated into many designs created in the city, as logos and talismans and motifs, but actual experience of the mountain is limited.
This direct experience of the mountain usually only extends to the foothills, which have been tamed. Easily followed paths, some of them paved, make walking pleasant, ways to move through the tangled growth of trees and vines and underbrush. The mountain is so large that you can walk these foothill paths for years, always encountering something new, an unknown tree or flowering plant, a different vista looking out toward the city. This is one of the pleasures of the foothills, the awareness of being at a slight remove from the city. You can begin to see city life more as a whole, an overflowing of ceaseless activity whose intense meaningfulness can be entrancing when you are embedded in it, but which becomes less encompassing and absorbing when you step back.
Even the most astute person takes a while before realizing that the foothill paths circle the mountain, but that they don’t lead upward. To actually climb the mountain, you have to make a decision to climb, to leave the manicured paths built by others and to find your own way. There are hints of paths for climbing, but these are only subtle tracings left long ago by other climbers, often overgrown, sometimes leading to dead ends. The mountain’s sheer presence and the fugitive nature of these paths combine to create an experience of awe and trepidation.
Strong determination and courage are required to push ahead, to climb higher. City life with all of its incredible articulation of unique appearances, all of its fantastic individuality, collectively upholds the important of this individuality. The higher you climb on the mountain, the less that individuality matters. All of the meanings your experience had don’t apply any more. You begin to realize these meanings were stories you had taken in from those around you. To climb the mountain, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, accomplished or talentless, the son of this one or the daughter of that. What matters is only that you climb, that you shed the limitations of your identity in order to see more clearly, to know where to place your foot, when to shift your weight, how to evaluate what is front of you on its own terms.
Why climb? This isn’t the ego-boosting climbing of records and awards. Unnoticed by anyone except occasional other distant climbers, this climbing is not motivated by external reward. Climbing enables you to strip away limited, socially-driven identities and to claim a deeper truth, the self of no-self. Climbing is spurred on by a desire for the awakening of inmost realization. On the heights of the mountain, you leave even words behind. There is no one to say them and no one to hear them.
Through ferocious determination, you manage to climb to a higher level. Yet when you look around, you realize you are still in sight of the foothills, not actually fully engaged with the mountain. This has required a tremendous effort, and you are exhausted. You’re bewildered. You don’t know how to go further.
Eventually you start looking for a guide.
The guide knows the mountain, is secure living at heights where the air would feel too thin to sustain your life right now. Finding the guide—or the guide finding you—can be a great relief, but it is also terrifying. As much as you want to be able to climb the mountain, climbing to its heights has so far remained on the level of a myth. Sure, you have heard that someone did it long ago, but those you hear of hardly seem human. Even when they say they are ordinary human beings, you don’t believe them. They are gods.
But now the guide is right there with you. The myth is suddenly a reality. Climbing is possible, and it’s possible for you. That’s enrapturing. It’s not unusual to experience relief at this point. You expect that the guide is going to make it easier for you, endow you with some superpowers of climbing capability. But the true guide doesn’t do this.
Instead, the true guide walks alongside you, pointing out pitfalls and snares, showing you where to place your feet when you walk, where to climb, but you have to do the climbing. The true guide teaches you how to climb, so that you do not become a follower of the guide but maintain your potential to be an equal, able to live at a higher altitude on your own.
So with the guide by your side, you climb. Sometimes straight up, more often circling the mountain while gradually increasing your altitude. There are so many experiences of levels and perspectives succeeding each other, with a clearer view each time. Looking out, you behold a world transformed. The city, once so engrossing, is seen as a bright jewel but claustrophobic in the context of the openness around it. The endless vista and the openness of space itself tug a throat-catching, deep feeling from your heart.
As you climb, you feel more separation from everyone you have left behind and more aloneness. In the face of this, you may want to cling to the guide, but each time you try this, the guide turns you back toward yourself. Even in your aloneness, you catch glimpses of oneness, of the connection of all. These are enrapturing experiences, insights into where you are headed, but for now they fade as you walk on, visions rather than abiding realities you can hold onto.
Years move on this way, so that climbing becomes a way of life. You pass through forests and open fields, barren, rock-strewn canyons, sheer precipices which momentarily seem like the mountain’s peak until they reveal themselves as only outcroppings. Along the way, there are many opportunities to stop, to rest on a plateau, to make a life there. Many do, some out of an inner exhaustion, others desiring to hold onto the degree of brilliance and peace they have gained by climbing to whatever stopping place they choose. A few choose to continue the climb.
At some point, magical powers seem to arise, clairvoyance and clairaudience, the ability to read thoughts, to fly through the world, to penetrate into the heart of any person and any situation. Grasping onto these powers is a disabling impediment to climbing further. The problem isn’t whatever powers you experience, it’s your attachment to them. Attachment to any particular skill or talent, accomplishment or self-definition makes climbing impossibly burdensome. Climbing requires letting go more than it requires anything else, repeatedly letting go and moving on confidently.
As you climb, you have to repeatedly lighten the load of whatever you are carrying. Over and over, having thought you have discarded everything you could, you discover new burdens which impede your way. The repeated experience of putting down what you have been carrying, the practice of letting go of your attachments, eventually makes it easier to do so. This is important because the higher you climb, the deeper what you must let go of cuts into your sense of who you are.
As you near the peak of the mountains, this struggle between holding on and letting go becomes particularly intense. The air is thinner, exertion is more difficult, the supplies and possessions you brought with you—some of them so important and meaningful to you, they seem to be a part of who you are—weigh you down too much to continue. One by one, you have to abandon these to go on. To reach the top, you have to let go of everything, all of your most precious understanding of what the world is, of who and what you are, of what the purpose of all is. This stirs deep conflict in you, even when you are committed to moving forward.
But then you break through. You are at the peak. Breathing now is easy, because you have the power to draw in air and energy from all directions. Everything sustains you. You are free.
A curious change happens at this point. The mountain is still as it was, the city a jeweled dot so far below. You stand confidently at the center of existence, open all around. But at the same time, as if waking from a dream, the mountain completely flattens out. There is no mountain.
It’s as though there was nothing to climb. You are not alone, you stand on the same level with everyone, stand completely connected in your heart, a center interwoven with everyone’s centers. Everyone and everything is only here in the moment, but in this moment beauty radiates in all directions, from crumbling sidewalks and weeds as well as from blossoming branches and endless vistas, beauty twinkling everywhere like the endless radiance of stars and galaxies in the open sky. You and the world are one, sounding together in the unending depths of your endlessly opening heart.
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