“The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step, breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind-joy” – Gary Snyder
My summers revolve around the Sierra. I need at least a week in these mountains each year to take the edge off a deep-seated craving I have for the high-country. To climb over peaks and passes, carrying all that I need for the journey, bathing in icy rivers and sleeping under cold crystalline stars, makes my DNA very happy, knowing that it has returned home to my animal self and to the Pleistocene that my body has never forgotten. And despite blisters, bruises, and burning muscles, it is here that I tap into that which is no less than spirited ecstasy. When everything slows down, memory awakens. Instinct and consciousness are no longer experienced as two polar opposites, pulling and fighting against each other’s impulse, but are linked together, inseparable, clean, and precise.
All that is above
Also is below
— “The Emerald Tablet”
It is no wonder that in cultures worldwide mountains are often imagined as sacred centers, as places that rise up out the ordinary, but paradoxically, return us to the mundane in an extraordinary way. To backpack into the mountains requires careful attention to detail: to each step along a rocky path, to the thunder clouds that develop over the pass, to the preparation of good shelter and food. Such simple tasks take on a numinous quality when stripped to their barebones essentialness. Even the body which falters and fails us serves as a reminder that there can be no separation from the soles of our feet to the very heights that we attempt to climb. There can be no peaks without the soulful lows.
For this reason the mountain serves as a symbol for the axis mundi – the world axis. While the base of the mountain outlines the circumference of sacred space, the axis acts as a medium between the upper, middle and lower regions. This demonstrates that the bright white peaks are inseparable from the shadowy ground below; sky is inseparable from earth, spirit is inseparable from matter, consciousness is inseparable from the unconscious. Essentially, the mountain mirrors the Self in its most starlit and sultry existence.
Taoist philosophy has long recognized this interdependence between upper and lower regions as demonstrated in the concept of Yin and Yang. Whereas the mountain is symbolic of Yang – masculine principal, phallic consciousness, spirit and light – to climb the mountain is also to encounter the opposite Yin – feminine principle, receptivity, water, mud, movement, the ebb and flow of life.
Together, the Yin and Yang make up the multiple dimensions of the mountain as we know it: the light and dark sides of the slopes, steadfastness of rock and the motion of rivers, the purity of glacier lakes surrounded by the footprints of a mountain wanderer. And just as water can become solid, mountains can flow, the two engage in a universal dance between stability and flow.
‘The Fashioner of Things
has no original intentions
Mountains and rivers
Are spirit, condensed.’
— Author unknown
I imagine “spirit condensed” is another way of expressing the mystical union between spirit and soul. Like vapor, when spirit condenses it becomes heavy, falls to earth, turns to snow, which melts into rivers that flow thick with life. In a similar fashion, we may rise in spirit, but at a certain height we become icy and cold, and eventually we must condense and return to the warmth of soul. To remain solely in spirit is to be untouchable, impassive, and transcendent. On the other hand, soul carries us down into our individual depths, ultimately rooting us in the material realm of nature. Obviously, spirit without soul is rather boring. And soul without spirit may become overly depressed.
When Joe and I returned from our backpacking trip this summer we felt the radiance and ecstasy of having spent a glorious week in the high-country at Devil’s Punchbowl and the lakes around Hell-For-Sure-Pass (Not very sanctimonious names for such majestic landscapes. Somehow appropriate). We fought against our aging bodies with burning lungs and sore knees as we hiked past towering pines, singing creeks, slick rock water falls, and glacial lakes. We jumped naked into swimming holes fifteen feet deep and gathered wild strawberries in sleepy meadows. We tasted the Garden of Eden and felt untouched by the tarnish of calendars and clocks.
But upon our return, Nature was there to great us in her fuller sense. As soon as I got cell reception and checked my messages I discovered that my dog was dying due to liver failure and that my father’s illness had worsened. The ecstasy of the mountains came crashing down and my tears began to flow steady and strong. At first, I resented being home and having to face such loss, but then I realized that this too is an essential aspect of Nature. My tears connect me to nature – my nature – just like the river that flows from the mountain.
Grasp this and rejoice.