The Inverse of the Summit

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White Peaks, Derbyshire, taken on a walking holiday

Most people who enjoy hiking know that getting to the top of a mountain can be difficult. But for those who are experienced, perhaps after about 40 years of climbing those mountains, we begin to understand that it is the descent that is actually the more challenging of the two. Sure, you become breathless as you make your way slowly up the mountainside, sweat on your brow and your legs muscles pumping.  But on the way down, you have to take special care, your balance comes into play, and one wrong move can leave you stranded on that mountainside awaiting rescue.

And it’s this analogy that I’ve come to understand as the integration of those rare moments of epiphany in our lives. Getting to the mountaintop can be the easy part; coming back home can be the more difficult. We got to the top, now we’re on our return journey, tired, but taking the memory and experience with us to internalise. Having the epiphany is easy – integrating it into every day is the more difficult part of the journey. It’s the inverse of the mountain’s peak, and once we’ve traversed this sometimes treacherous way, it’s then that we can find that lovely and level middle ground.

It doesn’t matter whether it was a small realisation or a grand epiphany that you’ve come to in your life; the really important thing is how to integrate it into your soul and your life. You can’t just have it and then forget about it – or, you could, but then what’s the point? The real point is to make it a part of your life, each and every day. To live the realisation, to make it a reality.

And it’s not easy. Our everyday lives can be so busy, and filled with a plethora of tasks and minutiae that can take precedence unless we are careful about how we manage our integration. It’s all good to go on a retreat, to meditate, to do pathworking or journeying work, even spellwork, but then it’s up to us to bring that into our lives as well, and not just let it rest “out there in the universe”. We have to make it manifest, we have to make time and integrate the work. We have to come down that mountain.

And it can seem dull and boring, all the repetitive tasks that we have to do each day, when we’d rather be receiving even more epiphanies. We have to do the dishes, clean the bathroom, cook our meals, teach our kids, feed the cats, mow the lawn, pay the bills, etc. We have to get on with the chores of the day.

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My little Kiri cat 🙂

But these elements, numerous as they are, form such a large part of our lives. So why shouldn’t we make them even more special, and give them more significance? Why can’t we internalise our hard work and let that inspiration flow out in everything that we do? It’s all a matter of perspective. On the summit, it’s easy to see all around you, to have that greater perspective. Scooping out the poop in the kitty litter box isn’t nearly as grand.

But that revelatory experience doesn’t have to fade with time. We can carry that in our souls, even when we’re running to the bin with a very stinky scoop of poop. For me, the act of service helps me to continue my revelatory experiences in everything that I do. It’s something that we’ve always taught at Druid College, and something which I’ve expanded even further in my studies and work with the Sisterhood of Avalon. That service, whether it’s working for your community or taking care of your stinky cats can be the thing that connects you to everything else. It is in those moments of interconnection that we realise that we are all a part of a greater tapestry of life, woven from many threads, stronger and even more beautiful when we support each other.

That larger perspective is carried in our hearts and minds, and into everything that we do, from the choices we make each and every day to the way we interact with people every single moment. And it’s not easy. Coming down the mountain there are loose rocks and stones that can trip us up or roll under our feet, causing us to lose our balance, wrench our knee, put our back out. But if we’re careful, if we’re mindful, we can hopefully get back to everyday life intact and in good condition to keep that momentum going. There are the pitfalls of losing our way, losing the daylight, losing the map or compass. But unless we’re really unlucky, most of us will make it back and into our nice, warm homes where we can integrate fully the experience. And it’s keeping that feeling in our hearts as we go about our daily tasks can be equally as challenging. That is the real inverse of the summit.

But once we have achieved that, then we find the level path that allows us a good vantage point, and is much easier to manage as well. We find that balance point in our heart and souls, and the way forward becomes more pleasant. So the next time you reach that mountaintop in your life, find a word that summarises the experience, something that you can recall when you are cleaning a clogged drain, dealing with a difficult neighbour, or sitting in a lonely silence. This is what you can use to make the vision real, to make the intangible, tangible. Manifest this in your life, and then all that work will truly be worth it.

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The valley where I grew up in Quebec, taken from the lovely and level trail of an old disused railway.

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No Hope

It is so hard to live life as it is, to accept life as it is.  Our mind does everything it can to avoid it, for various reasons.  In Zen, we often see the mind often trying to avoid suffering in any way it can. This could be suffering in the conventional sense, but it also has a deeper meaning – dukkha, a Sanskrit word which in Buddhism means dissatisfaction, or a sense of unease, or even dis-ease.  We are all dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, and it is so easy to live in the “if only” reality – the world of possibility instead of the world that is. Why? It’s nice in there.

Yet, to achieve enlightenment, one of the main ways to banish dukkha from your life is to simply live in the present moment, to accept it for what it is. Neither pessimistic, nor optimistic – just life as it is.  When judgements of good or bad are seen for the illusions that they are – things that make us attach to a situation – then they simply fall away and we can truly see clearly.

Surya Das emphasizes the matter-of-fact nature of dukkha:

Buddha Dharma does not teach that everything is suffering. What Buddhism does say is that life, by its nature, is difficult, flawed, and imperfect. […] That’s the nature of life, and that’s the First Noble Truth. From the Buddhist point of view, this is not a judgement of life’s joys and sorrows; this is a simple, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact description.

This was brought home to me over 10 years ago when, after visiting her dying sister in the hospital, my mother came home and told me something that really changed her viewpoint and mine on the situation.  She said to my aunt, “But why you?” to which my aunt simply replied – “Why not me?”

This simple acceptance of life as it is, instead of railing against it, led to a life of less suffering.  I still carry those words with me today, when I think that things or life is happening “to me”, instead of just happening.  Life isn’t good or bad, it simply is. Things aren’t happening to me, things are happening.  Good and bad are judgement calls that we make to avoid living in the present moment most of the time.

Charlotte Joko Beck wrote of No Hope in her book, Everyday Zen.  This wasn’t the same as hopelessness – it simply meant not wishing for things to be other than they are, for the moment we are doing that we lose the gift of the present moment. Now, while a prisoner of war might wish not to be tortured at this very moment, most of us aren’t living in that situation.  Even as my aunt was dying, she accepted the situation. It simply was. It was stepping outside of the mind trap of living in an alternate reality where our dukkha doesn’t exist and seeing that it is a part of life that we cannot “escape” from. All the wishing in the world cannot change the world.  Only actions taken in the present moment can change the world.

So it isn’t a passive response to the world – oh, there is nothing I can do, I should live without hope.  If we are in a harmful situation, then we take action in the present moment to change it if we can. If we are being abused, mistreated, see others being hurt, we take action in the present moment to change that. We have the ability to respond – responsibility.  Life is constant change. We can also work to sustain that change for future generations. But it requires us to live with the courage to be fully present in our lives as they are.  Step outside of your head for a moment, and take a look at the world around you, without judgement, seeing things clearly.  It could change your life.