If I look and listen closely, everything is fascinating. Everything is mysterious. The sounds of birds and flowing water, the sight of a butterfly or a ladybug: how did they come to be? What is it that animates it all, directing the butterfly’s path or the clouds that pour the water to fill the river? How is it that I am aware of all this? To fully feel these questions, I must sit down, stop thinking about my petty concerns, and simply receive. This is something new for me, since my life to this point has been mostly about action, achievement, and what’s next. I’m learning that I need to put as much attention and importance on stillness as on motion.
Giulia and I have just returned from the most wonderful month in the high Himalaya (Everest region) where we had lots of time and space to reflect on all this. In a way, the mountain scenery was a perfect metaphor for what I was feeling: you can’t have the peaks without the valleys.
We had decided to do a 10 day walk into the region, instead of the 45 minute flight that most people take. The first part was a hard slog: we had to descend and re-ascend valley after valley, walking from 7AM to 5 or 6 in the afternoon everyday (in fact, when you total it all up, the amount of vertical meters we ascended was over 10,000- higher than Everest from sea level!). In that portion of the trek, we were greatly enriched and warmed by meeting people on the trail, most notably a son and grandpa who invited us into their house during a hailstorm. We walked through rhododendron forest in full bloom, bursting with color. Even though there weren’t very many “big views” during those first ten days, they were unbelievably rich- all because we valued going slowly and enjoying the process of trekking instead of fixating on “the goal”. The irony is that when we finally reached those high peaks (we topped out at 5,400 m), we didn’t even stay there that long because the wind and thinness of air made it so inhospitable.
I thought about how this relates to the blog, how what I convey here are, in a sense, the “peaks” of my experience. There have been so many valleys in between the peaks that I would love to share, but I simply don’t have the time or the technological capacity (the power’s only on an erratic 6 hours a day in Kathmandu) to fully convey what we’re living. But the valleys matter too!
For instance, the situation with the meditation center that rejected me that I wrote about last time. I took a humerous attitude toward what had happened, and that colored my depiction of it. But the truth was, I actually felt very sad about not being able to sit there. When I finally came to the decision to go there, it was with my whole heart. Some time after I posted the story, I sat in bed, feeling depressed, wondering why this strong emotion was coming out. I realized that I had been holding myself back from expressing what I was feeling, and with Giulia’s help, was able to cry the tears that came from feeling this rejection and frustration. This also showed me how telling stories can be a defense mechanism against feeling deeply. Because we all tend to want to speak about only the positive, amazing things that happen to us, we often neglect the sad, sometimes shameful aspects of our experience that are equally a part of life.
Another “valley” in between the peaks hasn’t been an emtional one, but an extended musing I’ve had on ethics and its relationship to organized religion. In Lumbini, for instance, I finally came to realize how institutionalized Buddhism is very similar to every other institutionalized religion (suprising it took me this long). In many instances, I saw the same emphsis on ritual and belief over direct experience, the same supplication to invisible, metaphysica concepts, the same extraction of the laity’s wealth to fun extravagant temples, the same heirarchy of clergy, the same attitutde of many lay practitioners that it’s meritorious to “see the sights” and donate money and take pictures and buy souvenirs, the same emphasis on the importance of the literal place over its symbolic meaning, the same exaltation of the founder to the status of something superhuman, the same sectarianism and factionalism, the same focus on otherworldly, future, salvation. (But in another valley of thought, I realize how despite all this, there is still tremendous beauty that results from what on the outside looks to be mere ritual and superstition).
Of course, I could expand on all of these points, but what they most made me wonder is: what does it say about humans if the only way we can get ourselves to (sometimes) behave decently is with threats of punishment or promised rewards? At least amongst the Tibetans here in Nepal, there is such a strong emphasis on “accumulating merit” to avoid being reborn in a hell realm. While I see the importance of such a belief, I really wonder if this type of teaching isn’t just a stage along the way to understanding that “good behavior” is actually its own reward, and that there is no heaven or hell outside of one’s own mind. I have developed this more in my own thinking and am looking forward to sharing it in a more thorough form in the future.
So let us not overlook the value of the “in-between”, both in literal and metaphorical terms. It’s because of the valleys that we can appreciate the peaks! It’s in the valley of the silence between two thoughts that I can feel the graceful touch of the wind against my face. It’s in the valley between two days that my body can regenerate and my unconscious mind can produce dream images that provide clues to unlocking conscious understanding. It’s in the valley of the pause between in and out breath that I can occasionally attune myself to the mystery of how I’m simultaneously breathing and being breathed. It’s in the valley of feeling disconnected from love that I come to appreciate the preciousness of the connection that’s temporarily been lost. It’s in the valley of feeling lost and confused about life that the seeds of new directions are planted. And it’s only in the valley of sitting still that I come to see the peaks of experience for what they are: an endless chain of understandings with no beginning and no end, that need the breaks between them to be what they are.
Oh, and by the way, we came across a yeti in the mountains: