Mountains? What Mountains?

Wednesday April 1, 2009

mountains of the mind

When I started meditating some fifteen or so years ago, I used to think (as I have mentioned before on this blog) of the mind as a territory to be mapped. I fancied myself as a kind of heroic explorer of inner space, setting out to discover new worlds. In this curious (and, no doubt, self-aggrandising) fantasy, the supposedly mystical East and the supposedly mystic inner realm were almost mapped onto each other, so that, on the one hand, I planned for my future by imagining myself trekking up mountain paths in Tibet to meet with wizened individuals of incomparable wisdom whilst, on the other hand, I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, and dreamed of similar territories within:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there…

Such a perspective lent my idea of meditation a kind of pioneering bravado, what with all of that clinging to frightful, no-man-fathomed cliffs: the meditator as Tintin, fearless boy-reporter setting out to search for truth in foreign lands, facing untold dangers along the way. The only problem was that, when I started to take a closer look at what was going on in my experience, when I sat on the cushions for any amount of time, hoping to find Gerard’s cliffs to which I could excitingly cling, hoping to find a clear and unambiguous drama, the territory I had set out to explore seemed to be rather more shadowy, ambiguous and mist-shrouded than I had hoped. Things seemed to slip through my fingers leaving only ambiguities upon ambiguities, shadows upon shadows. I wanted revelations and breakthroughs and profound bursts of wisdom to interrupt the everyday, and what I got was a sense that the mind is a slippery thing, hard to pin down, impossible to grasp, sometimes (it seemed, it still seems) hardly there at all, sometimes chuntering on in its own sweet way without any obvious sense or purpose, and without telling me what it was up to, always subverting my attempts to get to grips with it, to map it. And if I couldn’t even get clear on the territory, if I couldn’t even track down some cliffs on which I could bravely hang, then things began to look pretty bleak for an aspiring boy-reporter of the inner life.

I don’t know for certain when things changed. It took several years. But little by little, as I became more frustrated at the seeming absence of any clear plot or drama or even any clear territory on which such an adventure might be played out, I started to notice instead those things that I had hitherto dismissed as distractions form the story I was telling myself: the equivocations and the uncertainties and the slips; the way that the mind goes its own sweet way, often as obscure in its inner workings as is the pancreas; the flickering of awareness that came and went, never quite resolving into a plot or a story. And the more I noticed these things, the more the business of sitting on my backside on a cushion for stretches of time, doing nothing much, began to make sense to me. Of course, it wasn’t any longer Tintin in Tibet: there were few cliff-hangers, there was nothing much in the way of an adventure (and Snowy and Captain Haddock were nowhere to be seen). No longer a heroic quest; more a matter of a kind of closeness to the business of living. To the ordinary, everyday business of living.

But then, I’m from Norfolk. What do I know about mountains…?

Tags: , , ,
#1 · barbara

1 April 2009

What a lovely post…the map is not the territory, but the territory is not the map, either.

#2 · Kate C

1 April 2009

I love this. I suppose we tend to reflect the world around us in some ways. We internalize our surroundings and start to become them. Maybe instead of mountains, you have become an ocean in the course of your life.

Though, I just wanted to recommend actually doing some physical hanging from cliff-sides. If you are looking for adventure and exploration, it does exist in this world. Rockclimbing is a beautiful and enlightening sport. Find a real cliff someday. Cling to it. See what happens. :)

#3 · Will

1 April 2009

You are right, Kate! And I like walking around, over or generally in the vicinity of cliffs. It’s just the hanging off them that I’ve not yet got the hang of…
All the best,

#4 · jayarava

2 April 2009

Being less caught up in the movie seems like a good first step. Maybe I’m missing something but you seem to be talking here about developing Shamatha and leaving it at that. Am I missing something?

#5 · Will

2 April 2009

I’m not sure that you are missing something Jayarava: it may also be a matter of very slightly different conceptions of what Vipassana might mean. So if one assumes that there is a territory to be mapped there, then Vipassana or investigation would be a matter of mapping; but if there is no territory, or not in the way that we think, then investigation is a matter not so much of casting light over this inner landscape, but rather of noticing how, behind the apparent solidity of the stories we tell, there is this extraordinary mass of shimmering, half-obscure, flickering processes: processes that, if we attempt to resolve them into something as clear-cut as a map, we seem to falsify. But it’s a good question, and I’ll try and get round to writing a post on it at some time, to make my position a bit clearer.

#6 · Barry Briggs

3 April 2009

Zen began to flourish in China at exactly the moment when it left the meditation hall (when it was “about something”) and became a way to live. This occurred with the Fourth Patriarch, who established a monastery with large fields in which the monks worked daily to support themselves. At this point, Zen was not special – just ordinary life.

Inside and outside – ordinary life.

Comments are turned off for this article.