Climbing Mountains

I climbed a mountain last weekend.  I climbed it with my dog.  There are lots of references to mountains in yoga practice: you can meditate like a mountain, solid and still, rooted in the earth, yet rising to the heavens, or visualise a mountain when you sit; some of our greatest teachers spent time living in caves in mountains, as did Ramana Maharishi on Arunachala; there are sacred mountains all over India, and even here in the UK there are mountains where saints and mystics went to pray or to spend time alone.  There is a cave in the hillside on Holy Isle where the 6th Century mystic Saint Molaise lived and I recently climbed Carningli (Mountain of the Angels) in Wales, which Saint Brynach (5th Century) climbed when he wanted to commune with the angels.

The thing that strikes you when you reach the top of a mountain is how peaceful it is up there.  As I remarked to my mountain-guide friend last weekend, when you are at the top of a mountain, you can completely understand why some people climb them to talk with the angels.  It is quiet on top of a mountain, no matter how many other climbers you are sharing the space with, the wind howls in your ears even on the finest of days and you really can't hear anything but the roar of it in your head.  It is a place to clear your head, to blow away the cobwebs of your mind, to seek answers to the questions that have been travelling with you.  Up there, you feel so close to something elemental, it seems that an answer might manifest itself from the sky which seems so near.

The view wraps around you and instills you with awe whichever way you turn to look; in this case, on the summit of Helvellyn on a sunny day in July, the green carpets of the Lake District rolled out in all their glory in all directions.  It is exciting to stand so high and to see so much, to feel so small and simultaneously so far above the workaday world, it is easy to believe as you stand there, that one of the siddhis (mystical powers) of the yogis that Patanjali spoke of might be true: that you can make yourself both as small as an atom and as huge as a universe.  You feel both as you stand there, a tiny element on a great big hill, but somehow elevated, encompassing everything you see, one with all that surrounds you.

When you walk down into the valley on a sunny day, you are struck by the silence, more arresting for having been up at the summit for a while with that roaring wind in your face.  There are no words here, no sign-boards, no pictures, no advertisements, no roads, no concrete paths, no houses, no cars, not even any aeroplanes to mar the sky.  And you realise how noisy this life is and how easy it is to become so filled with all of that noise, those words, with the images and the stories, that you can't very easily hear the sound of your own heart, of the little voice inside you that knows what it wants and needs, and which is so easily squashed by the more brazen sounds of the world.  And it's already hard enough hearing it through the noise of other people's opinions.

In yoga we are blessed to have a method for seeking and finding that small voice, no matter where we live and what we do with our days; withdrawing into unstimulated silence is what we make time to do.  But I urge you to find some bigger space for your silence this summer (or winter/spring/autumn whenever you are reading this), because what you find there will inspire you.  And when you get there, see if you can just be quiet for a time and let what is wash over you without the need for comment, or reaching out for others to share your experience, or pointing out to them what it is that you are finding so very moving about where you find yourself.

Indeed, the bigger space for your silence could be right there in your every day life: can you spend an evening without turning on the television or the radio?  Can you commute to work without reading any of those adverts that line the walls?  Can you spend a minute or two just in the outside air, on your own, in silence - like a cigarette-break for the soul?

Ramana Maharishi, who made his lifelong home alongside the sacred mountain of Arnuachala, told the thousands of devotees who came to him that silence was the purest teaching.  For him, it was that simple.

Here is what I wrote in my journal when I got home from climbing that mountain, tired and famished, sitting in my garden:

I climbed another mountain
Striding Edge
18km hike
1km ascent
7-8 hours
Found a waterfall in Grisedale
Found a cave
Found peace there
And beauty
And I can do it!
And the dog came and he was amazing and now he is tired.

And what is there in life, but seeking that beauty everywhere and knowing it for what it is.

And everything must lead to this.

And now I am in my garden, crying for the beauty of it all
And this is the quote from a poem by Stanley Kunitz that I found as I sat there and thumbed through a book that I am travelling with just now:

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.




  1. So I suppose you can make yourself both as small as an atom and as huge as a universe in Mountain Pose. I'd like to talk to angels! V.


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