Spiritual evolution is often likened to the journey up a mountain.
So often in this metaphor, the story ends at the top of the mountain, as if when we reach that final peak it’s The End, roll credits, happily ever after. As if somehow we can freeze time on this beautiful peak and stay in that euphoria forever. The teachings that are so often skipped over in spirituality are of the descent back down the mountain. The focus remains rigidly on the light, and we are not taught how to love the dark.
I like to think it’s pretty clear that the journey cannot end at the top. Any mountaineer will tell you that, as much joy as there is standing on that summit, what goes up must come back down. And the down is often just as hard, if not harder, than the up.
But there is something incredibly pure about the descent.
On the way back down you get the best light, because as the sun nears the end of its own descent it begins to illuminate the mountains in a truly magical way. You get to see and feel the raw, real fullness of the mountain. So often, especially at dusk, the journey down is when its wildness really takes center stage. The slopes and edges are emphasized in the evening’s deep shadows as the creatures of the mountain start to prowl, allowing the humility of where we stand in the food chain to be witnessed and experienced.
These days I’m a bit more interested in the “mountain descent” kind of enlightenment.
The kind that doesn’t exclude anything. The kind that takes the high and bright experience from the top and brings it back down into the valleys. The kind that shines into all the shadowy nooks of the forest and brings forth deeper insight, a natural aliveness, and the full spectrum of wildness available to those who stay ’til dark and bravely listen.
The peaks are indeed euphoric; standing there gazing across the vast expanse of the world is exhilarating and inspiring, and the quality of awe and beauty is one I could never express in words. But to me, the juicy part of the journey is the down: the insistent dismantling of our innate arrogance that nature demands in her authentic wildness. The part of the journey that is not absent of the darker layers of human experience. The story that’s inclusive of it all.
On mountain tops it’s easy to reach those states of high love, joy, clarity and bliss.
What comes after that, however, is the ability to bring them back down into all the cracks and corners of our being, those vulnerable and tender spaces. The heights are not the only place to find fulfillment. There is a depth of aliveness available ongoingly throughout the whole journey, every moment and every step along the way. “Enlightenment” isn’t an end point, it isn’t a summit to reach, even including the climb up. It’s a million snapshots all along the way from bottom to top and back down again. Enlightenment is way too full for it to end there.
Just like a mountain, it is way too big, too all-encompassing, and too unapologetically real for it to leave us with only the positive emotions and the high points of human existence. If we want to use mountains to describe the spiritual journey, let’s start including the descent and the darkness – the lengthening shadows, the deep valleys, the raging storms, and our hapless stumbling through the trees – because leaving all of that out would mean the absence of fullness. It would be only the vaguest impression of what it means to be human.
If you are a human being on a spiritual journey, I celebrate you.
I celebrate you upon those peaks of human experience… and I am also there with you in the dark moments. The painful ones, the scary ones, the gut wrenching struggling ones. These are the moments that bond us together and keep us united. These are the moments we can all connect with and relate to. Don’t try to stay there on that peak, disconnected from your humanity; come on back down and reach for the hand of a loved one. Share in the tragic beauty of what it is to be human.
If the mountains have taught me anything, it is that there is an unrelenting presence available in every moment, a presence that gives us the endless capacity to feel the depth of all emotions. All of them, not just the pleasant ones. This presence is there in each breath, ready to carry us into and through both the highest joy and the deepest pain. And – maybe most importantly – it’s there to silently find the smallest, darkest, scariest places… and to love them all the way home.