valley vs mountain (1)

A question that came in recently:

“I can accept the moment is as its supposed to be but have issues with accepting things like the Rwanda genocide (and other human made atrocities) was it was supposed to be.”

This question points to a larger issue we face when we engage spiritual practice. I think of the path I am encouraging as a “valley” approach rather than a “mountain-top” approach to life. The mountain-top approach encourages climbing higher and higher, and flirts with the idea of transcending the world. The valley approach, on the other hand, is about going down, not up. It’s not a waking “up” but a waking “down.” By down I mean: into the body (valley), not the rarefied atmosphere of the head (mountain-top). It is about the richness, the lushness and the composting of our stuff in the valley, not about “transcending” our stuff on the mountain.

Another way to talk about the apparent dichotomy of these movement is to call the valley approach feminine, and the mountain one masculine. The valley accepts the refuse of the cities, and in the composting of the refuse grows the lotus, while the mountain rejects the refuse in search of rarefied atmospheres. Te problem is there is little nourishment in those rarefied airs.

The mountain-top approach is all about peak experiences, while the valley is about the ordinary life of oatmeal, children and paying bills. So in valley spirituality there is little concern for transcendence. “Ordinary mind is the way” is a famous line from an old Zen teacher of 9th century China.

Some spiritual traditions encourage transcendence from the very things that make for a “passionately engaged life” (Catherine Ingram’s line). The mountain-top approach emphasizes the transient, ephemeral nature of life. This translates often into the world as unreal thinking, and a hankering after what is real–some sort of spiritual “upgrade” in some other-world transcendence. One big aspect of this type of thinking is in belief systems that encourage this view: it’s not real, it’s all perfect, or it’s all karma.

I contend that the valley way is not about belief systems at all, but rather on opening to what is, in all it’s chaos, confusion, misery and boggling senseless tragedy. The mountain way seems to de-sensitize us into thinking it’s not real, or it’s happening as it should be due to some cosmic plan, or that it’s all due to karma.

Frankly, I have little person resonance with any of these belief systems (granted, the valley way as I describe it is a belief system as well.) Belief systems serve to buffer our selves from the “real” world. Worse, these belief systems are used to justify horrendous self-centeredness and spiritual narcissism. If it’s not real, we can do whatever serves to help me transcend illusion. If it’s ll happening as it should then even my greed is perfect. And on and on.

The confusion rises when in practice, as in mediation, we take the view of the “perfection” of the moment. This simple means that it’s too late to change the present moment, so we accept is as it is. This is meant to encourage the valley qualities of openness, warmth, compassion, non-striving and relaxation. It does not mean that things are happening as they should be due to some plan or karma (frankly, who can ever prove karma?–for me it’s juts another belief system). We try to relax into the “perfection” of the present moment as it is–BUT that also means we allow our hearts to break over and over again at the the madness and cruelty on a massive scale that is happening in the world. This means we actively engage in whatever we can to alleviate suffering as suffering is real. We do what we can to work to change chauvinistic systems that oppress others in the name of some higher power. But we do this out of mature compassion–the suffering with others.

There is much more to say, but I hope this helps in seeing how we can easily buy in to ways to isolate ourselves from the very real tragedies that are happening all around us. Spiritual practice serves us in this process of bearing witness with love and compassion.