The closest I’ve come to meditating is while climbing a mountain. Burdens strapped tight on the back, braving the chill in the thin air, and the stabs on your lungs. Head turned down, watching every step intently and reveling in the mild surprise of having come this far.
The painful gasping for that precious breath of air, as your head grows dizzy, and knowing that you have to take that one last step, maybe one more. The rhythm that your body is hammered into. Inhaling and exhaling, with studied concentration, matched to every rise and fall of your feet. You learn what resonance means, up in the mountains. Your breath sounds like the powerful chanting of ancient mantras. The zigzag path you must take to cut down the elevation.
It struck me after a couple of treks that there is something more to the labyrinthine way locals merrily trudge along steep mountain slopes. There’s science to the art of willfully keeping one’s head down while swaying to some invisible music that seems to call them onwards, effortlessly.
It also struck me that when you walk with your eyes on the ground, you tend to notice the tiny things. That lone stem of grass jutting out of a moist, moss covered stone, swaying as if in a trance, the gentle mountain wind.
The veins of an overturned half dried leaf shining in a playful ray of sunshine. That gleaming rain drop balanced on the solitary blade of grass.
The magical color Rhododendron petals leave when trodden over. The crafted symmetry of those tiny flowers dotting alpine meadows. And then there is sheer amazement every time you look up.
Colorful prayer flags fluttering merrily in the wind. That threatening shade of the sky a moment before it rains. The color of a bruise made half permanent. Eagles soaring or at times magically static still further up in the sky. Double rainbows after flash showers and wooly clouds flitting by moodily.
The barren austerity of cold desert mountains, uncannily resembling meditating monks in the ghostly light of a now sunken sun. Rain in pockets in the valley below. As if a flippant god decided to shower it down on a little part of his territory. Cairns like mute watchmen of a world long departed. The mesmerizing sound of faraway water gurgling down somewhere.
That surreal moment when 4-5 different mosques scattered over the whole expanse of underlying valley call the ‘faithful to their knees’ at azaan time, and it all gets pieced together in a maddening rush to one strange echo-less prayer. Roads turning into streams, and streams into rocks, rocks into pebbles, and pebbles back into roads. The relief of knowing pure physical exertion, drowning down mental turmoil like nothing else can.
And little realizations that come unlooked for. A tiny drop of shocking red on virgin white snow wakes you up to your precious illusions. A dull ache through your body makes you blissfully aware and headily masterful of it.
There would almost certainly be a point where you’d contemplate what jumping down from the edge of the mountain top would feel like. And you’d note with surprising clarity that this moment invariably coincides with the moment when you’ve felt the most alive.
You realize fear/panic makes you claw with ferocity, hold on to whatever you can grab while helplessness makes you let go, look heavenwards and pray. Then there are little things about yourself that you’ll accidentally discover. Like, when you’re sliding down a snowy mountainside at breakneck speed, and have to choose between jagged rocks and ice cold water, you would swerve towards the rocks.
You’ll also learn that the shearing pain in countless body parts after a day long trek can be dulled to background static with 3 draughts of Old Monk washed straight down from the blessed bottle.
“When it hurts we return to the bank of certain rivers”, says Milosz.
I think it’s mountains we return to.
That feeling of Awe. Of Smallness.
Of knowing it will never end but it is ending every minute.
Every climb is reconciliation to the fact that perhaps even eternity is also a mere moment that shall pass. Every climb is like a hymn, to all that lies just out of reach, of all that that could have been, but never will be.
And lying face up in that rarefied air, looking at clouds forming surreal images over your head, in a state where pain is indistinguishable from joy, you will realize that a brief glimpse is all you will ever have.