The Silence of the Mountains

I underlined so many passages in Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness that I didn’t realize how relatively short it is until I started to write about it (it didn’t help that I bought the Kindle edition, and I still can’t estimate length by the number of electrons in the book.) So, I’m hesitant to include too many passages in my discussion of it.

Halifax’s suggests there are many ways of “questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation,” many ways of coping with “The World Wound.” Her table of contents provides a concise view of the many ways she discusses in her book:

1 The World Wound
2 The Way of Silence
3 The Way of Traditions
4 The Way of the Mountain
5 The Way of Language
6 The Way of Story
7 The Way of Nonduality
8 The Way of Protectors
9 The Way of the Ancestors
10 The Way of Compassion

One of the ways I was most familiar with is “The Way of Silence.” In fact, this passage seemed particularly familiar, for obvious reasons:

The poet Kathleen Raine once suggested, “It is not that birds speak, but men learn silence.” I think that it is when we learn silence that the birds speak to us. Fertile silence is like a placenta nourishing us from both emptiness and its connectedness with the greater organism of creation. Indeed, one aspect of silence is emptiness, and yes, it is often lonely. In the presence of silence, the conditioned self rattles and scratches. It begins to crumble like old leaves or worn rock. If we have courage, we take silence as medicine to cure us from our social ills, the suffering of self-centered alienation. In silence, sacred silence, we stand naked like trees in winter, all our secrets visible under our skin. And like winter’s tree, we appear dead but are yet alive.

If you’ve been visiting long enough you might remember an entry where I called myself “He Who Talks to Small Birds” accompanied by a shot of the hummingbird that hung out in my front garden and talked to me every time I came out to take photographs. Strangely enough, I considered that moment a high point in my life only paralleled by the moment when the Grey Jay flew down to take a piece of trail bar out of my hand when I was cross-country skiing on Mt. Hood.

I also identified strongly with the Chapter entitled “The Way of the Mountain” on many levels. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve spent most of my time backpacking or hiking in the mountains, whether Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, or The Olympics. There’s always been something spiritual about spending a week alone or with a small group of people in the mountains, even more so than climbing mountains.

And, as I’ve noted before, it is the love of the mountains that drew me to many of the Chinese writers:

Before Dogen and after Dogen, in Tibet, China, and Japan, wilderness, and most particularly the greatness of mountains, has called rustic ascetics to their strength and stillness. The Chinese ideograph for hsien and Japanese sen is made up of two parts, one meaning person, the other meaning mountain. In Taoism and in Ch’an Buddhism, the hsien was a spiritual practitioner who used the mountain as a birth gate to awakening. Japan, like China, had a number of spiritual schools inspired by mountain mind. The tradition of Taoist naturalism and Esoteric Buddhist cosmology and rituals combined in the background of Shinto asceticism to give rise to Shugendo. The ascetic practitioners of the Shugendo sect are called yamabushi or “those who lie down in the mountains.”

I suspect that the silence I encountered on those hikes and backpacks was one of the main reasons I loved spending a large part of my summers there. I’ve never really identified hiking in the mountains with meditation and silence, but looking back it’s clear that most hikes in the mountain were a form of walking meditation.