The Altamont Pass
Once or twice a week, on my way to and from work, I pass through the Altamont Pass. It was beginning of Spring and as I was driving through the mountains, the mountains looked beautiful with carpets of green covering its top. The Altamont Pass landscape, with its rolling terrain, one flowing into another like waves in the ocean, is indeed a sight to behold. On a few occasions the sight of white fluffy clouds descending and covering the top of the mountains is really beautiful to look at. And the tall windmills with their blades spinning in the wind add beauty to the terrain. This was a few weeks ago and these days as I drive through the pass, the green grass has turned dry and brown. The beautiful mountain pass looks bare and empty. I miss the mountains with its green grass. But at the same time, the mountain, with its dryness speaks to me at a deeper level than what my naked eyes could behold. My limited perception of the terrain beauty hit me hard with truths about human nature; suffering and the path to peace and happiness. The lessons I learned (and still continue to learn):
1. My perception of beauty is defined by certain concepts (green grass) and this limits my understanding and appreciation of beauty to be found everywhere and in everything. In my rational mind I have pre-determined and fixed labels that consider what is beautiful. Any reality that does not fit into those compartmentalized pigeonholes, my mind rejects them as non-beautiful. This is equally true even with my comprehension of God, religion, sacred, holy, salvation, aesthetics, moral, race, ethnicity, politics, … By naming and labeling I close myself to reality as it is. The terrain, with its brown tops, is still beautiful but my mind clings to beauty solely in terms of green tops. Words, names, and labels are essential and functional and are vehicles to communicate our ideas, thoughts, and reflections. But reality is beyond names and forms. The beauty of reality, as it is, cannot be limited to rationally and logically defined concepts. I limited my grasp and appreciation of beauty purely in terms of green grass and that prevented me to relish the beauty of the mountain pass with its dry grass as well. When I label reality (and labelling leads to comparisons) I limit reality to my perception alone and miss out on beauty that is beyond my limited concepts and labels. This is true not just with beauty alone but even with other realities of life as well. It is difficult to be open to reality and to each and every experience without the memory of the past. But with mindfulness practice we can be with reality as it is without superimposing our pre-determined and fixed concepts.
2. The beautiful green grass on the mountains that eventually turned into brown dry grass re-enforced the truth that nothing however beautiful is permanent. Every single breath that is so essential for me to continue to exist is not permanent. Neither my mind, body, emotions, feelings, perceptions, sensations, mental constructs, memories, experiences, relationships, possessions, social status, education, … are not permanent. Non-permanence is part of reality. Expecting permanence and attachment to that which by nature is constantly changing makes me realize that I cannot cling to anyone or anything. Intellectually I am aware of this truth but I wish I can make it as my guiding principle and it is this that will enable me to be free of misery and suffering. The truth is to experience fully whatever the present moment brings along in a non-clinging way and let it go. Isn’t this what is meant by living in the present moment or the ‘now’? This too shall pass is the mantra. All that is beautiful, lovely, exotic, and precious and even all that is painful and sorrowful will pass away. I recall the prayer of St. Theresa of Avila. “All things are passing. God never changes.” It is not being stoic or indifferent but to embrace life in its totality and experience the present moment and then let it go. Not expecting and desiring permanence in reality and in my experiences of life is what will set me free. Is there anything constant except change itself? But even that is constantly in the process of change. Nothing is permanent except God alone. And so in the words of St. Theresa again, “God alone suffices.” Meditative path is of great help to live a life of non-clinging.
3. I realized that what makes the mountain to be a mountain is not the green or the brown grass but the ‘mountain-ness.’ In philosophical terms, it is the substance and not the accidents that make a being to be what it is. A being continues to be a being even if the accidents/the periphery change. The mountain does not stop being a mountain because the externals have changed. The mountain remains the same during different seasons. This is true not just about the mountain but about me as well. What define me are not the externals and the acquired but the true self that is in the image and likeness of God. Constantly I need to remind myself that ‘I am’ not the body, the mind, the memories, the feelings, the experiences, the senses, and the consciousness. ‘I am’ not my sexuality, my age, being beautiful or ugly, my social relationships, being healthy or unhealthy, experiencing pain/sorrow or happiness. ‘I am’ neither my hurts and betrayals nor praises and blame. ‘I am’ not my degrees, my job, my possessions, my status in the society, the caste/race/group I am born into. All these are externals and passing but my true self is beyond all dualities and contrasts. ‘I am’ is the image and likeness of God, the spark of the divine. It never changes, that is what I am. It is this and this alone that defines me. All the rest are externals and accidents. If only I can constantly return to this truth and live from this truth alone…
Here are few quotes for our reflection:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same… If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much: If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
If - Rudyard Kipling
As a solid mass of rock is not stirred by the wind,
So a sage is not moved by praise and blame.
As a deep lake is clear and undisturbed,
So a sage becomes clear upon hearing the Dharma.
Virtuous people always let go.
They don’t prattle about pleasures and desires.
Touched by happiness and then by suffering,
The sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.
One whose mind remains undisturbed amidst misery, who does not crave for pleasure, and who is free from attachment, fear, and anger, is called a sage of steady wisdom.
One who remains unattached under all conditions, and is neither delighted by good fortune nor dejected by tribulation, he is a sage with perfect knowledge.
Bhagavad Gita 2: 56-57