I’d never climbed a mountain before. I guess living in Toronto can do that to a person, as Toronto is one of the flattest cities around – except the Prairies, of course. Come to think about it, Toronto is rather dull geographically speaking: no mountains to speak of, no oceans (we’ve got Lake Ontario, one of the so-called Great Lakes, but come on, it’s just a lake!), no deserts, no jungles, no savannahs, no steppes, just a couple of forests with some squirrels and birds, and the occasional raccoon or pigeon in the inner city. And so, it was with some awe that i discovered that not only is the Korean peninsula bordered by the sea on all three sides that do not connect to China (which is what saves it from being an island and preserves its peninsula status), but it is literally dotted with perhaps hundreds of mountains.
Having come from a non-mountainous region, I didn’t even consider that these mountains could be climbed. I mean, I’ve seen documentaries and movies about mountain-climbing, and i had a friend who used to do indoor rock-climbing, but for some reason, it never occurred to me that i could actually go and climb the hundreds of mountains dotting the Korean landscape. To me, mountain-climbing was something one did in Tibet, usually on a mountain called Everest, or perhaps K2. Well, that’s the damage that too much television and movies can do to you: it estranges you from reality!
The reality is that in the very city in which I’m currently living, Ilsan, a suburb northwest of Seoul, there is a mountain about 5 minutes’ walking distance from my first apartment, called Jeongbal-san (the suffix “-san” means mountain in Korean, similar to the English Mount, or Mt.). In my next post, i’ll be blogging about Jeongbal-san, which i don’t consider mountain-climbing as it only takes 15 minutes to reach the peak. No, i didn’t really climb a mountain until my brother’s girlfriend took me to Bukhan-san, north of Seoul.
“Buk”means “north” and “Han” refers to the Han River, the main river that flows through the heart of Seoul. At 836.5 metres, it’s quite an impressive mountain, especially to me, a kid from Toronto.
Bukhan-san took us over two hours to climb. As well, there aren’t the pretty little trails that lead up Jeongbal-san. At the base, we started off on some of those pretty little trails, but they soon petered out leaving us with nothing but bare rocks.
We literally had to use our hands and feet and climb like monkeys.
Some people had these hiking poles, but i don’t see what use they could have been. Gloves, on the other hand (or both hands, if you please) would have been nice, but novice climbers that we were (mountain virgins), we didn’t have gloves. I’ve since climbed another imposing mountain, Dobong-san, 739.5 metres (what’s with the 0.5 metres?), and i did it without gloves. I’ve decided not to buy gloves, but it’s getting cold and i’m rethinking that strategy.
For those of you who haven’t climbed mountains, or gone rock-climbing, it’s a pretty adrenaline-pumping experience. I mean, it’s not like a walk in the park or something. One careless step and you could be dead or paralyzed for life.
I’m not sure if I’m scared of heights, or if it’s just a normal, healthy reaction to the prospect of death, but sometimes when I turned around to take a picture, my hands would start sweating and my heart would pound. However, I tend to think this fear is normal, as it didn’t stop me from reaching the peak of Bukhan-san and it doesn’t stop me from continuing to climb mountains.
THE METAPHOR OF MOUNTAIN-CLIMBING
The interesting thing I found is that the stereotype of climbing mountains as some sort of metaphor for taking on life’s challenges and reaching success is true, but on more levels than just the surface one. Yes, there is the upward aspect of it; like most of life’s challenges, it’s an upward battle. And yes, the peak is like a goal that one is trying to reach in life. And yes, it is difficult and you will be afraid, and sometimes you will want to stop, and some people do and they may look with regret at the peak they never reached, but they will not, for the life of them, climb up any further.
But, there is more to it than that. As I was climbing, I realized that there are many paths up the mountain. Just as in life, people take whatever route or path that suits them, and it’s ok, for all paths lead to the peak.
Also, I realized that mountain-climbing, as with most challenges in life, is a solitary thing (as Conrad says in his novel “Lord Jim”, or rather, as he has his narrator Marlow say, “We live as we dream, alone.”). Yes, I did go with my brother and his girlfriend, but as we started climbing like monkeys, clambering our individual routes over the rocks, there was little chance for talking or socializing, except for the occasional pause to rest (i guess that’s like meeting up with friends for a meal or a drink and talking about what we’re doing with our lives).
Climbing alone also resulted in a super-concentrated focus. Everything else fell away from me except the mountain and my hands and feet. I found that i didn’t even have to think about where to put my hands and feet; they just found the places they had to go. I was on “auto-pilot”, and in this trance-like state, there was a calmness within me that was neither inside nor outside, neither here nor there. Athletes and psychologists call this “the zone”, a state of effortless perfection, where everything falls into place. Artists call it being inspired by the Muse, Taoists call it “effortless effort”, and Buddhists and Hindi gurus call it “meditation”. As i climbed the mountain, i realized that mountain climbing was mountain meditation.
Freudian psychiatrists might say that actions that allow you to go into auto-pilot reduce the super-ego, and thus allow your id to surface. Jungians might say that your consciousness, or persona, subsides and your subconscious, or animus/anima, emerge, including contact with the Shadow. Cognitive scientists would say that what is happening is that by engaging in some sort of repetitive action, you go on auto-pilot because your beta brain waves diminish in intensity and your alpha brain waves increase in intensity, thus allowing you to achieve an almost dream-like state, aka meditation.
MEDITATION IN ACTION
You may have noticed this when you’re doing something monotonous or something you’ve done a thousand times before, like driving or doing the dishes; as long as you are engaged in some task that allows you to go on auto-pilot, you’re ready for some meditation. Of course, some forms of meditation are more dangerous than others (like driving and mountain-climbing), which is probably why Buddhist monks have developed relatively safe forms of meditation. Besides the well-known seated meditation, there are other forms of meditation, called meditation in action, such as walking meditation, and as this self-professed non-Zen Buddhist monk (but really, what is a Zen Buddhist monk? Just a shaved head and simple robes? If meditation is not just seated lotus position, can a Buddhist monk simply be a shaved head and simple robes?) says, in rule #10, “Make cleaning and cooking become meditation”. In fact, as s/he states in rule #6, “Develop rituals.” If one follows the twelve simple rules outlined by this self-professed non-Zen Buddhist monk (how Buddhist s/he already seems in this humble self-negation!), then everything becomes meditation, everything becomes ritual, including running, as the author of these 12 rules states is her/his meditation in action.
In fact, even for those “real” Zen Buddhist monks with shaved head and robes and wooden clogs, there are extreme forms of meditation. For example, the Japanese Tendai Buddhist monks of Mt. Hiei run ultra-marathons that would seemingly kill a person as a form of meditation. These ultra-marathons (that word doesn’t even do justice to what these monks must do) must run for 1,000 days over a span of seven years for distances starting from 40 km/day for 100 – 200 consecutive days/year, and towards the end of the seven-year meditation, up to 84 kim/day for 100 consecutive days! That’s two marathons back-to-back in one day for 100 consecutive days!
Furthermore, they do this without the benefit of Nike running shoes or all that running gear that clogs up our stores. They wear monk’s robes and wooden clogs, which reminds me of the Tarahumara natives of Mexico who run on makeshift sandals, and run on a diet of rice, miso soup and tofu (think about this the next time you dig into your steak, thinking that will make a man out of you!). As well, there are all sorts of rituals to be upheld during the run. For a full description of this extreme form of meditation in action, check it out here.
Like the humble self-professed non-Zen Buddhist monk, I try to make everything i do in my life a ritual and form of meditation, if not worship, from cleaning, to cooking, to eating, to making/drinking coffee, to walking, to shopping, to taking the bus/subway, to working, to writing my blog, to working out, to smoking my evening cigarette (yes, non-Zen Buddhist monks can smoke!), to making love, to talking to and being with my beloved, to playing the piano, to gardening, to yoga, to dish-washing (one of my favorites!) and most recently, to mountain-climbing. Although not as extreme as the monks of Mt. Hiei (Hiei-san in Korean :), I have dedicated myself to climbing a different mountain surrounding the Seoul area every weekend, for the next four weeks.
THE MOUNTAIN MEDITATION RITUAL
There were originally five mountains surrounding Seoul that i wanted to climb every weekend: Bukhan-san, Dobong-san, Surak-san, Gwanak-san, and Cheonggye-san. I chose those five because they are of significant height. I have ordered them in descending order from highest (Bukhans-san at 836.5 metres down to Cheonggye-san at 620 metres). It was purely coincidental that my brother’s girlfriend took us to climb Bukhan-san, the highest mountain first, for I hadn’t even thought about my weekly mountain climbing ritual in descending order…but, really, are there such things as coincidences, just random chance occurrences? Isn’t life really ordered if you think about it? If you meditate on it?
Perhaps, Jung was right in his concept of synchronicity, although i think he was a bit tame and pulled back from the full conclusion: he states that synchronicity doesn’t compete with the scientists’ concept of causality. He cautiously (perhaps with respect to his physicist friends, Einstein and Pauli) accepts the veracity of causality, but posits that there might be another form of ordering events according to meaning rather than cause.
I, however, would push the concept of synchronicity to its fullest conclusion and even say that there is no such thing as causality, only synchronicity. I think causality is a mere subset of synchronicity. When pushed to this extreme, synchronicity is too weak, or polite a word to describe what I mean, for it has the connotation of two things just happening together. No, what I mean is something much deeper than that. It is akin to what Jung and Pauli call Unus Mundus, or One/Unified World/Universe. It is the Big Picture, the Universal Meaning, what some call God, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Brahman, the Infinite Intelligence, the Grand Scheme of Things, Divine Providence, Destiny, Fate, what I call the Infinite Creative Force, or ICF for short. Well, i guess we can forgive Jung and Pauli for calling it Unus Mundus and stopping short at God, since they wanted to skirt the issue of God as it was a thorny issue back then for many scientists and philosophers.
THE BIG PICTURE
So, skirting that issue, we move on to no accidents, just the failure to see the Bigger Picture. Was i meant to climb these mountains in that particular order? The question has no meaning. I’m doing it. And, Bukhan-san was my first. There was a gap of three weeks between Bukhan-san and Dobong-san, the second on my list, because i hadn’t yet established that the timing of the ritual would be weekly, but also because other things came up, like helping out with a debating club, moving apartments, and cleaning new apartment and doing laundry, all of which were fine forms of meditation in their own right. However, the weekly ritual of mountain-climbing soon became apparent as my life settled down into simplified ritual. I do it on the weekends because during the week i have other forms of meditation, such as walking, taking the bus/subway, working (private tutoring), going to the library, shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.
I suppose it is only fitting that i started with the highest mountain and worked my way down, rather than starting with the lowest mountain and working my way up. Bukhan-san has turned out to be a meditation on meditation, a meta-meditation, where i meditate on what it means to mountain-meditate and determine its ritual. The prefix “meta-” derives from the Greek word “meta” meaning “after, beside, with, among”, and was used to denote Aristotle’s Metaphysics as simply being written “after” his Physics. However, Latin translators read more deeply into this and since the Metaphysics deals with those things that are seemingly beyond, or above the physics of the physical world, such as the existence of God, the prefix “meta-” came to denote any subject that was deemed “beyond”, “above”, or “higher” than the subject to which it is added.
Thus, meta-math would be the subject of math that is higher than math in the sense that it establishes the terms or rules of math, rather than actually doing the math. Or meta-music would be music theory, or meta-…well, you get the picture. So, Bukhan-san, being the highest of the Seoul mountains, above and beyond the other mountains is appropriately a meta-mountain and therefore, inspires a meta-meditation, or a meditation upon meditation.