Zen And The Art Of The Summit

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My left shoulder pushes into my flannel night-shirt, then the comfy mattress underneath. My hip sinks into it, warmth and comfort spreading out into my belly, down my legs. Thick layers of blankets pulled all the way up to my chin offering a stark contrast to the coolness of my cheeks and the end of my nose. I am awake. Remnants of a forgotten dream flow through my thoughts. 

My eyes open to a pale, grey outline around the window shades, letting me know that morning will soon be here. There is a burst of pleasant tingling in the centre of my chest as I remember where I am. Any minute now, the retreat bell ringer will walk past our rooms. Her melodic ting, ting, tinging letting us know that the first meditation of our long day is about to begin. I love these meditation retreats. The silence. The stillness. There is such peace here, such clarity. So much time to see the love in one’s heart. I can feel my grin beam out into the darkness. I roll onto my back and take my arms overhead in a stretch. There’s a lightness in my bones today as if something has shifted while I slept. 

I have completed about fifteen of these retreats now and the process is becoming familiar. In the beginning, there was day- after- day effort and striving. Painful sitting, hour by hour. Then, inevitably, came a shift into stillness and with any luck, some great insight. The insights tended to be about how I hadn’t been loving myself, how I had been pushing too hard, how I had been standing in my own way. I muse – what insight will I have today? 

I take my morning slowly. I can’t help it. That lightness in my bones wants me to be joyful and who am I not to obey? I go with it. I chose to make a cup of tea and sip my way through it with precise awareness. A thought comes every now and then and I watch them with curiosity. Where do they come from? Where do they go? It doesn’t bother me. There is too much happening, right here, right now, with my tea. Its creamy liquid warms me as it travels down my throat. As I exhale, my warm breath makes swirling clouds in the morning air. 

I walk slowly to the meditation hall, stopping to witness miracles unfolding. The curling of a leaf on a tree. The unwinding of a light pink rose. A tiny bug on a long narrow stem bending it as it walks, tight-roped, from one end to the other. The smells of budding morning, of warming dew, as the sun begins its journey. 


In the hall it happens, my legs crossed in half lotus, my hands resting delicately in my lap, my mind still and open. A deep and liberating wisdom. Kate, it says, stop trying to be happy. This wisdom knows that I’ve managed to make trying to be happy, just another thing to strive for, something that will happen in another time, in a future that will never exist. But happiness can only happen now. Moment by moment. In an instant, I stop striving. I sit, resting in magnificent silence. It’s so peaceful. I’m so… happy. I almost giggle out loud. We humans are so funny. Tears escape from behind closed eyelids, roll elegantly down my cheeks and plummet, unafraid, to the earth. The clarity of this insight is remarkable. And yet I consider, haven’t they all been like this? That’s it, I’ll think, after some huge awakening. I’m perfect just the way I am. I’ll love myself unconditionally now. All these moments of insight, carrying the same message in a different package. Stop trying. Accept yourself for who you are. Love yourself. Just be you. 

I suddenly remember the snow-covered peak near my old house in Tahoe. We called it Sunrise Bowl because you could summit the whole peak before work in the morning. I remember Bobo, my beloved Labrador, running in circles in the back of my car, knowing where we were going. He would make these silly little leaps in the snow as I fastened my snowshoes, strapped my snowboard to my pack and set the mouthpiece of my water hose in place. 

girl and dog in snow.jpg

“Come on buddy”, I’d say, “lets go” and he’d bound out ahead, just as excited as ever no matter how many times we came here. Every climb, a new climb to him. My warm breath would make those same swirling clouds with the morning air, my ears would find that same sound of silence. And up we’d go. I would try to model myself after Bobo, mimicking his light step, his joy, his enthusiasm. He would put his head down, wag his tail and just keep going, one paw after another. He never looked up to the summit. He didn’t care how far we had to go. This was for him about the hiking itself. He taught me that this is how we should proceed. A long bike ride, a trip down the river, a big project, the writing of a book. One snowshoe and one paw in front of another. As we climbed he’d turn back and hang his tongue at me, breathing heavily as I did, stopping when I stopped, then pushing on ahead. And then suddenly we would be there, at the top, the snow walls clearing into an unobstructed view. There was nowhere left to go, nothing left to do and nothing blocking our sight. The pushing, the climbing was over. Bobo didn’t seem to care. It was clear the summit meant nothing to him. He would just stand there and stare at me as I marvelled at what was around us, waiting for some signal that I was ready to descend.

Every summit was slightly different. Sometimes the wind whipped across our faces invigorating us. Sometimes the air was still and calm but paradoxically, it always felt the same. Simple. No enemies, no problems, no worries just the two of us, looking down on a brilliant world below. Eventually, I would begin to switch my gear. Bobo would make those silly leaps in the snow again as I would fasten my snowboard to my boots and strap my snowshoes to my pack. “Come on, buddy,” I’d say, “let’s go”. 

The slow, deep ringing of the meditation bell hits me. Its vibration finds each waiting cell and, for a moment, they vibrate together. I smile deeply, slowly, mindfully uncrossing my legs. As I walk outside the hall doors, the cool air greets me. This time, I feel a subtle letting go of the insight. I think about Bobo. How little he cared for the summit. How excited he always was to go down. We had to go down. His doggy wisdom knew that. If we didn’t, we couldn’t come back next week, make little leaps in the snow and climb again. 

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