No, no, it’s not that kind of article. I’m talking about getting high on geography, and specifically in mountainous places of higher altitude. I’m currently visiting the Austrian Alps, placed at about 3,700 feet (1120 meters) above sea level. As I live only 128 feet above sea level, this represents a massive shift in elevation. As a result, I feel the changes on every level. This has got me thinking about mountain spirituality, and the parallels between high altitude and the ability to obtain an expanded sense of consciousness. I don’t necessarily mean “peak experiences” (though they’re called that for good reason, and many mountaineers and pilgrims can attest to them). What I’m referring to is perhaps a little less mind bending and transcendental, though no less important. It is the increased ability to enter a state of mind that is more reflective, spacious, and full of equanimity. I’d like to explore why mountains, and the Alps in particular, invoke this kind of response.
Adaptation to Environment
One reason why we may enter into a different state of mind is due to the powerful effect of the mountain environment. The Hermetic maxim “as above, so below, as within, so without” epitomises the idea that we are internally effected by our external environment. There is a natural adaptation that occurs. We see this maxim being played on the physical plane, too, as the body acclimates itself to the effects of higher altitude.
In Austria it’s nearing the end of winter, yet there’s still deep snow everywhere. The air is fresh and cold, cutting through the sinuses like a knife. The waters that run down the mountain passes are completely transparent, and the sun comes out each day like clockwork, illuminating the pine trees and clear blue sky. The land sparkles with snow crystals, framed all around by tall mountain peaks. This alpine environment embodies the qualities of purity, freshness and cleanliness. It produces a corresponding effect on one’s inner world.
When I’m outside walking and the bracing wind kicks up I feel internally cooled down and mentally swept clean. Breathing in the crisp air I get an immediate sense of renewal and detoxification. The atmosphere is helping to cleanse the mind of unnecessary mental debris. This, in turn, makes me feel more open. Being cleansed and refreshed, I have more inner space available for reflection, to gain greater perspective on life and its challenges.
Oftentimes, when we talk about life’s challenges, we talk about ‘reaching for higher ground’, and ‘taking the high road’. Both statements depict the need for obtaining both a wider personal perspective and equanimity, an inner state of stability and composure. We must make an ascent in order to reach this place. Mountains symbolise the difficulty in doing so. It’s hard work to remain composed and calm in the face of challenge and hardship. It’s hard work to ascend. However, when we reach the higher ground we’ve expanded our view on the situation.
Proximity to the Divine
The challenge of ascent is echoed in the panoramic views and grand vistas that only higher altitudes can bring. These bring increased perspective and a “God’s eye” view. Only then is it easier to detach from problems. With a more expansive viewpoint, the bonds we have with certain problems may be loosened, and life priorities re-shifted. Mountains offer visionary power to see things in a different light. As Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains?” Austen hints at the idea that we meet with forces greater than ourselves when we encounter mountainous environments. These forces range from the wild abandon of Nature, to earth spirits, to the Creator of everything that is.
In nearly all religious traditions, mountains are considered sacred places of worship and reverence. They are depicted as meeting points with the Divine, and pilgrimage to such holy places occurs all over the world. The thought is, if you want a meeting with the god or gods of your understanding, go to the mountain. I believe this is because of proximity.
Physically speaking, in higher altitudes we are literally that much closer to the edge of the earth’s boundary with the universe. Caught between sea level and the cosmos, we enter into a liminal space. We’re neither exactly down on the ground, nor up in space. I think this strange physical proximity also produces a kind of spiritual proximity which forms the essence of mountain spirituality. The word liminality is derived from the Latin word for threshold, so when we are in the mountains, we are resting on the threshold between the human and the Divine.
The Albedo Effect
Mountains are known for inspiring stillness, calm and reflection. Now, it could be the hypoxia, but I do notice an energetic deceleration – a slowing down – alongside an urge to turn inwards for deeper self-reflection. It is probably no coincidence that in Buddhism and Taoism one is encouraged to practice equanimity by becoming like the mountain: calm and balanced, especially in the face of difficulty. The practice involves turning the consciousness inward, becoming mindful through self-reflection.
I find there is also a connection between the mountains, self-reflection, and Alchemy. As practiced in the West, Alchemy is a philosophical tradition that uses the idea of the chemical transmutation of turning lead into gold as a metaphor for spiritual development. The soul is thought to undergo myriad process and phases in order to evolve. One of these phases is albedo, also known as “the whitening”. Albedo is also referred to in alchemical texts as the stage of the moon. During this phase an individual may withdraw from the world and turn within, in order for the soul to become aware of its own “light” nature. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, so the individual enters into a period of reflection in order to gain insights about purpose and meaning. This process is referred to in alchemical texts as “sublimatio”, a rising up from the ordinary routines of daily, mundane life and their inherent challenges. Mountains, and particularly those with white capped peaks such as the Alps, can become important symbols and catalysts for this process.
Albedo is known in scientific circles as the reflection coefficient. As a measurement, it represents the reflecting power of a surface. And areas with more snow have a higher albedo reading. Albedo is, among other things, responsible for driving weather and affecting the climate of a place. I see a parallel here with the alchemical concept of albedo – reflecting power drives change.
Mountain spirituality is all about taking us higher and expanding our sense of self. Through the purity of environment and the higher altitude, we arrive at a liminal space between heaven and earth. Entering this threshold we may encounter forces greater than ourselves, and also connect with powerful inner forces that help facilitate self-reflection, greater life perspective, and equanimity.