Be on the Mountain

Susan Cooke

My attempts at meditation have been spotty. I tried it on and off for some time, and even took a class at the Benson Institute in Boston where they try to help people with physical and/or emotional issues by teaching various forms of meditation, a little yoga, and a good deal of cognitive therapy (where they ask things like “Do you really think that person hates you or do you think maybe they were just having a very bad day?” which is certainly helpful to know about.)

It appears most of us can benefit from some of these practices, especially Americans in our chaotic cities, trying as we must to navigate the many days per year that are stressful for so many reasons. This post though is specifically about something I chanced upon while navigating my own super-stress not so long ago. I was fighting a terrible depression that arose from one of the usual suspects–a prolonged traumatic experience. My trauma was caused by a town tyrant bullying my family out of its few remaining funds as we tried to downsize and move from another city to our tiny new house in the new town. I was afraid through the weeks it continued that we’d end up homeless since our funds were draining fast as we tried to pay rent in the first town where we were living temporarily (and where I knew no one, which made me more vulnerable), and pay the mortgage on the very small house we’d built in the new town. My more resilient husband got some support from colleagues at his office, so luckily he got through the crisis in better shape. I won’t go into details here, but we finally in desperation hired a lawyer who within days he stopped the bully. But it was too late for me. A couple of weeks earlier, I fell one day–or my brain did–into a terrifying dark canyon. I could not eat, and could barely talk. This, I learned, was depression caused by extended traumatic stress. I thought I’d been depressed somewhat at times in the past, but I had no idea it could be like this.

I couldn’t physically tolerate the meds–they dried my eyes so severely I got corneal abrasions. We read books on depression and tried what we could to get me back to something like normal. I discovered after beginning to try meditation and finding it upsetting, that some experts believe it’s not always good to meditate when you’re deep in a depression, and better to wait till you’re climbing out a little. I did the other things they recommend: exercise, being out in sunlight, and being with people more (difficult since I didn’t work in an office and all the coffee shops’ music was so loud I couldn’t last in most more than two minutes). So I was more isolated than was healthy, and while I added more exercise in the sunlight because I knew it would help later, it didn’t feel like it was helping for a long time.

When I felt ready I tried CDs of guided meditation, other CDs that are supposed to help you sleep if that’s part of your problem (it was), and CDs of massage music since I knew some of that might be relaxing. Most didn’t help much, and some made me agitated. Finally I stumbled on some music that used combinations of sounds I found soothing–Native American and Asian flutes, some Eastern-sounding delicate cymbals, and crickets! It all seemed to transport me to a new place where there was a little relief. I’d read it’s helpful to have a restful place in our minds to help us feel calmer, especially when we’re upset, but had wrestled with figuring out what that was for me. This music made it easy to visualize such a place, and once I did I realized it was the only place where I could imagine this music being heard.

I didn’t think about the place much, other than when I imagined it during those few minutes on days when I tried to do something like meditation. But weeks later I noticed that sometimes when I couldn’t relax or felt depressed again, that I was telling myself something new:  “Be on the mountain.”  I realized the place the music had conjured up had become part of me. It was on a mountain, a wide mountain ledge in Nepal (why? I’ve never been to Nepal!)  It was spring or summer, twilight but late enough that stars had begun to appear. Below was a small town with cafes and lights, and a small harbor leading to the ocean. Little boats rocked gently in the harbor, moonlight shone on the waves, and there was a gentle, warm breeze. Behind me on the ledge was a beautiful garden filled with fragrant plants and trees, then more mountain above it. The music came from below, and was played every night so that everyone around–in the harbor, the town, and on the mountain, was at peace, with themselves and with everyone else. Next to me were several much-loved animals–my childhood collie, a horse I rode in the Colorado woods for two summers, two cats who adopted me, the fawn and the lamb I held in my arms both on the same day, and the goat with soulful eyes at a rescue zoo in Maine who never left my side for nearly an hour.

When I am on this mountain, I feel calmer on some nights than others, but the miracle is that I feel calm at all. For a constantly whirling mind this is a great gift. I’ve accepted that it’s okay that this isn’t any particular kind of meditation, as far as I know, and I don’t know if it’s helping my brain a lot or a little, but I’m much better off going there fairly often than I am never going at all. I didn’t think it was possible for this to happen to me, that is, I look forward to those few minutes, whether it’s 3 or 20 or more.

I wish everyone could be on this mountain at least occasionally, feel what I feel there, then take it into their stressed out crazy lives and let it change them a little. In my imagination there is no place or need on the mountain for frantic speed, vast wealth, hatred, violence, gun protection, or cruelty. People are terribly considerate, and love and protect animals and each other. They find ways to live in the modern world that don’t cut them off but are the most peaceful possible, so everyone is soothed by nature every day  (without leaf-blowers and with many fewer aircraft overhead, or at least quiet aircraft which I hear is becoming possible!)  Relieving suffering and creating ways to live a peaceful, healthy life are  also priorities on this mountain. No one goes hungry because there are fruit and vegetable farms everywhere. There are no gas-powered machines of any kind–they’re all electric and quiet–so you can hear the wind in the leaves, and if it’s nighttime focus on the beauty of the stars. The lack of fumes means you can smell the jasmine, lilies, and roses in the gardens.

That’s not so impossible, not so very far from where we are if we put some group effort into getting there, is it? The human body isn’t designed to hear loud motors and smell fumes most of every day–it’s just too stressful, even if you think you’re used to it. Nor are our brains immune to the chronic stress caused by seeing or just knowing that others are suffering. We’ll all be happier and healthier if we live where nature without noise is available to us most of the time, and where we know all who suffer are getting help. For example we need to know our city, state, and country are helping the homeless and hungry right now, all day and every day—that wellbeing is a priority for all leaders. In my ideal place there is just no room left for selfish, narcissistic, or non-caring leaders.

I know I sound naive to many, but I can’t help believing these things are possible because we are as close to being there as we are to being in a much worse place. So why not go for the best one? So I wish for us all that soon we’ll have only caring people in power. I wish for you that soon you find your own mountain (or forest or seashore) and spend some time there.

The CD:

World Flute Lullabies, Native American & Asian Flutes for Sleep Therapy, by Lullaby Tribe (“ioda” seems to be the brand.). Not every cut is perfect, but on the whole it’s the best collection for me, and the third one is about 20 minutes long and one of my favorites. That one is good also if you’re looking for one meditation period about that long. I had to buy 2 copies because the first would not play. I took it off my ipod and use a cd player now for it because it took up too much room (80 minutes) but you could pick the cuts that do the most for you (if this turns out to be the right album for you) and just buy those. This group has made some other albums as well.