How to move a mountain

It’s morning at the farm and the spring air is airish. Precipitation is so fine that it seems to hang there, not falling, just wet. Last night’s rain left shallow puddles that reflect the gray skies above.

Task of the morning: move a mountain. In reality it’s a heap, but if you crouch down and squint a little… yep, mountain. Perspective is everything, and often one’s perspective is colored by one’s sense of control, or powerlessness, depending on the situation.

The mountain is a heap of wood chips. Ever wondered what seven cubic yards looks like? Have a dump truck drop that amount of anything on your yard, then you know. Seven cubic yards of wood chips is a Subaru wagon, spatially. Or a beluga whale.

The wood chips used to be a tree. Or, the wood chips are a tree, only in a different arrangement. Tree, the remix. The chips were dumped by a company called Care of Trees, LLC. Sometimes caring for trees means disintegrating them, carefully. The mountain is steaming in the airish air, alive with decomposition. Its energy is expressed in heat.

Time to move the mountain. Best tool: scoop shovel. Start by scooping the skirt of the mountain, where its base flanges out of the farm yard and where it threatens to block alley traffic (urban farming means always keep the neighbors happy). Scoop the skirt, drop it into the wheel barrow. Scoop and drop. Scoop and drop.

Whew. Out of breath already. Feeling weaker today due to a nasty infection of streptococcal bacteria. The tiny bugs that I can’t see are trying to destroy me from the tonsils out, and the Amoxicillin that I swallowed this morning is going to war by blocking the bugs from rebuilding their cell walls. The flora and fauna of my digestive system are collateral damage. War waging inside me, war waging outside me, but neither are me.

When you are sick, only be sick. Then you get everything and will be able to do anything … this is correct Zen sickness: sick time, only sick. No choice, no checking, not dependent, only sick. Then sick is not sick. This is high-class practice and high class education.

Zen Master Seung Sahn, Only Don’t Know

Mountain climbers say “don’t look down”. Mountain movers say “don’t look up”. Best not to worry about the mountain as a whole, just scoop and drop. This mountain ain’t gonna move itself. Scoop and drop, scoop and drop. Good rhythm going now. The tune of Donovan’s 1967 hit “There Is A Mountain” worms it’s way into my head.

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.

Ah. Ok. I felt that. Pain. Electric pain in the lower back. Mild panic that my body will revert to its old habits. Fear setting in. No problem. These are just thoughts and pain is just a sensation. Don’t let the two get entangled. Don’t spin it into neurosis. Not a problem but an opportunity. An opportunity to try a different tool. Ditch the scoop shovel. Grab a pitchfork. Much better. Longer handle for more leverage, lighter weight too. Lift with the legs, dummy. Don’t force it. Dad was right about that. Listen more often.

Don’t look up. You looked up. The mountain is no smaller. I’m sweating under my rain jacket, and now it’s raining in earnest. My throat is sore and I feel feverish. A group of my students could’ve knocked this out in an hour but they are on a field trip. The mountain is still encroaching into the alley and did I mention it is situated so that the farm gate won’t close? Mountain’s got to move.

Doubt creeps in. Why am I doing this again? Wood chips are necessary as a ground cover so the goats don’t get hoof rot. And the goats are coming. 550 children at my school are awaiting goats. The goats are coming and the mountain’s got to move. But why am I doing this? Why am I busting my hump in a low-paying job that is so obscure there’s hardly anyone to look to as a model? Why do children need to learn how to farm when they are far better off, financially speaking, by buying goat cheese from the store instead of going through the back-breaking expense of raising your own animals?  Doubt paralyzes me and for a long time I’m just standing there, leaning on my pitchfork like a soggy scarecrow, staring blankly into the mountain. The feeling is uncomfortable and yet so familiar.

Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors – people who have a certain hunger to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we are holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.

– Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart


I’m stuck. My head is killing me. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since my son was born ten months ago. Time to acknowledge the suck. Not good, not bad, just suck. Stuff earbuds into head and turn on the mantra of metal. Metal is today’s soundtrack to the suck.

And with grinding guitars in my ears, I chug along. I keep my head down and only scoop and drop. Scoop and drop, scoop and drop. Find rhythm in the breath and movement. I’m leaning in when I’d rather collapse. And then, out of nowhere I’m reminded of a monologue by Spaulding Gray called It’s A Slippery Slope, in which he describes his transformation into a competent skier.

And then it happened. It’s ineffable, I can’t tell you how it happened… I suddenly turned right (or something turned me right)…I’d be doing it and I’d think “you’re doing it, you’re skiing!” and I’d crash. It’s like zen but not as subtle. If you weren’t present you’d crash and the mountain would hit you. And then I realized at that moment that all my life I’d been doing a kind of subtle suicide. I’d always be somewhere else in my head…And now I am realizing that you have to be out of control to be in control. For a second you have to be falling…and then catch yourself.

The next time I look up, the wood chips are less a mountain, and more a crumbling pile. Head down, chug along further. The rain lets up, the clouds allow some sun to sneak through, and the pile has been reduced to a mere scattering of chips. So, to where has the mountain been moved?

Donovan’s psychedelic trip (First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is) wasn’t as far out as it may seem. The lyric is rooted in the teachings of a 9th century Zen scholar Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism.

Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.

More recently, Soto Zen Buddhist Priest Rev. Nonin Chowaney explained further

First seeing mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers means seeing them as fixed and solid entities in and of themselves.

Later seeing them as not mountains and not rivers means we understand that neither mountains nor rivers exist in and of themselves, that they are empty of inherent existence and made up of other beings that are also empty of inherent existence. For instance, there is nothing within a mountain that we can pull out and say, “this is mountain,” or, “this is what makes a mountain a mountain.” Mountains are made up of rocks, trees, grass, snow, water, rivers, ponds, lakes, insects, birds, animals, etc., etc., etc., and all of these things are made up of other things. So, there are no mountains and no rivers.

When we continue to practice, and our wisdom eye is fully opened, we realize that mountains are indeed mountains, and rivers are indeed rivers, for there is a mountain there and a river over here. However, we deeply understand that both “mountain” and “river” are merely words that we use to describe the conditioned phenomena in front of us. Neither phenomena is a fixed nor permanent entity that exists in and of itself and possesses inherent existence as “mountain,” or “river.” In other words we experience and understand their true nature, and the true nature of all beings.


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