This last week I had a chance to spend time hiking in the Swiss mountains. I am not what you would call a hiker, so this has been one of those beautiful experiences to take in majesty and beauty in a way that makes my heart overflow — and to ponder mysteries that ordinarily I overlook.
Many of my favorite moments of awe are like this: when the everyday, all of a sudden, turns into the luminous. Or rather, when my eyes adjust, and a once-sleepy heart comes to see the luminous already present in the everyday.
The hike yesterday took me to a place where the waters flow from all around, where snow-capped mountains melt away slowly into gushing waters and water bursts forth from inside those mountains, pouring out with a majesty and force that humbles the heart. I could see why the great scholar Imam Ghazali reads waters gushing in the valleys as the intimate knowledge of God that fills hearts.
The water from the snow was blue, blue in a way that I had never seen before. I sent a picture of it to my beautiful daughter, and she wrote back asking if the water had been artificially colored. No, it is actually that blue, that pure, that majestic. Above is an unfiltered, undoctored picture of what the gushing rivers look like.
I thought also about what is pure in my own heart — and what defiles it, what pollutes it.
The mountains here are stony, and often filled with granite. The Swiss use stone like granite to line up the roof of their charming antique “rustico” homes, and use broken pieces of stone to create little walls for their gardens.
Many of the stones at the top of the river are jagged, sharp, and hard.
Running my hands on these stones, as I often do when I walk, I found a few of them scratched my hands. These stones are not to be messed with! Still, I walked…
Hiking for a few hours, I followed the curvature of the river. Where the river went, I went. The river bent to the right, I went to the right. The river cut through a mountain, I walked through the mountain. I let go of my own sense of direction, and submitted to the will of something more grand than myself.
After a couple of hours hiking, I noticed something lovely about the stones. The same stones as the ones above the river, but something about these stones was different: they were soft, smooth, and gentle to touch.
How amazing this gushing water, water patient enough to cut through rocks, water to smooth the most jagged rocks over.
How powerful to realize that something as soft as water can cut through the hardest material like stone. How lovely to see that the jagged and the hard can and do become soft and smooth, but do so slowly, invisibly, incrementally.
The river and the stone have me thinking about hardness, and softness. I came back and again to that familiar poem of Rumi’s, that I have written about once before:
Don’t claim in spring on stone some verdure grows
Be soft like soil to raise a lovely rose—
For years you’ve been a stony-hearted man
Try being like the soil now if you can!
The river, the blue water, the gushing has had me thinking about aging, and the passing of life. I’ve thought about how all of this is inside us: the rivers are us, the stones are us, the rough edges are us, and the smooth is us. The smoothening process is also us.
We connect to nature because we are nature. It is us. It is around us. We are inside her. When we are most un-natural is when we see ourselves as cut off. This hardness and softness, this river and hard stone and soft stone, all of this is inside us.
It makes me ponder how we so easily value jaggedness, hardness, and what we cherish as “individuality” of rough edges over the smoothness. I wonder about a culture that would cherish those who have been smoothened out by the river of time, no longer rough to touch, or hold.
We in the West have such a complicated relationship with aging. We do not do “aging” well. We don’t honor the aged among us, and have a worshipping attitude towards the young. In our cities, the places frequented by the youth are advertised and public, the homes for the elderly secluded and hidden away.
I wonder… I wonder what it would be like to look at river of life as a gushing torrent of mercy that smoothens out our rough edges.
I wonder what it would be to hold the smoothness not as a sign of having been beaten down into submission, but rather of letting go, letting go of the hardness and the sharpness.
I wonder if we could cherish smoothness, softness of a heart once as hard as stone. I wonder about a love that would gush through the heart, softening it like that Swiss river.
I wonder… If we are ready to praise the effect of the river of time on our own bodies. To put the matter at the level of our bodies, I wonder if we are prepared to see laugh lines on our face not as something to be covered up but as a celebration of life’s lessons.
I wonder if we can once again recall that in so many cultures, the words for “spiritual teacher” and “elder” are one and the same. I wonder if we can see that there is a wisdom that comes not just from reading books (or blog posts), but having accumulated life experiences that are accumulated inside our bones. And how to transmit these life experiences, knowing that all we can do is to point the way, and the young must still walk their own path.
I look back on my own life’s river, wondering whose hands I have injured — and who I continue to injure — when my own heart’s stone was more jagged. And how I might reach back to them, head lowered, and ask for forgiveness.
I wonder about those in my own life, silent and wise, polished stones, with wisdom of a lifetime ready to share.
Let me look deep into your face, friends.
Let me seek out every laugh line, and every wrinkle.
Tell me, friend, what river of wisdom flows through each of the valleys on your face?