The Upside Down Mountain

Exploring mountains as inspiration: the quest of the summit and journey earthbound, where the way up is down’. Introducing Descent for the here-and-now grit and gift of being human.

It was close to dark on the legendary Mount Bugarach in southeast France, and the weather worsening. I was wet, tired and dispirited. After hours scouting the least soggy place to camp, I sensed the mountain’s guidance, ‘the way up is down’. It sounded too good to be true – a case of buckled willpower and wishful thinking. I sat still and listened to the howling wind. Another intuitive prompt: ‘to go up, you must go down’. This time, I knew the instinct was real, and packed up my gear to descend to the warm dry refuge of the valley.

In the continuing stormy days, Buagarach, known as ‘the upside down mountain’, remained concealed in cloud. Waiting for the weather to clear, I had plenty of time to reflect on my frustration and impatience to get moving again. This wasn’t the first time I had plunged into disappointment following my intent to do something big, go somewhere interesting, or challenge myself in some way.

I had quit my BBC career to climb mountains some years before. I wanted adventure round-the-clock – with wind in my face, and where my hands did real work. After months chasing the seasons across hemispheres to scale summits, I woke up to two inescapable truths: I was terrified of heights and close to burnout. Committing to my dream hadn’t yielded the peace and fulfillment I craved. I had transferred the goal-driven values of my office life to one at altitude – and nothing had truly changed. I was as restless as ever before.

The Upside Down Mountain

At last I began to see how I’d traded the office commute for the climb uphill: those values, my values, were the same: invested in outcome, driven by achievement – the satisfaction hard won and short-lived. Lasting change meant transformation – and that could never be external. Changed circumstances – a new peak, relationship or job – were spiritual fast food. I would remain the famished denominator in all the disappointments, triumphs and fatigue.

Bad weather forced me to retreat from Bugarach. But the message went deeper. If ascent represented ideal, inspiration and feat – then descent, I was to discover, meant shifting my focus to the present, to embrace my own body’s here-and-now sensuous intelligence. I had to explore the restlessness that trailed me like a ‘twinge’ – which no manner of distraction, reinvention or avoidance would heal.

The first step was to address what lay behind the uncomfortable feeling of my unrest. This was to prove a gateway. And I could choose to really meet this restlessness, by descending into it, to discover what the uncomfortable ‘twinge’ of discontent itself would teach me, and what inner terrain it might reveal. I had to stop moving in order to face it. Struggle, the effort of doing and fear no longer had to be an exchange for the freedom I wanted to experience each and every day.

Accepting my restlessness allowed it to be felt fully, until it transformed. What would such an earth-bound voyage mean for a fulfilling life – consciously swapping the summit for the opposite direction?

The Upside Down Mountain tells the story of my descent – to find out why no manner of thriving prospects inspired the happiness I yearned. Among the wild landscapes of the Pyrenees, the Amazon swamps, Tibet and Egypt, I chose to penetrate the depths of darkness so long avoided. The journey not destination was what then mattered. I no longer wanted to be cut off from the neck down – but to welcome my full-blooded feeling nature as the human being I am, however uncomfortable that can be.

I have learnt experience makes life meaningful – not the ideas, thoughts or beliefs about it, including the story of ‘tomorrow’. A new map guides me now, in, down and through – to embody the change I seek. I don’t have to climb a mountain or travel anywhere to remember that. And when I forget – again – there is a map to reset my inner compass, feeling my way ever onwards: the way up is down.

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Mags MacKean
The Upside Down Mountain
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