Contemplating the reasons why we seek to repeat experiences.
– “Our” mountain –
There is a mountain we sometimes call our own. We climb it at least 30 times a season. On an early August day, when the wildflowers on the way up were so thick that it took our breath away, we waded through a scintillating firework of color. The Avalanche Lilies sparkled on the slopes where the last snow had just melted, the Tiger Lilies and Larkspur brushed our legs, and thick stands of Cow Parsnip greeted us like spectators on a parade, insects swarming and feasting on them. Thistles leaned over the trail, inviting me to gently touch them with my cupped hand, which felt like caressing the snout of Shou-shou, our cat.
Beyond the trails, where the rock begins, there is a system of dramatic lofty ridges leading up to the summit. After years of exploring we have our favorite route: The “Diretissima”, a no-nonsense, knife-sharp ridge reaching up to the summit without the slightest deviation. It is not the place to fool around and yet still okay to do without rope and belay, (but that always remains a highly debatable personal issue!)
Why do we climb up there so many times? Occasionally I ask myself this question. It is really beautiful, and I know how our mind craves more of what it liked one time. To simply repeat what once was perceived as good is the standard strategy in our “great pursuit of happiness”.
But one day we might make a mistake and fall. We know every move now, every hold, every crack. There is the danger of becoming careless. The rock is loose in the Olympics, but mountains are like persons, you have to know them and take them for what they are.
Exposure like that is objectively dangerous, but I think it is a principal error to believe that danger should be avoided at all cost. Danger must be understood and respected. Danger is a condition, a price. Danger can be a price worth paying. It’s rare that one seeks danger for its own sake, it’s not rare that beautiful things are dangerous. And in the final analysis, life is intrinsically dangerous. Life is a process of reacting to danger. Or put another way, the security one often perceives when staying out of danger is mostly a great illusion.
Parvin took another route parallel to mine, equally satisfying, and close enough to be able to communicate occasionally and share our enjoyment and savoring our togetherness. She arrived on the summit way before me, although I had tried hard to beat her. She smiled down on me when I powered up the last pinnacle breathing like a steam engine.
There is not much room on the first summit, and we usually traverse over to the other summit, a lofty scramble with a few technicalities that used to be problems but became delightful details over the years.
A few clouds have rolled in from the sea, crawled up the valleys, and created a phenomenal backdrop for the scenery.
I have seen the magnificent view now a hundred times. The cloudscapes, the glistening snow peaks in the south, glaciers, rocks, and the thin blue haze of summer, satiating the distance with magic. This blueness of distant mountains that fills the heart with yearning, with this dreaming of endless carefree summer days, of gentle heat, of freedom, adventure, and the joy of living. The slopes and valleys below, covered with the filigreed structure of forest, the trees, bathed in sunlight, inexhaustible variations of hues of green with this tinge of gold glowing over the tops, a shade that seems to move with the wind and flow over the ridges. Forest everywhere, untouched, untainted, the unspeakable sweetness of ageless life. Heather-covered ridges in the distance, meadows, still sprinkled with snow patches, calling, ringing with memories. And the Strait in the north, the blue ocean, patterns of wind playing on the surface, cloud banks floating in the distance, a few ships in imperceptible motion, traveling toward their faraway destinations. Deep below the town, the smoke of the mill indicating the usual fresh west wind. Canada and Vancouver Island, some tiny, glittering reflections of Victoria and the San Juan Islands in the distant haze. The glory of Mt.Baker, over 80 miles away, its white snow cone reaching up into thin air. The Cascades to the east, the smog of Seattle lingering underneath. To the west the open Pacific.
There is a danger in repetition that is in fact the essence of addiction – to do something again because you know it, because it is familiar. We do something again because we prefer what we know to what we don’t. In a deeply tragic way this preference is by no means realistic. What is familiar is so often far from being optimal or even desirably at all.
You can fool yourself forever by wanting something again, anticipating a recurrence of past happiness. But there is a most interesting side effect: By still doing it again and again, deliberately, intentionally, and by gradually becoming aware of the factual behavior, you can create a new mysterious, miraculous perspective of knowing what you’re doing, instead of just doing it. You can check if you are really there or just going through the motions of being there.
In the act of repetition lies the potential power of practice, of practicing paying attention, practicing to not forget to pay attention. When danger accompanies you with every move mindfulness and attention are direct survival skills. However, most of the time it is not exactly the danger of falling to your death that is walking with you, but it is the danger of missing your life, of getting lost in blind repetition and living somewhere beside reality, in a made-up world instead of the real one, of preferring what was or what once pleased to what actually is. Repetition is training of mindfulness, repetition is learning to wake up.
When I sit on our summit I not only look, I see myself looking. And this seeing is fresh and new each time; it cannot be repeated, it can only be resumed. You cannot repeat finding something beautiful, but you can repeat looking for beauty again and again, and each time it’s different.
And, in a heart-breaking way, it is actually only beautiful the first time. No one can escape this apparently so tragic ultimate disappointment forever. It’s the first time that captures our imagination, that truly inspires us. But there is another layer to this insight, a profoundly liberating aspect, trivial by definition but as exciting as each new breath we take or the morning sun greeting us every day: There are as many first times as there are moments in this universe. There is no repetition, no beginning, no ending. It all starts the moment we pay attention, and it ceases when we don’t. Repetition is just an idea, an arbitrary interpretation of observation based on a lack of precision.
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Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010