The mountains teemed with clouds, rolling over the peaks and churning into the valleys, the moss covered rocks glistening and then dimming with the wind, grey and rain. Sometimes it takes an inhuman landscape to remind you of your own humanity. The damp cold. The thick air. The struggle of each step as you slip up and down a steep, barren rockface. We scrambled up the sleek mountainside, the clouds swirling around and about us. Climbing down into the alpine tundras with its green grasses and bursting wildflowers, climbing up onto the bare and mostly flat mountaintops, the air so sightless with moisture that it began to feel like maybe we were wandering in circles in some other arctic dimension. The miles would pass, and eventually the clouds would clear for a few moments, revealing to us the majesty of the landscape as it existed apart from our imaginations and fears.
Cliffsides towering 3,600 feet above the fjord below; waterfalls bursting over the tops of them as some of the highest on Earth; boulders suspended between the faces of the mountain, trapped and suspended there with an elegant grace that only the passage of the eons can afford. The beauty of the Norwegian wilderness is overwhelming in a way that is both awesome and terrifying. It is a beauty that is as apathetic to your little existence as it is hostile to it. To quote John Muir and perhaps bring my own American sensibilities to the table, the beauty that exists in such places isn’t merely picturesque — it is something that is “at once awful and sublime.”
Watching the clouds gather and disperse that afternoon was like bearing witness to the respiration of the landscape itself. A breath in, and the skies and the fjords would open blue, each as gigantic as the other. A breath out, and back in the wind and rain we would be.
“It feels like Nature is teasing us,” Liila said, and maybe a game was all it really was. The difference between being in and out of the clouds was so dramatic, it was as if the world itself would disappear in that darkness. Sitting at what I knew in my mind to be the edge of a cliff over 3,000 feet high but seeing nothing but sightlessness, I began to wonder if the drop were really there. And then the skies would clear, only to reveal a sight more wondrous than could ever be imagined. It made me wonder what else I might be blind to, if only I could see. It made me reflect on the stories we always tell ourselves, framing our lives with narratives so we can make sense of them as if we understood. But then the world is rarely so concrete. The world teases us, and plays mysterious games. The cliffs above the Norwegian fjords are a testament to the merciless forces of Nature as we normally tend to think of it. But then “Nature” isn’t a thing “out there” for us to find. What is Nature, if it doesn’t exist as a part of ourselves? Nature is never separated from who we are, or even from our most creative or spiritual aspirations. Who is the creator, and who is it that aspires, if not the universe itself?
The strange, abstract thoughts continued to trail me during my time in Norway, as did the paradoxic feeling that I was in a landscape that was both inhuman in its forces and reality and yet inspirational enough to stir the deepest wellsprings of my apparently human consciousness. The Norwegian coast is itself a testament to the titanic powers of geology and time. At least 400 million years old, the rocks that underlie the Scandinavian Mountains were once connected not only to the Scottish Highlands to the south, but to the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. Once taller than the Himalayas are today, they were rent apart by the breaking apart of the supercontinent Pangea and carved away by the advance and retreat of glaciers over the many ice ages. Today Norway boasts a mountainous, mighty coastline over 18,000 miles long, each fjord a canyon-like opening to valleys that are each their own Yosemites, only with the ocean running through them. The mountains and fjords don’t feel merely as old as their geologic age proves them to be. Far more than that, they feel like places that transcend time itself.
But then perhaps the universe itself is a paradoxic opening: bound by time and space and yet ultimately beyond such conceptions altogether. It is so easy to develop a rigid worldview — the world is this way and not that. The Scandinavian Mountains are 400 million years old and the fjords were formed by glaciers and none of these things give a shit whether tiny humans live or die upon their brutal slopes or shores. And perhaps these things are true, insofar as much as they are factual. But what if the truth was more than just a fact? What if truth were something more? Contemplating the dynamic interplay of forces as I sat and meditated by the shores of the fjords, watching the clouds breathe and pass and die, the world didn’t feel nearly so static, and not nearly so boring. In philosophy, this is what Plato meant when he used the Greek word chora for “place.” Rather than signifying a static point upon a map, “place” for Plato meant a dynamic opening into reality that shifted with nebulous borders and intimately responded to human and cosmic subjectivity. But then what are we as humans ever doing, if not enacting our subjectivity in regards to our place? We assume that Nature is an unconscious, disenchanted set of laws, and from that worldview we seek to exploit its resources in the name of progress and end up destroying the life support system of the planet. In the words of any good Buddhist, “karma’s a bitch.”
To be in the universe is to be a part of a story. This is not just a human function, it is a function of the universe itself. Who else is doing the storytelling? You are the universe coming to know itself through your own particular form. The only question is, what is the empowering story? The uplifting story? The liberating story. Reflecting on these things, I opened my eyes after an evening meditation only to see Liila meditating beside me. Liila — etymologically meaning “that which we can’t rationally know,” colloquially meaning “the great Cosmic game.” And perhaps this is the greatest paradox of all — between knowledge and faith — between seeing and believing. Somewhere in the gap between the two poles of being there’s an open field upon which we can sit and stare in wonder of the fathomlessness of all that is. There, we can tell each other stories. Here’s to hoping they are each more beautiful than the last.