It is hard to see the forest for the trees but most of us traverse up two mountains in our lifetime. We start to climb our first mountain when we are young, as we establish our identity and satisfy our ego. We learn how to navigate our personal journey, often through trial and error, as we make our mark in the world and carve out our unique niche. We discover our first love, obtain our first job, buy our first car, find our first apartment as we slowly build our personal story and come into our individuality. As we keep climbing up the ladder, our accomplishments ultimately evolve into a career, marriage & family and buying our first home (this is the typical trajectory and socially accepted norm for our communal definition of success). All along, we are building, acquiring, creating an identity and making a name for ourselves, equally defined by these achievements.
But somewhere along our journey, adversity rears its ugly head and problems arise. It can be as subtle as the discovery that our career is not fulfilling and leaving us feeling empty or as earth shattering as divorce, disease or death in the family. It is a life event that rocks your world, shatters your foundation and has you fall down from the mountain you have spent your whole life climbing. Often, one crisis precedes the next like a domino effect, such as a painful divorce that leads you to drinking which causes you to lose your job which creates a financial catastrophe.
And so it happens, you fall off your mountain and careen into the valley, lost, hurt, broken, disoriented, spinning out of control. The mental construct you spent your whole life creating either had a major crack in the armor or collapsed like a house of cards. You are no longer on terra firma and now unsure of everything you once thought was permanent. Everything you fought and struggled so hard for that you deemed important now feels hollow.
As we traverse in this valley, confused, questioning everything and perhaps full of self-pity, we start to absorb new realities. We slowly take notice that even though our world is crashing around us, the outside world is still functioning just fine: You see lovers holding hands walking in the park; people happily commuting to work; shoppers at the mall. In other words, the realization that the world does not revolve around you sets in and this epiphany thus starts the catalyst for transcending ego. The world is indeed much larger than any of us and this new understanding allows us to not be bound by ego.
Make no mistake, this is a painful process to dwell in this valley and can take years, often decades, to make sense of this seismic shift in your life (I’m on my eighth year in the valley). But with perseverance comes clarity and new understanding as you slowly realize the mountain you’ve been climbing all your younger life was not your mountain. Your mountain now is to go deeper within yourself while seeking moral elevation. It’s no longer about building, buying or acquiring but rather seeking and searching for purpose and fulfillment. You realize the phenomenon of impermanence and that everything you built, bought or acquired will either dissolve or no longer be of interest to you. Even you, once self-deemed invincible, will one day leave this earth. This transcendent shift compels you to see life with new lens. You now want to make a difference, give to others, contribute in a meaningful way. The paradox is it’s less external and more internal, yet somehow finding a way to deeply connect with community, church, family and friends. The first mountain was your material mountain, the second mountain your spiritual mountain.
We each have our unique timeline for when we fall off, or choose to leave, our first mountain. It is a traumatic experience that can be gradual or explosive, but most of us do take that transformational plunge off our first mountain. We may call it our midlife crisis but it can happen earlier or far later in life. Equally, the valley may be a short respite or an agonizingly long journey, with many not having the internal fortitude to embark on the second mountain and discover our spiritual path. Perhaps it can be said that no one ever fully reaches the apex of either mountain but that is not the point; it is not the destination but rather the arduous journey. If you take a holistic view of your life, perhaps you will see where you are on your journey within the context of this perspective and take comfort that there is a master plan in the making.