Of Mountains and Valleys

Image

Kashmir valley, image credit

“Call the world if you please ‘the vale of soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.”

John Keats, in a letter

Mountain valleys can be breathtakingly beautiful. Lusciously green, nested between high mountains, with streams, rivulets and wisps of clouds, they are a picture of safe haven, an all-embracing fertile womb.

“Its characteristic fertility stands in contrast to the nature of the desert (symbolically a place of purification), of the ocean (which represents the Origin of life but which, in relation to man’s existence, is sterile), and of the mountain (the region characterized by snows and the ascetic, contemplative life, or by intellectual illumination). In short, the valley is symbolic of life itself and is the mystic abode of shepherd and priest.”

Juan Eduardo Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols (entry: valley)

James Hillman distinguishes between soul and spirit using the image of a valley and a mountain respectively. He calls valleys “the places of nymphs,” since one of the etymological roots of the word “valley” equals nymphs with “wisps and clouds of mist clinging to valleys, mountainsides, and water sources.”  But valleys are not only lush and green places of enchantment. We all know the biblical valley of the shadow of death; some of us have heard the expression “the vale of tears” used to describe the world. If a valley can be looked upon as an image of the soul, sadness seems to be inevitably attached to it. There is no soul-making without tears. The soul needs moisture to thrive.

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Kashmir valley, image credit

Mountains, on the other hand, have been traditionally associated with “loftiness of spirit” in symbolism. On the peak of the mountain heaven touches earth. The feeling we get standing on the top of the mountain is different to the one we experience while being gently embraced by the valley below. Perhaps this is what Maslow meant by “peak experience”: heart racing in euphoria, the feeling of awe and inspiration, dizziness and clarity felt at the same time, the feeling of being placed outside of time and space.

James Hillman quotes the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, who wrote in a letter to Peter Goullart:

“The relation of height to spirituality is not merely metaphorical. It is physical reality. The most spiritual people on this planet live in the highest places. So do the most spiritual flowers…. I call the high and light aspects of my being spirit and the dark and heavy aspect soul.
Soul is at home in the deep, shaded valleys. Heavy torpid flowers saturated with black grow there. The rivers flow like warm syrup. They empty into huge oceans of soul.
Spirit is a land of high, white peaks and glittering jewel-like lakes and flowers. Life is sparse and sounds travel great distances.
There is soul music, soul food, soul dancing, and soul love….
When the soul triumphed, the herdsmen came to the lamaseries, for soul is communal and loves humming in unison. But the creative soul craves spirit. Out of the jungles of the lamasery, the most beautiful monks one day bid farewell to their comrades and go to make their solitary journey toward the peaks, there to mate with the cosmos….
No spirit broods over lofty desolation; for desolation is of the depths, as is brooding. At these heights, spirit leaves soul far behind…
People need to climb the mountain not simply because it is there but because the soulful divinity needs to be mated with the spirit…”

(the edited quote comes from Hillman but I strongly encourage you to look at Stephen’s comment below in the comment section to see the original letter)

I am really discovering Hillman’s writing these days, allowing myself to be embraced by its soulfulness. At first I had the same feelings regarding the Dalai Lama quote as Hillman: I am not too fond of it, at least not entirely. Heavy torpid flowers in a valley? I do not think the nymphs would agree. However, after I read Stephen’s comment below (please take a look at it) my criticism relented completely. Still,drawing a very sharp distinction between spirit and soul does not appeal to me. Says Hillman:

„To give definitions of spirit and soul – the one abstract, unified, concentrated; the other concrete, multiple, immanent – puts the distinction and the problem into the language of spirit. We would already have left the valley. We would be making differences like a surveyor, laying out what belongs to whom according to logic and law rather than according to imagination.”

The spirit is outside space and time, the soul is historical and bound by time and matter. But the soul abhors such definitions and clear-cut divisions. The soul embraces everything, including spirit.

Image

Kashmir valley, image credit

Source of quotations:

James Hillman, Senex and Puer, Uniform Edition volume 3

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18 Responses to Of Mountains and Valleys

  1. ptero9 says:

    It’s thrilling to hear your thoughts on Hillman’s ideas Monika! Hillman’s soul as perspective, a way to see through with his emphasis on matter, make my heart sing to some important and forgotten truth(s).

    This example of mountain and valley as places is excellent for showing how Hillman uses places that matter to draw our imaginations into an idea. Thank you!

  2. Marie Taylor says:

    much to ponder. there is room for both soul and spirit. lovely photos.

  3. Wonderful post, with stunning pictures! I’ve been living in the mountains for 12 years now (I lived by the ocean for 20 years before that). I have to say that the mountains and the deep forests are much more in tune with my soul. There is something indescribably about climbing to the top of a mountain and looking out upon the expansive vistas. Once it warms up, I’m going for a hike. 😉

    • I am blessed to live near the Alps and I could not get enough of them. I have the same feeling towards deep forests as you do. I need the mountains more than I need the sea. But I have never seen the ocean – bummer. Thank you for this comment!

  4. stephen says:

    Dear Monika,

    Thanks once again for the lovely, thoughtful post. My wife is North-Indian, and feels most at home in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas. I love the valleys, but I visited Ladakh with her, and my experience of the area tells me that what the Dalai Lama says is true. There is a purity and simplicity there like nowhere else I have been. It is carried by the land and the people.

    I wanted to share the original letter of the Dalai Lama in its entirety here (from Delattre, Tales of a Dalai Lama, pp. 36-38), because I think it contextualizes the Dalai Lama’s use of the word torpid, which is obscured in Hillman’s redaction. Tibetan Buddhism, as you know, has a pretty well established tantric and alchemical legacy, and it appears that he was at least partly speaking alchemically. When we read the entire letter we can see that not only does the Dailai Lama understand the paradoxical interconnectivity of spirit and matter, but also the necessity for discrimination in practice. He is not giving a literalist interpretation (as Hillman states in a part of his commentary not reproduced here), but a tantric teaching cloaked simultaneously in the language of metaphor and of the natural world. It is a both-and, rather than an either-or position. The paradox is that we live in a physical reality that is not only separate from spirit (dualism), but reflects it (as above so below), represents it metaphorically (e.g., in myth), and is also everywhere identical with it (non-dual). The Dalai Lama himself is an incarnation not only of a line of human beings, but of Avalokiteshvara (“he who looks down”—thus his statement at the end of the letter)—at once human and divine, a living, breathing coincidentia oppositorum.

    “Dear Mr. Goullart,
    The relation to spirituality is not merely metaphorical. It is a physical reality. The most spiritual people on this planet live in the highest places. So do the most spiritual flowers. But all of life, high and low, is imbued with God and is God. I am God and I should know. Like vapor from the earth, all creation ascends and descends; but since the creation is round, this movement appears as contraction and expansion—the breath: OM.
    I call the high and light aspect of my being spirit and the dark and heavy aspect soul.
    Soul is at home in the deep, shaded valleys. Heavy torpid flowers saturated with black grow there. The rivers flow like warm syrup. They empty into huge oceans of soul.
    Spirit is a land of high, white peaks and glittering jewellike lakes and flowers. Life is sparse and sounds travel great distances.
    There is soul music, soul food, soul dancing and soul love; and there is the same of spirit.
    My people were conceived when my soul in the form of a monkey went up from the jungle to ravish the demoness who lived among the snowy peaks. In me, spirit and soul were united as the herdsmen of the high plateaus. When the soul triumphed, the herdsmen came to the lamaseries, for soul is communal and loves humming in unison. But the creative soul craves spirit. Out of the jungle of the lamasery, the most beautiful monks one day bid farewell to their comrades and go to make their solitary journey toward the peaks, there to mate with the cosmos. What they leave behind, like a pure drop of their passion for God, is the Primula glacialis, Dalai Lama of the flowers.
    Mr. Goullart, no spirit broods over the lofty desolation; for desolation is of the depths, as is brooding. At these heights, spirit leaves soul far behind. To the Primula glacialis, wind, landslides, hail and frost are not “cruel,” for all these elements are as high as the flower. Perhaps someday, you will learn that your people need to climb the mountain not simply “because it is there,” but because the soulful divinity needs to be mated with spirit. May you have the pleasure someday as I did of seeing her from above, like a flower trembling in the wind with all her fragile petals spread; and may you descend upon her gently, like the snow.”

    Sincerely,
    The Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet

    • Dear Stephen, I am quite shocked at the amount of creative editing Hillman did to the original letter. I am going to leave my post as it is but I will add a postscript directing readers to your comment. I am very, very grateful for your comment. Thank you very much.

  5. Don says:

    Monika, just another beautiful post. So much I’d like to say, but let me focus on those words by the Dalai Lama. I have never heard the distinction between soul and spirit put in such a magnificent way. The language is simply sublime. Concepts like spirit and soul do not submit to conceptual language that’s why the language used by the Dalai Lama is so powerfully descriptive and endearing. That’s the only kind of language one can use, and even though it still remains inadequate it has the capacity to open it all up and allow you in to feel and experience – beautiful. Thank you..

  6. jeanraffa says:

    You’ve addressed a theme that is very important to me. As one who spends my summers in a valley ringed by forested mountains, I loved everything about it, especially the Keats quote: “Call the world if you please ‘the vale of soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.” Two women friends tell me that being at our place feels like being in a snug womb surrounded by loving arms. After a lifetime of devoting myself to mental, academic, and spiritual pursuits, it is a relief beyond measure to retreat to this special place where I indulge in soulful pastimes that feel deeply spiritual and restorative. When we built our cabin in ’84 we named it Perivale Lodge. “Peri” is a Persian fairy, a magical, enchanted sprite. “Vale” is, of course, a valley, and “lodge” a temporary habitation. So this is my temporary habitation in an enchanted valley, a place which sustains both spirit and soul. Thank you for an especially beautiful post.

    • Oh, how absolutely wonderful for you! I really love the name Perivale Lodge. I also take a lot of time when inventing new names. I am very grateful for your wonderful comment.

  7. this was a beautiful, inspiring read… thank you.

  8. shreejacob says:

    I am reading Edgar Cayce’s Spirit and Soul. I thought I had understood Spirit and Soul…but now not so much. Reading this has brought me a step or two closer to understanding it…thank you 🙂

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