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notes from a virtual mountaintop retreat

Christine King

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After almost 60 years of trying, I'd finally had enough! Enough of other humans — and most of all, enough of myself and my endlessly frustrating habits that weren't getting me anywhere I wanted to be. I decided to “drop out” and take myself on a virtual retreat to an imaginary mountaintop for as long as it took.

That experience changed my life.

The mountaintop of my imagination was a vast plateau of bare, grey rock, with nothing but a small hut and a camp fire set a little way back from the top of a cliff. When I would stand at the edge, I was looking out over the treetops of an ancient forest which stretched as far as the eye could see. It felt like somewhere in South America, even though I've never been there and had no particular affinity for the place. Perhaps I'd seen something like it in a documentary. With no other human habitation and not even any wildlife in sight, it likely represented the most remote and isolated place I could imagine myself being.

At first I was there on my own, which was exactly what I wanted. A short while later, though, a cat suddenly appeared in the hut, curled up comfortably on the narrow bed where I slept, as if he'd been there all along. He was one of those svelte, lavender-point Siamese cats, which was incongruous and a little amusing because I've never owned such a cat; I'm not sure I've even met one! This cat, whom I still think of as just Cat, taught me perhaps the most important thing I've ever learned about the art of being.

After several days, we ventured down the mountain to get some supplies from the little town that I somehow knew was in the valley below, hidden from my mountaintop view. I still wanted to have as little as possible to do with other people, so it was simply a grocery run. Cat came with me, riding along in my backpack when he didn't want to walk any further. (He really was a “precious” sort of cat. Funny that he's entirely a work of my imagination…)

On the way back out of the town, a young dog joined us. He was a skinny, flea-infested stray, probably only a few months old. Unlike Cat, he was a mutt, mostly white with brown patches. I suppose I could have given him a cool name, but I called him Dog. I loved him from the moment he joined us, but it just didn't feel important to give either of these wonderful companions a name. I didn't use my name with them, either. It simply wasn't important, as it was always clear who was who, without the need for name tags. In fact, we communicated everything without words — simple, direct, and clear.

Cat and Dog stayed with me for the rest of my retreat, and they remain with me still (as does my mountain “home”). Both taught me some essential things about the art of living, starting with the importance of rest and relaxation, the art of doing nothing (or at least, of seeming to do nothing). For many days after he first joined us, Dog did nothing but eat and sleep until he'd filled out nicely and his coat was smooth and shiny. Then he revealed an irrepressible appetite for joy, and for adventure.

A few weeks into my retreat, Cat, Dog, and I decided to explore the rest of our mountaintop. I discovered to my surprise that we were not alone up there; a few other people were living on “my” mountain. Each proved to be a cautionary tale about withdrawal and isolation; and one showed me the folly of looking outside of myself for spiritual experiences and enlightenment.

Some time later, a man showed up at the hut, looking like I probably did when I first arrived: exhausted, defeated, and longing for solitude. We barely spoke, other than to acknowledge our shared journey. I knew that he needed to be left alone, just as I had done when I first arrived, so for the most part we didn't interact.

But there is one incident worth mentioning which occurred shortly after his arrival. Cat appeared in the doorway of the hut, and I was astonished to see that the man was frozen in fear: where I saw my now-familiar companion (a domestic cat), the man saw a jaguar! I found that fascinating. All a figment of my imagination, this incident was showing me, in entertaining detail, how my mind can conjure things to fear which are so far removed from reality, or from another's experience, that they can turn a friendly house-cat into a fearsome wild beast.

My other constant companion on this retreat was the formative and transformative energy of the universe itself — my (our) source, as I now think of it, which I most often appreciate as the space between things, whether those things are the millions of stars I enjoyed all around me late at night or in the pre-dawn hours while standing at the edge of the cliff, or the thoughts that continued to crowd and cloud my mind when I wasn't paying attention.

This book contains the notes I took along the way, and some needed commentary. For example, Cat communicated with a sort of clipped precision that made perfect sense to me at the time, but which requires some translation into everyday language. My (our) source likewise often conveys complete thoughts in an instant.

There are some recurring themes scattered throughout the book. I thought about grouping these notes together or consolidating them into a single entry. In the end, I decided to leave all of my notes in the order in which they were written, as they show the halting evolution of my understanding that might be helpful to others.