13 Chapter 13. The Pre-Psychological Attitude

Introduction to Stage 7

What is it that makes for a psychological attitude in analyzing a mountain experience? The analyst must 1) see the mountain as internal, 2) try to place the inner mountain in relation to the overall inner “journey” on which the person experiencing the mountain is embarked, and 3) analyze how the experience is embedded in the everyday life of the individual who received the image.

In 1) it is not enough to understand that the mountain is non-physical. The heavenly Mount Zion was not described as physical by the author of Revelation, but there is no indication that he saw it as inner. Probably he believed that he was taken to or showed a spiritual mountain.[1] This is not psychology. Psychology places the visionary, spiritual mountain squarely within the psyche of the one who experienced it. But how could a humble and sane person who has a powerful, visionary mountain experience come to see something as grand as the heavenly Jerusalem as able to fit inside himself or herself? Wouldn’t this amount to an inflation, to the belief that he (or she) must be god-like to be able to house such a magnificence? It almost seems as if the body could burst if such a thing could be contained inside. In short, isn’t the psychological approach, almost by definition, a form of mania (inflation)?

Aware of this danger, the psychologist still insists the mountain is wholly “inside,” at least metaphorically, — it is not outside, physically or spiritually. This does not mean that if we cut a man open we would find a little mountain. It is “inside” his imagination or psyche or soul. To say that it is inside the imagination is not to deny its reality or its effect on the body. An event in the autonomous psyche is, at the same, time physical. It would seem to be the mental side of an instinct. The inner mountain, with its trees and waters and country of the gods, is a very powerful emotional and instinctual phenomenon within us. It appears all over the world, at all times, and presumably, potentially, in all people and acts as a magnet or mobilizer to activity.

2) Each person, it seems to me, is on some inner more or less meaningful journey through life. This is a “more or less”: The journey may be more or less meaningful and more or less conscious. Mountains exist within the inner landscape and, therefore, have a place within this journey. This, along with the other archetypes, must be taken into consideration in a psychological approach.

3) insists that a psychological theory take an interest in this instinct. It is not enough to declare the mountain as inside an individual. This is only the radical first step. The mountain must also be tied down and into ordinary life. “Why did the mountain experience occur at this moment in a person’s life?” and “What is the meaning for the person and his or her family and society?” are questions that must be asked.

In this chapter, I will give examples of men who have understood the mountain experience as, at least in some way, connected with the inner lives of the people who have such experiences. Since none included all the features (1-3) in their analyses, I will call their views pre-psychological. Psychology, it seems to me, is new, a little over a century old, though this doesn’t mean it had no roots.

Buddhist ideas

Image 1. Dōgen watching the moon. Hōkyōji monastery, Fukui prefecture, [Japan] ca. 1250. Photo by Shii.
Image 1. Dōgen watching the moon. Hōkyōji monastery, Fukui prefecture, [Japan] ca. 1250. Photo by Shii.

To ease into the subject, I will give a Buddhist analysis that fulfills 1) above, but only 1). Dōgen, the Zen Buddhist, sees the mountain experience as inner, but he demeans it and makes no attempt to grasp its meaning. His is not a full psychological analysis, because he does not value the psyche. This is not a shortcoming of Dōgen’s approach: It is simply the expression of a different, more mystical approach in which the highest value is not to be found in this world or in thoughts about it or in trying to interpret our experiences of it.

Dōgen was forced to flee the cities and to found his community on a mountain, and he is not a stranger to the charms of the mountain. But he suggests that there is something even deeper than the most profound mountain experiences. He calls the experiences conditioned views. He considers them, at best, only partial views and seems to want us to transcend these views and to transcend, at the same time, our personal lives.

Even if you see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not take this seriously or worry about it; it is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures shining, this is not returning to the source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ inconceivable qualities, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but just looking through a bamboo tube at a corner of the sky. (Dōgen, ca. 1235/1985, p. 99)

In the view of Hui Neng, the sixth Patriarch of the Zen Buddhist school in China and one of Dōgen’s predecessors, the mountain experience seems to be understood as a psychological phenomenon, but he, like Dōgen, sees it as something to overcome, as a hindrance to something beyond psychology.

The idea of a self and of a being is Mount Meru. … When you get rid of the idea of a self and of a being, Mount Meru will topple. (Snelling, 1983, p. xi)

Mount Meru here is not taken as metaphysical or spiritual or mythical. It is demystified and analyzed psychologically as an idea in ones mind, the idea of self. In Hui Neng’s use the mountain idea seems to be identical with what we would call a big Ego or, possibly, the Will to Power. To put this in another way, if a modern patient reported an inspiring mountain dream to a psychologist, and the psychologist interpreted it from the Buddhist view we are discussing, the psychologist would tell the patient not to become attached to the mountain in the dream: The charm of mountains in the world and in dreams (and visions) is a temptation away from the true Self. It should be watched, accepted as fascinating, and allowed to pass. It is a passing phenomenon.

{The portrait above of Dōgen watching the moon (in Image 1) is a painting of him done in the year 1249, after he had moved to the mountainous area mentioned above. As was apparently customary, Dōgen wrote a poem for the portrait. It captures the idea that our experiences — including those of mountains — no matter how beautiful or impressive, are evanescent and so, in a sense, not real. They are mere mental phenomena, illusions (projected out to use our psychological terminology).

Fresh, clear spirit covers old mountain man this autumn./
Donkey stares at the sky ceiling; glowing white moon floats./
Nothing approaches. Nothing else included./
Buoyant, I let myself go — filled with gruel, filled with rice./
Lively flapping from head to tail,/
Sky above, sky beneath, cloud self, water origin. (Dōgen, p. 10)}

Image 2. Saṃvara [= Cakrasaṃvara = Khorlo Déchok = Demchog] with Vajravārāhī in Yab-Yum [= the sexual union of deities, that is, a hierogamos]. Painting; Thangka, Mineral pigments and traces of gold on cotton cloth, 54 x 45 in. (137.16 x 114.3 cm), ca. 15th century, a Newar artist from Tibet. From the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Image 2. Saṃvara [= Cakrasaṃvara = Khorlo Déchok = Demchog] with Vajravārāhī in Yab-Yum [= the sexual union of deities, that is, a hierogamos]. Painting; Thangka, Mineral pigments and traces of gold on cotton cloth, 54 x 45 in. (137.16 x 114.3 cm), ca. 15th century, a Newar artist from Tibet. From the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The inner mountain is regarded differently in other Buddhist texts. Two of the peaks on Mount Kailash are associated with

a tantric meditational deity (yidam) called Demchog (SankritSamvaraEternal Bliss) and his consort (yum) Dorje Phangmo (Sanskrit: Vajravarahi). (Snelling, pp. 18-19)

These gods are consciously taken in meditation as

personifications of purified aspects of human nature, particularly of wrathful or passionate aspects which might ordinarily cause great suffering but which if properly transformed through spiritual training may produce true wisdom. “The passions are the Buddha nature.”

Snelling goes on to describe the two gods. Psychology demands that we accept all the gods’ attributes as our own. Bluntly, the mountain god, Demchog, and the mountain goddess, Dorje Phantom, are in us, are aspects of us. The reader will have to decide if the following is a portrait of aspects of each of us, of parts of our deeper and darker natures.

Demchog is an awe-inspiring figure, full of fierce energy. Depictions represent him as having four faces, each of a different colour (red, blue, green, white), each with three eyes. He wears a grizzly crown of human skulls and has a tiger skin draped around his waist. His body is blue and the twelve hands of his twelve arms each hold a symbolic object: a vajra (thunderbolt), elephant skin, cup, bell, dagger and so forth. Beneath his feet he tramples two prostrate figures. Dorje Phangmo, meanwhile, with whom he unites in a glory of flames, carries a curved knife and a skull cup. Her naked body is red.

It is easier to see these gods outside of us, on two peaks on Mount Kailash, rather than in ourselves. If we take the psychological viewpoint (as expressed, in this case, by Snelling), it is intriguing and hopeful to think that, by some sort of work on ourselves, the worst and most horrifying and most terrifying parts of ourselves can unite and produce, in us, true wisdom.

A Chinese book of oracles: the I Ching

The I Ching precedes Buddhist writing and may go back over two thousand five hundred years. It is a book that grew. It was added to over the years by the greatest Chinese philosophers including, famously, Confucius. The different historical “layers” of the book are pointed out in the various editions and translations. In my view, the newer, later levels portray mountains from a psychological angle (or, in the language of this chapter, pre-psychologically.

Kên, the Mountain, is one of eight basic symbols along with heaven, earth, thunder, water, wind/wood, fire, and lake. It is the third (or youngest) son (first is thunder, second water). More abstractly and more psychologically, Kên is said to mean Keeping Still or Rest. It is the third part of movement: Beginning to move is the first son; danger in moving is the second son; and rest or keeping still is the third son. (Wilhelm, 1967, pp. 199-204)

Image 3. I Ching hexagram 52: ䷳ .... Photo by Ben Finney.
Image 3. I Ching hexagram 52: ䷳ …. Photo by Ben Finney.

Doubled it is the fifty second of sixty four combinations (two triads (= a hexagram) of a solid line over two broken lines).

The image of this hexagram is the mountain, the youngest son of heaven and earth. The male principle is at the top, because it strives upward by nature; the female principle is below, since the direction of its movement is downward. Thus there is rest because the movement has come to its normal end.

In its application to man, the hexagram turns upon the problem of achieving a quiet heart.

Wilhelm’s translation of the commentary stresses that rest is part of a polarity and differs from no movement which he says is the Buddhist goal. The Judgment that accompanies the mountain hexagram is:

Keeping Still. Keeping his back still/
So that he no longer feels his body./
He goes into his courtyard/
And does not see his people./
No blame.

Wilhelm has, “The hexagram signifies the end and the beginning of all movement.” He says the back contains the movement nerves, and, when movement stops, a man becomes calm and can see more objectively and act more in harmony and in relation to the great laws. The Image for the hexagram is:

Mountains standing close together:/
The image of Keeping Still./
Thus the superior man/
Does not permit his thoughts
To go beyond his situation.

The text concludes with the oracle Lines. There are different methods for consulting the I Ching for guidance in making a tough decision. Whichever of the different methods is used, there are six ritual passes made. A score of six on a throw produces a weak line, and a score of nine produces a strong line. Remembering that there are six lines that comprise a consultation, and if we add that these six lines are read from bottom to top, then we are required to note which, if any, of the six lines come out weak (six) and which, if any, come out strong (nine). Here are the meanings of the lines (in Wilhelm’s translation).

Six at the beginning means: Keeping his toes still. No blame. Continued perseverance furthers. …/
Six in the second place means: Keeping his calves still. He cannot rescue him whom he follows. His heart is not glad. …/
Nine in the third place means: Keeping his hips still. Making his sacrum stiff. Dangerous. The heart suffocates. …/
Six in the fourth place means: Keeping his trunk still. No blame. …/
Six in the fifth place means: Keeping his jaws still. The words have order. Remorse disappears. …/
Nine at the top means: Noblehearted keeping still. Good fortune.

The overall meaning of the hexagram is Keeping Still. This indicates that it is impossible to move forward. It is wise and brings good fortune to know your limits and to refrain from moving, from acting, even from talking (line five), even from trying to help ones superior (line two). Becoming defiant and willful can be fatal (as indicated in the third line).

I guess that if a master of the I Ching were told of people impressed by sacred mountains (inner or outer), he would not analyze the situation in terms of the person’s relation with a mountain god. He would talk about self-knowledge. He would encourage the person to come to terms with his or her limitations and to see and accept when it is impossible to move ahead with ones goals. The mountain is understood philosophically or psychologically. When it appears in a meaningful experience, it is taken as a call to understand oneself and to change ones attitude.

“Standing on the peak”

The phrase Standing on the Peak, is used identically by mystics in Hindu India and Christian Europe. This identity has been pointed out and tracked in an interesting article by R. C. Zaehner (1967). Standing on the Peak is a psychological phenomenon: the ordinary self is controlled by a series of higher selves.

Zaehner says that the concept of Standing on the Peak is expressed throughout the Mahabharata. A person is said to be standing on the peak after he or she has risen above the lower self.

Once you have crossed [the fearful stream of saṃsãra] you will be freed (liberated) from every side, your self made clean and pure; firmly relying on the highest part of your soul (uttamã buddhi) you will become Brahman, for you will have transcended all defilements, your self serene, immaculate. As one standing on a mountain (parvata-stha) survey those beings still living in the plains (bhūmi). (XII,242,16-18) (pp. 381-382) (my bold)

Here there is a return to “man’s pristine state of immortality at the beginning of each world cycle” (III,181.12:cf. V,42.2: XII,231.18) (p. 382).

This is the motif of returning to the creation (to the Garden of Eden), to a place where death is impossible. It is called “cleansing the self” (penance), and, as in Dante and Deguchi, to be cleansed in this way is to cross a river on a mountain. However, unlike the physical or meta-physical mountains I discussed earlier, the mountain here is one hundred percent psychological. The scaling “the battlements of wisdom” (XII,17.19), the crossing of the river, and the entering of the “pristine state” goes on inside, and the end state is conceived of as a psychological or inner state — “your self serene, immaculate,” “man’s pristine state of immortality,” scaling “the battlements of wisdom,” etc.

Standing on the Peak is used in the Bhagavad-Gitā also. The “higher self (paramātmā),” after it has become “self-subdued, quieted” and has found contentment in wisdom, is said to be standing on a peak. The peak is an inner place where this “integrated” one stands, untouched “in cold as in heat, in pleasure as in pain, likewise in honour and disgrace. … The same to him are clods of earth, stones, gold.” (VI,8) (p. 381)

This idea is extended in the GitāNot only is there the lower one (the perishable) and the higher one (called standing on the peak), but there is a third Person,

the [All-]Sublime, surnamed [All-] Highest Self: the three worlds He enters-and-pervades, sustaining them, — the Lord who passes not away. (XV,16) (p. 382)

And those who stand on the peak and remain unmoved and firm, “who hold in check the complex of the senses, in all things equal-minded, taking pleasure in the weal of all contingent beings” {(XII,3-4) (p. 383)} reach the third level. Not only do they enter the “country of the gods,” but they become gods themselves. This is the psychological equivalent of the victory of the mountain god over the gods of the ocean or underworld. It is the victory of self-control over pleasure and is not sympathetic with the Society in us or with periods of giving in to the lower aspects of ourselves. And here the goal is to find the All-Highest Self, not a god.

Hugh of St. Victor

Image 4. Hugh of Saint-Victor. Date of Engraving not given. Artist not given. Photo downloaded from the Library of Congress website, Washington, D. C. (title by author)
Image 4. Hugh of Saint-Victor. Date of Engraving not given. Artist not given. Photo downloaded from the Library of Congress website, Washington, D. C. (title by author)

With regard to the writing of Hugh of St. Victor and Richard of St. Victor, 12th century Christian mystics who speak of Standing on the Peak, Zaehner says that Hugh stops at the austere idea of self-control, whereas Richard goes on to talk about the communication with the divinity.

In De Vanitate Mundi Hugh proposes that “flight” from the “unclean” world and its power to deceive “is the best course.” This is a flight into a higher vantage-point from which the soul’s

keen perception naturally reaches further when directed from above on things that lie below, when it sees all things, so to speak, together. (Zaehner, 1962, p. 384)

Zaehner summarizes,

From … this “watch-tower” …, the soul sees the variety of all things seen in separation and realizes that all must end in death.

And the soul then must remain unmoved while all things pass on. While involved in the world, Hugh says that the soul is “torn by countless distractions and, being somehow divided from itself, it is dispersed abroad.” He says the answer is “integration” which, according to Zaehner, when “translated into Sanskrit is yoga.” Hugh tells us

when [the soul] draws nearer to things eternal and changeless, then it is integrated and drawn up to a point [and it will] learn to be one with itself once more. … By a certain native excellence, it rises above the mutability below it, but it has not yet attained to that true changelessness that is above it. (p. 385) (my bold)

To do this it must “gather itself ever more into a unity.”

That this integration, drawing to a point, and gathering itself into a unity is an inner work is made explicit by Hugh.

to ascend to God means … to enter into oneself, and not only to enter into oneself but in some ineffable manner to penetrate even into one’s depths. He, then, who … enters really deeply into himself and, penetrating deep within, transcends himself, he of a truth ascends to God. (p. 385)

Here we find the paradoxical idea that “penetrating deep within” is an ascension to God. This is a brilliant way to emphasize the inner nature of the climb. If one turns from the outer world, closes one’s eyes, and goes in, there a mountain viewpoint might be found, and if one goes deep within, attains this point of view, and then becomes unified there, this is the ascension to God. When combined with the idea that climbing the mountain means finding an imperturbability in the middle of ordinary life, then this is all but a contemporary psychological analysis, it only lacks the third feature described at the beginning of this chapter.

Richard of St. Victor

Turning to Richard of St. Victor,[2] we again meet the ideas that wisdom is a mountain, that “full understanding” is like being on a mountain top, and that the rising on (going up) this mountain is the same thing as going deep within one’s own heart. But in Richard we have come full-circle, because, as we will see in a moment, climbing the mountain is only a prelude to meeting a god who is not in the self and is therefore a metaphysical and not a psychological being. In spite of this, the first of Richard’s analyses is psychological.

The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge. The full understanding of a rational spirit is as it were a high and great mountain. … O man, learn to think, learn to reflect upon yourself and you will have risen to the deep heart! By as much as you make daily progress in self-knowledge by so much you will be reaching out to higher things, for he who attains perfect self-knowledge has reached the top of the mountain. (p. 386) (my bold)

With practice, the soul will be able to live on the mountain top and return there when distracted, and “what a wonderful joy to be able to stand on that mountain without trouble!”

This mountain is identified by Richard with the mountain of the Transfiguration [that is, the same mountain on which Jesus, Moses, and Elijah appeared!], but, even standing at this high point of self-knowledge, there is still one thing missing, for “the Father’s voice has not yet been heard, the hearers are not yet prostrate.” This last step is described as follows:

Let a man rise up to the heart’s high place, climb up the mountain if he desire to attain and know what is above the human mind. Let him rise up by himself above himself, and from self-knowledge to the knowledge of God. … The ascent of the mountain … belongs to self-knowledge; the things done upon the mountain tend to the knowledge of God. … If it has not yet been able to gather itself into a unity …, and does not yet know how to enter into itself, will it be able to ascend by contemplation to those things which are above itself? (p. 386)

Zaehner says, “In this sphere of contemplation beyond the mountain-peak, the soul flies away on the wings of contemplation: it `flies around and when it wills, it hovers upon the height‘” (p. 387) (my bold).

In Hugh, the goal is to master the inner mountain. In Richard, climbing the inner mountain is a psychological experience but a mere preliminary to meeting a god who is a non-psychological, metaphysical fact. He seems to feel that once this god is met, self-control can be laid aside for awhile, and a person can fly away. In persons less stable than Richard, this could mean a suicidal leap.

The corresponding psychological idea is that there are autonomous figures of the psyche that are independent of the ego but that are still, in some sense, a part of a bigger self. These autonomous personalities in the bigger self are not under the control of the ego (even if the ego can influence them), but, in modern psychology, they are not outside the self as spiritual or metaphysical, let alone physical, objects.


In the very small amount of Kabbalah that has been translated into English, here too we can meet the idea that the mountain represents something inside the psyche of man. Sometimes it seems to be the Imagination; sometimes it is the Intellect (the head) (cf. Logos); and sometimes it seems to be simply that place in a man where god is. What follows comes from Idel’s book on the 13th century Jewish Kabbalist, Abraham Abulafia. (Idel, 1988, pp. 101-103, 156n, 157n, 183n)

There is much discussion in Abulafia and his followers of meditative experiences on letters and words in which the Hebrew letters are seen “resting in the hills and flying away from them” or taking the “shape of great mountains.” This experience is interpreted differently in different places.

In Abulafia, the mountains on which the letters rest are holy, “because God has descended upon them in fire,” and the name

of the holy high mountain is the Ineffable Name, and know this, … [the] secret of the mountain is Gevurah (might …), and he is the Mighty One, who wages war against the enemies of God who forget His Name. (Idel, p. 101) (my bold)

In short, the mountain, which is unquestionably an inner mountain, is God himself. God is mighty and demands we remember Him.

In Sefer Ner Elohim, this mountain, as well as Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, is said to allude to the head.

For it is known that the Torah was given on a mountain, and the blessing and curse on a mountain. And the harbinger [i.e., of Messianic redemption] will ascend a mountain, as is said, “on a high mountain get thee up, harbinger of Zion” [Isa. 40:9], etc. The mountain thus alludes to the head, for there is no other [organ] in the entire body as high and as distinguished as the head, and its secret is har eš (mountain of fire), and it is like the comparison of the mountains to the land, for the heads are the roots, therefore it is said, “And the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended” — that is, to the highest place that man may ascend, and even though it exists up above, it is impossible for any person to ascend higher than did Moses.[3]

The head here is the physical head, but it is also “the highest place that man may ascend.” There is ambiguity, but this head seems to be the “highest place” within man. To use a more modern terminology: The mountain is inside the head. The manipulations of the letters and the resulting visions take place in the highest place within a man, inside the head, though the words highest place and inside have to be taken, in this context, as metaphorical and not literal.

It should be emphasized that the last quotation is not just about the mountains seen by the Abulafian mystics in their meditations. It is a also about the holy mountains of the Bible including Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is read as the head of Moses. This is a radical re-reading of the Bible in psychological terms. It takes the story of Moses ascending Mount Sinai, as a story about an experience within Moses!

In another book, the Sefer ha-Hafṭarahwe find a still different, though nonetheless psychological, interpretation of the inner mountain. On the one hand, the mountain is said to be the Imagination, the place where “he was revealed in his glory.” On this “high and awesome mountain in Italian monti barbaro” there was a miraculous act of which the practicing mystic can partake of in the privacy of his own room

which strengthened the breathing, and will also strengthen the soul, and it is the hidden name, the name of vengeance, which is the abominable name of the end and … “the false” [cf. Demchog and the Mighty One versus the Archanthropos]. And Raziel transformed the dwelling place of the imagination, as he did, for Monti is the imagination, and it is Azazel; in Italian, Monti. Therefore it is said of it, that it is a mighty and difficult mountain, high and steep. (Idel, p. 102 — from Sefer ha-Hafṭarah, MS. Rome 38, fol. 35a.)

That Abulafia saw the mountain and the Hebrew letters as something inside or identical with the psyche, inside or identical with the Imagination and Intellect of man (the Heart and Head), is argued by Idel by assembling the following quotes. In Sefer ha-Ôt (p. 80) Abulafia writes:

the people of God, the supreme holy ones, looking upon His Name gaze at the source of your intellects and see the divine image within the image of your hearts. Indeed, the “image” refers to the head, for therein may be seen the heart of the vision.

Or in Ôzar `Eden Ganuz,

The two names are engraved in the heart and in the head, and they are alluded to in [the verse], “there he gave them a law and a statute.”

And in Sitré Torah he speaks of “the name inscribed in your soul in its truth.”

It is this name, which was apparently seen in the Hebrew letters rising from the mountain, that is necessary for “the prophets of Israel to prophecy” according to the author of Ner Elohim, and this prophecy would be impossible “without knowledge of the Name which dwells in his heart.” (Idel, p. 103 — from MS. Rome-Angelica 38, f. 18b)

{Anyone who has monitored their own journeys within their own imaginations may understand the intimacy of the head and heart, the imagination and the intellect. When you close your eyes and “go deep into your heart,” this inner world of the heart can be experienced as, at the same time, going on “in the head” which can lead to the same sort of ambiguity we find in the above descriptions. Though this does not make sense logically, it is the way things can be experienced.}

In our context, where the emphasis is on the mountain and not on the letters or the Name, we can still be aware that the intimate instruction of god to man takes place on a mountain, that is, the highest knowledge a man can attain is symbolized as taking place in a conversation on a mountain, all this taking place within a person. This is a real conversation and not just a monologue as can be seen from the following excerpt from Sefer ha-Ḥešq quoted in Idel.

After you find the appropriate preparation for the soul, which is knowledge of the method of comprehension of the contemplation of the letters, and the one who apprehends it will contemplate them as though they speak with him, as a man speaks with his fellow, and as though they are themselves a man who had the power of speech, who brings words out of his mind, and that man knows seventy tongues, and knows a certain specific intention in every letter and every word, and the one hearing recognized that he does not understand, except for one language or two or three or slightly more, but he [that one] understands that the one speaking does not speak to him in vain, except after he knows all the languages; then every single word within him is understood in many interpretations. (Idel, p. 104 — from MS. Sasson 919, p. 215.)

These observations of Abraham Abulafia are ambiguous as to whether the mountain with its letters (that he and his disciples saw in cultivated meditative experiences) are objectively external to the psyche or inner aspects of the deepest self. They even may be taken as expressing a belief that the head and heart themselves actually do contain these goings on. Still, to me, the tone and movement of thought is psychological, psychological in an age when the main psychological approach had not yet been invented and laid down.

Image 5. Abraham Abulafia (1240 - after 1293), Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba (Life of the World to Come), Italy, late 14th-early 15th century, Parchment, ... Braginsky Collection 251, from Folio 6. Braginsky Collection, Zurich. Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama, Ra’anana, Israel. (caption from exhibition catalogue entry, cropped with permission)
Image 5. Abraham Abulafia (1240 – after 1293), Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba (Life of the World to Come), Italy, late 14th-early 15th century, Parchment, … Braginsky Collection 251, from Folio 5v. Braginsky Collection, Zurich. Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama, Ra’anana, Israel. (caption from exhibition catalogue entry, cropped with permission)
Image 6. Abraham Abulafia (1240 - after 1293), Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba (Life of the World to Come), Italy, late 14th-early 15th century, Parchment, ... Braginsky Collection 251, from Folio 11. Braginsky Collection, Zurich. Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama, Ra’anana, Israel. (caption from exhibition catalogue entry, cropped with permission)
Image 6. Abraham Abulafia (1240 – after 1293), Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba (Life of the World to Come), Italy, late 14th-early 15th century, Parchment, … Braginsky Collection 251, from Folio 5v. Braginsky Collection, Zurich. Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama, Ra’anana, Israel. (caption from exhibition catalogue entry, cropped with permission)

{Abulafia as an exile: It is difficult for many of us to conceive that Abulafia and his students (and other Jewish mystics) actually spent time thinking about and writing down Hebrew words and letters. To help make this more real I give Image 5 from a manuscript of one of Abulafia’s writings. Here we see to what extent he went to draw his visualizations and to help his students re-create them in their own minds. I quote from the catalogue of the collection in which this manuscript resides. This book, and other of Abulafia’s books can be taken as manuals for becoming prophets! Abulafia

attempted to attain a state of prophetic-mystical ecstasy, based on his conviction that the experience of the prophets was an ecstatic experience and that all true mystics were prophets. This work of his [Image 5 is a drawing on one folio of this manuscript] was especially popular and circulated under the titles Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba (“Life of the World to Come”), Sefer ha-Shem (“Book of the Divine Name”) or Sefer ha-Iggulim (“Book of Circles”); in this manuscript, however, it is called Sefer ha-Shem ha-Meforash (“Book of the Ineffable name”). The manuscript presents ten inscriptions in concentric circles in red and black ink, as well as 128 only in black ink. They contain detailed instructions for mystical meditation. While contemplating these circles, one should recite the 72-lettered name of God, which is arrived at by combining the numerical values of the letters in the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, of the Patriarchs, and the nine letters of the words shivtei yisra’el) (“the tribes of Israel”). The reader should “enter” each of the triple black and red circles at the point where an “entrance” is designated by means of a small pen stroke. (catalogue is quoting Cohen, Bar-Hama, Mintz, Schrijver, Deitsch, 2009, p. 48) (my bold)

The dislocation of people from where they have lived all their lives can be a fun and hopeful experience, but it can also be disorienting and confusing and disconcerting. The enforced movement of people from their homes and homeland can lead to depression with its concomitant feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Whatever the native landscape was, it will be missed and, probably, over time, romanticized and mythologized. Any geographical feature, but especially those that have accumulated meaningful projections for the people, will be especially missed. This includes all mountains in the territory but, especially, the mountains felt to have power and to be sacred. The Navajo people underwent an enforced and painful Long Walk in 1864 before being assigned, in 1868, to a reservation on a portion of their original homeland. The reservation is not strictly coherent with the pre-migration Navajo land. This has led to disputes within the Navajo nation about just which mountains are sacred (Blake, p. 31). “It is likely that interpretations of the early mountains that manifest the mountains of Navajo origin stories could have shifted over time with Navajo migrations” (pp. 34-35 — paraphrasing Stephen Jett). History also contains descriptions of the dislocation of the ancient Jews from Jerusalem and Israel, and we have discussed how this Diaspora affected the Jewish experiences of their sacred mountains.

It has been one of the consistent themes of this book that dislodging a people from their sacred mountains creates a psychological situation in which the projection onto physical mountains are withdrawn and the sacred mountains begin to be understood as something interior to the mind of the individual. This understanding will not be a generalized understanding of the whole people, because not everyone has a psychological bent, and there will likely remain a religious nostalgia for the lost land. But, for some souls of a certain temperament, such as Abraham Abulafia, the original mountain experience is carried with them into exile.}

Interpretations such as the ones from the school of Abulafia and like those of Hugh and Richard of St. Victor and the others we have discussed in this chapter are psychological in senses 1) and 2) but not in sense 3). These mountain experiences are seen as inner and as part of some sort of inner journey or quest, but they are not linked back to the everyday life of the person with the experiences. The attempt to understand a person in the context of his social and economic and physical existence, seems to be a thoroughly modern approach.

The author’s analysis

My own analysis of the mountain experience is based on the modern psychological approach and fits our definition of a Stage 8 approach.

I will start by saying that the mountain archetype, like all true symbols, is impossible to tie down completely in words. Every time something is said, something is left out. This is a call to humility not silence.

Is climbing a mountain in a dream a fulfillment of a wish? There are sexual dreams that seem to fulfill bodily needs. Does a mountain dream fulfill a bodily need? If so, the need would be the opposite of sexual. It would be to get away from society, not to merge with it. To society, the mountain dream may seem like a wish to escape, even a symptom of lunacy. But the mountain has its own view. From it society is a vanity.

Does the mountain appear in dreams when there is trouble with society, as a compensation? Yes, and I will demonstrate this in the next chapter. Mountain, Ocean, and Society seem to compensate each other.

Is the inner mountain the Passions (Demchog)? The underworld is on the mountain (or at its foot), but there is more to the mountain than this. The mountain has different sides, usually four portrayed in different colors, but sometimes hundreds or thousands.

Is the mountain the Head? Yes, but it is also the rest of the body. It is more than one part at one moment. It is not a single blissful moment of awareness or insight (felt as taking place in the head). It is a whole process, a stage by stage development involving effort over time. It is also the coming down.

Is it the Imagination, the place where God appears? Yes, but it is not a completely peaceful place. Mot’s country is there too, and so is Purgatory. In the Imagination there are also oceans and deserts, civilizations (past, present, and future), and even outer space. The mountain is only one feature of the inner landscape.

It is Rest and Stillness as in the I Ching, but it is also a magnet that pulls towards a goal. It is a dynamic tension between high and low, a conflict, a battle, and a goal that changes as soon as the battle is won.

It is the center, the organizing principle like Meru, but, at the same time, it is at the periphery, far away. It demands sacrifices and threatens to disrupt and to kill.

It is a paradox that Jung catches in the idea of the self.

Thus the self can appear in all shapes from the highest to the lowest, inasmuch as these transcend the scope of the ego personality in the manner of a daimonion. … Of the inorganic products, the commonest are the mountain and lake. (Jung, 1978, p. 226, par. 356)

But this is not to reduce it to words or an abstraction. The mountain is a real body experience. In a sense a human is a mountain — a mountain that walks, breathes, and is conscious. Lying on the stomach, perfectly still, a person must look like a hill to an ant. It is not strange that humans see themselves in the mountains.

The mountain in a dream is a call to a full body experience. To see the mountain far off in a dream is to begin to feel the presence of one’s body and its challenge. It is to begin to struggle with what to eat, to begin to leave junk foods, like potato chips, behind. It is to feel the possibility of rising to an effort that has been postponed. The far off mountain awakens idealism in the dreamer — not as an abstraction but as a passion. The idealism is in the body and can keep a person awake at night. It can even cause exhaustion and sickness. When the mountain god calls, the body is affected. When the mountain appears in a dream it mobilizes passionate ideals. It also pulls a person from family and home and from society and so is always a danger, a temptation, even if, at the same time, it is a positive one.

What is the connection between physical mountain, metaphysical mountain, and psychological mountain? If the psyche is really autonomous, how is it different from a metaphysical mountain? If the psychological mountain appears when it wants and behaves as an independent personality within the psyche, in what sense is it “within” the psyche at all? Isn’t it really independent of the psyche and so more metaphysical than psychological?

If one believes that the mountain one experiences is metaphysical and independent from oneself, then there is a great temptation to see oneself as a prophet with the mission of encouraging, even forcing, others to see and appreciate the mountain as well. On the other hand, if it is lodged firmly in the self, it is a burden and a responsibility for the self and the self alone. Just as mountain experiences projected onto physical mountains led to painful disillusionments, not to mention warfare, similarly for the metaphysical mountain. The psychological mountain, the essence of the mountain religion, is fluid and capable of endless variations and changes — unlike the mythic mountain which is more or less fixed in the iconography of a culture. It is not fixed forever in some metaphysical space which, like the mythic mountain, is more or less fixed by an intellectual or theological pre-conception. It can turn upside down or fly away if it wants. It can elevate and destroy. It is as personal as an individual life and tailors itself to that life while at the same time being archetypal and universal. Psychological mountains are like us — individual members of a species. To freeze the living, inner mountain into a mythical or allegorical or metaphysical iceberg is like trying to make an individual into an ideal. It can be dangerous — trying to freeze one’s inner self (and therefore oneself) into a rigid block. This addiction to a past experience can damage others as well as oneself.

What is the relation between the physical mountain and the psychological one? From one angle they are similar: They both come to us unbidden. Both rise up on the horizon. Both are imposing and offer challenges and threats to ourselves and to our families, friends, and colleagues. And yet one is inner and one outer. It is tempting to ask an unanswerable question: Is it possible that both inner and outer mountains come from the same place and are expressions of the same molding force and that this is why we are tempted to confuse them? This kind of question, though perhaps interesting to the philosophical mind, may lead to a new temptation to take the mountain experience as literally true. But we have already proved that the mountain experience is always psychological. This was not argued a priori any more than one would try to argue a person out of a puppy love. Experience teaches about mountains as well as people. But this is not a call to cynicism either. There is the possibility of a real love of mountains, physical mountains, just as there is for a real love of people.

  1. Contrast with, "The moment Thou didst welcome me, didst enter into me and grant to me [participation in] Thy life divine, I lost my individuality, O, Arunachala!" (Evans-Wentz, 1981, p. 61).
  2. Zaehner quotes from C. Kirchberger, (translator), Richard of Saint-Victor, Selected Writings on Contemplation, London, 1957 which contains excerpts from Richard's Benjamin Minor and Benjamin Major.
  3. Idel, p. 102. Cf. "Also in the divine mountain one shall apprehend and ascend in level and understand the flux of God, which comes from the highest mountain" (Idel, p. 103 — from MS. Jerusalem 8 1303 fol. 56a). (my bold)


The Mountain Archetype Copyright © 1988 by Thomas R. Hersh. All Rights Reserved.

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