Running Up the Mountain
(A martial arts parable)
Off in the distance, many miles ahead is a mountain. The tallest mountain you’ve ever seen, it dwarfs the curving landscape and plunges everything next to it into a deep canyon of shadow. It rises up through the smoky mist and its peak disappears into the impenetrable cloud layer. Up there, where the air is thin and cold, the mysteries of the mountain’s summit call to you. They beckon you to peel back the veil and see the blinding truth with your own eyes.
On top of this mountain sits everything you’ve ever wanted. The fulfillment of all your dreams, the achievement of all your goals, personal satisfaction in every way. It’s right there, waiting for you. Calling to you across the great distance. You can’t help but hear it. A prize that waits in the heavenly clouds to reward you for your great work. You only need to claim it.
So you walk across the barren world to the crest of land where it starts to rise up into the limitless sky. This marks your departure, the moment of your ascent from the normal world to the mountain world. A world of infinite possibilities, but also danger.
Now the terrain is more difficult. The steps become harder and the grade sharpens. Long strides take the breath from your lungs. The rocks are slippery here, you must work harder to not get swept away and take a tumble down the sharp edge of the edifice.
But you don’t stumble or stop. You keep going. You can hear your prize on the top of the mountain calling to you now, louder than before. Its song is sweet and inviting, and you can’t bring yourself to give up your pursuit of it just yet. Not when it seems closer than ever before. You swallow your fear and watch your steps, you dig deep and push it out. You keep going.
Here at the waist of the mountain, you encounter a ditch. It is wide and the sides are slick and if you’re not careful, you will fall inside and die. Now you wonder if you’ve made the right choice in deciding to make the climb. Is it foolish to try to make it to the top, if dangers like this exist? You look back down the hill to the long valley below. Now you see how high in the air you are already, how far you’ve come by not being afraid and trusting yourself. So you decide to trust yourself again and you keep going. You navigate the steep ledge across the ditch and make it to the other side.
Encouraged by your success and the progress you’ve made, now you pick up the pace. The grade is steeper now, and every step takes more energy. You could slow down to even things out, but then it feels like it will take you forever to make it to the top. So you redouble your efforts. You push harder and longer and expect more of yourself. You step over boulders and jump over puddles, you grab hand holds with your fingers when necessary, but you keep moving. Now you are up with the birds, high above the plain, watching them circle in the warm air coming up from the mountain.
At the armpit of the mountain you get excited by the progress you’ve made and go too quickly across an uneven patch of ground. The scrabble under your feet slips and you nearly tumble off the side into open space. Your legs dangle in the open air and only a quick grab made in panic keeps you on the cliff. Your fingers bite into a boulder and bleed onto the rock as they hold you fast, but you do not fall. You pull yourself back up to solid footing and breathe heavily, hunched over, thinking fast about how you almost died.
Again, you wonder if the prize at the top of the mountain is really worth it. It is singing to you still, loud and sweet, but now you become scared. Are you risking too much? Are you willing to go further and risk still more, for this mysterious gift that awaits you? Wouldn’t it be safer to just climb back down and live without it?
But you are so close now. Looking down the side of the mountain, you can see that you are high above the tree line. You are higher even than the birds that circle far below. They look like black dots in stark contrast to the fuzzy valley floor. The trees and animals and buildings below have no real shape or color anymore. That’s when you realize just how far you’ve come. Now you are entering the mist.
Onward and upward through the mist, you are eager now to claim your prize. You can see a dark, vague shape in the clouds that you know must be what you came here for, why you would risk so much. You advance up the mountain in giant strides, pushing harder than you ever have before, heaving gigantic breaths in and out as you try to balance your fear with your excitement.
Here on the shoulder of the mountain you see a dark cave. Inside the cave a man is sitting in front of a small fire. He is an old man with a great beard and a few crooked teeth. He sees you climbing hard and giving it all that you’ve got and he smiles at you.
“Bless you! Keep going, you can make it!” he cries. He shakes his walking stick in the air to spur you on, a celebratory dance of triumph. You wave to the old man and keep climbing. Bigger steps, moving faster, you are thrilled to be so close to the end.
Looking down, all you see is the cloud layer. The valley floor lies some great distance below, but you are up too high to see it now. Now you are up in the mist and smoke, and you know the summit cannot be much further ahead.
Finally, you burst through the last thick veil of mist into a clearing at the top of the mountain. The ground here is flat and level. There is no further up to go. No more climbing. This must be the summit. You take a second to breathe. The air is very thin up here and you feel light-headed. But you made it. You climbed all the way to the top of the mountain.
You look around the clearing and see nothing. Just dirt and rocks and clouds. Where is your prize? Where is the wonderful gift that you climbed all this way to receive? You don’t see anything. The top of this mountain is barren and flat and empty. Why did you risk so much and nearly die for nothing?
Disheartened, you climb back down the mountain. Now you are angry. You worked so hard and risked so much, and someone else must have stolen your prize. There is nothing here on the mountain for you.
Coming down the hillside, again you see the old man in the cave. Frustrated and tired, you stomp over to the old man and ask him, “What happened to the fabled prize at the top of the mountain? Surely, no one got here before me and stole it?”
His dark, wise eyes soften to see you in such pain. “Many have come before you. And many will come after. But no one has stolen your prize.” He points up to the summit, the dark shadow in the clouds above.
“Then where is it?” you cry.
You have come all this way and pushed yourself to your very limits. You stand high above the birds and the plains. Here on top of the world, there is nobody else. It is only you and this infuriating old man and his beard.
“Ha!” the old man yells and claps his hands. “You mean you have come all this way and you still don’t understand?” He tugs at his beard and looks deep into the fire. “The climb is the prize.”