A Mountain Inside

Loving Mountains – Respecting Worldviews

This article is a response to a request by Svetlana Katinova that visitors to Altai send contributions concerning their experience of sacred Mount Belukha and other mountains in Altai

An IUCN report reads that around the world sacred mountains are places where nature and culture come together within the context of humanity’s highest ethical systems. One need only consider the significance of Mount Sinai for the Jewish religion, Mount Kailas for Buddhists in Tibet, the San Fransisco peaks in the American south-west for the Hopi and of course Mount Belukha for the Altai people. Mountains exist the world over. However, human relationships to mountains differ because each nation has their own worldview, the “fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions which is held about the basic construction of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”[1] A difference in worldviews can make it more difficult than perhaps one would expect to learn from different cultures and yet this provides the very human cultural diversity we so need to preserve. This piece of writing shares my personal account as a European visitor to the Altai Mountain region and aims to illustrate the huge learning experience gained by taking a glimpse into the universe of the Altai worldview.

‘A Mountain Inside’


During my early visits to Altai I heard and read the word ‘mountain’ more often than ever before in my life. On excursions we were asked not to photograph the mountain peaks; I read that the Altai people practised a ‘mountain cult’; that in the Altai worldview the word ‘mountain’ falls into the same semantic category as words like the ‘world axis’, ‘tree of life’ and ‘tying post’;  that mountains were associated with the ancestors and progenitors and even that in late autumn the mountain opened up and took the animals inside letting them out again in the spring. Simply drinking tea in the ‘ail’, the word ‘mountain’ was never far from the subject of conversation. Despite this, I really couldn’t find a way of relating to the meaning that was being attributed in Altai to sacred mountains. To me they were just mountains. I could find no mountain inside, in the internal landscape of my soul.

Living among the Altai people and in the vicinity of a sacred mountain inevitably triggered a series of realizations that gradually re-molded the internal landscape of my worldview enabling me eventually to find a mountain inside.

Paying attention – Undoubtedly, the first thing that changed in my perception was that I learned to give the mountain where we lived my constant attention. I obtained the habit of walking outside first thing in the morning and looking for the mountain perhaps like a child looks for its parents at the beginning of the day. It also became customary to look to the sky, in the style of divination, to see whether the mountain peaks were visible or whether she had drawn her veil in privacy. The mountain gradually became the most dominant and central element of the landscape I was living in. I also noted that the more I looked at the mountain, the less I looked in the mirror.

The magnifying glass – I can’t say exactly when, but I also came to the realization that sacred mountains indeed have their own spirits and laws which play a role in controlling what happens there. People talk about ‘spirits’ a lot and it was sometimes difficult to know what exactly was  being meant. However, there were so many occasions in the mountains when the presence of spirit became apparent, that now I am left in no doubt of their power. I came to perceive the laws of the spirit of the mountain as powerful spiritual truths that are upheld in the dimensions of altitude. It is as if, in their presence, disharmony by comparison becomes intensely visible like a small candle flame in a darkened room. Sometimes, it seemed to me that the mountain spirit had a magnifying glass and would peer into the heart of every traveller whilst we slept in our tents at night magnifying our unresolved or suppressed suffering and the erroneous expressions of the  ego. Rituals that are carried out when doing pilgrimage in the mountain that might earlier have appeared to me to be ‘quaint’ traditions of respect I now accept as absolute necessity. It no longer seemed odd to ask for permission to cross a river or to give blessing. From then onwards, I thought of the spirit of the mountain as a very wise woman, so old that she had witnessed history for far longer than any of us ever could. The tendency for anthropomorphic symbolism of mountains in the Altai worldview no longer seemed strange to me. Certainly, spending time in the mountains convinced me that more concern and compassion for humanity exists in the subtle worlds than I could ever have imagined possible.

                   Realizing that the guardian spirit of a sacred mountain has a magnifying glass with which to examine your soul makes one intimately observant of one’s own inner condition as one crosses streams and chooses one’s way over rocks and through trees. It seemed to me that the sacred mountain had levels and zones and that the more deeply one moved through the levels the finer one’s self-awareness needed to be attuned in order not to create disharmony with the higher vibrations of truth that exist there. The ability to go more deeply down into one’s soul whilst moving upwards in the outer landscape is a discipline in the art of balance and maturity. It certainly made me stop to think about how blind and unknowing we are to consider that we can achieve today with a pair of tourist boots and waterproofs what would have required shamanic ritual in the past: to converse with the spirit of a mountain, the manifestation of higher consciousness. I realized that I was becoming re-acquainted with a long-lost sense of hierarchy.

Structure & Hierarchy In the new ‘integral’ spirituality which is developing in the west we have begun referring to ‘the laws of the universe’, certain fundamental principles we have learned about the way things seem to work in the world energetically, such as the law of attraction, necessity and polarity. Perhaps what is being referred to is a phenomenon similar to what in Altai they call ‘the laws of nature’. The working of these laws seems to be particularly immediate in sacred places. In this mountain valley, I wonder if it is not the omnipresent power forcing one to observe the ‘laws of nature’ that gives you a mountain inside.

On one occasion when I had been asked to translate for a small pilgrimage group I found myself standing high up in the mountains gazing down below to where the valley lay. I recalled all the times I had stood outside the ail, chased lambs about the summer farm buildings, raked cut grass, walked across the fields and hitched along the valley road gazing towards the mountain peaks where I now stood with hope, being filled up inside with a sense of balance and security. The mountain spirit filled the valley, its thoughts being sent to us below via the rungs of lower mountain peaks until they ran across the valley floor to the stone laid out in ancient times. As I stood there reminiscing, I experienced the will to be more careful of what was in my heart and mind more strongly than I had ever done before. It felt to me as if our thoughts would permeate the valley below just as the spirit of the mountain did and I remembered the constant call my Altai friends repeated to have ‘white thoughts’, ‘pure thoughts’ on mountain passes. What would that look like I wondered; how would human thoughts compare with the thoughts of the spirit of the mountain? Here, surrounded by purity one wishes not to complicate the atmosphere or the ‘spaces between the particles’ as the sacred atmosphere is sometimes referred to with the dredges of all that we feel, be it guilt, envy, frustration, depression or sadness. The presence of purity invoked in me a sense of reverence both for the mountain and for the plants and animals that live there.

After this occasion in particular I found that my desire to go into the mountains had been tempered by a new sense of hierarchy and structure. Mountains are the place of higher truth; valleys are the place of man and moving between the two requires wisdom, ritual and cultural reference born of generations of experience. Over time, my curiosity and desire to reach outwards into the landscape had been replaced by a sense of devotion and loyalty. The need to go into the mountains had been replaced by a faith in the spirit of the mountain. Now I had a mountain inside.


The mountain and the hearth Shortly after this descent I spent an evening with friends. A ‘kaichi’ warmed the strings of his topshur beside the hearth. In a moment of glowing faces, vocals and flames the mountain spirit sent one of its thoughts to us. It came into the ail and sat with us beside the fire. I was shocked to see that you don’t necessarily have to trek into the mountains. When there is spiritual culture the mountain can come to you. Whether it is listening to the kaichi perform epos or watching the grandmother in her rainbow-coloured shawls meditating on the mountain in the curls of smoke from her pipe, the mountain spirit is there with you if you have the culture, the prayers, the sounds, the colours, shapes and values to create the necessary harmony. For this lesson I am most grateful.

What I hear so frequently in discussions in Altai today is that despite the benefits that visiting a Sacred Mountain can give in sensitizing visitors to a local worldview, the tourist industry does not always take account of the ‘sacred’ and ‘worldview’ in Altai. This concern is quite understandable. If altars and shrines are used for recreational purposes who pray to them suffer because the perception of ‘holiness’ associated with them is threatened. Whether it is deliberate or simply a matter of ignorance, sacrilege causes suffering and anxiety. The problem is that unlike the ‘world religions’ very little it known of traditional and indigenous faiths. I conclude that the ‘worldviews to which mountains are sacred and central’ are as important to our future as the glaciers that hold in the alpine zones. If we truly wish to learn from each other about caring for nature and if we really wish to preserve human cultural diversity then we need to think in terms of ‘worldviews’. If we respect each other’s worldviews then we can take steps towards generating the ‘cultural diversity’ that has been coined as being essential to a ‘sustainable future’.

[1]. James W. Sire The Universe Next Door: A Basic World view Catalog p15–16 (text readable at Amazon.com)

One response to “A Mountain Inside

  1. Wonderful, Joanna!
    You relate mountains and “world axis” and “tree of life.” I also relate them because of a vivid experience I had immediately upon leaving Altai after my first visit.

    It started as a vision, but continued as a dream. Essentially, I experienced my body as a quartz crystal with horizontally rotating light beams emitting from each chakra. Each chakra opened into a different dimension.

    I understood that, as my body is a microcosm of the Whole, the crystal was the world axis or the trunk of the tree of life, and the light beams were the branches of the tree of life.

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