It’s the Journey, not the End

The official quote is: “Happiness is a journey not a destination”. The current national sentiments battered by an insurrection in the Nation’s Capitol and a spiking pandemic leave little room for happiness. The journey we’re on toward a better America seems endless, non-achievable. 

Travel and Pandemics

Now that travel is dangerous because of the pandemic, I read about faraway destinations. Currently I’m reading about Lake Baikal. This lake in Siberia is the biggest, deepest, purest lake in the world. The Russian people believe that Lake Baikal cannot become polluted, because it can purify itself because of its unique ecological balance. Millions and millions of tiny shrimp – Epischura – that live in the lake water, absorb pollutants; pollutants people put in the water that feeds the lake. The water stays pure, but the animals up the food chain – the animals that eat the shrimp, the insects, the fish, the bigger fish that feed the seals, called nerpas- become toxic at the top of the chain. People who live near the lake eat toxic Nerpa blubber and toxic fish. World organizations recognize that Lake Baikal is in danger. The Russians don’t see the problem.

A Democracy in Peril

What do Lake Baikal’s problems have to do with America’s problems? If you think about it, you can compare the American democracy with lake Baikal. We think our democracy is pure and will stay that way. Freedom of speech is an unalienable right for Americans. But when people are saying dehumanizing things, these words become the pollutants for our democracy. The president has been polluting our democracy for 4 years and made it okay for others who harbor hateful thoughts. Words play on emotions; emotions become opinions; opinions become conspiracy theories; theories become calls to action. Unless we break this chain effect of words, our journey of living in a democracy will end. 

What to take on the Journey

The American lands are beautiful. To experience the beauty I hike in nature. When I go on a long trek I prepare and look hard at what I take with me. I only take what I can carry up and down mountains. To see the beauty of this country I have to live simple and rely on mental acuity and physical strength, not guns, pipe bombs and offensive slogans. What I do moment by moment, my respect for the environment and my kindness toward the people I meet, mark my journey as a positive one.

Not-Knowing

It has come to this: politicians have become polluted/toxic and are defending their vote based on conspiracy theories and saying they are representing their constituents. My representative in congress is such a man. He represents a large swath of farm and ranch land where people see Ted Bundy as a hero, where carrying – and using- an automatic weapon is seen as manly and a constitutional right. This politician bases his vote on a lie. When I sit in not-knowing, without solutions I witness my feelings about what is happening at this time and my deeper feelings that lay buried. The pandemic has slowed my life, and I use this time for reflection and re-organization. I ask myself, “what will we take on this journey of making America great again? Humanity and good moral values, or do we continue with competition and cunning? Do we let everyone pull themselves up by their bootstraps or do we lend a helping hand? Are we willing to do with less to save the planet, or are we on lemming run toward the cliff? The questions that arise lead me to action.

Taking Action

I’m just one white-skinned, privileged person. Reduce, re-use and re-cycle is my motto. My government bonus check can go to a needy neighbor. If I’m discerning I can avoid conspiracy thinking. If I listen I may find not so obvious actions for the current situation. At this point I don’t know how to de-escalate the adrenaline addicted, gun-toting, conspiracy abiding fellow citizens who drive their big powerful trucks flying the Trump nation flag. I’m encouraged by the gestures of big companies who refuse to do business with seditionists, who close on-line accounts that spout falsehoods and violence. I ask myself, is it enough? Is it too late? The journey of being a democracy requires us to listen. Only by showing empathy and take well-thought out steps forward can we break the cycle of hate. Let’s slow our lives, think before we use words and interact with others. Let’s act by calling oppressive, and divisive policies for what they are. 

Words and Deeds

Lake Baikal attracts tourism because of its famed purity, but not for much longer. America, known as the land of the free, could follow that route of decline. The rest of the world is watching. We can start by no longer polluting the nation with words and deeds. We can listen to the fear of fellow citizens when we have a chance. Then the democratic journey has a chance to become a happy one and the end will be a good.                 

Hiking for Wholeness

“We must learn to view everything as part of “Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement”                                David Bohm, American physicist 1917 – 1992

The elections have been certified. Opposing camps are each in their own bubble and aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. Our world is as divided as ever, despite certification of election results, despite the growing pandemic numbers, despite the cry for help from the unemployed, the almost-homeless, the ones grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, or the loss of a loved one to police brutality and racial profiling. Division weighs heavy. The sides blame or shake their head in disbelief. Maybe they suspect, fear, or know that the force is against them and deny being that force. We can’t look the other way and say, “I didn’t cause your fears, your suspicions, your evil acts; this is not my world.” The fact is this world is all of our world. We are in this together.

What If? We conduct our business, walk through our days, share with those we love or feel affinity. Can you give to the man-down-the-street who disagrees with you? Can you keep a friendship going when you discover your friend believes in conspiracy, or believes they’re the “good guy”? Does the woman on the other side of the divide, want you in her life? What if? What if we adopted a family we disagree with for Christmas? Gave them what they ask for – if it’s within our means? What if we shared without judging? I received an unsolicited phone call from a woman belonging to a group of volunteers who wanted to spread a positive message with a bible verse. This woman called me across the divide, shared from a faith that isn’t mine. 

The Balancing Act When I do the Covid safe thing and hike the hills around my home, I find my belonging. I’m part of a world that is whole. Trees, grasses, moss, lichen, shrubs, insects, worms, animals, birds support each other in their survival! Too much lichen? The tree dies. No birds of prey? Too many rabbits will nibble the greenery and the grasses die. No grass? Erosion follows. You see, it all hangs together. So I hike to remind myself, to think, to find solutions. We haven’t acted as if everything hangs together. We’ve sponsored our species – (hu)man – over plants, trees, soil and animals. We’ve cut trees – too many – and spewed toxins into the air. We are the ones who’ve created the imbalance. Is nature sending us a message? Is it necessary for the continuation of the whole that 2 million people die from a pandemic? When a rabbit population grows exponentially, because of an imbalance in nature, rabbits starve and die. 

Thinking in Slogans We’re taught to think in slogans and save ourselves and the planet. “Better to wear a mask than a ventilator” makes sense. “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. A slogan to save the planet that isn’t a solution anymore. Reduce, reuse- that’s a beginning. “Family will hang together”. Try it. Kids in lockdown doing long distance learning don’t bring families together; it tears them apart, if the parents are juggling jobs and teaching, and never get a break. “Time for Nature” causes the hordes to descend on our National Parks and pollute the environment. If we can’t teach people how to behave as part of an ecosystem, sending people into nature leads to disaster and not a turn to “Whole” thinking. Among the political candidates in 2020, I found only three with slogans that infer we’re part of a whole. Beto O’Rourke “We’re all in this together” Sanders: “Not me, Us”. Hickenlooper: “Come together”. (Who is coming together here though?) Others focus on America in contrast to other countries. America isn’t a separate world that stands on its own. Trump uses, “Make America Great Again”. Amy Kobuchar says: “Amy for America”. Wayne Messam, “Wayne for America”. Are these folks thinking that their loyalty to America solves the problems w’re having? Maybe, what we need is Yang’s “Make America Think Again”; it cleverly stands for “Math”. However, doing the math of the divide we’re in, doesn’t bring us together. Congress is trying with the extra spending bills, and you can see where that’s going. Not much “whole” thinking there. Biden who uses the slogan, “Our best days still lie ahead” is on to something, because the current days are not very good. Not that it brings people together, to have a better future hanging out there like a carrot on a stick. People’s appetites for a better future across the divide are different: some want hot-dogs, others carrots-on-a-stick and they’ll fight over who gets what. 

Hiking toward Wholeness So I’ll keep hiking to experience my connection with the “Whole”, I’ll shop locally to support businesses with disparate views, give financial support to all people who’ve suffered in the last wild fire, and contribute to the food bank to feed people no matter what their belief, their opinion or reason they need help. The whole of this planet in this universe will bump along until it doesn’t anymore. “Share the Love” for the holidays, not by buying a new Subaru but by driving the old one that is doing just fine. I agree with Tom Steyer’s ”Climate Change Cannot Wait” and “Actions Speak Louder than Words”. 

You can find the documentary on David Bohm and his search toward proving Wholeness here
Comments and shares are always appreciated! 

Can Hiking Become Being?

What actually happens to us when we go on a hike? This is what I’ve been asking myself lately. Sure my muscles are getting exercise, my lungs expand, my heart rate shows its ability to handle temporary stress and I come home with a tired, satisfied feeling that allows me to manage the daily stuff of life. Hiking then is a stress reducer, a resiliency builder, a cognition enhancer – YES, hiking improves cognition! But is this how we want to categorize walking and hiking, as a healthy activity? Or is there more to it? 

Going Wild

In my book Walking Gone Wild, I approach walking and hiking as a healthy pastime and encourage those of us who are on the downhill slope of living to engage in it and extend their years or at least make these later years more enjoyable. Hiking though, isn’t just walking gone wild, meaning doing it more and more, an addiction, one you get hooked on because of its benefits, it also isn’t just a gateway to going into the wild, a way to being in the wilderness. Hiking is all that, but of late I’ve been wondering if we’re missing something when we talk about hiking only as an activity; a way to lengthen our lifespan. The word “wild” is on my mind. This last summer I went on a 3-week solo backpacking trip, hiking a section of the PCT in Northern California. 24-Hour immersion in the wild, and because of Covid I met very few people. It was just me and nature with an occasional stop to re-supply and an occasional road crossing that hinted to another world, a busy world, a world of cars, people, consuming, franticness, fear of Covid, political division. A world wild with stimuli. 

Wilderness that isn’t Wild

What happens when I retreat into the wilderness? And I have to admit, a well designed and marked trail isn’t real wilderness even if the surroundings are wilderness. Forests that have grown up after being harvested by humans, aren’t real wilderness, even if we leave them alone to become wild again. Rivers tapped for energy aren’t wild, we control their flow, we protect their banks to sustain the energy industry. The “wild” isn’t wild anymore. This compromised, cultured wildness however, allows me to hike safely at my advanced age with the help of maps, GPS, light-weight gear and the advice of many who’ve gone before me. All I bring to this wilderness is my determination, my will and training and my wish to experience something I can’t experience in my daily life with a safe home, a controlled environment that protects me from heat, cold and predators.

A Cooperative World

This summer I met the trees in a way I have never before. Since there was no-one talking to me and I don’t listen to podcasts or music when I hike, the trees were my companions. I observed things I hadn’t seen before, I connected the dots between shapes, light, density, undergrowth, animals, and soil, the elements of a forest. I slowly understood the “why” of my environment. The world I hiked in started making sense. The elevation, the temperatures, the light, the rainfall or lack thereof, all worked together to sustain these trees. The bigger trees sustained the smaller ones, the dead ones the next generation, the tree’s fruiting sustained the animals. This was a world that hung together. My intellectual knowledge became intuitive and somatic knowing. The trees taught me that the world around me is cooperative and transformative. 

I realized I wasn’t really part of that world; I am a visitor and at some point I go home to a shelter. I don’t offer myself up to sustain the trees, the undergrowth, the animals. I may try to not disturb the ecological balance by staying on the trail, a deep scar carved into the wilderness, by sleeping in a designated camp spot to decrease disturbance of the environment; by eating food brought from the outside world and burying my waste deep enough to not pollute the water nearby and leave little trace. But I’m not part of the natural world. Even 3 weeks or 3 months living in the wild doesn’t make me a link in this amazingly cooperative world. Being in the wild does change me though. When I return to civilization my body is different, my perception more acute, my mind more at ease. I’m transformed. 

Observing the Familiar

I’m back in my cultured, safe world. I go out for day hikes, I watch the seasons change, I admire nature as she dresses in her splendor, I climb her rocky sides and look out over the distant mountains, the valley with a river flowing toward the next river, and on toward the ocean. I’m an observer. Living in the comforts of my home, the transformation that took place in the wild doesn’t last. I gain weight, I’m less flexible, my eyes don’t work as well, I’m affected by the daily stimuli of news and people, less at ease. 
The Covid pandemic has kept my wanderings closer to home this year. I hike known trails. The familiar vistas and landscape don’t bowl me over with awe. Slowly, it’s dawning on me that only if I slow down, listen and interact like I did on my longer hike, will I enter deeper into the familiar. I want to learn and bring the familiar home to me in a way that lets me be part of the whole. Do I have the courage to slow down? Hike fewer miles, saunter on the familiar trails, listen to the wild part of this world so it can teach me what life is about, and what our place in it is? Only in the slow lane will hiking become being and will we figure out how to live in a responsive way to our environment. 

Winter, the season when nature’s growth slows is upon us. Covid is still with us and we too can go a little slower. May we use this time to our advantage, and learn something from our familiar environment for the next season, the next political fight, this and the next pandemic. 

A Trek into the Unknown

The days in social isolation have a rhythm of their own. A rhythm determined by the body, the weather and the immediate environment. Similar to when I trek in the mountains, my body, the weather, and the terrain determine my movement.  Now that it’s May, the days are long and sunny from sunrise to sunset in my part of the world. Nature is showing itself in all its glory.

I have a garden that needs tending, a few hours each day. The first harvest of artichokes and lettuce, spinach and greens adorn my kitchen counter. A May turnip offers its taste of sweet white flesh inside its purple skin, a delight for the palate. Cooking with these fresh delicacies brings forth new recipes. Today it’s sourdough pizza with greens, artichoke hearts and the pesto left over in the freezer. Each day something new grabs my attention. Today I wanted to make pizza and build a squash-plant bin, a wire tube filled with compost, manure and a drip line to water the contents. The plants will grow long tentacles outside the bin as the ingredients decompose inside and feed the squash’s roots. Life changes I can see right under my eyes, nudged by my hands. I can’t wait to see how big they’ll get and all the different winter squashes that will appear!

Life is happening right here, right now. My weeks are no longer scheduled full. I make up the day’s doings as my mood requests, and my basic needs demand. As the weeks go by, the world news has become a hum in the background; a litany of data and uncontrollable changes in peoples lives. It’s as if I live on an island ruled by a far away government that decides over my living circumstances. The strife between maintaining a lockdown and opening the world up again with all the contingent risks is not my struggle. As a privileged elder living on a pension, I’m not waiting for the outside world to move my life along. 

Living in isolation reminds me of hiking solo on the long trail. Cut off from the buzz of news and media, surrounded by nature and tuning in to a body that walks, eats, sleeps and rests. As I’ve mentioned in some of my hiking blogs, hiking lets me experience life at 2 miles an hour. A pace that allow my senses to take in and process the environment. A pace my brain can absorb. Life in lock-down effects the brain in a similar way. Life is slower, not so jam-packed; there are no places to go; no-one to entertain. Zoom get-togethers lose their charm quickly. So it’s me and the daily routine, determined by my bodily needs and nature’s offerings. Each time I think up a project and what it entails, I soon realize that only essential stores are open, so I have to improvise, make my own, or go without. When I eventually do go to an essential store, I find most of what I need. The times of having what you want at the click of a button — now! — are a thing of the past. I don’t know if I want that time back again. I like this simple living. Each day my awareness expands a little more. I take time to sit, think, observe and be. I hear a bird singing at sunset and I am listening, even if it may take me three days to learn its name. 

My birthday balloon, a mark of the beginning of the lock-down – still half-inflated after 8 weeks – the air/gas contained in flowered plastic, dances lower in the  breeze from the ceiling fan. How long will it be before it is totally deflated? How long will things last when re-supplies aren’t coming? We may run out of pork on the grocery shelves, I hear. I can be a vegetarian. We may run out of toilet paper, I can create a bidet. Water is still flowing, rain will come again, wind and water can drive our turbines to make electricity. And haven’t I lived without electricity before when I was on the trail? I feel like a child again; a child who doesn’t know yet what can be had, and entertains herself with what is within reach.

This may be a year-long journey, a trek into the unknown. I look forward to what I will discover about life. For now, the change feels expansive. The unseasonal heat of this day is winding down. While the pizza is baking, there’s weeding to do in the shady part of the garden.

Love and Roses

Roses and Romance

I was 62 when my lover friend sent me 12 red roses for Valentine’s. It was the first time in my life I received this token of romance. It also was the last time. This lover friend developed Alzheimer’s and spent his last years locked in an institution. In my romantic younger years Valentine’s day didn’t exist, but flowers came my way in the form of corsages. I spent several years going to fraternity parties with my boyfriend; the gentleman that he was he did what we considered romantic in those years. When a Marxist group in the late sixties radicalized our thinking, we considered corsages from then on a bourgeois excess. 

The flower-power years followed and anything that reeked of commercialism was taboo; certainly bunched red roses flown in from South America. A bunch of field-picked wild flowers was the closest to a romantic flower gift then. 

Love and the Heart

When long-term love and marriage entered my life, we cut paper hearts with the children and pasted them on construction paper for a multitude of “friendship” cards. Some chocolate to go with it all, was the extent of our Valentine’s gift. 

No romantic dinner’s, no surprise get-aways for that one day in February when everyone expresses their love. Gold-dipped chocolate roses arrived for my teenage daughter but not for me. My husband and I loved each other and wasn’t that enough? I found a card in my card recycle box the other day with a sweet, meaningful message for one of those not-so-Valentine’s days. I smiled and remembered our love, still in my heart even though he is no longer in the body. 

Love Moments

Ahh yes, love! The elusive, yet real feeling. Can we  experience love when we don’t have a lover? Love produces longing when we don’t feel it. Yet love, according to some, becomes pervasive when we are close to death. Rilke wrote: “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” When we feel the moments slipping away and each moment we still have becomes precious and radiant, many people report experiencing a state of love. Can we feel romantic when we don’t receive red roses? Can love just arise out of nowhere? 

Spontaneous Love

I say yes! Love arises when I sit in meditation long enough; love arises when I surround myself with the beauty of nature; love comes up spontaneously when I slow down, straighten up from bending over a garden bed and take in the beginnings of spring. So instead of rushing around to find a gift for someone you love, be the gift of slowing down and be present for a friend, yourself, or your loved ones. Make Valentine’s day a slow day and see how you feel. Get up slowly. Drink your tea or coffee slowly; chew your food slowly and eat less; walk slowly, drive slow. Gaze out the window, stop and look at a tree, a bird, a river. Feel. Look everyone in the eye, stop to listen, be with whoever is asking for your attention. Breathe. Love for all-that-is will rise inside you, and who needs roses when you feel that kind of love?

In Memoriam Baba Ram Dass

An icon of the New Age world of the sixties and seventies has passed on December 22, 2019. I learned about Ram Dass on a bus in Afghanistan in 1971 when someone handed me his book, BE HERE NOW. A hippie book full of drawings that expose our human suffering, acknowledge our lustful thoughts, hand drawn text to help us get out of the cycle of suffering and be in bliss, it brought the story of a Harvard psychology professor who went to India to meet a famous guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Now you’d think a Harvard scientist studying mind and consciousness will make short work of an Indian Guru in a blanket, sitting in the Himalayas. The opposite happened: Neem Karoli made short work of Richard Alpert and turned him into Ram Dass. Alpert has gone through life as Ram Dass working on his inner transformation ever since and passed away with a large following of friends who will mourn his passing and carry on spreading his message of love. 

I met Ram Dass in November 1971; it was a shock when I realized I shared a hotel rooftop balcony in Delhi with a famous man. I was a seeker of answers about living and he was a student of Mahara-ji, as Neem Karoli was called by his devotees.  I didn’t know then that Mahara-ji would have a lasting effect on me. A year of traveling around India and Nepal brought me eventually at the master’s feet under the pressure of another traveler. I was thoroughly fed up with the whole guru scene among westerners and skeptical of yet another guru. I spent 10 days around the ashram; Mahara-ji did his mysterious work with me, changed my name and sent me off into the world to do “my work”. Mahara-ji passed on to another world the next year and I didn’t visit the ashram again until 2005.

I heard Ram Dass speak a few times in my life in the US. He inspired me and others to sit and listen to our heart and love everyone. I’m sure many members of the New Age Community have done that.  We lived the seventies hoping love would change the world and bring peace. In 2020 that notion deserves question marks. Yet love is an essential ingredient for survival and well-being. 
My upcoming memoir: “When Love is not Enough” will tell you my story of a slow awakening to the truth of living: love is essential, but love doesn’t fix the worldly problems. Ram Dass lived a life of loving kindness, but he couldn’t fix climate change; he too had to lose people, had to deal with physical limitations and demise, and could only serve others when the opportunity arose. 
We can learn from an inspiring man’s life that he can bloom and inspire; he can move others to do the same, but in the end he dies. If lucky someone else will carry his message despite ongoing war and treachery, despite short sightedness and misuse of power, despite climate change, hunger and overpopulation. 
Ram Dass inspired peaceful living and loving kindness; we can carry on doing the same. We live in an era when teenagers are fighting for the survival of the planet, when child soldiers are taught to kill, when children still starve from hunger although 40% of the food produced in the US goes to waste and is thrown away. What’s happened since the late sixties is a shift. A shift in how people suffer and where people suffer. Suffering still happens. Love doesn’t take away suffering, love soothes. 

The big take-away from my encounter with Ram Dass and Mahara-ji has been that we each have our work to do to reduce our own suffering and help others to do the same. Once you have experienced the state of bliss – of non-suffering – you will still find yourself in a body and you still, as Ram Das said in Be Here Now, have to chop wood and carry water. You can honor Ram Dass by living the ordinary life without getting swept away by it, without drowning in it, and find the quiet moments that remind you that peace lives inside you.

The Journey of 2019 in Review

IMG_5470The year, or as the case is the decade, in review gives us pause. Does it do any good? Do we learn from our history? This last year I took a trip to retrace my steps of former years, a review of sorts. You can never go back they say. But I did; I went back to the places that have been significant in my life, my country of birth and the Himalayas in India, Nepal, Tibet. Everything has changed, I expected that, but I wanted to see how I have changed. 

The Netherlands, my native country formed me. The Himalayas have been my place of spiritual seeking, my place of finding myself. I don’t know why I chose the Himalayas, probably combining seventies rebelliousness – an anti-establishment act – and a deep longing for a different belonging than my Dutch-Calvinistic upbringing and environment offered. I wasn’t an exception: 35,000 young people were on the road to India on any day in the late sixties and early seventies. I wasn’t original, nor was I an outlier. 

From my first year-long journey around India and Nepal I brought back notions of spirituality, new ways of improving myself (the Calvinistic need of bettering oneself in the eye of God ran deep), and a thirst for living in community with people who weren’t afraid to be innovative. 

Holland felt stifling, small. I wanted something different. I emigrated to the West Coast of America and joined the back-to-the-land movement of the seventies. My explorations into alternate realities, alternative medicine, food styles, and living arrangements gave me community, a new family. I practiced skills and habits that promoted an emotionally healthier life than the restricted formality I had experienced growing up; I thought. The New Age paradigm had me in its grips.

Life unfolded and despite the newfangled notions of personal reality, unconditional love, and spiritual materialism, our family followed the predictable path of educated, middle class, privileged white people. We bought a home, a safe place to live and raise children, we accumulated modest wealth, comfort and opportunity for implementing new ideas on a small scale. My life didn’t look so different from my parent’s life; morals and values hadn’t changed. Had I changed considering what I was seeking earlier in life? Was I happier? More enlightened?

Then the next predictable life thing happened: misfortune and illness. Meditation doesn’t stop chronic illness; Love doesn’t heal dementia; alternative medicine in China doesn’t turn the tide of decline.

In 2005 I went back to the Himalayas to escape the misfortune, the illness and figure out a new direction. I found what I was made of: physically strong stock, a mind comfortable with emptiness, a body and mind that can walk itself into happiness. New Sarum Press will publish my memoir of that journey in 2020.

Life and loss taught me I create my happiness; it taught me belonging is a state of mind that changes like the tide of the ocean, the season, or the time of day. 

IMG_6092Back in the Himalayas this year, I walked, I watched, I embraced community. At my slow travel pace, I found the stories of the places I re-visited. The places have changed: prosperity is entering people’s life like a glacier moving forward burying everything known in its path, while the real glaciers have receded and the lack of water will drive people from their homes. Global migration is real and unstoppable, both in Europe and Asia. I found that the search for spirituality is trading places with hungry commercialism. Addiction to cellphones is replacing the need for community even in roadless nomad areas. 

And I? How have I changed? I no longer run away from my roots, I accept my not so exotic earthy sturdiness that came with my Dutch upbringing. I question the form of the ancient Eastern teachings, but I have absorbed the quiet stillness that comes with being present in the moment. I no longer need to find answers in foreign places, to look for teachers elsewhere. I am my own teacher. I can find answers on a trail in my own backyard, or on my meditation cushion. 

P1020608At the end of this journey of traveling with strangers, being fed, and cared for by nomads and innkeepers alike, I feel more love for humanity, even the ones who are making a mess of this world. You could say that after finding my thirst for inner clarity in India in the seventies, and reclaiming my self-belonging in 2005, this year upon my return to the Himalayas I’ve found a home inside myself. 

Like many people migrating the globe, I traveled around the world to find where home is. I discovered hope for the future in the heartfelt effort of a Ladakhi nomad teenager who walks 4 hours daily to school and back to better his future. I felt sadness over the belief of the faithful as the religious commerce at the temple of Swyambu in Nepal and the monasteries of Tibet sold them salvation. I looked the end of my time on earth into the eye at base-camp Mt Everest as the misty snowy clouds shrouded my vision and my slowed breathing made me feel I could dissolve into the clouds. I found that life at 72 can start anew after climbing over 18,000 ft Dolma-la pass at the base of Mt Kailash in Tibet.

The story of my journey is archetypical, a story of loss and renewal. Many years and many miles later I have arrived at the feeling of being at home within myself. It could have happened in one place, one town on an island. For me it happened, one foot in front of the other, one journey after the other, even a re-tracing of my steps to know that home is where the trail ends.

 

Eve.r.est: a Return to the Tallest Mountain

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Long ago, when I began my quest into the why’s and how’s of this world, I had a face-to-face with Mt Everest. It was accidental; I hadn’t felt the allure of the highest mountains, not then. Humbled I stood there, surrounded by the giants of the world, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. I took in the notion that I stood on a very high place on the planet, Kala Patar, 18,200 ft above sea level. Oxygen deprived, I could only climb a few steps at a time. I couldn’t foresee what this experience would mean in my life.

I absorbed the experience and descended to the Everest glacier. After walking off the glacier, I flew back from Lukla to a life of wants and desires, a life of searching for answers that would satisfy, a life with a purpose. I never gave summitting Kala Patar much thought, I was young and strong, but I wasn’t a mountain climber; I was a tag-along in a relationship with a climber, a relationship that didn’t last.

Much, much later in life I became a long distance hiker. I walked away my grief over the losses in my life; I walked myself whole; I walked myself into belonging. Doing so I climbed to heights above tree line, I yelled at the skies. I marveled at the light showing itself over the craggy peaks and passes at dawn, and let go of being the center of the world as the light disappeared at sunset. The world continued as day turned to night, night to day, no matter the upsets, the problems, the joys and lost relationships. When it was dark I rested, when it was light I turned toward that light with each step and found my belonging in the empty heights of the tallest mountains. 

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One day when I stood on top of a 14,000 ft pass in the Sierra Nevada in California, I heard the voice. It said: “Go now while you can; go to Tibet and Mt Everest.” 

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A year later I stood on Pangla pass, at 17,224 ft in Tibet with a view of the Himalayas, a view of Mt Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan), Lhotse and Makala in the distance, but visible. The next day I made my way to the Mt Everest base camp monument at 18,300 ft elevation, one slow step after the other. It was snowing, and the clouds shrouded the mountain. I passed Rombuk monastery and saw a field of cairns stretching out toward expedition base camp. Cairns are stacks of rocks, one rock balancing on top of the other showing a tenuous and temporary relationship; they’re placed to mark a trail, to draw attention to a view, a place of significance. When I saw this field of cairns leading up to base camp, I felt the urge to make my own cairn. While picking up rocks that would be suitable and called out to me, I came to a rope with small flags strung across the landscape, a barrier to keep people from entering the base camp terrain, closed off for the public to allow clean-up. To get closer to the mountain, I stepped over the line. Then I saw a rock suitable as a base to build my pile. The pile became a symbol of me, my life energy, as I had struggled to breathe and carry to this point. Minuscule Edelweiss surrounded the base. I noted that even here in this rugged, desolate terrain flowers can exist. The pile grew as I placed rocks I found nearby, naming them one by one and letting them become representative of the loved ones in my life. When I looked up toward the mountain, misty clouds moved through, surrounding me and leaving me feeling alone in the landscape. I felt I could disappear in the snow, mist and fog. This is what dying will be like, I thought. Tears welled up, my body sobbed with a gut wrenching sadness I didn’t know lived inside me. I saw my life-ending as a disappearance into an invisible world so much bigger than I, a place of ‘ever-rest’.  I cried not because I feared dying, but I knew that the hardest thing about dying would be the saying goodbye to those I love. As I placed the rocks, I offered my life and loved ones to the mountain. I had returned to Eve.r.est, or Chomolungma meaning “Mother Goddess of the world” for a deeper understanding. Not knowing myself and my life when I first met her in 1972, this time she moved me to understand what ever-rest is: not just a mountain named after an Englishman but a place that reminds me how I will disappear when the time comes.

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From Spirituality to Commercial Religion part II, the Chinese Dilemma

From Spirituality to Religious Commerce part 1

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View from Swyambu temple of Kathmandu valley 2019

My memories of Swyambu in Nepal are images of a rural village, a teashop-stop with a few houses along a road that circled around a hill crawling with monkeys. On top of the hill a white stupa with painted slanted eyes dominated the view. I lived on that road in a rented apartment for two months. Daily I went to the well to get water and smiled at the local women. The slanted penetrating eyes of the stupa saw my everyday activities of carrying water and sweeping the floor. Eyes that would become famous in the fight against unnecessary blindness through the SEVA foundation which Ram Dass and friends started in the 1978. 

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Swyambu in 1972

I remember living in Swyambu as an expansive, mind-altering experience. On the full moon in May (Buddha’s birthday) when I was there, the long horns of the Tibetan Buddhist monks sounded their deep resonant sound from the top of the hill over the green valley. Pilgrims doing their prostrations filled the road around the temple. The air was thick with spirituality. It was contagious and sent me searching to find a practice that would give me insight and answers to life questions.

Almost fifty years later I’m back to visit the temple and see how I’ve changed. My travel partner and I take a taxi to the temple to avoid getting lost in the concrete jungle of streets and houses that have sprung up between Swyambu and Kathmandu. What used to be a half-hour walk through the countryside from the temple to downtown Kathmandu is now a chaotic, noisy maze of streets filled with cars, motorcycles and rickshaws. Construction is going on everywhere; infrastructure to connect the neighborhoods and funnel the traffic is absent. Everyone is on a mad dash to weave their way through the chaos. We let the taxi driver do the work of finding the back alleys and drive us to the temple.

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I’m not used to living with chaos. My daily life is ordered, spacious, quiet. The chaos of Kathmandu makes me tense and belligerent. I don’t want to fight traffic, hawkers, and shopkeepers demanding my attention so I choose the taxi-bubble protected by doors and windows. I envy the lithe, relaxed movements of the motorcycle riders who sway and turn like fish in a school of their kind without bumping into each other. They’re used to this environment; they don their breathing masks and helmets and follow the stream. 

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Buddha statue at bottom of stairs leading up to Swyambu temple

The taxi driver asks if he should wait for us for a return ride. We decline. We don’t know how long we’ll want to visit the temple and its current scene. I look up to find the familiar stupa with its slanted eyes. The tip of the stupa is visible, but the eyes are not. The stairs seem steeper and higher than I remember. I climb the stairs. The weather is humid, and the climb feels like a 1000 feet elevation gain. It takes will to reach the top. The hill is now covered with thick foliage and obstructs the view of the temple. I remember sitting on the walls of the steps with the monkeys jumping around me. The monkeys are still here, but they don’t pay attention to me or the many visitors. Near the top of the stairs is a ticket office. If we want to see the temple, we must pay. I swallow the commercialization of this religious place, and pay. 

IMG_5957At the top of the stairs the slanted eyes on the stupa become visible. Small temples and altars surround the stupa; smoke rises to the heavens, people sprinkle offerings of food and flowers everywhere for the gods who no longer live here. Tourist stalls sell spiritual curiosities. The walkway around the stupa is short and narrow, and there’s no room to do full body prostrations. I remember the road that circled around Swyambu in 1972 where Buddhist devotees would do their prostrations to improve their karma for their next life. No-one is doing prostrations now. A party of Japanese photographers take pictures of dressed up geisha’s with the temple in the background. They use the temple for commerce. 

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author with buddha statue in 1972

 The belligerence I felt in the chaotic traffic turns to sadness. How can I find the inspiration I found so long ago in this spiritual circus? I look around at the valley below filled with houses and can’t find the road that used to circle around the temple. The only road I see is a pathway descending on the North side to a parking lot lined with more spiritual souvenir stalls. I want to find a place to sit like I did 50 years ago, when I was a young western woman in a Tibetan dress practicing newfound spiritual techniques. But I can’t find a place to sit and have to go to the backside of the temple to find a quiet place. This religious site doesn’t inspire me any more. The sadness constricts my chest. I wander by a pool of water with a statue in the middle. Visitors lean on its wall and toss coins while making wishes for a better life. I just want to get out of here. The past is gone; there’s only the present. Swyambu has become a religious icon without spirit. 

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author sitting near small stupa in 2019

We walk down the road on the North side of the temple to what must be Swyambu village and I recognize what looks like the main street, now lined with houses and shops. Will the increasing population crowd out the temple? Can spirituality exist in this maelstrom?

We find a taxi that will take us to the old downtown of Kathmandu. When I step out of the taxi on Durbar square a motorcycle slams into the open door and falls to the ground. Fish don’t mingle well with taxis. After an excited conversation between the taxi driver, the motorcycle rider and 5 police men, we are free to go. I give the motorcycle rider some money for his trouble and discomfort. The taxi driver takes the motorcycle-rider to the hospital for a checkup. I hope he will find his way back into the school of motorcycle-fish soon and live his life of adapted chaos in a world that is no longer peaceful and inspirational. A few orange-clad sadhus (holy men) are sitting at the side of the temple in Durbar square. They let me take their picture for some rupees. Even holy men need to make money….

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