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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