Short Memoir: How Pilgrimage Shows Us the Way Back to True Self, Part 2Feb 04, 2020
Something changed in me that day on Mount Arunachala. I glimpsed something I’d never seen before. At least, not since I was a boy.
It was only a glimpse, so I can’t say for certain what I saw. But during and after my circumambulation, I peered deeper inside myself than I had done before. Deeper than during the most focused yoga or meditation session. Deeper than during any adventure to a far-flung natural place. Deeper than during the most reverent, prayerful visit to a sacred site or Indian temple. Arunachala shattered me. Opened me. And through the broken shell of myself I glimpsed something bright, essential, true. Was it my soul?
But as transformative and beautiful as that experience was, I was in no condition to return to “normal” life. During the next few days, my final days in India, I cried often. On the flight home to the States, I teared up every time my mind wandered back to Arunachala. Back at my apartment in Boulder, I turned the key in the lock and entered. Blue greeted me, wagging, smiling. I collapsed onto my bed. Blue jumped on top of me and pressed his forehead into mine. I felt tender, grateful—and baffled. My mind spun. A stack of bills waited for me in my mailbox. What next? I had to get back to work: coaching people writing books, doing my own writing, teaching yoga. I had to pay next month’s rent and focus on my quote-unquote real life. The problem was, nothing felt as real as Arunachala. I began to worry about putting food on the table.
Yoga has taught me that when my mind spins, I need to move my body and feel my breath. Moving shifts me out of fruitless, obsessive questioning and back into my body. Feeling my breath keeps me mindful that this moment is all there is. When I am in my body and feeling my breath, my mind slows down and worries seem less urgent. Sometimes the worrying stops altogether. Moving my body can stop a PTSD flashback in its tracks. I need to walk along Boulder Creek, I thought, as I usually did each morning. The sun was headed behind the mountains as I slipped Blue into his harness and we headed out for a long creek walk under the shadow of the Flatirons, the sheer rock faces that overlook my town and give it its distinctive rugged flavor. I walked. Blue sniffed. I reflected on the last two weeks.
As I moved, I felt less frantic to understand Arunachala. I walked. I breathed. I watched Blue explore smells on the path. When I reached the rock that I sat on each morning, I took out my notebook to write. The words that came out of my pen troubled me. Was I crazy for praying to Shiva, a god that I don’t really believe in except as metaphor? Had I simply had an emotional breakdown? If a psychiatrist had seen me collapsed in a crying ball in front of the ashram on the side of Arunachala, they would have called me dysregulated, regressed to an unhealthy emotional state, perhaps even unhinged.
I stopped my hand.
Enough, I said out loud.
I was done. I was through placing my trust and faith in people and things who didn’t deserve it. Gurus, messiahs, doctors, therapists, pills, even family members with whom I’d sought healthy relationships but who couldn’t own the simplest of truths about shared experiences. I was also done seeing myself through the lens of Western psychology with its DSM and emphasis on seeing human beings as disordered. I was done with psychiatrists. The ones I’d encountered were simultaneously arrogant and very limited in their views of how human beings heal. All but one were utterly ignorant about complex childhood trauma. Sure, psychiatrists help people. But human beings are not constellations of disorders. I, for one, was an ordinary human being facing ordinary struggles to live a decent life and understand who I was and what this life meant. I felt disgusted. I’d spent decades placing my trust and faith in people who didn’t deserve it. And I was done.
Who am I? I thought.
I was a middle-aged man sitting on a rock and journaling. This is who I am, I laughed inwardly and called Blue, who was wandering towards some squirrels, back to me. I faced each day ready to have my heart broken—and that was who I was and would always be. And I could expect more of the same, if I was going to let Arunachala’s wisdom stick with me.
I began to write in my notebook again. It was time to face the real question: What had I made contact with on Arunachala?
I had felt utterly shattered and the only part of me that remained was raw, essential. Me without pretense. It had felt more real than the dirt under my feet. It had felt more real than anything I’d ever experienced. The combination of being in an exotic place, the natural beauty, the deep meditation, the hours of chanting and walking … everything had alchemized to pull back the layers of armor I’d constructed around myself.
But what did I see? Was it my soul? I’d been trying to make contact with my soul for years, but the rational part of me always ridiculed the idea of a soul as unscientific. Had I seen my soul? I wasn’t getting an answer, but then I found myself writing: It’s time to give up the bullshit. Give up the blame. Give up the hiding. Cut ties with toxic people and make my friends, or maybe everyone on earth, my family. Live out loud. Be here now and be who you are. Leave the shame behind. Love yourself first and fiercely.
Whatever I’d seen, I knew I’d never forget it. Or rather, I knew that, if I did forget temporarily, I could always access that bright inner light by doing one thing: picturing in my mind the rocky, beautiful slopes of Mount Arunachala.
That was enough. I packed my notebook and pen and began to walk home. The fading light had turned the moving water a now dark blue. I spotted a group of ducks huddling together in an eddie. I spotted a lone duck riding the creek’s waves. As he passed the other ducks, he didn’t look over at them. His eyes remained glued on the next wave. Whatever it was I’d seen on Arunachala, it was the most beautiful sight in the world. It was blindingly bright. And I wanted to see more. I wanted to be with myself more. I had to have me. I wanted to hold my gaze and breathe myself in, like how I make love to my partner. For the first time in my memory, I had hope because I knew my mission: stay with myself. Leave the shame behind. Like the lone duck, I needed to ignore the input of people who didn’t have my best interest, and stay with what I knew in my body and breath to be true.
I was wise enough to know that getting that glimpse in India was only the beginning, a prologue, to the next chapter of my life. I knew that this next chapter would not be easy. I knew the shit was about to hit the fan. I sensed the courage it would take and felt a bit nauseous. I’d have to hold my own gaze, even when I forget my love for myself, or believed I was deluded in this holy quest.
Back in my apartment, I contemplated action steps as I put dinner together. Step one was to let go of people who I was using to keep me stuck. I was committed to a life of peace, ease, and love. And I would be far more careful about who I allowed to get close to me. I wrote down other action steps into my notebook. I must have immediately fallen asleep because when I awoke it was morning and I was still on my mat, Blue curled under my arm. It was still dark out. I made coffee. I began to write down my mission statement for the next months. I committed to discovering how to love myself. How to have faith in myself. I committed to holding my gaze.
This will not be pretty, I sighed internally. Reclamation projects never are, they take excavation, digging, hard work. I also committed to disarming the inner critic that ruled my head like a cruel puppet. Despite all the work I’d done in therapy and on my yoga mat, I still hated myself. Or rather, my mind was still ruled by a ruthless voice who constantly told me I how stupid, ugly, and worthless I was. I’d lived with this nasty voice since my teen years when he climbed into the driver’s seat of my mind.
So, that winter back from India, I worked on taming the horrible voice. He was like mud on glasses, obscuring my ability to hold my own gaze, to see my own soul, to keep faith in front of me. I kept up with my usual tasks of writing, coaching, editing, driving Lyft, but I also I went to therapy twice a week. I practiced yoga every morning. I meditated twice a day. Just as there’s no standard route to your soul, there is no easy path for silencing your inner critic. But there was one spiritual teacher I trusted. I’d heard Jack Kornfield say in a recorded talk that doing Metta meditation practice lessened the inner critic’s impact.
Metta was invented in India by monks living in wild, remote places who lived in fear of tigers and other real and imagined dangers in the dark jungle. The practice involves wishing happiness, wellness, and freedom for oneself, one’s circle of friends, one’s enemies, and, finally, all the beings of the universe.
The practice goes something like this:
“May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be safe from internal and external dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be peaceful.
May I be happy, truly happy. And free.”
And when you are finished with this phase, you repeat these phrases, replacing “I” with close friends, then enemies or difficult people, and finally you say these phrases while wishing well for all beings in the universe.
I spoke the Metta practice two, sometimes three, times a day for 30-minute stretches. When I was angry at a betrayal or self-betrayal, I stopped everything and did Metta. If a client refused to pay his bill on time, I did Metta. If I got worried about my bank account, I did Metta.
One day, while practicing yoga in my apartment, I had an idea. “You have to turn your life into yoga. Every day is yoga.”
This life is hard; yoga—the philosophy and all the practices, not merely the postures—was invented by sages to help people come back to themselves, to come back to their soul, their jivanmukta.
I didn’t mean that I needed to do yoga postures 24 hours a day. I meant that I needed to treat my life with the same diligence to staying home as if I were moving through postures on my yoga mat. From this moment forward, I would stay with my breath, my body, myself as much as possible. And when I lost myself, which I knew I would, I would gently remind myself to come back home. When the inner critic reared his head, I would refuse to listen and come back to my breath, feel my body, and connect with the inner light I saw on Mount Arunachala. This was to be my life’s work. This was self-love. And when we love ourselves fully and completely, we can show up for other people in our lives. If this sounds ridiculous, if it sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. This is yoga. Because in the end, we must take responsibility for our lives. In the end, it’s you versus you. And the game is love.
And there was more to turning my life into yoga than staying with my body and breath. Ancient yogis knew that, at our core, we are bliss. Love. God. We are Home. This is a far cry from the Judeo-Christian notion of Original Sin, the model I grew up with. And so this, too, was my work: remembering that I, you, everybody are God. There is no separation between myself and other beings. There is no separation between myself and God. We really are One.
Faith is what Arunachala showed me. It showed me what is possible after hurt and anger and betrayal. After shame and self-loathing and numbing. We are whole and holy. This truth will never leave us because it is us.
A former senior editor and contributing writer at Outside magazine, Brad Wetzler is an author, journalist, travel writer, book writing coach, and yoga instructor. His book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton. His nonfiction writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, GQ, Wired, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, George, Travel + Leisure, Thrive Global, and Outside. He coaches up-and-coming authors to write and successfully publish their books. For your free 30-minute phone consult, email Brad at [email protected]