Short Memoir: How Pilgrimage Shows Us the Way Back to True SelfMar 18, 2020
Last winter, I traveled to southern India for a pilgrimage to Arunachala, a conical mountain considered by Hindus to be the embodiment of Shiva, the god of destruction and rebirth. The night before the pilgrimage, I dropped onto the mattress in my bamboo hut hoping for a peaceful rest. I fell asleep listening to mosquitoes bombard the window screens. The peace didn’t last. Two hours later, I was awake. When it became clear I wasn’t going back to sleep, I got up and went outside to the bamboo balcony of my two-story hut and spread out my yoga mat. I moved through a few Sun Salutations. Moving my body like this clears energy trapped in muscle and sinew. It makes me feel better and sometimes allows me to go back to sleep.
But on this night, sleep wasn’t in the cards. After more yoga poses, I lay on my mat, lost in thought, staring across the grassy land at Arunachala. Clouds shrouded its conical summit and, lit by a full moon, the mountain seemed to glow from the inside.
I sat upright and stared. It was an odd site, this inner glow. I recalled the beginning seven years earlier of my mid-life spiritual quest, the catalyst: putting the body of my friend Paul in a bodybag. Paul, the nephew of Andrea, my then girlfriend, had overdosed on opiates. When we arrived at his house, he was lifeless and blue on the floor of a hallway. After the coroner completed his investigation and declared a suicide, he held up an orange body bag and asked if I’d help him perform the grim task of putting Paul in it and carrying him to the hearse. What could I say? With tears in my eyes, I agreed. I remembered a meeting with Paul a few weeks earlier. He too had been taking massive doses of antidepressants and other psych meds. “These drugs killed my spirit,” he said. “Why not kill the body too?” I knew what he intended to do. I was too numbed out myself to try to convince him not to.
A few months later, my eyes still tear-filled, I hit the road for Israel and Palestine to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, my childhood hero. I couldn’t name or label it, but I knew I’d reached the end of one life phase, and I was beginning another. After years of living as an agnostic, I wanted to see if I could believe in God again, and I hoped walking where Jesus walked might ignite my faith.
It didn’t. But I had amazing adventures in the Holy Land. Moreover, the trip changed me. When I returned home, I went inward. I began journaling each morning when I woke. I committed to daily yoga. I traveled to other sacred sites in the United States and abroad. Sacred sites helped me feel sacred, too.
As I sat on my yoga mat in India, I realized that I’d been seeking wholeness in the form of the divine most of my life. What was driving this seeking, I wondered. What was underneath this life-long questing?
And then I had a bizarre idea. I decided to say a prayer to Shiva. I am not a Hindu. And praying was not my thing anymore. But in this moment, it felt right.I felt called from the inside to talk with the god of destruction and rebirth. Anyway, I think of the Hindu gods as being representative of different parts of our person—energies that exist in all of us. Our Shiva energy is the part of us that knows and sees all of us. Shiva energy is wildly unpredictable. Shiva energy is capable of transforming us from the bottom up. On this sleepless night, Shiva was definitely the right guy.
I asked Shiva to shatter me, obliterate me, change me. I guess I was asking myself to shatter me. Or the Universe. Or whomever the hell does the shattering and obliterating. “Just do it,” I said. Maybe even out loud.
When I was finished talking to Shiva, I lay back on my yoga mat. I felt too fried to move. Wasn’t it odd, I thought, that I was on the spiritual adventure of a lifetime, that all my seeking had led me to this moment, to this pilgrimage on the Shiva mountain, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was exhausted. I was dead tired of seeking. Maybe the best thing I can do is stop all this seeking now, I thought. I considered retreating under the covers and sleeping through the pilgrimage. I came damn close.
But I didn’t.
I sat up and stared out at the Tamil countryside. It clicked for me why I was here, and why I had been a lifelong seeker. Yes, I was seeking God. Yes, I was seeking spiritual healing and a connection with the divine. But I was also increasingly aware that I was seeking some things even more elusive than God. I was seeking to heal my past, especially the relationship with my father. That relationship had been the biggest disappointment of my life. I loved him. I craved a relationship with him, but I also wanted to throw up my hands, give up, and push him out of my life for good.
I was haunted by certain events of my childhood. The issue had been my dad’s heavy drinking when I was a kid. By dinner he slurred his speech. By bedtime he was passed out and couldn’t be woken up. My mother and siblings retreated to their rooms. But I cared–too much–and I couldn’t leave his side. I was only a kid then. I didn’t understand alcohol. I didn’t know that he was simply passed out drunk in his La-Z-Boy. I felt anxious, terrified. His tongue was thick and hanging from his mouth. I feared he would drink himself to death. For years, I sat with him most nights of the week. I did my doing my homework, frequently looking up from my notebooks to see if he was okay. Still breathing. Some nights I had to carry his inebriated body to bed. The next morning was almost worse: my father would be at the breakfast table, showered clean, in his suit and tie, ready to spend the day at his law office. He didn’t remember the pain he’d caused the night before. Worse, he seemed arrogant, quick to hand out advice of any kind: financial, moral, even spiritual.
After I left for college, my father eventually figured out how to drink less, but he has never acknowledged that awful period of our lives together or that he ever drank too much. All I’d ever wanted was confirmation that I wasn’t crazy, that my memory of childhood wasn’t false. I became obsessed. The kid in me thought, if he loved me, he wouldn’t lie to me, right?
Today, the adult in me knows better.
I do understand. It’s hard to look at ourselves. It’s hard to get down and dirty with the less savory parts of us. I have them. You have them. And here’s the rub: when we don’t or can’t own our own shit, when we spend our downtime numbing out on wine and TV News, then we inevitably push our shit onto somebody else in the form of projection. A kid sitting nearby will believe anything, lies or not. A kid has no defense against a parent’s projected dark shadow. It can take years to figure out what the truth really was and to rediscover yourself. It can send you around the world on crazy-ass quests.
As I arrived at Arunachala, I was no longer a kid. I was a middle-aged man. And I was tired of the seeking–and the lies. It is crazy-making to be in relationship with someone who can only tolerate their own version of reality—a version I knew in my bones wasn’t true. As an adult, if I questioned my father’s storyline, he got angry. He didn’t return texts or calls. He’d disappear. And then, days or weeks later, he’d resurface and pretend that all was sunshine and roses. This difficult relationship with the man who gave me life and raised me, my primary male role model, filled me with doubt, left me perpetually confused. What was more true, my memories of my childhood or his whitewashed, denial-fueled version? He was my FATHER, after all. Father knows best, right?
I learned to deny my truth. I became a chronic seeker.
On that night, now early morning, in India, I asked Arunachala, Shiva, to show me a path forward. More than that, I wanted Shiva to show me a deeper truth. Given the gaslighting I’d experienced growing up, I desired the experience of something I could say was true, real. Without truth, there can be no love, I felt. The good news was, I was feeling something deeply. All the yoga and self-improvement education was showing me glimpses of my deeper self, my true self. It was emerging slowly, but it was happening. I wanted Shiva to shatter me so that I could rebuild myself from the bottom up. I wanted to know what love was. As I lay on my yoga mat outside my hut, I remembered what Krishna Das, the American kirtan singer and spiritual teacher, said in a workshop I attended: “When we fall in love with the Self, all of life becomes a praising, a calling out, because we’ve fallen in love with who we are. You want to be with the one you love, live, sing with the one you love.” Krishna Das called this reconnection with the self the beginning of faith. Not blind faith, but living faith. Not belief, but a deep knowing. This is what people mean when they say they have a spiritual awakening. It is a reconnection with the person we are—and a reconnection with our inner goodness, our inner divinity.
I wanted Shiva to obliterate me in order to rebuild myself with love.
The full moon was fat and bright. My eyes landed on Arunachala, across the valley. The summit was socked in by clouds. I thought of all the names for Shiva, the supreme god, the lord of lords, the yogi of all yogis, the god of destruction and transformation. This was why my prayer had been to Shiva, asking Shiva to lay me bare and show me exactly who I was.
I must have drifted back to sleep, because the rickshaw driver’s horn surprised me awake. Excited, anxious, sad, angry, and, at the same time, filled with more gratitude for this life journey than seemed possible, I gathered my daypack and water bottle and descended the ladder to the dirt. I nodded hello to the rickshaw driver, climbing into the back seat. We bounced down the dirt road to a paved highway that led us into downtown Tiruvannamalai and the gathering sight for our pilgrimage. I reconvened with my group, who’d stayed at a retreat center. Together we began our walk, silently chanting the mantra Om Namah Shivaya, “I bow to the lord shiva.”
The first two miles of the pilgrimage route took us through downtown Tiruvannamalai. Then we left the sidewalk for a singletrack trail through brushy landscape. I tried to stay centered on the mantra. It felt both monotonous and invigorating. I understood why mantras are believed to be powerful tools. According to yoga texts, chanting a god’s name silently invokes the energy of that god. Every few minutes, I took my eyes off the path in front of me and looked up at Arunachala’s cloud-wrapped summit.
I’ll never forget the image. The cloud didn’t appear like a typical mountain rain cloud. It had a brown tint and swirled. It looked like a cloud of electrons. I fantasized that Shiva was in that flurry of energy, ready to magically take away my pain on this mountain. I was on the pilgrimage of a lifetime, headed somewhere outside of myself. But I seemed to finally understand something that had escaped me in all my previous seeking. Why had I spent so much energy and time seeking answers out in the world? What was so bad about Brad?
My mind left the path and travelled back in time to my teenage years when I first began to be visited by long, severe depressions that came and went without warning. It was obvious why I’d been running. The young boy I’d been had blamed himself for his father’s drinking. The young boy I’d been had believed his father’s lies more than his own truth. Given this inner turmoil and self-doubt, it’s not surprising that I have had a lifelong struggle with depression and shame. There is nothing like the feeling of depression to make you not want to be yourself. Yourself has to be broken in some way if you feel that bad, right? The long-term effects on me of my father’s drinking meant that I was still blaming myself. For everything.
I kept walking. I kept chanting.
The final two miles of the path was on city streets. It was now daylight. Traffic was heavy. It was hard to stay with my Om Namah Shivaya as I dodged cars, rickshaws, and bikes. My mind stopped reminiscing and landed suddenly on surviving Indian rush hour. I was approaching Ramana Maharshi Ashram again. The end of the walk. And then I was there, standing under the ashram sign.
I found a quiet grassy spot under a tree, and a swell of emotion rose inside me, too many to discern one from another: joy, sorrow, anger, and every emotion in between. I curled into a ball and cried. I’d never cried so hard. The emotions behind the tears were complex. I could feel below the surface a deep sadness at the great lengths I’d gone to to seek answers, to seek healing. Decades of seeking fueled by pain. I was crying over the human condition—we are all driven to such lengths to run from pain. There was also a tinge of resolved happiness. I finally understood the decades of seeking. And, for the first time, I was actually finding what I’d been seeking all along: me. And, if eastern wisdom is correct, when you discover your true self you also discover the Divine. For the Self and God are one and the same.
The tears told me I was getting closer to pay dirt. Shiva had done what I had asked. I was obliterated. At the bottom of obliteration was a kind of peace. There was no reason to run anymore. There was no flawed person to fix. No Bad Brad to run away from. There was no Better Brad to achieve. Underneath the sorrow, I saw myself—maybe for the first time. And I was surprised to feel whole, maybe even holy.
I had no idea what was next for me. There was no arrival. I knew that real growth could not happen in a controlled way. It is not growth if you can predict the outcome. It is not growth if you still cling to your old ways of seeing yourself and the world. And, growth can look nothing like growth; it can look like disintegration.
I had tried to leave myself back at home when I came to India. In the end, I had returned to where I had started. I had simply walked in a circle, around Arunachala, and had found, at the end, that this guy—I—had been there all along. And even wilder and more incomprehensible, I was learning to love that guy at last.
But what would happen when I returned home to life as I had known it?
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]