First steps of the journey: frustration!
A heavy large blue rucksack is set-down alongside my bare feet on the station platform. My feet become chilled by the prolonged wait in the early morning October air.
Somehow I have overlooked that the day of my journey to Kathmandu falls on a one-day national rail strike! After all that careful planning: visas, the airline tickets, entry permits, I face a real possibility that I might not get to the Airport in time for the flight.
Three Life Concerns
I have created what I call my Three Life Concerns:
1) Where am I going?
2) Where am I now?
3) Where have I been?
Life Concerns 1) and 3) lead inexorably to Life Concern 2): The present moment is where I learn from the past and prepare for my future. The only place!
So: Where am I now?
At this moment I am standing on a railway platform, breathing slowly and deliberately through feelings of anger and frustration and disappointed expectation.
There will be no fast and direct train through to Manchester Airport. There will be no comfortable pre-booked seat. Ever changing delays and train cancellations scroll up on the digital display board. Limited train services that do run are bound to be massively overcrowded.
The weight of the Berghaus rucksack leans against my right knee. The pack contains the burden of my needs for the Everest trip. It is heavy- about 24kgs. As I notice the weight against my standing leg, I have a sense that I am also taking with me an inner rucksack, one that is quite weightless. Many of the tools and techniques contained in the inner backpack concern lightness and they challenge neediness. Finding a moment of poise while I am waiting, I reflect on some the tools of lightness in my weightless inner rucksack:
I have developed an enduring interest in what I call Mindfullness-in-Action. This has led me to consider that a basic reason for all animal brains to exist, and not just complex human brains, is simply to “mind” a body. In this way much as you would mind your child, the brain exists to care for and to look after the welfare and integrity of the body. Minding is a simple way to consider the hyphen: (-) that we place between mind-body; the psycho-physical relationship or the neuro-muscular partnership. It has revealed a simple Life-Principle. My current situation offers a ready opportunity for its application:
I am standing – so why not stand here-and now in a way that either maintains or even improves the integrity and alignment of my standing body.
I have to stand here and wait, so why not ensure that the activity of standing is self nurturing and nourishing? The Life-Principle can actually extend to every action, to every step, to every bend of my spine, to every reach with my arm, to every spoken word and most of all, to every breath.
Whatever the difficulties of the future journey the default hope is that I will at the very least: breathe through it all!
Mindfulness Practice Rule 1 : Don’t die: Please ensure that the current breath not your last!
There is an aspect of Mindfullness-in-Action that I call Thinking-into-Action. This is a radically different kind of thinking. It underpins the possibility that every action can be maintained, minded and cared for in an integrated and self-nourishing way. It is a good idea to look after myself in this way: I am doing of the action anyway so why not mind and care for the action in an integrated and a self-nurturing way?
I am standing, waiting for a train – much longer than I had anticipated. The Thinking-into-action process takes my mind into where my support arises: the soles of my feet that are in direct in contact with the cold York flagstones. I follow sensations of support up from my feet and throughout my standing body- from my toes to the top of my head. This different, non-verbal thinking takes me into a deep, non-abstract immersion into present moment sensations. I am not thinking about my standing body, I am thinking into it. The time I spend standing here has a potential to improve or at least maintain my standing integrity over the period of my waiting. Modern lives offer ample opportunities for constructively “killing” time. I have created many tricks and techniques for enlivening my “dead” time in just this way. Modern technology so often claims to save time when in fact, it robs me of time. It shrinks the present moment. The result? I become progressively less present and more and more disembodied- tumbled and rushed along by the jumble of thoughts in my head. This different thinking expands time and it opens up an awareness of present moment sensations. In a deep way it also knows the bigger horizons of Life Concern 3) about origins: about where I have been and where have I come from. It can extend out like a telescope to include ancestry- to way back into my evolutionary past.
How much does worry weigh?
The more that I immerse myself in this Thinking-into-Action process while standing, waiting here on the platform, the less burdened I feel by the weight of worrying. A sustained quality of attention lessens the force behind pent-up feelings of angry frustration and disappointed expectation. The very fact that they massively interfere with and hamper the ‘minding’ that goes on in the hyphen between mind-body helps to sustain my high level of vigilant attention to the present moment sensations in my standing body. Instead of worry and frustrations they eventually become straightforward concerns:
1) Where am I going?
2) Where am I now?
3) Where have I been?
But where have I been! Most working days last week I walked through Ulverston station. With all my preoccupation with mindful awareness, how did I fail to notice the many large red notices plastered everywhere, warning passengers of the impending rail strike?
Where am I going today? I am on my way to Nepal to meet my younger brother, Cliff who lives in Australia. Together we have planned a trek to Everest base camp in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Why, I wonder, am I exposing myself to the unpredictable uncertainties and dangers of the wilderness region around Everest?
I come back to Life Concern2): Where am I now? The focused attention in the present moment and to the poise of my standing body right now spreads out to take-in an awareness of a slightly sick and nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. I recall just the same feeling, standing here on exactly the same platform in 1989 when I was full of trepidations and anxieties establishing my teaching centre in Lancaster. I maintain a watchful attention to my current feelings of trepidations, mingled as they are with the anger and frustration at cancelled trains and the uncertain journey to the airport. The verb “to stand” has another meaning besides the physical act of standing upright: it can mean “to bear” hey discomfort who. Certainly such feelings operate like an uncomfortable jolting cattle prod from behind. The particular focused attention associated with Thinking-into-action can reposition these feelings, so that instead of them prodding me from behind, they stand cool and clear in front of me: They no longer pluck and pull on my integrity. I become aware and little by little, a bit more skilled, at spotting where and when they interfere with my integrity in the present moment. Minding, caring for my integrity in this way ensures that justifiable concerns I have about future uncertainties of the journey to the airport may be dealt with more lightly, easily and more effectively.
The Force of Habit
Around me have put up with the inconvenience and dislocations of the strike too! Regular fellow travellers are used to seeing me on the station platform in barefeet. Perhaps they might wonder that something was terribly wrong if I was standing here in heavy duty hiking boots!
I wish that instead of travelling to Nepal, I was on my regular routine journey to the safe and comfortable teaching centre that I have established in Lancaster. Thinking-into-Action notices but does not judge the sighing breath and it coolly observes the all too familiar weighty gravitational pull of the Force of Habit. Habit sits alongside Mindfullness-in-Action for me, as an ongoing fascination. Habits, and that includes reactive patterns such as anger and frustration, can take over, they can come to rule over me. If I let this happen then I easily become burdened by habit. Nonetheless I can avoid the discomforts and vulnerability of the unknown. When this happens I cling to the known and comfortable. I can stay cocooned within the comfortable protective shell of habit or I can bear the discomfort and connect with the unknown and unpredictable. Tradition is to the collective as habit is to the individual. To avoid the leadenness and fixity of habit and tradition is to question, to be open and vulnerable. In my experience that rarely is comfortable! The trick here and now is to notice and focus on what I often refer to as: the tissue-life: the bodily expressions of the discomfort in the present moment.
The present moment is the place to be!
I maintain the immersion: the Thinking-into-action process that takes my mind into the sensations arising from the soles of my feet while I wait here on the platform. That sighing breath distorted my integrity: it collapsed and shortened my spine a little.
I glance down at my feet.
I have spent 40 years getting in touch with my feet, challenging the habits and traditions of shoe wearing. I walk and run almost everywhere barefoot. In my experience, I only feel the full Force of habit and tradition when I move beyond and outside the known, the comfortable and familiar. The Thinking-into-Action process has become indispensable to deal effectively, to bear such discomforts. Thinking-into-Action does not rely on language and abstraction, although in fact, it contains the origins of such thinking. Thinking-into-Action intimately knows its origins in a way that complex language based thinking cannot. It also fully appreciates the value of the present moment.
The power at the point-of-not-quite-yet
Thinking-into-Action flows consciously from thought to action. Going into it a bit more deeply, I have come to consider it like this: Any and every action begins as an intention formed in the brain. There is a moment just before the muscles of the body engage: they are poised, just about to express the intention through muscle action. I have named this as: the point-of-not-quite-yet. Consider all that operates in the brain to reach the point-of-not-quite-yet, before any muscle action becomes involved. It is clear that to get to that point. It has already drawn upon a huge amount of brain processing power. This is thinking – on its way – into – action. At the point-of-not-quite-yet I am about to enter the hyphen (-), the transition point between mind-body. Thinking-into-Action opens up the possibility of becoming mindful and present at the point-of-not-quite-yet. And improved poise in my balanced standing body begins at the point-of-not-quite-yet. To be present in this way actually also opens up the highest potential of the uniquely human brain: the power of veto, the power to stop. There is a power at the point-of-not-quite-yet and it alone can overcome the considerable force of habit and reactive patterning. If habit takes over and makes life leaden and heavy, then the power at the point-of-not-quite-yet can create quite literally, an enlightenment. The opposite of en-lightenment then becomes en-heaviment!
The Protect/Connect issue
My unusual lifestyle choices challenge habits and traditions. They reveal a more general underlying axis. I refer to this as the protect/connect problem. For example, if I stop protecting my foot it will become more connected as it interacts with the ground. This can be uncomfortable: In its connected and unprotected state it certainly become more vulnerable. It has been my experience that to work mindfully with this vulnerability makes it possible to develop a fitness in which the feet becomes more light and lively, more fluid, responsive and strong. Along the way I become generally more alert, aware and of course, much more careful. The Thinking-into-Action process is invaluable. Through it the hyphen (-) between mind and body assumes its proper role as it becomes more caring and more care-full. It is carrying out its proper caring role of minding right now, standing here on the platform. Thinking-into-Action reassuringly knows its origins – of where the support comes from right now for my standing body. Furthermore it knows the true potential of my foot – even from way back in evolutionary time- before we became clever enough to invent the restrictions of the protective modern shoe.
Mindfulness: from the floor up
My interest in minding and mindfulness practice has evolved from a most unusual source. It has not come from a top-down interest in the extraordinary insights of recent neuroscience. Nor has not come from practising any of the world’s great wisdom mindfulness meditation traditions. My interest in mindfulness practice has grown from an exploration into our origins in natural movement and natural gait. Working from the bottom up in this way: from our origins and often from the physicality of our extraordinarily evolved human feet, reveals a real surprise: a different and transformative form of human thought: Thinking-into-action knows exactly where it has come from. It embraces its origins. Tacitly it knows about integrity. It extols the awakening value of the present moment. It may even have the intuitive prescience to know that the continued future of our species may depend on the human species evolving a new global planetary consciousness.
Life-Concern 3): where have we come from?
A rapidly dwindling number of natural living peoples still live today much as our ancestors did way back in evolution. They are under the threat of extinction. When they desperately call out to us, it is also the voice of our ancestors that we hear. They are calling upon us to do two things:
- Stop destroying the Forest: the Earth, the Ultimate Provider.
- To reconnect involves a tacit acknowledgement of our origins, of where we have come from. The threat to natural living peoples and their environment may soon destroy the last remaining living reminders for our species. The threat underlines an urgency to re-connect to our origins: to where we have come from.
The power at ‘the point-of-not-quite-yet’ intimately involves an empowering process of stopping and reconnecting!
I am anticipating that on this trip to Nepal I will have an opportunity to experience at first hand, the Sherpas of Nepal who up until very recently came from a subsistence culture. Perhaps they might demonstrate and affirm to me a stronger sense of a connection to our origins?
I am something of a dreamer so it is important that right now: my naked soles connect me to the ground. It earths me. It connects me not only to my support but also to my ancestry and to the existing peoples you still live as our ancestors lived. It is true: it is highly unconventional to travel around on trains without shoes protecting your feet, but at the very least it can be helpful to bear the frustrations of a train strike!
I am trying not to look down the tracks of the railway – as if by staring hard enough at the point of optical infinity where the railway lines seem to meet in the distance, it would magically somehow make the delayed train appear. Nonetheless I sneak a glance and…
… Lo: the distant lights of my train appear on the horizon!
My journey begins. I am intrigued by hyphens and transitions and the spaces in between things. It is a liminal moment when I now quarter-turn to shift and adjust my standing weight in preparation to hoist up my heavy rucksack. It is the beginning of my Himalayan adventure. Already the anticipatory weight shifting in my legs and feet has engaged huge and powerful turbines in my brain. Thought-into-action…
…There is a special knack to hoisting a heavy rucksack up onto your back: I chuck it upwards -heave it up in the air and then dive underneath it with my right arm thrusting through the support strap. With the 24 kg of weight now on hanging on my right shoulder I am about to take the first step of my journey to Kathmandu. This burden, this weight on my back represents my need to protect myself on the trip: It contains upwards of £2,000 worth of kit, the gear, clothes, the boots, the survival aids, the maps compasses and guide-books. But I also have a sense of picking up and taking along with me an inner-rucksack, one that is quite weightless. The inner backpack also contains different kinds of survival aids, maps, compasses, guides to the inner territory. These tools include Mindfulness-in-Action and Thinking-into-Action principles, techniques to bridle back the force of Habit. Invariably these inner tools will question the burden, the weight of neediness contained within my heavy Berghaus rucksack.
For now, I have to manage my own weight and to bundle myself and a big and a small rucksack onto a ludicrously overcrowded train.
Just before my train pulls into the platform. I look up at the prominent sign directing travellers to Platform 3: It says:
“To Preston and Beyond”…
…Despite the overcrowding I manage to sit in my usual place on the train. As I settle into my seat I think how the word “beyond” has such an exotic ring to it. Doubtless that sign has been there since Victorian times. ”Beyond a blue yonder horizon”. Ahhh…For a daydreamer this has all the smokey romance and adventure of the great Victorian days of steam travel. I rarely travel beyond Preston. On my regular commute, I usually get off at the stop before Preston.
Be-yond the blue Horizon…
This train goes only as far as Lancaster. This means that they do not play the usual recorded announcement: For many years now the beginning of this routine journey starts with the same tape loop announcing the various station-stops on the way to Manchester International Airport. For some inscrutable reason this pre-recorded announcement gets as far as Preston. There then follows a 15.5 second delay before it continues:
“Chorley, Horwich Parkway. Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester International Airport”.
Exercising my weird imagination I routinely fill this long silence with my own made-up list of the most far-flung and exotic, “over the blue yonder” railway journeys and destinations. My list begins with Samarkand with a change there for Tuva for Timbuktu. It announces the platform change at Prague Central Station for the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian railway. For a long time before my planned trip to Nepal, my imaginary list has ended with a journey from Varanasi to Kathmandhu.
But today I will change at Lancaster for all station stops onward to Kathmandhu!
I have arrived in Kathmandu – way over the blue yonder horizons of the station stops beyond Preston. To complete the trip, I have now to make a final 20 minute journey across the incessantly busy traffic of the capital city of Nepal: Kathmandu. This will be my first brush with the East- that lies beyond…
…“Preston: Bolton, Chorley, and Horwich Parkway. Manchester Oxford Road…”
Nothing, not even in my vivid imagination is an adequate preparation for the experience of Kathmandu traffic!!
Kathmandu traffic chaos: the beautiful mess!
The traffic is a complete shock to my western senses.
No. More accurately it is a full-on assault on all my human senses.
No. No. It is more of an insult to all my senses. So much so that I am hard put not to lift my hands to stop up my ears, cover up my eyes, but most of all to hold my nose. The most vivid and pungent insult is the impact that the appalling dust and traffic fumes have on your nasal passages. It makes it irritating to breathe and leaves a thoroughly nasty taste on your tongue. It is gob smacking, all-bewildering, utterly confusing.
Look at the cow! It has laid itself diagonally across the central reservation of the dual carriageway road. With a tranquil and holy serenity, in stark contrast to the mayhem all-around, it chews its cud with its hindquarters sprawled into the fast lane of one carriageway and with its head and shoulders jutting into the other carriageway. I am later to learn that there are over 1 million motor scooters in Kathmandu. Right now one such scooter has just made a violent swerve around the hindquarters of the cow. The male driver of the scooter has crash-helmet protection. However behind him sits his wife and sandwiched between them are two very young kids. The women and children have no helmet protection and they lurch precariously over to one side – only just holding on as the scooter careens around the cow while fast and furious traffic hurtles by on the inside. The guidebook informs me that they drive on the left in Kathmandu– Well not so anyone would particularly notice!!
On first impression it seems a completely selfish free-for-all. Drivers constantly barge and cut- in. They aim themselves wherever there is space– especially if that space happens to be on the wrong side of the road and into oncoming traffic!
I gasp audibly. Yet another scooter drives directly at a toddler wobbling around in the road. The youngster is barely able to take a step- let alone take avoiding action. At the last minute the scooter doesn’t stop but swerves around the youngster.
I try to take it all in. I am wary of my first terrified impressions, filtered as they are through overwhelmed senses. Nothing is ever quite just what it seems to be. I realize how far I drifted from my mindfulness-in-Action practices. Focusing on the breath certainly doesn’t help!
Strangely I am overcome by a weird way sense that this bubbling, burbling, pulsing mayhem and chaos are well – perhaps just like Life itself. All polarities seem to be present including life-and-death, attraction repulsion, good and bad, right and wrong, opulence and poverty. And everything, every polarity seems stretched right now to nerve shredding point.
Meditate in the marketplace
How am I to make any sense of the insistent intuition that beneath this seemingly senseless, selfish traffic-chaos laid a hidden and pulsing vitality?
The road rules here seem to be: that there are no rules. We lurch forward as our driver hits the brake yet again. A car, quite without giving any signal of intention or indication cuts straight across our path in order to turn right. He swerves suddenly without warning, right across from the left-hand lane, Hanging from the rear-view mirror on a faded multi-coloured ribbon dangles our driver’s ‘Protector’: a yellow cross-legged seated statuette of the Buddha. I momentarily glimpse our driver’s face in the rear-view mirror. The driver’s eyes strike me. They flick from side to side like a wild animal – like a panther calculating an immanent leap onto its prey. There is a calm and alert, present-centered stillness in those eyes. We pass by a road-side sign indicating: “The Birthplace Of The Buddha.” From somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory echoes the Buddha’s invocation: “to meditate in the marketplace.”
Egolessness: Life is a beautiful mess and we are all in it together
I cannot connect with my weary, limited capacity to become centred, still. Instead of being able to meditate I am confused, befuddled and bewildered.
Even more insistently that strange intuition presses itself upon me: that the chaotic traffic pulses and breathes with vitality as it advances and retracts, How could it possibly be that this pungent, earsplitting death-defying dodging and barging-in could somehow mask the still, calm acceptance I had glimpsed in the eyes of our driver? I haven’t slept more than a couple of hours in the last 24. My mind is not quite working properly but I have a sense of a conundrum, a puzzle: there is something very important and obvious here: … Something that is maybe missing all around me.…
…Then a forehead smiting moment: I “get it.” My first impression about the crass selfishness of the drivers on the streets of Kathmandu is quite wrong!! What was not happening all around me in all this chaos is anger, road rage. Over the entire month that I tangled with the death defying Kathmandu traffic, I never once observed road rage- not a single shaking of a fist of anger, not even one mild ‘tut-tutting’ shake of an arrogant head. So perhaps there is indeed a secret to that insistent sense of life and vitality in this traffic-hell: egolessness. This serene acceptance of chaos is entirely weird and wonderful to my western sensibilities. I laugh out as a simple truth occurs to me that: we are all in this beautiful mess together! Whether it is in the bumbling, pulsing mass of traffic or the mayhem of life, everyone is trying to get somewhere. Everyone would like to arrive there safely. Most of all: we are all in it together! My weary and over stimulated head can only drum up a cheesy cliché: The journey is the destination. In this traffic chaos and mayhem, the journey and a present-moment alertness to others around has a priority above arriving at any future destination.
The origins of compassion: reading the intention and direction of others
This is the Collective. Without ego to get in the way a profound truth seems to be: that we are all in this beautiful mess together. Wow! This is a lot to take in while I still have the dust of Preston Railway Station on the soles of my feet! And there is more: in this beautiful mess we also possess from our origins, a highly responsive, alert and natural capacity to read and respond to the intention and direction of others. No traffic situation in Kathmandu ever seems to develop into a battle between individual wilIs and egos. I mean, how could I be sure that the guy who a moment ago violently cut-in front, was not desperately trying to take his pregnant wife to hospital? If you take away the ego-battle of wills, it starts to become obvious and self-evident to me, that the strength of your own intention and direction pulses: it shifts and changes, as does the strength of intention of others. It is indeed like life – and we are all in it! In this mind-set devoid of ego we are very good at maneuvering around each other, gauging accurately what the other is about to do. My travel-weary exhausted mind even momentarily now entertains a crazy far left-field notion that this capacity might even be the origin: the birthplace of human compassion.
Later I ask the driver about his little Protector: the Buddha statuette. I turn out to be quite wrong in assuming that he’s a Buddhist. No, he turns out to be a devout Hindu. With only a smattering of English he shrugs nonchalantly as he says:
“It make no difference – All same”!
It would seem that as far as religion and the Nepalese are concerned –perhaps they really are all in it together. The paradox and contradiction is that -yes they are all in it together – but along with some terrible corruption and religious massacres and all!
Hey I am in a strange and unfamiliar land that lies beyond Preston and I need to get to the hotel – pronto and catch up with badly needed sleep!
Beyond: Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered
Here I am now at the hotel. Exhilarated. Exhausted. Confused. I am lying flat on my back on one of the two twin beds in the hotel room. Somewhere on the journey a thief has broken into my backpack and stolen my wash bag and my medical kit. Thefts/Gifts, thrills/ dismay, attraction repulsion. It’s all too nerve shredding, too overwhelming. If I was seven-year-old I would probably cry. Lying fully supine on the bed and just before I fall into an exhausted slumber, something flashes before my inner eye: a weird image of the pulsing crowds on Oxford Street in UK on the day before Christmas. There are remarkably few collisions, remarkably few occasions of pavement rage. Quite naturally and intuitively the way we walk and maneuver on the busy city street somehow gauges the intentions of others to a high degree. We never signal our intention to change direction. The mass just bumbles along reasonably, convivially. It is just like the Kathmandu traffic!
Right now I am beyond, beyond thinking straight – even beyond being bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
Switch off the lights! Welcome to Asia and the Dreamland of Shangri-La!
Brother Cliff’s “Territoria”: recognizing an ancient pattern
An hour later I wake up still obsessing about the stolen wash/medical kit. Perhaps I have left it at home. I packed up for the trek hurriedly, very much on the last-minute– there was a lot going on, weddings, funerals, birthdays. The day before I departed was my 70th birthday!
I phone Pam my partner back at home in the UK.
No I haven’t left it behind. Perhaps it is buried deeper in the luggage?
I take every single item out of both of my backpacks. I spread it all out all over the twin bedded hotel room that I’m to share with my brother Cliff. He is delayed some 12 hours on the flight out from Melbourne, Australia to Kathmandu.
With a wry smile I survey my scattered kit. Most of it is spread out on my brother’s undisturbed bed. For both of us this is to be the trip of a lifetime. Seeing my kit spread out over my brother’s bed sparks in my mind an ancient memory: up until I was 14 years old and my younger brother was 8 years old, we shared the same bed and the same bedroom in our Manchester Council house. These were powerful and formative years, full of glorious delights and intimate and unspeakable shames– a beautiful mess! Cliff had a lot to put up with in his early relationship with me. He had to contain my bumbling expansiveness. I smile to myself recalling how firmly and adamantly the then 4 year-old Cliff handled this: He drew an imaginary line down the middle of our bed and firmly proclaimed it as his “Territoria”. In our formative years growing up together I would forever be invading his “Territoria” = in all kinds of different ways. We would fight like cat and dog! Perhaps it was just a coincidence that eventually in early adulthood Clifford was to take himself about as far round the other half of the globe as he could possibly achieve- that is without meeting himself coming back the other way! We are very close these days. His journey to Kathmandu is a nightmare of delays. I wish Cliff were here right now!
In the tiny Cretan Village of Sfinari where I often visit, there are two tavernas owned by two brothers. These two flimsy tavernas adjoin one another and are separated by the thinnest screen-wall of bamboo and bougainvillea. These two Cretan brothers have not spoken a word to one another in over 30 years– despite living cheek by jowl and next door to one another. My brother Cliff and I are the exact opposite. Although we live geographically distant from one another: in two different hemispheres, about as far as is possible, nonetheless, we are remarkably close and our two lives seem to often operate in uncanny parallel lines. Since our Mother died exactly five years ago to the day, we have had no opportunity to meet. I can’t wait to be greeting him later with a huge hug. It will begin our Himalayan adventure.
I have now established that the wash bag/medical kit has definitely been stolen. I make a special effort to neatly and carefully stow away my beautiful mess in my corner of our shared wardrobe. I drop off to sleep longing to clean my teeth, but of course, the toothbrush has been stolen. Never mind I could borrow Cliff’s toothbrush and toothpaste, his soap, flannel, nailbrush, towel. Oh hang on! Tired and weary as I am, I get up and I make my first foray to the shop at the end of the street by the hotel. I buy a replacement razor, toothbrush and toothpaste.
Brother Cliff’s arrival
It is 10 o’clock in the late evening when Cliff sweeps in through those hotel doors that I have been sat here staring at for what seems like hours. It’s that large swish suitcase that adds such a sense of aplomb to his arrival. I have an impression of his body gliding equally effortlessly over the polish marble floor. It is one of those suitcases on four wheels that move effortlessly and stylishly alongside or slightly in front of you. I envy and covet that stylish case at first sight! There is no way that you could easily break into that suitcase and nick a wash bag! My stolen medical kit and wash bag was such a jumble while in that posh suitcase Cliff’s medical kit and wash bag, like all of his kit, is meticulously organised. Inside that case Cliff has stowed his gear into stuff bags that are so carefully packed that you can slid in your hand and withdraw any item without having to upend and empty the whole sack, as I have to do with all of my stuff bags. He has greeted and thanked the doorman- in Nepalese. He also gives just the right amount as a tip to the uniformed bellboy.
Cliff looks great despite a protracted flight and a torrid time in the 42°C and near 100% humidity of Kuala Lumpur. Cliff is fit and raring to go. My brother Cliff seems to wear a permanent expression on his face that is somewhere midway between bemusement and amusement. Ears that stick out slightly enhance the slightly querulous aspect of that look. It is a family trait– on our mother’s side.
“The Miracle Baby”
Cliff is a more advanced spiritual soul than me. He always has been– from his very first breath! No wonder in a way that he has a demeanor of permanent astonishment at the miracle of life for which he has a deeply spiritual awe: a profound love of life. Life is always particularly astonishing and bemusing to Cliff: it always has been that way right from the very start. In the hospital where Cliff was born instead of staff putting his name on his baby wristband they wrote instead: “The Miracle Baby”. The birth had been very difficult. The medical team had asked Dad to make a heart wrenching choice before the operation:
“Do we save the mother or your baby?”
Following Dad’s decision, Cliff’s limp and lifeless body was removed by Caesarean section and laid on one side in the sluice-sink with a green cloth covering his little body. The medical team fervently working to save Mum was astounded by a lung-splitting scream from Cliff as he struggled to defy all odds and claim the start of his life. Cliff claimed Life from Death right at the outset. With that first cry, lustily he claimed the territoria that was to become his life. So life will always be a precious miracle for this rather special and lovely man. His face will always express that mildly astonished delight that expresses a profound gratitude for a life. In 11 days time it will be Cliff’s 64th birthday
After that first hug we talk late into the night. The next day we meditated silently and long into the morning.
We have organized this trek with World Expeditions so that we have two days together in Kathmandu at the beginning and end of the trek. Kathmandu has more World Heritage sites than any other city in the world. There is much to take in. But in particular, we both want to visit the Ashram and the Shrine to a remarkable Hindu sage Shivapuri Baba who we both admire greatly. We are both eager to visit the place where this truly remarkable sage spent the last years of his exceedingly long life in Kathmandu.
Cliff and I have worked together on the following account of the life and teachings of Shivapuri Baba:
The Right Life Teachings
Shivapuri Baba’s remarkable life spanned 137 years from 1826 to 1963. Probably one of the greatest human beings of recent times, Shivapuri Baba remains one of the least known and least celebrated, He lived a life of utter simplicity, the life of an ascetic. He was slightly built, a tiny man and yet a giant of the spiritual life. Like Socrates, he never wrote down any of the essential teachings that Shivapuri Baba refers to as Right Life. These Universal teachings are more urgently relevant today as our species continues to “whistle on its way to the edge of the abyss“.
“The Long Pilgrimage”
Later in his life Shivapuri Baba consented to allow the English philosopher and spiritual seeker J.G. Bennett to produce a book that was published in1965 entitled “The Long Pilgrimage”. Shivapuri Baba gave Bennett a clear and unambiguous instruction:
“You must write a book about my teachings not my life.
The title “long pilgrimage” refers aptly to a remarkable spiritual journey. However Shivapuri Baba wanted no mention to be made of the astounding world pilgrimage in which he walked solo across almost every continent on the globe. This around the world journey began when he was in his 60s and was concluded some 30 years later. On this great journey he met so many of the greatest individuals of the 20th century including: Albert Einstein, Tolstoy, the Curies. In Great Britain he had 18 audiences with Queen Victoria. Although this remarkable journey has blockbuster-movie dimensions, Shivapuri Baba was not in the least interested in drawing attention to himself in this way. His life’s work and direction continues to be to draw people to engage with Right Life Principles. Trumpeting his truly extraordinary worldly achievements would he thought, only distract individuals from the essential universal teaching. Unfortunately we live in a world where the” seen the film, got the T-shirt, read the book” mentality prevails. You can sense Shivapuri Baba’s deep wisdom and foresight in his reluctance to draw attention to his remarkable solo circumnavigation of the world. His earlier life was equally intriguing.
A Universal Teaching that does NOT belongs to any one tradition or individual
It was characteristic of a truly great Seer and Sage that time and again he would affirm that the Right Life teachings were not his invention, creation, or in any way his own intellectual property. He saw in the Right Life teachings a universal truth: that since time immemorial humankind faces much the same fundamental challenges. Repeatedly during his lifetime people were drawn and to an audience in his presence in order to receive the Universal Teaching. They would come from many and various different spiritual and religious backgrounds. Repeatedly they would come away from these audiences with the Sage affirming that they had been in the presence of the most perfected Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim Hindu etc. This is because Shivapuri Baba came directly from an understanding at the heart of these teachings. His presence alone could powerfully communicate its authenticity and truth. Individuals who were in his presence were clear that he was entirely free of ego, dogmatism and any narrowness of perspective.
The three fundamental duties of Right Life
The universal teaching of right life directs us towards three fundamental duties:
The first duty of Right Life
The first duty of Right Life is fundamental to human life. This includes inescapable obligations and duties: The need to maintain our physical body in a wholesome way, to keep it in good health, to feed it and to clothe it. The first duty further includes obligations to earn a living and associated further obligations to family, to community and society. There are no exemptions to first duty obligations of Right Life. If we neglect them then we are likely to end up in the kind of mess that clearly prevents any other further refinement and development involved in the second and third duties of Right Life.
The second duty of Right Life
The second duty of Right Life focuses on inner or moral existence. This involves the challenge of bringing under control our human negative emotions such as anger resentment jealousy. These are seen simply for what they are. They are accepted as defects in character about which it is our duty to become aware. They have to be worked upon with forbearance and acceptance until gradually eliminated. It is only in this way that we can hope to proceed to cultivate the positive higher qualities of humility empathy kindness and human compassion. These are more than good ideas and aspirations. These qualities are felt rather than spoken or written about in any human life. The same higher capacities are universally referred to in all of the great wisdom teachings. They differ only in very slight and insignificantly ways. The essence of this is in the detail. Life is a big bundle of small things and not small bundle big things. The important things are in the minutiae. The second duty of Right Life is an ongoing lifelong challenge that extends right down to the simplest practical detail of every day Life and actions. In the Right Life teachings it is made clear that this inner work is much more than a mere matter of knowing about and acknowledging these duties and obligations. We are expected to perfect these qualities and to work on them with diligence, commitment and perseverance. There is something elusively simple about these universal teachings: For example it is self-evident that only when my body is healthy and my mind is at peace, am I and then liberated to devote my life to higher concerns: Only then am I ready and prepared for the final third duties of Right Life.
The third duty of Right Life
The third duty of Right Life involve the practice of right meditation and prayer. Shivapuri Baba repeatedly taught that there was not one exclusive way to right meditation. The implication is to follow whatever is your particular path with the correct understanding of its foundation in Right Life. Again the simplicity of this can be elusive. It becomes clear that you cannot hope to achieve anything by plunging into meditation or mindful/Prayerful practice if your practical life and moral life are in a total mess.
There is a distinct “Right Life” progression here. Eventually we may well discover the deepest connection to our lives and ourselves. Shivapuri Baba expressed this very simply as the kind of question we all come up against at some stage in our lives: What is the meaning of human existence. Does it all die with us? Confronting these challenges clears the way to discover peace and human fulfillment. You yourself, have to address these questions. Nobody else’s answer to these issues will do. The universality of Right Life teachings aligns perfectly with all the great wisdom traditions. We are here on Planet Earth’s to find such answers-for ourselves. It is clear that nothing in the way of great worldly material success and power will help. We live in an age of unsurpassed choice and distraction. Sadly, rather than draw us any closer to these foundations of Right Life, they may pull us further away from them!
The three duties of Right Life will simply encompass the whole of your life. This includes the living of your life in a practical moment-by-moment way. This is your life’s significance. This is your spiritual practice. The three duties of right life demand everything of you and offer the universal potential to deliver everything in return.
A visit to the Ashram and Shrine of Shivapuri Baba in Kathmandhu
We are picked up from the hotel by a driver and taken to the Kathmandu home of Dr Shishthra where the doctor and his charming wife greet us with characteristic openhearted Nepalese generosity. They were both in their mid 80s but the doctor’s eyes in particular shone with a boyish zeal for the Guru that had made such a difference to his life. He was keen to explain to us the universality of his Guru’s teaching. We were then driven serenely through the beautiful mess that is Kathmandu traffic. On the way we pass a nasty motor-scooter accident. The injured scooter driver did not look like a local woman. She has a badly broken ankle. I pity any hapless foreigner tackling Kathmandu traffic with a western mindset. First-aiders are in attendance. The doctor does not stop to help.
The Ashram and Shrine where SB spent the last years of his very long life sits on top of the high hill where Kathmandu Airport is now sited. As a 6-year-old young child the Doctor first caught a first brief sight of the sage. 80 years ago the hill overlooked a rural, fertile plain that is now overcrowded by the expanding suburbs of modern Kathmandu. There is a fenced off area around the few acres that contain the shrine, grave and the bamboo swing that the Sage once liked to relax in. The wooden shed That SB had built and designed and where he once meditated on top of the mountain now called Shivapuri Mountain has been reconstructed alongside the Shrine. Since Shivapuri Baba’s death in 1963 the surrounding area has become a very heavily armed military complex immediately adjacent to the airport. This is somewhat incongruous. Despite many previous attempts the military cannot procure this sacred ground. We discover that as a holy Brahmin the Sage had a powerful status in Nepal, one similar to that of a brother of the King of Nepal. Somehow from beyond the grave Shivapuri Baba continues to exert this influence!
To get to the site we have to pass through an armed and intimidating Military checkpoint. We passed through barracks and training grounds full of young trainee soldiers engaged in heavy duty military manoeuvres and exercises. Everything seems to be on a high alert security footing. Later the doctor will explain to us about the special difficulties of our later revisiting the site on our own. He tells us to not worry about the heavy duty military checkpoints. Ignore them, because you can get to the site easily by rambling up through the adjacent golf course. So much for Nepalese security!
As we passed through a heavily padlocked Gateway to the site we are advised not to socialize with the “untouchable” guy we meet by the complex. He has the wildest eyes I have ever seen. He seems locked into an endless cycle in which he cruelly whips the dogs that scream and chase after the monkeys who then taunt the dogs from the treetops. One monkey aggressively grabs hold of my leg. The doctor explains that I must never look the monkeys in the eye. Apparently the Sage advised that the monkeys are like “the World.” They only become aggressive if you look them directly in the eye!
In the Shrine we are given permission to meditate by the grave of the holy man. There is no doubt that this is a special and deeply spiritual place. Any expectation of a sepulchral and holy silence is shattered by the continuous racket set up by the monkeys who continuously and noisily scutter and scream on the wooden roof. The monkeys and dogs seem to try to outdo each other with blood curdling screams. Meditating in the wooden shack imposed a similar challenge to the chaotic Kathmandu traffic. The din never let up for a moment and yet surprisingly soon I settled into a very deep and peaceful place. My meditation began with the series of thoughtful reflections on my “monkey-mind” – that refuses even for a moment, to be still. When eventually I surfaced and I opened my eyes from the deep meditation, I was greatly surprised to discover that we had been joined by at least half a dozen other meditators. I had such a deep enduring sense of communicating with the Sage in an exclusive and solitary way. However given that unholy din, it is no surprise that I never heard the entry on my fellow meditators!
Then we were invited for tea in the library and we were both invited to place a new marigold garland around a photographic portrait of SB. This routine changing of the garland happens without fail every Thursday. Shivapuri Baba’s eyes in this photo are riveting and extraordinary. Paradoxically as I climbed up on a stool with the garland in hand, they impressed me as being at one and the same time, the fiercest and most loving eyes I have ever seen. It must have been extraordinary to be in the living presence of those eyes and the tough-love way that they would greet and guide you to inner transformation. I can well imagine the vivid impression of those seekers who had an individual audience with the Sage in his lifetime.
With the same boyish enthusiasm the doctor next explains to us both the three duties of right life. He thinks of them like a journey in a space rocket. The booster rocket represents the first duties of right life. Reaching escape velocity, it takes you into orbit and then falls away once you are on the journey in Space that takes you on through the challenges of the second duties of right life. Eventually you will arrive at ‘Planet Soul’ where you must then navigate a landing on the planet to begin the soulful final part of the third duties of right life. The simple metaphor seemed to aptly carry over the disciplined and progression of the universal teachings as taught by Shivapuri Baba.
There had been rigmarole of respectful shoe removing before we were allowed to enter into the shrine to meditate. Since I do not wear shoes and as usual have been wondering barefoot around Kathmandu I did not engage with this procedure. As we finally take a walk around the garden the doctor quizzes me about my bare feet. I sense the serious interest in his enquiry and I try to explain about my bare feet and the balance of protection and connection. Making a conscious choice not to protect my feet renders my feet somewhat vulnerable in the ways that they connect to the uncertainties and irregularities of the ground. Being aware of the connection as well as the associated dangers can waken a sense of more mindful action. This in itself can become like a meditation.
With regard to the holy places I suggest to him a paradox: that if the whole of the earth is holy to my bare feet, then there is no particular special spot in need of my special attention in any holy place. But then: if everywhere is holy then nowhere is holy. It’s yet another paradox. Between us there then develops the beginnings of conversation about the special challenges in curating a universal teaching and the degree to which such a teaching needs protection and how best to promote a better connection to the great insights. There seem to be some fertile seeds for another future deeper conversation with the doctor and his lifelong commitment to curating this important teaching. Tragically, during the three weeks that we were to trek in the Himalayas Dr Shishthra’s wife sadly died. Our sincere hopes to meet up with the doctor again in the two days after our Everest trek were never to be realised.
Barefoot: footloose and fancy-free
I have yet to visit a capital city in which I have not got into bother because of my unconventional refusal to wear shoes on my feet. In the past I have been frog-marched out of the British Museum in London, I have been asked to leave the Uffizi in Florence. I have been ejected from the Parthenon in Athens. Will Kathmandu’s many World Heritage sites prove to be the exception? Certainly among the many bare-footed poor people in Kathmandu you will see a fairly common sight: the thin, emaciated ascetic Holy Men who walk the streets barefoot with a long stick and who cover themselves only in a loincloth and the ash of human remains and excrement. With that as a backdrop I cannot be regarded as that eccentric…
…How…ever… I do ugh hmm …have another quirk: wherever I travel I carry a small soprano ukulele in my backpack. I paid all of £25 for this superb little instrument. If I was to lose balance and fall over backwards and if it were to be smashed into matchwood, I would be devastated because I love this little ukulele. The very thought keeps me more balanced and upright! My other eccentricity: I like to play my uke and sing in unusual places. Now I know that this was a great mistake: to have made that joke at Airport Security! In fact there was a big notice to specially warn you not to make jokes. The instrument was duly spotted on the x-ray. Then the official pointed to it and asked me what it was. Thinking that it was fairly obvious what it was, I ineptly replied:
“It’s a special device for smuggling drugs in!“
This was not regarded as in the least humorous. I was promptly asked to remove it from its case and to hand it over. The little uke was thoroughly examined, shook, sniffed and put back through the x-ray; my much-travelled ukelele was then shoved back into my hand.
“Play it,” said the security official.
It was evidently going to look even more suspicious if I could not play it and so I obliged. In the security zone there is that all too familiar ethos of nuisance, if not a mild aura of suspicion and threat. In such circumstances people are thrust protectively in on themselves. I played for the Security officer: “When you’re smiling– The whole world smiles with you”. The boomy acoustic was great and the jaunty 1920’s tune sits great on the ukulele -as if the song was written for it. As soon as I started to sing every droopy head in the crowded security area lifted up in utter surprise. Most people even stopped scowling and started to smile. It reminded me of a bunch of turkeys in the abattoir, their heads coming up, delighted to be reprieved of having their necks rung! Since then, I have developed a passion for playing my ukulele in unusual places. I have got my eye on18,500 feet up on the top of Kala Pattar: I plan on singing: Al Johnson’s:
”I am looking at the top of the world”! Well. If you are going to be eccentric you might as well wholeheartedly go for it!
The ‘foot-bound and fanciless’
At times there seem to be slightly too many imponderables for me in this World Expeditions Trek to Everest Base Camp. In preparation I have trained extensively in boots and shoes. I have to say that this venture into the world of ‘the foot-bound and fanciless’ has caused me more pain and distress than I have ever experienced in over 40 years going barefoot! To my great dismay I discovered that when it comes to wearing boots and shoes, my tough feet have proved to be vulnerable, soft and sensitive in all the wrong places! Having ‘banged-on’ endlessly in the past about the fact that there are only slightly fewer nerve endings in your feet than in your lips, I am now exquisitely aware of those tender, raw nerve endings exposed by the nasty blister that boots have rubbed in my right heel in my forlorn attempts to break them in.
While over the years I have trained myself to move effectively and to walk or run barefoot over the rugged mountain, Lake District trails, the unknown challenges of the Himalayas have been increasingly bothering me since I arrived in Kathmandu– especially as my feet have got more and more painful. Another unknown: I have never before experienced the effects of high altitude. It bothers me that am currently more than usually aware of the social animal that I am: I feel a powerful and strong urge to blend in here in Nepal, to not stand out or to draw particular attention to myself. Furthermore I have some nagging concerns over the pace that we will move at when I am trekking with a group of people. Of lurking deeper concern: it would be seriously embarrassing to sustain an injury in bare-feet, especially if it held up the rest of my group. A few days before my departure passing by almost unnoticed was my 70th birthday. I have now had my standard issue threescore and ten years of life. In all of these many paradoxes and polarities, the Life-and-Death possibility that I might eventually return to the UK in a body-bag insistently crops up in my mind. However oddly this somehow does not seem to be a morbid preoccupation. No matter how much I try to neutralize these thoughts with: if you have now had the threescore and ten, then you might as well regard the rest as a huge bonus, it does not cut it! I watch these “this be the-is-the- end-of -my-life” thoughts carefully as they disconcertingly bubble up like burps. Perhaps something beneath the surface will enable me to see them in a whole new light!
With all these growing worries in my mind I keep reminding myself: that the East is beyond Preston! I reassure myself that after all, I am really quite familiar with all this anxiety. It is all a bit heightened but I am quite used to observing and dealing with such trepidations in myself. They will come up. They are accepted and embraced in an ongoing work to bring them under control.
“Uncertain of mind, uncertain of step’
During my time in Kathmandu and the Himalayas I will pick up a handful of ‘gems’ in the form of pithy Eastern sayings. “Uncertain of mind, uncertain of step” is a Hindu saying full of eastern paradox and a quintessentially eastern focus on the complicated links between mind and body. As I explained earlier to Dr Shishthra my barefoot explorations have revealed a complex tension in the balance between protection and connection. I was becoming exquisitely aware of how, the tighter and more protective I became in relation to my painful feet, the more worried and prone to injury of all kinds I became. And the more uncertain my feeling about the imminent future trek to Everest base camp became, the less sure I felt in my ability to cope in the Himalayas. Many times I have emphasized the barefoot-thinking challenges in letting-go of the fear that is associated with protectiveness. This is neither feckless nor careless. Although it might appear so, in fact it is quite the contrary! This embracing of feelings of fear and the letting go is necessary in order to win back trust and confidence in naturally functioning feet: Certain of step, sure of mind!
But for now: Oh… those dense, exquisitely exposed and painful nerve endings in my raw and tender blister on the right heel. It seems to be constantly weighing down the balance-scales in my mind away from barefoot connectedness. The balance in my mind is being brought down firmly in favour of shoes and protection. Will the blister in up in time? There was also the added unsureness inherent in becoming much more than usually aware of the exquisite social pain being created in the impression-management part of my brain. But then, this seems generally characteristic of my confusing experience of the East so far: especially in the way that it stretches polarities. The polarity between protection and connection was certainly proving to be no exception. My description of the ”nerve-shredding” aspect of polarities in the East was proving about right!
First meetings: ’US” and “THEM”: EAST meets WEST
In the foyer of my hotel is a desk run by a representative from World Expeditions. Over the past couple of days he has been looking askance at my bare feet as they routinely left and re-entered the Hotel. In an introductory talk about the trek our chief guide, Bekash talks for the first time to the group. With a limited but competent command of English, Bekash for the first of many times will deeply impresses me with his uncanny way of encapsulating in a few simple sentences, some deep and often spiritual Truths. In his short, quiet-spoken introduction Bekash finds out about our previous experience with higher altitude and he simply asks our Western minds to be open and respectful to a different Nepalese culture.
Afterwards Bekash asks me to step to one side to have a quiet word. He has noticed my reluctance to wear shoes and he hopes that I fully realize the absolute necessity of protective boots and shoes on the sharp and rocky stones on the trails of the trek. I explain my interest in natural movement and in barefoot gait in particular. I explain some of my uncertainties. I try to reassure him that I am well prepared and kitted out: I am not being feckless or careless and I do have with me three pairs of expensive shoes and boots. He continues to look quite worried and concerned. I proceed to ask Bekash two simple yes/no questions:
Question 1: Did your father and grandfather wear shoes?
Question 2: Do you think that your forebears were stronger for not wearing shoes?
For the first time I feel the intriguing tension between ‘US” and “THEM”, between EAST and WEST. It is clear that well within living memory the high Himalayan trails were walked barefoot by Sherpa’s and to a lesser extent still are. However this seems to be a matter for “Them”. For “Us”: the needy and consumer driven Westerners expensive protective boots are absolutely necessary.
Cliff and I sit in the Hotel lounge and enjoy a few beers and a chat after the first meeting with the group leaders and the rest of the group. I I sink into the plush sofa and I feel a complete mess of contradictions, albeit a beautiful mess! I cannot know at this stage how the challenge of these contradictions will become more incisive the deeper we will cut into the heart of Everest country. Here to illustrate how fissures of contradiction can become deep ravines in the mountains are two little vignettes, word-pictures from the trails and trials of the imminent future.
Image 1. Western technology meets a subsistence culture
An iconic image from the trek will forever be burnished in my synapses: Upon reflection I am so glad that at the time I simply took it into my experience and did not take a photograph.
A Sherpa on our trek lightly and sure-footedly passes “Us” on the trail. Strapped on his back are two high-tech and hi-spec Western backpacks each one weighing-in at more than 30 kg. Now these triumphs of ‘Our’ western ergonomic design will have cost a fortune for their owners to buy and an even huger sum to design and develop. They are the ultimate in trekking back-carrying comfort. Only… well …they are not on the backs of their two owners! From the point of view of the one-back that is doing the carrying, the two rucksacks belong to “Them”. The packs are not being conveyed and carried in a way that in any way employs that expensive-to-buy-and to develop technology. The two backpacks have been expertly roped together with something little more than the bailing twine that you could pick up for free on the side of a footpath. The two tightly roped-together heavy backpacks are being carried on a simple head-strap that appears to have been recently roughly hacked from off the top of a discarded plastic builders bulk-bag: This extraordinary feat of skill and strength is being simply demonstrated with zero expensive technology but plenty of innovative and self-reliant ‘nous’. One back-carrying solution leaves an enormous carbon footprint, the other the other leaves behind none!
As the two expensive rucksacks disappear into the misty trail ahead of me, the ”all-bells-and-whistles” straps, braces and belts attached to the two fancy backpacks flap around uselessly in the mountain breeze. I cannot stop my western mind from interpreting this as a derisory two fingered gesture – from “Them” to “Us”! However actually this is unlikely to be the case because of a certain natural grace inherent in Sherpa culture!
Image 2. “Obviously – you need protective shoes”!
I am sat on the ground at the side of a narrow trail. I’m feeling pretty grim. I have not fallen to the ground but I could easily have done so. Altitude has severely affected my balance. Previously I have been staggering and stumbling and I have taken a few minor tumbles but without injury. In fact I am on the ground in order to give attention to a small stone stuck on the ball of my right foot. I look up and towering above me while resting on his two trekking polls a member of the group is lecturing me. With his right trekking pole lightly tapping at my ankle, he tells me that I am not wearing the right protective footwear:
“You should be wearing boots and socks… and I can’t for the life of me imagine why it is that you’re not using trekking poles”!
I feel debilitated, weak and nauseous. Rising-up within me are some pretty toxic emotions: rage, resentment and jealousy (he does not seem affected by altitude!). It is in part pure survival that I take a firm hold of these feelings. With my energies in such a low state I cannot afford to indulge in them. Instead I latch onto the genuine shaft of kindness that he demonstrates in the interaction. “Resentment is given, but not necessarily taken” is another wise, challenging and wonderful Himalayas saying- full of Buddhist wisdom.
As I thank him genuinely for his concern for my welfare, I look up to express my gratitude and beyond his trekking poles and his gaitered and booted feet, flowing all-around us at that moment, were a group of Sherpas. From my position, looking at knee-level at the Sherpa’s legs and feet as they moved by in that characteristic surefooted way, I couldn’t help but notice that they all wore the flimsiest of footwear, mostly beach type sandals or cheap gym shoes and of course, no trekking poles.
The contradictions in what was being said seemed to pass entirely unnoticed. Somehow “They” are strangely invisible to “Us”!
I would simply like him to go away and leave me to removing the stone, so after I thanked him, I puffed myself up as pretentiously as possible to say:” You know- sometimes it’s not the mountain that wears you out– but the stone in your shoe!
He goes away shaking his head.
The more we penetrate into Everest country the deeper the contradictions grow. “Us”: Westerners in their hundreds of thousands will consume expensive trekking packages. “We” will storm through the trails of the Sagamartha National Park and at times be both amazed and astounded by “Them”: the astonishing feats and the bearing of the Sherpa people who continually dodge around ”Us” on the trails.
A typical level upon level of astonishment might layer-up something like this:
Here typically how is how a level-upon-level of astonishment layers-up:
- “Look at the amazing litheness and agility with which that Sherpa dodges around your feet and your trekking poles.”Wow”.
- But notice: that this is never carried out with the aid of trekking poles. Wait: there is more, much more.
- They are passing you with such mind-boggling agility but very often with perhaps upwards of 70 kg of weight on their backs.
- From head to toe they are kitted out with the most minimalist of gear: no trekking poles, usually sand shoes of the flimsiest kind on their feet and cheap and cheerful casual sports gear for trousers and jackets.
- If you observe them carefully, astoundingly, they rarely look at the obstacles (invariably Western backpackers!) that they so nimbly dodge around. How on earth do they achieve this?
- Then there is the extraordinary way that all these feats are carried out without the slightest sense of irritation or rage at the sheer ineptness of “Us “and at times our often downright ego-involved selfishness (someone once entirely blocked a busy narrow trail while taking “Selfies”!).
Small wonder then that at a certain point, the levels of the astonishment seem to disappear off the scale of the possible! It is then that things go ‘off the chart’ and what is around you and “in your face” becomes strangely invisible and incomprehensible. There is a sinking back into the comfort of Western conditioning. Fundamental assumptions go unquestioned.
A special gift: the wings of song to fly to the top of mountains
Sinking even deeper into the sofa of the hotel lounge I say to Cliff:
“We need to get out of this hotel for a bit.”
For me, the hotel has become like a Western embassy. I feel cocooned, protected in its comforts, seduced by its luxurious saunas, gymnasiums and swimming pool. On a number of occasions we are been cautioned about the dangers of eating in local restaurants and assured about the safety of the food in the wonderful Hotel restaurant. A smiling doorman opens the hotel door of the Radisson Hotel with a polite Eastern gesture and the greeting of “Namaste”. As it is spoken the open palms of each hand are brought together in a bowing gesture. Cliff explains to me that this Asian gesture represents a coming together of the divine in me with the divine in you. However, at the outer perimeter entrance of the hotel beyond the opulent glass entrance doors, cars drive in under the scrutiny of a security guard in a Kevlar stab-vest. He has in his hands something almost like a long Selfie-stick. Instead of a smartphone at the end of the pole there is a mirror. This is a device that is stuck under vehicles to check for explosive devices. In a way this protection is reassuring, as to some extent also, is the bulge off a revolver discreetly tucked into the back of his belt. It is low-key security but you can’t help but notice it.
Cliff has suggested that in the light of my stolen wash bag/medical kit, I would be well advised to buy myself a security money belt such as the one that he carries around his waist. We now have a mission to buy such a thing in the nearby Thamel district of Kathmandu. It is about a mile walk from the hotel. We go off to our room to prepare for the shopping expedition. Uncharacteristically I am riven with indecision before we go: should I put on some protective shoes for the shopping trip through the filthy gutters and pavements of Kathmandu?
As Cliff and I pass by the blue-shirted security guard with his ‘Selfie’ mirror on the outer perimeter gate, Cliff makes a joke with the guard by asking me to lift up my feet so that the security man can use his mirror to check for hidden explosives! He is not used to being addressed in this way. Being Nepalese he cannot resist smiling and laughing at Cliff’s light-hearted banter. Cliff has already learnt the Nepalese words: “Dai/Bai” and he points to himself and me. This is Nepalese for big brother: (”Dai”) and little brother:( “Bai”.) Cliff says this to the security-guard by way of explanation of our horseplay. The security-guard seems to appreciate the lightheartedness especially given the nature of his job. Cliff has a special knack of bringing out the best in people!
Ripped off-with a gift
I am standing with the bare soles of my unprotected feet in a gutter in the Thamel district. The gutter is filthy with dead dogs, gobs of spit and human and dog excrement and other unspeakable, unnameable filth. In this vulnerable, open, unprotected way I am to receive what is probably the most precious and soulful gifts from Nepal: the gift of a song.
On the surface of things I am about to be ‘taken for a ride,’ ripped off. By now, even with my limited experience of the East ”of Preston and beyond”, I am becoming aware of that nothing in the land of ‘Preston and Beyond” is quite what it seems on the surface to be! I am already alert to the possibility that beneath the surface of things maybe – quite the opposite is taking place: I appear to be being ripped off but I’m been given the gift!
I have just parted with rs.3000 (about 30 American dollars) for a rusty jews harp and a home-made CD in a plastic envelope. Like the smell of blood to a host of vultures, within a matter of seconds it seems, the smell of ‘the killing’ has drawn together every pestering street beggar in the district. They cluster around within seconds. It is after this that we quickly learned another gesture, one that in every respect is the opposite of the ”Namaste” gesture: from the midline you take your hands palm down and sweep your two hands out forcibly to either side. You then turn your head away into a Cleopatra style profile and say very loudly: “No”! We had walked quite some way from the Thamel district before we shook off the most persistent of these pests!
Following on from the first meeting and the quiet word with Bekash, the idea of East and West as being like two quite separate rivers flowing in opposite directions had started to take form in my mind. Song it turns out, is the quintessential human element that can bring these two separate human rivers of culture to flow together. How song achieves this is an ancient and deeply human mystery. Recent acoustic science known as “Cymatics” has established how that song, quite literally, creates vibrating castles in the air as air molecules dance. No air, no breath, no dance, no song, no life! Your ear and the human brain beyond recreates those castles and palaces in the air. The science seems to only deepen the mystery! Some 4000 years ago a nearby Eastern culture in ancient Sumaria there was a legend that it was possible to sing into existence beautiful buildings: magnificent palaces and temples. These exquisitely proportioned temples became the repositories for sacred song. When you are in “the East of Preston and beyond” it is somehow much easier to be captivated, to be taken in by such legends.
Above the cacophony of a Kathmandu Street, this sound of the street vendors and the traffic chaos, I hear the primordial sound of the Saranghi, an ancient predecessor of the modern fiddle. It is like a call of the mountains.
The street musician instantly and intuitively knows that he has got me -hook, line and sinker. Like a hawk he now stoops in for the kill. In halting engaging English he explains to me: “This song– special Nepaali trekking song”. He proceeds to sing it to me with some English words that only roughly fit the tune. They are very cheesy words, of the ilk: “I am happy when I’m hiking”. He then explains that he is from a caste called “Gandharbas”. For untold generations this caste of musicians, going back perhaps thousands of years, have brought news and cultural commentary to remote mountain communities. They won great respect in the Nepal of the past for bringing news and of course, the opportunity for people to sing and dance. Such news-disseminating music, song and dance is a special human way to bring communities, sometimes even cultures together. The ubiquity of modern recording and digital technology has sounded the death-knell for the Gandharbas and a whole musical culture. It has reduced him and his kin to street beggars- busking music in the streets for tourists…
… Don’t believe a word of it! Be wary of surface realities. It is a pitch! Music and song are not that easily killed off! This is not death but a rebirth. Still, I’m the perfect sucker for such a pitch. Staying purely on the surface of things I have been as deftly relieved of rs.5000 as surely as if he had light-fingered them from my brand-newly purchased money-belt that I am showing-off to every rogue in Kathmandu. The street musician represents the Universal Trickster who plays with the contradictions that drive the rest of us to distraction. The Trickster will in the surface reality rob you blind and at the same time , if you can dip below surface appearances, give you a Gift- even if that gift is one that brings to your awareness that: “A fool and his money are soon parted”.
Musical ethnographers social anthropologists the world over will say that the last thing a peasant will part with is his song. I feel exposed, vulnerable and scared as I give him a handful of thousands of rupees. Nonetheless I’m glad I did not decide to put-on protective shoes. Barefoot in the filthy gutter I know that I am receiving a priceless gift. I ask the Gandharba if he would mind if Cliff recorded the song with the Nepalese words on Cliff’s smart phone. In return I was tasked to learn the song with the Nepalese words by the end of our trip to the Himalayas.
I was hypnotically entranced by the melody and the words of “Resham Firiree”. I hadn’t a clue at that moment, as to the meaning of the exotic words. My first guess that the words were nothing like the cheesy English Tourist version was a sound intuition. Over the course of the upcoming trip whenever possible, I would engage with Nepalese locals, guides, porters and Sherpas who always seemed delighted to help me with the pronunciation and translation of the song. As the meaning of the words slowly unfolded over the coming days and weeks, I was stunned just how beautifully the song encapsulated the heart of a culture and Buddhist philosophy in an extraordinary simple, subtle and poetic way. If you want to go to the very end of this piece, you will find a translation of the song “Resham Firiree”. It seemed somehow fitting for this song to have the final word.
A Napalese Song
Resham firirie,Resham firirie
Uddera junkie dada ma bahnjhang Resham firirie
Eek nallie banduk dui nallie banduk
maygaa lai takeeko
Mirga lai miley takeko hoina
marga lai takeeko
Resham firirie,Resham firirie
Uddera junkie dada ma bahnjhang Resham firirie
Kukaralai kuti kuti Biralolai suri
Kukaralai kuti kuti
Timro hamra maya purt dobalama kuri
Timro hamra maya purt dobalama kuri
Aakash ma jab sadak ma motor
Na bhaye gaada cha
Ya mana jasto tyo mana bhaye tagatai cha
Resham firirie,Resham firirie
Uddera junkie dada ma bahnjhang Resham firirie
Song and meditations with my brother were the two things in Nepal that kept my head together in the face of some of the contradictions between East and West and also the many challenges to come in Everest country.
Guides to explore the inner and outer Himalayas
I have been a little more than 48 hours in Kathmandu and I have been taken aback by quite how shaken and challenged I am by the East- and I am yet to experience the first footfall on a Himalayan Trail! In the first two days my meditations with Cliff were powerful and groundbreaking. Certainly they led me to a growing appreciation of an inner as well as an outer Himalayas. I have a sense of sharpening the tools in my inner rucksack to navigate a sometimes intimidating inner wilderness. Most of all in that inner backpack there is sense of the importance of the process of stopping and staying back, of not closing down protectively to a very different world with very different lifestyle and traditions. This draws considerably upon the power of the point-off-not-quite-yet to overcome the Force of Habit.
At this stage in the trip two important insights are forging themselves together. The first important insight was revealed in the first 20 minutes, in the chaos of the Kathmandu traffic: that we are all in this Beautiful Mess together. This is often referred to in Buddhist thought as the interconnectedness of everything. The second key insight: an understanding that I need a guide in difficult and dangerous terrain of both an inner as well as an outer nature, came from meditating alongside Cliff, particularly at the shrine of Shivapuri-Baba.
A teacher will appear in your Life
In the great Buddhist wisdom tradition it is claimed that whenever you are genuinely open to guidance, then a teacher or a guide will appear. For this to happen: I must first empty myself – of Self. This emptying process is achieved at the point-of-not-quite-yet. To open oneself in this way brings considerable challenges: the teacher whose guidance you open to, may well be the aggressive monkey that is attacking your leg! If I am able to undo whatever is stopping or obstructing it at the point-of-not-quite-yet, then focussed and mindful meditation can lead to an expansion of human consciousness. This can go far as to dissolve and even transcend Ego. With that comes a promised end to a unique and a special form of convoluted human suffering. An evolution towards a global planetary form of consciousness also beckons.
When I applied the tools in my inner rucksack to this emptying meditative process in those early Kathmandu meditations it soon became crystal clear to me that my guide was sitting right alongside me. He may well at one stage have been an aggressive little monkey attacking my leg but now my younger brother who sat alongside me was my guide. Many other guides along the trail to the outer and inner Everest will join Cliff along the Way!
When East meets West within me, an inner turmoil is often created by paradoxes, contradictions, the enormous tensions between polarities. There seems to be a whole host of heavy-duty ‘industrial strength’ “D” words that I could use to aptly describe the impact of this suffering:
“D” for discomfort;
“D” for discontent;
“D” for disappointment;
“D” for dread;
“D” for dismay;
“D” for distress:
“D” for death and demise…
…All told, “D” for rather dismal and depressing! In Buddhist psychology they have yet another umbrella “D” word to describe all this: “Dukkha”!
The greater the associated discomfort and discontent, the more powerful I experience the gravitational-like force pulling me back into the familiar, the comfort of safe habits and conditioning with all its associated blinkers and blind spots. Standing in the gutter receiving my gift of song from Trickster I was uncomfortable, unprotected, vulnerable. This is inevitable. Only the extraordinary efforts associated with Mindfullness-in-Action and meditation can help me bear the strain. To prevail in the inner struggle with the “D“ words demands a bigger space, a greater spaciousness of consciousness. I cannot make this space happen from the top-down. I can only undo whatever hampers, fills and clutters-up the space. This can only be achieved by means of a letting go – from the bottom up. We crucially, vitally need each other’s help with this process. “D” is also for dangerous country! If anything the beautiful mess is likely to get even messier! But hey -inevitably we will all be in it together.
At the start of formal meditation I come to confront life’s reluctance to deliver the certainty so fervently needed and desired by my Self. It takes heart. It takes love. It takes courage. These are qualities revealed more deeply in the process of minding. It can lead to a more compassionate understanding. One is pulled by the ‘gravity’ of the Force of Habit into the leaden and grey pit of the known and familiar. This reinforces my conditioning and identity. I do however, have a choice and I can overcome the discomfort and come to a more open, willing acceptance of uncertainty. That choice can only be made in my experience, at the point-of-not-quite-yet. This can shake the very core of identity -of my self, my Ego that so demands permanence, security and protection. It needs to be shaken!
No-self and team-work
On the trek I am to experience beside the gift of Song, a state that Buddhists call No-self. No matter how brief and partial the glimpse, once experienced the truth of it remains forever real and apparent. The early blundering and wanderings, lost in the foothills of the inner Everest serves as vital preparation, a necessary warming up, a girding of oneself for the challenges of high mountains of both an inner and outer nature. No one ever climbs Everest alone without a guide, a team. The fact is that we can only achieve a successful navigation of this territory with help. There is an inner and outer aspect to this. Together it can be achieved. That we can potentially guide and help each other is often hidden and obscured for me by my Ego. Ego will separate and disconnect me from the Teachers that may be sitting, standing and walking, reaching out – all around me. Ego is very much my problem, an issue that concerns all that I cling to as being mine. But in truth there is no me and mine there is only Mind and we are all in it together.
The marketplace challenge
To be able to meditate in the marketplace is a higher aspiration. How is it achieved? It is a huge inner mountain to climb. We need the support of each other to deal with dangers and to cope with the exertions of the climb. We need techniques, fitness, a commitment and a passion to get to the summit. We need a desire to experience and to take in the awe-inspiring views from the top. There is a promise of freedom from suffering at the highest summit, a liberation from all contingency and circumstance. This makes the Enlightened One, the Buddha free of conditionality, free of contingency and circumstances. On the summit perhaps awaits the lightness and freedom that is the ultimate liberation from the dukkah of the suffering self.
No. Not only am I not on the summit, I am still here on the plains of Kathmandu catching only an occasional glimpse of mountains beyond a hazy blue distant horizon. I have an intense desire born here in Kathmandu to know: to figure out just how needy I am with regard to my meditation. Exactly how contingent is my meditative practice: how dependent is my meditation, my mindfulness practice, on the right people and on the right guidance, on the right gurus and sages, on mantras, on chants on temples and stupas– most of all: I am right now coming to appreciate: on place, on geography and on geology.
Geology: Place and Belonging
There is a long and ancient tradition of seekers who come to find and meet themselves in the mountains. In particular they will often come as pilgrims here to the region that contains the highest mountains on the planet. The Himalayas contain so many mountain retreats, stupas and temples-perhaps as many as there are trekkers guesthouses.
Everest and the Himalayas form the spiky-backed ridged backbone of the Planet. Geology in particular does have a key and largely unsung role to play. A moment’s reflection reveals the extent to which geology really does comes first: Geology will dictate the nature of the biosphere: the key aspect of the earth’s crust that we call the soil. It will dictate height and elevation. It will shape meteorology and the weather. It determines the particular altitude at which the soil supports different forms of life: life particularly at a bacterial sub-microscopic level, plant-life, insects, and the animals that feed off the plants and insects. We humans are only one of many forms of life. We are simply one of many animals caught in an interconnected spider-like web. However we are special in the way that we cooperate within uniquely human cultures. We refine and cultivate the plants, we husband the animals, and we collect honey from the insects. It is a complex web and it massively shapes the nature of our human culture. The starkness of this becomes more evident in such subsistence Eastern mountain cultures such as that of the indigenous peoples of the Himalayas referred to as the Sherpa Nation.
How important is the sense of close connection to place in one’s development and evolution as a human being: the place where you come from, and the place where you belong? Perhaps the opposite pole that of disconnection may even more starkly reveal the fundamental nature of belonging: the opposite pole here would be the sense of rootlessness and of alienation. This has become such a prominent feature of the recent history of western culture. Small wonder then, that it is often exceptionally difficult for “Us”, for Westerners to appreciate the primary or fundamental nature of geology. We consider our selves as separate, apart from the fundamental support structures that support life and what it is that makes it all possible.
Can it be mere happenstance, a coincidence that so many of the world’s great ideas, that have come to express themselves so powerfully in the world’s greatest wisdom traditions, were born here in the foothills and slopes of the Himalayas? Here in the Himalayas two huge continents: the Indian and the Eurasian landmasses are in a colossal slow-moving geological collision. Occasionally, almost whimsically they will speed up ever so slightly and create the devastating earthquakes that hit Nepal recently in 2015. These hugely powerful forces are right now, still being generated. Even at this moment Everest is slowly rising upwards-growing even higher at a rate of about an inch a year. What kind of forces can thrust what was once an ancient seabed, 5 miles up into the air? Such are the gargantuan forces that shape and fold the earth into mountains with glaciers, deep ravines and valleys with fast flowing rivers.
Geographically the region of the Himalayas is also the place where two mighty tectonic plates of human culture clash: East and West. There are fissures, fusions, mountains of contradiction and paradox, rivers that can connect as well as divide human cultures. The ancient Silk Road threads through the Himalayas connecting East and West together. It passes through the centre of Kathmandu. The highest passes that cross the backbone of the planet in the Himalayas will reach eventually beyond towards the China of the Far East. Inner seismic happenings some 3 to 4,0000 years ago in the nearby Indus Valley formed the ovum-seeds of Great Ideas. These seeds would be eventually be disseminated East and West along the Silk Road. Eventually these Great Ideas would blossom to become further in the East, Confucianism, the Dao-de-Ching, Zen Buddhism. In the West they would feed into the Great Ideas embodied in Islam, Sufism, and in the Hebraic/Christian traditions of the Near and Middle East.
Meditation and the great Hindu trickster gift of NOTHING!
Most of all, in this region developed the most extraordinary of ideas. It comes from the great Hindu meditative traditions and practices. From this birthing ground the Hindu tradition gifted to the West something without which our wonderful WWW. World Wide Web of digital Technology and its interconnectedness could never have come into being: In a way the Hindus of the East gifted to the West the greatest ever Trickster trope: the ultimate jam-jar of “genuine scotch-mist sold by the supremo con-artist. The Hindus gave to “Us”: the west: nothing: emptiness. This ultimate Trickster gift of nothing is now an ingrained and familiar part of Western technology and culture. Zero is symbolized by a round circle of empty space: “0”. It created the greatest transformation, if not in the history of mankind, certainly in the history of mathematics. We take: zero, nothing, nought :“0”, so much for granted, with so little in the way of appreciation of the extraordinary leap of the human meditating Eastern-mind that first created it. Consider then, how this astonishingly practical achievement, the basis of all our technology and industry came out of a three thousand year old esoteric preoccupation with emptiness. It is some mountain of a paradox. It all took place nearby the region of the Kathmandu plain, in the Indus Valley in the foothills over-seen by the awe-inspiring Himalayas.
It does not matter what ”brand” of meditative techniques are employed today in the West, they are bound to involve a form emptying oneself as a necessary precondition to begin meditation. Meditation begins not with amassing more and more knowledge but with nothing and then what besides? More of nothing! It could be understood as a great adventure in negative space; in a form of subtraction. It opens up a way that, by release and letting-go means I can amass more of less! Negative number only comes into being on the back of nought, zero, of nothing. By a taking away, a letting-go we become emptier of grasping and acquisition and so more open to receive. The necessary precondition to begin meditation is nothing.
It does not seem to really much matter whether East and West meet to create a resounding East/West cultural clash, or even the colossal earth-shaking collision of tectonic plates in the geology of the earth’s crust. It creates high mountains of great height, precipitous ravines of great depth, fissures of contradiction, shaking earthquakes and avalanches of paradox. We are drawn to navigate the territory of wilderness, to cross ravines and rivers and glaciers, to climb up to the summit of mountains. When individuals are drawn to such dangerous and rugged wilds they are attracted, like iron filings to a magnet to a region that is the birthplace of meditative practices and techniques, where zero, nought- nothing was created. There are places whether on the inner landscape or the outer landscape: that are dangerous. One way or another, inner or outer, we may well meet our selves on the slopes of Everest and one thing is for certain: that we will all be in it together and we may need each other- just in order to survive. Survival and meditation. How oddly they sit together. I am called upon to bear some dreadful discomforts and deep disappointments. There are important self/ identity issues and within them is the pride that as the wise Western saying goes: comes before the inevitable fall. The higher up the mountain one climbs, the more that much vaunted and esoteric surface one-pointedness of mindful meditation can become simply about one-pointed, practical, raw survival.
Cliff and I are coming to the end of our first 48 hours together in Kathmandu. We have just finished our last evening meditation together before we leave. When we look up out of the window, as we ‘surface’ from the meditation, we notice Shivapuri Mountain in a soft evening glow…
…We will be up tomorrow at 5:30 AM sharp to leave for Kathmandu airport and the flight to Lukla: the gateway to the Himalayas and the start of our 17 day trek. What I have experienced in this first 48hours is groundbreaking, unexpected and surprising. On the surface this is a bucket trip: the get-away-from-it-all trip of a lifetime before we kick the bucket. It is an expensive holiday to explore awesome mountains and culture but most of all the opportunity to spend quality time with my brother. For the rest of the trip Cliff and myself will be referred to both by the Nepalese guides and eventually by the rest of the group as an indivisible entity called ‘Dai/Bai’ ( elder-brother/younger brother) rather than individually: as John and Cliff.
Bekash: Homilies and Inspiration
Cliff and I collect our pens and notebooks from our room and proceed on down to join the rest of our nine person group for the second introductory briefing led by our chief guide Bekash. I leave it to Cliff to jot down the important details: the weights in kilograms that we and our Sherpa porters are expected to carry; the details of our early morning flight times; the time we will be given our alarm-call to come down for breakfast prior to an early 7:00 flight departure from Kathmandu Airport. On the entire trip I take down no notes. My notebook from the Nepal trip contains only a few inventorys and the words to songs: ‘Resham Firiree’ in particular. It is great to be freed in this way in the forthcoming group meeting. Not writing things down means that that I can focus entirely on what it is about Bekash that so deeply fascinates me. How cleverly but simply he encapsulated profound truths, putting them over in a language that is clearly foreign to him. I am confounded by the difficulties I am having writing down the Bekash homilies and insights. Perhaps it is an inherent difficulty created largely because so much of what goes over is not so much about words. It comes directly from the place that Bekash speaks from. This kind of presence lives –it is live- it comes from life directly and conveys something that even the finest written words never can convey. Clearly adepts and followers of Shivapuri Baba such as Dr Shishthra encounter precisely the same difficulty with the written word. Indeed they are not alone in this struggle- so did the illustrious Plato in ancient Greece with regard to the great Western Sage: Socrates -who also like Shivapuri Baba refused ever to write anything down.
Bekash has an exceptionally open face. The lines that furrow his face are not on his brow. They are predominantly in the creases to the side of the eyes that are sometimes referred to as ‘laughter lines’. Like most Nepalese faces Bekash’s facial expression falls very easily into a smile. However, I cannot help but read his particular facial expression every time he looks at me: I do know well that look. I am an experienced outdoor adventure group leader. If I was engaged in first meeting a group and I had that look on my face with regard to one particular participant, then the song playing in my head might well be:
“There may be trouble ahead…”
…Okay so whatever is Bekash going to think when I pull out my little ukelele in the hotel lift and began to sing a well known Nepalese folksong in an English accent and with appalling Nepalese pronunciation?
The final Introductory session with Bekash: On Trekking, Smiling and Commitment
Bekash lays down key themes in his second meeting with the group. These are leitmotifs that he will usually briefly return to at the end of each day of the trek. Whenever he elaborates on a theme he never loses a mysterious essence of simplicity or practicality.
In this second meeting after the detailed information and domestic arrangements that we all needed to know, Bekash returns to establishing a bit more about how much experience of high mountain altitude each group members has had. Cliff and myself are included in the five group members who have had no experience.
The higher up you go, especially above 8000 feet, the more your respiratory system struggles. It makes it much harder work for your body to get oxygen into your lungs. Your respiratory system eventually will acclimatize as it finds a way to adapt to the problem. This takes not only time but also it will take its own time. And its own time is determined by your genetic make-up and not so much by individual will power to push through the challenges the altitude is having on respiration. It cannot be pushed and hurried along.
The speed with which one gains altitude is important. ‘Sleep low and climb high’ is a good general rule that will help speed up the acclimatization process. The trekking Company attempts to schedule the trek so that the “rest” days when we stay in one place, offer the opportunity to make the most off this “sleep low and climb high” principle. As your physiology eventually comes to terms with the altitude problem it adjusts fluid levels in the bloodstream. This makes it necessary to be very vigilant and careful to drink more water than one may be used to. Later on I am going to wish I had paid more attention to Bekash’s important advice! He then details the trek protocols regarding fresh water for each group member. We are to be assiduous in picking up the pre-prepared 3 litres of boiled drinking water for each 3 to 5 hour trek.
The going will get harder and harder as we gain height. Besides altitude there are challenging difficulties with sanitation and toilet arrangements. We are asked to be understanding about the very basic nature of sanitation higher up in the mountains lodges. Attention to regular hand-washing before eating and after going to the loo is crucial to avoid trip-ruining gastro problems.
With altitude and the steepness of ascents on the stony precipitous trails can get quite challenging.
At this point Bekash goes into a succinct homily on the nature of commitment. Somehow, he deftly gets it over that commitment is something different from pushing and driving oneself. It is admirable to want to be successful in overcoming the challenges of a trek that goes up to nearly 19,000 feet on the summit of Kala Pattar close to Gorek Shep, the old Everest base camp. We will encounter fatigue, backaches headaches, sore knees but we are advised to maintain a steady focus on commitment. This does not involve any kind of drive, push or rush: just maintain a positive attitude. Trust that each step eases you surely towards the summit. Tectonic plates between East and West shift very uneasily within me in this part of the talk. What Bekash is putting over here at is about as far as possible away from a western Boot Camp leader’s motivational talk! I am sure the time not on my own in a struggle to reach out a really take hold of what Bekash says. I suspect that Western, ego-driven minds will have only a limited understanding and appreciation of just what Bekash means by commitment.
“When you’re smiling…”
How will you know that you have this special commitment? Simple. Because of the smile on your face! The smile is important: it will ensure a lightness of attitude. This positive demeanour is also a very important aspect of key mountain lore: that first, we stay together and as well that we ensure a caring watchfulness for telltale signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Often people suffering AMS can behave like they have had too much to drink. They can sometimes become loud and jokey. Most of all often they will sway drunkenly from side to side, their balance severely affected. Often people with AMS will feel a sense of inadequacy and shame. It is understandable not to want to hold-up other participant’s progress. We must swallow our pride and be upfront if we are suffering AMS. However it is cruciall to separate-out in your mind the effects of fatigue from the effects of altitude sickness. You can reasonably safely drive and push yourself through the aches and pains of muscle fatigue and tiredness. To drive yourself on through acute mountain sickness is dangerous. Bekash subtly downplays the fact that it can be rapidly fatal! The best way to deal with it is to come back to commitment and to that smile. Avoid anger and resentment at yourself and especially toward others. To maintain this non-driven, no-anger commitment will ensure that we follow the golden trekking rule of Everest and carefully look after each other on the mountain. ‘Keep on smiling’ grows all the more important, the tougher and more strenuous the challenges become.
The group are finally told that our 15 kg weight allowance per participant, includes the sleeping bag and down jackets that are provided by the trekking company. No-one in our group was aware of this!
Furious repacking ensues
I spread all my kit out over the two twin beds. Cliff goes through choosing what gear he will discard and manages somehow on the thin strip of floor by the Hotel window. This is following by frenetic activity back and forth from the room to the weigh-scales in the hotel lobby. We pass other members of the group similarly engaged. Nobody was smiling!!
Tomorrow the trail to Everest beckons and the Sagamartha National Park with its special rules and regulations awaits!