Lately I have been thinking a lot about a time I spent in Nepal many years ago.
For some reason, flashing memories of mountains and moments keep popping into my mind, bringing me back to the learning and insights I developed during that time, and to a great sense of appreciation for the experience.
It all happened 9 years ago. So long ago that one would think it wouldn't even really occur to the memory to drag up such stuff for no reason, but the intensity of the experience was such that it will always be something I think about. At some times more than others, apparently.
Oddly, the months during my travels are some of the only times in my life where I have no recorded journal work to reflect upon, as the books I filled in Nepal (and Thailand) have somehow been removed from my storage boxes. I suppose that is neither good nor bad, but strange...strange that it should have been such a momentous experience--far more important than the writing I did during months while first in San Francisco, where it would appear I did nothing but drink coffee and shop--but that I am reliant entirely upon my memory to take me back there.
I do remember though. Vividly. The combination of my state of being--so raw and broken right then--with the startling vivid nature of the place itself has forever imprinted Nepal as a 'special place' in my being. The special place, really.
Specifically, I have been thinking much about my time on the Annapurna circuit, a 200 km hike that takes you around the reaches of the Annapurna range and across Thorung-La Pass, hovering at somewhere around 5600m. A trek that is normally estimated to take 15 days or so, but which I (along with a variable vagabond crew of Israeli ex-military) completed in a staggering 27 days.
I had no intention whatsoever to take on a hike of this sort while traveling, and in fact my entire purpose in Nepal was supposed to be the saintly work of volunteering at an orphanage just outside of Kathmandu. Heartbroken (in very, very small pieces), depressed, exhausted, and literally on my last threads of sanity, I had left my bartender/makeup artist life in Calgary out of sheer desperation, landing in Nepal because of an article I had read that said that the Nepalese, despite their poverty, were considered to be the happiest people on Earth. I thought the combination of aiding the very poor and potentially having some happy dust rub off on me was exactly what I would need to get back on my feet.
The crazy thing is that looking back now, I don't even know if I "thought" anything consciously. It was all discomfort and immediate spastic reaction to that discomfort, but somehow I got on a plane by myself in Vancouver and landed upright eating dahl bat and scratching bed bug bites some short time later.
The orphanage thing, unsurprisingly, didn't work out. It turned out that the manager of the organization was far more interested in my 'donation money' than my presence in the lives of these children, as it appeared that they had more than enough Western girls showing up with a guilty conscience and a desire for righteous service (maybe that was just me though). The kids were not lacking in people to read to them, they just needed money.
And so, unredeemed, I wandered. One could say that at this point I was lost, but I still maintained some contact with people who seemed to know what they were doing so that it wasn't entirely on me to figure out the scene. Very lost inside, certainly, but I stayed quite safe in my daily wanderings, settling into a hotel in Pokhara where I played guitar for hours, and cried a lot.
But then at some point someone suggested I take a trek, and passed along a pamphlet of information that led me in the direction of Besisahar, the start of the circuit. I figured why not, having no knowledge of what I was getting into at all, and decided to leave two days later. Armed with a $5 knock-off North Face down jacket, a couple pairs of pants and shorts, 3 pairs of socks, underwear, a camera, $200 and my asics runners, I stepped off the bus and found the trailhead, and started walking.
And then...I just kept walking.
Through banana and rice fields and milky, winding glacier-fed rivers I walked, stopping to photograph iridescent tropical butterflies intoxicated by some unknown mineral in the river mud, or to plunge body parts into the freezing water.
I walked upwards through pine forests and ravines, sheer rock faces carved upwards on either side as if God herself had taken a pastry cutter to the mountainside, and shaped it so as to allow us to proceed. I walked up these rocks and down these rocks, completely unfazed by progress or lack of progress as perceived by others walking alongside me, totally immersed in the sensory immediacy of my state instead: foot pain, foreign smells, new plants, leg pain, back pain, hunger, elevation sickness, more hunger, more pain.
It was the best I had felt in my entire life up until that point.
So lost--and this time not only emotionally or spiritually, but also geographically, cast out into this wide-open expanse of fields and mountains where I knew I could disappear forever--and without mirrors or showers or any social structures in place to maintain my egoic self, I became a beast of feeling and immediacy; a thoughtless though alert, completely present though entirely detached animal, interested only in sensation.
And of course, in this lost place what I was contacting was nothing short of me, my real self.
That which had been traded long before for social status and acceptance, or bartered for tokens of connection, or suppressed entirely so as to make my assimilation as limitless as possible. It was in blisters and sunburns and oxygen depravation, filthy hair and absolute wildness that I felt myself again, fully alive and real like never before.
If there is one thing I would recommend to someone at a loss within our modern culture, it would be to go get lost. Thoreau knew this too. To place yourself in a situation where the entirety of your 'known self' --what you look like, where you work, who loves you, what you own, and all the rest--is forced into oblivion, and your only choice is to move closer to the things that remain: the sensation of your breath, the relentless growling hunger in your belly, the cracked and peeling skin on your hands and arms: this is the place where you can be truly alive.
It is in these places that we heal, and become real. In the spaces where we are stripped of all our conditioning and habitual ways of finding ground beneath us, and in the absence of it all come to find ourselves far more real, and far more phenomenal than we could have perceived before.
The soul is not a thing of comfort, that is entirely the ego's domain. And while comfort is not a bad thing, excessive comfort in our daily lives has given rise to not only terrible lack of self knowing, but also a great resistance to all that is untested, wild, new, and challenging. And it is in this way of being that we stop growing... and start dying instead.
We do not need to go to Nepal in order to lose ourselves completely, I know, but we must make a conscious effort to encounter the feeling of being lost and know it as a good thing rather than something that should be backed away from. This takes a conscious effort to recognize not only the feeling of being challenged as a good thing, but also the challenge of coming back into feeling as a good thing. The human was not made to be this numb, this placated, and surely all our antidepressants are a clear suggestion of that.
Since that time in Nepal I have spent as much time as possible getting lost: new cities, new experiences, new people, new and shattering ways of thinking, as I trust entirely that what is to be found in that place of great space is too large to describe effectively even as I still attempt to do so: confidence? faith? power? all of that. It is in getting lost that I have been found, over and over again.