I hadn’t been in Dharamsala, India, more than two days before I started dreaming about where to go next. While the rain overflowed the sewers and wet cows bunched under the running eaves of the bakery next door, I sat with the other travelers around the wood stove at the Green Restaurant, eating dense slabs of Tibetan bread and butter, drinking mug after mug of ginger lemon tea, and discussing the options. Kullu, Manali, Gangotri, Kathmandu…the names, repeated like mantras, hung shimmering and hopeful in the smoky air, conjuring visions of mystery and magic (as the word Dharamsala had, just a week before). At night, alone in my room, I lit amber incense and consulted the oracle of theLonely Planet, whose every page hinted at a new adventure. I spread out my atlas and traced, with a cold finger, the dotted gray ribbons of railways, the bright yellow bands of roads.
It was six years ago and I was four months into a six-month trip around India, researching ashrams, monasteries, and pilgrimage sites for my guidebook, From Here to Nirvana. Planning the trip, it had sounded glamorous: an unending stream of spiritual peak experiences. It even sounded like that in my postcards home: “Dear Friends—Here I am in Dharamsala, attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the ‘Lam Rim Chen Mo,’ or ‘The Great Book on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment’. . . .”
But the reality of the experience was more like this: I was writing my postcards in an unmade bed, surrounded by a litter of earplugs, crumpled receipts, unwashed underwear, and squashed acidophilus capsules scattered from a ruptured ziplock bag. It had been raining hard for four days; the mountain peaks were erased by clouds, and my soaked Kashmiri shawl permeated my already mildewed room with the smell of wet sheep. My hands were so cold I could hardly hold my pen. To keep warm, I was wearing most of the clothes I had with me: long underwear, all three pairs of socks, khadi shirt, cotton Punjabi suit, wool sweater, and a neon pink ski cap I just bought the day before at Stitches of Tibet. That morning I had overslept and missed the sunrise long-life puja for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, because the night before I had stayed up too late: I’d been lonely and cold, so I had used my portable electrical coil to heat enough water for a hot water bottle, bought a Cadbury’s dark chocolate bar and a secondhand copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to keep myself company, and stayed up past midnight, snuggled up to warm rubber, reading about someone else’s spiritual adventures in India.
As I made my spiritual pilgrimage around India, I had noticed this phenomenon again and again: Whenever I arrived at a new destination, jagged reality ripped a hole in my silken fantasies. The ancient temples might be there, as the guidebooks promised, the Shiva lingams, the orange-robed sadhus, the sacred river. But rickshaws belched out fumes in the urine-scented streets; the holy men chased me down the street, rattling their tiffin tins and demanding that I buy them chai; and I’d open my knapsack to find that my toothpaste had ruptured in my toiletries kit, where it was steeping my foam earplugs in a minty ooze. So I’d catch myself retreating to plans and imagined pleasures, believing that the future held a promise that the present did not fulfill.
It was a lesson I had to learn over and over: that a spiritual pilgrimage is, after all, a kind of yoga. And yoga is ultimately not about getting anywhere different. It is about fully being where you already are—embracing the mundane details of your body, your mind, and your life, and tranforming them through the power of your presence and attention.
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