By ADAM MAHLER
My head swam from the thin air as I pushed myself up the Nepali mountainside, sucking in each soupy breath of mist in prodigious gulps. It seemed I was completely alone, surrounded on all sides by a rocky face, swirling clouds, and a sharp drop to the milky river below.
As a tributary to the Ganges River, the locals believed the water was sacred, and honestly, it did provide a spiritual rejuvenation of sorts when I washed myself clean for the first time in a week. Drinking the holy water from a natural spring was believed to be especially beneficial and would apparently cure an individual of “dumbness.”
I couldn’t speak of any personal intellectual renaissance at the time – my brain was scrambled by an oxygen deficit. All the thought power I could muster was reserved for the winding trail ahead of (and above) me. With eyes cast down, I staggered through the sub-alpine Himalayan landscape, missing much and seeing little. “I can rest at the top” was a pathetic mantra for one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Looking back on my time in Nepal with Colorado College’s Himalayan Odyssey course, I was in a hurry all too often. The strain of the rugged environment had shifted my focus from the astonishing wonder of an exciting, new culture to how far I had to hike to reach my next destination. I frequently checked my watch to see steps walked, distance traveled, and elevation gained, but what was I actually gaining?
I was stuck in my old habits from the West. At home, I would worry about my busy schedule, future engagements, and long-term goals. It’s easy to fall into this trap of projecting our concerns, fears, and dreams onto the present as a superimposed image, like a shadow we can never outrun. We build arbitrary mountains to conquer rather than enjoy the view.
However, as I finally reached the top of a ridge, my burdens seemed to dissipate with the rising clouds. The sun burst forth to flood the valley below in sunshine, bouncing off tin-roofed homes and turbid waters. The Himalayan skyline shimmered in the balmy sun, and above all the snow-capped giants rose Manaslu, the eighth highest peak in the world. I sat down to rest and eat my lunch, finally content to stop climbing and start seeing.
A strange sound broke this spell: a woman’s voice. She was singing. Actually, there were three of them, all sharing the same melody. Their song echoed off the mountainsides and resonated within me; their Tibetan tune was in a language I couldn’t understand but could feel.
I was labelled with REI, Eddie Bauer, and North Face. They had calloused bare feet and bamboo baskets strapped to their foreheads. One had an infant in tow, yet I was the one empty-lunged. They wore broad smiles across their sun-baked faces. As they passed me on the trail, they even laughed —a frequent occurrence, but it still threw me aback. It was almost as if they knew something about myself I didn’t, or maybe it was just my silly safari hat.
A main tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, the predominant religion of Himalayan Nepal, is that suffering is caused by attachment—attachment to oneself, to the future and past, to dreams and fears, to impermanent things we burden ourselves with. I realized in that moment that I was drowning in attachment.
In the U.S., my attachment to long-term goals had left my life with less happiness. I was astonished by these women and their cheerful, light auras; they seemed to bear little attachment. I don’t mean to suggest that their lives were without struggle and strife. I am greatly fortunate to be free of many of the material hardships they probably endure. Perhaps they and other people of traditional Himalayan culture ache for a more Western lifestyle of relative comfort and luxury.
And yet, I couldn’t help but envy those women and the spiritual wealth that radiated with every lyric. Happiness was no longer a destination for me, but a process. Only by letting go could I find it—a flavor of bliss that only comes with being present in each individual moment.