This article was written by Karuna and first published by Elephant Journal.
I didn’t expect to have a spiritual awakening amid mule sh*t and piss in Nepal, but I suppose that we don’t really choose where and when we experience a spiritual awakening.
I was trekking out from an unsuccessful summit bid on a mountain near the border of Tibet. I’d set out that morning with a strong intention to feel everything intimately along the trek back.
I felt the air on my skin. I noticed the scent in the air. My eyes took in the grandeur of the Himalayan mountains all around but also the tiny sprouting green plants and flowers that hadn’t yet surfaced just a few weeks prior while heading out.
To help acclimatize to the increasing altitude, we had trekked several days to what would become our home base. Arriving at 16,000 feet in a valley filled with harsh spiny bushes and few green plants, I was surprised by the number of blue sheep, yaks, goats, and horses grazing in and near our camp. Snow had welcomed us on our first day, but by the time we left, there were small irises peeking out of the ground. Spring had sprung even at that altitude!
As I now rounded the corner of Meta, one of the last villages accessible by foot or animal only, I noted our mule train getting ready to leave. While I knew it meant more dirt, noise, and sh*t in the air, I wanted to walk out with these beautiful beings. I was in awe of their steady feet over this challenging terrain and felt deep gratitude for their service. Without the mules there would have been no expedition, as it had been these mules that hauled many pounds of our gear over the 30 miles or so to basecamp, several times over.
I was silent inside as we made our way down a steep hill my teammates had nicknamed “Meta Hell.” I listened intently to the sound of the bells on our mules necks and the whistle and yelp of the mule driver, as he made order out of chaos. I allowed the dust flying up in my face to simply be a part of the experience. I wanted to step into the mules’ shoes fully and to know what it was like to be them.
At the bottom of the steep hill, the mule driver stopped as the train went on. My Nepalese was less proficient than his English, so we just grinned at one another. I wondered why he was letting the train move along without him. However, given the number of times these mules have made this trek and the fact that there is really only one way in and out, I figured the mules knew what to do and the driver had confidence they’d keep moving.
I trudged along behind a lady mule who checked I was in line every now and again. I realized that I had been accepted into the pack. I felt a content sense of belonging and my human woes and thoughts faded away. The rhythmic sound of hoofs and the enchanting sound of bells carried me along in an extended period of complete presence. There was no craving for what was to come, nor was there reflection of what had passed. There was simply the present moment and it was pure bliss.
The sky seemed brighter, the plants greener, and with each breath, I felt a deeper connection to this land and the people of Nepal. I felt a part of their family too. I knew deep in my heart that the borders we draw and the boundaries we set aren’t true. Sentient beings are one and the same. It wasn’t cognitive. It was beyond that; it was something I now knew to my core. Presence had gifted me this knowledge, and I was overcome with tears and gratitude.
I heard the whistle of my teammates as they approached from behind. They didn’t have the communication expertise of the mule driver and incited some confusion. I stopped and let them pass, trying not to feel annoyed at having been ripped from this mystical experience. The annoyance quietly slipped into acceptance and even joy for them. They didn’t know my experience anymore than I knew theirs. This is exactly what Buddhism teaches us is the doorway to happiness.
I’d set out for this mountaineering expedition a month prior. While the crowds headed to Everest and other 8,000 meter peaks, our small expedition team headed to a 7,000 meter peak that hadn’t been summited since 2008 and never by an American team. We were looking to bag an obscure but beautiful mountain “at the ends of the earth.”
While the summit bid was unsuccessful, this journey for me was a lot more than a mountaineering expedition, as I wrote in my departing article, “The Ultimate Spiritual Journey: Taking a Modern-Day Pilgrimage.”
I never expected to find the greatest gift of the pilgrimage amidst mule sh*t and piss, but there it was.
Arriving at our tea house later that afternoon, I was greeted by a young man smoking a cigarette inside the common area while drinking coffee and watching loud videos on his iPad.
As annoyance and judgment crept into my heart, I couldn’t help but smile. “Hello, old friends,” I thought to myself, “I really didn’t miss you.”
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PHOTOGRAPHER: RANI BARTLETT