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 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 in the smoky air, conjuring visions (as the word "Dharamsala" had just a week before) of mystery and magic.
I was four months into a six-month trip around India, researching ashrams, monasteries, and pilgrimage sites for a guidebook. In the planning stage, the trip had sounded glamorous: an unending stream of spiritual peak experiences. It even sounded like that in my postcards home: "Dear Friends--This morning I sat with a thousand maroon-robed monks and nuns in the Tsuglagkhang Temple, sipping Tibetan butter tea and listening to the Dalai Lama speak about enlightenment."
But reality was much different. I was writing those 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 perfumed my 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 brought with me: long underwear, three pairs of socks, khadi shirt, cotton Punjabi suit, wool sweater, and a neon-pink ski cap I had bought the day before at Stitches of Tibet.
That morning, I overslept and missed the sunrise long-life puja for His Holiness because I had stayed up past midnight, snuggled up to a hot-water bottle and a second-hand copy of Rudyard Kipling's "Kim," eating a Cadbury's dark-chocolate bar and reading about someone else's spiritual adventures in India.
As I made my pilgrimage around India, I had noticed that whenever I arrived at a new destination, jagged reality ripped a hole in my silken fantasies. The ancient temples might be there, the Shiva lingams, the orange-robed sadhus, the sacred river. But the rickshaws belched out fumes in the urine-scented streets, and holy men chased me, rattling their tiffin tins, and demanding that I buy them chai. I'd open my knapsack to find that my toothpaste had ruptured in my toiletries kit. So I'd retreat to plans and imagined pleasures, believing that the future held a promise that the present did not fulfill.
I had to learn over and over that a pilgrimage is, after all, a kind of yoga. And yoga is ultimately not about getting anywhere. It is about being where you are--embracing mundane details and transforming them through presence and attention.
We tend to believe that a yoga pose is a final destination: that when we can finally put our palms flat on the ground in a standing forward bend, or touch our feet to the back of our head in a deep Cobra, something magical will happen. But when the goal is reached, we find that we are where we have always been: at home in our own familiar bodies, our own unruly minds.
On my yoga mat, I have had to learn that the journey itself is the final destination. I have had to learn to love the roadblocks in my body: the weak or frozen muscles, the locked joints, the pockets of anger, grief, and despair. I have had to learn to slow down and savor my body exactly as it is, trusting that there is nowhere better to be.
Through India, my practice was the same: Could I embrace the gritty, tedious details of life on the road as expressions of all-pervading Spirit? Could I let what was actually happening be enough?
As a guidebook writer, my job was to pillage a place of its secrets. I'd arrive armed with notebook and pocket tape recorder, determined to ferret out hidden spiritual treasures. But magic, I learned, takes time to reveal itself. Approached too aggressively, a new town became impenetrable; it clenched and resisted, like a body pushed too far, too fast, into a yoga pose.
I had to learn to receive a place rather than assault it, to slow down enough to follow subtle signs and chance encounters. When I actually managed to do that, a place would reveal itself, like a Polaroid developing in my hand, unveiling its hidden secrets and quirky charms, more enthralling than anything a guidebook could possibly have promised.
Like the dirt path out behind my hotel in Dharmasala, I followed it round a corner and into a forest of pine trees and rhododendron, bursting with improbably large crimson blossoms. I wound my way up and up, over granite and pine needles, calves aching, lungs burning, chasing the clean, fresh smell of snow.The song of running water led me into a shadowed valley, over mossy tree roots, through a tangle of brittle bracken till I scrambled over smooth granite boulders and sat in the spray of a hundred-foot waterfall that crashed into a gray-green creek. I lay on my back and stared up at the jagged line where mountains meet sky, and I thought of the question that had obsessed me this morning, "Where should I go next?" Then I started to laugh as the waterfall answered, "You're already here."