01.05.2008

Where Earth Meets Sky

Regular India visitor Mandy BeckerKnox remains entranced by 'a glimpse of eternity', the Himalayas.

Regular India visitor Mandy BeckerKnoxremains entranced by 'a glimpse of eternity',the Himalayas.

'Search for the kingdom of heavenfirst and all the rest will come to you' ~ Jesus

Thereare some places on the planet that exude an air of peaceand calm. In such a place you find the mind effortlesslymoves beyond itself and becomes attuned to the serenityand beauty of the environment. In such a place you mayfeel a real sense of "connectedness" or"oneness" with the world around you anddeeply peaceful, touched by the beauty of the moment.Everyday concerns are forgotten and time passing seemsan irrelevant concept. The moment stretches into eternityand meditation is instantaneous and profound...onceyou leave such a place you should never, ever forgetit.

Many of us go to great effort and expense to experienceplaces of astounding natural beauty or mythologicalsignificance. Just a few moments in such a place evokespiritual qualities within ourselves – stillness,expansiveness, peace, wonder – that would otherwiseremain buried or unacknowledged in our everyday lives.This is one reason why the whole notion of pilgrimages(or holidays as we'll call them!) is so importantto so many cultures. For Tibetans, pilgrimage refersto the journey from ignorance to enlightenment, fromself centeredness and materialistic preoccupations toa deep sense of the interconnectedness of all life.It is thought that by travelling to sacred sites, weare brought into living contact with the deities andenergies of the place and we are able to receive theirblessings or offer our thanks. Whatever the reason forembarking on a pilgrimage, when we return to our everydaylives we do so with a greater capacity to see the uniquebeauty in the human landscape, clarity into what isactually important in life, and the ability to remaininspired even when life is not perfect.

Cast your mind back for a moment...remember an experienceof such a place. Remember how you felt while you werethere...and observe now how you feel as you bring thatpicture to mind. It's as if your whole being remembers!The great yogi Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh in the foothillsof the Indian Himalayas reminds us to hold such placesclose to our hearts and, rather than succumb to negativethinking, to remember instead a landscape which inspiresus and brings us peace. Such a landscape is, "themighty Himalayas, the sacred Ganga, a lovely sunset,the infinite blue sky...imagine the whole world andyour body floating like a straw in this vast ocean ofspirit. Feel the life of the whole world pulsating withinyou..."

Once our minds get caught in a cycle of thinking thatdoesn't lead to freedom or resolution, our negativethoughts and emotions increase leading to further unhappiness.Endlessly turning over our problems will never, eversolve our problems! Inspiration comes when we removeour preoccupation with ourselves. Swami Sivananda says,"think instead of the Himalayas".

Himalaya is a Sanskrit word which literally means"Abode of Snow" – a term coined by theancient pilgrims of India. The Himalayan ranges coveran astounding area of 612,021 sq km, passing throughthe Indian States of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh,Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim and the Himalayan kingdoms ofNepal and Bhutan. Beyond the Himalayan range is theTibetan Plateau – the roof of the world –which forms the northern boundary.

People travel from around the world to visit the Himalayasfor many reasons. Being the world's highest mountainchain, it is the "final frontier" for manyclimbers and trekkers who spend tens of thousands ofdollars on a single expedition. The Nepalese Himalayascontain the world's 14 highest peaks including Mt Everestat 8850 metres. The traditional Nepalese name for Everestis Sagarmatha, which means goddess of the sky. It ishere that the earth soars upwards to meet the sky and,according to many Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, is theliteral abode of the gods!

The quaint English-style hill stations dotted throughthe Himalayas offer a retreat from the heat of the Indianplains, and there are the beautiful (but arduous) walksalong pilgrim routes or well trodden trekking circuitsthrough low valleys that abruptly rise up in high mountainranges. One of the highlights of my time in the Himalayaswas a helicopter ride in Sikkim. Seeing the Himalayasfrom the air gives a completely different perspective.On the ground the mountains challenge your strength,determination, your resolve, your very ability to breathe!From the air there is only the closeness and exhilarationof the mountains.

Other attractions are the amazing array of orchidsand rhododendrons of the foothills in spring, and theaustere, but beautifully painted, monasteries perchedon hillsides with shy Buddhist monks who graciouslyshow you around and share their knowledge. Pilgrimagesare also made to the rapidly receding glaciers at thesource of some of the mightiest and holiest rivers inthe world high up in the Himalayas. And, of course,there is Shangri-La, the mythical paradise some peoplebelieve exists deep within the ranges. Whatever thereason, a visit to the Himalayas is likely to changeyou in some way forever.

More than any other landscape on earth, the Himalayasare steeped in mythology and religion with many sitesand features of the landscape revered. Just being inthe mountains awakens your spirit and makes you awareof your soul's yearning for oneness, to merge againwith the supreme and eternal soul of nature.

While I have studied yoga under various teachers andgurus and gained much from my time with them, it ismy experiences in and of nature, particularly the Himalayas,which continue to sustain me on my spiritual journey.All human relationships have the potential to becomeco-dependent which a normal aspect of living amongstpeople, but co-dependence with a spiritual teacher doesnot seem to lead to freedom for either the discipleor the teacher. On the other hand, a relationship withnature leads to autonomy, spiritual expansiveness anda deep connection with both people and place.

Throughout history, many yogis have travelled to theHimalayas and taken up residence in caves or other simpledwellings. The modern yogi Krishnamacharya took manypilgrimages into the Himalayas during his early years.On one of these trips, he decided to find Sri RamamohanBrahmachari, a yoga teacher rumoured to live in themountains. Eventually, Krishnamacharya found Sri Brahmachari'sschool which consisted of a cave at the foot of MountKailash in Tibet. Mount Kailash is the world's mostsacred site, venerated by four religions and billionsof people. It is thought to the eternal abode of LordShiva, yet is seen by no more than a few thousand pilgrimseach year because of the extreme hardship involved ingetting there. Krishnamacharya spent seven years atMount Kailash studying the "Yoga Sutras of Patanjali",learning asanas and pranayama, and studying the therapeuticaspects of yoga. At the end of his studies with SriRamamohan, Krishnamacharya asked what the payment wouldbe – Ramamohan responded that Krishnamacharyawas to "take a wife, raise children and be a teacherof Yoga". Incredibly, much of what Krishnamacharyalearnt at Mt Kailash has informed our understandingand perception of yoga in the Western world! Krishnamacharya'sstudents included BKS Iyengar, Sri K Pattahbi Jois,Indra Devi, TKV Desikachar and AG Mohan who went onto become the most infleuntial yoga teachers of moderntimes.

Of all the yogis of the Himalayas, the most enigmaticis Haidakhan Wale Baba, the avatar made famous in ParamahansaYogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi". Acknowledgedas the eternal manifestation of Shiva in human form,it is believed he neither takes birth nor dies, butrather manifests at different times. His most recentdocumented manifestation was between 1970 to 1984, whenhe appeared in a holy cave at the foot of Kumaon MountKailash in a remote village called Haidakhan. Many peoplefrom all over the world have mystically been drawn toBabaji through extraordinary events, dreams and visions.In the mountains, there have been trekkers who havewandered from the trail, or become lost in a snowstormwho claim a person from nowhere appeared and helpedthem find their way. During a trek through the foothillsof Annapurna in Nepal, I had such an experience. Aswe wavered about which way to take, an Alsatian appearedto us and accompanied us for a day, delivering us safelyto a village before nightfall. On arrival, the Alsatianturned around and disappeared into the forest.

After reading "Autobiography of a Yogi"at a tender age, I held romantic notions of travellingto the Himalayas, effortlessly finding a guru and meditatingin a cave for many years before emerging with mysticalpowers. On my first visits to India I was definitelyseeking something along these lines! A little more realisticnow, I share the Himalayan experience with others, takinggroups of yoga students to the mountains. With an intentionof exploring the inner realms, the mountains are a backdropto our yoga practices yet deeply inform everything wethink, feel and do. Some people, new to yoga, experiencethe freedom and expansiveness of deep meditation forthe first time in the mountains, while others are awedand inspired by their first glimpse of the sun's rayson the mountains as the snowy Himalayan peaks are illuminated,one by one, by pale dawn light. To see the sun riseover the Himalayas is a mystical and transcendentalexperience. It is a vision, an epiphany, an awakening,a glimpse of eternity...

Thousands of Indian pilgrims share this view (at leasttheoretically!) and make the 4am trip to Tiger Hilljust out of Darjeeling for a glimpse of the first rayson Mount Khangchendzonga. Tiger Hill, pre-dawn, is likebeing at a late night dance party with a really badsound system. People huddle around car stereos blaringBollywood hits and drink strong milk tea from littleplastic cups which they gulp down in a single mouthfuland discard with wild abandon while waiting for thefirst light. The few Westerners among the crowd (includingus) are wrapped in beanies, scarves, shawls, blanketsfrom hotel beds, anything to keep warm! Expectationsrun high and the crowd is excited. The light changes,silhouettes briefly emerge as real people until a thickmist closes in, obscuring any potential view of themountains. Tension mounts as the crowd prays for a glimpseat least...and for a brief moment the mist parts andan illuminated peak emerges...the crowd cheers and hugsand cries with relief before rushing to the postcardstand to purchase images of mountains (any mountainrange will do, most of the postcards are from Nepal!).We leave Tiger Hill astounded at the intensity of thepeople and their passion for their beloved Himalayas.It is obvious to us though that to really experiencethe Himalayas it is necessary to leave behind the crowdsand travel deeper into the mountains.

The roads into Sikkim, an autonomous state in the northeast of India, are precarious and dangerous. You lookdown at deep river gorges, the car's wheels literallycentimetres from a fall to certain death. There is nothingyou can do but pray and surrender your fears. At everyhairpin bin on precarious mountain roads there are signsto remind you of what is important in life: "Livefor today, arrive for tomorrow"; "Bridgescross natural barriers", "Nature has everythingto meet man's needs, but not his greed"; "Bein harmony with nature, culture and adventure";"See green, save green" and, more ominously,warnings of potential hazards: "You are approachingslide area"; or even worse, "Sinking areaahead".

There is an abundance of everything in Sikkim. Thelandscape is lush and green, water pours from rock wallscausing landslides and roads to disappear down the sidesof mountains. Road workers in labour camps are keptbusy along the roadsides. They use their bare handsas tools while their dirty, bedraggled babies sit inthe gutter, contentedly playing with stones. Huge cardamomand ginger plants grow wild along the roadside. A villageman handed us samples through the car window and laughedgood naturedly as we innocently tasted them and an explosionof sweet bitterness left us gasping.

Pelling is a tiny village with a panoramic vista ofthe north eastern Himalayas. It is a deeply peacefulplace with only a few hotels and a monastery. A coupleof kilometres out of the village are the Rabdentse Ruins,an archaeological survey site which was once the capitalof Sikkim. Sitting on the crumbling wall of the ancientpalace I feel as if I have returned home. My other lifeback in Australia seems merely a dream. Sitting motionless,with a mind as large and empty as the universe, it seemsas if I projected that other form of myself into being– that form rushing around in the business oflife, raising children, working for a living, sippinglattes in beachside cafes for fun – my only thought:"How can that be real when all I want is to bestill, at peace, here in the mountains?" In a momentlike this, you realise that a journey to the mountainshas really been a journey within, and that whereveryou are this stillness at the centre of your being remains.

Nature constantly presents us with experiences andpictures of profound beauty which instantly reawakenour faith and connection to our world. Moments suchas these restore our enthusiasm for life, inspire usto live better, do more, make the world a better place!It is these moments of inspiration strung together whichgive life its meaning, and it is our perception of thesemoments and our ability to notice beauty in the worldwhich determines our happiness. There are potentiallymany beautiful pictures in life yet, in all our busynessand preoccupations, it is quite likely that we walkright by without even noticing. When we travel for inspirationwe make a point of noticing. The world is an amazingplace, to see what we can of it with our eyes, to experienceit through our own senses, to revere it and respectit, is part of what being a human on Planet Earth isall about.

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