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Published: October 24th 2014
"In this drumbeat moment of red flowers opening and grapes being crushed, the soul and luminous clarity sit together." -Rumi, Medicine out of Pain
I went for a walk today in the rain in Featherston, a rather unremarkable place. The main street is littered with buildings in various degrees of disrepair, the local market dissected down the middle by a long construction scar, lights dangling like loose teeth, and the windows of bars and cafés dark and dusty with disuse. The info center wasn't quite the treasure trove of fun things to do. The old man behind the desk stared at me like I was an idiot for asking questions on a rainy Sunday afternoon, like I should have known better than to get off the train here. After several minutes of gruff mumbling (on his part) and a kill-him-with-kindness smile plastered on my face, we came to the mutual conclusion my best bet was to take to the trails and try catching a glimpse of the distant lake. I grimaced slightly but refused to be deterred by the heavy rain clouds and persistent drizzle that had already soaked my not-so-waterproof Arcteryx.
Hiking in the rain in New Zealand is a lot like volunteering for a teeth cleaning: going through it sucks, you might even draw blood, and you're miserable, with raindrops
running down your cheeks like fluoride foam. But at the end you're rewarded with pearly whites and fantastic views, which no rain clouds can dampen.
My walk was first lined with fenced suburban houses and flowering trees, one of which had bright vivid pink blossoms littering the pavement. I picked up a handful, vibrant despite the drizzle, the petals still in the shape of the flower but nothing in the center. I clasped it and moved on.
At the core, a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place, whether it be somewhere in the world or internal. Chances are the ego is inflated at the beginning, dreams of the outcome rosy and shimmering in hopeful sunshine. You imagine the person you'll be by the end of it, the aura of devotion flowing out of you like spring waters rushing down the mountainside, the sweet taste of victory already on your tongue. Moving forward, however, you begin to understand what it really means to take this on and the filters of light fall away and you not only see the world for what it really is, but you see yourself truly, perhaps for the first time. And that
taste is not as sweet.
Being a pilgrim on a journey is to be willing to humble yourself before the task at hand, to realize that there is nowhere to turn, nothing to help you move forward, except the strength and power within. And sometimes that strength is hidden, the power drained by the world around you or by the past that brought you to this beginning, and the weight against your shoulders of everything that you carry is too much. Stumbling is inevitable and you fall so far that you can't imagine getting up again. The smell and taste of dirt in your mouth is preferable to fresh air because standing up, you know you'll feel the pressure of all your failures again and you think perhaps the journey isn't worth all this.
Pilgrims don't triumph by suffering their burdens and failures until the very end of the road. Because if we arrive at the end with the same baggage we started with, what change occurred? To be a pilgrim on a journey is to gradually separate yourself from that which you hold closest, those habits that drag you down and keep you from moving forward. Bit
by bit you drop them, like shedding a layer of skin and your heart beats imperceptibly easier for it. It's a gradual relief, hindered by new burdens and new shortcomings, but slowly you begin to realize that holding onto them doesn't make you a martyr. It just makes you an idiot.
I hiked that hill in dreary Featherston like it was the foothill to the mountain range of my pilgrimage, dropping a petal as I revealed each destructive habit, the vibrant pink marking my climb like neon lights in the darkness. The rain continued to fall, not ferocious but relentless, like tears from a quiet crying. It pattered on my hood, dripped down in front of my eyes, and made the ground give beneath my heels. The path ascended steeply, the mud slipping beneath my toes, my labored breathing loud in my temples and sweat dripped down my back. The smell of rain and trees was like a moist greenness, almost palatable and through the music of my headphones I could hear the birds singing in the branches. When finally I stood at the summit, a fistful of petals still in hand, I looked out on the rugged hills
and farmlands of inland New Zealand, mountains shrouded in grey mists, the lake a shiny white surface in the distance. Bushes with yellow blossoms covered the hillsides and trees stood stark against the pale sky. Soaked to the bone, cold and weary, I began to understand: there would be no moving forward, not really, until I started letting go.
So I've decided to do a bit of spring cleaning, spruce up the place to make Love fit more comfortably. Don't worry, this blog won't become my confessional and you readers my priest. I just want to change. Because up until this point, it's been a lot of moaning and whining, the lament of my tortured soul. But really, who isn't tortured these days? So it's time to take Rumi's advice again and do some physical work to discover this whole Love mystery thingamajig.
My first pilgrim petal (oh, how cute is that?) is for mental obsession. I've always had a problem with obsession, whether it be over someone else or how my sock drawer was organized. Not having too many socks at the moment, or even a drawer to put them in, unfortunately leaves a lot of room
for the former and I've found myself living my life based on the presence (or absence) of people around me. The fact that I react emotionally to everything and take a slight prick to the skin like a knife to the heart doesn't exactly help either. I couldn't tell you when this dependency set in, when being by myself became harder than finishing a plate of cold, soggy brussel sprouts and I can't explain why their problems become my own, their pain something I feel personally. Empathy has ever been my bane, but now it's gone too far. What does it do for me, this obsession? Why do I hold onto it so tightly, my knuckles white and quivering? Does it really matter to my life, the course of my journey dependent on the outcome? is it a self-created problem in a rather plush life, thought up just so I can feel my presence has meaning? or is it a distraction from what is really going on with me?
My inner voice chuckles sardonically, "Is that really the question? Well, top marks. Your powers of observation are astounding."
If only you could punch your inner voice in the face.
I know, at the most basic level, validation can't be found outside myself. Happiness isn't in the smile I get from someone or the laughter I hear at a joke I told. These things and more are part of Love, but not the part that I should use to sustain my life.
"Sloshing knee-deep in clear streamwater, you keep wanting a drink from other people's waterbags. Water is everywhere around you, but you see only barriers that keep you from water." -Rumi, A Basket of Fresh Bread (2)
It's a scary thought, to depend on others for your own self-worth. I hadn't realized how bad it was till I got here and there was no one around who made me happy. But latching onto a twig in a surging ocean isn't going to keep me from drowning; it just offers false hope, stalling the inevitable outcome for a little bit longer.
So I'm done with these mental obsession shenanigans. I'm cleaning out the rubbish, sweeping up the cobwebs and making space for Love to stretch out in. Rumi tells me to "Beg for the love-expansion" which seems to be what I've been trying to do, albeit with a few setbacks. But a pilgrimage is never a straight road and often you have to tramp through a number of thorn bushes to get through to the other side. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, pry those prickly little buggers out of your feet and keep moving because what you're heading into is far greater than what you're leaving behind and the scars from the journey, like the petals in the rain, mark what you've overcome.
"Learn that your own essence is your wealth." -Rumi, Sheba's Hesitation
I'm not quite sure if it's Rumi's voice I hear or my own internal one, but this time the self-satisfied smile isn't as aggravating.
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