"Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love."
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
The path through the forest was set with raw stones. I was walking barefoot in the manner of pilgrims, and my callouses were thin. I tried to step on the rocks that were smoother than the sharp-pebbled spaces between, though the stones were hot, having baked in the South Indian sun all day. It was like walking a gauntlet and the pain evoked an acute awareness of my feet during the trek through the forest to Ramana's cave on Mount Arunachala.
An opening along the way granted a view of Tiruvanamali below, with its colorful masses of people, cars and motorcycles, and chai wallahs on every block. I could see from far above the city that most traffic was in a perpetual standstill, stopped by decorated cows walking leisurely through the streets munching flower garlands off the front of city buses with passengers waiting patiently. In fact, the whole city and the vast Annamalaiyar Temple with thousands of trippy, perfectly sculpted gods posted on high tower walls, and the Tamil Nadu landscape stretching to the horizon, looked perfectly still, while a cacophony of horns and engines rose from the apparent stillness. The scene embodied the persistent quality of beautiful contradiction that is India.
I was following a path I had already traveled several times in previous days. It led to the cave that Ramana Maharshi, a 20th-century Indian saint, had meditated in for 17 years. Only when insects began devouring his flesh, and his disciples insisted, did he relocate to the ashram several miles down the mountain. Since then, the cave has been a site of pilgrimage. After several visits, I understood why it is considered holy. The cave and surrounding area emanate a palpable, almost electric energy.
Sitting in the darkness of Ramana's cave, I lost track of time. The atmosphere of the place was not only energetic but seemed to impart a tacit teaching about the practice of meditation. I found there that presence in breath became mostly effortless, certainly in comparison with the struggles I encountered on my meditation cushion at home. The teaching was that meditation is in equal measures an effort of concentration and an impartial seeing; genuine striving with no hint of seeking results.
After some hours I left the cave, very clear and high, to see the elongated shadows of dusk in the forest. A group of monkeys sat listlessly on a branch and one seemed to lift its arm and point to a place opposite the trail which led back to the ashram. Following the line of the monkey's crooked finger I saw some words spray painted on a rock—"TO THE TOP." I took the sign as a sign and immediately walked in the direction it indicated. There was an opening in the bushes and I slipped through, following a trail that traversed the mountain and led upward.
Rising only about 2,500 feet, Mount Arunachala is the sacred mountain of South India, like Mount Kailash to the north. There is an ever-present throng of orange-clad, dreadlocked sanyasin, renuncite s who never stay in the same place for more than one night, camped at its base. Pilgrims travel from all over India to ritually circumambulate the mountain. I had done this with my kids the day before at dawn, and now I found myself going toward the peak.
Venturing out on the trail, over boulders and up steep, scrabbly inclines, I emerged from the trees and looked up and down. That was the moment of the first doubt, as I realized that after an hour of walking I was only about a quarter of the way up. I continued, stepping upward with energy waning. My feet were bleeding and I was tired and thirsty. I stood and rested, and passed out for a moment, catching myself on a limb in time to prevent a careen down a steep slope.
Then the real hopelessness set in. I flagellated myself for getting into this predicament—barefoot, dehydrated, and passing out alone on a mountain. It seemed like another example of everything heedless and irresponsible about my life. As I considered giving in to defeat and retreating, I looked to my left and saw a skinny dog sitting on a ledge midway up a cliff face. Hopelessness was briefly replaced with wondering how the dog had gotten there.
At that moment, something awoke in my breast. It was an energy, and a wish to climb. The emptiness I felt seemed to become magnetized with where I was going, the summit. In that moment, the effort changed from forcing my way upward, against the slope and altitude, to being pulled, as it were, toward the object of an aim.
This was the treasure I found, and brought home from Mount Arunachala.