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Annapurna Circuit Breaker

SPIRITUALITY

Important Life Lessons Learnt On My Himalayan Adventure

 

In 2010 I fulfilled a lifelong dream to trek the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, not just physically, but emotionally. I was pretty fit back then; I could run a gentle 5km easily, but I’d never trekked before and I had no idea about things like altitude sickness. Four days before arriving in Nepal, I ended a long-term relationship abruptly when I finally discovered how dishonest my ex-boyfriend was. I had suspected it for a long time, and our relationship had become an increasing source of pain. We were supposed to do the trek together, but instead I arrived in Kathmandu alone, raw and deeply sad. 

Back then the Annapurna Circuit was a 21 day trek starting and finishing just outside Pokhara. It was December, which was low season, so there were no groups I could join for the trek. There were also no guarantees that the trail would even be passable, because it was often shut due to snow at that time of year. At an altitude of 5416 meters, Thorung La Pass is the highest point of the trail and we were supposed to reach it on around the fifteenth day of my trek. I didn’t want to go all the way, only to have to turn back because of too much snow.

The trekking agency told me there were no mobile phones or people they could call to check the conditions. I asked many times like a pedantic tourist, but they pointed out that even if they could ask someone, they couldn’t tell me what the weather was going to be in 15 days time; they had a point. 

I had come all this way, and wasn’t going to be put off.  So I hired Laxmi, a female trekking guide, and went on my own with her. She spoke no English, which was frankly a bit of a relief because I was not in a state of mind to want to talk to anyone. But she managed to ask me once why I looked so sad all the time. How could I explain; I couldn’t. 

We started the trek slowly…frustratingly slowly. I was so used to just powering on and charging towards situations in life, so I couldn’t see why we only walked for three or four hours a day when I was sure I could manage much more. But I reluctantly trusted her. Each day I plodded on and lost myself in every step. I had no choice; you must pay close attention because the terrain is wobbly, uneven, sometimes slippery, sometimes steep, always ever changing and sometimes quite dangerous. The farther we got into the trek, the more difficult it became. The higher we got, the greater the risk of altitude sickness became. At one point quite far in, we met a group of trekkers who looked terribly ill and were having to turn back. I wondered if I would make it, or have to turn back too. Apart from them, we barely saw other trekkers on the entire trail. It was so quiet.

I had never felt so surrendered to a situation or to the moment as I did during that trek. I had no idea if I had the fitness to make it, whether the weather would hold out for us, or whether anything else unforeseen might happen, such as when a stray dog bit Laxmi – we pressed on because it was quicker to get over the pass to a hospital than to turn back. Every day I followed Laxmi’s advice to go slow, to rest when she said, and to drink lots of water. 

There was no escape from the moment or my feelings, because there were no distractions. No smartphones, no wifi, no podcasts, no TVs, no bars, no other tourists or indeed anyone to talk to. I carried a kindle to read at night and my camera, but that was it. In the afternoons I wandered around the village in which we were staying that night. Sometimes there were only a couple of buildings, but all around us were the mountains and nature. So I sat in the sun, feeling both warmth and the sadness which followed me pretty much all of the time. But there would be moments when all I was aware of was a blissful, yet ordinary, stillness within me.

The day we made it to the pass was the most physically painful day of my life. We left before dawn, and it was below freezing when we left. My water froze immediately upon departing, and I could only walk one step at a time for the first few hours. I had no idea how we were going to get anywhere given my state. My chest was so tight and my legs didn’t want to move. It was so hard and so cold. I couldn’t understand how my body refused to operate the way I wanted it to. I swore a lot in the cold wind; I’ve never been in such a foul mood as I was that morning. I had insisted on carrying my own pack the whole way on the trek, but Laxmi insisted it would be better she carry both hers and mine for this one day at least. We needed to keep a certain pace to ensure we made it safely to the next village on the other side before sunset, or risk freezing to death. So I agreed; my ego wasn’t going to fight that one. 

When we eventually made it to Thorung La Pass some hours later, I cannot tell you the feeling of elation I had. Suddenly all the burden of emotion and thoughts and physical effort lifted and I felt so empowered. I realised I was so much stronger than I had ever thought, I had no idea that I could endure real pain and discomfort for days on end to get safely to the other side. I realised that I didn’t need anyone else to feel happy or empowered or to accomplish something special, it had been within me all along. I felt like a flower that had finally blossomed and realised its own magnificence for the first time. It was a truly beautiful feeling.

The aches and pain I felt on the rest of the walk back to Pokhara were so satisfying. My buttock muscles were almost numb from the steep walk down the mountain on the other side and I could barely move my legs, but it was a reminder of what I had just accomplished. I wanted to feel the aches for a while, I didn’t want to forget what an important experience it had all been. The trip became one of the most memorable, significant and enjoyable trips of my life, even still to this day.

There are so many lessons I can extract from my adventure, but there were six key ones that I continue to value:

(1) Enduring hardships can be fulfilling, empowering and an opportunity to get to know ourselves better.

It was interesting how almost immediately after reaching my goal, (Thorung La Pass), when feeling something other than the pain I had just endured, I was already feeling nostalgic and grateful for it. I felt empowered exactly BECAUSE I had endured the challenges and pain. I could not have experienced it any other way. I gained courage, confidence, a sense of optimism and became incredibly fit during the course of the trek. I didn’t realise beforehand that I had it within me. I came down from the mountains a better and stronger person, filled with a vision of new possibilities.

(2) Being so deeply present throughout my trip was a source of healing

I didn’t quite understand how back then, but I felt like I was processing pain with every step. I have since come to understand that it was because I was so fully present in each moment. When feelings came, I could not fight them or distract myself from them because I had to remain aware of where I was placing my feet or where I was standing. By being so deeply in the moment, I was allowing the feelings to surface and to process on their own. I did not have to do anything with them but let them be. In the afternoons, when we finished trekking for the day, I would sit outside with the mountains all around and feel comforted by the landscape. It was a reminder that life goes on, even in such arid, extreme climates way up high. It’s not that the sadness and hurt was entirely gone at the end, but the most difficult bit was gone; the shock, trauma, disbelief, confusion, anger, blame, shame and hurt of my relationship breakup. The sadness took longer, but I was able to start a new chapter of my life with genuine enthusiasm and not feel enslaved by pain. 

(3) The defining factor in adversity is our attitude towards it. 

In terms of my breakup, I could have dwelled on all the wrongs done to me, I could have played the blame game, sought revenge or some other kind of drama. But as much as it hurt, I just wanted to learn from the experience and move on with my life. I had spent five years in that relationship, and despite some good times it was full of unhealthy patterns. As much as I had tried over the years, it was clear that I could not fix or change them,  – or my ex-boyfriend. I was tired of it all and wanted to let go. I remembered a prayer I had learnt growing up: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Don’t get me wrong, it was hard and my mind sometimes tried to pull me into emotional drama, but I chose to rise above it.

In terms of the trek, when I found it physically challenging and it prompted me to swear and get frustrated, I knew it wasn’t helping my situation. Which brings me nicely to the next point. 

(4) Sometimes it is best to accept help and advice from those who have experience and training.

I knew Laxmi was extremely experienced and had probably put up with stubborn, smart-arse tourists like me before. I’ve always prided myself on being a strong, independent woman, and for so much of my life refused to accept help from people. As I’ve become older, experiences such as this trek have taught me that it’s often best to defer to others for help and advice, and save yourself lots of sorrow. I sometimes got impatient with Laxmi through no fault of hers. Sometimes I refused her help because I had something to prove to myself. But I knew she’d done the trek hundreds of times before and knew the mountains, the conditions and my capability better than me. As much as it might have been hard to admit at times, I needed to follow her advice and judgement for my own safety. It was a wonderful lesson in humility. Thanks to her I had both a safe and enjoyable journey.

(5) Nature can play an important role in helping us feel in the moment and connected to something greater than us.

And I don’t mean greater as in “better than” us, but something bigger of which we are also a part. Back then I could not put it into words, I just understood that nature is so important to our wellbeing; that we are intricately connected, and that I felt good being in nature. Ten years later, having finally read Eckhart Tolle’s books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth”, I can see that what he talks about in terms of being present is what I feel in nature. I believe it is also what we all seek when we travel, and go on adventures like this. It’s that feeling of awareness and alertness, as though you are seeing things for the first time. Why do you think we love watching sunsets? When was the last time you just sat and watched something in nature? Like the birds flying this way and that way, or the leaves blowing in the breeze, or the way each wave on the shore is not quite the same. It’s as simple as losing yourself in a moment like that.

(6) Our experiences are dependent on our inner as well as outer circumstances

Have you ever had an amazing trip or holiday and said “oh yes, we must go back there again, we had the most amazing experience” and then returned and been disappointed? Well, chances are it’s because you and other circumstances changed in the meantime. It has nothing to do with the place.

My experiences had nothing to do with the Annapurna Circuit at all really, I haven’t gone back yet and I may never do, because I know it will never be the same twice – I have changed so much in the interim, but I also could not have predicted or controlled my own personal circumstances or the conditions of the trail that came together in such a way to give me those experiences.

My lessons were about facing whatever challenges and hardships come our way. I have had many other challenges in my life since 2010 and they have all taught me different things about myself. Now in 2020, in the face of covid-19, it feels like yet another opportunity for self-exploration and understanding; one that could potentially transform not only our own lives individually, but the world around us as a consequence.

No matter what is happening in our world right now, we can and will endure it – in fact, we will inevitably become stronger because of it. You don’t have to like what is happening. Nobody likes it. I don’t like it. But I accept it. 

One day, perhaps we will also be able to look back at all the valuable lessons and insights we gained about ourselves, our values and the world we live in. Perhaps we will be able to look back and identify this as a time when we made significant changes for the better, so that we can grow and evolve both as individuals and a society. And just perhaps, we will be able to look back with a sense of understanding and appreciation for certain things. Who knows. Just remember you have made it through hardships before and you will do again.

For now, let’s just take it one day at a time, one step at a time, one breath at time. We will get through this somehow, even if it’s hard to see now and even if we have no idea what lies on the other side.

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