It's day four of a six-day Alpine trek called Tour du Mont Blanc that traverses through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. Every muscle and joint in my body hurts and I am sure I have discovered new muscle groups that didn't exist before we started. The first three days were masked by thick fog, cold rain, treacherous terrain, chilly winds, snow storms and a glimpse of the sun teasing us to keep moving. Clouds and rain had won the battle until now when a bright blue sky spotted with fluffy white clouds and warm sunlight finally blessed us. We started the climb towards the third Alpine pass that would take us from Italy to Switzerland literally in one step. The air was fresh and crisp and everything around us was full of life. The natural beauty in every direction was awe inspiring. Then, in a moment, I was overcome by intense emotion as the hymn playing on my iPhone stirred something deep inside.
I stepped back from the rest of the group as personal reflections of my past brought back many memories, some good and some bad. Tears welled up as I grieved some of the losses and expressed my gratitude to the Creator for giving me this day to witness the splendor, the awe, and the beauty of nature that He had created. I sent silent apologies and words of love to those who had touched my heart and blessed my life. I began to realize the similarity of this hike with many aspects of our life and the way we conduct ourselves in different situations. Metaphors to express these feelings were everywhere. They were extremely inspirational and deeply humbling at the same time.
The intense fog that had enveloped us during the first couple of days had created conditions of extremely low visibility at times. One wrong step and you could lose your way in this treacherous terrain or, worse still, fall into the deep abyss without any hope of a rescue. Staying close with the group of fellow trekkers was important for safety and survival. This was not the time for bravado or asserting your will. Listening to the guide's instructions meant the difference between life and death. Similarly, life's events sometimes drown us in the fog of confusion, sorrow, pain, addictions, guilt, shame and self-pity. We become paralyzed by fear of the unknown. We lose our way and move towards self-destruction and, in the process, cause harm or pain to others. We lose faith and belief in our inner guide who can lead us out of harm's way. At times, the fog of ego can make us feel invincible. Our misguided attitude can create much chaos in our lives and that of others because we fail to listen to the voice of reason of our guide, the Creator.
Once the fog clears, we are able to see clearly again as amazing vistas of life await us to fill our lives with unbridled joy. We simply have to be patient and have faith in our inner voice to keep us away from the perilous path. Sometimes, we have to shift our way of thinking and how we are going about our life. Instead of walking, perhaps we need to run; instead of depending on someone to give us a lift, perhaps, we need to pedal hard and reach the summit ourselves. The prize, as many who have successfully navigated this shift already know, is beyond our imagination when the test of our endurance is finally rewarded.
Along the trek, we came across several fallen trees in the dense forest. Alongside their lifeless trunks were colorful wildflowers, grass and small bushes that flourished and danced joyously with the wind. High velocity winds and avalanches, common in this terrain, can uproot trees that resist their brute force but are unable to harm the grass and flowering bushes which bend and yield to allow the storms to pass. Life also is marked by painful avalanches and tearful storms. Some, falsely believing that they have stature and deep roots, try to resist and fight the brute force of life and eventually succumb to it physically, materially, and emotionally. Ego becomes their worst enemy. Others, through humility, adapt and understand the wisdom in the words of the Persian Sufis that this too shall pass. Their lives are filled with an unending joyful dance.
When it rained hard, the terrain was especially slippery and dangerous. Many of us lost our foothold and narrowly escaped falls and serious injury. What caught me by surprise that the same roots of trees that provided reliable support and natural steps in an uneven path, turned dangerously slippery and unreliable. They were good only in fair weather. And yet, some of the firmest support during bad weather conditions was offered by the most humble grassy patches of land. They got crushed under our feet and still continued to offer us a dependable foothold. We have all come across fair weather friends in life that seem to be like the strong roots that can offer support to the tallest of trees. And yet, they fail us during bad times. The humble and the weak, at least on external appearances, turn out to be the true friends who give us support during the worst of times. Test of good friends, like they say, is during bad times. The power of humility was all around us even in the dizzying stature of the Alps.
Alps have an unparalleled enormity to them, similar to some of our life's challenges. When I viewed the mountain passes at 7500 feet from the valley, the task seemed daunting and almost impossible, especially if I was exhausted by the previous day's hike or simply uninspired. Similarly in life, we are sometimes faced with difficult circumstances that seem to sap all our inspiration and desire to fight. We are even more paralyzed by them if we have been facing a string of other past challenges. Some of us are so exhausted by our pessimistic internal dialogue that we simply want to give up and retreat. We even forget to appreciate the beauty of the valley in which we are standing.
Others among us continue to fight until we reach the summit to enjoy enviable views from the mountaintop. It's from this dizzying height we realize that the views of the valley below are just as beautiful as the ones of the mountain ranges that stretch as far as the eyes can see. And what if we simply cannot climb the mountain despite our genuine desire to do so? What if life has made us disabled, mentally or physically, that we just can't do it? If we ask those who do reach the summit, some may remark that the views from the valley were just as amazing and awe-inspiring as those from the top of the mountain. We simply need to appreciate the present moment that's in front of us because valleys are no different than the peaks of imposing mountains. In fact, mountain tops can be severely harsh and barren while valleys harbor warmth and an easier path to go through life. Valleys of life, including deep sorrow, can be our best friends because that's where life flourishes. Even stubborn glaciers, when they melt, sing and dance joyfully on their journey from the mountaintop into the valleys below
One of the most memorable and soulful part of this trek was when we witnessed tens of cows and sheep grazing peacefully in the mountains while bells tied to their necks filled the valleys with mystical music. It was purely magical. It reminded me of the sound of temple bells in India that devotees ring to announce their arrival to the Gods and Goddesses. I remember jumping high as a child to ring the temple bell. If I couldn't, my father would raise me off the ground so I could. What I recall most clearly is the simplicity of life devoid of cell phones, emails, social media, fancy cars, high fashion or a race to beat your next door neighbor in the race for material richness. Cows and sheep possess nothing but give everything - their milk, their coat of fur, and even their meat to feed us and to keep us warm. They desire nothing in return.
Trees, flowers, and butterflies that we encountered have the same divine nature. Trees give us their shade, their fruit, and even their timber; flowers spread their fragrance selflessly; and butterflies create so much beauty without as much as making a sound. The elegance of a simple, humble life can create so much amazing music that it can fill even the vast valleys of life, especially when we are surrounded by imposing mountains of ego.
I will never forget the reflections on the fourth day of Tour du Mont Blanc which gave me so much clarity about life and how to live it more fully...with humility, gratitude, and selfless love.
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