I step into the rock circle and look down the canyon into the valley below. I’m on a small platform that is the only place on this steep mountainside level enough for me to arrange my stones in the formation I was told to construct. This will be my “Purpose Circle,” and its purpose is ceremony. I am on a vision quest. It is the second day of my solo in the wilderness; the third day of my four-day fast. Ceremony is what we do here. Ritual is more or less a part of everything.
I am in the desert, and it is a fierce environment; a stark landscape that is beautiful in its barrenness, where plants and animals cling to life as they wait for the next rain to fall on the sand and the stones. Yet it does rain. At least in January it does. And it’s colorful, not painted only in tones of brown. The stones lying about are so varied in shade and pattern that I could be walking through a child’s box of marbles rather than the high desert of Southern California. In this, the wet season, the desert springs to life and blossoms like an English garden. I couldn’t be surrounded by more colors if I were dropped into the inner workings of a giant kaleidoscope.
I mark the four cardiac directions on the circle with rocks of colors that seem appropriate and begin my ceremony by facing North, behind the black stone. North, whose symbolic time of day is midnight and whose season is winter. Then I turn to the East and the white stone. East is the sunrise, the dawn, and spring. Then South, towards the yellow stone, midday and high summer. Finally, another quarter turn to the West and the red stone. With each turn I attempt to embody the unique energy that emanates from the direction I am facing.
The guides teach us how to practice full-bodied sensing, so I close my eyes and begin. I start by mindfully listening to the wind and the cry of a raven passing overhead. I focus on the sense of touch and feel the breeze on my face; the soles of my feet pushing down into the sandy earth. I turn my awareness to the smell of sage and the subtle, mineral aftertaste of the water I drank before I started this ritual.
The guides suggest we do this exercise without our clothes, so I take mine off before I begin, save my stocking cap and prayer beads. I am as alone as I could ever be and have come a long way, so I don’t see any reason to hold back now.
Humans are naturally visual creatures, so our sense of sight tends to overwhelm the other senses. This is why I take my time to open my eyes. When I do, I again look down-canyon and see that the clouds have parted and a rainbow has appeared, spanning the entire valley, one side planted squarely on base camp where I set off for my solo time.
The desert is not all brown and neither is it as dry as I thought a desert was supposed to be. It has rained nearly every day, sometimes all day. The storm last night was epic, conjuring images of a scene from one of those Ring Cycle operas. I should have been wearing a fur cape and donning a helmet with horns sticking out of the top, sword at my side. Instead, I was holding onto the walls of my tent for dear life, hoping they wouldn’t collapse around me. The winds were fierce and chaotic, barreling in with a vengeance from all directions. I would hear a roar in the distance —like a train was pulling in from the lower canyon—and know need to prepare for the onslaught. It seemed like the gusts couldn’t make up their minds, raging full force one moment and then, within seconds, gone completely, leaving it as calm as midnight on Christmas Eve. It was like I was standing in an artificial wind tunnel while an 8-year-old boy was working the on/off switch.
It was cold and it was raining. The night was long and harrowing. My little tent performed well, but struggled against the force of the wind. From the inside I pushed out with my arms and feet to provide counter pressure. Several anchor ropes to the rain-fly broke and had to be repaired. I didn’t want to venture outside into the storm, but neither did I want the tent, with me in it, to get blown halfway back to base camp.
I’m here with thirteen other people from all over the country who also decided to do a vision quest, and four guides are teaching us how to do it. We have taken soul names, and we use them when we talk to each other. By now, we hardly remember each other’s actual names in the “outer world,” and today I’m nearly to the point where I don’t remember my own. Nor do we know what the the others do for a living back in “the village.” We have gotten to know each other on the deepest level, and those things don’t matter here.
The clouds lift and the sun crests the mountain ridge. The floor of the distant valley is aglow as I watch the rainbow shimmering in the morning light. I wonder if the others see it from their solo spots scattered throughout the countryside. It would be cool if they did. After the night I have had, the rainbow seems like a gift, or a good omen, or a reward for having survived. I make it a part of my ceremony, which it already is, because everything in my life can be considered ceremony if it helps me participate in the great call-and-response between me and the world. This is how we’ve been taught to look at it.
One of our guides told us about when he traveled to the Andes in Peru with a friend of his who is a shaman. The shaman’s people are from the high elevations. They live in the mountains and with the mountains, and they have a relationship with them that is the same as with a person. They interact with the mountains as fully sentient beings, since that is what they believe they are. The people believe that the mountains are alive and need to be nourished by the creatures that live on, or around, their slopes. What feeds the mountains is the relationship, expressed by the people through ritual and ceremony, which are performed even when it is so cold that anything that should be liquid is frozen solid. Our guide told us that these people of the Andes think our mountains in North America have gone to sleep, but if we strengthen our relationship with them and treat them as friends instead of objects, we can wake them up again.
In the far reaches of Tibet, there is a mountain that is wide awake. It’s not one of the highest mountains in the Himalayas, but Mount Kailash, with its dramatic face of black stone and perpetual snow -capped summit of 22,000 feet, commands attention as it rises out of the vast Tibetan plateau. It has the distinction of being both one of the world’s most venerated holy places and yet the least visited. Because of its remote location, Kailash, the supremely sacred site for billions of people, is seen by no more than a few thousand pilgrims each year. No planes, trains, or buses journey anywhere near the region; and the weather is always cold. Too holy for trespass, it has never been climbed. The first pilgrimage to Kailash is lost in antiquity, but four religions—Hindu, Buddhist, Bön, and Jain—see it as the epicenter of the spiritual world, each describing it as a home for gods, a place for enlightenment, or a source of power.
Getting there is an ordeal, but it’s not the trip to the mountain that’s most important. Pilgrims to Mount Kailash dedicate themselves to walking a 33-mile circuit around it. Buddhists believe that a single circambulation (kora, in Tibetan) washes away sins and that 108 circuits assure enlightenment. Most pilgrims take three days to make the circuit, with the second day being the most difficult: a 13-mile trek that crosses the 18,515ft Drolma La Pass, where tradition holds that one should deposit an item as an offering and take another. But the goal of this, and any, pilgrimage is not so much to reach a particular destination as to awaken within oneself the qualities and energies of the sacred site, which ultimately lie within our own minds.
My wife Caroline and I are on our way to Mount Kailash. After a few days in Nepal, we will fly to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city, then drive four days overland to reach the trailhead. The time spent at gradually increasing elevations will help us acclimatize to the altitudes. We have never been as high as 18,500 and expect our bodies to feel the effects.
Mt Kailash is a place I heard about on walks through the streets of Kathmandu. I’ve long been intrigued with the possibility of going there but was never sure how or when I would be able to; it might be the center of the universe, but it’s not the crossroads to anywhere. I didn’t know if I would ever get there but, but for several reasons, this is my year to go. I consider my vision quest in January to be the beginning of my journey to Mt Kailash.
I ask Caroline if she wants to go along. Not to accompany me, but only if she has reasons of her own. She does; so she is going. She’s not one to turn down a chance to visit a “sacred mountain.” When I was on the vision quest I told the others that Caroline would have liked parts of what we were doing, but only parts. The part about camping in the cold and wet —not so much. On the other hand, she has climbed to the summit of the Grand Teton and spent a month of yoga teacher training in the steamy jungles of Bali. When it comes to Mt Kailash, the “cosmic pillar that upholds the vault of heaven,” who of us can refuse the call?