Anne Cushman discovers that the ultimate destination is an inner one.
As a guidebook writer, my job was to pillage a place of its secrets. I’d arrive armed with notebook and pocket tape recorder, determined to ferret out hidden spiritual treasures. But magic, I learned, takes time to reveal itself; and places, like people, resent being used. Approached too aggressively, a new town became dense, impenetrable; it clenched and resisted my entry, like a body pushed too far, too fast into a yoga pose. It needed to be seduced slowly and gently, with the sense of infinite time to spend on the encounter; only then would it open and welcome a visitor in.
Again and again, I had to learn to receive a place rather than assault it—to slow down enough to follow subtle signs and chance encounters. When I actually managed to do it, a place would begin to reveal itself, like a Polaroid developing in my hand—unveiling its hidden beauties, its quirky charms, its sad and triumphant stories, more enthralling than anything a guidebook could possibly have promised.
That anonymous coconut vendor on the corner in Tiruvannamalai, who lopped off the tops of green coconuts, balanced in her palm, with a few deft chops of her machete, and handed them to me with a plastic straw—when I got to know her, she turned into Jyoti, whose husband drank and whose milk cow had died the year before with a cancerous lump in its groin. She was saving her coconut money to pay school bills for her thirteen-year-old son, who dreamed of being a computer programmer.
The Tibetan nun who poured me butter tea at the Dolma Ling nunnery had walked through the mountains from Tibet to India just three years ago; under her robes, she still had the scars from torture with a cattle prod in a Chinese prison. As she handed me the tea, her face lit up with a smile of pure delight, as if I were a friend she’d been waiting to see for months.
And the dirt path out behind my hotel in Dharamsala that looked like it led to an outhouse—I followed it round a corner, and into a forest of pine trees and rhododendron, bursting with crimson, improbably large blossoms. I wound my way up and up, over granite and pine needles, calves aching, lungs burning, chasing the clean, fresh smell of snow. The song of running water led me into a shadowed valley, over mossy tree roots, through a tangle of brittle bracken, till I scrambled over smooth granite boulders and sat in the spray of a hundred-foot waterfall that crashed into a gray-green creek. I lay on my back and stared up at the jagged line where mountains meet sky, and I thought of the question that had obsessed me that morning: “Where should I go next?” And I started to laugh as the waterfall answered: “It doesn’t matter. You’re already here.”
Anne Cushman is a contributing editor to Yoga Journal and the co-author of From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India (Riverhead Books, 1998). A version of this essay originally appeared on Beliefnet.com.
Image 1: © John Lindell
Image 2: © Russell Illig/Photodisc