There’s a mountain in India called Arunachala. It’s more than a mountain. It’s a spiritual sanctuary. A guru. People have been making pilgrimages there and walking away enlightened for a century or more.
I visited Arunachala 8 years ago on new year’s day. I was recovering from glandular fever and chronic fatigue and didn’t really trust my body to do much of anything at the time. I had very little faith in my ability to make it up the mountain. So humbled had I been by my illness, it didn’t even occur to me that I might be able to make it to the top.
I was on a pilgrimage with a group of people and en route to the mountain I decided that I wouldn’t even try to climb to the peak. ‘I’ll just climb to the first landing area and rest there,’ I told myself.
That’s how I got started. With low expectations and a small target.
When I got to that first landing I checked in and I felt ok. In fact, I felt good. ‘I’ll just climb to the next landing then,’ I told myself.
I didn’t even contemplate the upper levels. I simply didn’t think that was something I could do. ‘I’ll let others do that,’ I thought. ‘Those who haven’t been through what I’ve been through in the last year.’
So, slowly but surely I ascended to the next level, with a clear intention to stop there.
When I got there I saw a friend. We sat for a while chatting and then she said, ‘I’m heading to the next level. Want to join me?’
‘Yes,’ I heard myself saying before the one who didn’t even believe in my capacity to walk more than 100 metres jumped in to stop me.
And so we ascended further up the mountain.
Throughout the climb, my inner dialogue went something like this; ‘I’ll stop at the next level. There’s no need to push it. This isn’t about proving anything to anyone. Least of all yourself. If you learned anything in the last year it’s that pushing is a mistake.’ And so the part of me that no longer believed in my capacity to do much of anything at all, was placated by the thought that she wouldn’t be asked to stretch. To do something she was certain was beyond her.
There was another voice too. A quieter, more confident voice which said; ‘Let go of the past and your story of what’s possible. Keep climbing. This is important. Don’t underestimate yourself.’
And so when my friend peeled off, I kept climbing alone.
Eventually I came across another climber. She was clinging to the side of a rock petrified to go forward and petrified to go back; the consequence of a long held terror of heights. One she’d had since childhood.
I sat with her for a while and asked if I might help. I ran her through a technique I’d been trained in for overcoming phobias. She was willing to receive the support.
When it was complete, I encouraged her to stand. She did.
She stood, she smiled and she started walking. Forwards. Upwards. So confidently and calmly that I didn’t see her for the rest of the climb. My ponderous journey couldn’t keep pace with her new found enthusiasm and so I was left in her wake. (I later learned that she climbed to the top of the mountain that day and was so thrilled with getting to the top that she returned the next day to climb it again.)
Arunachala was teaching us all that day.
When I reached the next landing area, it was really high and the steepest part of the climb was yet to come. Lots of people peeled off at this stage. Many declared that they had gotten what they set out to experience and were happy to start their descent.
Everyone’s lessons are different at Arunachala.
On this landing space was an area of small rock pools. One of the locals we’d walked with for some of the climb (a young man who practically skipped up the mountain) spoke to us about the pools being the bathing places of the Goddesses. He showed us how to pray to them in a way that would invite their abundant blessings to shower down upon us. We did as we were shown. Then he mentioned that we shouldn’t stay long for it was coming close to their bathing time and the local community frowned upon people being in the area at that time.
I’d been in the company of another dear friend during our impromptu Goddess blessing ceremony. At that point he turned to me and asked very simply, ‘Want to climb with me to the top?’
Throughout the ascent I must have reassured my brain at least 1000 times that I definitely wasn’t going to climb to the top. I was a broken record; ‘It’s too steep. It’s well beyond the capacity of my body at the moment. It’s fine for others. They’re not recovering from months lying flat on their backs in bed.’
And yet, something in the invitation told me that if I said yes, everything would be ok. I would be ok and that actually, I could do this.
‘Ok. Let’s do it.’ I responded.
I remember that last part of climb being tough. It was steep and there were times when it was less about walking and more about clambouring up rock faces.
Arunachala is said to be the expression of the Hindu God Shiva. If the head of the river Ganga represents his locks of hair, Arunachala signifies his feet.
And so we chanted to Shiva to give us the strength to climb the mountain.
‘Om Namaha Shivaya, Om Namaha Shivaya’ we chanted as the climb grew progressively more challenging.
With every chant I felt myself growing physically stronger. With every chant I felt my body detoxing all those years of push and stress. I felt the inner workings of my body reconfiguring itself as years of old consciousness left the body.
About half way through that final ascent I suddenly realised what was happening. I suddenly knew I was going to make it. That I was actually going to ascend the mountain peak.
There were only four of us at this point. We were tripping over rocks, red as beetroots, sweaty and smelly and still we climbed and chanted.
And all the while the power of the mountain called us forth. Infused us. Taught us of our own capacity for more. For greatness. Reminded us of a strength beyond the mind’s imaginings. Of the transformative power that comes not with pushing but with allowing. With saying yes, rather than pushing against.
She reminded us that we don’t always need to know what final destination is or even believe in our capacity to get there, in order to realise our greatest potential.
She reminded us that help will always be available if we’re open to it.
She reminded us that all that’s really required in life is to keep saying yes to the open palm that’s continually inviting us forward.
She taught me that when you say yes to life, at the most challenging and difficult points, life will carry you. It will raise you up. It will fill you with a strength far beyond what you knew was possible and before you know it, you will find yourself standing on Shiva’s feet on the top of the most holy mountain in India.
Guru Om Arunachala.