Imagine that we live where it's always cloudy. We never see the sun. And we, of course, take our everyday experience as if it's reality—the only reality. The clouds are perhaps a little claustrophobic in some vague way but they're comfortable and familiar. One day we meet a visitor who tells us that what we're used to isn't the whole story, that there's something else. Curious, we go with him, and he guides us up a mountain. We climb up and up, through the cloud cover. There, at the top, we step into this incredible intense experience of sun and expansive sky. It completely changes our sense of what's possible, what's available to us. We return to our daily lives, but we'll never be the same.
— Bruce Tift in Already Free
Mission District, San Francisco. 6:48pm. 67° F.
It looks like a gorgeous day outside. I throw my phone on the bed, and grab my keys and face mask. “What a world we live in”, I think as I walk down the flight of stairs to the front door. I get a pleasant whiff of smoked charcoal as I step into the city streets. After five minutes of walking, I stop at Precita Park and smile at the scuttling corgis to the right of me.
I’m on somewhat of a mission, if you could call it that. It’s not urgent, but it is important. My mission won’t really impact the world too much, but it will alter my relationship to the world.
I walk another few minutes south on Folsom Street and notice the route snaking into an incline. It’s not a comfortable trek, but I wouldn’t have it any other way — nothing more than a tussle with gravity. I continue upwards and reach the brow of the hill, seeing the Oakland AT-ATs poke out in the distance. There are now many more people circling the base of the next hill — some with friends and dogs, others with dri-fit attire and Apple Watches.
My mission isn’t done yet. I’m only halfway there. I walk along the perimeter of the hill and find a staircase that leads me to the top. After dodging a few more left hooks thrown by gravity, I have finally made it to the peak of the Bernal Heights. The city lights glisten in the horizon as the sun sets.
7:14pm. “Not too bad” I think to myself. The journey took less than half an hour. I sit down and feel a deep sense of warmth and peace envelop me. Good thing — these winds are unforgiving. As the last tendrils of sunlight abandon their posts, I too say goodbye. I walk back to my apartment, satisfied and content to have showed up once again.
I inadvertently discovered meditation when I was 15 years old. The month prior to this discovery was spent in India with an unfortunate case of Typhoid. For weeks, I was useless to the extent that I couldn’t hold down my meals, had no energy, and was a chore to be around. I was angry at the lack of sanitation infrastructure and felt disconnected from my own body.
After some antibiotics, I felt better but I was fired up for a change. I had never felt so helpless in my own skin. That same trip, we visited some Hindu temples. I saw people that dealt with true suffering — people missing limbs and senses… in the grand scheme of things, my weeks of agony couldn’t compare. I was struck by how some of these people continued to lead spiritual lives.
Once I was back in the States, my curiosity urged me to research spirituality (in a roundabout way). How could these people that experience such suffering be able to live with such equanimity? Eventually I landed on meditation which I dove into during the weeks before classes. I tried everything from guided meditation and mantra to subliminal practices and yoga. I had moments when I finally felt true peace.
Right then, I made it my goal to try and be in this state as often and for as long as possible. I made it my goal to be blissed out and unconcerned with the external world permanently — or in a perpetual state of enlightenment. Of course, this turned out to be unrealistic and I would spend years chasing this feeling in vain.
Only after piles of failure did I understand that spirituality wasn’t about leaving the material world for good. Rather, it was understanding that a higher state is always available to you if you need it. You need only climb the hill for a little bit.
The climb up Bernal Heights is a microcosm of this idea. Though I rarely want to actually subject myself to the strenuous climb, it’s always worth it. This is an idea that’s applicable to creative work, difficult conversations, and even writing this piece.
The hard part isn’t actually doing the thing… The hard part is starting. When we’re able to generate the requisite activation energy, the rest flows like honey. No great piece of art was ever made, nor was any peaceful state of mind achieved without the intention to start.
We can always access this state of peace and clarity. It’s always available to us. The hard part is realizing that it’s there, and then not getting too attached when it reveals itself. Use it as a tool, and don’t let it use you. This simple idea paired with the practice of allowing myself to just start and see where the experience takes me has taught me much about Spirituality.
Climb some hills, my friends.
This piece was inspired by some personal experiences as well as external resources. For the latter, I would recommend the following:
- Already Free by Bruce Tift — An insightful attempt to bridge the gap between western ideas of self-improvement and eastern ideas of self-acceptance through the lens of the author’s psychiatry practice and Buddhist teachings.
- Waking Up by Sam Harris — The tagline is “A Guide to Spirituality without Religion” which is quite accurate.
- The Mountain and the Meaning of Life by Maria Popova — An exploration of the transcendent metaphor found within The Mountain.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback 💭