“Anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re traveling in order to be moved. And really what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you’re sleepwalking through your daily life.” — Pico Iyer
Why are you here? He asked the question on our first day. I felt the familiar anxiety rise up in me as I thought about having to speak, the fear rushing in like an old friend I had long outgrown. My heart pounded with a heaviness that I knew wasn’t me. Later in my room, I took out my journal.
Why am I here?
I came to India… to find… god…?
I hesitated, a little surprised that I had actually written it down. I felt like a cliché as I looked at my words, the cynic inside ready to roll her eyes and offer ridicule, but I continued anyway. I feel disconnected inside. Disconnected to others. Disconnected to the divine, myself, god — everything. The language didn’t quite work for me, and I couldn’t bring myself to capitalize “God.” It made me think of the bearded figure in the sky from childhood, who was far away, foreign, and outside of myself. I resonated with something more intimate.
I had strayed from religion early in life, but remained drawn to the deeper questions of meaning, purpose, and existence. Despite appearances, however, I felt that my sense of spirituality was superficial, vague, and clouded by judgment. I had been practicing yoga for years and spent countless hours in mindfulness workshops and spiritual retreats near and far. I had camped under the stars of the New Mexico desert for nine days with 2,000 yogis. I had taken an advanced course on the mind and meditation and spent several years teaching yoga — I even had an altar in my bedroom, for crying out loud. In occasional moments of inspiration, I would sit in front of it, trying to meditate and find meaning in ritual and stillness. Instead, I felt like a lost, confused imposter, especially when I tried to pray or speak to god. I often found myself giving the side eye to my spiritual peers, feeling like they all had access to something I did not (or they were faking it, my judgmental self reassured me). With some indignation, my ego continued to ask, What does it even mean when they talk about connecting to your higher self?! I overthought and judged everything, meagerly grasping at things that I barely understood.
My insecurities and feelings of disconnect were at the root of why I had stopped teaching yoga, and why my altar sat in my bedroom mostly collecting dust. But I hadn’t given up the search. I had been on a few retreats abroad and an extended trip for work, and found that traveling in a more intentional way had become a deep source of self-exploration for me. I remember feeling absolutely terrified on the plane during one of my first trips alone, panicking and shamefully wishing that I could turn around and just stay home, safe in the comfort of my routine. Yet as I continued to step out of that comfort, I started experiencing nudges of transformation. I found a quiet strength blooming within that grew with each new experience. I began making conscious decisions in order to support this passion, as travel undoubtedly requires money and time. When I received a serendipitous invitation to a spiritual retreat in India, I said yes in a sharp instant, without my usual tendency to overthink it.
So now what? I thought. Why am I here?
I put the pen down and thought harder. I am not living fully. I want to feel light. My heart is too heavy. I want to radiate and shine, and wake up and show up. Really show up. It was an old story. I felt like I had spent most of my life in fear, trying to hide in the background, hesitant to raise my hand and share my voice and get on the dance floor. Yet I was constantly finding myself in situations where hiding was not an option. I was drawn to adventure and exuberance. I thrived on finding joy and deeply connecting with others. In my professional life, I even found that I enjoyed public speaking and teaching. Despite these inclinations, I did everything I could to stay in the shadows. I was quiet, reserved, and scared of everything — especially people.
When I was a little kid, I had a bladder problem. Or, that’s what we thought it was. I kept peeing my pants at school, and my parents were at their wit’s end trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I have vivid, painful memories of seeing specialists during this time and being probed and examined for a variety of things. In the end, they found nothing. I remember going to school one day with a doctor’s note for my teacher. It said that I should be allowed to go to the bathroom whenever I please, without having to ask for permission. That note fixed everything. The actual problem? It was that I was too scared to speak up in class, to even ask the teacher to use the bathroom — such a basic, human need. I was too young to grasp the implications of this at the time, but I still remember the sick feeling in my chest when I gave the teacher that note, and saw her face as she read it. It became one of my most shameful memories. Deep down, I probably knew what was wrong with me, but had secretly hoped it was something else — something physical that the doctors could find and fix.
As I didn’t understand my fear, I kept challenging it, applying my own form of exposure therapy. Something within kept pushing me to do and sign up for things that I was extremely attracted to, but also wholly terrified of. Sometimes the situations would result in striking epiphanies and moments of connection, dissolving my insecurities and recharging me to keep stepping out. Other times, the situations were just as agonizing and awkward as I feared they would be, and my negative mind would swell like a tidal wave. I’d easily be taken by that wave back into hiding, often in the ugly comfort of my judgment of self and others.
My anxiety confused me because I felt like I was a relatively secure person. I genuinely thought I liked myself. Why didn’t that inner strength seem to reflect outward? There was a constant inner battle between my best and worst self, my strong and scared self. During everyday moments, whether I was in the office or taking a walk or socializing at a party, I sensed myself screaming inside, The inner doesn’t match the outer! The inner doesn’t match the outer! I felt like a shell of my real self, dim and shadowed.
I picked the pen back up. I want to stop hiding. I’m not fully myself in the world. I’m tired of being scared. There’s so much brightness within that wants to shine, but something is off inside — a screw or latch isn’t quite right. I know there’s more to this existence, and I want to access that. Something brilliant and fierce was yearning to come out, and had been yearning to for years.
Why are you here? The question vibrated with importance. Everything, I thought. Everything has brought me here and to this moment.
The next day in our circle, I was taken aback by the intensity of my pounding, nervous heart. It felt like my chest was going to burst, and my deliberate, deep breaths did nothing to calm it down. It became my turn to speak. Pushing past the fear, I dove in, albeit with shaky voice and teary eyes. My goal was to speak my truth for the sake of vulnerability and authenticity, two qualities I strive to live by and whose power I had only recently started uncovering. Experience had also taught me that this would be the only way to truly calm my pounding heart. I might be a blubbering, tender mess, but that awkward rawness is all that would work. Be real, I thought. Be vulnerable.
And it was okay. It was more than okay. The beautiful thing about vulnerability and authenticity is how magnetic they are. As we went around the circle, I felt like a high pressure had been released, and I began seeing and hearing pieces of myself in each person. I fell in love with their vulnerability, and their tears, and their beauty. Something magical started on that rooftop, and it would only intensify each day of the trip.
We were on a spiritual adventure, a pilgrimage, a deep dive into the devotion of India. We would do ceremonies, visit temples, eat together, meditate together, and laugh in long drives from one sacred city to another. I would tell someone what a beautiful soul she was and how much love I felt for her from the moment we met, and she would respond, I’m just your mirror, and I would smile back so much it hurt.
At one point, one of our group leaders, someone who I consider to be a unique healer and truth speaker, said to me during a ceremony: You are allowed to be here. My response to those six words was — and continues to be — vast and visceral. I felt like he had just had a little chat with my soul, and my heart broke open as if it had received the profoundest message it had been longing to hear for 34 years. Memories from my entire life flooded in, full of emotions and thoughts I carried around of not belonging, of never quite fitting in, of feeling like I didn’t exist and wasn’t supposed to be there, anywhere.
The simplicity of it was enormous, and with each day I would feel myself expand and reflect and heal deep wounds, some of which I had not even been fully conscious of. Like a prayer being answered, I started understanding my fear. During a healing practice one evening, I felt that I was given a gift as I was guided to recall a near death experience of mine as a baby. It was a story my parents used to tell me when I was little with sober intensity — me as a baby with pneumonia, unable to breathe and needing to be rushed onto a flight from South America to the United States for urgent medical care. I spent days in the hospital and they weren’t sure I’d make it. Until I did. I remember thinking about this story often as a child, but as I grew up it faded into one of those “fun fact, I almost died once” stories that I dismissed as being anything more and seldom thought about. During the practice in India, it rushed back to my consciousness, and a hidden door was opened, light shining on some of the roots of my anxiety. I felt the fear and breathed through it. I touched the roots and embraced them, like I was embracing myself as the infant who couldn’t breathe, embracing the ones who took care of me during that time, and embracing the frightened part of my soul that had started hiding then. I imagined opening and holding space for my entire soul to stand up and come out. Then we walked through the door and the healing began. The change felt subtle and colossal at the same time. Everything has brought me here and to this moment, I would think again, and often.
One day, I experienced something indescribable in a temple. It approximated the closest I had ever felt to speaking with and feeling — not just thinking about— god. Afterwards, I stepped outside to an incredible pink sunset and dozens of monkeys staring at me from trees that had previously been bare. I turned to a friend, a bit bewildered, and said, I feel like I believe in magic now. She had started coming to India over forty years ago. She looked at me with a funny smile and said quite matter-of-factly, I used to believe in magic. Then I came to India and realized it was the divine. I immediately felt my face burst with light and gratitude for that moment, which seemed bigger than either of us. The entire day felt like a blessing, spilling over that moment, and yet there wasn’t much to it. It was all so simple. All of these years I had wanted some wild sign or spiritual awakening that would blow my mind, and just like that, my mind was blown.
Two weeks that felt more like months passed, and during our last circle, I shared with the group how different I felt. Instead of fear, my heart now pounded with joy and wonder. I felt a new kind of thrill for life. I was more at peace with not knowing all of the answers, and was invigorated to keep seeking and opening more hidden doors within. As corny as it sounds, I felt like I finally had real faith and trust in the universe — in everything. With that faith, I felt larger than the anxiety residing within, empowered by love and connectedness and a new kind of belonging. Now it was a voice inside me that was exclaiming, You are allowed to be here!, which felt huge.
I couldn’t get over how simple the transformation was. I had always been searching for a complicated answer outside of myself, instead of the simple one in front of and inside me. I remembered what I had written down the first day, which was reminiscent of things I had wanted so many times in my life — to be more fully myself in the world and to radiate my bright energy outward, to stop hiding in fear. I had also written about connecting to something larger than myself, to feeling the divine, and not to feel like I was forcing or faking it. Both wishes went hand in hand, as finding god came with understanding my true self through the fear, guided by openness and supported by the love, connection, and acceptance from our group, my mirrors.
I remembered how I had stopped my cynical side from mocking me as I wrote down these wishes and reasons for being there. That inner critic, who had accompanied me on several of these kinds of journeys, was already thinking, yeah, here we go again- good luck with that, womp womp (I think she even blew a raspberry at me). But throughout the trip, something adjusted inside and the critic stepped back; the screw got fixed, the latch clicked into place. Then the door opened and the soul came out to shine, almost effortlessly.
I now understand how I kept getting stuck. I had wanted a connection that I knew I was capable of, but I kept letting that cynical, critical side get the best of me. I thought I was asking the question and setting the intention all these years, but really I would stop myself in the middle of it to poke fun, judge, and retreat back into my comfortable, cool, status quo shell. I was asking for transformation and transcendence, but my toes were barely in the water. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for the answer. Perhaps I was scared of my own light and expansiveness. There’s a strange safety in staying small in your ego, hanging out with the cynic, cozied up with the fear.
And there is something about India — the India that I was so scared of, the India that I am now in love with. It was hard to be cynical there. It is a land where people have prayed and given themselves over in devotion for thousands of years. The energy of that space is intense, and some of my most transformative moments occurred while watching people in their worship. I recall being stunned into stillness while observing a priest in one of the temples we visited. I could not stop watching him; my eyes didn’t want to blink and my thoughts went clear. It was as if he was pure devotion personified, an outward expression of an inner reality. There aren’t really words for this.
Some of the smaller, warm “India” moments were also significant, like looking out the window during a traffic jam and seeing two men taking a break from fixing a motorcycle to chat, laughing, small glasses of hot chai in their hands. Time seemed to stop as I stared at them, mesmerized by a distinctive light in their eyes. Or there was the time I was spinning through the streets in a rickshaw, passing and breaking amidst cars, scooters, cows, and pedestrians, then meeting the eyes of an Indian woman in a rickshaw going the other way. I smiled politely and her face erupted back into the widest, warmest smile a stranger has ever given me. Like that smile, India created the right context to push me open, push aside my ego, and understand the simplicity of what I desired: to be authentically myself, to connect to my sacredness, and in turn, to flow with life — the fear and the uncertainty, the joy and the beauty, the cows and the rickshaws and the honking horns — all of it.
Since coming home, I have found myself fascinated with the small things of each day and the larger things of life. My journeys, fears, and skepticism were all part of a process, and I am still in that process. The simplicity of it made me think about my first trip to India a couple years prior, which is when my intentional travels really began. A Vedic astrologer had told me that my fear was a result of disconnection. He said that I should practice meditating on the simplicity of a leaf, and that is where I would find god, and that is how I would cope with my fear. I was a little annoyed and confused by that. My answer is to look at a leaf? It seemed too simple. A year later, I was in Peru and the leaf came back. I sat on the ground at Machu Picchu listening to a guide, who seemed more like a mystic, go off on a tangent about a transformative spiritual experience he once had. Looking right at me, he told a story about a life changing moment in which he saw the entire universe in a single leaf. It was just a few days later that I received the invitation to return to India.
I feel like I understand the leaf thing now. I’ve awakened to a new kind of relationship with existence. The small and the simple are actually vast and beautiful. Instead of grasping, I pay attention to everything around me, and I listen. It’s amazing what messages you can receive once you start opening yourself up to really notice and listen, whether you want to call that god or the higher self or simply intuition. It allows me to find beauty and create meaning everywhere, and my days are infinitely richer for it.
I live more boldly now too. I catch myself speaking up, sharing my voice, and delighting in the reactions from others, be they positive or negative or indifferent. The fear and anxiety are still there, but they coexist with joy, belonging, and surrender. They don’t have much power when they’re blanketed by those things — they’re along for the ride, but no longer in control. My soul has come out of hiding. I am allowed to be here.
During one of the final days of the trip, I sat alone outside a temple, overlooking water and a statue, and closed my eyes. I focused on my heart and imagined that it was expanding out from the center of my chest, touching the water and the grass and the mountains beyond that, and everything else beyond that. Welcome! We’ve been waiting for you. Now’s when the real fun starts!, god said to me. Or maybe me said to me, my brain interrupted with its classic side eye… how do you know that’s god speaking? Is there really a difference? One of us said. And I smiled through real tears and a new feeling, my heart skipping light.
© 2017 Alma Ortman. All Rights Reserved.