In India there are many special pilgrimage places. Neelkanth is one such place where a special Shivalingam (image of Shiva) is. In the story it is said that during the creation of the universe where the forces of light and dark churned the ocean, the first thing that came out was poison. Everyone was afraid of it and no one knew what to do with it except for Shiva, The God of Destruction. Shiva drank the poison to save humanity and held it in his throat, it is said that he had a blue throat. This is the name neel-kanth or blue throated. Neelkanth is said to be the place where this happened. This whole story is full of deep esoteric metaphors and basically represents our own inner quest to keep whatever poison we want to pour out into the world held, whether it be word, action, or thought. In Kundalini yoga the system of the chakras are associated with different inner states of awareness. The throat chakra is associated with speech, expression, sense of self confidence, and ability to form words from our feelings. We have all had the experience of being afraid to sing in public, this would be a point where you really feel the edges and lines of how open your throat chakra is.
The hike to Neelkanth is 17 km (10 miles) yet when you are going up hill it feels like a lot more. I had decided it was a good idea to wake up at 4:30 am and get an auto-rickshaw to the town of Ram Jhula. From there I would begin my journey on foot, crossing the bridge and walking from there. The first thing I had to do was get the rickshaw. Unfortunately as I walked around looking, at that time there was only one man around and his rickshaw was packed. Not in the clearest state I allowed him to try to put me in the front between him and another passenger. There was no room and he struggled to fit me, I decided it was ridiculous and said I was leaving, and when I jumped out my foot slipped right into the open sewer. It was potentially a very disturbing mental experience as now my shoe, sock, and foot were full of an infinite variety of things I still am not thinking about. Yet this was the beginning of the test. How was I to react? This was where Shiva started working me. Would I complain, get angry, sad, feel defeated? Luckily I just tried to accept this as fact and remedy the situation quickly. I went to the Ganga and put my whole foot, shoe and all inside. The Ganga is known as the all purifying mother so it was a good beginning. From there I realized that I had begun my first pilgrimage without invoking the blessings of the spirits of the mountains, the devas, and the devis. It was an opportunity to slow down and do my meditative practice. A better way to look at the experience than to stress about it I suppose. From there I sat for about an hour praying to the spirits and the healing forces of the mountains, the river, and Shiva to protect and guide this journey.
After my practice I got a rickshaw and got dropped off at about 7:30 am, and then I was on my way. I was walking at a confident and quick pace, holding my mala, chanting “Om Namah Shivaya” The meaning of which is OM I bow to Shiva. Shiva meaning all that is auspicious and good in the world. Not just some “god” out there, but the divine source of peace and joy within us. Surely this would be a good rock to hold onto as I climbed this mountain. I psyched myself into the journey by not paying much rational mind to how far the walk would be. Although I severely underestimated it, this is the power of the mountain. It is not a pilgrimage site because it is an easy joy ride. As I got about 1/10th of the way up I became very tired, and my legs started feeling sore, and my breathing became shallow. Looking up I saw hundreds of people looking like tiny ants scattered at different parts up the mountain. It was then that it dawned on me that I was not in for a joy ride. Using this obstacle as an opportunity to hold strong to the mantra I tried to take only one step at a time , not focusing on getting there but focusing on the healing vibration of the mountains, the plants, and the beauty of the natural and serene area. It was the internal battle of the forces of light and darkness with in me. The “I can” vs. “there is no way in hell”. Luckily, the only restriction of time I had was that darkness would fall. On top of this, I foolishly thought that I would fast for the day and just brought a few handfuls of almonds. Burning this much energy I became quickly hungry and winded and stopped to eat the few handfuls of nuts. As I stopped there was a sadhu walking who came to sit by me. He blessed me with the most delicious tangerine I have ever eaten…so sweet and juicy! I also gave him a handful of nuts. It was then that I realized I had forgotten to stop at a market to get some fruit for the journey but I felt, no worries, there will be some kind of fruit stand up the mountain.
Right before meeting him I had discovered stinging nettles growing wild in the mountain side. I took my handkerchief and began plucking raw leaves and crushed them well, folded them into a ball, and chewed them up carefully. Careful not to let them on my tongue until they were well chewed. This sadhu spoke no English and I spoke no Hindi. I mentioned the word “subji”, which is a Hindi word for vegetables, and used sign language to show him what I was eating. He seemed interested to try so I crushed one up and gave it to him. Then what followed was him probably thinking I had poisoned him as he felt the sting all over his tongue! Could you imagine?! I tried to explain to him that I did not crush it enough and was very sorry but he was very kind and it seemed to dissipate quickly. I had really hoped that he knew something of them but it seemed new to him as well. These sadhus are holy beings (some of them) who dedicate their life to spiritual pursuit by wandering, meditating, and living off of alms. I am really hoping to learn that many of them forage wild foods and medicines.
After a cup of chai to calm the stings we began walking together and he mentioned that his knee was paining. Here I was already crazy stinging this man but I could have easily taken care of it with some taps of the stinging nettle. Getting stung by nettles are intense yet extremely medicinal. Stinging increases blood flow, serotonin, endorphins, and a whole list of biochemicals. It is very great for arthritic pain or stagnation, yet takes a bit of conversation to explain why you would do it. Something I didn’t have, so unfortunately I kept my mouth shut knowing that explaining this to him would be a daunting task bound for failure and only probably making me seem even more nuts.
We walked for a while but I couldn’t keep up with even this man, who was probably 70 and had a hurting knee. The entire mountain is 1675 m tall and oxygen was getting thin. There was absolutely no room to think about my condition as there were loads of elders, crippled people, and people making pranams up the whole mountain. This is where they fully bow laying on the floor and someone places a stone where their hands were, then they get up, take a few steps to the stone, and bow again. Clearly, I was a spoiled boy who was used to getting in my car and driving wherever I needed to go. This journey was taxing me and I probably stopped to rest 20 times. It is a good idea in survival to not rest for more than 5 minutes at a time. This enables you to still stay active and any more will bring on lethargy. It was about this time when my shoe started to fall apart, but I was so exhausted that a little inconvenience was so small in comparison to the huge task I was undertaking. My mind had transcended to a place beyond the petty, these tiny inconveniences that we get so caught in. Walking 10 miles up a mountain face, now that is inconvenient!! Not having the right marshmallows at the store and throwing a hissy fit is just due to being spoiled and soft. We must learn to have greater self-control and overcome all of the petty suffering we cause ourselves, our family, and society, for this is our goal in life and this is true freedom.
The views and the vistas were spectacular and kept re-energizing me. By this time I was long past adrenaline, and truly felt only the grace of the divine. I have never walked 10 miles on a flat road yet climbed up a mountain face this far, I was tapping higher and higher reserves and now I knew that one step at a time was all that it took. By this time I was so high up the mountain that the town of Rishikesh was a tiny ant colony, and every step was exhausting. I needed more energy for the journey and was out of food, the nettles I had harvested were helping but it wasn’t enough. As I stopped to rest I found some grass growing wild. If you know the grass family each plant is edible and medicinal. So much of our food comes from the grass family, corn, rice, wheat. And if you are familiar with wheatgrass, the juice of any grass is loaded with vitamins and chlorophyll. I picked some of this and chewed it, sucking the fresh juice from it. This gave me a good boost. By now I was about 75% up the mountain but it kept getting more and more steep. There was no fruit to be found and I had to settle with some tea biscuits. They were disgusting and made me feel rather ill!
After a long and grueling journey which probably took about 3 hours, you get to a town. In the town there are many shops and it is much like Disney Land except with many people harassing and begging. One woman put a mark on my forehead and instantly said “50 roopies” she walked up to me! Haha! It’s all a commercial game and you have to just sometimes ignore people and walk away. Once you get there you get in queue to go into the special mandir (temple) and then things get really frantic. In special places people get very crowded, close, pushy, and intense. You move forward in line and then have about 6 seconds at the shivalingam before the priest pushes you past…and that’s it…this is why you came.
So the great thing is that I got to touch and see this very special object, in which millions of people have prayed to, and see as sacred. The collective intent of that alone is a very powerful socket to plug into. Luckily I was forewarned and knew how the mood is at temples during holy times. So I wasn’t expecting much more. The real blessing is that I made it, I didn’t give up, and I overcame my mind and body. I truly feel like only by the power of the invocation of the sacred I made it. I was not fit for the journey, nor mentally prepared. Yet I just took one step at a time and made it. This reminded me of one of the greatest lessons of life. Life is about the journey, not the destination. I feel that anyone who really becomes enlightened lets go of the idea that enlightenment is even possible, that it is something you attain some time once x y or z. Enlightenment is not ours to have. It is not another possession. For this I know, and our life is the mountain. If we enjoy the journey and don’t only focus on the destination, perhaps we will be able to overcome greater obstacles than we think were ever possible.