Oh thinking of heaven. – Seeds of the Night, The Cave Singers
The next two days in the alpine air were spent walking about, meditating, journaling, and just staring at the awe-inspiring glacier that rested on the lip of the mountain like a mustache on a Kashmiri. Late in the afternoon on the second day, Palla, the cook, and myself hiked to the highest accessible point nearby. While it looked not much higher than a hill, it took more than 2-plus hours to scale.
By the time we reached the top it was getting cold and blustery. We were almost eye level with the glacier when a storm rolled in. As we began our descent, we moved through a cloud and it was not long before the mist turned to sprinkles, and by the time we reached camp it was raining. The rain continued for the remainder of the evening, relegating us to our tents for the long night. With nothing else to do, I wrote about 8 or 9 pages in my journal, which is something I have not taken the time to do on this trip because most of my time is focused here, on MC’s work, doing podcasts, or working for my job at home.
It was a cold, damp, and wet night, accentuated by the lack of integrity of our tent. Everything around the perimeter of the tent was beginning to get soaked so I pulled all my belongings close to me. After laying awake in the complete darkness for what felt like an eternity, I finally decided to take a Xanax, but not even that worked. It was a miserable, restless, uncomfortable night on the mountain and outside the tent it was as dark a night as I have ever experienced.
The following day we left the mountain lake to camp on a river. When someone says we’re going to take a shortcut in Kashmir, don’t assume that it’s necessarily a good thing. After a 2.5-hour hike to the shortcut, the old man and “guide” who had returned late the previous evening took the three horses the long route and we descended straight down the mountain for another 1.5-hours.
I have never done anything like this before and hope to do nothing like it again. On top of it being treacherous, I was exhausted and cranky from the lack of sleep the night before and the “short-cut” required the utmost concentration. There were parts that were probably more apt to rappelling, but down the face of the mountain we slid and slipped as best we could without falling. One misstep would almost certainly have resulted in broken bones, paralysis, or worst-case scenario, death.
When we finally reached the bottom, we waited and waited. And waited. All I wanted to do was lay down but the old man, the three horses, and all our gear was nowhere to be found, and so the cook and Palla took off to find him. To make a long story short, there were a lot of opinions as to where to camp. The old man wanted us to camp right in front of his house. The cook wanted us to camp near a group of at least ten Israelis. Again I was furious and in my mind I could not only wait to get off the mountain, but to leave Kashmir. I walked off to find a place on the river to mediate and calm down and by the time I returned 40 minutes later, they took my suggestion as to where to camp and our tent was already up. The old man started to build a fire, which meant collecting as much wood as possible, throwing it in one pile, and pouring fuel on it. I took the reigns and suggested a more slow and steady approach that was less combustible. When that was done we sent him to his house, I popped a can of beer, and we camped on the river for the night.
Jesus in Kashmir
In Kashmir, as well as many other parts of India, Tibet, and China, it is widely accepted that Jesus taught and learned in the region. There are even ancient writings and paintings in caves in Asia that depict Jesus’s visit to the region. In Kashmir you can visit a tomb where supposedly some people believe Jesus’s body was taken for final burial. They contest he survived the crucifixion and spent his remaining years in Kashmir. No matter what text you believe, historically speaking there was an extraordinary man named Jesus who walked the earth around 2,000 years ago and the quality of his thinking and teachings changed the course of history forever.
I know a bit about this subject because being that my mother and father were highly devout Catholics, from 2nd grade through college, at the behest of my parents, I attended Catholic school. Religion classes, as well as the Bible, were obviously always part of that curriculum. In these classes we learned about Jesus’s early life from birth to 12-years-old, and His ministry from the age of 30 until he was crucified at the age of 33. However, there are 18 years of his life where nothing is recorded and nothing is written regarding where he was or what he learned. One line in the Bible, from Luke 2:52 encompasses, those 18 years. “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature with God and man.” Now I don’t know about you, but a lot happened in those years of my life.
As a naïve schoolboy lacking the wisdom and perhaps the inquisitive nature to ask the right questions, I never really gave those missing 18 years much thought. I suppose I thought he was just working away in the woodshop, building things that were so cool people must have thought that they were made with the hands of God. This was a critical flaw in my thinking. Why did I never press further into what he was doing all those years? Maybe, just maybe Jesus took those woodworking skills on the road as a way to earn, learn, and travel.
Up until sometime in the last decade, I always took for granted that Jesus knew from an early age that he was The Man, and not in the captain of the football team way (cricket in India), but the Son of God. I didn’t really consider that perhaps his life was an evolution and an unfolding instead of immediate enlightenment at birth. I had never really considered that Jesus the man went through this search like we all do; that he was in search of his purpose, that he felt emotional pain, that he felt betrayal, that he may not have always been sure of himself, or that he may have struggled at certain times as to whether to go left or right at the fork in the road.
Thoughts from 14,000 feet
I think the journey towards God and a greater understanding of ourselves is much like the journey of an artist. When the artist is young and expresses an aptitude for his art, he begins by learning the rules; he studies structure, composition, form, color, theory, scales—whatever is needed to understand the form that is the delivery vehicle for what he wants to express in the world, or more precisely, what he needs to express. Once he knows the rules, he throws them out and forges his own way and understanding. Through this process, he gains a more intimate knowledge of his craft and a personal relationship with it, and it is through this process that he learns to express his own truth in the world.
I was thinking a lot those three days about what Jesus thought about wandering the 18,000-foot mountain peaks of Kashmir, if he indeed pass through. I would not have thought about this most likely if it were not for my friend Maria from Argentina. Maria, whom I had met over breakfast at the Divine Ganga Guesthouse in Rishikesh, bought me a book entitled, The Aquarian Gospel According to Jesus the Christ. It is a slim but dense book compared to the Bible and it speaks of the missing years of Jesus’s search and how he went from being Jesus the man, to Jesus the Christ. The book says that in the years that are not chronicled in the Bible, Jesus traveled throughout India, Kashmir, Tibet, and China to learn from masters of other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and many others. There is even a film on this subject called Jesus in Kashmir.
One afternoon, Maria and I were wading in the Ganges River and Maria began recalling to me how she manifested a three-month scientific study on a remote island near the Galapagos. She was alone for that time with just one other scientist and the only book she took with her was The Aquarian Gospel According to Jesus the Christ. Probably based on conversations we had, but mostly for reasons known to her, she bought me this book in Rishikesh. I had a lot of time to myself at the ashram and so at night, at the edge of the jungle, surrounded by the stillness of the foothills of the Himalayas, I read this book.
During my 3 days in the mountains of Kashmir, walking beneath 14,000-foot peaks that are perhaps tens-of-millions years old, I spent a lot of time thinking about the journey of my life and about Jesus’s journey through the lens of this book, because if ever there was a place to contemplate, the mountains of Kashmir certainly have the potential to expand one’s consciousness. I don’t think any human being could not help but be humbled by the sheer scale of space, the experience of grandeur, and the omnipresence of the infinite. It forces one to look within or above, not simply outward towards the horizon, which is what we generally do in our hurried urban lives as we rush about from point A to point B with the illusion of purpose and productivity.
I realized at this point in my life, when many people are focused on building structures, in their lives, the time and space I have to think is a real luxury, but it shouldn’t be. We should all be taking that time for ourselves to answer one essential question. In his book, I Am That, according to the Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, there is only but one question to life and it is; Who am I?
The seeker is he who is in search of himself
Give up all other questions except one: “Who am I?” After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The “I am” is certain. The “I am this” is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.
To know what you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not.
Discover all that you are not—body, feelings, thoughts, time, space, this or that—nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.
The clearer you understand that on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker will you come to the end of your search and realize that you are a limitless being.
As I thought about my life and thought about the life of Jesus, I wondered—if Jesus walked these mountains, what would he think about? I thought that perhaps he learned that in the stillness of prayer and meditation—and especially when in the presence of nature—the answer to the question “Who am I?” might have come to him.
In the process of those lost 18 years of inquiry, I thought how perhaps Jesus discovered that he was not his body, this physical self that is merely organized matter surrounded by an electromagnetic field of information. Perhaps he realized his body was a container, a vessel of consciousness, only the vehicle that allows us to ask the question, “Who am I?” Perhaps he noted that stored in the cells of our body is a reservoir of not only our past experiences, but also our reactions to those experiences, and that most of the time this reservoir of the past is the place from where we act and react. I thought about how maybe Jesus might have considered that the only way to truly be free from this automatic response was to be the master of his mind.
I thought that maybe walking beneath the snowcapped peaks of Kashmir, Jesus might have discovered that in the stillness of meditation, he could use his mind as a conduit for information from God, the Divine, or another plane of existence where all that exists is instantaneous thought. Perhaps Jesus thought about how the mind is just a prisoner of the body, but that the soul and the human spirit are limitless and cannot be caged. Maybe Jesus considered when the mind is clear and pure, it can emanate signals as a radio tower might and conversely receive signals. Perhaps in answering the question, ‘Who am I?’ he discovered “I am.”
Like Buddha, Krishna, Christ, Moses, Mohammed, and all the other men who became prophets, they were artists in their own right. Their art was learning how to live their lives in the highest expression of the Divine Consciousness for the greater good. I believe we all have the potential to attain this consciousness, but it takes a lifetime’s practice. A musician cannot pick up his instruments and play a fugue on day one. It takes years of practice and devotion to master his craft. They same truth abides if we truly want to know God. God, or whatever name you want to call the Creative Expression of the universe, is an experience. We are not separate from that experience, but of it. God, like the instrument in the corner, is waiting to be picked up and learned.
A day later I’m sitting with Shaqeel telling him about the less-than-stellar quality of the camping equipment, the old man’s lack of commitment or interest, and that I was disappointed in the whole thing for how much money I spent. While the beauty was incredible, it was nothing like he had promised. I showed him pictures of the tent and he appeared shocked. He said he was calling the people he booked the trip through. He dialed a number right in front of me and began his conversation in Kashmiri. God only knows with whom he was actually talking to. Probably the girlfriend he had up in the mountain town, despite living with his wife at the guesthouse. Shaqeel hung up the phone and said, “I will never use them again.”
I told Shaqeel that it was so beautiful, however, that I was still willing to write an article about it. We sat in the courtyard of the Noor Guesthouse going over the when, where, how’s, etc. of an article of such a nature, and when I asked him how much he wanted to charge, I expected him to throw a few thousand on top of what I paid, but instead he paused, looked at me and said; 25,000 rupees. As I wrote it down I said to myself, why did I pay 35,000? And then it was no longer to myself. It was then that he told me he didn’t know Palla, didn’t trust him, and that I shouldn’t either because Palla had thrown 10,000 rupees on top of the cost for himself.
My mind was spinning at the betrayal. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the I swear to Allah crap and all the conversations we had about how his Dad taught him money was nothing and how he kept saying, money doesn’t mean bloody shit. It was about the he’s not a tourist; he’s my brother bullshit that got me.
I asked Shaqeel why he let this happen and he didn’t have much of a response. Then he said, “I didn’t make any money on this. I hired the people for cost. I don’t need to cheat people. Allah has blessed me with this guesthouse and so much more. I don’t need to add a surcharge. All I ask for in these situations is the gas and car money. “And he went on to say that Palla was a piece of shit and not to trust him, that he was young and stupid. When I said to Shaqeel I needed to confront Palla about the situation, Shaqeel told me I could not bring his name into.
“I’m just a business man. I’ve got a good reputation in the Lonely Planet. I don’t want him or anyone he knows causing trouble.”
On top of all of this Pinto, was getting paid out of that 10k and Latiff and Erica were now aware of the situation as well. I felt like a complete fool and had no idea who I could trust.
The next day, Palla knew the score and we went out to a tense lunch, because it was clearly visible I was pissed.
“You know why we’re here, right?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
“You tell me?” he said as the opening moves of the chess match got underway.
After some back and forth, I cut to the chase. “Look, be a man and tell me the truth. You tell me the truth and we forget everything. I just want the truth”
He immediately jumped on the defensive and said whoever told me whatever they told me were liars. Keeping Shaqeel out of it, I told Palla that I met a tourist who paid 25,000 rupees and that when I did my research and went to several trekking companies, all the prices were around 25k. I never implicated Shaqeel though, which I should have, because chance are, I’ll never be in Kashmir again.
Instead Palla got very passionate and said, “These are houseboat people that told you this! They are all lairs! They are just saying that to get your business, and then they will rip you off. I swear to Allah!” and so on and son on. He had no idea that his own people sold him out.
Over the course of the next day, nothing was resolved, no truth came out, and everyone continued to blame and bad mouth the other person. And I really only saw him when I left. The truth in Kashmir is as illusive as access to the glacier on Gangabal Mountain.
I am simplifying everything here for the sake of brevity. Can you believe I’m saying that? Imagine if I told you the whole story and all the details. I would take even more of your life than I already have.
I admit I became emotional at my lunch with Palla. I was pissed, felt betrayed, and another issue that was occurring for me on the home front exacerbated it all. This whole thing may not seem like a big deal, and it’s certainly not about the money. I have pissed away $225 on a lot less, and in the grand scheme of my life, I will never miss or even remember that money. It was more about feeling like you are constantly being played a fool, it was about letting your guard down in a country where you always need to have it up—and then getting stabbed in the back. It was about feeling like everyone was in on the joke but you. It was about feeling that our friendship was cheapened by the value of my bank account. As I said before, I don’t mind paying a price for value, but to feel like I got ripped off pisses me off, and then for that to happen by a friend…well that just sucks.
Fortunately, now I’m writing this with some distance and I am reminded that money is the root of all evils and that it can corrupt even the most honest man. I don’t know the truth, but I do know that Palla comes from a very poor family. Would I have done the same in his situation? Maybe at his age, but I doubt it. If he did initially put that surcharge on our trek (and in the process get an experience he would never have had in his life), was it to benefit his family? I really doubt it. It sounded like it went into his pocket. It doesn’t really matter now anyway. As I read the Indian newspapers and see the Islamic and separatist actions that are still going on in Kashmir—headlines I didn’t read prior to going—I am looking at the financial loss as a safety tax. And in addition to this, I can say I had an experience not a lot of people have had or will have, at least for a while or until the US embassy lifts their travel restrictions.
The shitty thing about this whole Kashmir experience is I actually really liked hanging with all these people, from Ayub and Farook, to Shaqeel, to Palla and Latiff, but how can you have a friendship based on the suspicion that someone is trying to get something from you?
From where I was with my anger, I can’t believe that in the course of writing this and by the time it has come to print, I actually miss them all. But I really miss Palla. I know that deep down he is a good kid and our friendship was real.
In my moment of anger and self-righteousness, I wanted Palla to know I was hurt and that I felt betrayed. I wanted him to get the lesson to never do this to a friend again. Perhaps the real lesson was meant for me, however—to know the value and importance of forgiveness and to remember that everyone makes mistakes.
Although I’ve never tried heroine, I’m imagining it’s kind of like Kashmir; the first hit gets you really high and sends you into states of euphoria you’ve never experienced. But when you crash, you inevitably get really sick and vomit.
But then you’re left wanting more and you know if you could, you’d do it all over again.