Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The pilgrims planning to travel to India were advised by the trip’s organizers to take an Ayurvedic herbal preparation called chyawanprash. We were told it contained a very high concentration of vitamin C (clinically proven to boost immune function), as well as other herbs and ingredients. I decided it was high time to heed their advice and ordered it.
The chyawanprash came in a white plastic jar about the size of a jar of peanut butter. I unscrewed the cap and peered inside at the dark brown, shiny sludge. I grabbed a spoon, and reached in and retrieved (not without effort) a very gooey mass of stringy, grainy, date-colored stuff. I turned the jar around and stared at the ingredients. The list of herbs, plants, trees, barks, and ﬂowers was staggering—mysore cardamom seed, bacopa leaf, ghee, sacred lotus ﬂower, ﬁg, true saffron stigma; the list went on and on.
According to the Charaka Samhita, a foundational Ayurvedic medicine text, however, chyawanprash is more than just vitamin C in a weird condiment format. It claims to prevent the ﬂesh from becoming ﬂabby. The ancient practice of Ayurveda, a Hindu-based practice of medicine considered alternative in the US, teaches that the three elements or doshas—vatta (wind), pitha (ﬁre), and kapha (earth)—must be in balance in the body in order to enjoy optimal health. Chyawanprash is supposed to balance these three elements; it’s essentially an Ayurvedic magic bullet.
I placed a generous spoonful onto my tongue. It was spicy, sweet, sour, and earthy—like an exotic raisin pulverized with the most unexpected combination of herbs and spices I had ever tasted. As I savored it, it felt like a wee bit of India getting inside me.
I drove across town for a potluck dinner with the small contingent of fellow pilgrims who also planned to travel to India. One of the women had invited us all to her home. Fat snowﬂakes ﬂoated steadily down in the dark, blurring the road’s edges. Driving through the freeway tunnels along Lake Superior in the early winter twilight, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. Snowfall like this has come to signify a blessing of beauty and love from heaven to me, the way rain is seen as auspicious in India. When you examine the ﬂakes closely, each is an astounding unique work of fractal art. In my journeys, I have experienced the grace of merging with spirit and falling as a snowﬂake. We are constantly being showered with extraordinary blessings. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I felt waves of deep gratitude. I’m ﬁnally going to India.
I think about all of the suffering my family has faced in mental-health or spiritual crises of one kind or another. Sometimes it was hard to sort out what was my suffering and what belonged to them. It’s my intention now to stay connected to my own soul’s voice, while being loving and compassionate with all of them. It feels good to dedicate this journey to India to relieving this peculiar kind of suffering of the spirit.
The sweet gratitude I felt was quickly followed by waves of fear about what might happen when I was in India. Things that overwhelm me are sometimes made easier when I undertake them on behalf of others, so I decided then and there to dedicate my pilgrimage to those who suffered from depression, addiction, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADD.
When I arrived at the door, I was greeted by Catharine, our seventy seven-year-old hostess, who was a slender lady with white hair in a pixie cut. She was warm and welcoming. On a tour of her home, she showed us her office where she does sand-play therapy with her clients. The shelves were stuffed with hundreds and hundreds of tiny ﬁgurines and objects to help people uncover the reasons for their own suffering.
We had taken our son George to a play therapist years ago when he was having tantrums in preschool, trying to ﬁgure out how to support him. I’ll never forget when he showed me what he had created in the sandbox in one of the sessions—a black Jesus on a cross with an army ﬁgurine pointing a riﬂe directly at his chest. I was shocked at what was revealed by this simple exercise in play. It seemed obvious to me that he felt terribly persecuted. The therapist never offered an explanation, nor did George. Through the play therapy, however, the tantrums stopped, and he became calmer and happier. I immediately felt a deeper connection to Catharine after seeing her workspace. She was a healer.
There were eight of us present. Over dinner, I asked if the others were willing to share their intentions for going. Julia, a focused, former local juice bar owner, told us that she’d done the pilgrimage before, and she aimed to be of service to other pilgrims. “India is really, really a challenge for me,” she told us. “It’s exhausting, and I usually get sick, but it’s also really amazing. I love it.”
Catharine, who had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, said: “I’m really hoping to deepen my yoga practice. I’m only able to go with Julia’s help,” she added with a smile and a few tears.
Joy, a nurse, admitted that she didn’t know exactly why she was going, except that she loved yoga and was curious. “If you love country music, you go to Nashville,” she added with an impish smile. “And if you love yoga, you go to the Kumbh Mela.”
The others weren’t sure yet why they were going, but each, in his or her own way, felt called.
With the introductions out of the way, we exchanged notes on packing, three-pronged current adaptors, down sleeping bags, headlamps, and antibiotics. I was overjoyed to be sharing my anticipation with my new pilgrim friends.
I recognized that, despite the difference in our ages and the different reasons we felt we had been called, we were all willing to undertake what was sure to be a very challenging journey to be with sixty million people in India, so very far from Minnesota. Our collective apparent courage reminded me of one of my favorite Beasties in the South African bushveldt: the honey badger. This fearless creature doesn’t bat an eye when diving into underground caves swarming with stinging bees. She’s hellbent on honey.