Dr. Rob Williams
Chapter 12/STAY SPIRITED: Ruminating On Resilience and Resistance
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress.
Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at email@example.com. Yak on!
Word Count: 11,400'ish
Nepal's Langtang Valley - 17,000 feet - the Roof of the World.
Trek Relief in the heart of Planet Yak. December 2021.
Yaks stay spirited.
Bos grunniens embody their own unique evolutionary combination of resilience and resistance.
How to understand “spirited”?
Rather than too much of a mystical “woo woo” feeling, consider “spirited” as an action verb, suggesting some mysterious combination of consciousness, intelligence, and purpose that moves any sentient living organism forward.
To wit – what animates any living individual creature with “spiritedness?”
Intelligence? Consciousness? Purpose? A combination?
“The entirety of human experience and mental life arises because of, and not in spite of, our nature as self-sustaining biological organisms that care about their own persistence,” explains neuroscientist and Being You: A New Science of Consciousness author Anil Seth. “The quest to understand consciousness places us increasingly within nature, nor further apart from it – just as it should.”
How might we Humans become more “spirited”?
Here’s a simple equation: Resilience plus Resistance equals Spirited.
I apply “resilience” to individuals: the intangible measurement of our Mind, Body and Spirit’s relative elasticity. Under adversity, how fluidly can one adapt, recover, and “self sustain” for our “own persistence,” to quote Seth?
“Resistance,” meanwhile, refers to the ability of a community – a tribe, a herd, a culture – and how they can collectively protect and adapt themselves in the face of opportunities, challenges or threats.
Resilience and Resistance, and yaks show us one way forward.
Anyone who encounters a yak up close and personal for more than a few moments is immediately aware that this hairy, humpy horny creature, this atavistically shaggy force of nature, is indeed a “spirited” creature.
Yakking at Altitude - Nepal's Langtang Valley. December 2021. (photo credit: Weston Boyles)
As ruminants – grass-eating ungulates with four chambered stomachs – yaks’ physiology dictates continuous (re)digestion, a process that bears remarkable similarities to human meditation, and popularly known in English parlance as “chewing one’s cud.”
When applied to we sapiens, rumination refers to “deep or considered thinking” on a topic. While some clinicians link human rumination to dark and depressive thoughts, I prefer a more optimistic perspective.
Full disclosure – I am a serial ruminator. I enjoy chewing on my own cud’like thinking.
Thinking about Human resilience and resistance.
The good news?
“Human optimization” research is vigorous and ongoing, and I am drawing here on my own experience with yaks, my own travel adventures, and the brilliance of fellow humans like Flow Genome Project co-founder Jamie Wheal and Wim Hof Method Level 3 instructor and Mastering The Stress Response author Matt Soule, who certified me as a Wim Hof Method instructor and has since become a friend.
Here’s just a taste of five “spirited” hormetic tools – protocols for cultivating individual resilience - Soule highlights in his book to get us flowing.
1. Fight: “The FIGHT tool improves creativity, as well as the speed and quality of the decision-making process, [and] taps into and helps us overcome fear of conflict, fear of pain or injury, fear of helplessness, fear of harm to both self and others, and fear of death,” writes Soule. “Fight teaches us critical facets of adaptability and how to find peace in chaos.” With this tool, Soule draws on his years of martial arts experience, making a compelling case for focused physical activity in the presence of an opponent to dial in fight tool optimization.
2. Freeze: “The FREEZE tool is an environmental acute stress tool that vastly improves our cardiovascular and immune systems, allows us to practice full acceptance of the things we cannot change, and helps us confront known difficulties - such as loss, grief, past or current traumas, depression, or feelings of being overwhelmed by life circumstances - while also helping us tap into fears of the unknown such as anxieties or death,” explains Soule. “This tool lets us learn to reinterpret physical and emotional pain, adapt, and find acceptance.” By “freeze,” Soule is referring to regular cold water immersion - cold showers or ice baths - to build hormetic resilience of Mind, Body, and Spirit, a protocol popularized in the West by one of the three pillars of the Wim Hof Method (and indeed, Soule is a Level 3 WHM instructor). #ColdIsGold!
3. Fast: “The FAST tool becomes an environmental acute stress tool that physically helps us optimize our bodies through hormone and gene expression, improves our senses, and contributes to our longevity,” observes Soule. “We also confront the stress of scarcity and learn to overcome the fear of having to go without, [and we] confront the fear of death [and] better discern between want and need while simultaneously engendering gratitude for abundance and simplicity alike.” By fasting, Soule is referring to what some scientists and nutritionists call “time restricted” eating, in which Humans establish a daily “eating window” of 8-12 hours, and “fast” during the rest of a 24 hour cycle. The bottom line - many Humans eat too much food too frequently, and fasting is a powerful tool for rebalancing our relationship with food, health and longevity.
4. F^ck: “The F^CK tool (‘meaning sex, eroticism, and intimacy’) allows us to use it as a relational acute stress tool that improves immune function, strengthens us physically, and refines coordination,” Soule notes, and “improves cooperation and communication between individuals, helps us confront the fears of loneliness, inadequacy, acceptance, and death and legacy.” Everyone’s favorite, and the most fraught! Timing, rhythm, pressure, and integration - four elements of successful f^ck tool deployment. More in Soule’s book!
5. Breathe: “The BREATHE tool allows us to purposefully induce acute stress for health benefits and harness it for improved performance,” highlights Soule, “and can improve immune function, optimize hormones, develop and refine nervous system messaging, strengthen respiratory operation and cardiovascular health, improve blood flow, clear metabolic waste, and vastly improve recovery times for everything from injury to fatigue.” Here, Soule draws on both breathing biomechanics and biochemistry, offering useful protocols for tapping into the power of the breath for a wide variety of health and wellness outcomes.
And Jamie Wheal’s new book Recapture The Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex, and Death in a World That’s Lost Its Mind highlights another five protocols for cultivating what I call community “resistance” here: respiration, embodiment, music, sacraments (entheogens), and sex (everyone’s favorite).
We’ll unpack these five as we gallop forward below.
But first, how might individual resilience and community/cultural resistance fit together?
Here’s one answer to this question.
In his astonishing book Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, Christopher McDougall tells the remarkable story of the Greek Island of Crete’s spirited resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II, exploring how the Greeks successfully challenged Fascism by combining individual resilience with community resistance. Weaving together myriad cultural threads, the Cretan resistance movement celebrated Greek mythology, embodied Fascia-focused physical endurance training, consumed local nutritional terroir (wild plants), and cultivated community strength, as McDougall recounts, to slow the Nazi juggernaut long enough to turn the tide of the war. “A hero’s one crack at immortality was to be remembered as a champion, and champions don’t die dumb,” explains McDougall. “It all hinged on the ability to unleash the tremendous resources of strength, endurance, and agility that many people don’t realize they already have.”
Human history is stuffed with such stories – sapiens surprising themselves, becoming heroes and heroines in the process.
So – resilience and resistance. For humans, and for yaks.
RESILIENCE: What might a yak teach us as a Human about optimizing Mind, Body and Spirit?
RESISTANCE: What might yak communities teach us Human communities about cultivating spirited resistance to the forces that might threaten our species?
Sapiens and Suspension Bridges - "Energy Flows Where Focus Goes." December 2021.
“Forces that threaten our species?”
Let me explain.
We in the West live in a Civilizational Moment defined by Apocalyptic Stories produced and deployed by very powerful players: global “Climate Change” alarmism, Woke’ism and Cancel Culture, rampant Censorship and Programmed Political Polarization, Safety’ism and the coddling of an entire generation, and of course, the COVIDtastrophe, with the promise of a “Great Reset” to catalyze a 4th Industrial Revolution to transform not only Human civilization, but the Human species as a whole.
No wonder the Human species feels somewhat disoriented as we enter the 21st century, and our best prophets and poets have warned us for a while that this Time was approaching.
“The whole aim of practical politics,” observed satirist H.L. Mencken a century ago, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
Our Digital Age amplifies this “endless series of hobglobins” even more endlessly.
“It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world,” mused US environmental essayist Wendell Berry in his 2001 book Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, “will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” When confronting multiple manufactured Armageddons at once, it is easy to despair, to lose heart, to become dispirited. Or worse, perhaps, to simply capitulate to those seeking our compliance.
Perhaps, I wondered, the chance to confront a catastrophe in miniature, a challenging moment for both yaks and humans that tested our twin species’ capacity for resilience and resistance, an event that challenged our ability to ‘stay spirited,” might provide an opportunity for ruminations on these twin phenomena of resilience and resistance.
Like a post-earthquake rockslide burying alive an entire village - 243 humans and countless yaks (and other farm animals) - in a matter of moments.
Catastrophe. Langtang Village in northeastern Nepal. Spring 2015.
Nepal’s northeast corner is home to the Langtang Valley, a narrow east-west mountain region famed for its stunning beauty, easy access, and grand 6,000 – 7,000 meter peaks of which Langtang Lirung is the highest (7,227 meters), all of which has made the Langtang Valley Nepal’s third most popular international trekking destination after the Annapurna and Everest regions. Travelers begin at 1,500 meters in the town of Syabrubesi, trekking 26 miles up to Kyangjin Gumpa (3,850 meters), passing through several small tea lodge communities, of which Langtang Village (3,400 meters) was the largest.
Until spring 2015.
Just before noon Nepali time on Saturday, April 25, 2015, and just after a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook the Himalayas, a huge landslide fell off the majestic peak known as Langtang Lirung, funneling an estimated 40 million tons of rock and ice directly down a steep couloir and crushing the entire village of Langtang in just a few horrific moments. The massive slide’s accompanying blasts of intense air pressure flattened every tree on the Langtang valley’s opposite side for more than a mile downstream. A few older villagers who chose to remain indoors managed to survive amidst the devastation. More than 100 bodies were never recovered.
The now-infamous April 2015 earthquake transformed the entire Langtang Valley region. Today, sheltered just beyond the rockslide’s devastating path, a solitary three-story dwelling is all that remains. Just above the slide’s destructive path, Langtang locals are rebuilding an entirely new village, the entrance to which traverses the giant rubble, marked at town’s edge by a memorial mani wall and a plaque with the names of all the international visitors whose lives the rockslide extinguished. The 2015 earthquake disrupted trade, trapped villagers for days in the high mountains, and killed more than 9,000 people (and an uncounted number of yaks and other animals) across the Himalayas, but nowhere was the devastation worse than Langtang Village.
Like many who showed up to help Langtang recover, dear friend Candice Young arrived here shortly after the 2015 disaster, ending up spending weeks removing rubble from the buried village and helping to coordinate the cleanup effort. Her Langtang experiences radicalized her, and by the time she and I met in the Manaslu region – spring 2016 - the idea for founding what has now become www.TrekRelief.org had already taken shape in her mind and heart.
Fast forward five years.
As Nepal lifted their COVIDtastrophic lockdown measures during fall 2021, our Trek Relief board quickly “green lighted” a small team of Nepali trekkers – our “Nepal: Empower Resiliency” Project - to button up our ongoing Langtang Valley school rebuild project after four years of work - 60 fundraisers, 800 plus donors, countless hours of human labor on sites across the Langtang Valley, and more than $130,000 raised, including an earmarked $50,000 to rebuild Komin Shyamey Wangphel Secondary School. In an Apocalytic time of US Woke’topian COVIDtastrophic climate change, and as founding Trek Relief BOD president who had never been to Langtang myself, I realized that the time had come for me to go experience Langtang Valley first-hand.
Friday, November 26, 2021: The day after Thanksgiving – I find myself Nepal bound for the first time since the COVIDtastrophe’s March 2020 arrival. Saddling up the SXY BST, I wake hours before dawn; drive 90 minutes to Lebanon, New Hampshire; “Dartmouth Coach” (read as a verb) two hours to Boston’s Logan Airport; present my passport, papers (a bulky info packet, sign of the times) and luggage (including travel guitar) at the Qatar Airways check in desk; breeze through airport security; and settle in for the fourteen-hour trans-oceanic flight to Doha, Qatar. Remarkable, our human inventiveness, and our ability to be so aggressively mobile for those who lean in – like the yak, I muse, we sapiens are born to move.
And to be back in the presence of my fellow Humans, in all of their glorious unpredictable complexity! Seated next to me for the flight’s duration – a beautiful, dark skinned, stunning-eyed woman under cover of a black veil and elaborate nail polish. She introduces herself as “Rahma,” and as the flight droned on, we swap life notes. A Swahili speaker from Zanzibar, Tanzania, Rahma possesses a wicked sense of humor, telling me she works the night shift at a hospital in Chelsea outside of Boston. She cites her duty to her psych patients, regales me with stories about her 12-year-old son named Amwar and her husband back in Tanzania. We continue our conversation after landing in Doha International Airport – equal parts jetport, theme park, and shopping mall for global elite travelers – wandering the airport before settling in for tea and a snack while we wait for our connecting fights.
Sunday, November 28: A quick five-hour flight to Kathmandu, with the stunning shark-finned peaks of the high Himalayas poking through the clouds to greet us as we descend into Tribhuvan International Airport. Walking across the mid-morning tarmac, I breathe in the heat, jet fuel, and urban dust; navigate three different lines – COVID “test” (check); VISA purchase via antiquated computers (check); customs (check) – and grab a cab to the International Guest House (IGH) across the city. Feeling both exhausted and elated, I yak with my cab driver, who is full of questions. “Where are you from?” “Why are you here? You got kids?” He has three children, and regales me with tales of grotesquely high fuel prices, COVID craziness here in the Kat, the promise of “vaccines,” and the impact of COVID on Nepali society. Indeed, the COVIDtastrophe’s craziness reaches most everywhere.
Arriving at the IGH, I have the entire afternoon to relax, and after a light lunch of buff momo (famed Nepali dumplings made with water buffalo meat), I spend several hours lightly dozing in the gardens and on the rooftop in the sun, waiting for our Trek Relief group to return from their city tour. The IGH is a true urban oasis in the midst of Kat chaos, and as I snooze, the sounds of pigeons, hawks, crows, and the sounds of the city drifting up from nearby neighborhoods.
Drifting in and out of a light doze, I begin focusing on my breathing, consciously shifting my breathing pattern connect nose with diaphragm. We breathe 20,000 to 25,000 times daily on average, according to James Nestor’s beautiful book Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art. Perhaps humans’ most powerful tool for cultivating resilience and resistance is respiration, creating conscious breathwork practices that empower us to navigate our way through our day. “No matter what you eat, how you exercise, how skinny or young you are – none it matters if you are not breathing properly,” observes Nestor, pointing out that the vast majority of humans are breathing sub-optimally – breathing through our mouths into our chests, rather than breathing through our noses into our diaphragms.
On the International Guest House roof in the heat of a Himalayan day, below the fluttering laundry hung out to dry and the birds wheeling overhead, above the intimate sounds of one of the world’s most spiritual cities, I dial in my breathing. In through the nose, down into the belly, and out through the nose. 4 seconds in, 6 second out, I slightly lengthen my exhales with each full breath to move my autonomic nervous system into a more relaxed parasympathetic state, exhaling the disorientation and stress that accompany any long-distance airplane trip, made more so due to COVIDtopian flight risks.
LSD breathing – Light (instead of heavy); Slow (instead of fast); and Deep and Diaphragmatic (instead of shallow, mouth to chest) – is a simple and powerful protocol for optimizing human respiration, one of many on our new Peak Flow breathwork ecosystem program. As I breathe, I feel my mind and body slowly settle, relax into here and now, and shift my presence to this present moment, as the vibration of a bird’s wings “whoosh” the air directly overhead, the snap of drying laundry crackling in the urban breeze above my right ear. “By changing how we breathe, we can tune the dials on waking consciousness – as easily and as powerfully as any other method we have,” concludes Flow Genome Project co-founder Jamie Wheal in Recapture The Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex and Death In A World That’s Lost Its Mind. “Our bones and muscles will thank us. Our souls might, too.” (218)
And as I use breathwork to cultivate resilience, I imagine resistance.
I remember Rahma from the plane flight – her beautiful eyes, wicked sense of humor, love for her family, frustration with and hope for her health work in the time of the COVID. Our shared 13-hour high altitude adventure, marked by listening, laughing, talking, and holding space for one another in such cramped quarters over half a day’s time, is a form of resistance, with stories being the conversational glue that binds and empowers us, making us more “spirited.”
Stories are central to both human resilience and resistance, and humility, curiosity, and questions have long fueled we sapiens’ insatiable desire to more deeply understand our world and our place in and on it.
“The importance of data to life is why information collecting is the first thing that primitive brain cells evolved to do – and why it remains a primary function of our own cutting-edge brain matter. Most of the neurons in our skulls exist to amass intel (from our eyes, our pain receptors, and our other sensory organs)and to then store it in various memory banks (short-term, episodic, semantic, procedural),” observes neuroscientist, literature PhD, and Project Narrative director Angus Fletcher in his brilliant book Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions In The History Of Literature. “To help with this life-sustaining endeavor, millions of years of natural selection have exquisitely calibrated our brain’s information-gathering circuitry. That circuitry doesn’t want to squander valuable time searching for answers that cannot be known. Nor does I want to waste valuable time searching for answers that don’t matter. So, to avoid both dead ends, our brain’s information-gathering circuitry has evolved to work its hardest when we feel like we have some idea of the answer - but also feel unconfident about what that answer is.”
We humans are storied creatures – we breathe, live, and die by stories, quite literally.
Information, encoded in stories, shared via media environments, form us – mind, body, and spirit.
We must share stories that cultivate compassion and courage, for ourselves and for our world.
The mystics in all religious traditions have long understood the power of story, and indeed, most every famed prayer, chant or mantra in most every religious tradition, from Buddhism’s “Om Mani Padme Om” to Catholicism’s “Ave Maria,” lasts roughly 5 ½ seconds, which science reveals to be the optimum breathwork pattern for resilient breathing.
Strange coincidence? Or divine mystery made manifest?
When we humans pray or chant together, we are building both individual resilience and community resistance, empowering one another for whatever challenges lie ahead, and celebrating our essential common humanity.
And listening and telling stories around campfires real and digital – inform us. Lyrics and literature, oral and written, literally influence our mind, body spirit, stories are technologically time-tested tools for building resistance and resilience, as Fletcher’s Wonderworks explores.
“Literature’s inventions can plug into different regions of our brain – the emotion centers of our amygdala, the imagination hubs of our default mode network, the spiritual nodes of our parietal lobe, the heart softeners of our empathy system, the God’s eye elevators of our prefrontal neurons, the pleasure centers of our caudate nucleus, the psychedelic pathways of our visual cortex – to alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, sharpen intelligence, increase mental energy, kindle creativity, inspire confidence, and enrich our days with myriad other psychological benefits,” observes Fletcher. “The invention [of literature] was a marvel. It could mend cracks in the heart and resurrect hope in the dark. It could summon up raptures and impossible days. It could chase away dullness and unlatch the sky.”
Language and literature.
Literally, informing each other by breathing in each other’s stories.
Our words have power and meaning and purpose, and are gateways to becoming “spirited.”
Take a seemingly simple Sanskrit word like “Namaste,” which many of us utter in passing, without thinking, which means “the spirit in me honors the spirit in you.’
Stories imbued with Spirit - a deeply human invention for cultivating resilience and resistance!
I descend from the roof around 4 pm - woozy from jet lag and slightly euphoric from breathing - and meet our trekking leaders: the Rai brothers, Binoy and Pranoy, our old friends who run Mystic Himalaya Trekking Company; Pemba, our good-humored chef; and our TR contact Lakhba from Langtang Valley, an survivor of the 2015 catastrophe. After PCR “tests” for all administered by an overzealous nurse, we enjoy dinner together, and Lakhba shares mesmerizing stories of the 2015 earthquake and destruction of village communities throughout the Langtang Valley, most notably the horrific destruction of Langtang Village itself. After bearing remote witness to Langtang’s destruction for five years via our Trek Relief work, I am eager to see our rebuild efforts up close and personal. Looking around the table at our trekking companions, I marvel once again at Candice’s remarkable ability to organize and inspire a diverse group of humans from around North America to assemble here in Nepal for our upcoming adventure. Her charismatic combination of professionalism, good humor, logistical leadership, and affability prove potent and infectious. Excusing myself after dinner, I sleep soundly, not even hearing my friend and roommate for the week, Jeremy, wander in later in the evening.
Binoy, Candice, and Pranoy at Kathmandu's International Guest House. December 2021.
Monday, November 29: Kathmandu tour day! After a morning meditation/breathwork sesh in IGH’s stunning outdoor garden, the slight whooshing of bird wings overhead (again!) punctuating the morning stillness, I meet our team for a garden breakfast of toast, omelettes, granola, and coffee. Candice has assembled a remarkable crew: Boston-based power couple Wendy and Caleb; friends Joyce and Brian from the San Francisco Bay Area; Jeremy from Nevada; Candice and partner Weston (ED of a nonprofit called Rios To Rivers); and myself. Over coffee, we jump right in and go deep, as Candice and Weston debrief us on the COP-26 IPCC conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and we all explore and flag questions to ponder while on the trail.
Kathmandu's Boudinath Buddhist Stupa. December 2021.
Binoy and Pranoy meet us after breakfast, and we spend the morning touring two famed sacred sites - Pashupati’s Hindu temple and Boudinath’s Buddhist Stupa. Pranoy is a fantastic tour guide – knowledgable and funny, while Binoy drives and manages our day’s logistics. Kathmandu boasts a stunning blue sky - not even the Kat’s ubiquitous urban pollution can compete - and as the day warms up, we soak up Nepal’s rich cultural and religious heritage. Over lunch at a Boudinath second story restaurant (momo, pokara, pasta, and Yeti beer), Brian shares his journey with us – having quit his high-paying corporate job, he has committed to a months-long spiritual pilgrimage, with our Trek Relief trip serving as his launch pad to new adventures. In his early thirties, he is deeply thoughtful, and full of curiosity and a winning smile. I like him immediately. Returning to IGH late afternoon, we grab dinner at a famed nearby restaurant specializing in local Nepali cuisine, and turn in early in preparation for our big adventure.
Tuesday, November 30: After one more IGH breakfast, our eight trekkers help our Mystic Himalaya support team strap our TR duffels to our two trucks’ roof racks, and we slowly wind our way through Kat morning traffic, heading northeast towards the Langtang Valley, cradled in the heart of the Everest region. I am riding with Joyce, Caleb and Wendy – and we spend time getting to know each other, sharing stories, napping, and enjoying the stunning views. Caleb, a software salesman, and Wendy, who is in medical school, are a beautiful couple in their early thirties – funny, smart, and curious, with a penchant for telling stories and an obsession with teeth brushing, flossing, and oral hygiene, which they are the first to joke about. I like them immediately, and we bond over the wild and unpredictable drive on which we find ourselves. Driving in rural mountainous Nepal is a uniquely exhilarating (some say “terrifying”) experience, marked by majestic mountains, sprawling river valleys, farm fields and terraced towns, and an ever-flowing two-laned dusty dance of myriad rolling vehicles, from two wheeled cycles of every description to giant Tata construction trucks sporting colorful iconography (Hendrix meets Vishnu - #wtf?) and local mantras – “Buddha was born in Nepal!” “Dhalbat Power – 24 Hour!”
As we drive, we practice our Nepali – “zum zum” (“let’s go!”) meets “bisteri” (“slowly”) and every once in a while “cheto cheto!” (“quickly”) – and find ourselves subjected to an unprecedented four passport checks at various government and military stops as we near Langtang. Our first of four stops finds us navigating heavily armed Nepali soldiers while removing our bags from Jeep roofs for fairly thorough searches, which slows our travel by more than an hour. As the late afternoon grows crepuscular, we nappy “bobble headed” travelers nod off, awakening to find ourselves parked outside a multistory hotel in Syabrubesi (6,600 feet), the jumping off point for Langtang Valley trekking. “(“Besi,” I learn, means “valley bottom” – so we are in the town of lower Syabru – base of the Langtang river valley). We unload, grab dinner, and head to the local community center for updates on our school rebuild. I am curious – after years of work and $50,000 of fundraising under Trek Relief’s belt, what will we learn? Our host, a young and earnest local community leader whom Candice does not know, explains the complexities of the situation, and as we talk, teenagers quietly ply us with tea, coffee, and snacks. We agree to meet our host the next morning, wander back to our lodge, and retire for the night, the burbling of the river outside my fourth story hotel room window.
Wednesday, December 1: We begin our first day of trekking with a monster breakfast – eggs, pancakes, and Vermont maple syrup (of course!) - suit up our eight happy porters with our duffels, and “day pack” through town and across a riverine suspension bridge to our trailhead and the school rebuild site. Our plan is to head up the river valley from Syabrubesi to Lama Hotel, but first, we tour our new school building, still missing windows and finishing work. Above the site, somewhat ominously, we see the gouged trail marking the boulders that slid down from just above the school site – a reminder of this region’s ever-present unstable geological realities.
Team Trek Relief - our fantastic crew of porters. December 2021.
As we talk with our local host, another older Nepali man arrives, and it immediately becomes clear that tensions exist between these two locals. After talking with Candice, the older man smiles, welcome us, and we learn through Candice that he served as the local “general contractor” for our Trek Relief building. While Candice and Binoy talk in more detail with him, we wander up to the upper village for a look around – this neighborhood is super quiet, and we eye the river valley rolling up into the mountains above us. My feet are itchy. Zum zum!
Trek Relief's Langtang Valley elementary school rebuild. December 2021.
Binoy and Candice arrive, give us a quick update, and we all agree we’ll talk later about this odd encounter with our two local contacts – all of us are excited to hit the trail. We cross over the main river to the upper trailhead, and start ambling up the main road as the sun begins to warm the day. Our morning trek takes us through a massive hydro dam project, currently in the throes of construction, which prompts a lively discussion amongst our trekking group about the costs and benefits of hydro dams. After a snack stop and “locals visit” at a tea lodge perched just above the river (“what will happen to your community once this valley is flooded?” we ask, and they shake their heads, unsure of the answer), our trail steepens and lifts us up into a beautiful jungle’like landscape, steep rock walls rising above us on both sides, with the rushing sounds of the beautiful glacial kola (river) below a stunning soundtrack to our day. As we ascend, giant crows, isolated mountain sheep, and beautiful bee hives –amber brown, luminescent, and dangling from massive rocky boulders like intricate honeyed icicles – appear and disappear from our view.
Looking around, step by step, I am reminded of the grandeur and beauty of the Himalayan landscape – unlike any other place I have been. Body and mind flow together, breaths blend with my steps, and I settle into trail mode – happy to be moving under my own power. We stop for lunch at a tea lodge precariously perched above a riverine cliff with stunning views, and hike all afternoon into the semi-darkness, arriving at the Lama Hotel just before we lose all daylight. After enthusiastic greetings among our porters and trekkers, we unpack, relax, and get dinner prep underway. I bring my Taylor mini travel guitar into the kitchen and sing a few tunes, while Pemba and the local lodge proprietors chop vegetables, whip up local Tibetan bread, and keep the chulo (the local high mountain Nepali stove of choice) fired up. I sit quietly, observing our team of local porters bantering busily about the kitchen, including head chef Pemba Tamang, Bujel Raju, Dil Waiba, Indra Khaling Rai, Pema Tamang, and Pemba Tamang – all excited after two long COVIDtopian years, to be back on the trail again.
Nepal's lower Langtang Valley. December 2021.
After a delicious dhalbat meal, we practice a round of “Resham Firiri,” the famed Nepali trekking song, and turn in for the night. My roommate Jeremy, who works in Nevada as an energy consultant for natural gas pipeline companies, is a fantastic trekking partner – smart, funny, and curious – and has adopted a trekking outfit reminiscent of a Star Wars’ Tuscan Raider – turban, goggles, layers of sun protection, and all kinds of tech gear hanging off various appendages of his body. Plus, he doesn’t snore. Mostly. Did I say I like him almost immediately?
Back to resilience and resistance as a pathways to becoming more “spirited.”
Breathing, our first tool, is key.
Breathing in the Himalayas. December 2021.
The second tool? What Wheal calls “embodiment.”
Building a mobile trekking community is both art and science, and traveling with Candice and Trek Relief once again reminds me of a second pathway, beyond breathwork alone, to deepening Human resilience and resistance – embodiment. Once we begin to tap into our Breath, using conscious respiratory protocols to become more mindful and aware of our moment-by-moment experience, we can turn our attention to how we embody – individually and collectively – our physical universe, how we “show up” daily as geo-spiritual beings, bundles of energy trapped in (or liberated by?) our physical form.
My new friend Jeremy reminds me of this “embodiment” phenomenon. He is an unusually big dude – a strapping 6 ½ foot gent who takes up big space. He also gives off a surprisingly gentle energy, thoughtful, quiet, and wryly funny. Like each of us, Jeremy embodies a unique physical presence. Together, our combined collective presence as we move through space and time offers opportunities to listen, talk, share stories and meals as we interact with more settle communities who call Langtang Valley their home.
Our roving Trek Relief community – mobile, temporary, light on our feet – also provides opportunities for learning from one another and those we encounter. Every step we take and every breath we make within the confines of our physical bodies is an opportunity to both give and receive. Consider the essence of being embodied for a moment. “Once we strip off our clothing and even lop off our arms and legs, we are, after all, little more than prefrontal cortices connected to spinal cords connected to erogenous zones,” observes Recapture The Rapture author Jamie Wheal. “Put even more bluntly,” he wryly concludes, “we’re worms with mouths, genitals, and arseholes.”
Acknowledging the basics of our biology in this way is liberating, opening up potential possibilities for we Humans to leverage individual and collective embodiment. How we choose to occupy space then becomes a geo-spiritual exercise – as the myriad prayer flags, mani stones, and chorten stupas punctuating our trekking journey signify. High Himalayan communities are infused with spiritual embodiment, and the geo-spiritual energy here is palpable, the equivalent of walking through a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque.
Embodiment is a collective human project, not just one to be left to each individual.
Upward, into this geo-spiritual landscape, we go.
Candice and Joyce hula hoop'ing with our tea lodge hostess. December 2021.
Thursday, December 2: Morning comes early, and while we eat outside in the semi-darkness - a breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and Tibetan bread – a small cluster of Nepali mountain monkeys gather a few hundred yards away, in a copse of trees above the glacial kola (river), which is running turbulent and heavy at this spot along the trail. I wander over, coffee mug in hand, to visit them – and they stare back at me, and then move up and away into the trees. As we pack for the trail, Jeremy shares exciting news – up early, he witnessed what he swears was a snow leopard scamper down the trail that runs right past Lama Hotel. “Astonishing!” I say. “Do you know how few humans have ever laid eyes on such a beautiful and rare creature?” We both grin.
Day #2 sees our trail growing steeper, and we follow the river ever upward towards the mountains, moving through beautiful forests of bamboo, ascending steep pitches of rocky switch backs, surrounded by steep cliffs on all sides. I fall in with Joyce, who hikes with a hula hoop, and is a beautiful and hilarious human, full of questions, stories, and good energy. Like Brian, Joyce is in her early thirties and in the midst of personal and professional transition. We’ve already dubbed her Trek Relief’s “Chief Snack Officer,” as her day pack is brimming over with candies and munchies of every description, including a wide variety of Japanese snack foods that all prove addictively delicious. Like Candice, she also spins fire, and has a wicked sense of humor. I like her immediately.
Straight up all day we trek, emerging out of the lower forests and into high mountain country, the Himalayas growing steadily closer. We stop for a lunch of momos and local fried potatoes – Nepali trekking meals are profound – and take time to lay around in the sun, taking turns sharing our favorite stretching and breathing exercises. Binoy and Candice show us their favorite yoga moves, I run everyone through the “Five Tibetan Rites,” and Caleb falls asleep in the sun, lightly snoring. Trekking time on the trail is luxurious. The skies cloud over by late afternoon, and as we arrive at our tea lodge by dark, the wind picks up and a light rain begins to fall.
Langtang Valley ascent. December 2021.
After unpacking, we gather around the wood stove to warm up, take our first of two “on trail” COVID “tests” (part of Trek Relief’s new COVID-friendly protocols) all together -negatives all around – and I bust out the Taylor travel guitar for a round of singing and stories before our dalbhat dinner. As we head to our rooms for the night, the wind is now borderline howling, the rain has turned to snow, and the night is deep and dark. Good night for sleeping.
Friday, December 3: We awaken the next morning to find the power has gone out – never dull on the trail! – but we enjoy a wood-fired breakfast over the chulo stove, and hit the trail, layering up for our first cold, raw and rainy day of trekking. Almost immediately, we arrive at the Langtang site – a massive cascading river of rocks and boulders 30 meters deep that plowed through the entire village six years ago, destroying everything in its path. We stop and silently bear witness, as Candice points out the path of destruction and relays stories of Trek Relief’s visits here. Beyond the destruction, in the distance, the new village of Langtang is rising, including an elementary school with which Trek Relief has established an ongoing relationship. We descend into the deluge, silently walking across the rubble and up into the new village, the mist and rain adding a mysterious air to an already-haunting atmosphere. Entering town, we pass by a memorial site, the names of the victims listed on a plaque, and continue up the trail for the next several hours, focused on keeping warm and moving in the chilly and damp weather. A quick stop at a building signed “Hard Rock Café,” site of a traditional Tibetan Sky Burial, where Binoy shares a remarkable story about how his grandfather, a traditional Rai hunter, met his grandmother, a salt-bearing young woman from the village. Breathing! Embodiment!
And, at long last – yaks! As we ascend higher, we move through our first herds of full yaks – blacks, dapples, blues, royals – with several grunting calves in tow. We take photos, and yak yaks, continuing to move upwards into full snow, reaching Kyanjin Gumpa by lunch time, our outer rain gear and packs soaked with water, happy to be in out of the weather. We’re staying in Nurling Kyangjin Gumpa Guest House, a four-story hotel at the high end of town with astonishing top floor and open-air rooftop views of both mountains just above and the sprawling valley below. The owner, a ruggedly handsome and quietly confident Tamang guy named Nerub Chering, tells me he owns fifteen yaks – 12 nak(female) and 3 yak bulls that roam the mountains above – all inherited from his father, raising them for meat (yak momo is on their menu), milk, and hair for jackets. “I love yaks,” he tells me as we sit and chat in front his top floor wood stove, in a beautifully understated room that doubles as dining hall and guest hang out space. “Me, too,” I reply, showing him my Vermont Yak Company hat. We both grin.
"Om Mani Padme Om." Nepal's Langtang Valley mani wall. Geospiritual Landscapes.
We meet the only other guest staying here, a thirties-something German gent named Michael with a winning grin and a wicked sense of humor. “I am happiest when I am in the mountains trekking on my own,” he tells me after we introduce ourselves. “You’ve got a big group here.” I laugh, apologize for us encroaching on his solo space, and he smiles, explaining that he is happy to see fellow trekkers up here on the cusp of winter. “I am a fan of what the Scandinavians call ‘Friluftsliv,’ what translates into ‘free air living,’” he says. “So are we,” I say, gesturing around at our Trek Relief crew spilling into the common room. We laugh.
Our afternoon and evening is spent relaxing as we settle in for two nights here, and enjoying the snow falling outside from the warm comfort of our lodge. Tea, yak cheese, crackers, followed by dhalbat dinner and a group singalong with Michael, our lodge owning family, and all of our porters. “A raucous version of “Resham Firiri,” resoundingly sung by our Nepali crew, Binoy leading the verses, turns into an EDM driven dance party, with JoJo and Candice inaugurating the dance floor with some suggestive Nepali dance moves, and others quickly joining in. Caleb and Wendy show off their newly acquired ballroom dancing skills, and then everyone crowds onto the dance floor for manic mayhem, powered by a bit of Nepali chang (rum) and good energy from all assembled.
Nepali Fire Spinning. Candice brings the Magic. December 2021.
#TravelWithPurpose – and celebrate #TeamHuman (and Planet Yak) at every opportunity.
Our dance party evening reminds me of a third Human tool for cultivating resilience and resistance: music.
“Humans are social animals, and music may have historically served to promote feelings of group togetherness and synchrony,” explains McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the eye-opening book This Is Your Brain On Music. “Singing around the ancient campfire might have been a way to stay awake, to ward off predators, and to develop social coordination and social cooperation within the group. Humans need social linkages to make society work,” Levitan notes, “and music is one of them.”
In fact, many researchers are now wondering if Humans’ invention of music - with its unique mystically resonant power to deeply touch us in ways we still don’t fully understand - preceded the development of language itself. “Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, an everyone participated,” explains Levitin.
As mentioned earlier, Breath author James Nestor makes a profound observation about the relationship between music, breathwork, and prayer, noting that central to the practice of every religious tradition was a musical chant lasting 5 ½ seconds: Hinduism’s sa ta na ma chant, Buddhism’s Om Mani Padme Hum, Catholicism’s Ave Maria, and Taoist and Native American musical chants all featured the same cycle of musical breath’icality. Astonishing. “Prayer heals,” Nestor concludes, “especially when it’s practiced at 5.5 breaths a minute.” And even more especially when the prayer, as articulated by the breath, is contained within music. Add to this the ways in which community musical celebrations cultivate both celebration and resistance – and suddenly, our high-altitude late night “Resham Firiri” singalong dance party takes on deeper and more profound meaning.
Kyangjin Yakking. December 2021.
Saturday, December 4: In typical Trek Relief fashion, we all decide to spend our Kyanjin “rest” day trekking to the top of the nearest peak. Or attempting to do so. Despite overnight snow accumulations now totaling 6 inches on the slopes above our lodge, a number of us – Joyce, Brian, Caleb, Jeremy and me - decide to give it a go, while Candice, Weston, Pemba and Binoy chart a more ambitious day to a higher peak a bit further up the trail. The morning is stunning – windless, with quickly warming sun and blue skies – as we switchback our way up the hillside, rising steadily towards the peaks above. Fairly quickly, I strip down to a tee shirt, stopping to snap photos of our team below, all of us tossing snowballs at one another and laughing. After two hours of steady trudging through the snow, we reach a false summit, and enjoy an hour up top, posing for our official Trek Relief banner photo and dozens of impromptu pics, throwing snowballs, snacking (thanks, Joyce!), and admiring the snow-capped peaks above and the snow dusted Langtang Valley stretching off and down in the distance. Roof of the World! We follow up our morning trek with a quiet afternoon and evening of rest and recovery, reading, music, and conversation, punctuated by a post-dinner fire spinning session on the rooftop under a stunning star-filled sky.
Kyangjin Kola (River) Yakking. December 2021. (Photo credit: Wendy Meek.)
Rest days? The best days.
Sunday, December 5: 7:30 am breakfast, packing, and goodbyes, as we prepare for two days of steep mountain descent back down the trail to Syabrubesi. Nerub’s son Tenzing tells us over breakfast of the annual August Yak Festival here in Kyangjin, an event known as Dhukphu Chejea. Every August, a rare white yak is herded up the Langtang Valley, and the locals use a symbolic arrow to cut the leash and release this special yak. If the yak runs towards the mountains, the upcoming year will be an auspicious one, but if the yak runs towards the valley, it is seen as a bad omen. “This is an expensive festival,” explains Tenzing, the son of our lodge owners, “costing 500,000 rupees ($15,000 USD) to buy the yak and cover then transport costs.” I tell him I hope to come back some day in August to enjoy the festival, and follow the yak whichever way she runs. We grin.
On our way out of town, we stop by the local artisan yak cheese factory and the gumpa (monastery), stocking up on fromage and Buddhist traveling mercies – spinning the prayer wheels as we descend the trail, passing to the left of the mani by the meditation center just below town, and flowing our line of trekkers into the massive mountain river valley below. By lunch, we have arrived in Langtang, where we visit with the local school children, take photos, hand out books, and enjoy a leisurely lunch of pasta in the full mountain sun. While Pemba and our porters prepare our meal, I pop up on the roof of our Memorial Guest House, a salmon colored three story building sitting just above the massive rock slide and memorial. As crows call overhead, and the occasional yak grunts drift up from below, I sweep my gaze, indeed, my whole body, very slowly in a panoramic motion, soaking in the 360-degree view, enjoying the sun and the breeze and the animating spirit of this place.
Resilience. Resistance. Humans. Yaks. And beyond.
Trekking Descent - Nepal's Langtang Valley. December 2021.
For our two-day trekking descent, I’ve quietly made the decision to ingest, in measured doses, a psylocibin/chocolate compound to heighten my perceptions of our journey. Having read, researched and listened to psychonaut friends’ creative use of various mind-altering substances for some time now, I make this my first “trekking on mushrooms” experience. Several friends are fond of quoting the newest studies and latest texts, including Michael Pollan’s ground-breaking book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. “Normal waking consciousness feels perfectly transparent,” Pollan observes, “and yet it is less a window on reality than the product of our imaginations-a kind of controlled hallucination.”
I have spent the past year beginning my own exploration of what many dub “sacred sacraments,” a fourth tool – beyond breathwork, embodiment, and music - for cultivating “spiritedness” via resilience and resistance. My own journey has led me to psylocibin mushrooms, which contain naturally occurring mind-altering compounds. During the past year, I’ve conducted regular experimentation in the safety and privacy of my Vermont homestead, dialing in the appropriate dosage to maximize mushrooms’ benefits, in order to be ready to responsibly ingest this form of “plant medicine,” a form of “entheogen” or “sacred substance,” while traveling.
Entheogens? Say what?
“Every culture has found such chemical means of transcendence, and at some point the use of intoxicants becomes institutionalized at a magical or sacramental level [and] the sacramental use of psychoactive plant substances has a long history and continues to the present day in various shamanic and religious rites around the world…some people can reach transcendent states through meditation or similar trance-inducing techniques, or through prayer and spiritual exercises,” observes New York University neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. “But drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand. These shortcuts are possible because certain chemicals can directly stimulate many complex brain functions.”
Add in breathing, embodiment, and music to the mix – and it’s no wonder that Humans have combined plants’ potent power with other resilience-building tools to enhance our “spirited” experiences in the world.
No better way to deeper “spirited” discovery than direct experimentation.
Back to Pollan, whose thoughtful writing has helped open up a global dialogue about psylocibins.
Plant Medicine. Golden Hour. December 2021.
“For me, ‘spiritual’ is a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced. If nothing else, these journeys have shown me how that psychic construct—at once so familiar and on reflection so strange—stands between us and some striking new dimensions of experience, whether of the world outside us or of the mind within,” explains Michael Pollan in How to Change Your Mind. “Compared with other drugs, psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice, because they tend to magnify whatever’s already going on both inside and outside one’s head.”
Pollan’s groundbreaking book is worth quoting at length here.
“Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation,” he observes. “Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner.”
Habits, in other words, lock us into familiar patterns of thought and behavior. Well rutted grooves.
“If you need to be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country,” Pollan explains. “Suddenly you wake up! And the algorithms of everyday life all but start over, as if from scratch. This is why the various travel metaphors for the psychedelic experience are so apt.”
Agreed re: traveling. “The great enemy of ignorance,” as Mark Twain famously noted, and also, like psylocibins, a pathway to rediscover the present moment through disrupting our well-worn patterns of thought, feeling and behavior.
“The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing,” Pollan states. “We approach experience much as an artificial intelligence (AI) program does, with our brains continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future.”
Agreed again. Consider how our Digital Age state of “continuous partial attention” (CPA) keeps us from being completely present in an age of endless digital distraction.
“One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful - wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself. (It’s so inefficient!),” explains Pollan. “Alas, most of the time I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.”
Neuroscientist and Becoming Supernatural: How Common People Are Doing The Uncommon author Dr. Joe Dispenza echoes Pollan’s observations, noting that the vast majority of our thoughts are “regrets about yesterday or anxieties about tomorrow.” The ever-present chattering of our “monkey mind,” amplified by the networked digital state of CPA, makes being present a challenge.
“Quantum mechanics holds that matter may not be as innocent of mind as the materialist would have us believe. For example, a subatomic particle can exist simultaneously in multiple locations, is pure possibility, until it is measured—that is, perceived by a mind. Only then and not a moment sooner does it drop into reality as we know it: acquire fixed coordinates in time and space,” Pollan elaborates, drawing on the work of physicist Werner Heisenberg and his “uncertainty principle,” which held that light, as both a wave and a particle, was elusive, tricky to box up or pin down. “The implication here is that matter might not exist as such in the absence of a perceiving subject. Needless to say, this raises some tricky questions for a materialist understanding of consciousness. The ground underfoot may be much less solid than we think.”
“Psilocybes gave our hominid ancestors ‘access to realms of supernatural power,’ ‘catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection,’ and ‘brought us out of the animal mind and into the world of articulated speech and imagination,’” Pollan explains, reflecting on pioneering psychonaut and researcher Terrence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory. “This last hypothesis about the invention of language turns on the concept of synesthesia, the conflation of the senses that psychedelics are known to induce: under the influence of psilocybin, numbers can take on colors, colors attach to sounds, and so on,” Pollan elaborates. “Language, [McKenna] contends, represents a special case of synesthesia, in which otherwise meaningless sounds become linked to concepts. Hence, the stoned ape: by giving us the gifts of language and self-reflection psilocybin mushrooms made us who we are, transforming our primate ancestors into Homo sapiens.”
Entheogens as the gateway to becoming fully human?
It’s a controversial theory, tantalizing to ponder while in flow and full of wonder.
“Wonder,” to reiterate Pollan one last time, “being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”
Descending into the Langtang Valley, under the influence of ‘shrooms and the sun’s warming rays, I find myself focusing on sync’ing up my breathing – inhale and then exhale - with my steps, feeling the plants sharpening my sensory perceptions and heightening my sense of this place and this present moment. It feels like a form of magic, as the plants’ gently push me into a more flow’like state, and I imagine myself comprised of water (which, of course, we are!), floating over and around rocks and boulders as we make our way down the often-steep trail which we had ascended just a few days before. Some may wonder if psylocibins are disorienting. I find exactly the opposite – not only am I more focused and present, but oddly, I feel more aware of each breath and each step, my senses heightened, my proprioceptive abilities amplified, the state of “descending” (which can often by jarring for both mind and body) becoming more like a meditative and graceful dance. My entheogenic ride continues for several hours until lunch, and I tank up on more ‘shrooms for the afternoon’s portion of our journey, extending the adventure until dinner. I remember while in flow the work of Paul Stamets, another human who has popularized plants as powerfully “spirited” tools.
“Mushrooms have taught me the interconnectedness of all life-forms and the molecular matrix that we share,” explains Stamets, a mycelium researcher and perhaps our Western world’s foremost ‘shroom champion. “I no longer feel that I am in this envelope of a human life called Paul Stamets. I am part of the stream of molecules that are flowing through nature. I am given a voice, given consciousness for a time, but I feel that I am part of this continuum of stardust into which I am born and to which I will return at the end of this life.”
As I trek, with the plants my internal companions, I can feel more deeply this “molecular matrix – and the interconnectedness of all life-forms.”
And of course, indigenous Humans have long understood all of this.
Just listen to their voices, such as plant biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer.
“In the Western tradition there’s a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top — the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation — and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn,” writes Kimmerer in her remarkable book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. “We must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance - their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out. They live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld to the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”
Skyworld – as I flow down a high Himalayan mountain valley, accompanied by entheogenic plants within, the term resonates.
Down, down we trek – crossing over the giant rock slide, listening to the free running stream and the whispers of the disappeared – humans and yaks alike – buried under this bouldered tomb. Down down, descending from the pastured highlands, through small camoflauged herds of yaks and zyokop, barely visible or audible all around us, down into the jungled canopy, in flow on the trail – mind, body, and spirit - with a little assist from a dose of plant medicine and the encouragement and stories of our colleagues. Having taken our time at lunch, we trek until after dark, the moon rising and touching the high Himalayas with a luminescent glow, Venus, Jupiter, and the stars emerging overhead as we fire up our head lamps, the sounds of the river rushing nearby. We arrive to our Riverside tea lodge by 7:30, unpack, and enjoy a quiet meal and our second group COVID PCR party (all negative) in front of the wood stove. Brian reminds me of his interest in a morning cold plunge in the river – “tomorrow morning is our last chance!” he nudges me. Jeremy, Joyce and Candice all weigh in with enthusiasm, and we agree to meet in the morning after I have a chance to scout the riverbank for safe and accessible ice bathing spots.
Monday, December 6: Morning comes, crisp and cold, and after I scout the kola’s banks, I find a reasonable spot for entering the water – an onshore eddy just beyond the rushing turbulence. Brian, Weston, Jeremy, Joyce and Candice all take turns lying down in the frigid water, modulating their breathing, and enjoying the unique benefits of the cold, followed by horse stance, hot coffee, and warming in front of the wood stove. “Cold is Gold,” we say in the Wim Hof community. “Ice is Nice.”Spirited, their courage and stamina so early in the morning, especially after our days on the trail. We share stories of the experience over breakfast, pack up for the last time, and head onto the trail for our last day down the mountain valley, following the ever-present river to Syabrubesi.
TR Selfie! Last morning on the trail. December 2021.
While waiting for our whole group to assemble, I witness a group of five locals wrangling a recalcitrant yak down the trail. Clearly, the yak is not at all interested in complying with whatever these men are asking of her, and they tie up the unfortunate creature in a copse of trees next to Riverside Lodge and stop in for tea, clearly annoyed at the stubborn sexy beast, now quiet and content in rumination off the trail just below me. I quietly wander over and bask in the yak’s spirited energy, drawing strength from this beautiful animal for our final trekking day on the trail.
Takes two ropes to restrain this "spirited" yak. December 2021.
After a group selfie (Candice is a pro), we head down the trail, our crew of porters ahead of us, laughing, joking, and singing as they disappear in the distance with our duffels on their backs.
We trek all morning, descending down along the same trail we followed up just a few days ago. Every day of trekking is an opportunity to see with fresh eyes, to experience with new senses, and I am always amazed at how the same geography can feel so different when we attend to the present moment. At its best, trekking is an extended meditation, and going down is an opportunity to slide into balletic flow – synching spirit, body, and mind – sliding over rocks, moving along roots, hopping from one foot to another, engaging the hands and the body as needed. With the help of a dose of plant medicine, I am deep into “trek flow” by late morning, focusing on the sights and sounds around me, carving out solo time while keeping an eye on our group.
We stop for a late lunch at a tea lodge with a spectacular view, our lunch table vista commanding the kola and valley below. Our last meal of trail momo, french fries, and marsala tea, more stories, jokes, and memories, and we make the final three-hour descent back down to Syabrubesi, once more walking through the hydro dam construction project and up the newly-created dirt road, enduring the snorting of tractors and the bellowing of gravel trucks – the hum of human ingenuity and industrial civilization. What will Langtang Valley look like when we return? Will our riverine tea lodges be submerged under water? Or will they be enjoying the fruits of cheap and abundant electricity via the dam to help power their homes and develop their businesses? Will the hydro dam encourage more tourist traffic here, or are we among the last trekkers to witness Langtang before it is flooded forever?
All is in a state of impermanence, he Buddhists remind us.
Arriving back in town by early evening, we unpack at our lodge, bust out some biers (our German friend Michael is already deep into his second bottle in the hotel lobby), and make plans for our final ceremonial dinner honoring our Nepali porters and leaders. I sneak out and walk up the main road for my traditional post-trek shave. A young local gent – skinny, handsome, funny, and expertly wielding a sharp straight edged razor - keeps me nearly half an hour in his barber’s chair. I almost fall asleep, and when I emerge from semi dozing, my face is baby butt smooth. One of life’s little pleasures – the post-trek single razor shave.
Single blade - on the razor's edge in Syabrubesi. December 2021.
Back at the lodge, Lakbha has arrived to visit with us one more time, and we dine, crush a celebratory cake, and one by one, toast each of our porters and ply them with praise and generous tips. I celebrate Ram, our Tamang porter with superior fashion sense and a winning smile. With Binoy leading us, we sing one more round of “Resham FiRiRi” together - bittersweet – and we promise to stay in touch and be back for trekking again very soon. And of course – fire spinning! One last pre-departure session right out in front of the hotel – Jojo, Candice, Jeremy, Joyce, Pemba – with local passersby stopping to gawk and snap pics.
Fire. Elemental. Spirited. Mysterious, its powers to mesmerize and draw us in.
A powerful ending to a remarkable adventure.
Tuesday, December 7: I sleep soundly, wake up early, and enjoy a few quiet moments on the roof, soaking in the mountains here in Langtang Valley one last time while listening to the kola burble by below our hotel. Breakfast, jeep packing, goodbyes, and we are on our way – the day cool and sun dappled – and after hours of dancing with Nepalese traffic over winding, mountainous roads, we arrive back in Kathmandu, find our way to the International Guest House, unpack, and walk to what turns out to be a delicious outdoor Tibetan restaurant for our “last supper” together. Jeremy and I do a last bit of souvenir shopping and then we all head to bed – exhausted and pleased to be back in the big city.
Back in Kathmandu, one of the world’s most geo-spiritually sacred and sensual cities, is a reminder of one last Human tool for cultivating resilience and resistance.
Hedonic engineering, embodied first and foremost by the forgotten mysteries surrounding sex.
Hedonic engineering refers to “the human nervous system studying and improving itself: intelligence studying and improving intelligence,” explains author and futurist Robert Anton Wilson, who popularized the term decades ago. “Why be depressed, dumb, and agitated when you can be happy, smart, and tranquil?’
And as any Human who has experienced pleasurable sex will attest, the act of sustained intimacy is perhaps one of our greatest and most underdiscussed tools for cultivating Human resilience and resistance, and cultural recognition of this powerful protocol goes back a long way.
Consider Kathmandu’s “sex temples” found in a number of spots in the ancient “city within a city” known as Bhaktapur.
The first time I witnessed the “sex temples” was in 2013, my first visit to Nepal. Like many, I found myself at once mesmerized and slightly embarrassed at my fascination with the graphic pictures– what could possibly have prompted Bhaktapur’s residents to splash explicit images of acts of sexual intercourse on the outsides of their public temples? No one knows for sure, and several theories have emerged: 1) encouraging population growth among the young; 2) celebrating the mystical elements of sex; 3) challenging the abstinence-focused challenge of Buddhism; and 4) replacing dead soldiers in a time of ongoing wars with new babies, who would soon grow up to be potential military men.
Two things about Bhaktapur’s sex temples, though, are curious. First, the graphic images depict sexual acts as part of normal daily routines – fetching water from the well, doing one’s hair, bathing in a tub. Second, the temples depict other non-Human animals in the act – curious, even for a culture with mythology that personifies its Gods and Goddesses in both Human and Animal forms. Perhaps Bhaktapur’s residents were much more aware than we post-modern Humans of the central role of sex, broadly defined, in optimizing “spirited” Human resilience and resistance as part of daily living, understanding that Humans’ ancient evolutionary attraction to one another could be harnessed for positive growth and development, rather than sex being shunned, shamed, or deemed “sinful” (this, despite the flood of pseudo-pornographic imagery that floods our advertising, news, gaming and cultural spaces these days).
Sex as a spirited hormetic tool for building Human resilience and resistance? Oh yes.
Fellow breathwork instructor and Mastering The Stress Response author Matt Soule refers to sex as hedonic engineering in much more clear terms, calling it “the Fuck Tool.” “The fuck tool (meaning sex, eroticism, and intimacy) allows us to use it as a relational acute stress tool that improves immune function, strengthens us physically, and refines coordination,” observes Soule, and “improves cooperation and communication between individuals, helps us confront the fears of loneliness, inadequacy, acceptance, and death and legacy.” He goes on to identify four elements of using sex as a powerful form of hedonic engineering: timing, rhythm, pressure, and integration. And the most important element? Play. “We can repurpose sex from something impulsive and constraining to something intentional and liberating,” concludes Jamie Wheal in Recapture The Rapture. “We can complete the move from Homo sapiens (the ape who knows) to Homo ludens(the ape who plays).”
So, add hedonic engineering – a celebration of sex as a spirited tool of Human resilience and resistance - to our four other tools - sacraments, music, embodiment, and conscious breathing.
Wednesday, December 8: Traveling day! After a IGH garden breathing and meditation, Jeremy and I meet Binoy for an early morning drive to a nearby hospital to obtain outbound PCRs for entry back into the United States. Two years into this “pandemic,” the White House and the Center for Disease Control continue their war on the human immune system, so we do our “due diligence” and two negative results later, we head to the airport for the long flights home. Check in, customs, security, tarmac walk, and eventually, on the plane for the hop to Doha. Arriving in Qatar at 10 pm, feeling knackered, I check into an airport sleep hotel – “sleeping pods by the hour!” – and Matrix like, I cozy into a small bed in a little room the size of a large closet, and grab six hours of shut eye, tumbling out and upstairs for a shower, breakfast, and a bit of catch up work before wandering over to my gate for the flight to Boston.
Fourteen hours of uneventful flying later, we touch down at Boston’s Logan Airport, perform the perfunctory paperwork (the TSA power is down – classic late stage imperial capitalism moment) – grab my bags after a half hour delay, and manage to jump on the Dartmouth Couch bus to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where I fire up the SXY BST for the last hour plus home.
Stay spirited. #TravelWithPurpose.
Namaste, and thanks, Trek Relief, for inspiring my ruminations on resilience and resistance.