The Mountain Man

Si tu veux
If you want

I was recently in Mukteshwar, roughly 2,100m or 7,000ft above see level. Looking at the Himalayas for any period of time takes your breath away. Every meter I rose reminded me how much I love the mountains. Every meter I rose, I felt more and more removed from everything that I considered normal. Every meter I rose, I escaped just a little bit further from what I considered reality.

As we drove up the winding roads on the mountainside, I looked out into the valley below and experienced, not heard, but experienced silence. At night, you could see stars that you didn’t even know existed, the clouds at the heart of the milky way – the very center of our universe. You could feel the wind of the mountains, their whispers to each other – an arcane, peaceful language.

I tried to absorb this silence, to somehow make it my own. And the mountains whispered back,

Si tu veux

the dwelling of a hermit, especially when small and remote
synonyms: retreat, refuge, haven, sanctum, asylum

The preceding weeks had been, for lack of a better word, a kaleidoscope of extremely challenging work situations and exhausting self reflection, a literal re-wiring of the mind while being repeatedly set on fire. The noise was deafening and I found refuge in a cosy one bedroom apartment high up a skyscraper in London. From here you could see above the clouds and into the horizon. There was no street noise and everything was new. This was my Hermitage – where I could hide from all of the perceived violence of my world collapsing around me, or so I thought.

In Hermitage, the noise from the outside world was gone but it was still deafening in my apartment. My shoulders were tight, the anxiety was right there, and my conscious awareness felt so far removed from the skin on my face, from my interface with the world, that it genuinely frightened me. It felt so very easy to fall right into the noise and be lost forever as three words continued to echo,

Si tu veux

In the mountains did the hermit hide.

Back in Mukteshwar, the noise did not stop – the anxiety to check work emails, the desire to continue thinking through and solving impossible problems, and trying to forget unforgettable, judgmental eyes as they looked right into me. The mountain air, now cold, gently coaxed splitting headaches for its amusement.

On the last day, I wanted to find a way to the temple in Mukteshwar – a little white building at the very top of the hill across the valley in front of where we stayed. 7 kilometers of walking and a little motorized assistance later, I was at a temple on a mountaintop in India – Steve Jobs found inspiration in these hills, perhaps I could find some peace.

I took my shoes off. It was quiet, too quiet. I could feel my heart beat and lungs heave at the end of the climb to the top of the hill. There were three white washed buildings there – two small ones on either side of the large temple structure.

As I climbed the steps, I walked towards the head priest as he burned wood reciting incantations in front of a smaller temple structure to the right. His beard was white, his robes were orange, his eyes red from the burning wood. I approached him but said nothing – the last thing I wanted to do was to leave with a curse.

Instead of ignoring me as he had the half dozen or so people ahead of me, he gestured for me to follow him into the small building to the right as he switched from his incantation into something…simpler,

ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्ति
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

An invocation for peace.

Inside the room, I once again found silence as he repeated the phrase in front of the various deities. This was the real hermit, and this place was the real hermitage. I was just a pretender sitting on the throne with a wooden crown. The bearded priest in the temple on top of the hill knew what I was really after, he could see it in my face.

He could not help me find it, though, and nothing changed inside me after that experience; it was no magical Eat, Pray, Love moment. It was simply a potent reminder that peace, that silence, they exist. I went up into the larger temple and made a mannat (a wish).

As I was leaving I tried to gesture to the priest, to say thank you – but also to selfishly share in his silence, to experience his peace. His head remained hunched over the fire and passed by him unnoticed,

Si tu veux

On the mountaintop did the hermit die. There is a void inside all of us, something we look to something else to fill. This void inside me had been viciously unplugged and was now screaming inside of me. It screamed with such ferocity that I was blind to everything – the past, the present, and the future. The here and now.

Everything I throw at it to plug it up, every mask I wear, every attempt at running away from it will always be useless. It needs to be filled from within. The silence in those mountains belonged to the mountains, it was their peace. I could participate in it but never have it. The silence in that temple, it belonged to the priest, it was his peace. I could participate in it but never have it.

I have to create it myself.

I left Varun the hermitic mountain man – the one that goes to far off places of unreality to grab and forget a sliver of peace until the next time his restless world crumbles – in those mountains. Let him wander there, let him get lost. Let him trip and fall into the valley and finally become one with the mountains. Let him die.

This Varun needs to go back into the noise and master it, this one needs to stop looking for places to hide and find his place in this batshit, crazy, unpredictable world.

That night I looked at the mountains, at the temple in the town, up into the night sky, and they all whispered back,

Si tu veux.