For as long as I can remember, the Himalayas have pulled at my imagination: the highest and most majestic mountain range on earth, formed by two continents crashing together, a spiritual home for seekers across the millennia. Ten years ago, when I heard about Shakti Himalaya, which offers the chance to live in rural villages in houses equipped with Western comforts, I thought: there’s my way in. I set my sights on the Ladakh region of northern India, a high-altitude (10,000-plus feet) landscape of fierce contrasts, with jagged peaks and lunar desert cut through by rivers that make possible fertile green valleys and orchards. Because it has historically been inaccessible six months of the year, due to snow blocking the alpine passes, the region has been forced to develop total self-sufficiency and sustainability. This ancient culture is still very much alive. Ladakh is also a sanctuary and last refuge for Tibetan Buddhism, with whitewashed monasteries built into mountain tops and alpine passes marked by prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Amidst this impressive but unforgiving landscape, Shakti provides a lovely, gentle experience, balancing comfort and authenticity, along with the support of a full team: guides, drivers, a private chef. So, after years of dreaming, I decided to go to celebrate my 50th birthday at Shakti in Ladakh for a week with my husband, my sister and her husband, and two of our best friends.
Part of what drew me to the Himalayas was the notion of travel as a spiritual quest. While not ascribing to any particular faith, I was at a stage in my life where I was deeply curious about different world religions and read book after book on seeking. I suppose I was looking for patterns in how people cracked open their souls. I loved Ram Dass, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh. My life goals seemed simple, and yet I struggled to accomplish them: I wanted to dial down consumerism and ease myself away from modern Western cultural norms. Less time in a gym, more walks by the water. Less media, more books. Less inside, more outside. Less material, more spiritual. I was trying to create open space in my mind and my physical surroundings. While my intentions were good, my practices were poor. I couldn’t seem to find the discipline to implement all the changes that I needed to make.
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As I do so often when I travel, I was looking for a different way to feel: more peaceful, grateful, abundant. I had always been a control freak, and it had served me mostly well in life, enabling me to be a cheerful working mom. But I had a really hard time allowing myself to ever stray from frenzied productivity. On weekends, I actively sought out chores to do—laundry, food shopping, meal prep—and if I slipped and took it easy, I felt ashamed that I had wasted time. I was heavily task-oriented with a compulsion to be seen as useful. I knew I needed to learn to let go and be more present, not only for myself but for my husband and children. In so many of the books I was reading, a landscape or setting helped unleash spiritual growth. People went somewhere and came back transformed. I felt that the landscape and culture of Ladakh might do that for me. To some degree, I worried that my expectations were so high that it could never be what I hoped, but I also knew that part of the transformation would be from my prep work.
My prep was immersive. For the months leading up to my trip, I read book after book on the Himalayas, Buddhism, India, Ladakh, Tibet, The Dalai Lama: adventure stories, spiritual quests, history, anthropology, literary fiction (see my full book list below). I listened to university courses. In an ironic twist, 16 books and 30 lectures on Buddhism later, I felt myself slipping backwards down the hill of comprehension. It felt like I knew less than when I started. I became aware of how immense the subject was, how complex Buddhism’s many variations and how minuscule my scrap of understanding.
I knew part of the journey had to be overcoming fear, because fear held me back from many things in life and I had to stop making fear-based decisions. Luckily, I had plenty to work with. As a generally risk-averse and anxious person, I found all sorts of triggers for myself in contemplating Ladakh, a remote, high-altitude destination off the grid (no cell phone or WiFi, minimal electricity) that also happened to be a military zone in a time of increased tension with Pakistan. What a buffet to choose from! However, I reminded myself that all of the most memorable trips I had ever taken had required a leap of faith, including my visit to Mada in Saleh in Saudi Arabia last year, one of my all-time favorites. As with everything in life, the blessing lies outside your comfort zone.
We started our trip in a valley near Leh at Indus House, a local house on the banks of the Indus River that Shakti Himalaya has renovated into something stylish but still authentic. From the roof deck, you can see the river flowing by, now glacial blue, now grey and wind-ruffled, now glinting like mercury. Poplars grow along the banks, tall and thin, their leaves fluttering in the breeze. Behind them, the mountains layer in different colors, snow-capped peaks in the distance, the ridges closer to us reddish ochre. Because the house is in a village, you can watch local life—still adhering to ancient traditions—from the vantage of the roof deck. The old man peeling a willow to use as home insulation. The woman in the traditional Ladakhi brown robes sowing her field and singing, her triangular backpack made from branches. The air is crisp, the light sharp and the deep silence broken only by the lowing of a dzo (a yak-cow hybrid), the call of a child across the field, the twitter of a magpie, the wind in the trees, the gurgle of the river.
Our days were packed. We drove up a canyon with towering rock formations, then went white water rafting down the Zanskar River, the walls of the canyon rising high above us, the rocks now sculpted and brick-red, now layered with shale and glinting quartz. We took bikes up to the top of a mountain pass and rode them down the hill to an ancient fort, past fields being tilled with oxen and children playing. We walked through villages and along pathways shaded by apple trees, across bridges festooned with prayer flags. We had a picnic in an apricot orchard, relishing the dappled light and cool shade. We drove up to Likir, a 10th-century Buddhist monastery and marveled at a 75-foot gold statue of Maitrea, the future Buddha. We had a monk bless our prayer flags and tied them at the top of a mountain pass so that the prayers could flutter away into the wind and be spread. We admired beautifully preserved Kashmiri frescoes from 1,000 years ago. All of this without seeing one single Westerner or hotel. Everywhere we went, we felt like we had it to ourselves, with only the locals for company. Though we had brought books, games and music, we never broke them out. Instead, we told long stories and laughed a lot.
Every afternoon, I would drink masala chai on our deck and think: now is the most beautiful. I have to capture the bend in the river and the way the light is dancing on the poplars. No, now is the most beautiful, do you see how the sun is illuminating the different layers of mountain ridges? The air is so clear, you can see intricate patterns from miles away. A week in the Himalayas and dozens of miles covered and every new vista I had the same thought: now is the most beautiful. This. Look. To be in Ladakh is to be in a constant state of awe. At first, you feel a frenzied rush to capture and preserve it. Then it just becomes the air you breathe and you relax into knowing that this will always be the most beautiful moment, different than the one before and yet perfect. It is that knowingness that creates the transformation.
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The Himalayas helped me try on a different and better way of being. Faced with that awe, my fears and anxieties found no purchase. They shrank and slipped away. It was like I was watching them from afar: I should feel anxious right now, I would think. But I couldn’t find them. They had fallen away from me. Away from civilization, amidst the mountain silence, I learned to sit still (the high altitude helped!). Because I was surrounded by such astonishing beauty, I was constantly appreciative of the present moment. Forced into a digital detox, I experienced how much space that created in my mind and how much time. Here, there was plenty of it for everything that mattered. Because I had no chores to do and no access to my email, I naturally gravitated to relationship-building instead of tasks. None of these were conscious decisions; they were just things that circumstances drove me to, so it all slipped on easily like a new coat. I was left with a heart full of gratitude and a mind that was fully present. Joy and discovery became our currency.
When I got home, I began to notice all the differences in my environment. Beyond the relief of ample oxygen, lush landscapes and long showers, I found it jarring that everything was so noisy. I seemed to have an absurd number of belongings and wasn’t sure why. On Saturday morning, instead of diving straight into a chore, I found myself wondering: Why don’t I have a chair that faces the garden? I need to sit and drink my masala chai and appreciate the flowers. Rather than relentlessly marching through my task list, I started a morning meditation ritual with my youngest son (his idea). Consuming social media felt like eating a whole box of chocolates after a juice fast, so I decided to put strict limits on my usage and try to write more. Instead of constantly immersing myself in entertainment and sensory input, I actively sought out peace and quiet. Walking the dog on a starry night, I would pause and think: now is the most beautiful. Looking back, I see that my goals stayed the same as before I went on my trip, but I was finally ready to put actions and habits behind them. Because I had tried on a different approach to life, I knew what it was supposed to feel like. My time in the Himalayas gave me a clear vision for what my life could be.
Now I understood at a deep level why the Himalayas have always been a spiritual home for so many cultures over the millennia. They are rugged and fierce; they challenge and humble you. They reawaken your sense of awe, wash your spirit clean and give you the space to deeply connect with everything: your travel companions, the local team, the landscape, your soul. Integrating the two worlds and ways of being will be an ongoing practice and challenge, but I am ready now to do the work.
Eliza’s Book List for Ladakh, Himalayas
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthieson
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys of the Sacred and Sublime by Stephen Alter
Walking the Himalayas by Levison Wood
Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt (good explanation of collectivist vs individualist cultures)
The History of the Ancient World (Great Courses lectures on Audible) by Gregory Aldrete
The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
A Journey to Ladakh: Encounters with Buddhism by Andrew Harvey
Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright
Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
Experiments in Truth by Ram Dass (lecture series on Audible)
The Meaning of Life (Great Courses lectures on Audible) by Jay Garfield
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma
Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
Buddhism for Beginners by Jack Kornfield (lecture series on Audible)
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
The Original Be Here Now Talks by Ram Dass (lecture series on Audible)
Buddha by Karen Armstrong
Buddhism (Great Courses lectures on Audible) by David Eckel
Love Service Devotion: Ram Dass on the Bhagavad Gita
Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield
You’re It by Alan Watts (lecture series on Audible)
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa