Late this past summer I went on a pilgrimage to remote Western Tibet, circumambulating Mt Kailash and the nearby Lake Manasarovar. This journey was physically challenging, especially since my hip had been replaced earlier in the year-hiking over an 18,600 foot pass, snow, hail, high winds, rain, mud, sand, sleeping on the ground, days removed from any sign of civilization. A few dozen pilgrims have died on this trek each of the past few years due to sudden storms. Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists believe great merit is gained waking around this sacred lake and this sacred mountain. Maybe so and maybe not-what really is “merit” anyway? But something of my “old life” was left on that mountain, something that I sense is intimately intertwined with my relationship to death.

According to myth, Mt Kailash is the earthly abode of Shiva, the Destroyer, the god of death. This energy palpably permeates the mountain. Yet there is also a down to earth, utilitarian explanation of the transformative power of this pilgrimage that can inform daily life here at sea level in the belly of the beast that is twenty-first century America.

Whether we make the pilgrimage to the faraway sacred mountain or we are opening to the possibility of imminent death, we are entering unfamiliar territory, the unknown, that which exists at the edge where form and the formless meet. Living fully in these extreme situations demands stepping beyond old patterns, beyond hope and fear. Clinging to the known blocks the transformative power of pilgrimage and of the dying process.

Life-threatening illness and remote pilgrimage sites reveal the necessity of stepping into the unknown with trust. What about familiar life at home, cooking dinner, working, relating to loved ones, to strangers? Can we bring strong motivation to be fully present and alive into daily activity? Of course the inevitability of death and the presence of the sacred are always available as inspiration to be present, but they both are “open secrets”-immediately accessible, but rarely remembered while immersed in the familiar. One ancient Hindu scripture says that the most amazing thing in the world is that everyone in the world will die, but almost everyone acts as if they were immortal.

For me the one focus strong enough to cut through the busy-ness of familiar activity when I am not directly confronted with death or with an obviously holy place or person is opening directly to the suffering around and within me. Courage is obviously needed to confront death or extreme physical hardship, but courage is also necessary to stay open to suffering. The French root word for courage means heart. Out of this courage compassion, the heart directly touching suffering, naturally arises. Staying open to familiar suffering is more difficult and requires more courage than opening to the dramatic hardships of dying and of pilgrimage.

We get lost in form, the stuff of the world. Pilgrimage and being close to death have the power to push us beyond our habitual relationship with form to the recognition of our true nature, sacred presence. Then we come back to our familiar life. Can we find the courage to live what we have so truly seen? Can we embody compassion, touch the form of the Beloved, embrace reality, recognize Shiva of the faraway mountain to be right here?

Compassion allows us to bear the painful truth, the sacred wounding. Compassion heals the habitual turning away from our fear. With compassion we become vulnerable, touched by life. The familiar too becomes our pilgrimage.

– Dale Borglum