Photo by Bassam Zahid

There is a great mental and physical challenge in climbing the roughly sixteen hundred steps up Machu Picchu Mountain. Carved by the Quechuan people (now known as the Incas), the path to the top represents an opportunity for a person to commune with the Heavens and the Gods above. The mountain is the vessel that connects the mystical above to Earth and Nature, known to the Quechuans as Pachamama. Each step up is a testament to the spiritual devotion of the climbers.

And so the route to the sky parallels the journey we must strive to make in our own lives. A trip towards self-actualization. How few of us ever make it to the base of the mountain and how far fewer ever make it to the summit? Like any spiritual practice, each step is strengthened if infused with an intention, with a purpose to move forward, to make progress.

Now, along the way we are occasionally treated with the majestic panoramas of mountains, valleys, and assurances that the pilgrimage is worth it. But most of the passage is uneven and narrow. The ascent requires hard work. And as we doggedly trudge up the steps, backs bent, necks and shoulders straining under incessant loads, one step dissolving into the next, it is not uncommon to miss the views.

Verily! How often do we miss the scenery in our own lives? Are we not guilty of witnessing the landscape through a lens other than the ones we are born with? Do we not depend on external validation, rather than that generated from within? How easily do we miss the moment, miss the people who might indelibly touch us and deeply move us, because we are too hesitant to be vulnerable, too preoccupied with the superficial, or too concerned with the way things ought to be?

In the Romantic writings of Thoreau, Emerson, Rousseau and others, one can find a philosophy that is fitting for the modern day traveler seeking enlightenment. They espoused the individual, the emotive, and the subjective as a way to understand the world. Life’s meaning could be derived through powerful personal feelings and insights found in Nature.

Millions of people have now moved into cities around the world, cutting off a connection with Pachamama that was once vital. We have forgotten the lessons and wonders of life that She had once painstakingly taught us: where to find the sweet, edible fruits along the path, which stems can be fashioned into musical instruments, and what roots can be consumed to facilitate direct communication with Pachamama, herself. Among the crushing, artificial responsibility we feel in our daily lives, you wonder, are we also responsible for remembering this?

Yes, indeed, it is up to us to rediscover these ancient truths if the goal is Nirvana. Like Quechuan beliefs, Nature holds magnanimous, occult power that requires veneration. Romanticism teaches that wisdom can be found through love of adventure. By a thirst for curiosity. By taking a bold, emotional risk. Pachamama invites us to dive into her ancient texts, imprinted on her leaves, her streams, her roots, and rediscover the Divine Truths that our families might have forgotten over generations, so that we may teach them once more.

Most importantly, the journeyman should recognize that an essential kinship can be had with other travelers towards the summit. While the climb can be made alone, the trip is far richer and more rewarding when undertaken with a cast of characters who also seek awakening: from the conjurer to the student to the mystery; from the healer to the artist. These are the people who will surprise you, challenge you, change you. They will help carry your load, your baggage, your weight — both the riches and the waste.

Up near the peak, the air becomes thinner and colder. Breathlessness yields to silence as the climbers ascend. Every breath, every step is an exercise in focus and determination. This is a once in a lifetime trek, but surely at one time, a devout Quechuan made the ascent every single day. Are we ready for such commitment?

Slowly the foliage breaks and the apex comes into view. Three hundred sixty degrees of breathtaking scenery. In a vast expanse, we can see where the mountains touch the sky, where the trees reach for the stars, and where the Sun kisses the Earth, infusing it with Life and Wisdom and Love. Blessed and grateful are we who witness the grandeur of this creation in this space and at this time.

Everlasting sky stretches around us at the summit, leading to a revelation. A fitting and necessary lesson in how to live one’s life: one breath, one step, one at a time.

Photo by Bassam Zahid