My relief melted into joy as we settled on our cushions, forming a circle in the quiet. Thick adobe walls sheltered us from the icy, Peruvian winter.
Built by the Spanish centuries ago when this hilly slope of Cusco was farmland, the building is now a refuge for healing and spiritual pursuit. A yoga class in the inner courtyard garden began softly chanting, their voices sweetening the air as each member of our group spoke of their journey from home to this ancient, Incan capital and the emotions present at the commencement of our adventure. I gazed with wonder into the faces of the seven who had traveled from three continents to meet me in Cusco.
I had been tested during the six months since the sacred mountain, Apu Ausangate, gave me the directive to lead a pilgrimage to the Peruvian Andes to circumnavigate the massif. My role entailed a lengthy, administrative process in three languages, coordinating both the team that would support our trek, as well as those who were answering the call. There were moments when I was Jason, attempting to safely navigate the Argo between the Symplegades — the clapping mountains — that threatened to annihilate the entire venture. On one side rose my wall of doubt and on the other, my arrogant need for control. A voyage through an active door invariably requires loss, and this time, the sacrifice was the conceit of my ego.
I acknowledged the folly of trying to anticipate what we would encounter or if we would meet with success. The mountain demonstrated the importance of embodying equanimity and without hope or fear, haste or delay, surrender to the experience. Relaxing the grip of my mind allowed a spaciousness capable of receiving guidance at important junctures and spontaneous gifts that would enrich the expedition.
I introduced the group to a practice taught me by the Q’ero — descendants of the Inca who maintain their mystical tradition unbroken. It is a simple ceremony that I have often witnessed my teachers use to initiate a gathering. Arranging a group of two or three coca leaves in the hand, one offers them to another person, voicing a request for permission from the Apus, Pachamama — Mother Earth — and also from the recipient. The ritual requires a sweet reply, whereby as one receives the leaves, she names the giver a little dove, a cherished, dear one. A flow of giving and receiving — ayni in Quechua — is established as the coca leaves are exchanged, which honors the reciprocal nature of existence and the essential, equal value of both receiving and giving. As my fingers stroked the coca leaves, I sensed the presence of the Q’ero masters.
After three days in Cusco — our vital period of acclimation to the high elevation — we traveled to a small town at the base of Apu Ausangate for our encounter with the Q’ero. We were invited to sacred ritual in their temple, as well as a sweat lodge. It was a day of sustenance, followed by a death and rebirth.
During the sweat lodge, my role was the fire keeper who remains outside to oversee the heating of the rocks and provides the leader the materials used during ceremony. As I tended the fire, massive clouds rose from behind the mountains to rapidly darken the sky and raindrops began to fall. I retreated under my poncho and was quickly joined by the three boys who were assisting me. As we cuddled, anticipating the onslaught of the storm, the tempest made a detour around the Q’ero temple, and to our amazement, torrents of rain began to fall in the distance at the foot of Ausangate, forming a spectacular double rainbow. One of the rainbows appeared to rise into the sky from the very top of the thatched roof of the temple.
Through the arches of the rainbows, Ausangate shimmered beyond a veil of rain. Pachamama connected us simultaneously to the spiritual realms and the Earth, beckoning us to cross the threshold into the unknown territory of the immense mountains.
The next day, our trek began with an unrelenting climb to the first summit. Our bodies were hesitant under the strain of reduced oxygen and the difficulty of the first day on the trail. To our left, strikingly close, rose the magnificent Apu Ausangate — 6,384 meters (20,945 feet) of ice and rock. I gazed at the glorious mountain, connecting energetically with the immense power and felt renewed. I entered into prayer, asking for guidance to manifest a human version of its ancient resilience and patience.
I was given a clear directive that a meadow we were poised to cross represented a threshold into a new energetic, and that before traversing, our group must divide by gender, men on the right and women on the left, and that by doing so we would achieve a new balance of masculine and feminine. We were also advised to be attentive to a rock that would call, giving permission to be carried to the summit.
Walking in two lines, we proceeded to slowly cross the meadow and climb the last hour to gain the summit: 4,850 meters (15,912 feet).
Upon our arrival, I was guided to invite the group to lie down in a circle, heads facing inward, with the highest point of the pass in the center. We each placed our rock on the physical heart. I then channeled a meditation that began by establishing a deep, sacred connection with the physical body. We were then lowered into the planet, our Mother Earth, where we merged with the very locus of liquid fire in her inner sanctum where a blessing was given. After an eternity, we slowly returned to the surface and to our bodies.
I rose slowly and gazed at the mountain range in gratitude. We had been brought into the fiery womb of the Mother, our beloved Earth, where we had been nourished in preparation for the challenges that lay ahead: eight days of trekking in the foreign, inhospitable, unpredictable, magnificent Andes.
“Our soul is, as it were, the day, and our body the night;
We, in the middle, are the dawn between our day and night.” — Shams-i-Tabriz, Tabriz