Seeing Red: A Woman's Quest for Truth, Power and the Sacred
Lone Morch
Seeing Red: A Women’s Quest for Truth, Power, and the Sacred is an intimate memoir about one ... Show More
Genres:
Adventure, Modern Romance, Non-fiction, Spiritual
Tags:
Seeing Red, Women's Memoir, Women's issues, women's empowerment, sexuality, spiritual travel, mountain climbing, sacred mountains, sacred travel, self help, personal power, relationship, love, shiva, shakti, Mt. Kailash, Tibet, divorce, spiritual divorce, goddess, kali,

Chapter One



The first time I saw Kailas was in 1997 at Pilgrim’s Bookstore in Kathmandu. Browsing amongst the shelves, the cover of a book called The Sacred Mountain caught my attention. There she was, rising out of the reddish, rugged plateau of Tibet like a diamond in the rough, and set against a crisp blue sky. It was the kind of mountain any mountaineer would fall in love with and dream of conquering. Such lust was also stirred in me, but even more so, the two words together—mountain and sacred—felt full of new significance. Perhaps because I’d just returned to Kathmandu after climbing my first “real” mountain in the Everest Region and, to my surprise, felt nothing that resembled triumph. 

Sure, I’d succeeded. I’d survived the tapering traverses on risky ridges and crossings of trepidatious crevasses. I’d hung in full faith on ropes on ice walls and force-fed myself more thin breaths than I thought possible. Instead of feeling victorious, though, big questions were arising in me, questions I couldn’t even begin to formulate, about my life and my ways. And now, beholding the immaculate and holy Mount Kailas, all of a sudden I felt open to answers. Unlike the big conquistadores of the West, Hindus and Buddhists don’t climb mountains; they pay penance to them and honor them as saintly abodes and holy role models.

Because Kailas was sacred it could not be climbed. Even though it resided beyond reach in the farthest corner of western Tibet, eager pilgrims from all over Asia have made the long journey for millennia to pay homage to Kailas and to complete the kora, a ritual circumambulation of the mountain said to erase the sins of a lifetime. To them, Kailas is the center of the universe, where heaven meets earth and where myth merges with reality. They associate it with the mythical Mount Meru, around which the sun and moon orbit and all life flows, and none other than Shiva, the great Hindu God of transformation, calls Kailas his home.

To New Agers, Kailas represents the crown chakra of the planet. Mother Earth is said to have seven major power points, each holding a specific energy or vibration. Mount Shasta in California is the base chakra of survival; Lake Titicaca in Peru is the second chakra of sexuality; and Uluru in Australia is the third chakra of personal power. The fourth is the heart chakra and can be found at Glastonbury and Shaftesbury in England; the fifth of creativity and communication at the Great Pyramid; and the sixth of intuition also by Glastonbury and Shaftesbury. As the seventh and crown chakra, Kailas it said to hold the white light of pure consciousness. Not that pure consciousness is so readily available. Tibetans believe it takes 108 circumambulations of the holy mountain to release karma for all lifetimes, and that only thereafter will you be ready for complete enlightenment. But one has to start somewhere.

My enchantment with mountains had begun almost a decade earlier in the spring of 1990, toward the end of my yearlong Asian sojourn. I’d come to the Eastern border of Nepal at the height of the people’s revolution for democracy.

“You can’t go to Kathmandu,” the border police warned, but that didn’t faze me. Several lonely nights in empty bus stations, mosquitoes, and holy cows aside, and many bumpy rides later, I found myself in Kathmandu. The atmosphere was volatile. Everywhere I saw police and military. At some point a man jumped on the bus to throw handfuls of red powder at the passengers. What was happening? Within moments, the entire valley roared with victory. Around me people clapped and cheered and hugged and cried. I joined in their celebration and felt an immediate kinship with the Nepalese. To arrive in Kathmandu the moment King Birendra surrendered his reign and gave Nepal democracy made a lot of sense to me then. I was a young freedom-seeker, busting through barriers myself, and thus began my love affair with the Himalayas.

Over the next decade I kept returning to Nepal. As a student of politics and change, I got myself a traineeship with the Danish Embassy and went to remote areas of Nepal to assist in the evaluation of democratization projects. Later, after university, I worked for CARE Nepal to help strengthen local community organizations in the hill areas. While my academic understanding of development and Western obsession with efficiency regularly clashed with Nepalese reality, I fell in love with the people and the mountains.

To a woman born and raised in Denmark, a small country where the highest point is a mere six hundred-some feet, the scale of the Himalayas took my breath away. No matter where I was in Nepal, what time of the day it was, or what I was doing, my eyes gravitated toward the sublime snowcapped peaks to the North. They were always glowing in the distance, even when veiled in darkness or hidden behind flamboyant monsoon clouds. Their omnipotent presence made me want to penetrate their secret and be penetrated in return. Of course, I wasn’t able to verbalize that at the time, but the freedom I felt the first time I walked into the Annapurna Mountain Range, along rice paddies and across rivers, and deeper and deeper and higher into the mountains, was unmistakable.

To wander off into nowhere-land, with nothing but a sleeping bag, extra socks, and a book, to be fed rice and lentils by sturdy hill tribe women, and to sleep on wooden benches or straw mats on the floors of traditional clay houses was liberating. After almost a year of backpacking my way through Asia, searching for a place in the world to call mine, the simplicity of the mountains was a relief. Time lost its meaning. I felt closer to source, even if I didn’t yet know what that meant. Sacred wasn’t integrated into my vocabulary then.

Sacred was something other people did. Sacred was the temples, chanting monks, spinning prayer wheels, thick red tikkas adorning the faces of the Nepalese. Sacred was the Kali festival I’d happened upon in Kuala Lumpur a few months earlier, where people paid penance to the fierce goddess by penetrating spears through their cheeks, tongues lolling out and eyes bulging, or attaching hooks to their ash-smeared backs and carrying heavy contraptions on their shoulders, all the while in a wild trance induced by incessant drumming throughout the night.

I had no way to relate to the sacred act of paying penance, let alone worship. Had you asked me, I would have answered that only my freedom and independence were worthy of my worship. In my own country, spirituality was an entirely private matter, and the sacred was overlaid with a touch of cynicism. During my thundercloud teens in the ’80s, noth- ing—not even my body and sex—was sacred. Anti-everything, I rebelled against the establishment, authority, my father’s rigid rules, boys’ birth- given superiority, women’s weakness against men’s mocking, patronizing schoolteachers, any type of conservatism, nuclear power, you name it. I even managed to cut the cord between my heart and body in my quest for independence and respect—as equal and equally capable as the boys. There was nothing sacred and beautiful about my first sexual experience. At fourteen, I had an older boyfriend, and I asked my mother if I could get the Pill. She gave in to my plea, but by the time I was ready to go, I no longer liked that boyfriend. Eager to lose my virginity, I asked a friend if he wanted to have sex with me. Two amateurs, fumbling toward sexual union, it was more comical than exciting, more sad than loving, and it kicked off an early sexual journey that had little to do with my heart.

Relating my first sexual experience to my first romp around the mountains may seem a stretch. However, today I know that my wanderings along those sinewy mountain trails more than twenty years ago helped me find my feet, feel my heartbeat, and connect to my breath in ways I’d never experienced before. This was a new kind of freedom that wasn’t outside myself. On the contrary, it was very close to home.

From revolution to revelations about the meaning of mountains, Nepal wedged itself deep into my heart. Our affair was red hot and sacred in ways only hinted at, and in the secret lunacy of my novice climber heart, I set my gaze on Mount Everest. Seven years after my first visit to the Himalayas, many trekking peaks later, and now with my first 22,000-foot mountain under my belt, I had arrived at the end of my three-year work contract with CARE International and something was shifting inside me. Somehow the image of Kailas—the words sacred mountain imposed over it on that book cover—brought my attention to the lack of alignment I felt deep within. The sudden fatigue I felt with the edge-seeking, can-do ways that had sustained me, even as they scared me, was both stark and startling. Almost thirty, I was pondering what was next. A passing love interest was offering me an American adventure—a taste of a new continent, of the free life, of new mountains to climb. As thrilling as it all sounded, however, I was wary of my wanderlust and the less than promising prospect of this man and I actually making a life together.

What made a life a life? I wondered. The only thing I knew was that I needed to nurture a different approach to climbing, and this seemed to be a metaphor for my approach to life itself. As such Kailas offered a welcome alternative to the ego-boosting climbing lust that I’d subscribed to. A sacred mountain meant for soul-searching and spiritual growth, I didn’t need to fear it or prove myself, I just needed to go there. Tickled by the prospect of another adventure I also felt relief spread across my shoulders like a warm blanket. Feminine came to mind. Compared to the more masculine approach of taking and conquering, the circling of the mountain was much more graceful, respectful even—an approach I was increasingly ready for. But perhaps I should have been more cautious of Kailas. Sacred mountains are not exactly for the meek at heart, and they often require a personal sacrifice.

Of course, I went to America and had that adventure, complete with the promised excitement, a tearful heartbreak, and an unfulfilling homecoming to Denmark. I took a break, refusing anything having to do with a job, a man, a decision that didn’t have heart to it. Six months later, summer 1998, a dream job brought me back to America to help manage the outpost of an innovative Danish leadership school in San Francisco. Called KaosPilot University, the name refers to a pilot’s ability to navigate a chaotic world, and I felt right at home with this organization. It was not only a direct antidote to the Jante Law—the conformist Scandinavian norms that try so hard to keep us all in mediocre agreement and whose first rule is to NOT ever think you are special. KaosPilot was also attempting to bridge inner and outer development and the wisdom and ways of East and West. Just like me. To be cutting edge, as we said then, wasn’t that easy, though. The first six months of my job in San Francisco were very hard, an entanglement of too many chefs in the kitchen and leadership confusion. Only with time, and a more clear idea of my role as personal coach to the students, did I begin to find my feet in the midst of the chaos.

I don’t know if it was me finding my feet or if it was the red coat that found me in a San Francisco store, but in early 1999, I began to feel more attuned with life, alive even. The coat was Cossack-like, made of plush red tapestry fabric, and had a long billowing skirt and broad cuffs. When I wore it and felt its heavy fabric around my torso, I knew in the secret crevasses of my heart that it was the coat of the sexy, powerful, unapologetic woman who lived inside of me. Every time I donned the coat and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I saw a glimmer of the woman I had yet to become.

Red is never without meaning, and therefore the red coat was loaded. Wearing it was an unabashed statement of feminine sexuality and power. Quite opposite the old Jante Law’s decree, “Don’t Be Special,” the KaosPilot mantra was “Step into Character.” But the catch was that all those I was helping to step into their powerful characters, in turn, wanted to see me! I was wildly intimidated, but compelled at the same time. It was time for me to show up in my full force. But how and with what? I’d asked myself more than a few times. The red coat seemed integral to my “taking the stage,” but coming out of my shell wasn’t so simple or clean-cut.

The moment I’d stepped out of that store, wearing the newly acquired coat, men and women had immediately showered me with compliments, and instead of feeling proud, I felt ashamed. I was fake—it was all the coat, not me. Now it seems such a paradox, that this strong, independent woman, who at twenty declared she was NOT going to live a streamlined life with a predictable plan or a decided end destination, a woman who’d traveled, held careers all over the world, climbed mountains, rafted rivers, had her way with men, was deeply insecure, scared of being seen, and utterly uncomfortable with her full force.

To flaunt one’s sexuality was dangerous. I’d learned that way back when my father asked my mother to take off her lipstick, because, he said, it made her look cheap. At six or seven, I watched this drama unfold from the back seat of our car on the way to a party. My mother rarely put on color, and to me she looked so beautiful with red lips and glowing cheeks. But then her cheeks were glowing with the heat of shame or anger, a heat that translated to rage in my young belly. I will never forget the look she gave my father. I will also never forget that she flipped down the mirror and wiped her lips pale with her crisp white handkerchief. Whom to be angry at? Him for telling her what to do? Her for obeying his order?

Perhaps to revenge this dynamic, I flaunted my sexuality from early on, being frisky with many partners, taking them home, traveling for sexy flings, getting involved with free-spirited men. There have been many heartbreaks, too, but those I’ve kept close, as if to hide them. The purchase of the red coat marked the end of a yearlong detox from sex and romance. It was clear to me after that latest ill-fated romance in America that I needed to change my ways. I needed to repair a dysfunctional desire for dangerous men, free men, unavailable men, men who somehow man- aged to make me feel weak and dependent and tearful, like my mom had seemed to me when I was a child. The red coat nudged me forward, telling me I was ready to tackle sex, power, freedom, and love again.

The acquisition of the coat also coincided with the end of my contract with the KaosPilot University. Once more, I was faced with the question: what next? The mundane facts of my life sounded a lot like failure in my head: soon thirty-two, I would be without a job, a relationship, a place to call home, even a plan. Perhaps it was about time I gave my life more stability and direction? I worried that something was wrong with me for not feeling inclined to return to my native Denmark. I worried that my wanderlust was escapism, even if I wasn’t sure what it was I was escaping. And then, as if destined, I heard Kailas calling from afar. I had a dream in which I found myself at a sacred, shimmering lake in the middle of a vast desert. I was with a man. Colorful tents lined the lakeshore. Each tent sported a flag, as if each country of the world was represented in a circle. It was peaceful there. An old, toothless man passed by me.

I asked him, “Where are you going?”

He said, “I am walking, but I’ve already arrived.”

I took this dream as a sign. The lake had to be the holy Lake Manasarovar at the foot of Mount Kailas. Wasn’t pilgrimage a way of find- ing path and purpose? I thought of all the reasons to not go to Kailas, but I couldn’t deny the truth in my heart: a trip to Kailas would take me back to my beloved Himalayas, back to Nepal before, before... getting serious with my life.

I called my friend Joann in Australia. She and I had met in a smoky tea hut at the foot of Mount Everest almost two years before. She was traveling the world after a failed marriage, and I was preparing to climb that big peak that had made me reconsider my relationship to mountains. In the lightheadedness of altitude, the two of us bonded and discovered we both were enamored with Mount Kailas. With the typical travelers’ sense of unlimited possibility, we decided we would someday arrange a group pilgrimage to Kailas together.

“Joann, what about it?” I yelled across the Pacific. And extra loud, I’m sure, to drown out the nagging voice inside that insisted my pilgrim project was escapism and urged me to get on with a more serious career and life. “Is it time for our Kailas project?”

“Yahoooo,” Joann yipped back at me. She was a henna-haired, planet- healing, small-plane pilot in Australia with the sweetest Scottish accent and the most contagious laugh. She had already been to Kailas twice, having taken a group there last year, and she was game.

With one simple phone call, we’d set our dream in motion and I felt lightheaded again by the sheer magic of it all. We planned to gather a group of like-minded souls, and, if stars and intent aligned and enough people signed up, we’d be at the foot of Kailas by May’s full moon, just three months away, and in time for Buddha’s birthday celebration, Saga Dawa. We would follow suit by doing the ritual kora, the three-day circumambulation of the mountain, to free ourselves from all and any karma of this lifetime, after which we’d drive across the plateau to Lhasa.

From making flyers to planning the itinerary, to figuring out costs and advertising for participants, there was a lot to keep me busy in the months leading up to the end of my San Francisco life, and the beginning of our pilgrimage. Joann’s grand intention of healing the crown chakra, however, left me a tad pale. She talked about how so much bad energy gets dumped there, how important it is to clear the crown chakra channel. She wanted to advertise that we would be focusing on this during our journey, but inside I was asking myself, Who are we? New Age missionaries? Though I understood about power places, places that carried a certain energy, and the mythical, spiritual symbolism often associated with these appointed places, it was new to me, and certainly not something I spoke confidently about with just anyone.

Joann explained about the powers of such places. “Right now, you live close to the base chakra in Shasta that carries the energy of survival. Just imagine that that is a vastly different energy from the energy of the crown chakra, but both are equally intense. At Kailas, the energy is pure love consciousness, so any issue or thought that isn’t of pure love will manifest.” Then, as if to add a Band-Aid, Joann said, “Being at a sacred place where pilgrims have walked for thousands of years, one cannot help but become attuned to one’s highest self.”

In Latin, pilgrimage means “walking through the fields”; to me it referred to the act of walking through unknown territory, both inner and outer. From my mountain experiences, I knew that a journey such as this would be mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging and that that was part of the premise of a spiritual journey. To leave the comforts of the known behind to forge new ground within ourselves. To get a little lost to be found anew. The simplicity of doing a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain to clear our karma of this life was much more palatable to me than talking of chakras and clearing bad energy. It sounded more magical, less New Age.

Once we settled on a not too healy-feely compromise, we sent out email flyers to everyone we knew. I advertised in New Age magazines in America and Denmark. Our goal was to attract fifteen fellow pilgrims, eight of which I needed to sign up to break even financially. Joann seemed less concerned about finances and convinced me that we had to trust the universe. We proceeded to hire a trekking agency in Kathmandu to take care of permits, flights, and all the local logistics. This was the same agency Joann had dealt with on her prior trips to Kailas, including one she’d done just a year earlier, so I let her take care of the communication with them. Each participant would fly to Kathmandu on their own and pay $4,300 for the twenty-five-day trip that included three domestic flights, hotels, trekking, food, and more. We would start the trek at the end of April to make sure we were there for the Saga Dawa in May.

I did not love group tours. Ironically, bringing a group was really the only way I could get into Tibet. A trip to Kailas itself cost a fortune, and to get into Tibet on your own was nearly impossible unless you were willing to risk being sent away by Chinese border police. When I expressed some reservations about being up for the role of leader, Joann cackled. “No chance you’ll be jaded, darling, you are the goddess of adventure. People will love you.”

“Especially after a few hard days on the trails in altitude.” We both laughed, knowing very well that in the mountains people are as unpredictable as the weather.

“Last year, a forty-year-old woman got really sick before we’d even gotten to Kailas, and we put her on a yak. It was all a bit mad,” Joann said. For a moment, we were silent, and I pondered how I would handle people acting out in high altitude.

“But that’s part of it, no?” I convinced myself “Transformation is an integral part of the pilgrimage and those who decide to come with us need to understand what they’re getting themselves into.”

Joann all too readily agreed. “Right, we’ll find interesting like-minded people to share the experience with.”

“How do we make sure we find like-minded people?”

“We’ll just ask the universe to send us some.”

To her everything was so damn simple. To me, it was, well, blurred.

Looking back, I can say this without shame: I flat out ignored all of this in my attempt to puff myself up to believe that facilitating a group pilgrim- age was a smart thing to do—good for my heart and my soul, something I was capable of doing.

I managed to sign up one Danish, one English, three American, and two Canadian pilgrims, giving discounts here and there to those who had a hard time pulling the finances together. Joann gathered six, including her son Jason, from Australia and Singapore. Aside from Inge, an acquaintance from Denmark, and Michael in San Francisco, who’d gone with Joann to Kailas the year before, I had yet to meet the rest of my group. Karen, fifty, was a British translator and clairvoyant. Her boyfriend opted to go with another group, without her, to have his own experience, but she still felt inspired to see Kailas and found me. Claire, forty-four, a French computer programmer living on the East Coast, spoke eagerly about needing to go to Kailas to complete something for a friend of hers. Mark, a businessman in Oregon, had his secretary take care of the details with me, so I’d only spoken with him briefly.

On the phone they all seemed interesting and enthusiastic. Paul and Liz, especially, had come highly recommended. A friend of Inge’s said they were an amazing couple into out-of-body experiences and UFOs. Paul’s advanced age, seventy-five, made both Joann and me wary, but when I suggested they drive to Kailas from Lhasa instead of hiking with us, Liz said with persistence in her voice, “Paul is a very capable man. He was a high-level officer in the third world for twenty-five years.” In so many words she said that he’d done far more strenuous things than trekking to Kailas. To prove her point, she produced a doctor’s report that stated that Paul was in excellent health and promised they would take all precautions and responsibilities upon themselves. I succumbed to her diligence, and possibly my own financial need for a full house in order to break even.

With the itinerary secure and in place, we’d met our fifteen-person goal. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t ready to tackle this goal on my own. Maybe it’s because in my heart I didn’t trust that I was strong enough to lead a sacred journey. Whatever it was, I was willing and ready to invite anyone on this journey, even when it went against my better judgment, and even when it felt reckless.
Log in to add a comment or review for this chapter Chapter updated on: 12/14/2013 2:40:25 PM
  • annah brown commented on :
    4/3/2016 10:29:37 PM
    Hello good day, i will like to meet you in person, am miss Anna, am from France and am leaving in London, please contact me on my email id at (annh1brown@hotmail.com), ... Show More
  • Robyn Fogg commented on :
    12/4/2014 4:11:40 AM
    I look forward to reading this...:)
  • Julia Mixer commented on :
    3/8/2014 5:49:50 PM
    Hi Lone- I sense a lone march like your penned name. Beautiful introduction. Red resonates deeply with me, as it is the color of our birth, our first home, our stained ... Show More
    • Lone Morch Julia, thank you for this, for seeing the shades of red, and yes, the lone march we all must take to arrive 'home' to self. I will look forward to hearing from you again and now go explore your universe. Happy Women's Day.
      3/8/2014 5:51:41 PM