Choosing the Stars

Ubud is a place of searching. It draws to it those who are seeking answers, guidance, love and those who are wide open to receive the gifts of the cosmos. As is always the case with such places, it is a fertile ground both for true shepherds of truth and those who prey on those whose yearning for love obscures their ability to discern truth. It made for a good time to sit sipping on wheatgrass and overhear the teachings of self-proclaimed witch doctors and pale-skinned gurus.

In the summer of 2011, I spent lazy days here in a small café sharing stories of epic adventures past and dreams of future journeys with aspiring poets who had shed their previous skins as investment bankers. All of us were trying to access the truth within ourselves that had been dulled to a murmur by the creditors demanding payment for what we owed this life. In the heat of the day, we would sway between yoga classes, meditation, and chakra seminars.

One day, I fell into conversation with an aspiring author at the café. He told me about a trek up a nearby mountain. Mount Agung was the highest peak in Bali and still an active volcano. The climb was done at midnight to avoid the heat of the day and the clouds, which settled over the mountain and blocked the view of the valley. Despite being equipped with only running shoes and a sweatshirt, I decided to do it.

At midnight we reached the parking lot where we would begin the ascent. The group of other climbers grew as unmarked vans dropped them in this lot on the side of a mountain. We were greeted by a group of kids from the local village who, as it turned out, would be our guides. They handed us well-used headlamps and before we knew it, our child guides were running up the trail.

We began our ascent in the darkness save for the dim lights of the headlamps, which had already begun to grow more dim. It seemed the batteries hadn’t been changed in some time. Even with the aid of the dim light on our heads, depth perception evaded us and each time I placed my foot down I didn’t know if I was stepping in a small pit or over an elevated tree root. There was no time to worry about such trifling matters, however, as our singular focus was to keep up with our guides. Born and bred in this village, they didn’t so much “climb” as spring up the mountain like wild antelope. I reasoned it would be better to speed up than be left behind on this mountain and prayed I wouldn’t twist or break any necessary appendage.

After a couple of hours, we emerged from the tree canopy and it became apparent that we would continue our ascent up the face of this mountain unshielded by the trees that surrounded us moments before. By this point, my headlamp had bid me adieu and I was on my own, aided only by the light of the benevolent moon and the infinite stars. Looking ahead, I stopped briefly to witness the beauty of the winding line of little lights on the many heads ascending against the backdrop of the behemoth mountain, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Isn’t that funny. We’re as insignificant as ants on a hill.” The climb continued and it became clear that our thin sweatshirts and sneakers were not the appropriate gear for this journey. My friend’s sneaker had begun to tear. By sunrise, the sole of the shoe would be held on with tape brought by a well-prepared climber.

I looked down for a moment and wondered how I had missed the point at which we ascended above the clouds, which were now as far below us as they were above us when we began our ascent.

In the frenzy of trying to keep up with the guides and the rest of the group, I had hardly noticed that my breath had become laboured from the change in altitude and that the trail I followed had shifted from steep to vertical. However, I do remember the distinct moment I realized I was no longer walking but free climbing up the face of the mountain in complete darkness. In the absence of sight, I recruited my other faculties. I recall reaching up, feeling around and tugging on various rocks to test which of them would support my weight. I pulled myself up above this particularly precipitous portion of the climb and arrived at the respite where the group was waiting to begin the final ascent. It was here that I began to hyperventilate.

As the panic began to close in on my heart and restrict my throat, it became clear I could not continue. My friend, whose shoe had been devoured by the mountain, would also stay behind along with a kind American doctor who gave us some of the extra clothing he had brought along. The rest of the pack continued and we sat on the small respite on the face of a mountain in Bali at just under 3000 metres above sea level, waiting for the sunrise.

We began to shake. Without the protection of trees, nothing lay between us and the ruthless wind. It burned. It appeared we were becoming hypothermic. We huddled together to retain warmth and wait. We stopped talking and all that remained was a holy silence, the chatter of teeth and the violent whistling of the wind.

In this silence, my eyes were drawn upward. How had I failed to be in this moment just a moment ago? The sky was a canvas of light. Every star in existence was in my eyes. We mistakenly believe that the stars are in the sky, but in this moment I knew for certain: in fact, the sky is in the stars. With barely a space between each light, with the waves of the Milky Way cascading across the canvass, I had never felt so close to God. As if I was staring creation in the face and it was staring right back. I had never felt so insignificant and yet, simultaneously, that all that was meaningful lived inside me. I looked around me and at these beautiful strangers who offered me their smiles and the warmth of their bodies and we laughed through chattering teeth and quivering bodies at the beauty of this offering. At the preposterous turn of events in each of our personal little lives that brought us to the face of a mountain in Bali, at 3000 metres, shaking in the arms of strangers and feeling supremely grateful.

And in an instant of enlightened clarity, I understood: this is life. The cold and the fear had always and will always coexist with the beauty and the joy. So what it comes down to is a choice. What I choose will determine who I am in this world and how I experience this lifetime. I can choose to focus and experience my teeth chattering, my lungs struggling and the panic taking hold of my body. Or I can choose to experience the vast beauty of all that surrounds me, the kindness of these strangers, the warmth of their bodies and this moment of absolute transcendence. If it is a choice, I choose the stars.

And as the profundity and simplicity of this lesson reverberated through me, the sun rose, as it always does, warming our skin, and we began our steep descent.

A few years later, I told this story to a group of people. Afterwards, someone asked me, “Do you wish you had made it to the peak?”

I thought this to be a very interesting question because if I had reached the top of that mountain, we would not be standing here and this story would not be told. You see, if I had kept going to the top of the mountain that night, I would have missed the experience I just relayed to you and the lessons it held for me. I would have been looking down at my feet, struggling to make it to the top before sunrise. I don’t know what I would have felt if I had made it to the top and seen the sun drift up above the horizon. I’m sure it would have been extraordinary. But I’m also sure that wasn’t my lesson. I needed to look up and I needed to feel the power of the vast and miniscule and my place in it. That was the peak of that experience.

It takes great courage to seek to understand your experience in this life, to be a participant in that process, to pay attention long enough to understand where your peak is rather than chasing someone else’s. Even when I can make it to the top, what will I do if that means missing the peak? Which will I choose and why? That is a question each of us can only answer for ourselves but if there is any lesson I’ve learned over and over again, it is this: pay attention and ask the question.