A body out of balance, a soul starving for meaning, a heart suffocating in pain. This is where I was in my life two years ago.
I had just returned from nine months in Southeast Asia, forcibly kicked out because I had fallen so ill that I couldn’t hold my head up or take a step without excruciating pain through my legs and back. It was the greatest heartbreak of my life, deciding to leave my position as a disaster relief aid worker because my body couldn’t keep up.
I was angry, lonely, experiencing reverse culture shock, and, admittedly, completely lost. I had returned to a land where everything was larger than life, yet true connection was a scarcity. Shops lined with people looking down at their phones. Doctors telling me, “We may never find out what’s going on, but here, antidepressants will numb it all.”
Illness has a way of awakening you. It invites you to experience life stripped down; to surrender, as your outward identity is pulled from under you. It eliminates hobbies, work, travel, comfort, socialization, and replaces these with the bare essentials, an aloneness that is terrifying to face in a world where most meaning is derived from outside sources.
You think you’re at the end of the road until you realize there are just many more turns than you imagined. The struggle leaves you with a new perspective, as you heal from the inside out. You get to know yourself, truly. You’re gifted eyes that see more than they did before, a compassionate heart, and a willingness to listen openly and deeply engage with the world around you.
Add to that an appreciation for any sliver of support, strength, understanding and patience you receive — from yourself and others. You start to view the journey as a blessing, not even in disguise, but in plain sight.
Over time, this is precisely what happened to me, and in the thick of my healing was my first trip to the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena, MT, one of the country’s oldest conscious living centers. The land, the Yoga, the bodywork and spiritual guidance propelled my healing journey forward, and this year, with my recovered health, I knew I had to return.
I couldn’t bring myself to limit the trip to one week in Montana, so I decided to leave my job at the natural foods store in Delaware, hop in my Nissan Altima, and hit the road, visiting old friends along the way, facing parts of my past that I had yet to forgive, and opening an entirely new chapter of my life. I set out on a journey back to Montana.
Well, that made it sound like it was an easy decision. In reality, I was filled with fears and anxieties, none of which were strong enough to deter me, but present nonetheless.
I worried about the dangers of traveling alone, the tensions in our country under the current administration, the challenge of keeping up with a healthy diet on the road, the possibility of not being able to find a tribe of people as supportive as those I had at home.
Throughout my healing, I had been blessed to work with so many great teachers, mentors, healers and friends, all of whom came into my life when I needed them most. I was surrounded by people who inspired me with their activism, their commitment to justice, their fierce loyalty to the planet, and their softness.
I had just completed a three-month Women Awake course with a group of 11 women, gathering each week to re-member, re-claim and re-empower through the wisdom of our bodies and our creation energy. I had worked closely with Plant Spirit healers, shamans, herbalists — am I really leaving all of this? I was wary, and I knew how long it took to find this community, this village of support.
Was I making the right decision?
I grabbed a ginger kombucha from the Common Market in Charlotte, North Carolina and walked under a beautiful blue sky to my favorite hill next to Highway 74. I sat and looked around. I can remember sitting on this hill just days before I left for Asia. “I’m going to miss this. This place. This moment. This me,” I thought then.
I closed my eyes, and they began to fill with tears. I had gone through so much since the last time I was here. Thoughts of what seemed like a past life rushed in: a former relationship gone south, a lifestyle I no longer understood. I felt disconnected from this city, from these people, yet I had a faint longing to fit in again — at least while I was here. Why was I falling back into this pattern of caring what others thought?
I came into town with the intention of closing this chapter of my life, and it was proving easier said than done.
As I sat, I thought about all the times I had moved, and the relationships that have ended because of my lust for adventure. Due to my transient nature, I was used to being the one to leave, and I preferred it that way. Like it somehow gave me preparation time to shield myself from the impending hurt of a love lost.
I thought about my volunteer work in the Philippines, how many travelers came and went, sometimes staying for months, sometimes for days. When I became a staff member at the organization, I found it difficult to listen to people’s stories and to remain open to newcomers who were planning to stay for a short time. When I listened and connected with people, I became attached to them.
I loved them in a way, and when they moved on, a piece of my heart broke. Is my heart ever truly whole or is it whole only in its permanent brokenness? My time in the Philippines was my first experience on the other end: being left, staying put, saying goodbye and watching pieces of my heart walk away before my eyes. Oftentimes, I found it easier to avoid the connection altogether in order to avoid the pain.
Looking back, I think the fear of those feelings was scarier than the feelings themselves, and that avoiding connection just to avoid pain… well, that seems like no way to live. I sat on my hill, and felt like I was both staying and leaving this place. A part of me will always be in this city, just as a part of each person I’ve met will always be with me. We can’t separate these connections, these experiences. They all belong.
Within the human experience, it all belongs — beauty, pain, heartbreak, love, birth, death. We can hold it all, if only we acknowledge that each is a part of the whole.
I couldn’t take the smile off my face driving through the mountains. I felt it. Freedom. Exploration. The East Coast was in a constant state of construction: new housing, retail shops, road widening — development everywhere I looked. Jackhammers rang in my ears, and for several days I suffered an overarching sense of anxiety.
I couldn’t wait to be in the mountains, to wake up to birds instead of bulldozers. I reminded myself to stay in my senses; it is all part of the journey. But now, leaving Atlanta and driving toward Nashville, the feelings changed: I was officially heading West!
The purple and orange wildflowers began to appear near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Seas of daylilies lined the road, strong-stemmed and sending their energy upwards into full blooms. Into Southwestern Illinois, the landscape changed from mountainous green terrain to farmland. Egrets and herons stood in inch-deep water on what appeared to be soybean and cornfields.
The land above the water seemed too dry, dying of thirst, while other areas drowned in excess — an imbalance that mirrored the state of our world in more ways than one. It smelled rotten, like horseshoe crabs and the bait shop where my dad used to take us to pick up squid for shore fishing when we were younger.
The land stretched for miles and miles as I drove into Missouri then Kansas then Colorado. Who owns this land? It seems to go on forever, with fences surrounding every inch.
I recalled an excerpt from Mother Earth Spirituality, a book I was gifted from a Cherokee woman at work: “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every mist in the dark woods, every humming insect… The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man. So when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us.”
Chief Seathl (Seattle) of the Suwamish Tribe wrote this letter to the President of the United States, Franklin Pierce, in 1854. I thought of Wounded Knee. I thought of Standing Rock. When will the destruction stop? How can we begin to heal as humans and how can we save our Mother?
I found myself ready to get back on the road after just a few days in each place. There’s something about an open road, only my thoughts and music to keep me company. Often, I wanted to keep driving instead of arriving to my planned destinations. I craved the solitude, the feeling of the wind on my outstretched arm, the warmth of the sun on my face through the windshield.
I felt rejuvenated after hours by myself, my energy exhausted by the crowds and the tours around new cities. Everything pulls us away from our center — people, places, events of the world. How do we maintain balance while living our lives?
As I moved further West, I focused less on talking, more on listening — the sounds of the river next to the campsite in the Grand Tetons, the bubbling of the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, the rattling of my engine as I logged mile after mile with my trusty travel companion. My feelings of anxiety slowly melted the closer I got to Montana.
I drove through small towns with stoplights that only ever blinked yellow, talked to park rangers who took 10 minutes out of their day to explain why the mosquitoes were so bad this time of year. By now I was salivating when I thought about the cuisine at the Feathered Pipe, which came as no surprise after 12 days of precooked Tupperware meals, eaten with a spork at rest stops.
I yearned for meaningful conversations with like-minded souls and the way my body felt when I was truly relaxed. I breathed through it all, revisiting my intention to experience everything without rushing.
At the end of a long journey (yet the beginning of an even longer one), I made it to the Feathered Pipe Ranch. On the first day of Yoga retreat with J. Brown, we discussed ancient philosophy, duality and hierarchy in the modern Yoga scene, suppression of the Feminine and the ways in which we see that manifesting in today’s world.
Take a long, smooth inhale, honoring the Feminine polarity, and a long, smooth exhale, honoring the Masculine polarity. Find balance between them. Be gentle with your body. Be gentle with your mind. I was in the right place.
A bodywork session with world-renowned healer Jennifer Daly addressed energy blockages in my knees and feet, areas where I hold tension, especially when facing major decisions to move forward.
“What would it look like to let go of definitions and just be?” Jennifer asked me. “No judgments of your body, think energetically, move into your feet as if they’re a room in your house that has been vacant. Decorate. Know that our soles are connected to a constant source of earth energy, springs bubbling up with every step we take.”
She integrated sound acupressure using Tibetan singing bowls — and a new bowl from her recent pilgrimage in Spain — to transform my body from a state of density to fluidity. I was floating.
Throughout the week, we gazed at the famous Big Sky stars, honored the New Moon in Cancer, hiked through the wilderness, splashed in the lake, and circled around the founder, India Supera, as she told the story of how the Ranch began.
I listened with sparkling eyes and the wonderment of a child as she recounted years of travel through Mexico, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, where she spent four years at Sai Baba’s ashram. She described her own journey through a string of events that made even the most conservative among us believe wholeheartedly in cosmic connections and Divine intervention.
As she says, spiritual journeys are never straight. After the story, I had a burning question, but was too shy to ask in front of the group. I caught her on the way out of the main lodge, and asked in anticipation, “India, when you were on this amazing journey, and these monumental things were happening, were you aware of the magic of it all?”
She laughed and replied without hesitation, “I didn’t stop for a second to think about it. I just kept going,” she said. “How I tell this story has changed over the years because what I see has changed. Now, it’s amazing to me how everything came together, but then, I was just following my path, whatever I thought that was at the time. It takes time to gain perspective.”
I realized in that moment that the climax I was searching for on this journey may likely never happen, at least not in the way I was expecting. Life is a string of seemingly mundane moments, splattered on the backdrop that we are all mystical beings walking this earth, figuring out our purpose and place.
The constant searching and striving we do implies that we are currently lacking something, and when we’re told to fix or better ourselves, it hints that we are broken. So, what was I driving toward? What was I looking for? Maybe it’s already in me. Maybe it’s in all of us. Maybe I’m the magic, the teacher, the place I’m searching for.
Maybe I just keep going, keep following my heart and one day, when enough time has passed, I can look back and see that each turn and each challenge held a frame in the bigger picture.
I drove down Bear Creek Road, playing Nahko and Medicine for the People’s Love Letters to God, as the gravel spit up on the sides of my car. My love, we are destined to teach these ones to be brave / And never run away / Courage is birthed from the womb on the first light of day / Yeah, the day you were born, you came out perfect / Never meant to be torn.
I breathed in the cool mountain air and let out a sigh. I’ve been here before, but never like this.
Published by Rebelle Society July 2017: http://www.rebellesociety.com/2017/07/31/andyvantrease-feathered-pipe/