This year (2011) I turned fifty nine. That’s twelve years longer than my father lived and three years longer than I predicted that I would live when I started doing astrology. I was living in Bombay at that time. My teacher, Gandhiji, had left me at his flat and returned to London. He told me to read the books on his bookshelves and teach myself how to do charts. He said he would be back soon, but actually took six months to return. During that time I devoured all of his books on astrology, spending from early morning until late each night calculating and attempting to interpret the horoscopes of all my friends and family. Of course I also spent many blissful, narcissistic hours looking at my own horoscope and wondering about my life. Using the symbolism of the Vedic horoscope, I looked into every aspect of my life, and even tried to interpret my longevity. One day in a flash of exuberant beginners confidence, I wrote a letter to my teacher. “I have been working on my own chart,” I said, “and I have figured out that I will die at the age of 56.” When my teacher returned to Bombay, the first thing he did was to take the astrology books away from me. He said, “ I think you need a break from astrology.”
Of course, Gandhiji had me start studying again later, but this became a pattern in my Jyotish education. He would encourage me to continue studying astrology until I would make some idiotic statement based on fear and limitation about my chart, and then he would tell me to quit astrology. He never gave a reason, but simply left me to stew in my own juices. Each time this happened I thought that I was giving up astrology for good. After several repetitions, I realized that he was simply teaching me to not practice astrology based on fear. Once I figured this out, he not only let me continue, but allowed me to start doing readings for clients in his office.
Over the past 30 years, I have always tried to approach astrology with a no-fear, no-limitation attitude. The chart obviously shows us certain natural karmic limitations, but most people grossly over estimate the grasping power of karma. While it is absolutely true that we have to deal with the inevitable momentum of the karmas reflected in the chart, it is also true that we have free will. Our free will gives us the ability to make efforts to meet and overcome challenges presented in the chart. It also gives us the ability to probe deeply and gain insight into the reality of our being. The resulting expansion of consciousness produces internal freedom, and allows us to detach from our obsessive, compulsive, programming, and make more intelligent choices in life.
In this respect, I tend to be a bit of a contrarian when it comes to how to behave during “challenging” astrological influences. Take Mercury’s retrograde phase, for example. This is a time when many astrologers stay indoors and hide out, so to speak. I tend to plunge ahead, in spite of astrological complications.
As I write this, Mercury is retrograding through the sign of Leo. Last weekend, I went on a backpacking trip into the Desolation Wilderness above lake Tahoe. We did a 22 mile traverse, starting in Emerald Bay and coming out at Meeks bay. Before the trip, I had been experiencing knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, tiredness and a number of other physical issues that go along with being one year shy of sixty. For several weeks previous to the trip I found myself lapsing into doubt. My self doubt turned to a mild-background fear as I repeated mantras such as, “I’m getting too old for this sort of thing,” and “This may be the year that my body finally gives out.”
It is worth mentioning here, that looking back on nearly all of my backpacking trips during the past twenty five years, they have all been preceded by trepidation and doubt. My wife, Terri, will attest to this. Before I leave, I always give her a hug, say goodbye, and then I whisper, “I don’t want to go!” Like a little child who doesn’t want to go to school, I always feel like the trip in front of me is somehow beyond my ability.
Such was the case last weekend, when I threw my pack in my plane and set off for the mountains. On the way, I flew to Santa Rosa and picked up a couple of friends, Mark and Betty. As we crossed the Sierras towards Lake Tahoe, I kept my eyes peeled for a place to land. I spoke to my two passengers through the intercom. “Not many prospects for landing down there,” I said. We were crossing over the Desolation Wilderness, a mountainous lake-studded, boulder-strewn forest, just above Tahoe’s west shore. As a pilot, I am always on the lookout for landing spots, in case my plane’s single engine decides to quit. They say there are two types of pilots who fly single engine airplanes, those that have experienced engine failure and have made an emergency landing, and those that will! So far I am in the second category, but I suppose it is just a matter of time. With the only landing options being in a lake, in the trees, or on a rocky mountain side, I was secretly hoping that my emergency landing opportunity would come later in my life.
After landing, and assembling our gear, we caught a ride from a shuttle operator at the South Lake Tahoe Airport to the Emerald Bay trail head. From there we started into the mountains. I moved slowly at first, up through the forest, and quickly became caught up in the pristine beauty of my surroundings. The smell of pine coupled with the rarefied, fresh mountain air began to lift my spirits. The late and heavy snowfall this year has produced much more runoff, with snow still covering most of the peaks, even though it is the beginning of August. Wild flowers lined the trail, as we made our way up several sets of switchbacks to our first camp.
It never fails to amaze me how quickly my worries and self doubts dissolve once I get on the trail. There is something about moving the body that seems to dissipate the sense of limitation and build confidence. There is always a point in each hike where I move from doubt and limitation to a sense of the limitless power and awesome energy of nature. “What was I thinking?” I muttered to myself, “ This is great!”
We spent the night at Fontinella Lake. Bordered by huge granite boulders, Fontinella’s glassy surface mirrored the snow capped sierra peaks that tower above its southern end. We spent the next day lying on the hot granite and periodically dipping in the icy lake. Nothing to do, I napped on the hot rocks and enjoyed a lazy afternoon.
The next day we got up at 6 a.m. in order to make an early departure. With 10 miles to cover, we packed quickly, had a bite to eat, and were on the trail by 7:30. We were not sure of the terrain and had heard rumors of river crossings and trails blocked by snow, so we wanted allow enough time to deal with any unexpected obstacles.
We made our way down the side of the lake, pausing in places to take a few pictures. At one point, the granite on the other side of the lake contained some sort of darker rock and formed a natural design. This dark pigmented granite plunged into the lake, which mirrored the rock above to create a total visual pattern that looked sort of like Einstein’s E = MC2.
After hiking for a couple of miles we came to a stream crossing. Although this one was only knee deep, mountain streams can easily knock a backpacker off his feet and should be taken quite seriously. Earlier this year, three backpackers were killed while trying to cross a stream near Yosemite. So we forded the stream carefully, taking off our boots and donning our crocks. We also used hiking poles to keep our balance.
We continued the hike for several miles and finally came to a point where a huge snow mass covered the trail. The snow embankment crossed over the trail and pitched down the mountain at about a fifty degree angle, ending two hundred yards below in a boulder garden. The trail continued on the other side of the snow mass, about thirty yards across. Mark, Betty and I all stood and looked at our predicament. Should we try to cross the icy snow? “I’m not crossing that!” Betty said. “One slip and you’re dead,” I said. Mark agreed, and we decided to try to climb up the side of the mountain and skirt around the snow field.
Betty led as we made our way precariously up the granite mountainside. Near the top of the snow field, we climbed up and over a boulder and then lowered ourselves onto the opposite side of the frozen snow. Making our way down the opposite side involved crawling through heavy brush and through the chasm produced by snow mass, as it melted away from the rocks. Near the end of the snow field we again climbed up and over a huge boulder and then lowered our packs into the bushes on the other side. Then we each carefully slid down the boulder and made our way to the trail.
“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong,” I said to Betty as she met me at the trail. “That’s right!” Betty said, smiling. Like me, she had obviously enjoyed the challenge of our little traverse. As we continued down the trail, I thought about our detour and the fact that the planetary influences were less that ideal. “ I am sure glad I came on this trip.” I thought. “Fear has no place in the practice of astrology. “
It’s so easy to get caught up in fear and doubt. But it is also easy to dispel fear and doubt if you are willing to face the thing you fear. This is why I go backpacking. I always come back from a trip feeling refreshed, renewed, expansive and fearless. Who knows how long my body will continue to permit me to hike in the mountains. I guess it’s a little like flying a plane, you never know when your engine is ultimately going to fail, but you still fly. For now at least, I guess I will just take it one backpacking trip at a time.
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn."
- John Muir
P.S. My backpacking friend Mark is working on his Phd at the California Institute of Integral Studies. A few years ago he had a kayaking accident in which he nearly died. This experience changed his life. Mark's Phd thesis is on the impact of high, medium, and low risk sports on personal transformation. If you are interested in being part of his study and have had some life-changing experience while biking, hiking, kayaking, or any other outdoor sport, the website for the survey is http://www.transcendencestudies.com