The Alps are Alive with the Sound of Silence. The 10 Day Yatra in France
Sometimes, the hanging clouds wrap themselves like a blanket around the mountains. Then the blanket pulls away to reveal the sharp outline of the formations of these great peaks with the background of the deep blue sky. Down at the bottom of the valley, where we construct our temporary camp, the kitchen crew can see the dark silhouette of the long single file of walkers stretching out across the hills above, up to 2500 metres above sea level.
We met together for the 15th annual Dharma Yatra (Teachings and Pilgrimage) in France. We were located in a rather remote region of the Rhone-Alps in the south-east corner of France in the locality of the commune of Glandage, 27 km south-east of Die and 17 km west of Lus-la-Croix-Haute. The closest towns are Boulc and Treschenu-Creyers .Records show that the populations of local small villages have shrunk by 80% in the past century as machinery took over manual labour and the excitement of the city pulled the consciousness of the young like a powerful magnet. In our hikes, we walked past signs that pointed the way to Col Grimon, Le Jocu and Col Pigeon.
Anna, Benoit. Caroline F, Caroline L, Darren, Dave, Denis R, David, Jess, Joe, Jonathan, Juha, Marie Mike, Muriel B, Muriel C, Nastia, Nathan, Tom, Trina, Severine, Virginie, Walter, Wim, Zohar and several others gave much support to the Dharma Yatra in various ways. As some step down from years of service, others step forward to enable the Yatra to continue year by year. Our Dharma Yatra network of organisers and teachers continues to listen to the responses and feedback so the Yatra, itself, develops and evolves, as much as the participants.
The Yatra provides a thorough going distance from the routines of our daily lives through the collective experience of immersion in nature. Here our days signify a break from the regular routines back at home that have the potential for a soporific impact on our inner world. Our walk provides opportunity for reflection and meditation on various issues. We sense a fundamental departure from our conventional identity and the various fixed roles back at our place and country of usual residence.
With our uncompromising commitment to taking one step at a time, the act of the walking triggers freedom, a kind of adventure of rebellion. It brings us a freedom from any daily drudgery and a freedom to bring us many steps closer to an intimacy with elemental life. The materialistic world of cars, computers, television, refrigerators and daily advertising lose their seeming obligatory reality to make way for entry into a landscape; blessed, uncorrupted and sparkling with natural beauty.
The blueness of the skies can offer an intensity that brings into stark relief the grey/white of the higher peaks of the mountains. With the gathering momentum of the walk, we forget how much time we have already spent in walking and how long we have to go in order to reach our camping destination. There is simply the tangible rhythm of the motion in our collective coexistence with each other and the nature. The precious significance of the insubstantiality of the conventions of identity with daily life gives way to exposure to a natural freedom. A long line of human beings dwell in accord through exposure simultaneously to the inner and outer world.
Essential Purpose of the Yatra
It would be an error of judgement to regard the Dharma Yatra as some kind of temporary distraction from the deterministic norms of daily life. If we think in this way, we miss the point. The essential purpose of the Yatra serves to awaken to natural freedom, a passion for the outdoors, deep reflections on what matters and a profound appreciation of the sheer scale of the intimacy of all life forms in the sentient and the insentient world.
As we contemplate the excesses of wonder of the natural world, we find our whole body alert whether we experience the feet touching the earth or feeling the winds and temperature through our whole being or sensing the rarely interrupted stillness. It would certainly be a step too far to imagine we can walk in a sustained way without the application of effort. Long winding uphill walks, whether along open spaces, through narrow tracks, amidst undergrowth or untidy forests, make their demands upon our whole being. Yet these demanding aspects of the walk, with the necessity to mobilise our energy, offers its reward as we finally walk along the peaks of rolling, unspoilt hills. The mountains beyond speak to us of eternity, of an endless antiquity, plus remarkable expressions of the infinite. Certain plants in the meadows date back to their early ancestors of some 20 million years ago and were growing in the area before the arrival of the dinosaurs.
Irritations of daily life through the mundanity that occupy our minds in the so-called civilised world seem even further away as we witness the breath-taking spectacle at a higher attitude. We endure the joys and hardships of the walk knowing and sensing that a new expansive landscape lies in wait for our presence. The slow descent along further stretches of winding paths, sometimes consisting of large stones, pebbles and lumps of rock, challenge our sense of balance. Our moment to moment mindfulness safeguards us so that neither of our feet slips away from under us. Some, wisely, take recourse to employing a long straight stick, made from the broken branches that litter the sides of trails, to keep the balance.
You might think everybody knows how to walk and on face value that seems to be a self-evident truth whether children or adults. Yet, despite common knowledge of walking, we, the four teachers, take it in turn on a daily basis to offer instructions in walking. One day, we might prioritise while walking the contact of the feet with the earth while walking tall and upright as human beings. On another day, we might explore the experience of the elements – the earth element of hardness, the air element of movement (wind in the trees or inhaling the breath), the heat element of body temperature and climate and the water element of cohesion (through drinking water, sweat and seeing rain, rivers) and space element revealed to our eyes, through the silence and inner peace. On another day we might emphasise mindfulness of the arising of and passing of feelings or mindfulness of the streams of thoughts, the conceptual ideas or mindfulness of the involvement in an internal story.
The walking process sustains itself while providing an opportunity for conscious exploration of the inner and outer world. Walking does not exist in a vacuum but co-exists with everything else, including the walker and his or her views on the walking.
Extract from a poem of the author.
CAN THE WALKER GO FOR A WALK?
Can there be a walker without a walk?
Is the walker separate from the walking?
Is there one activity going on?
Namely, just walking
Or are there two activities – walker and walking?
If there are two,
do they fuse with each other or stay apart?
If they fuse
how to get them apart,
if there is only walking
then who says it is walking?
Does the walker walk or not walk?
can the walker go anywhere
since the walker is not the walk?
then is the walker left behind?
Is the walker still around after the walking stops?
We marvel at the spirit and determination, along with a certain degree of possible obstinacy, revealed in the walkers of a variety of ages. The children seem to walk twice as far since their shorter legs often have to take two steps compared to the adults. Sometimes, the children run up and down the line of walkers looking for a family member or a new-found friend. Children appear quite oblivious to the task of walking, even if they know the vehicle will collect them after some four hours or so of walking at lunchtime to be driven onto the next camping spot. The young mother carries her three-year-old child on her back while the little one quietly looks to one side or the other watching the world go by. Other walkers offer their supportive backs to carry the young.
The middle-class lady in her 60s remains convinced the night before that she would help out in the kitchen tasks rather than endure another day of walking. Again, I spot her in the large circle at 9 a.m. as we gather together for the days walk. Her determination, and perhaps her obstinacy, enables her to join the day’s trek regardless of any aches in her ageing body. Others appear to carry substantial day packs, as if they were off to camp high in the hills for a few days. Rain kit, shawl, suntan lotion, camera, dried fruit, water, diary, numerous other items fill their date pack, sometimes for three or four family members.
Despite the long single line of walkers, the gaps of 50 metres or 100 metres begin to appear until there is the customary shout along the line “STOP.” This gives the opportunity for the line to reconnect; so he or she walks just a step or two behind the person in front of them. The “STOP” call then gets replaced with “START” and the caterpillar continues its journey through the foothills.
Alone with Others
Togetherness and aloneness serve as two great features of the Yatra. At times, we walk rather exclusively in our inner world or perhaps we simply appreciate the silence and our solitude amidst the presence of others. The deep forests, the pockets of trees, the meadows and the shaded valleys become silent witnesses who act as associates to our aloneness, individually and collectively.
The same principle applies at the campsites. We can enjoy to be alone, to make time to eat alone and take a break from all the inter-action. It can seem formidable to start a communication even with one or two people, let alone faced with 144 adults and children. Aloneness can slide into loneliness which then crushes the individual in his or her inability to spark a free-flowing conversation. For some, the ardour of the silent walk, with its narrow tracks beaten out from the past, seems far more preferable than taking the steps to join a small group of people sitting in a circle enjoying an evening meal. Should I join them? Perhaps they are having a private conversation? I have nothing important to say.
The hardship does not confine itself to the minimal conditions but also reveals itself in relationship of the individual to the total numbers. Large group can accentuate the isolation, the separation and the disengagement of the individual. Everybody else can appear to have the capacity and social skills to interact effortlessly and cheerfully. Isolated, one hesitates to initiate communications that then serve to perpetuate distance of oneself to the others.
The chatter, the laughter and the playful forms of inter-action can leave an individual stuck in an implacable silence. We all have the responsibility to keep a mindful eye open for each other and to welcome those who feel to be on the fringes of the event. Silence, as a spiritual element, offers a profound opportunity to experience of immediacy of events without the burden of language. Yet, equally, communication nourishes the whole being in another way. The Yatra consists of an event that recognises the power of silence and the power of communication – as two more pillars in the transformative process.
As we walk, the mountains become visibly closer showing greater variation in their colour and form. This vast landscape appears to have come to a halt, other than the caterpillar like long line of adults and kids weaving through the day. This pilgrimage drains away the petty mind with its resistances to reveal fresh perceptions and insightful approaches. The Yatra provides an opportunity to transcend the variable misfortunes of our life and to embrace the events that descend upon us like an intense rainstorm and the hurling of the wind.
We can emerge from these outrages impacting upon us into a deep joy, an inner glow of happiness, as well as the reconciliation with adversity. We become a stronger person, more clear minded and a more warm hearted human being. The short lived pleasurable sensations that we pursue in daily life to stimulate our consciousness give way to a depth of contentment and quiet endurance that takes on board the pleasurable and painful with equal measure.
We experience the fluctuations in the variable climates throughout the day. We simply keep on walking through the comfort or discomfort to the point of little real difference between the two. The walkers experience the deprivation of choice in such matters of suitable weather, once the walk gets underway. A few experience a blister or two with our medical kit providing the necessary plaster or whatever else the walker requires.
Consciousness rules nature
For many centuries we, as sentient beings, looked upon the dynamic power of the surrounding nature as masters of our fate. This view has undergone a radical change in the space of two generations. We can now behold a different relationship to nature. Consciousness has become the master of the fate of the Earth. Human behaviour largely determines the welfare of present and future generations. The conditions that support consciousness influence environmental conditions that sustain and support life forms. The moderation of our walks, the renunciation of much in the way of personal desires, reveals an archetypal reminder of the way we need to live in terms of a moderate walk through life. As we walk, we learn to tread lightly on the Earth. For better worse, consciousness rules nature.
In our unhurried fashion, we dissolve the stress and compulsive business that functions as a curse upon our peace of mind and capacity to act wisely and with compassion. The sharp lines of the mountains represent a picturesque form of eternity while simultaneously reminding us of our temporary, modest status as temporary visitors on the earth. The very occasional site or sound of a distant bird reminds us of our companions here, though few and far between, who have made these mountain ranges their primary dwelling.
Our two legs strengthen day by day and our two eyes expand to be able to drink in the sweetness of visual delights, the world appears as a venue of sublime generosity of beauty and tranquillity. We breathe in the gracious might of the mountains and breathe out the momentary tiredness passing through our body.
The hills in the French Alps are alive with silence.
The long line of walkers rose through the hovering clouds. Step by step, we gradually made our way across the foothills in the remote region of the French Alps. This region appears as a garden of Eden, a precious area free from the damage of irreversible changes that have blighted far too much of the Earth’s glorious surface. Yet, a shadow lingers in the palpable silence that stretches far across these splendid Alps in this region. Where are the birds?
We wound our way from the extensive campsite nestling in a valley along the natural contours of the hills as we trekked upwards to view some of their peaks. We found ourselves exposed to an unspeakable beauty, an unspoiled vista expressed across an extensive landscape. Abiding like small offshoots of parental mountains, these long rolling hills stretched far ahead as we walked in the diligence and the discipline of a long silent line.
Undoubtedly, the arduous nature of some stretches of the extra brought tiredness to our legs, trickling beads of sweat to our backs and the regular necessity of long sips of water from our containers. Other than butterflies and insects, sentient life seems to have largely abandoned the foothills of the Rhone-Alps, as if it was a region without merit for the Earth’s creatures. Signs, too, of human habitation seemed few and far between; other than the occasional abandoned cottage reduced to broken walls amidst intensely overgrown plants and bushes. We witness occasionally the signs of new homes and modernised traditional dwellings, possibly for holidays or for the few souls who possibly regard themselves as refugees from the intensity and stress of city life.
Apart from some farm animals, we saw little sign of wild life in the hills, valleys and ravines. The region has become a silent paradise largely empty of creatures, great and small. We charted our way through along the long, winding paths in this palpable silence. At one point, a large, lonely vulture hovered briefly high in the sky above our heads. With its sharp eyed view of the pilgrims, this great bird of prey, introduced into the region 20 years ago, could ponder from above, young and old alike, steadfastly continuing the walk. Alpine farmers will offer the vultures the dead carcass of one their livestock as food for these birds.
The silence of the single file found itself absorbed into this tangible silence pervading the mountains and the hills from sky above to the floors of the valleys beneath our gaze. Apart from the occasional chatter of the children at the front of the line, we barely heard all day the song or cry of a bird. What has happened to these feathered creatures who appear to have abandoned these extensive forests, flowering meadows and vast open spaces? The French government banned hunting in these areas three generations ago. We walked for hours without sight nor sound of a bird.
Creatures on the ground seemed equally few and far between. At one point, a single rabbit raced past us dashing across a sloping field only a matter of metres from where we walked. It was the only wild animal I spotted in 12 days.
Could it be that centuries of hunting have eliminated 99% of wildlife including the birds, rabbits, foxes, deer and lynx?.
Could it be that squirrels, reptiles, snakes, field mice and other small creatures were left with an inadequate food supply, even after birds of prey left.
Was the ecological chain between creatures broken?
Has climate change had an impact?
Could it be that nothing much edible remains for the creatures in the air, on the ground and living under the ground?
Are the fish in the rivers another threatened species?
Do the birds nest in the Spring to produce their offspring in the area only for the whole family to depart?
Have these hilly/mountainous regions of the Alps become the human equivalent of deserts for the animal and bird population?
Do these occasional birds we heard in July and August prefer the solitude of their own existence rather than dwelling elsewhere in small communities of their own species?
We walked along these ancient tracks carved out of the slopes and hills by previous generations of men and women, who lived rather solitary lives as hill farmers tending their sheep. We came across a small flock of sheep guarded by four large white dogs to scare away any stray wolves who had wandered down to neighbouring farms. The French government and conservation organisations had also reintroduced these wolves into the Alps during the 1990s. What on earth do the wolves live on? Isn’t it time for the French government, EU and charities supporting nature to re-introduce a diversity of bird, reptiles and animals into these precious regions of the glorious Alps.
Visual Intensity, Day and Night
Blue skies, mists, cotton-wool clouds and cloud with messages of dark foreboding affected our perceptions, as well as the colours, appearances and depth of field as we moved along in the tranquillity of these long summer days. At times, waist high granite walls, clipped together like jigsaw puzzles, hugged the pathways of this largely uncultivated landscape. Who on earth has spent so much time cutting out these pathways and building these terraced walls on these slopes to stop landslides for those walking across the hills. We applaud the efforts of these Alpine path makers who ensured the safety of the few citizens making their way through this region.
Pathways from all the directions criss-cross each other to ensure access to the remote residences in small villages and outlying homes some thousands of feet up in the hills and down in the valleys. Members of the French resistance used some of these same pathways to avoid arrest, torture and execution during the Nazi occupation some 75 years ago. They would hide in these mountains or make their way across the mountains to the French speaking citizens of Switzerland.
We, the Dharma teachers, barely heard a word of complaint from the seven scores of people engaged in the quiet action of taking one step after another. Those who have not participated in any of our annual yatras would be forgiven for concluding that the daily walks appear as a kind of quiet stroll for a few hours each day through welcoming countryside. Such perceptions belie the fact. Generally, one day of Yatra, whether in the Alps, Pyrenees or the sublime softness of the countryside in the Dordogne area, challenges the view of an easy day out. Though not severe, our walks challenge the comfort zone of mind and body to provide health/fitness and an inner strength with the aid of mindfulness, concentration and moment-to-moment presence.
The hot weather, or cool, cold, windy, windless days or rainstorms or the intensity of the summer heat, also express the diversity of nature. We experience sunshine and storms in our interior environment. Life reveals as an enviro-mental circumstance. The emergence of any tiredness, blisters or very occasionally for three or four people a re-occurrence of any old aches and pains requires early attention. From the pregnant woman to participants, who turned past the age of 70, the yatra represents the co-operation of the collective. Our immersion in the beauty of such illustrious nature couples with the solidarity of the spirit of the other walkers. Yet, irritations from tiredness and discomfort, day or night, or both, naturally arise like nettles touching the skin. We walked through these irritations of events, past, present or to come, to confirm the wisdom of walking, and the validity of such an enterprise.
The day passes over from moment to moment into the takeover of the night hours and the recession of the mountains, hidden in the dark. In the transition period from the clear intensity of the blue day, the night hours herald another silent spectacle. We raise our eyes and behold the night sky. One night, camped in the narrow valley, we were wedged between two dark green hills that effectively locked out any artificial light. We found ourselves blessed with the opportunity to stare far and deep into the known universe. A galaxy of endless numbers of stars, a panorama of tiny sparkles of light continues into the infinite depths of the universe. How extraordinary that we, a collection of vulnerable human beings, have the cosmic gift of two tiny eyeballs enabling us to see so far and so deep.
The clear blue skies of the day whisper of the approaching coldness of the night. Participants reported on the need to wear extra clothing in their sleeping bag to ensure the fading away into oblivion for a few hours. Some understandably drew the conclusion that they did not have proper equipment. Those of us blessed with a good sleeping bag, an internal cotton sheet, and a rather substantial air mattress still experienced the cold for the first night or two. The transition from the warmth and comfort of one’s bedroom at home to the thin walls of a tent and the limits of the sleeping mat can inhibit or interrupt a night’s sleep. Was it the equipment? Was it the experience of the cold night air? Was it an issue of acclimatisation to camping in the foothills of the Alps? As the days of the yatra got underway, the voices referring to the cold nights began to fade away from breakfast conversations. As human beings, we have the remarkable capacity to adjust rather quickly to what initially seems like adverse circumstances.
We all shared a willingness to move away from the comfort zone of a bed with clean sheets and appropriate pillow, plus hot shower and flush toilet close at hand. The varieties of discomfort include sleeping on uneven ground, taking a shower using a bucket filled with bitterly cold mountain water or squatting over a temporary toilet, consisting of a hole in the ground, surrounded by a thin canopy for privacy. Several people might have to wait patiently in the toilet queue for their turn to squat.
Romantic Philosophers, Poets and Mendicants
We can experience these mountains narrowly as remote regions like many of our past ancestors, who saw little or nothing to credit what appeared to be a desolate and uninviting area. The revival of the romantic philosophers, the sensitivity of the poets and the spiritual depths of the wandering mendicants support the awakening of our passion for the surrounding stark beauty with its sparse number of inhabitants, humans or animals. With our capacity for adventure and the willingness to endure some moderate levels of hardship, we can then expose ourselves to wonder and revelations about bare reality. The rain clouds may burst in the heavens, as we pack our tents or hungrily eat morning porridge, or feel the rain impact upon us, as we mindfully walk along slippery pebbled pathways.
It seems we grow as human beings, and we feel fitter for our efforts, through our capacity to acknowledge and work with changing environmental conditions. It would be a step too far to say that we welcome the rain of the winding uphill or downhill track. We acknowledge the precious support of each other; yet need to fully acknowledge the occasional irritations or demands that we can make on each other, and upon ourselves.
The Yatra confirms the fusion of the human spirit with each other and the surrounding elements that establish the fullness of things and the emptiness of the formations of ego. Collective co-operation and co-ordination, mindfulness and meditation, can give rise to encounters with authentic reality, precious vignettes of revelation and an intimacy with certain indispensable moments. A dedicated time of silent walking reminds us and keeps us in the accordance with the rhythms of existence. The same principle of living in harmony applies to the other three primary positions of sitting, standing and the horizontal posture.
As we walk, we shake off any burdens and purge the mind of layers of obscuring images, unhelpful thoughts and unwelcome tendencies. We entrust ourselves to a non-clinging way of life, a renunciation of the burdens to know a blessed, straightforward and liberated being.
Love, friendship and the capacity to endure reveal some of the fruits of steadfast walking.
May all beings love the outdoors
May all beings know the sound of silence in nature
May all beings walk lightly on the Earth