Lessons from the Inca Trail: Embracing aging as a valued part of life This newsletter comes as a long overdue follow-up to the introductory launch of my website on September 23, 2011. My initial response to such tardiness is to blame the delay on the pace of life and yet I know, the simple fact is that I am here by choice. Whether I like to admit it or not, everything that I do is rooted in the reality of choice. And so, I face, with raw and honest examination, the choices that I make, and I do so with the Inca Trail as my muse for it is within this context that I have excavated a deeper understanding of myself, my life choices, and my experience of aging. It was two weeks ago today that my husband and I began a four day pilgrimage to the spiritual city of Machu Picchu. This was a long held dream of mine and so, an element of disbelief punctuated the reality of actually setting foot upon this ancient trail. I was so excited. But I was uncertain too. A sense of mystery enveloped me as I ventured forward, for the hiking prowess of my youth was no longer a given. I was 50 now and not altogether certain of my abilities or my stamina given the high altitude, my wavering level of fitness, and the numerous steps that this trail would soon offer up to its travelers. I soon discovered though, that this trail would be more than a physical challenge. It would prove itself the catalyst for true insight, bringing to my awareness, the real benefits and joys of aging. These are the lessons that I learned along the way…
Lesson 1: Beyond youth It is interesting to reflect upon aging in the context of this arduous hike for it challenges the very notion of youth in its physical demands and mental and emotional toils. Each step reminds one that the body is indeed a mortal entity with changes in ability that seem to manifest without notice, camouflaged by years that seem to melt seamlessly into one another. In my mind I can hear myself say “I don’t feel old” and yet, I know that I am in fact no longer as ‘young’ as I once was...but, in the core of my being, where my heart and spirit conspire to support my deepest longings, I know that life is still rich and full of potential. This is the place where triumph exists and where the wisdom of age makes such experiences inspirational, for upon this trail I encountered a new vision of myself – a deeper, more connected sense of self, one that felt both able and eager to embrace the richness of this experience in its entirety. Juxtaposed against this emerging wellspring of insight was that of my younger self reflected by those with whom I traveled – 20 and 30 something’s who sprinted with seeming ease up the steep terrain. I had been like them once but surprisingly, I had no desire this time, to speed through the experience. I relished every step seeing each stride as a metaphor for my life. Each step, each rise and fall of the terrain represented for me, a part of my life – a challenge, a triumph, a choice, a reward. As a result, it was the journey, in the end, rather than the destination itself that held the greatest meaning for me. Amidst this realization, I became grateful too for my physicality and the opportunity it provided for me to slow down, to linger, and to immerse myself in the sheer joy of the experience.
Lesson 2: The power of reframing At one point along the trail - after catching up to the youthful lead - a comment was made about how far we still had to go. I recall looking below us and the distance we had already traveled from our campsite and said “but look how far we’ve come”. In response, I was called an optimist which I smiled at for this is a quality that does not come easily to me. What arose in response was the voice of my truth. ”I’m living the dream” I stated. “I have nothing to complain about”. It was at this moment that a shift in my way of being was most palpable. I knew that something profound was taking place within for I felt pure happiness and peace… We were now en route to our highest point of the trek – Dead Woman’s Pass at 4215 meters. There is something ironic in this name for some part of me was indeed dying – perhaps it was an obsolete vision of myself as I once was or perhaps it was a stereotypical image of aging. Whatever it was, this pass represented a turning point on my journey.
Lesson 3: The wisdom of age Life, I am discovering, is a finite experience of time. We can choose to enjoy it or choose to complain about it. I had not understood that before. I had, in my youth only seen how much further I had to go rather than seeing how far I had already come. This is, I believe, the gift that my years and my time on this trail have brought to me, and it is rich… Later in the trek, I write in my journal “I am tired by days end, but not spent for I have kept a pace that suits my fitness level and my age. I see now that wisdom can come in many forms – for me it is not in the guise of a crooked old woman but rather, in the form of a vibrant crone, infused with the energy of the divine feminine. This is aging for me.” And in this place of growing self-acceptance for the shifting reality that aging brings, I encountered (upon the trail) a lovely South African woman of similar vintage. We strike up a conversation with ease for our joy at being in this place is palpable to each of us. It is no longer about the exertion required, but about the incredible opportunity to live this experience that brings us closer to ourselves, our soul’s longing, and our appreciation of life. I could have ventured to this place when I was younger, but I am glad that I did not, for the poignancy of the experience has been far more intense as a result of my current stage in life, and I am forever grateful for that.
Lesson 4: Spiritual connections I was blessed on this journey by the presence of two beautiful Peruvian guides and a host of porters who cultivated for their guests, an experience that can only be described as awe inspiring, respectful, and loving. I was especially blessed, by the selfless kindness of our lead guide, who created for me, a deeply meaningful experience while at Machu Picchu. Building upon many synchronicities that predated and then aligned themselves during this trip, an offering made at the temple of the Condor provided the perfect ending to a trip that was truly a pilgrimage of the spirit. More than once, I was brought to tears on this adventure…this was one such moment. Adding to my many blessings, were the forces of nature that seemed to conspire together in favor of conditions that were remarkable for their rarity. Four days of no rain and blue skies were our reality for this trip. This included our arrival at Machu Picchu. Considering its location in the cloud forest, this was indeed a remarkable occurrence and seemingly symbolic of the light of growing insight that this trip cultivated, step by step…
Final notes: On the final morning, as we ventured toward the Sun Gate and the entrance to Machu Picchu, I attempted to keep pace with this younger crowd, only to find the views and hence my appreciation of the journey, flying past me in a whirlwind of panicked chaos. It was not what I wanted for myself. It is not what I want for myself now. This is wonderful to appreciate as I return to the temptation of pace that pervades my culture. My task now is to bring the lessons of the Inca Trail home; to take one day at a time; to step with consciousness; to walk in joy.
Next steps: Predating this trip, I had been inspired to create for myself and a small network of friends, a ceremony that honors the aging experience for women. A “Croning Ceremony” is an ancient reference to ritual that honors the elder wise women of the tribe. This ceremony aims to illuminate that which is to be left behind as a reflection of youthful enterprises while giving voice to that which is to be cultivated in the second half of life. In doing so, one rediscovers the grace of aging and reframes this fundamental experience of life in a way that not only makes room for the elders of our society, but also invites in the wisdom they have acquired through their years of living. My next newsletter will focus on this experience. I endeavor to share details with you later this summer.