Freedom, On a Bus in Kathmandu
i remember what it felt like. what it tasted like. it's weightlessness. it's color. it's texture. i remember how relieved i was to feel it, and how, at the same time, sad i was to have ever lost it. i remember the remembering.
like a lost piece of the sculpture of me, freedom came back to make me whole again. i wet my fingers and molded its edges back into me. i promised i would never forget it, and that i would never lose it again.
how long had i missed her.
it was late afternoon and a smoggy haze filled the street i stood on. there was mud on my shoes and a scarf wrapped around my face to ward off the city's dust. the sun beat down on my squinted eyes. there were cows, and monks, and beggars and families. tangled telephone wires hung above my head. my rupees had run out at the internet cafe and i had nothing else planned to do on that tuesday, in that foreign city. the world i knew was fast asleep, and the world i was in was like an unread book, begging for it's pages to be turned. i had been told of a tibetan monastery with healing doctors and high quality herbal medicine from the himalayas. i had a folded, hand-drawn map of the holy site in my pocket, which gave me some comfort despite my inability to make out the internet cafe owner's handwriting. it was a holy place, and somehow, i trusted the city to help me find it.
motorbikes, rickshaws, painted buses, fled past me at a pace that stole breath from my lungs and made my heart flutter. young boys wearing ripped jeans and t-shirts of bad american bands hung like vines out the doors and windows of buses. stacks of faded rupees clutched in their hands, they yelled the names of neighboring towns and temples, each one trying to out-yell the next.
i recognized one name.
before i knew what was happening, the hand of a young boy was gripping mine and i had barely made it inside of a bus that was already gone, already charging down the dusty road, already blaring traditional village music at the same volume of the average high school kid. i fell on a non-existent seat, somewhere between and somewhat on top of, a monk and his red robes and an elderly woman and her giant sack of grains. a quiet stillness seemed to descend as i settled in, and the eyes of a bus full of strangers held me in their gaze. it was almost as if they were weighing my heart in their eyes, or staring at a map of me that i couldn't see, that i hadn't charted. i was in a sea of strangers, floating across a city that didn't yet know me.
i watched the blur of a million faces sweep by me and melt into a giant colorful painting of vibrant reds and amber yellows, deep blues and faded greens. the sweet smoke of street fires and street shrines flowed through the small bus windows. music pulsed and spoke in a language that I didn't understand but inherently felt. my eyes and heart feasted on the taste of a new culture, a new country, a new unfolding of me. i was being carried, across time, across space, across forgotten memories. i was a child being returned, to the arm's of her mother, to a place i could only find one word for: home.
i realized, in that moment, that i could go anywhere i wanted. i could take this bus to the farthest reaches of the himalayan city, and then go further. i realized that i could be anyone i wanted. everything that had defined me for the entirety of my life was somewhere else - a shadow reflected on the pavement of a different hemisphere, a ghost of the person i tried to be but never really was. i was on my own, in a foreign city, on a bus filled with strangers, going nowhere and everywhere at once. the whole world rolled itself out before me.
and there it was.
there she was.
that feeling i had clawed for in those isolated days, when i felt trapped, culturally suffocated, holding onto the precious threads of my weirdness, of my rebellion, of my nonconformity.
there she was.
i stumbled out onto the street, not caring if i had found the little red circle drawn on my folded map. i was drunk on freedom, drunk on feeling, drunk on remembrance. years of pain - the pain of trying to be someone that i wasn't - throbbed and beat its way out of my chest, out of my eyes, out of my mouth. i watched it drift outward and upward with the smoke of a hundred burning juniper branches, winding its way and then dissolving in the swarm of a thousand fluttering prayer flags. my gaze followed its path and i found a giant pair of eyes, painted against a golden face, staring back at me. they looked peaceful, serene, all-knowing. i heard myself say,
and i did. i let myself drift in the flow of pilgrims spinning prayer wheels, forgetting why i had even come there. their whispered chants spilled out in a drone that permeated the already mystical atmosphere. all i could hear and feel and see was music - the music of the streets, the music culture, the music of humanity, the music of life. i saw it in people's faces, in their breaths, in their hands, in the cloth thrown around their bodies. i saw it in the giant painted eyes above me and in the mountains it watched over. i saw it in the in the broken concrete, in the boiling chai, in the struggle and hustle of the streets. i saw it in my own heart, in my own breath, in my own hands.
i walked, and walked, and walked, in circles around the ancient shrine. the whirl of the city gave way to the whirl of circumambulation, and i was walking back to myself, back to my freedom, back to my innocence. how beautiful, i thought, that i walked in a circle rather than in a straight line. i wasn't going anywhere because i wasn't looking for anything outside of myself - what i was looking for had always been there, had never left and had never been forgotten. i was weaving a memory back into my bones; i was coming home again.
i once heard a woman say that it is our freedom that defines us. her words struck me when i heard them, and have stayed with me since. i think that as humans we are quick to let all of the things in our lives that restrict us - that help us build walls, that keep us closed off - define who we are. we draw these pictures of ourselves in our minds, images of the person we believe we should be, and we draw them over and over again. eventually, we believe in them so much that we fight for them, and fight against the moments, feelings, people or places that even remotely challenge them. what a radical shift in our minds it would be, then, if we let not our boundaries but our freedom define who we are. what would that change? would we live our lives differently?
some might ask what i even mean by freedom here. i am talking about a freedom that all beings, no matter their circumstance, are born with. it is the inherent sovereignty of being that that can never be stolen and can never leave us. it is a freedom from within. freedom from attachment, freedom from opinion, freedom from ego. it is a stainless, shapeless, pure space that ties all of humanity together. it is the marrow of our bones. it is who we are, in our deepest sense.
it took me traveling to the opposite side of the world and sitting on a public bus, alone in a foreign city, to get back my sense of freedom. i had to strip myself of everything familiar and sit in the nakedness of my humanness, in the soil of raw, untainted existence. it could've happened anywhere, and it has happened many times since - while looking out a plane window from 30,000 feet above, while listening to music, while sitting at the feet of my teacher in India, while walking alone in the forest. these moments remind us that freedom is not an external thing we need to search for - rather, it is a remembrance, an unfolding, a becoming, a clarity.
i pray that we all can find spaces in our lives that support this clarity, for it shoulders the weight of our lives for us and returns us to our best selves.
may all beings find peace and happiness and freedom from suffering.
may all beings be free.