"A kind and accessible book that supports the human longing for a meaningful life." — Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, author of The Logic of Faith
Toward a Secret Sky is a guidebook for modern pilgrims who are searching for encouragement in following their commitment to a spiritual path. Kim Roberts acts as a friendly guide, helping people navigate the strange and exhilarating journey of a spiritual seeker. She shares stories from her own years of pilgrimage in places like India, Thailand, and Bhutan, and prompts readers to jump-start their unique path of discovery with meditation and writing exercises.
"With simple and profound practices, Kim Roberts guides us to explore our inner landscape in the context of the external world and Toward a Secret Sky magnificently illuminates the path of the most sacred journey we will ever take. This beautiful book is a compass that I will return to again and again." — Nancy Levin, author of Jump . . . and Your Life Will Appear
"Wisdom and kindness shine through every page, and practical advice leaves you well equipped to set out on your own path of discovery. These are footsteps worth following." — Andrew Holecek, author of Dream Yoga
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About the Author
Kim Roberts holds a Masters degree in psychology and has been a practicing psychotherapist for over 20 years. She has spent the better part of 15 years in South and Southeast Asia, leading retreats that offered yoga, sitting meditation, coaching, and creative writing as tools for personal growth. She is currently based in Crestone, Colorado. Her website is www.kimroberts.co.
Read an Excerpt
Start Where You Are
How to Embark on Pilgrimage
How do you go about taking that leap for yourself? What if you don't even know what leap to take?
My intention is to help you start exploring the possibility of going on a spiritual journey, whether or not you leave home. Since my background is drenched in Eastern spiritual practices — Ashtanga yoga and Buddhist meditation from a Tibetan lineage — most of what I share comes from those traditions. My journey has mostly been through South and Southeast Asia. My hope is to offer guidance for how to negotiate the path of yoga and meditation as a lifelong practice of transformation.
When you hear the call, you notice that you suddenly want to do something new and different or even slightly outrageous. What seems safe and known starts to lose its appeal. Your material belongings may start to feel more like a burden, and you may question your reference points.
You might start off by learning a practice at your local community center or yoga studio. If you already practice yoga or meditation, perhaps you go deeper by doing a short retreat. Maybe you're ready to do something outside of your comfort zone.
I'll guide you to find answers to these questions:
[??] How do I start? (chapter 3)
[??] Where should I go? (chapter 4)
[??] What would my pilgrimage look like? (chapters 7, 11, 14, and 15)
I've also created a whole section of resources to get you started and keep you on track:
[??] How to develop a meditation practice
[??] Where to do a retreat
[??] What to read
Pilgrimage indicates a journey, and this book outlines not only how to prepare for, organize, and embark on such a journey, but also shares highlights from my various pilgrimages over the years throughout South and Southeast Asia. In these pages I share the things I never had the time to delve into while teaching a yoga class, as well as the personal stories that were not appropriate to share with my therapy clients. Meditators will learn how simple yoga techniques can benefit their sitting practice. Yoga practitioners will expand and deepen their understanding of asana. Practitioners of yoga and meditation will gain insights into bringing their practice into the world to be of benefit to our ailing planet and its inhabitants. Writing practices at the ends of chapters will let you experience the power of journaling.
This book is a culmination of over twenty-six years of experience I've earned through meeting with my teachers, long daily practices, intensive study, and living with reptiles in bug[infested huts, taking cold-water bucket-baths. Part of the journey is confronting yourself and your attachment to comfort. It's also about turning every day into a pilgrimage, and that requires a shift in attitude.
Think of this as your guidebook, your journal, and your workbook. I'll be your invisible guide and friend as you make your own pilgrimage.
Not sure where to start? I'll show you.
What Is Pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is always at least two things — a literal journey and a spiritual journey. Though it involves a geographical moving about, it also requires a psychological shift of the deepest sort.
Pilgrimage can mean a day trip to a holy shrine, or it can denote a series of adventures lasting decades. It is above all a psycho-spiritual journey, usually to a place of religious significance or to meet a master of wisdom, with elements of both an inner and outer journey. Primarily, I think what characterizes a pilgrimage is that we are forced to face our fears head-on.
The Oxford Dictionary defines pilgrimage as:
1.1 A journey to a place of particular interest or significance.
1.2 literary Life viewed as a journey.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition) defines it as:
1 : a journey of a pilgrim; especially: one to a shrine or a sacred place
2 : the course of life on earth
Travel — especially in a foreign country — forces you to come to terms with aspects of yourself you might not confront in your everyday life. Things come up when your environment is unknown, unexpected, changing, and often challenging.
So you might pack up your home, put your life on hold, and set off traveling through Asia with an open stretch of time ahead of you. You hope to take stock, and discover a new angle on life. Maybe make a transition in your career.
What starts out as a journey to find peace, however, can end up being anything but peaceful. Often when we are confronted with things that challenge our outlook of the world, we struggle to maintain our sense of identity. If you are operating on old beliefs that no longer serve you, that might be a good thing. This is precisely the value of a pilgrimage: it shatters your identity, so that you can reintegrate around a more up-to-date, authentic version of who you are.
While I've done my fair share of day-tripping to shrines and treks to sacred sites, I find Oxford's second definition most provocative — life viewed as a journey. This is what captures my curiosity as I grow older: How do I live my life as a journey?
But a pilgrimage is more than just a journey. When you set out on an adventure with the right intention, you set in motion a process that can transform your life. This is the point of pilgrimage: transformation.
When you take the first step on a pilgrimage, you put your life in the hands of a higher wisdom. You accept that you cannot control outcomes, and surrender to the process of becoming who you truly are. You accept that there is some divine purpose to your life even if it is as simple as tending your own garden. It may not be as grandiose as the plans you had laid out for yourself, but it is your unique gift to offer the world. There is a huge amount of trust involved that requires a willingness to be with whatever arises along the path.
Pilgrimage is about learning to adapt to new situations. It's about opening your mind to new possibilities. You have to release expectations of how you thought your journey would unfold and let the path reveal itself regardless of your preferences. You learn to be flexible in the face of sudden change or conflict.
When you can appreciate the ups and downs with equanimity, then traveling — whether or not you leave your home territory — becomes a joyful practice of observation. Rather than judging unfamiliar traditions, you start to see there are other ways of doing things. From eating, daily rituals, relating to death, family and intimacy — all cultures treat these in their own way. You can start to question if the way you learned to do things works for you. It gives you options to make changes or adjustments to your own life if you choose to.
When I spent a year in India — which, by the way, is one of the best places to travel to confront yourself — I realized that my American culture had ingrained in me certain values that I took to be truths. For example, my culture proposes that material wealth is a way to achieve happiness. When I lived among Indians, I saw a different way of looking at things that completely changed how I perceive and approach my life. The experience radically shifted my perspective. When I made my yoga practice a higher priority than pursuing a professional career, it was the first time in my life I'd actually relaxed fully.
Another value among rural Indians is that it's completely normal to brush your teeth by the side of the road. I'm not sure I'll ever adopt this practice, but it did open my mind to new possibilities.
You know how to make God laugh, right? Make plans. Pilgrimage might be about making friends with the fact that things don't go as planned.
You journey to meet a teacher, then discover he is at the place you just left. You take precautions against respiratory illness, only to get stomach flu. Or you sign up for a private interview with a guru on the day he has fallen ill. You reserve a guesthouse months ahead of time, only to show up and have no room. Then you can't sleep all night because of the loud music of neighborhood festivities, only to get the e-mail the next morning that you were invited to the party.
Faced with these events, you have choices. You could sulk, pout and yell, wallowing in poverty mentality. Or you can throw up your hands (as well as the corners of your mouth) and take a deep breath.
Resistance is futile. In fact it makes it worse. Pilgrimage is above all an opportunity to see our expectations for what they are — illusions created by a conceptual mind that we then grasp at — and to let go.
Primarily, I think what characterizes a pilgrimage is that we are forced to face our fears head-on. The whole point is to expose ego's sneaky ways to a higher wisdom in order for transformation to occur.
But pilgrimage is not for the faint of heart. It requires a certain amount of stamina and strength. The best-made plans fall to bits, and things rarely go as expected. There is wisdom in learning to let go of your agenda. You learn to tolerate the tension of ego straining against its imagined edges. So if you are up for a wild ride, and an opportunity to push your limits, then join me for an adventure.
The big question I invite you to contemplate along the journey is this:
How can you live your life as a pilgrimage or sacred journey?
What is it that characterizes a pilgrimage and how can you recreate that in your life to forge an authentic spiritual path? The story of a Buddhist saint called Naropa seems relevant here.
Naropa was an Indian prince who lived in the eleventh century. He was also a scholar and respected professor at Nalanda University, near Bodhgaya. This is where the Buddha was sitting under the Bodhi tree when he attained enlightenment.
One day as Naropa was studying the Buddhist texts, a crone appeared to him in a vision and asked if he understood what he was reading. He answered, "yes," and the woman seemed pleased. Then she asked if he understood the real meaning of what he was reading. Again he answered yes (he probably added an Indian head wobble), and she threw a fit. It turned out the crone was the deity Vajrayogini in disguise. She appeared in all her wrath and fury and chastised him for his reply. He didn't understand the inner meaning at all.
He got the message: He didn't have any experience to go along with his book learning.
So Naropa decided to quit his prestigious position at the university to search for a guru. He needed someone who could teach him the inner meaning to gain this experience. He asked around and heard that a great and realized teacher called Tilopa could give him these teachings.
Tilopa was an Indian king who had attained full enlightenment through his own diligent meditation practice. He is recognized as the founding father of one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Kagyu lineage. After weeks of traveling through the mountains — we would imagine cold, tired, and hungry — Naropa finally found Tilopa by the side of a river. Naropa asked him to be his teacher, but Tilopa said no and ran away from him.
Naropa was distraught. He followed him for months — eventually years — through harsh landscapes, but over and over, Tilopa kept running away. Naropa was beside himself with disappointment.
Finally, Naropa caught up with Tilopa, who was sitting on a high cliff. Again he asked Tilopa to be his teacher.
Tilopa responded, "If you were really desperate and determined to learn about the teachings, you would obey my order to jump off this cliff without any hesitation because you would understand how important it is to follow the commands of your master."
Naropa jumped. He broke every bone in his body. Tilopa flew down to Naropa and asked, "Did that hurt?"
Naropa said yes.
Tilopa gently touched Naropa's body and he was instantly healed.
Tilopa tested Naropa again and again like this, causing him pain, humiliation, and sorrow. But he would not give him the teachings Naropa desired.
After twelve years of this, Naropa was destitute — he was getting suicidal. Naropa pleaded with Tilopa to give him the profound teachings.
Tilopa bellowed at him, "You are not yet pure enough to be introduced to the nature of mind!" In a fit of fury, Tilopa removed his shoe and slapped Naropa's face so hard that Naropa fainted.
When he regained consciousness, Naropa had attained a state of realization.
Tilopa then explained to him, "The fact that I led you into so many painful circumstances does not mean that I am a cruel person. Your negative karma could not be purified by your own effort alone. Only by experiencing hardship could you purify the negative karma that prevented you from realizing the ultimate nature of Buddhahood."
So after twelve long years, Naropa succeeded in receiving the teachings — and more importantly the experience — he had set out to find.
Things are a bit easier these days for those who want to receive teachings.
It no longer requires an arduous voyage to remote locations across the globe — you can book a discount flight on Air Asia to an obscure region of India and be there within a matter of days or even hours. You can go online and register for a three-month retreat in the Himalayas, or download ancient texts and have secret, esoteric teachings at your fingertips. What used to involve pain and hardship is now a matter of convenience and exotic whim.
With the advent of the Internet, the whole nature of pilgrimage has changed forever. Go to Amazon — dot com, not the river — and you can purchase tantric texts on the nature of mind, translated into English, with commentaries by realized masters. You can now Google Krishnamacharya and download, for free, his seminal text on Ashtanga Yoga (Yoga Makaranda) that essentially brought yoga to the masses in the West. Before Google, you had to first somehow hear about this great teacher, find out where he was, go there, and convince him to give these teachings to you. Total time required? Probably your entire life and all your savings. These days, the whole thing could be accomplished in three minutes.
But would you get the same understanding? The benefits of pilgrimage have not been replaced by the convenience of receiving teachings. Ironically, you might even underestimate the depth of these wisdom traditions because of their accessibility. My sense is that one earns the "wisdom" of the ancient teachings through learning how to manage adversity. You can't buy wisdom, or store it on your hard drive.
A two hundred-hour teacher training program at a luxury resort in the tropics is a much different experience than an eight-month trek across a dust-blown Tibetan plateau to find a teacher who may or may not still be alive or willing to share the wisdom you seek.
You and I have access to wisdom teachings that would have taken seekers a lifetime to acquire just a couple of decades ago. And yet we lose the adventure in this scenario — the hardship and uncertainty that were inevitably part of the pilgrimage. So does it still count?
We might be tempted to treat these sacred teachings as if they were our just due. I wonder if we appreciate them in the same way we would have if we had been forced to leave our homes and risk life and limb to get them.
But this is our situation. We can't go back in time. So if we are to benefit from having quick and easy access to secret mystical teachings, then perhaps we need to reevaluate what we do with them — how we put them into practice.
With yoga studios popping up like fast-food restaurants around the world , more and more people have access to — or have at least heard of — yoga and meditation. Consumer mentality turns these sacred tools into commodities, often watering down the wisdom most seekers receive.
Given the modern context, where spiritual teachers now come to give teachings in concert halls of major Western cities, and livestream tantric teachings, must we expand our understanding of pilgrimage? How do we undertake a true pilgrimage given these modern conveniences?
It's up to us to preserve the power of the teachings by putting them into practice. We do this through continuous inquiry, on the meditation cushion, and on the yoga mat.
A New Paradigm
As yoga's popularity has boomed in mainstream culture, many traditionalists wonder if the integrity of the teachings has been compromised. But I have a different take — I think anyplace you start is valid. The beauty of yoga — especially a self-directed practice like Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga — is that it is an easy entry into a spiritual path. It's an excellent starting-off point for a pilgrimage.
Taking guided classes at a yoga studio is great at the beginning of your journey, in order to learn the technique and parameters of a practice. But when you do your own yoga, you are forced to confront yourself in a way that can easily be avoided in a class setting. This is imperative if you are to proceed along the path of awakening. So at a certain point, I feel it is important to develop your own self-guided routine, rather than relying on structured classes at a yoga studio.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Toward a Secret Sky"
Copyright © 2019 Kim Roberts.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CONTENTS Foreword Part 1 The Call 1. Start Where You Are 2. When Crisis Calls 3. Preparing for the Journey 4. Setting Your Intention Part 2 Phases of the Journey 5. Commitment 6. Navigating the Path 7. Developing Confidence 8. Confusion 9. Hopelessness 10. Letting Go 11. Guidance Part 3 Coming Home 12. Acceptance 13. Signs of Progress 14. Bringing Practice to Daily Life 15. Change of Heart 16. Wisdom Afterword Part 4 Resources FAQ Yoga for Anxiety: Two Indispensable Yoga Postures Online Resources for Meditation Practice Recommended Reading Places for Meditation Retreat around the World Notes Acknowledgments