In the summer of 1911, a man travelled barefoot and by mule from Cusco into the Urumbamba Valley. There he met a farmer who told him of some ruins towards the top of a nearby mountain. The farmer called the mountain Machu Picchu, which translates to “old peak” in the native Quechua language. The man was Hiram Bingham. Machu Picchu was to give up so much more than “just some ruins”.
This the summer, I too travelled from Cusco into the Urumbamba Valley. What I wasn’t expecting was to also end up bare-foot, on a life-changing walk up the same mountain.
I’d been in Peru for over a week when I made the very scenic train ride from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu town. At 5.30 the next morning I queued with my travel companions to get the coach up to the site. It was already over-run with visitors and the noise and clamour left me feeling antsy and disconnected. I don’t do organised tours as a rule. I generally like to discover somewhere through my own lense – but sometimes it serves us to be open to other ways of doing.
Before our guide left us as the foot of the climb, he asked us to gather round. And then he said something that would not have been out of place in a Tony Robbins seminar. I forget the exact words but the essential message was this:
The point of the climb was not to get to the top. If we simply aimed to get to the top we would miss the most important part. (“Is there a café half-way up?” I wondered.) The point is the path. The whole point is the path, he repeated. If you need to stop, stop. If you only go a few steps, then so be it. Let go of the goal and just be in the moment. Be fully present on the path. This is one of the most profound energy centres on the planet. This whole mountain is a giant crystal formation and if you will just be present on the path she will show you what you need. The goal is not to get the top. Remember this.
We started to climb. It was truly challenging for me at that altitude and although I was semi-acclimatised, a band of sweat soon broke out on my forehead under my hat and I could feel my t-shirt start to stick to my back. As we climbed past the early-morning clouds, the number of people diminished and round one corner the whole site opened up in all its glory.
Even so, it’s possible to be in the most spectacular places on the planet and still feel out of sorts. I thought that maybe I just needed to distance myself from the others in the group. Many had leapt ahead anyway.
My going was slow as I contemplated Victor’s words. I was almost at the back of our group and found myself just walking with one of my new friends – Grainne (pronounced Gron-ya). We had stopped to take some photos and then I looked over and she did an extraordinary thing. She took off her shoes and socks.
“I just love being barefoot” she said and started off up the path again. I set off behind her, transfixed by her feet.
I was now getting so hot that my irritation was visceral. I sat down on a rock, deflated, and she stopped too. I looked at the spectacular view and tried to take in the reality that I was not just looking longingly at the pages of National Geographic, I was in them. I looked back at her and then down at her feet again and thought – that’s what I’m going to do. I can always put my shoes back on it if walking on the path hurts my feet.
The rocks of the path underfoot felt immediately smooth and cooling.
And then it happended – I was immediately connected with the path. Suddenly fully present and fully aware of everywhere I placed my feet. Path and plants worked their way between my toes. I dropped into my body and I could feel the energy wherever I made contact with the earth.
And so I continued the climb, stopping frequently to rest and take in the whole vista which changed, corner by winding corner. But now I felt energised. Even so, I was still struggling a little and so eventually Grainne headed up to the summit alone. I found a ledge and crawled into it, my back pushing against the earth and rock. Held in the cleft of this incredible mountain, I wondered how many had sat here over the previous hundreds of years, looking at the almost unchanging view. What were they thinking, I wondered? At that point I completely let go of reaching the summit. My body was telling me to rest and yielding completely to simply enjoying the path and being present, I stopped. I stopped the internal chatter and just breathed.
I recalled waking up the morning after losing my business 10 years ago and dropped into how I’d felt – that nothing mattered but breathing in and out and how good that felt, how reassuring and what an immense sense of well-being had spread throughout by body. I let my face relax and looked down at my feet. I wiggled my toes as if waving at myself and closed my eyes. I just let go.
And then suddenly I experienced a huge energy surge. Get up, get up, walk to the top. I checked in with myself. Having happily let go of the goal of the summit was this just my ego? The energy was filling my whole body and so I got up, completely renewed by the letting go and within 10 minutes I was at the summit.
Yes it was spectacular. But not as spectacular for me as the internal changes that had taken place in my self-talk, in my letting go and in simply being present on the path.
So what did I learn about walking barefoot up Machu Picchu?
1. The transformation of your path lies in the quality of your rest. It’s not all about how often you rest but the quality of the rest itself. Rest can be active, rooting and grounding in direct proportion to your presence in the moment. Being barefoot on that path I enjoyed and luxuriated in the frequent rests – as the sensation of standing on these cool, smooth rocks was so delicious and restful underfoot that I was compelled to take whole moments to savour the feelings and draw the energy up from the ground into my body. These moments of standing still were also active and fully engaged. They had purpose in and of themselves. They were moments uncluttered with thoughts of where next, what next. Rather, moments fully complete in themselves.
2. Don’t inhabit the drama: Every time we spend focused energy on a drama we are flooding out the space necessary for creative and inspired thought. Importantly, being barefoot means you don’t stop in uncomfortable, painful spots, commenting on how painful this all is – no you just keep going on your path. You keep forward momentum until alighting on another delicious resting place. I had learned, reluctantly, that I was a little addicted to the chemical rush of a drama – even though the drama was intellectually uninvited. But if we create space by changing a behaviour, it’s useful to have a better and opposite behaviour to focus on. Keeping forward momentum is so much more healthy than focusing on pain. This isn’t to ignore difficulty. Difficulty presents itself all the time. But while nature will always seek the point of least resistance (look at a mountain river), we create less resistance in our lives by observing difficulty without judgement and then reaching for a better feeling thought altogether. Rest, as Rod Stryker says “…allows creative connections buried deep in our unconscious.”
3. Joy on the path is a choice: “There is joy beyond all sorrows found in the heart.” (Rod Stryker) The quality of our rest precludes the ability to make joy on our path a natural choice. It enables choosing joy to be easy and of ease. While life certainly isn’t always pared down to black and white, I observed two choices we have in walking our path: Joy or Paralysis. I can either find joy in looking out for the next smooth rock and higher vibration point on which to stand – or I can paralyse my walk by overt concern I’ll step on something sharp and hurt myself. It’s really the focus that dictates the path. While I’m not someone who focuses on sharp objects, I have a sometimes unhelpfully high pain threshold. Looking for joy and ease is an important counter-balance to that.
4. More lightness, less constraint: Choosing joy is the necessary porthole to inhabiting lightness in times of challenge. In fact when difficulty comes, and it will, joy is the precision tool that alchemises hard-going into light, expansion and meaning. Walking without shoes meant I was lighter and my feet were not constricted. I was also more consicious about using my whole foot, my deportment was better and my strides largely even – neither taking small tight steps nor over-extending myself. There was eveness and balance. And I felt incredibly free and unemcumbered.
5. An example to others: Dropping into ease, even on a challenging path, acts like a wild yeast. As you expand in all directions with lightness and aliveness, as the density transforms itself, there will emerge a natural ability to share the path. The form that communication takes depends, in part, on our spectrum from introvert to extrovert. One guy stopped and exclaimed “I fear for you!” “Bit extreme”, I thought, but some people were incredibly confronted by us not wearing shoes. Some were full of questions and thought it was great. But while others loved the idea of it said they could never do that themselves. Just because we find some things liberating – that really isn’t the case for others.
While I discovered the starting point to walking barefoot is the essential need to actively rest, the sharing of the path is more aligned with our flow of energy and how we naturally show up in the world. Visibility will be neither conscious nor deliberate but just because we are. And our only constraint to being ourselves is being aligned with the cycles of energy according to our own needs. In this instance the opportunities to talk with others came out of a need for me to change my energy, strip off the inessential and serve myself. I never set out with intention to explore a blog post or confront people into talking to me.
As Gloria Steinem says in her gorgeous autobiography “My Life on the Road” – “The road was permanent, settling down was temporary” – but what I learned by walking barefoot, that those temporary moments of settling down can be restful, delicious, satiating even – and in that fullness, be the very propulsion back onto the road again, to the path, the dharma, the adventure of our lives.