She was a harried working mother looking for serenity, compassion, purpose. Then Peg Tyre caught a glimpse of her life as it really was.
When I rounded 40, much to my surprise, my stubborn atheism began to give way. My early rebellion against a strict Roman Catholic family had brought me into my red-wine-swilling, Sartre-reading 20s, which in turn had evolved into a decade-plus of hard work in my chosen career (journalist and writer, now at a national newsweekly). And here I am, more than four decades into life, a professional, married mother of two, grasping for Something More.
The God of my childhood is not what I'm after. What I'm seeking is a rugged, everyday type of deity—one that can provide a compassionate lens through which to view my life, a split second of serenity between the moment the milk gets spilled on my new cashmere sweater and my reaction. I need a spiritual practice, if only to comfort myself that while I am clearly getting older, I'm doing my level best to get wiser, too.
I'm not entirely without direction on this. I do get glimmers. When I feel the presence of my higher power, I'm calmer and kinder to other people. It's easier for me to wait my turn, and I move about my day with the assurance that my life has purpose beyond making the school lunches or meeting my latest deadline. The problem is I don't always feel it. I can go for days, okay, weeks, without a whisper of spiritual connection. And then life gets rockier. Outwardly, not much changes, but inside I begin to feel an undertow of self-doubt. I worry more about the future. I become both grandiose (I plan to simultaneously renovate my house, improve my son's math scores, and write a best-selling novel) and more reluctant to take even the simplest actions. And so, with no small amount of foot-dragging on my part, I set myself a goal: to find a way to increase my spiritual bandwidth.
On the face of it, I think, this shouldn't be hard. Nearly every religion since the dawn of time uses the same basic method to connect with God. According to them, finding God is easier than buttering toast. Empty your mind. Open your heart. Receive God's blessing. Simple? Not for me. My life is not what anyone would call contemplative. My waking hours are jammed to the point of bursting. Some days I'm nearly swallowed whole by practical concerns. I try to pray. I've even taken a meditation class, but while everyone else was looking inward, I made a meticulously detailed grocery list. The only reliable way I've found to calm my mind is through strenuous exercise. Though I'm not exactly what you'd call a hard body, when I'm sweating it out at the gym, jogging fast in the park, or surfing, the physical exertion can be almost devotional. I look like a gasping weekend athlete, but on the inside, my mind is slowing, the relentless mental chatter quiets down, and sometimes I can get a clear channel to God. I decided to build on that.
Next: Embarking on a spiritual journey
Right before Labor Day, I left my home in New York City and took a jet and then a tiny propeller plane to meet Kim Reynolds, 46, an expert mountaineer who along with Buddhist life coach Marlena deCarion, 34, conducts spiritual retreats for active women high up in the Colorado Rockies. For four days, Reynolds and deCarion would lead a group of us—a couple of shrinks, a physical therapist, a pharmacist, a pair of refugees from Fortune 500 companies, and me—through sessions of yoga, life coaching, rock climbing, journaling, group discussion, mindful eating, and high-altitude hiking in the majestic San Juan Mountains. Our goal was to use the power of the mountains to help us refuel and reconnect with our spirituality.
After settling into our hotel in Ridgway, Colorado (population 900), and looking over the women, all between the ages of 28 and 57, I utter my first fervent prayer: "Thank God no one is wearing flowing robes." Instead of starry-eyed seekers, I'm in the company of smart, capable, good-humored women—something like my old book club but in hiking boots. The retreat begins with yoga and a lot of deep breathing, and a discussion about "staying present." Almost on cue, my mind begins to wander. But now it's time to head into the mountains. A sudden snowstorm has brought an abrupt end to summer. As I put on my backpack, raincoat, rain pants, and wool hat, I formulate my second prayer: "Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?"
For nearly all her life, Reynolds has stayed close to the mountains. She's worked for ski patrol at resorts in Colorado, been an ice-climbing guide, run groups for Outward Bound, and continues to conduct an annual trek to the Himalayas. After working with groups of both sexes, she decided that "watching women break through barriers and rediscover their passions in life" was what inspired her. She cofounded Chicks with Picks, a women's ice-climbing school, and began offering summer sessions called Mind Over Mountains. As the programs became popular, she and her husband, Jim (an honorary Chick), decided to act on the lessons they had learned on the mountaintop—that spiritual and emotional transformation must go hand in hand with community service. They started the dZi Foundation (named after a sacred Tibetan bead), which along with the ice-climbing school has so far funneled $260,000 to orphanages and nutrition centers in Nepal and India.
As we gather for our first delicious dinner, I lay out my goal for Reynolds. "I'm here to connect with God." She looks me over, unphased. "Try to stay in the present," she offers. "Breathe."
Day three: I'm suspended by a rope about 25 feet off the ground, clinging to the sheer face of a rock. Sweat is dripping down my forehead and stinging my eyes. My feet are painfully wedged into crevices. My left hand is gripping a knob of stone, and, almost imperceptibly, my right hand begins sliding off a tiny ledge that I am desperate to hold on to. If the mountains are incredible teachers, as Reynolds has said, then the lesson they are teaching me at this moment is that I never should have left home. I try to do one of the exercises we've been practicing: taking a deep breath, then squeezing air from my stomach into my chest and exhaling. It doesn't make a dent in my growing panic. "I can't go any farther. I want to come down," I wail to the group below. Nine women look up at me and shout in unison, "Breathe!"
I try again. Hysteria rises. "More breathing!" they shout. Some combination of stone-cold fear and breathing finally silences every bit of static in my head. I find my next handhold, then I'm on my way to the top. Later, as I sit in a hot tub looking through my toes at the snowy mountains, I marvel at the stillness inside me. I wonder if I could install a climbing wall in my house. Or maybe a hot tub.
Next: The moment that brought tears to her eyes
The fourth day, it happens. We're walking up a 12,000-foot mountain aptly called Bridge of Heaven. "Buddhists consider the Himalayas the abode of the gods," says Reynolds. "These mountains are every bit as spiritual." The seven-hour hike will be a walking meditation. Within 20 minutes, every part of my body is focused on my breath—and not as a spiritual exercise. But soon my reflexive mental grousing grows quiet as I become absorbed in the physical sensations of breathing and walking, and the postcard-beautiful vistas all around me.
And right about then is when I plug into the Big Grid. Two life-altering realizations occur to me, not in a tumble, but at an almost stately pace. Climbing this mountain under the wide Colorado sky, I feel strong, healthy, and capable. And at the same time, I can clearly see that compared to the massive forces that shaped these peaks, my life, so precious to me, is frail, fleeting, and insignificant. Instead of viewing each of my daily concerns through a microscope, as I usually do, I begin to see them all through the wrong end of a telescope—the thousand or so thoughts, worries, plans I make every day, reduced to the buzzing of a gnat. I turn this revelation over in my mind like a stone that unexpectedly sparkles the sun, examining it from every angle and feeling a great sense of relief. My life is not harried. It's rich with possibility.
My second thought is this: I don't need to hunt down God like a set of missing car keys. I've just got to open the door and invite God in. As I walk, I feel tears in my eyes, and then I am laughing.
After a few hours, we break and spread out on a soft grassy area. I notice that several of my retreat mates have tear-streaked faces, too. Our trek is over, but the biggest challenge lies ahead. How can I apply what I've learned on the mountaintop back at lower altitudes?
A week later, I've returned to sea level, and I'm up to my neck in the details of my life. The kids are squabbling, deadlines are looming, and my husband is leaving on a business trip. I start to feel like I'm swimming with my clothes on. After one exhausting day, I persuade my kids to take a short walk. On the sidewalk, the ambient roar of the city fills my ears, but, surprisingly, it is balanced in my mind by the near total silence I absorbed in Colorado. The boys chat away, their hands in mine, as I replicate the breathing exercises that saved me when I got stuck on the rock face. I think of the snowy peaks. My worries begin to assume their correct size—cause for concern but not despair.
A few evenings later, I manage to settle my kids in bed at a reasonable time. I close my door for ten minutes and try a meditation. I shut my eyes and breathe deeply. This time I don't make grocery lists in my mind. Right away I can feel myself back on the mountaintop. It's a start.