How to See the World: Brahman's Allegory, The Alchemist and a Pilgrimage to Spain.

Pilgrimage in Spain

Pilgrimage in Spain

Each year I take a journey of spiritual significance, a pilgrimage. The effort allows me to see things as if for the first time. It takes a lot to pry me from my life. I have it pretty good with students I love and a beautiful place to live. I enjoy fun friends, neighbors and parents who also live in my hometown. But still I have to go.

Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, said in a rare public interview with Krista Tippet, (On Being): 

“If I knew what my life was going to be each day: what would happen, how I would feel, and how things would turn out, I would be bored. The best part of life is the mystery of the unknown.  The fact that I don’t know what will happen and how life will be is good. It keeps me alive and awake.”


 Pilgrimage in Spain

 Pilgrimage in Spain

My pilgrimage for this year is coming to an end. The journey to Spain has helped me see life like never before. I have spent time learning to bike in mountainous terrain, working out this blog, and preparing new material for teacher trainings. I have spent substantial time this summer loving my husband, enjoying a simple life and simply being kind. It has been a very yogic journey.

One of my favorite projects has been working on philosophy lectures related to these writings. I am preparing a talk on a few of the Upanishads. The Upanishads are seminal writings expounding the Vedas, mostly in terms of practice. The Vedas are ancient teachings that codify the tenants of Vedic religion. They lay much of the groundwork for classical Hinduism and inform a lot of yogic philosophy.

In the Kena Upanishad, which is an inquiry into life, there is an allegory that teaches us the importance of seeing things as if for the first time. Sometimes I must travel to see with a fresh eye, sometimes I can simply wake up, but according to yogic interpretation this freshness is the way things really are - free from the distortions of my opinionated mind:

The story begins like this:

Once upon a time the gods were victorious and they were celebrating: drinking soma (like beer but more colorful) and feeling very proud! Brahman (the whole of the whole, the set of all sets) was victorious but Indra (the god of natural phenomenon, i.e. lightening bolts, thunder, hurricane), Agni (the god of fire), and Vayu (the god of wind) thought it was their effort alone that made the success.

From the perspective of Brahman, the idea that we accomplish anything without the support of the whole is a misguided notion. And Brahman wants nothing more than for the gods (and us) to see this clearly.

Sometimes, to illustrate this kind of misunderstanding, I use the example of turning on the lights. If I were to go to the wall switch, flip it and say, “I turned on the lights!” The statement would be true only from a very limited perspective.

In yoga we are always trying to see things from a larger vantage point. In the lights example, I may have flipped the switch but what about the electrician who put the switch and the wiring in the wall? What about all the people who work at the power company who delivered the electricity to me? And then we have the power itself. What about those who dug the coal, or created the technology to make utilities possible? What about all those people? Who really turned on the lights?

 So in order to teach the gods about their arrogance, Brahman appeared in the form of a YAKSHA (a sprite or a little being that you might think is a hallucination, especially if you are drinking soma)

Yaksha was interesting (new) and the gods were bored by everything, so they were intrigued. The sprite says, “Who are you?” This question can be very irritating, especially if you are a god.

The gods in Hindu mythology are imperfect; they get into loads of trouble so we can learn from their foibles. This question, “Who are you” often comes up on a spiritual journey. Before writing The Alchemist, Paul Coelho, an advocate of pilgrimage, took a 500-mile walk in the North of Spain in 1988. On the famous Camino del Santiago he saw things from a new perspective and asked who am I? In this way, he found his true calling; he calls it his personal legend.



So Agni goes first. “I am Agni… I burn things.”

“Oh yeah?” said the sprite, “Well then, burn this!” And he holds up a single piece of grass for the great god to set a blaze.

 Agni tries to burn grass. The blowtorch of his body could not even singe the edges.

When I travel, I am completely removed from the familiar; even my pillow is odd. On this trip I’ve been thinking about Coelho’s alchemical term, “personal legend”. I’ve been thinking about the chapters in my life.  About the many times I have had to leave one thing in order to experience the next. The book, The Alchemist, gives voice to the idea that life is only free when we allow the omens to move us, here and there and there again.

“The wind increased in intensity. Here I am between my flock and my treasure, the boy thought. He had to choose between something he had been accustomed to and something he wanted to have.” The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Coelho, as he takes the first steps of his pilgrimage, realizes that his initial reaction to the journey is “When is this going to be over?” I understand the apprehension that comes with something new. While learning to bike this summer, I see changes in my legs that may not be conducive to tight binds in the practice. As I write more, I see the determination that is required to get words on paper; it can be uncomfortable. I think it is natural to want to return to the familiar when we are faced with the unknown. But there is no going back.

 Coelho says there are four obstacles to living our dream:

1. We have been told since we are children that everything we want is impossible.

2. We are afraid of hurting those who we love by abandoning what is in pursuit of a dream.

3. Fear of defeat.

4. We look around at those who have not gotten what they want and are riddled by feelings of shame going after what we love.

In a nutshell, my yoga teacher Richard Freeman would say, we are the biggest obstacle.



And so the story continues….

Next Vayu approaches the sprite. Yaksha asks the windy deity, “Who are you?” Equally insulted, Vayu huffs and puffs and yet cannot blow the grass out of the sprites hand.

When Coelho reached the end of his pilgrimage, instead of feeling the happiness that is predicted when one arrives at the end of the epic walk; he felt sadness. The sadness came because he knew he had lost his old life, that things would never be the same.

This discomfort is true of any journey and can keep us from leaving the familiarity of what we know. It can prevent us from “seeing” the world.

 “He was learning a lot of new things. Some of them were things that he had already experienced, and weren’t really new, but that he had never perceived before. And he had not perceived them because he had become accustomed to them. He realized: If I can learn to understand the language without words, I can learn to understand the world.”  The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho


Finally, Indra strides up to the sprite, he prepares to put a thunderbolt through the grass that all the other gods failed to destroy and.. this is where it gets exciting…the grass simply disappears!

Suddenly there is nothing, the mind has not organized what is. There is an ah-ha moment. The ah-ha moment helped Indra to pay attention. Uninterrupted attention is Samadhi, clear vision and the goal of yoga.

 In the allegory, the goddess Uma appears where the grass once was.  Uma is the archetype of beauty but not just aesthetic beauty; Uma is the whole of nature, the elevation of the senses. It is through the eyes of the entirety Indra asks, “Who is this spirit?”

Coelho, expounding upon the sadness he felt ending his walk:

“What I didn’t know then was that I was at the beginning of my real pilgrimage. I had completed the physical journey and the inner trip was about to begin. It was time to make a choice. I had to fulfill my dream or I had to forget my dream forever.” He followed his dream, at age 40, to be a writer.

The allegory ends with the Sanskrit term, Sa Brahma. This is Brahman. Indra recognizes the whole and becomes enlightened.

 Coelho says nature is never at peace; there is a kind of restlessness in the natural world. He believes that to live in accord with nature, the ceaseless, sometimes brutal change must be acknowledged and embraced. As I pay attention in Spain I see the birds catch the unsuspecting lizards, ouch. The fiery sun is relentless on the heads of the thirsty plants, too hot. The same sun drops down over the mountains and a cold night arrives, with bats, moons and stars, brrrr.

“If I don’t find it, I can always go home.” Santiago says, “I finally have enough money and all the time I need. Why not?” He suddenly felt tremendously happy. He could always go back to being a shepherd. He could always become a crystal salesman again. But maybe the world had other hidden treasures…” The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

The Brahman allegory reveals how from organized points of view or perspectives on knowledge a very limited way of seeing arises. The Alchemists insistence on moving toward that which calls us forces me to expand my view. I am enmeshed in a vast environment that is multidimensional and when something appears it is only part of an entirety. If I am going to flip the switch that turns on the lights, it is foolish to say I turned on the lights.

“One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card. Or watch the flight of the birds…whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t those things, in themselves, that revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetrating the Soul of the World.” (Coelho’s word for Brahman) The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Pilgrimage in Spain

Pilgrimage in Spain

As I conclude my pilgrimage my eyes are soaked in the questioning mind. Deeper yoga is not achieved mechanically. I watch for my habitual seeing. My mind makes rules that limit my life.  I shouldn’t bike so far because the riding makes my hips tights for postures, but what about the rigidity in my mind? 

“Magic is a bridge that helps one to cross from the visible world to the invisible world.” The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

You can read my writing but behind my writing is an emotion; maybe you can sense it? This is the magic of the world; go find your truth.  

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