Postcard From the Edge

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"One step at a time, one breath at a time," becomes my mantra as I struggle up the 18,700-foot Dolma-La pass, icy wind whistling around my head and searing my lungs. My stomach churns and my head aches from altitude sickness, but my spirits are buoyed by the Tibetan pilgrims who trudge with me on this sacred 32-mile circumambulation of Mount Kailash, the holiest peak in Tibet.

Despite the cold and the blinding snow, we all stop at the crest of the pass to eat lunch and perform rituals. Pungent, rich incense wafts through the thin air. I join the pilgrims in adding to a colorful array of prayer flags that whip so hard in the wind they sound like hooves drumming the ground.

Kneeling, I make an altar that includes photos of my three nieces; the mountain is said to be so powerful that just visualizing loved ones while there brings them a good fate. Both Buddhists and Hindus believe Kailash is the center of the universe, and circling it is said to cleanse your karma; each circumambulation brings you closer to nirvana. As I move on, I can see pilgrims scattered along the path far ahead and far behind me, some of them not just trekking around the mountain, but creeping along one full prostration at a time.

Even as my lungs labor and my legs protest, I feel a huge wave of gratitude wash over me, a prayer of thanks that I'm alive and that I've recovered the strength to make this journey. Many pilgrims save for years and travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to perform the kora, the ritual trek around the mountain. But for me, the kora is more than the fulfillment of a 15-year dream. Every step is a celebration of the life I nearly lost in a horrendous accident, and a symbol of all the physical and spiritual challenges I've faced in my long, arduous healing.

{ dance with death }

Four years and 20 surgeries before my Kailash journey, a logging truck screeched around a corner on a remote Laotian jungle road and slammed into the bus I was riding. My left arm was shredded to the bone as it smashed through a window; my back, pelvis, tailbone, and ribs snapped immediately; my spleen was sliced in half, and my heart, stomach, and intestines were ripped out of place and pushed up into my shoulder. With my lungs collapsed and my diaphragm punctured, I could barely breathe. I was bleeding to death inside and out. And it would be more than 14 hours before I received real medical care.

A practicing Buddhist, I had been headed to a meditation retreat in India, where I had planned to sit for three silent weeks. Instead, I lay crushed and bleeding at the side of the road. Struggling to draw in air, I imagined each breath to be my last. Breathing in, breathing out: Consciously willing myself not to die, I concentrated on the life force fighting its way into my lungs.

Along with my breath, pain became my anchor. As long as I could feel it, I knew I was alive. I thought back to the hours I had sat in meditation, fixated on the sensation of my leg falling asleep. That discomfort could hardly compare to the torment from my injuries, but I discovered that meditating could still help me focus and remain alert, and I'm convinced it saved my life. I managed to calm myself, slowing my heart rate and the bleeding, and I never lost consciousness or went into deep shock. In fact, I've never felt so aware, so clearheaded and completely in the present moment.

Unharmed passengers loaded a few of us with the worst injuries into the back of a passing pickup truck, which jolted along for almost an hour to a "clinic"—a dirt-floored room lined with cobwebs, cows grazing outside the doors.

There seemed to be no medical care in the area, no phones, and almost no one who spoke English. Finally, a boy who looked to be barely into his teens appeared, sloshed alcohol onto my wounds, and, without using painkillers, stitched up my arm. The agony was almost more than I could endure.

Six hours passed. No more help arrived. Opening my eyes, I was surprised to see that darkness had fallen. That's when I became convinced I was going to die.

As I closed my eyes and surrendered, an amazing thing happened: I let go of all fear. I was released from my body and its profound pain. I felt my heart open, free of attachment and longing. A perfect calm enveloped me, a bone-deep peace I could never have imagined. There was no need to be afraid; everything in the universe was exactly as it was meant to be.

In that moment, I felt my spiritual beliefs transform into undeniable experiences. Buddhism had taught me the concept of "interbeing," the idea that the universe is a seamless mesh in which every action ripples across the whole fabric of space and time. As I lay there, I felt how interwoven every human spirit is with every other. I realized then that death only ends life, not this interconnectedness. A warm light of unconditional love encompassed me, and I no longer felt alone.

{ angels of mercy }

Just as I was experiencing this surrender to death, Alan, a British aid worker, drove up. He and his wife gently placed me in the back of their pickup truck. Unable to lie flat, I rested my head on the hard metal hump of the wheel well. For the next seven hours, my broken bones jarred against the metal ribbing of the truck bed as we slowly maneuvered over heavily potholed roads and into Thailand. "Bless your heart," Alan told me later, "you didn't say a word the whole time." Instead, I focused on the beauty of a sky full of stars, certain it would be the last thing I would see in this lifetime.

At 2 a.m, we finally pulled into the Aek Udon hospital in Thailand, where Dr. Bunsom Santithamanoth was the only doctor on call. He was incredulous I'd made it. "Another two hours and I'm sure you wouldn't be here," he said, looking at my X-rays as he prepped me for emergency surgery.

I flatlined on the operating table, but Dr. Bunsom managed to revive me. For two days I remained on the brink of death in intensive care. Once my condition stabilized, the doctor continued to perform surgery after surgery, slowly patching my body back together. My days passed in a constant fog of unbearable pain that the intense
medication hardly seemed to penetrate.

After three weeks, Dr. Bunsom felt it was safe to medevac me back to San Francisco. When he asked if there was anything I wished to do before I left, I realized I wanted to revisit the peace I'd always felt at Buddhist temples. I was touched when my Thai doctor arranged for an ambulance and paramedic to take me to a nearby monastery.

It was my first time outside the safe cocoon of my hospital room, and everything felt surreal. It seemed as though I was looking at everything through a thick pane of glass; I felt much less rooted in the world than everyone around me. Supported by the monks, I made my way to the altar and joined the Thai families making offerings before the giant gold-leaf Buddha. Being here, free from tubes and machines, I could appreciate just being alive. As I meditated, a young monk approached and invited me to have tea with the abbot. After all my trauma, it was a comfort simply to sit with them, absorbing their quiet kindness.

{ power of prayer }

In the first days after the accident, I received hundreds of well-wishing e-mails and prayers. During my years of travel in Asia, working as a documentary photographer (including books on Tibet and the Dalai Lama), I'd developed an extensive network
of friends. As soon as they heard the news, my friends contacted monks and lamas who began performing around-the-clock pujas (religious ceremonies) for me. Even the Dalai Lama had been notified. (Not a bad guy to have on your side when you get hit by a bus.) Those first few weeks made me a believer in the power of prayer and positive thoughts.

But this outpouring of support was just the beginning. In a way, my return to San Francisco was like coming to my own funeral and realizing that I was loved more than I had ever known. That discovery turned out to be the greatest gift of all, but it took me some time to adjust to how much I'd have to rely on that gift. I have always been fiercely independent, and it was humbling to have to depend almost completely on my friends. And not just for shopping, cooking, cleaning, and rides to medical appointments: I couldn't even walk or feed myself.

{ a hard road back }

Despite all the support, my transition back to America was abrupt. The first thing the doctors wanted to do was cut off the Buddhist protection string that the Karmapa Lama had given me in Tibet. I had worn it around my neck for all my surgeries, and I was adamant about keeping it on. It had gotten me this far, I reasoned. The doctors in San Francisco, who called me the miracle kid, didn't have a better theory. They told me they weren't sure they could have saved me even if the accident had happened right outside their hospital.

Even with the full arsenal of American health care available to me, my recovery seemed glacially slow. I've always been athletic, and all my running, trekking, kayaking, and yoga practice had kept me fit and strong. I'm sure that storehouse of health helped me survive the initial trauma of the bus accident and its aftermath. But it could only take me so far.

I spent my first four months back in the States bedridden and in such a morphine-induced haze I began to fear I'd suffered brain damage. Still barely able to hobble, I grew angry at the lack of encouragement and support from my doctors. The final straw came the day my back specialist told me I'd probably never walk normally again. He suggested I reconsider what I was going to do with my life now that my former career and activities were beyond me.

I went home and feverishly started scrubbing the dried blood off my camera bag. And for the first time since the accident, I began to cry. With tears of frustration running down my face, I decided I hadn't come this far just to give up. Maybe my doctors were right, and I'd have to forge a new life that wouldn't include scuba diving, rock climbing, or adventuring around the world to document both beauty and injustice with my cameras. But before I accepted that, I had to know I'd done everything I could to reclaim the life I loved.

First, I needed my mind back: strength of mind for strength of body. I ceremoniously dumped my arsenal of pain killers—Percoset, Vicodin, morphine—down the toilet and turned to alternative healing. I started weekly treatments of traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and the ancient art of applying heated cups to the body, and bodywork, including massage, chiropractic, reflexology, and more. As in those first moments in Laos, I used meditation to help manage my pain—focusing on it, breathing into it, observing it. I read medical books to comprehend the repercussions of my surgeries, and bombarded my doctors with questions at every visit.

I knew my mental attitude mattered most of all. I changed doctors and physical therapists, finding ones who believed I could recover. "Tell me what I can do, not what I can't do," I begged my new physical therapist, Susan Hobbel. She pushed me to the point of tears in each session, and soon had me back at my gym, working with a trainer. Slowly, first with crutches and later with a cane, I forced myself to walk to and from the hospital for my therapy sessions, two torturous miles each way. Focusing on small goals like this gave me the power to go on, avoiding the chasm of fear always ready to suck me into its dark abyss.

{ brave new world }

As my physical healing progressed, I continued to experience surprisingly intense emotions. On one hand I felt euphoric, reborn, able to appreciate people and experiences more deeply. The world seemed vibrant and electrified, and my heart felt more open. My life now was one giant postscript. The taste of death was a touchstone reminding me of what seemed truly important—family, friends, a desire to give something back to the world through my work. I felt a new empathy—with the subjects I photographed, with all those who suffer—that still informs my ongoing projects: a book called Faces of Hope about children in developing countries; another book on poverty in the United States; my photographs documenting the tsunami devastation in Asia.

On the other hand, it was difficult to resume the ordinariness of everyday life after surrendering to death. Perhaps I'd never fully appreciated life until it was nearly taken away from me; at any rate, I was determined to stay in touch with my hard-won sense of its sacredness. Yet I also discovered that sometimes I had to let that go a bit just to function and get through the day. Even as life drew me back into its busy world, though, my meditation practice helped me return to that sacred place; the windowpane between it and the mundane didn't seem so thick anymore.

Of course, I also had dark moments grappling with the pain and frustration of my slow recovery; after all, it was more than two years before I could walk properly again. I struggled with bouts of self-doubt. Was I making things worse by pushing myself so hard? Was it time to accept that the damage to my body was irreversible, and start a new and different life? But when those thoughts arose, I would remember what I'd learned about fear on that dirt floor in Laos, as well as everything I'd already been through. My doubts would recede before a more powerful belief: Whatever the future brought, I could get through it.

My biggest adjustment was letting go of who I was before the accident and learning to measure my progress in smaller increments. An athletic, hard-driven person, restless to return to my active life, I struggled to accept this new timeline. My yoga practice helped me enormously, not only in reclaiming my flexibility but also in reconnecting with my body exactly as it is each day and in sitting with my limitations. At times, I'd become so stymied that I'd dissolve into tears. But as I progressed, I came to think my tears were not just from frustration; they seemed to release the pain and fear buried in parts of me traumatized by the accident. Yoga continues to give me a new awareness and respect for my body, which has seen me through such adversity. Instead of getting angry at its limitations, I now marvel at and encourage its healing capacity.

{ coming full circle }

I'm learning, as my yoga teacher has often told me, that tension doesn't always come from the body; it can come from the heart and mind as well. As I continue to recover, I find myself curious about just how open these parts of me can become. That curiosity motivated me to finally realize my dream of traveling to Mount Kailash.

As I circled the base of that powerful snow-covered pyramid, I felt a force growing within me, a strength I never would have found without the challenges of the previous four years. Each day as I trekked around the mountain, visualizing all the people I cared about, I could feel my heart expanding, embracing all the beings knit together with me in the web of life. Over and over, I remembered my revelation at the moment I thought I was dying: Nothing is more important than this connectedness. The commitment the Tibetans around me brought to their devotions suddenly had a new resonance. I found myself grinning at the next group that straggled past me. We were all in this together, all companions in the pilgrimage of life.

Alison Wright is the photographer and author of The Spirit of Tibet, Portrait of a Culture in Exile; A Simple Monk: Writings on the Dalai Lama; and Faces of Hope: Children of a Changing World. She is currently photographing poverty in the United States for the book Third World America. Her Web site is www.alisonwright.com.