Monkey and Prayer Flags, originally uploaded by bexadler.

A couple of weeks ago I read an interesting article in The New York Times about “thin places,” which are places where the space between heaven and earth is said to be thinnest. Many of these places are famous religious places, where people feel more at peace than in their regular days. What I liked about this article, though, was that the author argued that thin places can exist anywhere and at anytime. They do not necessarily have to be related to something spiritual or to a religion. Instead, thin places are different for all people. The thing that is the same about them is the feeling that comes over you when you find yours, he writes. But you won’t know it until you find it.

I feel like I spent most of my life looking for such a place. When I was a child, I was a part of a very strict religion, but I always felt like I was part of a charade. I would sit in churches and temples and look around at all of the people praying and totally on board with everything going on and I would think, “Is there something wrong with me? I just don’t get it.” For years, before I finally left the church, I refused to say prayers in church or give talks during sacrament because I felt like such a fraud and I worried that saying a prayer or saying things in church that I didn’t believe in would somehow give me bad karma. Alas, I never did find a “thin place” in any of those churches or temples when I was younger and I had almost completely forgotten about those experiences until I read this article because the article reminded me of a moment when I did finally have that feeling. It happened in Kathmandu, Nepal, just a few months ago.

When I first arrived in Kathmandu, it felt just like any other big city in Asia – crowded, dirty, and polluted. Unlike other Asian cities though, it grew on me almost immediately. I attribute this to the friendliness of the people in Nepal, but I also enjoyed the quaint alleyways and delicious food I had been missing so much in my home in China. For the first couple of days I just explored the city and looked for information about going hiking in the Himalayas because I was waiting on my friend Mathieu to arrive from Switzerland and didn’t want to do all of the touristy things a second time. On my third day there, I was supposed to go to the airport to meet Mathieu, but he missed his flight and so would not be arriving until the next day. Having extra time on my hands, I decided to make my way to Swayambhunath, colloquially known as Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that hang around it all day.

On my first night a couple of Aussies had told me it was easy to walk there, even though the hoteliers kept telling me it was necessary to take a taxi. I decided to believe the Aussies and got up early for the walk to avoid the heat. It took about 45 minutes for me to walk there, in part because of a detour (I have no sense of direction whatsoever), so the Aussies were correct. Walking there was no big deal, although you have to walk through a lot of filthy streets and past a bunch of stall owners trying to sell all manner of wares. The further I got from the tourist center though, the more people just left me alone, mostly because, it seemed, none of them spoke any English.

Swayambhunath is a Buddhist temple that sits atop a large hill. I knew I had arrived when I saw all of the little sellers carts selling random tourist kitsch. In addition to trying to avoid them, I was trying to steer clear of the monkeys, who were quite aggressive. One even started stalking me when it saw me opening my backpack. I assume he thought there was food in there. All the way up the 300 or so steps to the top, there were people selling things. As it was still my first days in Nepal a couple of them even managed to get me to stop and look. and one convinced me to buy a little carved wooden elephant for about 50 cents.

When I got to the top the hubbub was in full force. There were people doing their morning religious practices, getting marked with ochre on their foreheads, others circling the stupa in the clockwise direction to turn the prayer wheels. There were bells ringing, sellers hawking goods all around the square, and, of course, monkeys and pigeons everywhere. It was the last place on earth I would have thought I would have had a peaceful moment. But a peaceful moment, I did have.

I turned a corner and saw some steps leading down to another part of the temple complex. Sitting there was a man selling memory cards and batteries for cameras, and a monkey resting in the sunshine. Looking out, I could see Kathmandu lost among the haze of smog hanging over the city. After a few steps though, I was by myself with nothing to look at but the view and some prayer flags swaying in the breeze. I took a picture of the prayer flags and then stood there for a moment to admire the view. Standing there, watching the prayer flags, I suddenly felt completely at peace. I waited there a minute or two longer hoping the moment wouldn’t be fleeting, and as I was standing there I remember thinking, “So this is why so many people make the pilgrimage to Nepal.”

I feel like I spent the rest of my trip chasing that moment, hoping it would reoccur. As I was walking through the Himalayas I would stop regularly to admire the prayer flags and I always found them beautiful, in part because they reminded me of that moment. But I never did recapture that feeling. However, even now, looking back on it I can remember that peaceful feeling I had there and am grateful I had it.