One afternoon as I was mindlessly browsing Pinterest, I came across the weathered image of a young woman with curious eyes wedged between a picture of a peanut butter-stuffed cupcake and a tutorial on sculpting your perfect brow shape. Dressed in an ornate costume and headpiece, she looked like a wild animal that someone had put a dress on. Something about her felt familiar and uncanny; it was like seeing an ancestor I’d never met, or a friend I’d whispered to in a dream. And so, I discovered the mystical life of Alexandra David-Néel, and all she had to teach me about letting my spirit be my guide.
Born outside Paris in 1868, a small sprightly girl, Alexandra ran away from home for the first time at the age of two—later citing that an overwhelming desire to travel had captivated her spirit. At 18, this spirit took hold again. Alexandra hopped on a bike and rode to Spain. It was 1886 and she was female, five feet tall, and alone. But that didn’t bother her much, and after making a U-turn somewhere in Northern Spain, Alexandra found her way back home via the Alps.
In her early 20s, Alexandra was living in Paris and working as an opera singer to pay the bills. Frequenting anarchist meetings, she fought passionately for women’s liberation, and published an anarchist booklet in favor of women’s rights in 1899. At 36, Alexandra shocked her family by wedding railroad exec Phillip Néel. But her gypsy spirit once again called her back to the road. After only a few years of wedded bliss, she left Phillip for Nepal, promising she’d return in 18 months. She was gone for 14 years.
In 1911, Alexandra was living in a Himalayan cave studying yoga and meditation as the disciple of a Buddhist monk. There, she found the spiritual sustenance her traveling soul had craved all along, and Alexandra made it her great goal to study in the Forbidden City in Tibet. While many of the local monks in the mountains respected and protected Alexandra--believing she was the incarnation of a powerful goddess-- the British authorities who controlled Tibet and barred it from outsiders had no such romantic notions. After she twice sneaked into Tibet in search of spiritual awakening, the Brits expelled Alexandra from the region--sending her to Korea at the height of WWI.
Yearning to return to her studies in Tibet, Alexandra and her monk companion, Yongden, embarked on foot through the collapsing Chinese empire, crossing the Gobi desert where they faced starvation and disease. After a long journey and artfully disguised as a beggar, Alexandra entered the forbidden Tibetan city of Lhasa where her traveler’s spirit finally allowed her to rest. She studied with monks for two months before British authorities discovered her and sent her back to France.
Ever the scholar, Alexandra published 25 books on Eastern spirituality including several that influenced Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. She was one of the most respected scholars of Tibetan culture in the world. At age 100, her pilgrim soul called her again to Tibet. Alexandra renewed her passport in preparation for her trip, but she never made it out of France again. Her ashes were sprinkled in the Ganges after her death at age 101 in 1969.
Pushing myself beyond my comfort zone has always been a struggle, even when something inside me compels me to. My mind always stops my spirit from moving in an unsafe direction. Maybe that's why Alexandra's story has such an impact for me. Not only was she unafraid to defy the social mores, gender roles, and cultural barriers of her era, she followed the call of her spirit through the trials of war, illness, and age in order to realize her intellectual and spiritual ambitions. As I grow in my life, I can learn from her spunk. I too am in spirit an unyielding woman with great conviction. And I think, as Alexandra did, I'm going to let that spirit be my guide.