The sky is dark; it is evening, I am sitting on the orange rocks. The tide is running in through the bar way from the restless Tasman Sea. No one else is on the white sand of the beach that stretches north into the distance, but I am not alone. I am embraced by the landscape and the sky. Held in heaven for a moment.
I have sat on these orange rocks hundreds, perhaps thousands of times since I was a child so why now has heaven arisen at this moment in this place? I watch the sea and the waves that splash on the rocks around me. The sea has become the sigh of bliss that befriends the rocks and sand. Here there are no naked shingles of the world, no Dover Beach, no Matthew Arnold. Rather, Plato’s phrase, ‘moving images of eternity’ comes to mind. This is metaphor for life; of life. The sea and the sky around me move; they move within what Plato called eternity.
This evening eternity is here without a note of sadness. I apprehend the whole along with my perceptions of sea, landscape and sky. This evening the eternal and the transient seem in accord; this harmony gives me the double metaphoric meaning that plays like a song. This moment of heaven is both seen by my senses and apprehended by my understanding. Is this harmony an epiphany of meaning? I am not sure but I wish it would last. Ah, there’s the rub! To cling to heaven is a sure way to lose it. By grasping at the eternal we create the transient.
I think of Plato’s eternity as love, as divine love. Jesus said that God was love, but he also said that the Kingdom of heaven was within. This evening heaven is within as well as without. With this harmony of in and out there is no split between the ordinary and the cosmic, just a blissful sense of connection and embrace. In the past love has come to me in small packages – usually through the agency of someone – as a sexual exchange or just feelings of connection and love. These are packages of human love and they are different from divine love, which is the nature of this wrap-around eternity. While these two loves are different they overlap like concentric circles so that the love we feel for another always has a divine essence given shape by our human desires and/or understanding. Love for another is a double love that is both divine yet human.
This evening my experience of eternity does not involve another person. The heaven of which I have become a part is a sensation filled with love without an object. Love without an object is pretty weird and hard to describe. For instance, I cannot say ‘I love her because she is beautiful’ because here there is no ‘she’, only the feeling of beauty. Here there is intimacy without desire; communion without a crowd; love without an object; and truth without logic. Here there is a sense of expansion so that the I am of me has dissolved into communion with landscape and sea.
All my life I have had an underlying readiness to defend myself, like some warrior on leave who never really relaxes about the possible dangers that others can cause. Yet this evening, under this regime of benign influences my instinctive guard has dropped away; the orange rocks support me like friends while the sea sings to me as a lover and the darkening sky whispers the meaning of a thousand years of happy indifference. Under the influence of this surplus of meaning my body has relaxed and my mind slowed into a delightful mesmerism.
Some time later my dog pulls me by his lead up the hill towards home and I walk out of that heavenly space. I try to recapture the sensation as I walk but the more I try the quicker it seems to evaporate. In a moment I am back to the world of objects and moving images without any sense of eternity. This is the three-fold, transient and physical world of daily frustrations and well-oiled defence mechanisms. I become annoyed that I cannot control the gates to heaven and have to wait upon the cosmic harmony to come and include me.
But why has the gate of heaven opened this evening? Perhaps it has something to do with returning from a three-week tour with my spiritual Master, Amma who was once described by Jane Goodall, when presenting her with the 2002 Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence as ‘God’s love in human form.’ An excellent description I thought for in those three weeks my connection with her had deepened so now I sense Amma’s love within and behind most things I do.
Paradoxically, on this tour I began to see that Amma has a physical form. In the past I had difficulties perceiving that she has a form. I think this was because I was overwhelmed by the harmonic radiance that emanated from her. Eclipsing my ability to perceive her form was an apprehension of Her luminous presence, which has always seemed so large, eternal and potent. But now on this last tour I have begun to see Amma’s physical form and with this concrete perception I have let go of something and at last, paradoxically seem able to come closer to the hidden source of her Divine love. Sitting on the orange rocks this evening I felt I was within Her cosmic embrace.
How to return to it? (A. Lohrey, 2012)
A Spiritual daughter
The implicit to implicit exchanges of innocent love are the kind of communication that often occurs between an enlightened master and a disciple. I have had a range of experiences with this kind of communication between my guru, Amma, and myself. With these exchanges nothing was spoken, written or expressed yet I was ‘told’, ‘instructed’ and ‘questioned’ about a range of issues related to my spiritual development. My daughter, Cleo, has also experienced this subliminal, intuitive communication. One example occurred when Cleo, my wife Amanda and I were staying at Amma’s ashram in Kerala in 1997.
Cleo was then thirteen and had read different stories about Amma’s senior disciples, many of whom were told by Amma that they were her spiritual son or daughter. Even though she had received blessings from Amma since she was nine Cleo had never been told directly that she was Amma’s spiritual daughter. Desperate to be told she was Amma’s daughter Cleo fell into a longing sadness, and remembering we were to leave in a few days she began crying and prayed to Amma to give her a sign indicating she was her spiritual daughter, asking directly, ‘if I am your daughter call me up for a blessing today’.
Cleo had forgotten that the day had been set aside solely for Indians so no Westerners would be allowed to got up to the altar to receive a blessing. Both Amanda and I were oblivious of Cleo’s prayer. Once Cleo had stopped crying she waited for a time until her eyes were not so puffy and went down to the hall to join the large crowd. All day long Amma was kept busy giving hugs to the long lines of waiting people. Late in the afternoon when Cleo had forgotten about her prayer she was standing at the side of the hall with some friends when Amma motioned towards them. A nun came over to the group and said that there was no blessing for Westerners today. On returning to Amma the nun suddenly turned and came back to the group and motioned to Cleo to come. This was a surprise to everyone and was the only break from the day’s protocol of no-Westerners. Cleo was duly ushered to Amma’s lap where she received her blessed hug: the sign for which she had prayed.
Amma motioned to Cleo to come and sit near her and after about half an hour the mind-fog cleared enough for a spark to ignite Cleo’s understanding of what Amma had done by calling her up for a blessing – more tears. This was clearly a case of spiritual communication between a Master and her spiritual daughter and in terms of Meaning it was an implicit to implicit exchange. ( Trekking the BIg Picture, forthcoming)
One frosty morning when I was eight years old, something happened that suddenly changed my view of the world. It was as if a curtain had been drawn back and I could see a magical, spiritual dimension beyond the mundane of the everyday. This realisation came with a great deal of pain.
It happened this way. We lived on a farm high in the mountains of northeast Tasmania. One morning I went out by myself to set rabbit traps. It was the first time I had gone trapping on my own without Michael, my elder brother. Michael usually came along to set the traps. Setting steel traps is a difficult exercise for an eight year old. On this particular morning it was very frosty and I had to kneel down in the frosty grass while putting my foot on the steel spring of the trap and then slowly insert my cold fingers under the jaws to lift the tongue to set the trap.
Once I had managed this I laid the trap in a prepared hole in the mouth of a rabbit burrow and then began to cover it gently with fine dirt. I was leaning over, looking down on the trap and dropping dirt on the tongue when suddenly it went off catching my thumb in its steel jaws and throwing dirt up into my face. I was totally blinded and in horrendous pain. I let out a terrible cry and kept on yelling, overcome by a fear of becomming blind as well the excruciating pain in my hand. Finally I managed to step on the spring of the trap and pull my hand free. I lay down on the frosty grass crying loudly and as a consequence my vision started to return as the tears began to wash the dirt from my eyes.
This trauma suddenly ended, however, because just as I began to see again I heard a voice calling my name from the hill above. I thought it must be my mother come to look for me. I stopped crying, jumped to my feet and ran up the paddock, over the fence and through the bracken fern to the top of the hill. No one was there. I was about a kilometre from home so I set off as fast as I could and reached the back door to find my mother in the laundry hard at work washing clothes in the old copper. Showing her my mangled thumb I asked if she had called out to me down the paddock. ‘No,’ she replied.
Further questioning only got me the brusque reply that she had not left the house all morning. While she bandaged my thumb I told her I heard a voice calling my name when I was lying on the ground crying after catching my thumb in the trap. We were a practical farming family who never spoke about things that might embarrass, like mental illness, so my mother dealt with this odd outburst by asking if I had not imagined it. I knew her question signalled the end to any discussion about celestial voices calling me. Unlike my mother, I felt pleased about this mysterious event. It left me with the feeling that a magical someone or something was looking out for me.
This event gave me hope that there was more to my life than the terror of school with its hard-edged, moral rectitude and its military-type discipline for bad spelling. Hearing a heavenly voice call my name was a secret joy that had stopped my pain and fear and introduced me to a new way of seeing beyond the everyday. But where had the voice come from? As I have never heard ‘voices’ again the probability that I had a childhood psychotic episode is low. In any case I felt then as well as now that I was not psychotic, however, the voice was real and it had come from somewhere. My conclusion now is that it came from what I would call a celestial manifestation of the meaning of Meaning: my true self. This is not the imagination, which is part of the ordinary mind for the true self is a feature of our cosmic mind. ( Trekking the BIg Picture, forthcoming)
My nephew, Richard and I had never spent much time together so we decided on a trip to India together for several weeks. We landed in Delhi and then took a taxi on to Rishikesh without any plan to see how we would get along and what the Gods could offer us. My guru, the Kerala saint Amma had given me Rishikesh as a spiritual name so I was interested to see what if any resonance may arise from our visit to this place. However, on arriving we had decided on the trek up to Gaumouk, the source of the holy Ganga River. For Hindus the river is worshipped as the goddess Ganga.
On this adventure we met two young German women, Anna and Petra who were fellow travellers and easy to be with in a laid-back sort of way.
* * *
In Gaumouk, at the source of the sacred Ganga it happened. I fell to my knees among the rocks overcome with something more than emotion. I had not expected this reaction, but there it was, an overwhelming sense of a divine silence more vibrant than any words. There was no special light or vision just a weakness in the legs along with a strong sense of another world pulling me towards it. Richard, a trained paramedic, came up from behind and asked if I was okay. He thought I might be exhausted from the trek and the altitude as it was close to four thousand metres and the air thinner than normal. Wiping tears from my eyes I told him I was alright and as he could see I was not having a heart attack he seemed content with his quick medical diagnosis: odd but normal behaviour for this particular uncle.
I had come to Gaumouk thinking I was going to die. That thought was both liberating and fearful and it had both physical as well as mental elements. The physical basis of this thought came from our terrifying jeep ride up from Rishikesh to Gangotri, the town from which we began our trek. This was a road trip that follows along cliff faces formed over thousands of years by the swirling waters of the Ganga hundreds of metres below.
For this visitor, driving on Indian roads always involves taking many short breaths. However, after the first couple of days I begin to comprehend some of the road rules, like give-way to vehicles that are bigger than you. This was the kind of driving we experienced on the seven-hour taxi ride from Delhi to Rishikesh. But the road trip up to Gangotri was something entirely different. In literally hundreds of places much of the road had slipped into the ravine, washed away by the river recently swollen by monsoon rains. At one stage we drove the jeep through a small village slowly slipping into the Ganga. It was here we drove through what used to be a house, half of which had already ended up in the river. We continued on, passing many oncoming trucks on half a road where the edge fell away almost perpendicular into the ravine, but as we were driving on the hill-side of the road and not out on the edge I began to feel perhaps we would make it after all.
Then we crossed the river so we were now on the outer edge of a narrow windy road that looked like it had been hacked out of the cliff face. The road had no safety rails and many blind corners which we took far too fast for my liking as I was now sitting on the outside of the vehicle looking straight down to boiling rapids at least two hundred metres below. On one very tight corner I unbuckled my seat belt with the thought of jumping out if we went over the edge. I then realised this strategy was idiotic as I would have been killed in any case with or without my seat belt. After far too many kilometres of this kind of eye-bulging driving I began to accept my fate and gave myself up to the distinct possibility of death by car crash.
This road experience was the visceral part of the sense that I was going to die that I had brought to Gaumouk. The other element was mental and came from my long-held desire to bundle up all my fears and leave the package under a rock at Gaumouk. I prayed for this to happen for several days before we arrived at the source of the Ganga for it seemed to me that this special spiritual place was the right spot to leave my fears. I knew that if I lost my fears I would also lose my ego for the ego is a set of identification patterns held in place by fear. To loose one’s ego is the same as dying, hence the idea of dying heightens our fear.
Together the jeep drive and the prayer for relief from fear produced a fearful yet liberating sense of expectation about Gaumouk. What would happen? This internal question was then mediated to some extent by the unplanned social context that Richard and I found our selves in on the trek up from Gangotri to Gaumouk. Leaving Gangotri on a sunny morning we had walked for several hours when we came upon a tent that sold chai and chapatis to the passing pilgrims. We took off our packs and rested and revived ourselves with a drink and then began to speak to our fellow pilgrims who were there. Thirty minutes later when we left we walked out of this little oasis as a group of five: Anna, Petra, Nellie, Richard and myself.
Anna and Petra were from Germany and Nellie from Sweden. As we slowly walked and talked our way up the track we began to uncover common connections and in this process a wealth of social capital and friendship was unearthed that has enriched our lives ever since. As we walked I began to feel blessed that Richard and I should have the company of three Sophias on this pilgrimage to the source of the sacred Ganga. I felt their company like the happen-stance of this trek, had come from the intervention of Himalayas gods who seemed to have a bittersweet sense of humour. Why bittersweet? Well everything that happened on this trek seemed to have both a difficult and delightful side. While the three young women were delightful the trek itself had many difficulties.
In the late afternoon we arrived at Bhojbasa, a desolate camp-site in the rock strewn valley above the tree line. On the southern side of the valley rose the six thousand five hundred metre snowy peak of a perfectly shaped mountain called Shivling. Ahead were the several Bhagirathi Peaks that also rose to six and half thousand metres and wore cloud hats and scarves. These Himalayan Mountains were stunning beautiful in contrast to the little settlement of Bhojbasa. That night the five of us slept in beds in a tent provided by the Uttarakhand Forestry Department but with the temperature dropping to many degrees below zero it was one of the coldest and most uncomfortable nights I can ever remember. In the early morning we sat around Richard’s little stove drinking his hot tea and eating his dried food. For many years Richard was a park guide in Tasmania and so never went on any trek without adequate provisions.
He fed the five of us and it was just as well because the Forestry Department’s food left a lot to be desired. We started off late for Gaumouk and finally reached it around lunchtime. As we came closer to the glacier where it transformed into the Ganga there was an increased sense of excitement. I was within a few hundred metres of the source of the Ganga when suddenly I fell to my knees. This was an unexpected and somewhat unwelcome turn of events as I generally try an avoid making a spectacle of myself. However, after succumbing to the overwhelming joy that Gaumouk seemed to generate I continued on with the others to the edge of the glacier from which the now new waters of the Ganga arose. Here at last was the very source of this most sacred of rivers.
We sat on rocks and had lunch in the sun almost under the overhanging ice cliff of the glacier. No one else was there. It was so peaceful and quiet. I took my boots and trousers off and bathed in the icy waters of the Ganga for the river is supposed to wash way sins and at this spot there was no pollution. Warming myself after the freeze of the water I had a sense of completion at this place of peace and stillness. I think the peace affected all of us in the way that deep meditation can have an effect, through a kind of vibrant silence that deepens the breadth and brings peace to the heart.
Lying back in the warm sun with my eyes closed I slowly realised that every so often rocks were falling from the overhanging ice face and on further inspection I saw that we were sitting in a spot where there were many shards of broken rock on the ground. There were also blocks of ice among the rocks slowly melting. The realisation dawned on me that the large rock directly above us on the edge of the ice cliff could at any moment join our lunch party. So we packed up and moved away from this place of peace and danger.
As the others left the glacier I sat down, out of danger from falling rocks, to say a prayer of thanks for the experience of Gaumouk. I began by saying the sacred Sanskrit syllable OM three times, out loud. This is a part of my normal meditation practice, yet here the sounds were different. They seemed to happen by themselves in an infinite universe that was here but not here, a universe in which I was not a separate identity but a participant. In this moment I felt a unity of being; my being with the being of all beings. This connection happened in a dimension that was not physically here but quintessentially mentally here. It was as if the mental background of observing the physical environment had become an infinite foreground that was in no way related to a private observation. In spite of the fact that I meditate daily this experience of unity was a shock to my mind, a mind that is generally so busily attuned to the material domain of everyday life. To be part of the unity of the universe is a revelation, an epiphany; it is the realisation of an essential truth that cannot be denied or held in abeyance.
In a state of mindless serenity I caught up to the others who had stopped to have a blessing from a sadhu who lived for most of the year in a small rock enclosure about a kilometre from the ice shelf of Gaumouk. While Petra was receiving a blessing from the sadhu the others stood around in silence. I sat close by on a smooth granite rock, content not to have a blessing. Then, quite suddenly, I was being pulled skyward by an attraction that felt like the force of a huge magnet. It was not the pull of someone tugging at my sleave; it was a force of attraction that I had never felt before and it was pulling at my being. Thinking about it afterwards, I realised this was a sublime force that conveyed a sense of unconditional and fulfilled love.
The goddess Ganga traditionally represents the vehicle of ascent from earth to heaven and that is exactly what I was experiencing – the beginning of an ascent to heaven. To actually experiencing the goddess’ heavenly power and potency was so astonishing and bewildering that I resisted – fool that I was. The overwhelming thought that kept coming into my head over and over was: ‘I can’t go, I can’t die now. I have duties and responsibilities to attend to’. This extraordinary experience lasted no more than thirty seconds to a minute and left me feeling disoriented and groggy. It took several kilometres of walking to regain my normal sense of where I was.
This episode reminded me of Adela Quested’s strange experience in the caves in E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India. Forster never explains what happened to Adela in the caves so the reader is left with an unsolved mystery. Forster comes close, not to an explanation but a justification when he refers to the unknown thus: ‘how can it be expressed in anything but itself’?[i] He is right of course. As soon as we write or speak about a spiritual or mysterious event they falls under the excluding rules of grammar and syntax and so becomes something quite reduced and different.
For several weeks afterwards, when thinking about this out-of-this-world episode, I felt I had failed the test. I had gone to Gaumouk praying to be rid of my fears, which in effect meant that my ego would die. I would die because the ego always constructs itself as me. Yet when I was presented with the opportunity to die I did not take it, rather I reverted to the tired old shibboleth of duty and responsibility. These excuses are held in place by a fear of letting go, of completely letting go and giving myself fully to the unknown attraction of eternal and heavenly love.
Now as I write these words some months later I have accepted my Gaumouk failure to let go. I do not see this lack of courage as a negative to be registered against my soul in some karmic library, rather I think it represents a doorway that I did not go through but which nevertheless is now always a real and close enticement. This failure to die has given me a sense of liberation. It has enriched my life and changed my view of death. I now know that when I do finally drop the form I will be propelled through that doorway willingly.
Had there been something about Rishikesh that I found familiar or with which I could identify? I am not sure. Before we left Rishikesh for Gaumouk both Richard and I went down the river and placed a small flower boat on the Ganga at the six of clock Arati ritual and watched them float away in the twilight. I cannot speak on behalf of Richard but in my little boat I placed all my fears and desires that I hoped to lose. I think I may have lost some on the trek but the ego continues to survive hiding amongst the foliage of my mind. As for my spiritual name of Rishikesh, the town itself did not seem so special; rather it was special in what it led to. It led me to the doorway to my true Self. (Trekking the Big Picture, forthcoming)
[i] E. M. Forster, A Passage to India, London: Penguine, 1978, p. 283.