I loved my new apartment in Dharamsala: hardwood floors, a modern bathroom and kitchen, glass windows and a wraparound terrace from which I could contemplate the icy splendor of the ring of surrounding mountains. I’d just moved to this Himalayan town from the urban frenzy of Manhattan—minus a parachute as I often joked; this was my fourth home in just over a year and finally I felt comfortable, at least in physical terms.
It helped that my Himachali landlords were fond of me—possibly because I’d loaned them enough to finish the construction of their building. (Later I discovered via a German friend who sublet my place that they were cheating me blind on electricity etcetera—but at least they cared enough to provide me with the little comforts required to live in such an austere environment. “This is Kali Yuga, remember?” I’d remind myself when I felt cruelly buffeted by life. “It could always be worse!”)
I’d vacated my previous apartment because a thief had stolen my precious Micron laptop—possibly the only one in Dharamsala (this was way back in 2000). With the laptop went years of my creative work stored on the hard drive as well as the only backup disk.
Even as I reeled with shock, a lama said to me that those who set their sights on moksha (enlightenment) enter the Spiritual Olympics—whereupon the opposition gets really stiff. A seeker cannot afford to be a crybaby when the metaphorical shit hits the fan, he’d added. One has to surrender to the forces of karma, take responsibility for all that one experiences, face every obstacle and carry on regardless—and it is only then that one evolves into a spiritual warrior.
Yet life in the Himalayas continued to have its brutal aspects. As droves of spiritual tourists came and went, a handful of us “foreigners” stayed on and put up with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Life was pretty good in spring and summer, but winter was beyond extreme—as if four feet of snowfall wasn’t bad enough, power lines went down, water pipes froze, clothes stayed wet for weeks and good food was near impossible to find since the stores shut down: all in all a continual nightmare for a woman comme moi spoiled by living for so long in the most exciting city on the planet.
When the weather got impossible, I’d run off to Thailand, Manali or south India, returning to my apartment on Jogiwara Road when the weather changed. But the demons of discomfort became increasingly shrill and at one point they led me back to a nasty old vice.
One brilliant morning I hiked all the way up to Shiva’s Café with a friend. Many westerners were already up there—painting, singing, stoning and meditating—and the festivities lasted right through the day. When I got home it was twilight; the Himalayas were spectacular with color and luminosity but my own head was in a daze: I felt torn between battling it out in this powerful space and running back to the Big Apple; I went to bed deeply troubled.
Then a dream erupted out of my subconscious: I’m rustling up a meal in my apartment when I realize the building’s on fire. All of a sudden, I have x-ray vision—I can see into other apartments: children at a dining table with their mother bustling around; a slender woman with hair tied up in a knot atop her skull luxuriating in a bubble bath; a couple tenderly making up after a disagreement…and so much more. The information comes to me in a solid stream and at lightning speed. Simultaneously I realize these people are so immersed in their mundane activities that they are unaware of the towering inferno they are encased within. What to do? Escape and save myself? Who are these people anyway? Not family nor friends—just co-inhabitants of a skyscraper located somewhere on Planet Earth.
The Bodhisattva Vow I’d recently taken then flashes across my dreaming mind: it is a vow to become enlightened for the sake of all beings, distinguished from the selfish desire to free oneself of suffering. I dash out of my apartment and start banging on doors, screaming that the building is on fire—but not a single person listens and some won’t even bother to come out!
Meanwhile wicked orange and blue flames lick the sides of the building and my body feels the ferocious heat. I race up the stairs to the next floor where I meet the same fate. What the hell is wrong with these people? Can’t they smell the smoke and see the curling flames? Finally I flee the building, sobbing wildly; when I look back, flames are rapidly consuming the building…and that is when I awake in my comfortable bed, trembling uncontrollably.
It’s a dream, I told myself—you can go back to sleep now. But instead of being soothed, I began to hyperventilate. Leaping out of bed, I flung open the door to the terrace to take in gulps of freezing mountain air. After a long hot shower followed by a steaming cup of cocoa, I got back into bed and pulled my quilt over me—but still could not sleep.
Next morning, senses jangling, I hired a taxi to drive me down the mountain to the monastic residence of an English woman many were saying was enlightened. Ani-la had lived in a cave in the snow for close to thirteen years. I’d been impressed by her amazing aura and diamond-sharp clarity of mind. I related my dream/ nightmare to her. Ani-la nodded her shaven head. “I had a similar dream a long time ago,” she said, surprising me. “Most who leave the mainstream world to seek enlightenment have it in one form or another.”
I stared at her, nonplussed: an archetypal dream heralding liberation? I harked back to my dream, thinking about all those people I’d tried to warn. Get out of this building right now or you will burn to death! I had screamed. Why would people be willing to die rather than to save themselves by facing a horrible reality? I asked her. She gazed at me with great compassion and said something like this. “Only grace separates those who are willing to listen and those who can’t or won’t. Samsara is addictive—a prisoner yearns to break free of his chains because he can see and feel them—but what does one do with the invisible chains of desire and fear?”
Of course the oblivious people in my dream represented that great majority of humans who choose to live out their lives without ever wanting to know who they are beneath the surface of body-mind-personal history. Maya the Cosmic Enchantress is so dazzling that they get lost in the fantastic movies she constantly spins. Our personal dream can take any form or shape—it can be one of wealth, fame and the adulation of millions; of abject poverty and suffering; and anything in between. In this dream we can play any role—from king to beggar, supermodel to leper, brilliant scientist to paranoid schizophrenic; the possibilities Maya offers the hungry human mind are endless. It is by the grace of higher powers that some of us come to accept Gautama Buddha’s evaluation of human life—that no matter how good our current role appears to be, eventually we must deal with the curses of old age, suffering and death.
As I keep moving along this narrow path of awakening, buffeted by all sorts of happenings, I realize everyone has their own time of awakening. To harangue or cajole others to join me on this path less traveled is a waste of time. At some point every human must realize for themselves that the home, family, career, looks and health they have invested in so heavily must come tumbling down. What is left when our spirit leaves our flesh? Nothing but the pure consciousness that is our true Self—and whose nature is immortal bliss. And so the game—lila in Sanskrit, or the play of the gods—goes on—until each one of us realizes the house is burning. Once we do get out, the real story begins…and we are in for the adventure of our lives.
Today it is the Direct Path recommended by Ramana Maharshi that brings me home to who I really am. As Ramana said, the blueprint of our path has already been drawn—and now, when I look back on that striking dream that came to me at the start of my own deeper journey, I see it as a harbinger of what is yet to come.
Greetings from sacred Arunachala, the mountain regarded as the manifestation of Shiva, pure consciousness, and whose vow is to destroy the human ego so that we can experience our Self—which is nothing less than existence-consciousness and bliss!