Did I go from being a neurotic worrier to a goddess radiating mega-rays of tranquility in a few short weeks? Sorry, but this ain’t no fairy tale. The sad truth is that I was born with a depressive gene: to see a glass as half-full instead of half-empty can still be a labor of Hercules. But by putting a positive spin on my life, my fears shrank, my vision cleared, and I could move forward with increasing confidence. Yet I still found myself embroiled in situations so dark I could not find a single reason to be grateful.
One such nightmare saw me trapped me in a guesthouse in Rishikesh during the Neelkanth Mahadev temple festival that annually draws close to half a million rambunctious rural devotees down from their villages to worship Lord Shiva. The temple is surrounded by dense forest and is adjacent to the Nar-Narayan mountain ranges. Hindu myth claims it was here that Lord Shiva consumed the poison Halahala that originated from the ocean when the Gods and the Demons churned the deep waters in order to obtain Amrita, the nectar of immortality. To save creation, Shiva swallowed this poison, which turned his throat blue—which is why he is known as Nilkanth, literally The Blue Throated One.\
News of how rapidly devotees could turn spectacular Rishikesh into a virtual cesspool spread like wildfire. Friends I’d been hanging out with during the winter months fled, but I’d just bought a duplex apartment on the other side of the Ganga and had to stick around while it was being renovated. (I had long since sold my dream house in south India and moved up north).
Those of you who know Rishikesh will remember the two narrow bridges—Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula—that separate the two halves of town. Swaying ribbons of wood, these old-fashioned bridges hang over the turquoise and emerald waters of Mother Ganga; during festival times, they are packed tight with tourists and virtually impossible to traverse.
The morning after the start of the great festival, I awoke to nagging body pains and found myself unable to move my neck. Exhausted, I lay in bed until afternoon. A local trekking guide dropped in for a chat. I showed him the swelling behind my ear. “Oh ho, Mira-ji, that’s a bad spider bite,” he said authoritatively. He pointed to a gigantic black spider crouched on the bottom of my window pane. “See? That must be the villain right there. Just rest for a few days and drink plenty of good water.”
Since I avoid Allopathy in general, preferring to let time and yogic remedies do their work, I decided to stick it out in my guest room. But the infection only got worse until my entire stomach area was a tender mass of screaming pain and I could barely summon up the energy to get out of bed. I begged a friend who lived in Rishikesh to arrange for a doctor to visit me. The pain in my intestines was impossible to describe, I whispered weakly; I could not eat or drink. The doctor arrived. When he heard me moaning in agony, he pushed some antibiotics on me, collected his fee, and rushed away before I could ask him to move me to a hospital. Later my trekking pal told me the good doctor had fled because he feared I’d die in that room; apparently he’d not wanted to get embroiled in a messy police case. So much for the Hippocratic Oath, in this case, the Hypocritical Oath.
My trekker friend arrived to check on me the next morning and saw I was on the verge of extinction. He carried me down the stairs, literally tied me to the back of his bike, and drove me along that crazily swaying bridge, through thousands of crazy revelers, and to the hospital in town. There the female doctor took one look at me and ordered me into Intensive Care. Terrified, I called a close friend who lived in Chandigarh, a seven hour drive away. “You check into that place, Mira, and that’ll be the end of you, she said bluntly. “Come to Chandigarh right now—I’ll take care of everything.” A man at the hospital found a taxi for me while the doctor gave me a pain shot she promised would last for seven hours. It did not work. The taxi driver must have cursed himself for taking me on, for I kept groaning as outrageous pains knifed through my intestines. That drive was beyond nightmarish; fortunately I blacked out from time to time.
We made it to Chandigarh, but my agony did not end there: not one of those renowned medical specialists had the guts or the common sense to have me cleaned out from the inside. Could they cure me, I cried? Glucose drip, they murmured, sophisticated scans, they suggested, a few months of bed rest, they advised, but I could feel Death’s cold breath on my neck. I begged God not to let me go this way. I had so much to do, I cried, please let me die with some dignity. Towards dawn I heard a voice whisper to me: get an enema, now! I woke my friend and coaxed her to send me a doctor and nurse immediately. I had the enema, which started the process of removing the poisons that had been clogging my intestine, and entered the tortuous road to recovery.
After the crisis was over, I was amazed to find so much I could be grateful for: higher power had ensured my survival against all odds; my trekking guide friend had cared enough to drive me to the hospital across that teeming city; the taxi driver had carried me safely from Rishikesh to Chandigarh; a friend had taken on the huge responsibility for my care; her friend had loaned me her gorgeous home to recover; the nurse who’d administered that healing enema…etcetera etcetera. As time passed and I regained my health, it also became clear to me that I’d chosen this brutal episode to burn some heavy-duty karma. Chosen, you ask? Yes, because I believe we souls choose the circumstances of our lives on earth in order to transcend duality and to return to the source of both manifest and unmanifest.
In his book Enlightened Courage: An Explanation of the Seven-Point Mind Training, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a powerful Tibetan Buddhist teacher, says:
No one knows when, or how, death will come. Bubbles form on the surface of the water, but the next instant they are gone; they do not stay. It is just the same with this precious human body that we have managed to find. We take all the time in the world before engaging in spiritual practice, but who knows when this life of ours will simply cease to be?
Today I make it a daily practice to be grateful for all the circumstances of my life. Via the ancient wisdom tool of Vichara, or Self-investigation, I choose to meditate on my true nature—which, according to eastern philosophy, is pure existence, awareness and bliss. As I do so, I feel the patch-work identity of egoic body and mind that has caused all my suffering begin to dissolve; a sweet joy arises with the knowledge that if I persevere in my inward quest, one day I shall merge fully into that exquisite peace surpassing all human understanding.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to destroy the egoic system that is the cause of all our relative suffering!
NOTE: This post was originally published in 2013 and was perhaps my most popular piece of writing; here it has been condensed for inclusion in the first of my blog books.