It’s a strange day
No colors or shapes
No sound in my head
I forget who I am
When I’m with you
There’s no reason
There’s no sense
I’m not supposed to feel
I forget who I am
(Goldfrapp – Utopia)
There are moments in life when we lose ourselves completely. These moments occur spontaneously in states of love and joy, as well as pain and hardship. When we fall in love we forget ourselves: there’s no reason. And at the loss of love, we again forget ourselves: there’s no sense. These movements of love and loss are at the ends of the spectrum, the outer circumference of being human, marking an aspect of the Self that the mind simply cannot grasp.
These states of consciousness appear naturally in everyday life as well. A few months ago I was living on a mountain, near a hot spring. The hot springs was hot, sometimes as hot as 115 degrees. And the cold spring was cold. Alternating between the hot and the could would create bliss filled states of consciousness: “I forget who I am.” These were states of awareness I loved. All my concerns would melt away. All the things I was thinking of, dwelling on, would dissolve, leaving only my self: self alone with Self.
A couple of days ago I found out that the area which surrounds the hot springs (called Harbin) burned down. The images were all across twitter: flames rushing down the mountain, smoke clouds reaching up to the heavens, vast vistas of smoke and flames congregating round the ever-flowing springs. The next morning it became clear, everything was burned, all was ash, but the springs remained, pouring forth from the depths. No fire can touch such depths, no ash from water. As I pondered the images I thought of a meditation from the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra:
“Meditate with an unwavering and one-pointed mind
on the entire universe being burnt.
एिम ए् ि जगत्सिं दवध ंध्यात्वा विकल्पत् । अनन्यचते स् ऩम्ु स् ऩम्भु ाि् ऩरमो भिते ॥् ५३ ॥
As I thought of this meditation I realized how much I wanted those states of pleasure forever. I wanted to feel the bliss of my Self, the quietness of the waters. It was a constant in my life, the hot springs were always there to receive me. Harbin (the retreat that surrounded the springs) was always there to offer a place to stay, to eat, to meditate, to be quiet with myself. The bliss of Harbin had turned to Ash. It was burnt and with it something that was so familiar to my self, and to the selves of many others.
Only a year ago I was walking the mountains above the spring, contemplating the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra and the nature of Bhairava (a wrathful image of Shiva). You can see Bhairava in the 1820’s Indian painting above. Bhairava is said to live with his consort Bhairavi in Shmashana, the cremation ground. Many who hear of such a notion are scared: shmashana is said to be the abode of ghosts and spirits. It is a place of ash and death. Why would one want to meditate on such an image?
The answer is that there are many reasons. The main reason being beyond the reach of words: no reason, no sense can describe such practices. Realization is phenomenology. Yet, as someone who has dedicated many years to the practicalities of psychology, I can use my words to describe one reason: life is made of loss. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad say that life began with death:
“There was nothing whatsoever here in
the beginning. It was covered only by Death
(Hiranyagarbha), or Hunger, for hunger is
death. He created the mind, thinking, ‘Let me
have a mind.’He moved about worshiping
(himself). As he was worshiping, water was
produced. (Since he thought), ‘As I was worshipping,
water sprang up,’ therefore Arka (fire)
is so called. Water (or happiness) surely comes
to one who knows how Arka (fire) came to have
this name of Arka.
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Section II, Mantra 1)
Life begins with death. From death springs water, and fire. Reminiscing on my life, I realize it has been filled with death and loss. From those first moments I left the womb I had to begin a mourning process. I lost a sacred place. I lost the safety and pleasures of the womb. Then only a few years later I found myself mourning again, this time the breast. Shortly after that I had to give up my infantile grandiosity, those innate feelings that the world and I were One. I came into self-hood, and with the loss of unity and oneness, I gained a sense of pleasure in having an identity. I became a being among other beings who could assert myself and fulfill my still infantile desires. Yet with this came other losses: the loss of my grandfather, and grandmother, the loss of an uncle. Then a big loss: the loss of my beloved father. Then the loss of a lover and then another. Whether I liked it or not, I began walking the cremation grounds, making friends with Bhairava. And in becoming friends with the eternal One I am faced with a new loss, the loss of identity.
Life is loss. There is no way to get around this truth. We will all lose everything: our friends, our homes, our bodies. The Vijnana Bhirava leads us to contemplate who we are beyond such things. One begins to ask: who am I? What is my self? Where is this self located? If everything in my life burnt up, if all were suddenly gone, who would I be. We are even told: “One should contemplate that one’s own body has been burnt.” A horrid idea for many. But for those on the path of Self-realization, they are lead to ask who am I beyond the body?
With enough practice one begins to realize an aspect of self which cannot be ‘burnt.’ It cannot go up in flames. It emerges from death, and is the creatrix of life. This is the water, the well-spring of being: the Self beyond self. It is the wellspring of being which endures.
Harbin Hot springs was such a well-spring for me. It was there before the flames and it will be there after. It can take the heat, and the fire, and the ash. It can bring renewal to itself and all. And while I am thankful to the actual hot spring, I also appreciate the one that lies in the heart, the well-spring inside myself which endures. In the Vijnana Bhairava it is said:
One who contemplates with
closed eyes and one-pointed concentration on the mantra in
the middle of the lotus in the heart space achieves the
highest spiritual realization.
हृद्याकाश े वनऱीनाऺ् ऩिसम्पटु मध्यग् ।
अनन्यचते ा् सभु ग े ऩरं सौभावयमाप्नयु ात ॥् ४९ ॥
What endures beyond the flames, beyond the fire, beyond the loss is the water lotus in the heart. This is the Self: the Self beyond self. Each of us will face tragedy. Each of us will face loss. From the very beginning of life we are birthed into individuality through the loss of unity. And we will lose our individuality as we return to unity. This is the cycle of life: with loss comes the new, and with the new comes new loss. Meditations on Bhairava ask us to go directly into such loss, to dwell on it, to contemplate it: essentially to mourn. In such a process of mourning one stops fleeing from the pain. One stops running from all that hurts the heart, instead one centers in the heart. In doing so one holds a chance of encountering the well-spring within the heart, called by many names: Bhairava, Siva, Isvara, Brahman, Purusha, Atman, or more simply the Self.
It is likely that Harbin Hot Springs will be rebuilt, at least eventually. The hotel may be rebuilt. The restaurant may be rebuilt. The homes around Harbin may be rebuilt. The little town we all love, Middletown, may be rebuilt. Harbin is a place for alternative spirituality. Quan Yin is the matron saint of the spring. And so it seems fitting that a few of us ‘alternative folks’ may contemplate Bhairava and Bhairavi walking the grounds, blessing the fields of ash with awareness of the Self. And we may also contemplate the wellspring that endures, both within and without. Those beautiful states of consciousness we feel soaking in the springs are within us always. They are us. They are our most essential nature.