As reported by Dr. Art Rosengarten
Himachal Pradesh, N. India, October 17, 1989
The background fugue of rumbling turbines had ceased. Om mani padme om. They had been droning non-stop over half the earth’s time zones like a metallic sub-base intrusion of old leaking refrigeration–by plane vis-à-vis San Francisco to Frankfort, hollow vibrating aluminum tubes of white noise on to the terminal skies of New Delhi; droning again endlessly by sleeper train through the dust and fires of Old Delhi to the verdant hills of Kashmir/Jammu, first Himalayan state of India; they shook, rattled, and droned by chartered bus for the final eight hour excursion up into the magnificent mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, situated in the splendid heart of the western Himalayas. Now, mercifully, all droning of modern engines had suddenly ceased to exist. It was nirvana. The stillness of the cool sun-filled morning was a raga of pure peace.
The adventure had actually begun the week prior as thirty of us set out from the San Francisco International Terminal. A mixed bag of Bay Area grad students and professionals–dressed-down religion professors, cultural anthropologists, and transpersonal psychology types like myself– plus the usual fare of meditation junkies, tough dharma feminists, and sundry Eastern spiritual seekers. We had all signed on for a two-month pilgrimage devoted to the study of Mountain Goddess cults of Northern India and Tibet sponsored by the California Institute Of Integral Studies. Besides daily classes and meditation instruction from an impressive faculty of Asian philosophy scholars, a full itinerary of day trips to ancient sacred temples and points of interest was also prearranged for our convenience, including what promised to be a highpoint of the trip: a private audience in several weeks with His Holiness, The Dalai Lama at his McLeod Gang residence in Upper Dharamsala, only an hour’s drive away. His Holiness, ironically, was himself currently in California to be honored as the 1989 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Small world.
We were simply pleased, ecstatic in fact, to finally be able to sit back and breath mindfully like the American dharma students we aspired to become; passage through India had been exotic but draining. If Indira International Airport in Delhi now seemed weeks ago when it was only days, then San Francisco International was but a fleeting memory of the other universe we once inhabited. It’s remarkable how quickly one forgets the other side, which vanishes from memory like a dream after each awakening.
Our final destination was the small Himalayan village of Taragarh. In contrast to the travel lows of previous days–most notably the unforgettable Old Delhi Station (a dark, soot-filled, endless maze of underground tunnels, butter lamps, tea stands, and sleeping untouchables, known for the occasional random nail bomb explosion and generally saturated with the lower smells of death, distinctly reminiscent of Hell); by comparison, the exalted presence of Taragarh was like the mythical mountain kingdom of Shambhala–believed, in Tibetan legend, to be the only pure land existing on earth. Here was indeed a higher octave of consciousness one senses instantly, like going to bed exhausted in Hoboken and waking up refreshed in the Garden of Eden.
Within India itself, one sees the difference of two worlds in the dogs. Indian dogs (barking weasels really) fend for themselves on alley scraps, rodents, and the squalor of the street or village. They are mangy, gnat-infested, and nearly feral like their canine brothers and sisters through much of The Developing World. On the other hand, in the small Tibetan enclaves of Northern India the dogs are calm, friendly, well-fed, even Scoobyesque, and one contemplates whether they are endowed with legendary canine Buddha nature, as in fact it appeared in their midst.
The Palace at Taragarh
As our private tour bus slowly entered the stately iron gates of our temporary new home–The Palace Motel–summer residence of the Maharaj and Hindu Royal Family of Kashmir, I could have pinched myself from the elation, but this was no dream in the conventional sense. The Palace was situated on a 15 acre forested estate surrounded by tea gardens in the Kangra valley, one of the most scenic and unexplored areas of Himachal Pradesh. Located at a modest seven thousand feet, Taragarh was at the base of the Dhauladhar mountains offering a magnificent view of the snow capped peaks. Fortunate connections in Bay Area “spiritual circles” had secured this lofty perch for us to assemble a temporary “school” of sorts, whose mission it was to encounter the mystically-fabled “Goddess of The Mountain.” But yes, this was also very much a dream as well, though in no way should this fact diminish its living emanation, as in the Eastern view all phenomenal existence, even the home in which one dwells, is ultimately no different than a phantom state or dream born of Mind.
“The Palace,” as we called it, was replete with a dozen Indian servants and cooks, showcasing long hallways of wooden floors and walls adorned with authentic Bengali tiger skins; it had a tastefully decorated private library with contemporary paintings of the local artist Sobha Singh, and many family photographs of the Maharaj’s wife, the Maharani Tara Devi, and her son Dr. Karan Singh, the famed Indian diplomat born the Crown Prince and only son of the Maharaj of Kashmir. There was a large kitchen and elegant banquet room where meals were semi-formally served on schedule.
Unfortunately for me, the thrice daily-fare of rice and dahl soon grew oppressive and in time, I would learn to hike up to Tashi Jong, the neighboring Tibetan Monastary, where in the late afternoon delectable yak momos and banana lassis could be purchased for several rupees in the local enclave, tasting to my American palate something like a beef burrito chased with an Orange Julius. Marc, my Jewish Buddhist inventor friend and colleague, equally unthrilled by the monotonous menu, had presciently socked some five pounds of dark Swiss chocolate into his backpack, and generously supplemented our redundant lunches with a small but thick one inch square.
Two well-cushioned sitting rooms that adjoined the banquet hall were ideal for midday black tea, biscuits, and lively discussion. “Padre,” as we called the Ven. George Churinoff, a former M.I.T. physicist turned Gelupa monk for the past thirty years, preferred to lead his 6 a.m. Green Tara Meditations in this cozy setting for any who cared to join him. Not a morning person by nature, but meaning no disrespect, I managed to practice my guru transmissions with “The Mother of All The Buddhas,” about three times per week, figuring if necessary I could always squeeze in a short nap during the Changing Roles Of Modern Indian Women Seminar, an elective offered Tuesdays and Thursdays before afternoon tea.
Upstairs were our private quarters, perhaps fifteen double rooms, with adjoining baths (where a fresh bucket of boiling water kindly awaited us for each morning’s sponge bath). I quickly hooked up with Arjun, a dark and wiry Freudian psychologist from Redwood City (oddly, the only among us of Indian descent), after having previously shared a berth with him on the sleeper from Delhi to Jammu. Deborah, a thin attractive Zen therapist from Sonoma, and Janet, a tall and humorous lesbian from Berkeley, took the room opposite, and quickly became part of our late night revelries, gossip, and conversation.
Outside, the luxurious gardens and grounds of the Palace were peaceful and lush with exotic beauty. Snow-capped mountains in the distance could be spied through the mighty trees and shrubs that surrounded the perimeters, and a beautifully shaded lawn area became the reserved classroom site of our daily workshops in a circle of lawn chairs. The climate was indeed heavenly in mid-October, soft blue skies, impressive cloud formations in the distance, and perfect mid-70′s mountain air. We were told there was even a small private Shiva temple on the property, used in the summer by the Royal Family, and now made available for our own purposes.
Hardly bad for a single, 39 year old Tabugian therapist, I thought, even though the Tabugian model [Tarot-based Buddhist Jungian] as such was merely an incubation of my own deluded mythopoetic fantasy construction of some new religious creation. The American group was friendly enough, and I anticipated many extraordinary things would come of this. There were some attractive and interesting people I hoped to get to know deeply, the majority my own age and mostly female, including a handful of world-class East-West scholars and spiritual teachers assembled to be our guides.
I had come to India seeking for the mystical, but was packed for the magical. Two months of supplies (in one suitcase and backpack) amounted to the barest of modern essentials: one jacket and three sets of loose-fitting clothes, hiking boots, running shoes, rayon underwear, lots of socks, malaria medicine, antibiotics, one snakebite kit (which I had no interest in opening), two tubes of sunblock and insect repellent, a few empty journals, camera and lots of film, 6 pens, a Krishnamurti paperback, some lucky talisman of a personal nature, and of course, two decks of cards.
I was glad I had brought several Tarot decks, no matter their reputed Western Renaissance origins, if only to see how the magic would be affected in this rare company and at these rarified altitudes. Wisely, I had packed not only a commonplace deck of Waite miniatures, but also a rare collector’s set of 22 Oswald Wirth Majors, impeccably rich in color with 19th century Marseille-style symbol conventions and French Titles; they were given to me years earlier by an antique dealer and old friend named Richard from New Jersey. I had only used them previously for especially arcane and lofty occasions. Encountering the Himalayan Mountain Goddess, I mused, must qualify. I sensed that they too, my precious tarots, would gain in merit from her radiant presence.
Bad Omen On Opening Day
I quickly dropped my bags on my bed, changed into a pair of shorts and sandals, and headed excitedly down the long tiger-skinned hallways and through the front entrance to the Palace gardens-it was free time to play on opening day. I put a music tape in my headset and set out to explore. Some forty minutes later, I was approaching the aforementioned Siva temple that stood off by a remote end of the twenty-acre property, facing the distant pine forests in the background above. One arrived there naturally, like all roads leading to Rome, as it marked the end of several footpaths through the splendid orchards behind the estate, and intuitively seemed to call one to it.
Wild parrots could be heard singing from the huge sycamore trees nestled around the hidden, overgrown grove that surrounded it. It is said that devotees of the Hindu God Siva, cosmic dancer and divine Lord of Destruction, worship not so much his many names and forms, as his over-riding dynamism or “cosmic stream of fleeting evolutions” which continually produce and extinguish individual existences. Mountains and valleys, life/death, hope/despair etc. were merely the daily food this Hindu Deity devoured for breakfast and spit out for lunch. My kind of God, I thought, especially now.
Outside the small temple garden, straddling a low red brick wall, were congregated some ten or twelve casually dressed, busily chatting “individual existences” from Northern California, meandering this holy ground like sacred cows on unpaved village streets. About a third of our entire entourage was there, some five men and seven women– joking, gyrating, trading stories in the intoxicating air. Some wore their bright and exotic Indian designs freshly gobbled up in the bazaars of New Delhi. The American banter, to me at least, seemed strangely out of place for this secluded corner of the Universe, which was as alien and far away from home as we West Coast “gringos” were ourselves.
As I was late on the scene, my arrival to the temple pleasantries went hardly noticed and I sort of slipped in to the gathering. However, there was now tension in my belly. Despite the bright spirits of my peers, I felt like a dark cloud covering the peaceful skies of a summer picnic. As fate would have it, I had minutes earlier been “volunteered” for the rather unfamiliar role of bearer of bad news. Bad news? Like what? Not even I had a clue, for my given task was merely that of “messenger courier”-like the innocent server of a bad subpoena.
Only minutes earlier, while casing the Palace grounds, wide-eyed and naturally intoxicated, I had stumbled upon a small gathering of core faculty and retreat organizers convening outside the portico of the Main Estate of The Palace. Judging from their grumbling and intensity as I walked by, I knew something unexpected was up. Their mood was clearly out of synch with the mountainous aura that framed this otherwise blissful setting. I, of course, was plugged into my Sony Walkman and filled head-to-toe with the throbbing syncopation of sky and music; I vividly recall at that moment listening to a very haunting new Dylan ballad from his just released “Oh Mercy” album, entitled “Ring Them Bells.” Little did I imagine that it would be my signature song for the events that were about to unfold.
John, the retreat’s leader, motioned me over to the small powwow and then in a hushed but definite tone asked (ordered) that I quickly round people up for an “important announcement” on the Palace lawn in fifteen minutes. “Make sure everybody’s there, Art,” he said unambiguously. He gave no further instructions or information. I was unsettled, to the say the least, but responded without hesitation. All would be revealed soon enough, I reasoned, as I made my way down the orchard path to the Shiva temple…
Now, approaching my new friends, I felt like some new age Vedic Page of Wands, adorned as I was, in my natty orange and red Kulu cap (something like a fez), Forty-Niner T-shirt, beige shorts and Sony Walkman strapped around my neck; Bob Dylan was now droning in my ears and out my eyes like an old Himalayan prophet. The words from the song carried an odd biblical flavor, though somehow blending perfectly with these distinctly Indian surroundings:
Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride.
It was I who was running backwards, ringing them bells from the sanctuaries cross the Kangra valleys and streams. But little did I know that the world was indeed “on its side.” Now in full view, I cleared my voice and raised my arms to speak:
Ah–excuse me everyone, I need to make an announcement! (I repeated it twice). May I have everyone’s attention please..
Deborah and Marc, who had been busy in conversation at first smiled as I entered, but obviously could read from my body language that I was not there to gaggle, and helped to gather others around me very quickly. I continued, now with a hint of authority in my voice:
John has just asked me to round people up immediately. He wants us all to return to the lawn area right away. (Pause) I know it sounds strange, but I think something significant has happened, though I was not told any of the details…John seemed pretty upset, as did George and Joanna.. He wants to have an emergency meeting on the lawn in ten minutes and we should all head over there now.
It was not so much the words, but the incongruity of my own voice with the surroundings, which struck that moment so starkly. Vedic Page of Wands indeed. Now everyone looked puzzled, and a bitrattled. The timing was all wrong. If this was Delhi, we would have expected it. Things always seemed to malfunction there. But this was our Shambhala, we had only arrived hours earlier, and we were eagerly awaiting the opening ceremonies scheduled to begin in just a few hours, after dinner. “Give me a break,” I heard one goddess-seeker snipe, “this is a spiritually-protected space, right?” Though I didn’t say so, these were my sentiments too.
Regardless, we all immediately scurried out the Shiva Temple garden and on through the engaging dirt paths of exotic vines and luscious bushes, perhaps a ten minute jaunt, arriving at the designated lawn area in the requested time. The fifteen or twenty others of our group too were arriving at the large semi-circle of lawn chairs set out on the manicured grass in a horseshoe. Even the Indian staff and Palace servants now huddled to the side, while John and Padre were still commiserating at center stage with their backs turned. Padre held a portable radio up to his ears and was listening intently. Thoughts and emotions, I sensed, were running amok like the bonfires inside the hellish abyss of Old Delhi Train Station.
A stream of images surged my active imagination as I sat and observed the troubled scene. Had news of another major political assassination, I wondered, ala the awful Gandhi tragedies, come down the wires? It was only a week before the contentious ’89 National Elections, and this passionate land of 800 million was notorious for lots of hot stuff when elections rolled around… No, I thought, maybe it was about the retreat itself? Some change in itinerary perhaps? I wondered whether next week’s meeting with The Dalai Lama in neighboring Dharamsala, had been canceled? A great disappointment if true, but surely we could find other interesting things to do on that day? No need to spoil the party.
After all, there were many wonderfully strange and interesting Hindu and Buddhist temples and villages to explore in the area, we were in splendid company with perfect surroundings and provisions, and according to Johanna, we were officially invited to join the monks at Tashi Jong in morning chanting and meditation. How cool was that? Then another thought occurred which gave me some pause: had someone in the group taken seriously ill? That might be a real problem, especially given how far away we were to modern medical services-at least two long days of heavy travel down mountain. No doubt, there were all kinds of infectious diseases freely available to Western tourists of the sub-continent. Maybe someone… But no, there was no time left to prefigure it. The whole group now was congregating on the lawn, as the strange mystery of the first day at the Palace would now be revealed. What we soon learned, however, was indeed far stranger and more troubling than anything we had imagined.
Part 2: When Mountains Were Mountains and Valleys Were Valleys
The Palace Gardens
Approximately 2:30 PM
An excited buzz filled the circle of lawn chairs like anxious bees surrounding the Mother Queen. Thirty or so eclectically frocked Californians now nervously gathered in the private Himalayan garden, but clearly the Palace grounds seemed no longer so elevated. A spiritual journey of a lifetime— within the halo of the Mountain Goddess– was not supposed to begin on such a tenuous note.
Professor. B., our leader, and “Padre,” the American purple and yellow robed Buddhist monk were both now standing center stage each holding a portable radio to an ear. It was an eerie montage of sacred tradition clutching to modern technology. John, the visage of Gandalf, now raised his arms to officially speak and shortly thereafter made the following shocking announcement:
“People, brace yourselves, I have some bad news to relay, and I realize the timing could not be much worse given that we are about to launch our six-week program in a couple of hours… Five minutes ago, the BBC International made an emergency bulletin that a major earthquake has struck the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California … Friends, I’m well aware that most of you are from the affected region and I’m terribly sorry to bring this tragic news to you today.”
A major quake in the Bay Area? No one had even considered that the crisis was actually back home, back on the other side, in the city where we lived and had only departed a few days earlier. It was strangely disconcerting that news from home was now knocking on the Palace doors of Taragahr. We had temporarily left it all behind, we thought. Anxiety was starting to envelop the walls of my stomach. What did he mean “major?” The word kept ringing in my ears. Everyone had experienced what I suppose were “minor” quakes, as such was integral to California residency. Truthfully, I sort of enjoyed them like subways or bumper cars. But something bigger was happening here. Why would we be having an emergency meeting over a run-of-the-mill earthquake in California? Then John continued:
“People, it remains uncertain how big this quake actually was. Unfortunately, information from the States is very sketchy at this time and according to the BBC, we won’t have any official confirmation of casualties for another 24 to 48 hours… I repeat, all communication lines to the Bay Area are currently down. The truth is, no one really knows how serious this is… However, I must tell you, honestly, that judging from preliminary reports just announced by the American Red Cross, there is currently reason for significant concern.”
My head began spinning like a Kansas tornado en route to Oz. Memory was now mixing with vertigo in the thin Himalayan air, and I was flashing back to a much earlier time in my current incarnation: age 13, a cold late November morning in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey. I was wearing my gray wool cardigan sitting in the second row of Mr. Pemberthy’s 7th grade Social Studies class. The class was discussing Dorthea Dix and woman’s suffrage, and a few boys were shooting spitballs in the back of the room. Then over the school’s PA system came an unexpected announcement by Ray Sterling, the white-haired, raspy-voiced principal of South Orange Jr. High. It was the single sentence that in retrospect would traumatize the American psyche even to this day:
“Students may I have your attention please. This is your principle, Ray Sterling speaking.” After a long pause, the unthinkable words came:
“President Kennedy was shot in Dallas Texas earlier today while driving in a motorcade. I repeat, President Kennedy was shot! He is still alive at this time, according to the latest report, but JFK is now in critical condition at Parkland Hospital in Dallas Texas. All students must return to their homerooms immediately and prepare for early dismissal. Your families have been notified.”
That was it. No further explanation, just the sinking emotion of unthinkable shock. We piled out of the school minutes afterwards, some eight hundred students, shattered, silent, and overwhelmed. Kennedy was the beloved image of America, and certainly for the innocent youth of America, we were made in his image. With a friend, I hitch-hiked up the steep mile hill to my house and a taxicab actually pulled over from the passing lane and stopped to pick us up. The windows were rolled down in the front and a cold gust filled the backseat waking us to the cold reality of this window of time. The black man driving was weeping and cursing “the god damn suckers, they killed the president,” as reports of the unthinkable streamed over the radio. It was the first and remains the most disturbing of all world-altering announcements that would unfold over my lifetime.
I now tried to refocus on the present situation. Strangely, even here in Northern India the news had that sinking “Dallas Texas” feel. I felt numb and intensely anxious at once. Then, in a softer voice, John again spoke:
“My friends, we’ve just learned that they are now making early estimates of catastrophic proportions… I repeat—CATASTROPHIC PROPORTIONS– of destruction in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Mateo and the surrounding areas… People, this may in fact have been “the Big One” everyone’s been expecting for years. Fires have broken out in San Francisco and Oakland, and the Bay Bridge is reported to have collapsed… It’s unbelievable… There is also the possibility, my friends, of massive loss of life.”
Tears were now flowing down his handsome, grandfatherly face, as they were over the faces of us all. At Padre’s bidding, John then again turned to hear what appeared to be another updated report. We waited, stone quiet and consigned to this fate. John’s eyes closed and his face was more somber than before, as he then relayed the latest news:
I’m deeply saddened to tell you what we’ve just learned… but according to preliminary estimates just announced over the BBC …Ten thousand people are projected to have died today in the San Francisco Bay Area, with up to 100,000 seriously injured. Evacuation procedures may be under way for the entire area. But I must reemphasize–these numbers are uncertain– we simply won’t know for another day or so the actual facts. I’m terribly sorry for all of us, particularly those of us who have families and homes and businesses in the Bay Area, and for all our loved ones who may now be in harm’s way…
That was it. It was staggering. Natural disaster had struck our own hometown—and we were now only six thousand miles away stranded in the mountains or a meditation retreat. Imagine, if you can, the overwhelming paradox we were left to mentally organize—the event was simply too close to home and simultaneously too far away from home to adequately assimilate and neatly box. Its sketchiness was cruel. Rumblings could now be heard over the chairs:
“Was the epicenter actually in the city itself?”
“ I need to contact my children, they were probably in school when it hit.”
“My husband works downtown on the 40th floor of the Pyramid Building…”
“I’m worried my mother can’t get her medications…she’s diabetic.”
“ It’s three or four days just to get back to Delhi.”
“What are we supposed to do now?”
Given the vast complication of our location and circumstance in relation to the event, this last question seemed strangely the most puzzling, and relevant. What were we supposed to do now? Realistically, waiting seemed all that was available to us. It would be agonizing, but there would be no fast or easy exit out of the mountains. Our loved ones might be lying dead or hospitalized in San Francisco, but we would have to wait. Even if we trekked back down to Delhi, it was doubtful that planes would even be allowed anywhere near the Bay Area. There was nothing we could directly do. We simply needed time, perhaps a day or two, for the facts to unfold. Then, hopefully, communication would be restored, and a reasoned response could be implemented. It was a time warp of sorts, but fortuitously, we now resided in an environment that invited deep reflection over its implications. Dinner was still to be served in a half-hour, as scheduled, followed by the ‘Goddess Invocation Ceremony’ to be led by the wonderful Buddhist teacher, Joanna Macy. The sun was still shining, and the sky breathlessly blue, but eerily, the mountains no longer seemed like mountains, nor did the valleys seem like valleys.
Fact Versus Perception
Due largely to “global shrinkage” brought by modern technologies, word of major disaster travels virtually everywhere almost instantaneously, even back then in the antiquated pre-web days of the late 1980’s. In that vain it struck me as poignant to now see standing quietly behind our circle of lawn chairs the senior Tibetan lama at neighboring Tashi Jong Monastery, Chogyal Rinpoche, who had hiked a mile down the mountain path (with two attendant monks) to personally express his heartfelt condolences to us, the unfortunate Americans, who had just arrived from California, the site of the great calamity. Word travels far and fast indeed, and to think we Americans too can be cared for as the pitied victims of misfortune through the eyes of simple villagers and gentle-hearted Himalayan monks.
Eventually, the actual facts would arrive. Like most citizens around the world, we had just gotten word of the devastating event now known as the Loma Prieta Earthquake. It had occurred on Tuesday, October 17th at 5:04 P.M Pacific Standard Time in Northern California. Factually, we would learn that the 20-second trembler was actually centered about 60 miles south of San Francisco, not within city limits as some were given to believe. It had a Richter magnitude 7.1, leading to the collapse of the elevated Cypress Street section of Interstate 880 in Oakland, the roadbed of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, multiple building collapses in San Francisco’s Marina district, and minor damage as far south as Santa Cruz. For years scientists had predicted an earthquake would hit on this section of the San Andreas Fault and considered Loma Prieta one of the Bay Area’s most dangerous stretches of the fault. Fate, it seemed, had sparred us from the immediacy of this disaster.
But far from the catastrophic 10,000 casualties initially predicted, in point of fact only 68 deaths occurred in total, 42 in the collapse of Interstate Highway 880 alone. Likewise, in contrast to the initially reported 100,00 serious injuries, in fact 3,757 injuries actually took place. Still, the initial reports were hardly baseless as the earthquake was without question a major calamity, causing significant loss of life, property, and suffering to the Bay Area community. All told, 1,018 homes and 3,530 businesses were damaged, and 366 businesses were destroyed. The estimated dollar loss was 6 to 7 billion dollars. More than 7,000 aftershocks had occurred between magnitudes 1.0 and 5.4 by October 1, 1990 a year later.
Perception, however, is another matter. Perception informs immediate experience (more than facts, usually), and as we dramatically learned over the following hours, perception is unstable over the course of time. Within a window of time, perception dictates experience. It can trigger physiology such as autonomic “fight or flight” reactions, and a wide range of emotions, thoughts and ideas; it can also stimulate creative insights and reflections, as well as motivation, belief, fantasy, and imagination. Whether perception is married to fact matters little, at least, in the short run. Financial markets, for example, are largely at the mercy of consumer perception.
Science, on the other hand, purportedly, is based on fact, and fact alone. It requires evidence that is independent of and unbiased by perception, and can be replicated at variable times with consistent results. The Earth revolves around the Sun, contrary to how we may perceive it, and not the reverse, and this fact can be consistently demonstrated at various times. This fact is considered “objective truth.” based as it is on scientific validity and reliability. However, in the subjective worlds of psychology, politics, art, religion, and popular cultural in general, factual reality takes back seat to subjective and collective perception, often inserted like statistics to bolster a perception, not replace it. Where facts may hold “truth” as such, perception, as the slogan goes, is “reality.” Both, however, are keenly sensitive to situational context and vantage point of the observer, and as such are relative phenomena, and not absolute.
Temporary Windows of Time
The subject of this story is the experience of October 17th, 1989 from the vantage point of thirty Americans traveling in N. India concurrently to the Prieta Loma earthquake, not the actual facts of October 17th, 1989 which, perhaps, is another story. The view of the world from out our collective sixty eyeballs on that day was remarkable and uniquely profound primarily because our perceptual context was under the influence of such fantastically odd juxtapositions in time, space, and circumstance. Simply put, we were deeply under the spell of extremely interesting and meaningful “synchronicities,” that is, temporary windows of time and perception which bring one to the edge of truth and reality.
It is for these mysterious factors that this small tale of two cities is now told, for they are factors which I believe hold relevance to the rapidly unfolding perception of events of the present period. John Broomfield’s communiqué to our group of Goddess seekers was now completed for the time being, and members rose exhaustedly to head back to their rooms. Suddenly, I felt oddly inspired, almost enthusiastic were it not under such grave conditions. A light bulb had turned on. I then jumped up before anyone actually had vacated the lawn, and made a short announcement of my own, as you will remember, my second of the day. Surprisingly, people seemed to pull out of their fogs long enough to genuinely hear what I had to say. Thus I announced:
Everybody–before you all go, I just want to put out that besides being a therapist in my previous life, I also read Tarot cards and given the situation here, I want to offer a reading to anyone who would like to sort things out using the cards. Please talk to me if you’d like to set up a reading either before or after dinner.
I was stunned by the positive response. In the next fifteen minutes, virtually everyone there (except Padre, due to certain professed dharmic obligations I never quite understood) approached me and requested a Tarot appointment, as it were. I jotted down 20 minute intervals, and told all querents to meet me at the small corner table past the tiger skins at the end of the long downstairs corridor at their scheduled times. I knew something important would come of this for I trusted that under such extreme conditions–the Tarot symbols would prove the final refuge. Shivers now run from my spine when I think of magic that would thus run its course.
From The Inner Zone
On the night of October, 17, 1989, high in the mountains of North India, down the long corridor of the main estate, past the hanging tiger skins and photos of The Royal Family, surrounding the small round black table at the very end, the newly designated “divination zone” (as I called it), had become the most trafficked corner of the entire Palace of Taragahr. I suspect because only there, within the metaphysical ripples of Tarot divination, could one find what was needed the most: a natural and dispassionate level of intelligence (i.e. awareness) amidst the chaos, a system of living symbols that easily illustrated and elucidated a wide range of human possibility, and an individualized set of behavioral directives that connected the particulars of each human story to universal lessons and wisdom principles. In short, the zone translated narrow situational effects into an accessible roadmap of consciousness.
As I have written previously, we now live in times of fluctuating brinksmanship. At any moment, one senses, things could turn south at great velocity. Terrorism, extreme weather, diminishing resources, rogue states, suitcase nukes, religious fundamentalism, you name it. Accordingly, one piece of advice is certain: when chaos explodes like a volcano over the sleepy plains of business-as-usual, individuals must first and foremost “put their heads on” properly before taking action-the rest is moot. Better yet, let’s put our heads on properly before it erupts. A classic Zen teaching says it well: “It is necessary for your footing to be firm and solid, accurate and sure. Taking control and being the master, you become one with all different situations, like space without barriers.”
There is no time, no space for dalliance when the ground begins to crumble beneath you. Philosophically, we might argue, the ground is always crumbling beneath us; imperceptibly the sands of time are racing to the bottom of the hourglass as the laws of impermanence and the certainty of change are the central conditions of all existence. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to see that nothing sticks around for very long. But in this discussion, we are speaking of actual global realities known to our thoughts and senses. This late in the game, it is no longer enough simply to survive, that is, not if we care to reverse the karmic chain of deterioration and actually improve upon the human condition. No time, no space for dalliance when real events assault us, not even indirectly–as we read today about the ghastly prisoner abuses of Abu Ghraib.
At such times, I believe, one must connect quickly to a higher and clearer understanding of their true nature, even in the smoke and fire of the chaos, less one is lost to the moment. Short of this, one falls further into the problematic “chicken-with-their-heads-cut-off” pandemonium, the “tit-for-tat” reactivity and “eye for an eye” counter-aggression that actually make situations far more dangerous than the precipitating causes themselves.
In all major crises, particularly in the short-run, reality and the perception of reality appear virtually indistinguishable, as both are filtered through the instinctive emotions of self-preservation, the so-called “fight or flight response”–fear, aggression, regression, blame, guilt, depression, and paranoia. The nobler side of humanity no longer stands a chance. Fight-or-flight emotions, in turn, produce the key ingredients of what cognitive psychologists neatly call “catastrophizing”-the distorted thinking process that narrows the band of possibility to a single strand of inescapable negativity. Some will argue that the process goes in the reverse: catastrophizing creates the emotions of fight-or-flight. Another moot point, as you can’t have one without the other.
To my mind, this is of greater concern than the precipitating events themselves for as the history of disaster teaches us, distortion begets further distortion. This nuance is included in my phrase “karmic chain of escalating hostilities.” Moreover, this is why it is no longer enough simply to survive. We must do more–”survivors” are really Neanderthals (and you know what happened to them, right?). We must not merely survive, we must thrive. Whatever disaster befalls us, what blows up in our face, come hell or high water (or hurling asteroids from behind the shadows of the sun) is really secondary. First and foremost, we must decide how best to interpret and utilize hostile situations with a clear mandate to break the karmic chain at its root. Can we establish a response-strategy that is skillful, sophisticated, growth-producing, and transformative? Must the psychotic karmic cycle of escalating hostilities play itself out to the end? As seen today in the Middle East and elsewhere, we seem more bound and determined than ever to repeat, not transform, the causes of violence, hatred, and vengeance to suicidal proportions. Unfortunately, the ante gets “upped” on each go around.
In all cases the problematic tendencies of human beings suffering “crisis-exasperation” are predictable: relative perception and misattribution (the “myth of good guys and bad guys”), cognitive distortion, false identification, and shadow projection (the “they/it did this to us, the bastards!”), and reflexive counter-aggression, vengeance, and violence (the “now it’s our turn”) and so forth. No matter that bad things get worse, we seem to be hard-wired to this archaic response. As Sam played it again and again: “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, A case of do or die.”
The results are insidious: a karmic chain of escalating hostilities, fueled by hatred, greed, and delusion, on course for brutality, death, and destruction. The outright predictability of this course puts it curiously on the same footing as addictive disorders like alcoholism. In fact, the insidious karmic chain of escalating hostilities is an addictive disorder, and as we’ve learned with alcoholism, the only thing that seems to work is turning it over to a higher power.
Oddly, for all our impressive modern psychology, science, and law, the world is no closer today in breaking out of the cycle than it was a thousand years ago. Americans, in fact, as a whole, seem more fascinated by and accepting of the ultimate failure in human relations-war-than in previous decades, though they don’t like to admit this to themselves. It comes out more in their cultural obsessions and fantasies. Films and video games depicting heroic armies, vast futuristic battle scenes, countless espionage thrillers and street cop escapades, high tech killing machines and superweapons, super-buffed black-belted ninja commandos, ad nauseum, hold tremendous fascination and sex appeal for more than just teenagers. Outcomes begin in the imagination. “Peace,” on the other hand, has today become something of a dinosaur throw-back, viewed on a par with unshaved armpits, hippy communes, and zig zag papers, relegated to the failed fantasy creations of the 1960s counterculture. The trend is disturbing.
Unfortunately, science, politics, and religion (as they are presently comported), offer insufficient knowledge, technology, or expertise in teaching “the basic lesson” effectively– how best to interpret and utilize hostile situations with a clear mandate to break the karmic chain at its root? To the contrary, their talents are more commonly employed in the very service of furthering the karmic chain of escalating hostilities. It’s where the big bucks are. But breaking out requires something mainstream institutions no little about-the real identity and destination of the human race.
This is why I believe metaphysical tools such as the Tarot can and should be applied at the highest levels of decision-making. We have much to learn about our true natures, and there’s little time. Tools that can quickly provide a natural and dispassionate level of intelligence (i.e. awareness) amidst the chaos, provide a system of living symbols that easily illustrate and elucidate this intelligence in real situations, and moreover, supply a specific set of behavioral directives that can connect the particulars of each situation to universal lessons and wisdom principles-would be a very valuable thing indeed.
Back At The Palace
The night was getting quite late, I was pretty tapped emotionally from so much reading, and in need of some replenishment myself. I decided to attempt one final experiment–my own. But rather than a personal question (as much had been answered vicariously in the readings of others), I thought a larger and more comprehensive question would be the perfect sendoff to this altogether extraordinary day. The question came easily: “How can all beings benefit in the future from the lessons of today?” The following cards emerged:
Query: How can all beings benefit in the future from the lessons of today?
1. Working For: Wheel of Fortune (10)
2. Working Against: The Sun (XIX)
3. The Known: The Priestess (II)
4. The Unknown: Hanged Man (XII)
5. Now Needed: The Chariot (VII)
In Position 1–Working For, The Wheel of Fortune (Trump X). Signifies: timing, change, cycles, karma, luck, and destiny. In context, the image affirms the reality of impermanence and the cyclical nature of change. Crises may actually benefit beings, the card suggests, when learning to flow harmoniously with it becomes the only option. As such, change (even change borne of crisis) holds hidden opportunities when we learn to skillfully ride the wave. Beings will benefit by utilizing the secrets of change.
In Position 2-Working Against, The Sun (Trump XIX). Signifies: consciousness, reason, activity, energy, power. In context, the image discourages a reasoned and active response at this indeterminate phase in the process, underscoring the better strategy of adjusting (like water) to the process of change (i.e. flowing) rather than responding to it actively. More benefit is found in riding the horse in the direction it’s going, rather than consciously attempting to control, overpower or redirect it.
In Position 3-The Known, The Priestess (Trump II). Signifies: deep memory, intuitive knowing, subtle wisdom, forbidden secrets. In context, the image suggests the answers are veiled but already known; mastered (but forgotten); beneath the veil, the profound secrets are accessible only through intuition and reflection. As one remembers this original nature, this lost innocence, a more natural and subtle intelligence can be applied to the complexities of worldly concerns.
In Position 4-The Unknown, The Hanged Man (Trump XII). Signifies: surrender, detachment, awareness, dis-identification, suspension, witnessing. In context, the image suggests the emergence of a hidden talent and strategy-a crucial piece which completes the puzzle, namely, awareness (mindfulness, or dis-identification). Viewing from outside the constructions of time and space. The ability to be sufficiently ego-detached (during crises), to suspend the instinctive urges of self-preservation; to witness and observe events without reaction, is the necessary talent that brings great benefit to all beings.
In Position 5-What Is Now Needed, The Chariot (Trump VII). Signifies: pursuit, quest, directed action, communication, global intent. In context, the image describes the need for new global attitude and quest concerning a higher planetary destiny, the representation of a higher “mission statement,” the aggressive pursuit of a new language of global goals, directed skillfully to the planetary family as a whole. Disaster, as we see, has precipitated this wake-up call.
In closing, I would offer a poem written down from the mountain, some months after my return from India, when left to ponder this small Tale Of Two Cities. The poem is my attempt to re-create something of the recipe of essential ingredients that reluctantly stewed in their own juices in the cauldron of happenstance at the Palace of Taragahr. In the end, with Tarot’s assistance, let it be said that a truly satisfying meal was served. The poem is entitled:
The Right Conditions
When there is incongruity
between feeling and event,
a certain uncertainty, puzzlement,
or discernable moodiness
in the half-tones of the moment.
Or else conflict too cumbersome to grasp or tie,
a paradox, enigma, or Gordian knot,
a sign of silk in a bed of soil.
Or when news is sketchy,
pandemonium has spilled over the affected areas
and the epicenter has been closed off,
sealing shut frantic windows of unknowing.
When the mind keeps turning left,
re-orbiting a familiar eight ball,
or else differently–
a sudden stroke of cognitive slippage
or mischief cuts one’s allegiance to logic,
words sound like words without meaning
or again the opposite-strangely fantastic luck–
love, light of angels, lust,
the thrill of improbability,
mental powers seducing and surprising you,
Or when hanging–(indeed clutching)-to a bubble
or sinking in one’s stomach,
or fading to oblivion
or when stuck in a head-vice
or left oscillating in ambiguity
with a strange suspension of time,
with split conditions and mixed messages,
when both are true and false…
When both spill onto the night pavement
without closure or conclusion…
Yet a web of mystery beckons and
you feel strange gravities to enter,
to catch and be caught by it,
to make mirrors of molecules and
craft outcomes from serendipity
and flow freely with
the untold forms of the moment
that rise up inside like a warm willing gust
of benevolent and ghostly presence–
These, and many more, are the right conditions for a reading.
By Dr. Art Rosengarten (below–taken from Dharamsala, HP 1989)