A modern Kumbh Mela : holy men and women, and union with the divine
A book excerpt from the spiritandflesh.com religion and spirituality online library.
I was so grateful, and in a way so disbelieving, of all that had happened to me on the coast, including all the unique and brilliant people I had met during my travels, that at one point a while back I wrote another whole book, during a five-week all-out frenzy, which was mostly about all the eccentric folks who had come into my life in Vancouver and on my excursions up and down the coast, and I was going to call the book The West Coast Kumbh Mela[i], honoring the numerous unbridled characters hiding or running free out there.
I was thinking then of folks like the fifty-year old, long-haired, big-bearded, insane clown who, as a young man went on scholarship down to America to play both university football and basketball, was a tennis pro, and an exceptional athlete about to be drafted into the big leagues, and then gave it all up for the wilderness, living four winters out on the furthest edge of the rainforest, and then existing in a teepee for a year and learning Native American spirituality from shamans. At the time of writing this he was spending every autumn in the American desert, every summer in the Canadian Rockies, and every winter in the Himalayas doing self-driven biological and ethnological research. And a true madman to boot. He would do the most ridiculous things, like inventing a method to keep his agility perfectly tuned by jumping up and down on a trampoline, blindfolded, while throwing a medicine-ball against the wall and trying to catch it without knocking himself silly.
Then there was Crazy Al, a man I kept hearing about in a town which I lived in for six weeks or so, and by the descriptions of him I kept envisioning a sixty-year old, wild-eyed, toothless soothsayer, but wasn't I surprised when I was introduced to a thirty-one year old man in a tank top, who was built like he belonged on the national gymnastics team, and this was Crazy Al. And so we sat down beside each other in the pub, and started to chat and I guess he saw something in me which allowed him to feel like I'd understand him, because he leaned over, peered into me with a deep, serious, mature look, and declared, without a hint of holier-than-thou in him: "The problem is that these people are godless." And I could tell that he knew what he meant by that, and yet as the night went on I could tell also that he cared for others like little retarded children who had not the acumen to understand their limitations. Among many other things which we discussed that night he also claimed that, since he and I were approximately the same age, and of similar consciousness, we were both going through a zodiacal shift called 'Saturn return', which he attempted to describe to me though I didn't really get much out of it because all the while I was hoping it had some connection to the old Roman Festival of Saturnalia- the celebration of wine and orgies, when the slaves are set free for a week to change places with their masters and make up for the rest of the year in bondage. Feeling somewhat like a chaste slave at that time I was fairly enthralled with my take on his supposition.
And another odd soul: an American wanderer in his mid forties, whom, at the time of our meeting, was managing the small, illegal hostel I had taken refuge in for a couple of days, although he was mostly just hanging about, enjoying the crowd and waiting for the skydiving season to begin in the southwest where he had been teaching for years. Otherwise he roamed about with a small backpack, smoked the occasional joint, and told splendid tales about his own wilderness adventures, guiding experiences such as photographing an ascent of Everest, and the ten years he had spent up the coast on a tug which hauled log-booms through the harrowing, shifting currents of the narrows, and whose ship's captain, according to him, was a saint who listened to Beethoven's seventh constantly. There were no international borders for this man. There was only the earth, one earth, and he strolled about it like a lone wolf who had no concern for boundaries or working papers.
And then there was the red wine guzzling, acid popping, footloose Zen nun, who lived like a feather in a breeze, not worrying if she came down because a strong enough gust would come along to lift her up again and move her on to God knows where but somewhere, and she'd make her way doing this or that with intense passion and delight and then move on without a thought that it might be difficult ahead and wouldn't it be better to just stay where you are. No way. Keep moving, keep flowing, keep living, keep loving.
The coast is a limitless banquet of odd and indescribable sorts. There were draft-dodging geniuses, dope-smoking ministers, shaggy-mane drummers and didgeridoo players, wandering sailors, autodidactic naturalists, carvers, painters, explorers, heresiologists, blasphemers, and converts. The full spectrum of humanity is offered up there in its greatest extravagance within the most spectacular venue on the planet.
Everyone I speak of, and have written about earlier, certainly had no shortage of fears, insecurities or sorrows, just like all the rest of us. To be human has its requirements. But these folks inspired me and made me appreciate, as best I could, the unique chance we all have simply by being alive. I suppose it was for this reason that I had written the Kumbh Mela book- to tell the stories of those who most likely would never tell their own.
Soon after completing the book, however, I was given to understand that the 'powers' upstairs weren't all that pleased with it, most likely- it seemed from their ostracisms- because it was a horribly lopsided work, showing everyone in their best light while making no mention of their transgressions and towering faults- and so I burned the book a year later and never thought twice about that decision.
What I wonder now, however, of my time with all those magical people I met along my way, is this- did any of them make it across to the other side? And by that I mean, did any of them have the subtle lucidity and humility necessary to dissolve away from themselves and merge into the undying One? Or did they cling to their talents, idiosyncrasies, and skills, which allowed them to break out boldly from the norm, but would in the end become their undoing, if they were not able to relinquish these divisions to the whole? These are questions for which I have no answer. I have only the assumption that none, or very few, went the full distance. And I say this not out of pessimism nor scorn, but out of realism. For to cross over you can take nothing superfluous with you. No desires, no dreams, no longings, no regrets, no unfinished business. You walk through with a clean slate. You emerge without anything on your person except for the rose, which you are allowed, and even asked, to take back with you.
Unless the indefatigable intent is there to dissolve away the hard parts and ease back into the One, the individual is bound to continue being but a puppet of the ego. For none of us can cross to the other side with any characteristics, idiosyncrasies, talents, or pride. We must all melt nondescriptly into the fabulous wave, or remain ignobly isolate and separate like a turd floating about in the bathtub of a knave. Until we release all that makes us stand out like sore thumbs amongst our fellows and the world, we are destined to wrestle with the only Titan who can beat us on this earth- ourselves.
The way of sin must abate, and the way of absence take over. For you make it across when it doesn't matter if you make it, because you don't know what it means to make it, and so you stop trying. Then you make it. You cross over from the death of separation into the living moment of God when it comes time to lie down, because you have finished with this chapter in the eternal story of your being. That is when you must fall away completely, stop everything, forget everything, shed a final tear, and ...lay down.
[i] The Kumbh Mela is a massive gathering of holy people and pilgrims, held every twelve years in Allahabad, India, at the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, Jamuna, and Saraswati- which is invisible and said to be the river of the spirit.
(excerpted from In and Of: memoirs of a mystic journey, by Jack Haas)