The above was a title of a book written by America’s pre-eminent astrologer, Marc Edmund Jones, in the 1940’s. While he admirably tried to “defend” astrology – as many have since, I want to look at this in a different way.
In August, I traveled to China with a group of 30 or so Qi Gong practitioners led by Michael Wynn the premier American student of the Daoist adept Mantak Chia. I knew beforehand that Saturn was conjoining my ascendant for the entire month (so the trip was not going to be easy), and I also began to receive dire online warnings about the dangers of an impending Saturn/Mars conjunction, which also happened to fall exactly on my ascendant: the most personal point in an astrological chart, that usually indicates the body and personality. Moreover, the now all too usual rhetoric of global calamity was bounding through cyberspace, with ominous visions of one form of world break down after another. Amidst the swirl of such thought forms, I started to wonder about my own calamity.
On the days that Mars and Saturn were directly on my ascendant (or “rising sign”) we were scheduled to go up almost 8000 feet to Hua Shan, the “Flower Mountain” of the Daoist immortals, also known to be “the deadliest hike in the world,” fitting since it is said that the God of the Underworld lives inside the mountain. One temple at the foot of Hua Shan (pronounced “Wa Shan”) was often used for spirit mediums to contact the god and his underlings. The mountain is more than this, however. Daoist temples have been present there since at least the second century BCE, it an important place for immortality seekers with many herbal medicines being grown, and powerful drugs reputed to be found, there.
Now, I was feeling the pressure of Saturn and looking for a way to work with it. In that spirit I contacted my friend and superb astrological researcher, Michael Taft, and asked him if he could envision something other than calamity for this configuration. He wrote back, describing the conjunction as offering possibility to work hard to achieve something. I liked that a lot better than calamity reactions, and noticed how easy it is to fall for conditioned fear narratives – whether it is about the avian flu, toxic dust in your house, the stock market, or the planets. I recalled an “Astrological Salon” that I had attended years before. It was a rather ho-hum event until someone started talking about the immanent end of the world. People suddenly became animated as apocalyptic rhetoric took over the room. I thought to myself, “Wow, you people really want this to happen.” It seems that we need drama to get our adrenaline going or some impending disaster to give us a sense of purpose.
So we were on the bus getting ready for our visit to this mountain of the immortals, and as Michael was giving background information, he mentioned that the “real” pilgrimage was from the bottom of the mountain up. There were a some volunteers; the younger and more fit people in the group, but I began to feel a strange sensation, like “I am supposed to do this.” I checked in with my Qi Gong teacher, Richard Clegg, who was also on the bus and asked him if he thought I was capable of doing this.
He said, “Are you asking me should you, or could you?” I said, “could,” and he said, “Yes.” I suddenly found myself volunteering to round out the group that was going to climb the mountain from its base. I say, “Found myself,” because this was not a calculated decision. I never weighed the “pros and cons;” it was as if some very clear force just raised my hand and volunteered.
The minute after I did so, I started having second thoughts like “What have you just gotten yourself into?” This “inner voice” and this type of dialogue I was having with myself brought up a memory, however. A number of years ago, I had contracted a serious case of Shingles and was in tremendous physical pain. Doctors had given me oxycodone, with admonitions to “be careful” with it. I guess I was not, for three months later, I could not get off the pain-killers and they were effecting me in a much worse manner than the Shingles had: fear, insomnia, a sense of being a living ghost. I could see things spiraling way downward, and one night in a meditation at a spiritual gathering, I had the same sense that I did while on the bus at Hua Shan -that I could give these up here and now. I asked Spirit, who for me at that moment was manifesting as the Divine Mother. I asked, “Can I do this, can I let these go?’ Inside myself I heard, “If you are serious, I will help you.” Once again, at that time I checked in with a trusted friend and guide, Prem Geetesh, gave him the box of pills and said, “Don’t give me these, even if I try to take them from you.” A while later, as I started to shake from withdrawal, I wondered “What on earth did I just do?’ But the next morning Geetesh and I buried the pills in the earth, and I have never looked back.
We started out at five in the morning. I put my fellow travelers on notice that, even without a mountain to climb, I am a notoriously slow walker (and twenty years older than most of them), and that I would probably be far behind, no worry. They said “No we’ll all go together, but by 5:30 I was on my own. At the foot of the mountain is a statue of a Daoist adept sleeping on his side. It is said that he would sleep for months at a time as he traveled in the astral realms. Then there is the large Daoist temple in front of the imposing mountain that rises up through the clouds. I only strained my neck to look up once, for it creates a sense of impossibility. It is so high and unpopulated as it rises into three great peaks. How could anyone get up there?
Once you make it through the temple, there is a gate you have to pass through to go up the mountain. The administrators take your photo, (in case you get lost?), and once you go through that gate and start walking up, you know that there is no turning back.
I can only describe the climb as a combination of agony, bliss, and insight. The first part of the way is not very steep, but moves constantly uphill. It is not particularly challenging if you are in good shape. I was not. Eventually, you hit the steep uphill climbs where amazing people, over God knows how many years, have chiseled stone steps into the mountain and fastened chain railings on the side, so you can hold on to the chains and pull yourself up.
By 9:00am the sun was beating down hard, and I was sweating profusely. My thighs were beginning to ache with every step. There are little stalls along the way that sell souvenirs, walking sticks, hats, food and water. I went through ten bottles of water, a package of peanuts and a Snickers bar rather quickly. What was working for me was the fact that I was not trying to keep up with anybody. I remained at my own slow pace, savoring every step, even if it was painful.
During the first part of the ascent, thoughts of my life were swirling around me, and Hua Shan seemed to have a magical ability to allow space for these thoughts to fall into order with every successive step. The mountain seemed to be figuring out my life for me. I kept hearing the song “I am bountiful, blissful, and beautiful, I am,” and was really feeling this, just putting one foot in front of the other. I never went further than the next step: no boredom, no drama, just this affirmative current. After about four hours of steady climbing, thoughts began to drop away. “I” began to drop away. There was nothing but this cool, arching expanse, a vast open space, canyons of silence, and the rising mountain peaks arching way up through the air, one foot in front of the other; slowly and increasingly filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
I would stop when completely exhausted, hydrate, and then pour water over my head and body. I like to think that I appreciate water. I learned this sitting in a tepee with Susan Jameson praying over the bowl of water for an hour and a half, but this life giving elixir has never felt so good, so welcome, so pure. In face of the mountain, all the opinions, stories, dramas about my life, or the “world,” seemed less than trivial. There was just this vast, clear space, an emptiness that was not lonely, but was clear and cool, breath-like wind flowing through the canyons.
Then, from the space of this aloneness, the pilgrimage suddenly changed. Once I had gotten up to where the first cable car arrives on the mountain, it became social. Wherever I walked, others were walking; young people with cell phones, walkers wearing knockoff Nikes and North Face jackets. These people were amazingly supportive, offering me food, cigarettes, and constantly me exhorting me “Ji Hou:” go for it! At one of the rest stops, a young man, the first person I met who spoke English, asked me about New York, and how it compared to Beijing. And this social element seemed so right, such a teaching – after you go on your journey, you come back, you are on the bus with everyone, even as you approach the mountaintop.
By this time my legs were feeling like iron rods, every step was painful, but there was no place else to go, nothing else to do, you had to keep walking, and you had to walk mindfully, especially over the narrow “dragon’s spine” on the way to the South summit at the roof of the world. Finally, twelve hours later, I spied a member of our group, who lead me to the Temple on the South Summit, where I collapsed in a most delicious exhaustion.
I would not be truthful if I said that there was no sense of personal accomplishment from this. There was, but that is not what moved me. When I got to the top, some people hugged my, one fellow traveler came over and said, ”You slew the dragon dude, now you can do anything.” And Michael was just sitting up there, like a mercurial wizard, as if all of this as quite ordinary. None of this gets to why I am writing this, however, why I want to share this. It was not about anything I did or experienced; it was the fact that I listened to this “voice.” I trusted something that was but a sense, a sudden shaft of light and possibility, and it took me far beyond anything that I believed could be possible.
This is not to say that Saturn was not present. Climbing up a mountain is one thing, but getting back down is even more difficult. You have to use a whole different set of muscles. On the way down, I somehow got lost and found myself climbing straight down a ravine to God knows where. I had visions of myself sleeping out on the road, wandering in oblivion. In fact, it had been mentioned that there is one stretch of mountain forest where people get lost for centuries. They finally come out of the woods and it is a hundred years later!
On one of the long, steep stone stairways with chains I slipped and slid down. Fortunately, two young women in front of me broke my fall. I was somewhat delirious on the way down and could only keep walking, I had no idea where I was, and hence there was no question of going back. A few hours later, a member of our group passed by and assured me that I indeed was on the right trail to Qiqa Ping Monastery. I just had to keep climbing down, and I did so at an agonizingly slow pace, because I had no legs left. I just kept following the path down, but there was a seeming fork in the road, and I had no idea which road to take. I moved in the direction of instinct and a few minutes later, heard a call. It was from some of my fellow travelers at the monastery. I have never in my life been so completely devoid of energy and collapsed on the Monastery grounds.
The next day I made it up the other slope to a cave where some of my colleagues were spending two nights and visited Master Stone at his Daoist hermitage, replete with solar panels. It was quite refreshing up there, so far from the world we know. The road to the cave was quit narrow and I inched along towards the cave, carrying a bag with my “night cave clothes” in it that had been brought up by the porters. I didn’t get a wink of sleep, just lay outside under the moonlight, letting the wind sweep over me. There was nothing up here; just pure presence, which every once in a while was punctuated by my wondering what a climb down on little or no sleep would be like.
The next day, as we inched down the winding dirt path, I was trying to negotiate my bag. I couldn’t carry it and stay balanced, so I would drop it a few feet to the next level and then pick it up again. On one of the drops I let it down too close to the edge of the trail, and saw the bag teeter and then fall down the mountain lost in the silence somewhere. “Well,” I thought, “ Something had to be sacrificed to Saturn, and this is it.” Did I really need all those old clothes in the bag, filled with old memories that I am ready to release? The way down the mountain was excruciating. At one point Master Stone passed by, walking down from his hermitage and tried to show me how to walk down backwards. It is easier on the calves, but I was not really up to walking down a mountain without seeing what is in front of me. When I finally arrived, immersed in an ocean of sweat and pain, our guide came up to me and with her cell phone showed me a picture. It was my bag! Porters had found it somewhere on the mountain and brought it back down. I was too exhausted to impute any meaning to this.
In retrospect, there is little to say. It is hard to relate this experience. As they say, “You needed to be there.” But I am sharing it for this one reason: that there is a voice, there is some intelligent guidance that is available. It has its own reasons, but when one is open enough, willing to listen, and take it to heart, externalities fall by the wayside: your “life-purpose,” the weather, the rising and falling of nations, who is doing what with whom, the entire whirly gig of samsara becomes so much different. It is not that the world disappears in a flash of light or Qi, or that things do not matter, but you see it from a completely different perspective, and in that modality every breath brings the energy of true power, freedom, and amazed wonder at the vast yet intricate web of reality that we walk through every day.