“I will now close my eyes, block my ears and shut down all my senses. I will erase from my thought all images of physical things or, since this is almost impossible, I will regard them as nothing, as false and empty, addressing only myself and looking more deeply into myself.”
-Rene Descartes, Meditations.
The musings of the French philosopher, Rene Descartes could not have resonated more deeply with me that strange, strange night: cloistered inside a tent on the high Tibetan plateau with no one else to call my companion except the ferocious winds, whose howling sounded like the chorus of a thousand phantoms.
A wave of nausea assailed me. Pulling my jacket closer and curling up in a foetal position, my fervent hope that my biliousness would soon dissipate rested upon the consoling notion that the world is but mutable and that all things change ceaselessly.
Jaded, I let my mind lead me down the memory slope to the origin of my unwavering fascination with Tibet–Alexandra David Neel. As a teenage girl, my interests were often deemed to be misplaced: instead of squealing with girlish delight at acquiring the latest makeup palette or expressing awe at statuesque models, my heart would beat excitedly as I perused books on diverse topics, some of which were military history, astronomy and philosophy.
Quite naturally, one discovery led to another as a fleeting obsession with military history led me to stumble upon the travel accounts of Francis Younghusband, a British colonel and explorer, who in 1903 spearheaded an invasion of Tibet, where he had supposedly received other-worldly visions of a spiritually advanced extra-terrestrial race. Whether this was an instance of a fractured mind or of heightened awareness we’ll never know, but what was apparent was that his accounts would have me in thrall to Tibet for many years to come.
It wasn’t long before I began delving into Tibetan history and philosophy, and coming across, in the process of doing so, the works of the magnificent female French explorer, Alexandra David-Neel.
Unlike Colonel Younghusband, David-Neel treated the esoteric phenomena of Tibet with Cartesian scepticism. Case in point: in her famous travel account, “Magic and Mystery in Tibet”, David-Neel recounts her bewildering experience with a foul-mouthed ascetic, whom, in an irate moment with the former’s Tibetan interpreter, gave both a glimpse of his telekinetic powers.
Despite this overt display, David-Neel thought it necessary to reject that which did not appeal to the intellect Throughout her travels in the Himalayas, she never departed from this state of counterbalance.
At the same time, she knew that there were many things in this world and beyond which were contrary to our natural conceptions, and which the mind could not fully comprehend.
Her firm understanding of Buddhist philosophy – along with her many bizarre encounters with “sages, stern magicians, ascetics and deities” – eventually led her to establish the indubitable concept: “that which is real, which exists, does not affect the other, has no reality, no existence for him”.
Never mind that this unique insight of relativistic reality would come to influence the Beat movement in the coming decades, but it certainly did play a major role in my grappling successfully with frightening hallucinations that strange, strange night.
Like all transient things on earth, my nausea had disappeared only to be replaced by a burning fever, which felt like I was being thrown into the infernal womb. The winds were still ceaseless, and the lake by which I was camping roared without a lull, shattering the calm façade that it had presented to me during the day. I got up breathless, trying to open my eyes when suddenly, the image of a tentacular lake struck my mind.
Petrified, I cried out to my tour guide, who was sound asleep in the tent next to mine. Only the forces of nature seemed to respond to my despair. Meanwhile, the image in my head grew larger, its contours more defined. As I sat frozen, staring mechanically into empty space, an apparition of a huge bear manifested itself before my eyes.
Heart beating wildly, I stifled my scream as I tried to make sense of this terrifying phenomenon: was I on earth, apprehending an external reality through my senses or had I been thrown into the Bardo, where I was being confronted with emanations from my own mind?
As I grappled with a labyrinth of emotions and convoluted thoughts, a part of me somehow propelled me to superimpose order upon this unruly manifestation: sifting through all that I had imbibed through years of reading David-Neel, Descartes and Younghusband.
I realised that there was no way I could curtail the disorder I was faced with unless I became a knower; and it was a catharsis of sorts as I finally came to terms with a fear that had plagued me since I was a child: being shred to pieces by a wild bear.
With that, my vision disappeared, and sanity was restored.
Was Descartes right in asserting that our senses are unreliable and in positing the mind-body antithesis? Perhaps, perhaps not.
For though there was no doubt that my senses had all the while confused the illusory for the real, it was undeniable there was an active interaction between mind and body, with the two of them impacting each other greatly.
But one thing was definitive about the bear apparition: the only filters through which it could awake from its hibernation was my senses, and now that it was free, I could finally doze off, taking solace in its and my liberation.