November 17, 2014

The Magical Water

It is a Friday night in the spring of my sophomore year in college, a few months after my struggles with writing the essay on "On What There Is." There is a bustling energy through the campus which signifies it is time for a break from studying, and for new friendships and experiences to be discovered. As I walk through Collegetown, I am aware of my usual voyueristic curiosity about the students who are dressed up for the night, who move in groups with a laughing rebelliousness and who seem set to penerate that night into some mystery at the heart of being social creatures. I circle through the streets, seeing if there might be a space where I can park myself, and eventually leave Collegetown. A part of me wishes that I could just go to my room and sleep, but I live in an attic room in a house near the center of Collegetown, and it feels too painful to accept being alone for the night; going to my room so soon, when others are just heading out into the world, evokes in me a feeling of failure which I would like to keep at arm’s length for a little longer.

Sensing the youthful energy receding into the distance behind me, I start to walk back towards Uris, the undergraduate library which is my second home and which is near the main academic quad. I usually spend my free time there watching two or three movies at a stretch, a form of binging on American culture. But this night I don’t feel like watching a movie, as if even that reenforces for me my disconnect from the people around me. So I walk past Uris and turn towards one of the gorges which surround the campus and give it a pristine, natural beauty. I walk on a nature trial under the moon light. What am I thinking about? Nothing in particular: perhaps the scene at Collegetown, or the argument about moral objectivity we discussed in class, or what I am doing here in Ithaca and what it means. There are no particular thoughts I hold to. It is more the feeling of being I am having which captivates my attention; the feeling of walking in the wilderness seperated from all people, all life and all civilization; the feeling of being draw into the essence of the world and finding myself there alone and forlorn.

As I walk I come to a suspension bridge and walk across it lost within my own feeling of myself. There is no one else around, and I position myself at the center of the bridge and stare out at the nature around me. I look down to see the moving water, so serene and peaceful, so fluid and sure of itself. The water – what is its relation to Collegetown or to discussions of moral objectivity? What is its relation even to Ithaca and to the very land it flows over? It flows on the land, but it appears to me magical, as if it were really flying over the land, unhindered by the obstacles of the rocks here or the crevices there. And still it moves on. Still it continues. Endlessly, without hesistation and without pause.

Slowly, and as if there was starting to be a magnetic field enveloping me at one end and the water at the other end, my attention begins to be drawn to the water as it is flowing underneath me, and I start to sense that the water is not in a different world from me but that it and I are connected: I am standing a few hundred feet above it. What does it mean that I am in the same physical space as it? That I am just a little above it? As I stare more and more the flowing water seems more and more beautiful, more and more alluring, and that in fact it is not at all a distant, selfish water. It is an open, giving, welcoming water which is happy to share its peace and joy with anyone who comes to it humbly as a friend. The water offers solace to any soul, no matter how much of a failure they might feel like, no matter how much they might seem lost in the human world. I stand entranced: the magnetic field between me and the water seems to be gaining power as it merges with the gravitational field between me and it, and the water seems to me to become grander than anything I have seen in my life before. Within the water I see the course of human history and the struggles of people of all backgrounds, and that even all of that pain is borne by the water with an ease which is mezmerizing and awe-inspiring. “Really Water, have you been here since the beginning of time? Can you accept all that pain and still move on with the same fluidity and grace? Can that be possible?”

As I stare deeper and deeper, the happier I become, the more a kind of blissfulness infuses my being, and the earlier feeling of forlornness dissipates. It is as if the water is taking away my sadness, accepting it into itself with a love beyond description. It is as if I am pouring my pain into the water in the spirit of self-sacrifice the way a priest pours ghee into the sacrificial fire, and through that sacrifice an absolution is being granted to me, one which frees me from all painful bonds of self-doubt and lack of self-understanding. Now I see nothing other than the water and I can barely contain within me the joy and bliss which the water is affording me. As I pour my suffering into it, a suffering which I didn’t even realize I had, the water seems to be channeling into me a happiness I had not imagined possible, one which shatters any lack of confidence and concern about how I measure up to this or that standard. I am riveted to the water as this two way transference is taking place, unable to move or even to think.

As the water’s happiness streams into me and I start to fill up on it, soon there arises the vaguest hints of the possibility that perhaps I cannot handle so much happiness after all. I now need less happiness: my pain is gone, cleared out and emptied, but now the happiness is overbearing and it is straining against my identity, against my very sense of being. I feel as if my very essence is exploding and that perhaps the water is not quite aware of its power and how I cannot channel its transcendence that way it does: effortlessly. As the discomfort increases I am transfixed by the water and lose all consciousness of anything else: the night, the moon, the campus, anything external to me standing on the bridge and the water flowing below. I am melding with the water, as if the positive charge of the water and my negative charge are picking up speed in colliding with each other, and I feel that the water is opening itself to me, and that there within its depths is the very essence of the world, the crux of existence, the deepest clue to who I am. With the growing awareness of the truth of my own self at the heart of the water and the surging realization that the energy of the water streaming into me cannot be contained in my bodily self, there starts within me a disturbing, exhilirating, life altering voice: “come, come, come into me Bharath. I am your destination, I am your essence, I am your very own self.”

The pain now courseing through my mind needs a release, and the momemtum of the energy the water is channeling into me can only be contained by one thing: the momemtum of the water itself down there. I realize with a flash that the physical water is flowing down there, but that the psychic energy of the water is flowing everywhere, and that it is flowing upward as well right next to me. Here it is! Right in front of me! The water has heard my pain, it has sensed my confusion deep within me, much deeper than I could have ever expressed, and like a loving, divine mother it is calling me to it so that within it my pain can be buried forever. All I have to do is take one step onto the railing of the bridge, a railing which is only five feet tall, shorter than me, and then from there just one last, final step into the energy of the water in the air, which will carry me downward into the physical water and then through that into the essence of all reality. Here it is! What will I do?


With that question I am snapped back into the awareness of the moon and the rest of nature, and the college beyond the nature, and the rest of the world beyond the college. While immersed in the consciousness of the water it seemed as if hours had gone by, that the depth of the interaction I had with the water couldn’t have possibly happened any faster than that. And yet when I came back to ordinary consciousness it seemed clear that perhaps no more than ten or fifteen minutes had gone by. Could it have been even shorter than that? I was amazed to find myself back within the structures of my everyday identity and self-consciousness.
What was amazing to me was what might have happened had I not been pulled back by that question, if I had entertained the question in the spell which had overtaken me. There was the undeniable possibility that in that case I might have stepped forward and given myself to the psychic energy of the water flowing in front of me. Suddenly now I could only see the physical water down there, flowing peacefully as always, far away from me, and its psychic energy was a theoretical idea which I vaguely remembered sensing but which was now no longer a living reality open to me. In a dazed amazement I wondered to myself where the energy travelling up and down from the water had gone, when I had palpably felt it just moments earlier. It was as if the energy had emerged from a hidden dimension, only to go back into it. I couldn’t tell if I was sad or happy that I didn’t have to decide more seriously whether to give myself to the water. Happy because I was back to my everyday world, but sad that the mind-bending bliss was more a memory now than a reality I could reawaken at any moment.

Though I was more free of the spell the water cast over me, I was still in a daze and reeling from the experience. What I wanted most now was to understand it: What was it? What did it mean? Why did it happen? What was the possibility that I had stepped back from, as if from a brink? Could this be what I came to college for? In that daze I walked back to my room, relatively oblivious to the happenings of Collegetown, the drinking and the fraternizing. In a move that I would later often find myself wondering why I did it, I went to my room and called my parents.

“Hi Mom and Dad.” – “Bharath? What time is it? Are you okay? It’s midnight.” – “Yes, yes, everything is fine. I just wanted to talk. How are you?” – “We are fine. What’s going on? Why do you sound so strange?” – “I am fine. I just had an interesting experience. I wanted to share it with you.” – “Hhmmm….. okay.” – “Well, you see I went for a walk, and then I was walking on the bridge. I was just looking at the water, and then … and then … I could feel the water calling me. It was like I wanted to jump and there was this amazing force at the bottom which seemed to include everything.” – “What? What are you saying? Have you gone crazy? Are you really ok?” – “Yes, I am ok. I didn’t do anything. I am here calling you, aren’t I? Don’t worry, nothing happened.” – “But what are you saying about the bridge? Did something happen with your friends? Was somebody mean to you?” – “Friends? No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that … there was this powerful force … like the essence of the universe.” – “Oh, my God! We are now really worried. What are you talking about? It’s always something with you. We never know what frightening thing you will say next.” – “No, no, I am ok. There is nothing to worry about.” – “There is nothing to worry about? You are calling at midnight saying that you were thinking of jumping off a bridge? What do you mean there is nothing to worry about? Have you been drinking?” – “No, it’s not like that. This was real, what I felt. I just wanted to share it with someone. That’s all. Nothing to worry about. I just wanted to share it.” – “Ok, you stay right there in your room. We are coming there tomorrow morning, we are going to leave here at six right in the morning. And we will stay the weekend with you. And we will figure this out. Don’t go anywhere. Just stay. Go to sleep.” – “Ok. But there is no need to come. I am ok. Don’t you see, I just wanted to share this feeling I had. That’s all. I am still doing all the school stuff, and I am not doing anything bad to myself.” – “That’s good. That’s good. But we are coming. Definitely. We will be there by 9. Go to sleep and we will be there by the time you get up.”

It wasn’t until after the phone conversation that I felt that the spell of the water had completely cleared.


At that time there was no way I could have explained to myself, let alone to others, why the experience on the bridge had made such an impact on me. In retrospect I see it was because in the aftermath of the experience the emotion I had the most was: relief. As someone who loved the idea of wisdom and wanted to have life transforming experiences such as those my spiritual heroes Shankara and Aurobindo had written about, for the most part I was going through college with the feeling that my deep spiritual and intellectual energies were being wasted; that the power of philosophical reflection within me was going mostly untapped in the classrooms and that even being a philosophy major wasn’t challenging me in the way that I longed to be challenged. I was worried that I was wasting away spiritually, and that I was not growing as I felt I was capable of.
Like most nineteen year olds, I felt pulsating through me the power of potential, the strength of my own capabilities which were yet to be awakened, and I wondered if those capabilities were atrifying because I choose to go to college instead of following some form of a modern, monk life. Against the background of these concerns, the experience on the bridge was a gift of nature: in those moments of the connection with the water I felt challenged in my whole being in the way that I had longed for and which I felt I was capable of. Walking back to my room from the bridge what I felt most was a contented calm, a peace which came from sensing that perhaps my fears were unfounded and that in fact all was well, and that I was growing spiritually.

Talking with my parents brought me crashing back to the reality structured by the everyday conception of college, the vision of my time at Cornell which my parents shared with my professors and in which what I had just experienced is a mainly psychotic rather than a spiritual event. It was only once I heard the real fear in my parents’ voice, the concern that I might have intended to kill myself out of some indescribable psychological pain that that way of interpreting my experience came to my mind.

When I first contemplated that interpretation I was flabbergasted and taken aback: I wanted to protest, with all the gentleness I could muster, that that was not what I meant and that what I experienced was something beautiful and life affirming. If the water had wanted to claim me, it would have done it. Instead the water choose to let me go, it freed me by making me contemplate the question of whether I should step into the portal of its energy high up in the air next to me on the bridge. By freeing me from its grasp so that I could see the water simply as just something flowing down there—something pleasant and natural against the background of the hustle and bustle of college life—the water seemed to convey to me that I had life yet to live, and that even my life is only beginning and many wonderful, great things are meant to happen in it. It was that sense of positive affirmation that I wanted to share with my parents, as if to say to them, “Listen, the water thinks my life is going in the right direction, and that I am growing spiritually. I am happy!” Concerned as they generally were about how I was doing at college, I wanted to reassure them and to share my genuine happiness.

When my parents, however, could not get past my beginning sentences and thought that I might throw my life away and were intent on coming to protect me and pacify me into what they saw as everyday reality, I felt my concerns of my spiritual wasting away come back, and those concerns did make me wonder if what I had experienced was simply a form of depression. For those concerns did depress me, and it felt as if all the wind was taken out of my sails. I was back to simply surviving college and having to go through it.

Since deciding early in my sophomore year that I would major in philosophy, I was realizing with a sense of profound confusion that the kind of philosophy we discussed in the classroom seemed different in spirit from the path of wisdom I was seeking. I could not imagine going to my professors and discussing with them the philosophical and spiritual ramifications of something like my experience on the bridge. They would have immediately categorized the event as “student was contemplating suicide by jumping from bridge”, and from there it would have become an issue for counselors rather than something philosophers were supposed to reason about. The fact that what to me felt like a philosophical event would be seen by my professors as a pathological, quasi-religious, psychological event depressed me. And the fact that my parents generally ceded control of my growth to my professors, and so I could not talk to my parents about my worries about my education, depressed me. It made me feel that my true voice was a form of degenerate humanity, and that I should focus instead on, as my parents would put, “the nice, safe philosophy topics” of my classroom and enjoy it the way they imagined my classmates did.

After the phone conversation with my parents, which brought me back to my everyday reality from the psychic reality I shared with the water, I thought about being torn about my education and feeling unable to talk about it with anyone, and thinking about this made me wonder if I shouldn’t go back to the bridge and throw myself over out of my pain. The guilt I felt for scaring my parents was mixed with resentment at them for not listening to me in a different way and with anger at the world for trampling me under its rush to get to, what seemed to me, its non-spiritual, materialistic goals. The fact that my parents, my teachers and the world would interpret most immidiately my experience as a form of depression provoked in me a defiance out of which I thought I would act out of the very image of depression they were forcing onto me.

Ultimately, however, I knew it was a thought I wouldn’t act on, both because I couldn’t imagine doing that to my parents and also because I couldn’t imagine doing that to the water. It seemed a betrayal of the water that, after the gift it had given me, I would reciprocate by treating it merely as a means for my running away from the world. The water deserved better; it deserved my very best self, not the self which was lacking in confidence, felt isolated and crippled by its own sense of helplessness. The way the water had called me to it was not a sign of my weakness, but a sign of the greatness of the world, and I didn’t want the former interpretation reenforced by my running to the water out of weakness.

I stayed in my room and tried to go to sleep, feeling that for tonight the water was lost to me because even if I went back to it, in the state I was in it would not show its true nature to me. The idea of plunging into the merely scenic water which was treated as a ribbon around the privilege of the college provoked in me yet again a defiance against the world, only this time out of that defiance I would not throw myself over. I would live and be strong, and would honor the experience with the water by holding on to all the life affirming goodness which I felt it tried to impart to me. Rocking between the pain of a world in which the water was merely water and the euphoria of a world in which the water was a divine force, I went to sleep.

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