I Almost Died in Tibet

I almost died in Tibet this summer. I am particularly fond of the word “almost” in that sentence. You, dear reader, may have been more drawn to the word “Tibet”. “What in the world was she doing in Tibet?” you may have asked yourself. I’m with you there. I asked myself the same question over and over again—particularly that dark and gloomy night in Lhasa as I felt the life force slipping away from me.

Melodramatic? Not really. At the same moment our young, strapping China guide was in an unsavory Tibetan hospital on IV, his coworker holding him in her arms, whispering intently over and over again, “Don’t die! Don’t die!” And in rooms down the halls of the hotel where I was staying, many people were suffering from high altitude sickness. One woman, between vomiting and diarrhea was pleading with her husband to please, please, please air lift her out of there!

I knew none of this as I lay in my room verging on panic myself. My own version of altitude sickness was heart pains, dizziness, weakness, and a fever—the last of which concerned me. The Tibetan guide (who was a young Chinese Han girl) had commanded us “not to get a cold! A cold very dangerous! Don’t get cold!” She had yelled that during an introduction to Tibet lecture on the old bus as it bumped along during the hour and a half ride from the airport to Lhasa.I wondered what made a cold so dangerous and how we were supposed to control cold germs, but I didn’t ask because by that time I already had my head between my knees to keep from fainting and didn’t want to risk sitting up.

For a while I had been able to watch the passing countryside as I had squatted in a seat surrounded by luggage (the bus was not large enough to hold all of us and our luggage comfortably—all we lacked were a few chickens and pigs). I looked at the barren mountains devoid of vegetation. I had expected snow. There wasn’t any. They looked rocky and dry even though the waters of the river were overflowing. Along the road a few soldiers oversaw some workers as they piled up sandbags at one point where the swirling brown water threatened to flood the road. Even then I was hoping there would be no problem in getting back out in four days. Few people and animals were about: cows, yaks, a man with a cart. The Tibetan houses we passed seemed desolate. Every so often, we’d pass a Chinese compound—ugly and enclosed as a prison—no indication of its use. Factory? Barracks? Prison?

We stopped at one point. May, our Chinese guide, said we could visit the small Tibetan village along the side of the road. I got out of the bus hoping the air, thin and strangely dry would revive me. It didn’t, and the poverty depressed me. I felt despair in the air and the ground. Was it me or this place? I sat on a pile of rocks on the road unable to face the village. Children ran about grabbing at us, dirty, their noses running. I wasn’t up to this. One woman in our group crossed the road and made the mistake of trying to give the children some money. There was a melee—a feeding frenzy. She was practically being devoured. A couple of men went over to rescue her as I climbed back on the bus. That did me in. That’s when someone gave me a seat so I could put my head between my knees. The children were leaping up and pounding on the windows of the bus. We managed to get going without running any of them over.

We finally got to Lhasa. I looked out the window and saw more of the barrack-like structures. “This Chinese side,” our guide explained. Lhasa is split in two at the Potala Palace: one side is Chinese. The other side is Tibetan. We never toured the Chinese section. “Your hotel in Tibetan side,” the young tour guide screamed, “Don’t go out after dark alone. Very dangerous!” The buildings here were old, dingy and crowded.
By the time we arrived at the Hotel Shangbala in Lhasa, I was already slipping away and incoherent. Someone got me to my room and plopped me on my bed. A worried desk clerk brought up a rubber pillow filled with oxygen and stuck a tube in my mouth. She released a valve and a shot of oxygen burst down my throat reviving me. Ah. Oxygen. I hadn’t known how much I liked it. She showed me how to work the valve and left me to live or die on my own.

The oxygen helped. After I revived a little, I noticed that the rubber pillow was filthy. Blue on one side and yellow on the other, it looked as if it had been on Mount Everest with George Mallory. A little after the fact, I wiped the end of the tube with an antibacterial handi-wipe that we had been advised to bring.

Oh, God, where was I? Why was I here? This was not what I had expected. When signing up for the tour, I had thought, “Oh, boy, China! Tibet! Lhasa! The spiritual center of the world!”

“Not,” I thought as I pulled myself to a seated position. Sucking on my oxygen bong, I peeked out the window. My hotel room was on the fourth floor. It was called the third floor because the Chinese are superstitious about the number four. Four means death to them. I’m not sure they would like my Four Principles. The elevator made me laugh—because of the superstition, someone had pried the buttons off and rearranged them. Buttons one through three were moved up and the button with the number four had been put on the bottom. Someone had written an “L” for Lobby on a piece of paper and taped it over the four. One could still see the red four shining through clearly underneath the paper “L”. I wonder if it made the Chinese any more comfortable to be on the “fourth” floor now labeled “3”. In the large and much more modern hotel in Shanghai, there were many numbers missing besides four. I don’t know what superstitions they represented.

Suck. Hold. Release. Stoned on oxygen, I could see the flat roof of the building next door—a perfectly square building with A square hole in the center. Junk was piled all over the roof. A small, fluffy, dirty white dog ran round and round the flat roof. He stopped every now and then, leaned over, looked down into the courtyard below and barked shrilly and piercingly. We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto. The bare mountains beyond were shrouded in clouds. It was raining. Everything—the dog, the mountains, the buildings, the window I looked through was gray. Down below in the hotel courtyard, Chinese men in dark suits came out of a room, got in a fancy Mercedes and drove away.

I flopped back on the bed and sucked more oxygen. The blood pumped back up to my brain and I had a thought. “Oh! That was a Lhasa Apso! Yeah. Lhasa Apso. From Lhasa! Duh.” Our introductory lecture had included instructions not to touch a dog in Tibet. Very disrespectful. It might be the next Dalai Lama or a incarnation of one—I’m not sure which. I wondered if the dog next door was an angry Dalai Lama barking at the Chinese below. In my musings I began to feel the symptoms of a cold coming on.

That night, as my pillow of oxygen lay depleted beside me, I felt myself truly slipping away. This is it, I thought. I’m dying. Half way around the world. In a place that feels creepy and dark rather than spiritual—far, far, far away from the people I love and who love me. Will someone ship my body back or will they chop me up in bits and feed me to the vultures like they do dead bodies here?

“Don’t go there,” I reminded myself. “Stay here.” “Here” was not much better. My heart was in pain and racing, my head was spinning. I alternated between chills and sweat, and felt myself falling out of my body. I started praying for help.

Suddenly, it occurred to me to stop resisting what I was feeling. Okay, I thought, just stay with the experience. Be present with this. I called upon my Higher Powers to be with me. I felt myself surrounded by familiar and comforting spiritual guides. “Okay.” I told them, “I accept that I may be dying, but, just so you know, my preference is to live.” I focused on just feeling what I was feeling and heard a voice say quite clearly, “We love you, Katherine, very much.” The voice was unexpected and deeply compassionate. I felt something deep inside me relax and shift.

The next thing I knew it was morning. I knew I would live. I had passed through a crisis. I looked at the rain outside and thought about my expectations of Tibet: I had assumed it was the spiritual center of the world. I, like Dorothy, had traveled the long, yellow brick road seeking Oz. But, my feelings were telling me something else—besides the altitude sickness, the land itself felt full of frightening darkness and disease. No, I thought. That can’t be! This is the Roof of the World! Closest to God, isn’t it? Yet, as I meditated, I kept feeling as if I were in some vortex of evil. “Evil?!” My mind screamed. “That’s absurd. There is no such thing as evil. That’s just fear.”

No, this vibration felt undeniable. Was it the result of the Chinese takeover—the wanton destruction of the monasteries, the murder of thousands of Buddhist monks? Absolutely that was part of it, but it felt even deeper—as ancient as the land itself, wild and pervasive. I thought of the ancient Tibetan armies—the most feared in the world as they descended the hills in fearsome attacks on the people below.

It occurred to me that the intense religious practices here had been a response to this dark force! Not the result of being in a place benign and close to God! No wonder religion took such a primary place in life here. Prayers and constant focus on God was as necessary here as oxygen is to life—as food is to the body. They had to pray constantly—in order to balance this dark energy that I can palpably feel.

What I was thinking seemed so utterly strange—in complete contradiction to what my mind had assumed or, frankly, any thought I had about life—that I kept trying to reject it. A dark force in the land? Could there be such a thing? But, maybe that is why strangers were not so welcomed here in the past. They would not understand. Their negativity and lack of spirituality would throw off the balance. If this is true, I thought, the Chinese have made a big mistake here. By destroying the monasteries, and killing thousands (maybe millions) of Buddhist monks, they have thrown off the balance. The dark energy feels very strong now. Mao said, “Religion is poison.” If only he had said, “Religion can be poison,” and taken a more considered look. Certainly religious differences that lead to wars are insane, but the Tibetan Buddhists were gentle, dedicated pacifists. They weren’t poison. Just the opposite! They were the healers. Mao was wrong. Mao was wrong about a lot of things. Even the Chinese readily admit that.

I slowly sat up from bed, got dressed and went across the street to the little store called “Memory of Tibet” where I was told they sold inexpensive cans of oxygen. I bought several—determined that I wasn’t going to miss the trip to the Potala Palace. After all, I wasn’t going to have traveled halfway around the world without seeing what I came to see. (I didn’t even have to reset my watch. As big as China is, there is only one time zone—exactly a twelve hour difference from Connecticut.) Of course going up to the Potala was a difficult climb (one of the many in China)—up a steep, long road, stopping for oxygen hits and video taping the sights (accompanied by sounds of my own labored breathing).

In the Palace itself, we felt our way along the walls through a few pitch dark rooms before reaching other dimly lit cave-like rooms stuffed with Buddhas and too much (to the Western eye) art work. One of the women of the group whispered to me, “Years ago, I would have found this scary.” “Years ago?” I thought. I was aware of so many fierce faces carved everywhere. I was told they were to frighten away evil spirits—that the faces were supposed to be scarier than the evil spirits. Ah so! Tibetans believe in evil spirits. I found out that they also believe in ghosts. Peculiarly, they “hate” ghosts. Once a year Tibetans have a ceremony to drive out ghosts from the corners of their homes.

Tibetan Buddhism is not a religion of lightness—like say, Unity. No pretty little hymns about lambs, here. The music of this religion with its loud, deep horns, wild, discordant banging of cymbals and drums, and reverberating, basso profundo chanting is pretty scary in itself. “To drive away the evil spirits?” I wondered. My own view had been that yes, there is darkness, but once it is brought to light, it can be transformed. Tibet was broadening my view a bit.

My thoughts about Tibet were too weird to share with everyone, but later, having survived Tibet and now on a restful cruise down the Yangtze River, I found a moment alone with Winston, our now-recovered and very smart China guide. This was a man who had been born in a tiny Mongolian village, miraculously made it to the University of Beijing and had miraculously lived through the massacre at Tianenmen Square. He knows a lot. I liked and respected him. Quietly, I told him my feelings about Tibet. He didn’t disagree. In fact, he told me that a highly respected psychic friend of his had warned him to not go to Tibet on this tour—that he might die if he did. He said that the Chinese have a saying about such a place of darkness. They call it “Poor mountain. Evil water.” I thought of Tibet’s bare mountains and the yellow water in my tub. I wondered if that is the reason Tibetans only bathe three times in their lives. I thought how the many floods that have killed so many thousands of people in China and India start with the rivers in Tibet. Winston said that people who get the sickest (like the two of us did) are “People of Justice.” Hmm. Unenlightened, bad people don’t get sick? It was a strange kind of compliment—a validation for being so sick—rather than thinking of myself as just a big wuss. Ah, good. I passed the test for good person. We promised one another never to go to Lhasa again.

There is an ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. China was very, very interesting. And, traveling in China in the July heat was very hard. I did it all—climbed the Great Wall in Beijing, up to a temple along the Yangtze River, The Potala Palace, explored the Forbidden City—out every day for 16 chockfull days. Between the pace of our tour, the Tibetan illness, the pollution in Beijing and along the Yangtze River from the use of coal in cooking stoves and factories, I came home utterly exhausted with a fierce sinus and respiratory infection.

The questions kept gnawing me as we raced and climbed our way through this whirlwind, non-stop tour of China: what in the world am I doing here? Why did I come here? What am I getting out of this? God knows it was educational and certainly an adventure. If I had thought of China much before, I always thought of Yin/Yang balance, harmony, peace, tranquility—the land of Feng Shui. My experience in China wasn’t that. This is a country that needs Feng Shui and harmony. It is a country of wild extremes: too big, too many people, geographical extremes. Extreme poverty. Extreme wealth. The Forbidden City has so many rooms that if a new born baby visited a new room every day of its life, it would be 27 years old before it had entered all the thousands of rooms. The Great Wall is so high, so thick that it can support palaces on the top and was built without any machinery on the very peaks of mountains. It would, if it were in this country, stretch from New York to Los Angeles, and, get this, back to Colorado again. Inconceivable. The Government of the country has swung from Imperialism to Communism to a rampant Capitalism in few years. Extreme. Shanghai is a city that has been rebuilt since 1992. The construction that is going on everywhere literally took my breath away—huge new bridges, tunnels, hundreds of new skyscrapers. Extreme. Years ago, Mao said, “Have babies.” The population exploded. Deng said, “Stop having babies.” Now they are only allowed one per family. The Three Gorges Dam is going to be the largest dam in the world. Over a million people are being relocated. In China’s extreme survival problems they come up with extreme solutions that create other problems (i.e. the recent NY Times article about a region in which the government bought blood from the peasants to get them more income only to create an AIDS epidemic so severe that it is a now a region of orphans). Mao’s Great Leap Forward caused 30 million people to starve to death. The Cultural Revolution is acknowledged by the Chinese themselves to be a national nightmare. Extremes. The cruelty of foot binding to create extremely tiny feet. The so-called “forbidden stitch” so tiny that it made young girls go blind. The Bamboo Curtain making China too closed. Now, perhaps they are too open—so many Chinese have alternative Western names like Winston, Peter, Mary, speak English fluently and sing American rock and roll songs by heart. We have never known anything like the extremes they have and continue to swing through. The Chinese pendulums swing first wildly this way then that.

The people I met were lovely, generous, beautiful, and probably the hardest working people on earth, Surprisingly, they could be very funny and laughed a lot. They can accept extreme changes in their lives and thinking that astonished me. I’m a girl dedicated to The Golden Mean myself. China exhausted me on many levels.

When I got home, I think I slept for 24 hours straight. I was sick, jet-lagged, and stunned by the experience. When I recovered a bit, my internal clock was so off that I could not get to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning. I started reading every book about China that I could get my hands on. I watched all the movies: Seven Years in Tibet, The Last Emperor, Kundun—even one of Marlene Dietrich’s old movies Shanghai Express—which was surprisingly historically and culturally accurate in many ways in spite of its silly story. I flipped on the TV in the middle of the night and was confronted with a Richard Gere movie, Red China. I was still trying to make some sense of it all, trying to “land”—to get why I had gone there. Like Victor Frankel said in his great book, The Search for Meaning, we need meaning in our lives, it was the one difference he noticed in the survival of people in concentration camps. The ones who could find meaning in their experience were remarkably more likely to survive. I couldn’t get it.

“Mystery!” was a word that was whispered to me as I meditated on the bus while the others were off on yet another shopping trip in China. (The Chinese do try to get us rich Americans to buy, buy, buy!) “You’re here to get that life is a lot more mysterious than you have ever known.” That seemed like a very good answer at the time. It helped. It was certainly true, but I knew there was more. I couldn’t get it.

Then, not quite a month after I returned from China, I led a Creative Explosion workshop that I had scheduled even before I left for China. I had hoped that I would be “complete” with the experience and use the workshop to shift into the fall. Something much more interesting was about to happen.

The year or so before I had gone through a period during which I did not do workshops. I needed to take a break after Mother and Cowboy died. I needed time to heal. Taking a break is very empowering. About 10 months ago I felt ready to do them again. I have done four in the last year, and they seemed easier and more powerful than ever. It was during these workshops that I encountered a desire to travel. That went on my list. Opportunities seemed to pop up like magic. In April best buddy Babs took me to London, and we had a great side trip to York, and the Yorkshire Dales. In June I was invited by my dear friend, Gale to join her and her family on a houseboat on Lake Powell. Great fun! It also included time in LA and Las Vegas. Then, in July I took the plunge and went to China. The American tour guide was a great guy I know, Greg Tamblyn.

The latest workshop was a wonderful group of people—a few people I’d never met and some I had known for years. As it was an odd number of people, I was not needed to partner with someone, so I moved from couple to couple as they went through their processes. I felt as if the earth was becoming solid under my feet again after all the traveling. I felt grounded and blessed and calmed by the workshop.

The day after the workshop I was meditating and suddenly “got it”. It was not just about China, but about all the traveling I had been doing in the past few months. Suddenly parallels and patterns emerged. I remembered climbing up and walking on top of the ancient city walls that had surrounded and protected the old town of York. I sat in one of the turrets and looked down at the thousands of gorgeous yellow daffodils in full bloom down on the hills that buttressed the walls. Perhaps each one of them represented a life lost there. I thought of the extreme)? in degree only) Great Wall—put up for the same reason—costing possibly millions of lives. Then, I thought of one of the participants of the workshop who saw a wall inside himself that “protected” him from truly being with another person. As he touched that wall inside himself, it dissolved and he started seeing himself as a baby, holding himself as a baby, loving that baby and weeping profusely. Ah, how awesome it was to see him in that process—a sacred recovery of himself.

I remembered staring in awe at the largest stained glass window in the Cathedral at Windsor Castle—arguably the religious center of England where the royals are interred—along with the recently deceased Queen Mother. Next flashed in my mind the Gold Buddha in the Potala Palace. And, then, I remembered a beautiful woman in the workshop who was working with negative judgment. Her particular one—one many of us share—is the belief that she is not worthy of love or success unless she is perfect. As she stated that, I remember wanting to say to her “Oh, no! That’s too harsh! That’s too heavy!”

Almost immediately, as she got present in her body, she felt herself with a huge belly, enormous thighs, and a great smile on her face—like Buddha. She sat in bliss experiencing herself as Buddha. I could see everything she described vividly—the beautiful flowers surrounding her, the loving people. Her whole being was radiating. “Awesome!” I thought. “She IS perfect! No need to worry about trying to be perfect! How incredibly wise!” And it was all within her. Seeing the Buddha in her was, frankly more thrilling that even the extraordinary ones I saw in Tibet and China.

I thought of the Glen Canyon Dam that has formed the beautiful Lake Powell and the parallel Three Gorges Dam. I thought of Las Vegas and Shanghai—cities like no others on earth! I thought of the creative visions of people in the workshop, of the releasing of wildly unexpected creativity in the last quarter of the workshop and realized that I had traveled all over the world this summer, seen extraordinary things, had a wonderful time and great adventures in order to get that the most awesome experiences on earth to me are in this work. I needed to get how valuable and how much I truly love this work. Like Dorothy, I needed the experience to see what I had right in my own back yard. Thank you, God. I am truly blessed.

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