We climb up through boulder-slashed scars and cross a stream roaring over falls into misty pools surrounded with ice-crystaled brush. I pull out my beads and begin a walking meditation, Om Mani Padme Hung Hri! ice-encrusted rock. On the way from Laya, Wangye told me this was a sacred spring, home to a jealous, vengeful naga-serpent and warned me to never drink the water cold--only by boiling could drive out the serpent and keep the demon from striking one’s heart.
This makes sense. In most areas of Bhutan, the water contains parasites and bacteria. Only in the high mountains, or at springs and headwaters, is it pure. So, folk adages about evil naga spirits are more than reasonable. But this water is pure. I fill my bottle and drink it half down in one long gulp. It burns my palate, shooting a throbbing “ice-cream” headache into my brain. A cold ball aches in the pit of my stomach and the icy feeling runs through my muscles and over my skin. I put on a wool shirt to soak up the chilling sweat. I’m dizzy and disoriented but my legs and breath are strong. I start back up the trail.
My energy slips as the cold rises into my heart. I’m sinking to the earth; the sky darkens and my vision becomes smoky. Crackling bits of light explode in my eyes. I hit the rocky ground, rolling on my back with eyes open, but I can’t see the sky —just darkness around a point of flickering light like a fire on a receding shore. Rapid electrifying shocks start at my hands and feet and move up my limbs, growing stronger and moving into my chest. Untethered, I seem to float away. I shut my sightless eyes, riding waves of breath. My wife’s face appears, then my daughter’s. They calm me; I think that I am entering the passage to death and prepare to say goodbye. But it doesn’t feel right. I see so much of our life that I’m leaving incomplete. Panic and regret shatter the calm and send a stinging drop of adrenaline into my heart, radiating life outward against the shock waves. I chant and breathe to keep the jolting waves from advancing deeper into my body. Breath drives my desire to live.
The shock waves gradually recede to my hands and feet. I lift my knees to my chest. The faint beat of my heart returns and slowly builds. The tremors stop and my vision rises with hallucinogenic brightness: a sparkling crystal clarity of mountain, cloud, and sky dancing in a rainbow hue.
I see Nidrup running up the trail. “Are you all right?” he asks.
“I think I almost died.”
“Did you drink the naga’s water?”
“It struck your heart. You need butter tea and soup. Can you walk?”
From BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness, by John Wehrheim