At the age of twelve, I had a brush with death that changed me.
On the first day of a weekend father-son canoe trip in the Ozarks, the canoe carrying my dad and I capsized, and we were both sent overboard into the cold, fast-moving water. In the chaotic next seconds, my lifejacket snagged on a submerged tree, and I was trapped there. Though my mouth remained above water, the rest of me felt the fury of thousands of gallons of water running through a narrow channel. The upriver current flung my torso violently into the log at the same time that the downriver current seemed to claw at my spindly limbs, enticing me to be free. I was terrified, and, for ten minutes, I believed I would die. Because of the way my lifejacket cradled my head, all I could do was stare at the wide blue sky. At first, I screamed. Then, I raged. Then I stopped. I prayed and bargained at the same time: "God, I'll do anything you ask me if you save me."
After ten minutes, I heard a loud crash, and I was surprised to find myself floating down the river. A friend and his dad had seen me struggling in the middle of the river, and they rammed their canoe into the submerged log, setting me free. As I floated downriver, head still cradled by the life-jacket, I felt free. Of what? Everything. I felt a sense of inner peace so deep, so calm. I don't think I've ever felt that way again. At least, not that deep of a peace.
Now I see how this event changed me in more ways than that boy could understand. Yes, it shook my sense of safety in nature. But it also instilled in me, at a very young age, a deep knowing of how temporary this life is. I also became deeply spiritual as a pre-teen. I latched onto Christianity, the dominant faith of my Kansas home. My deep faith in Jesus gave me something to hold onto that felt solid. Later, as a teenager, my faith helped me as I struggled to understand my father’s drinking and my parents’ marital struggles.
Ultimately, I came to see the near-drowning as a gift. The river shook me awake. It taught me to see that so many things we humans do and think are really not very important. It oriented me toward depth and authenticity. It made me a seeker. It also probably had something to do with the arrival at age of 14 of what I called “my little mystical experiences.” During frequent fleeting episodes, I would become overwhelmed by strong feelings of merging with the universe. I was in love with everything. These episodes followed me into adulthood and actually they helped me through hard times when depression stole several years of my life. During those dark times, I would connect mentally with those past strong feelings of absolute love. They would keep me going.
In 2018, I traveled to India for a two-week yoga retreat at an ashram near a Hindu temple built by a famous spiritual teacher named Neem Karoli Baba. He taught that the only thing in life that mattered was love.
On that trip, I was shaken awake again. This time by the river of love.
The story begins in a fast-moving Land Rover on a narrow and very busy two-lane road outside the village of Ramgarh in northern India’s jungly Kumaon Hills. As we rounded a corner and forged up a hill, I was surprised to see a large monkey drop from a tree onto the road directly in our path. It appeared that the three-foot-tall humanoid’s life would end with a swift, violent ride on our Land Rover’s front bumper. But first, he and I were destined to share a moment of intimacy. He seemed to look through the windshield at me at the same time that I gazed into his eyes.
And then, thank God, he was gone. With no time to spare and with a fierce power that humans don’t have, it leaped skyward. Its right hand grabbed a low-hanging branch, and he flung himself like a circus acrobat up into the canopy.
The entire incident lasted less than two seconds, but for the next several days, I couldn’t shake the image. The monkey’s power, but also the weirdly fleeting but intimate connection I seemed to have with him. I was still thinking about this monkey, as I and five friends hiked up a steep mountain trail en route to a cave where our leader, Narendra, said a 99-year-old yogi named Babaji lived. I later learned that the monkey was a langur, also known as a Hanuman monkey, named after the Hindu monkey god whose devotion to service and his own godliness has been likened to Christ.
After an hour-long hike, Narendra clanged a bell to mark our arrival. One-by-one we crawled through the entrance. As soon as I was inside the dim candle-lit room, I knew I’d entered an extraordinary new world. Sitting on a cushion in front of me, an ancient-looking man with a long orange-white beard and dark, watery eyes tended a small fire, stirring an open pot of tea. I watched my friends take turns bowing at the yogi’s feet. And then it was my turn. I approached Babaji, noticing his gnarled hands and wrinkled face. And then I looked into his eyes. He looked into mine, and for five seconds, I held my gaze, not wanting to break it. Then I bowed. My hands rested on his feet, my forehead touched dirt floor. I’d never visited a yogi in a cave before, and, while bowing to a stranger felt new and strange didn’t want it to end either. The extraordinary scene combined with this particular moment in my life made the experience feel extraordinary and profound. And then, as I was about to rise up and crawl away to take a seat-whack!-I felt his hard palm smack the crown of my head. It stunned me. I rose to my knees, crawled a few feet away, and took a cross-legged seat. Tears poured out of my eyes and down my face. Twenty minutes later, I was still weeping. I couldn’t escape a deep-seated feeling that I’d arrived. I was home. Strange since I was 8,000 miles from my Colorado home. Stranger still that I was sitting on the floor of a Himalayan cave in the presence of a man I’d never laid eyes on before.
Eventually, the crying ceased. I settled down and drank tea and ate nuts with my friends, Narendra, and Babaji. He invited us to ask questions, and we Americans took turns with big questions we hoped a yogi might help with. Katey asked about her recently deceased mother. Juan asked if he should stop drinking. Somebody else asked how to deal with difficult people and how does one live a good life. He answered in long sentences in Hindi and Narendra translated. His answers seemed wise, profound even. Afterward, he shared a pipe full of hash. We chanted together to Hindu gods. And then we said goodbye and took a group photo. We all crawled back out into the sunlight and began the hour-long hike back down the mountain to our waiting Landrover. On my way out, he tugged on my sleeve. He spoke. I looked at the translator. “He said, ‘Come back.’”
That evening, I skipped dinner at the ashram. I sat in bed scratching my head. And then I fell into a deep sleep.
I woke before dawn and dressed in the dark. I walked the garden path to the kitchen house where I poured myself a cup of chai. I sat in a chair a table on a high patio overlooking the valley. Writing in my journal by flashlight, I watched the horizon for sunrise. Between scrawls, I took little sips of the hot, sweet tea.
As the first morning light ignited the steep green mountain slopes, I spotted two yellow-green birds way out there above the valley floor. They flew the most elaborate and interesting looping flight pattern. They flew out, out, out, out, and, before they reached the opposite slope, they made several tight loop-to-loops, and then they headed back. They got close enough to almost touch, before heading back out. I watched mesmerized as they repeated this flight path six or seven times. I wondered if their skywriting formed a message for me.
And then they disappeared.
Disappointed, I stood and walked toward the kitchen in the quest of another cup chai. I stumbled. I caught myself and tried to take took another step, but I could barely stay upright. My feet felt too heavy to lift. I must be getting sick, I thought. I set my chai down on a table and stumbled through the garden toward my room. Barely a foot in front of me, a large garden snake crossed the path. But something was very strange about this snake, because, in its wake, the ground squiggled and vibrated. Scratching my head, I looked toward the mountaintops across the valley. The edge of the dark-green peaks blurred into the blue sky. The whole valley vibrated.
Back in my room, my girlfriend lay awake in bed. I told her about the birds and my heavy legs, the snake, and the vibrating ground. I felt paranoid.
“I think somebody slipped me acid.” I was grasping for an explanation.
“I don’t know. Tell me more,” she said.
“I’m tripping my balls off. The mountains and sky are blended together. The earth is vibrating. I just saw a snake and it made the earth squiggle like its body. What’s wrong with me?”
I felt scared, and I began to cry.
“I don’t know what’s happening? It’s too big to describe. Sweetie, I have to keep walking. I want to find those birds again. It’s like they cast a spell on me.”
I walked out of the room and returned to my bird-watching perch. But the birds were gone. The sun was up, and the entire valley appeared wrapped in gauze. A wave of emotion rose from my belly, passed up my torso into my neck and head. I burst into tears again.
I don’t use drugs these days, but I’d taken psychedelics a few times in the past, so I knew what tripping felt like. I’d also reached mildly altered states through meditation and yoga. But I definitely wasn’t taking drugs that day. Yet I was completely out of my mind. Inside my skull, I soared like the birds I’d seen. A voice kept repeating the phrase, “It really is all one.”
This altered state of consciousness lasted all morning-and then it lasted all afternoon. I sat in wonder. I wept. And then, as the sun set, and the valley filled with shadows, my wild ride subsided. I eased back down, and again I was the man I knew myself to be.
Weeks later, back in Boulder, Colorado, the trippy feelings returned a few times, usually during pre-dawn walks. These trips were far less extreme, but I could definitely taste the edge of the altered state.
I am familiar with the yogic term shaktipat and samadhi. I’ve researched western explanations of altered states of consciousness. I recently reread William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. I have plenty of rational tools to make sense of this experience. And, frankly, all that stuff is worthless to me. I simply do not care to hear what anybody else says or thinks about my wild ride in India. The experience was more real to me than a morning spent at home reading the newspaper or a dinner out with friends. I will say this: I’ve spent most of my lifetime seeking answers, small and large. As a journalist, I asked politicians hard questions. As a spiritual seeker, I’ve sought ecstasy in desert ruins and mountain temples. Last October’s mystical experience raises more questions than it answers. And I know this: I was blessed with a glimpse of it all-eight hours’ worth. I will remember that day as long as I live. I was given a glimpse of who we all are underneath our fears and petty worries. Call me a silly man, but I have the proof that we are holy and fully healed at the same time that we are flawed and human.
A former senior editor and contributing writer at Outside magazine, Brad Wetzler is an author, journalist, travel writer, book writing coach, and yoga instructor. His book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton. His nonfiction writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, GQ, Wired, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, George, Travel + Leisure, Thrive Global, and Outside. He coaches up-and-coming authors to write and successfully publish their books.