Tibet: Queen of Swords

The Goddess of Air, She Who Flies through the Sky and Dances on the Wind, the Truth Teller, the Voice of the Voiceless, She Who Speaks of Sadness, Shamaness, Anchorite, Survivor, She Who Grieves for the World, The Bitter One, the Sharp One, She Keen of Eye, Watcher, Silent One in the Shining Darkness, Woman Warrior, She Who Takes No Bullshit, Sighing Woman, Bent-Back Woman, Queen of Sorrows, Queen of Swords...

I took Roxi Sim's "Pearls of Wisdom" tarot deck with me to Tibet, so I could navigate my way with it, spiritually. It's a reliable and favorite deck for me, plus Roxi Sim is able to elucidate a great many complicated truths with this deck. I knew I would see beautiful things and I knew I would see heartbreaking things on this journey. This seemed the right deck to bring along in unknown and potentially dangerous circumstances, because it speaks to beauty and strength amidst challenge. From Sim's deck notes:

"Before beginning the Tarot paintings, I had suffered a rapid decline in health as a result of drinking tainted water. I became disabled and had to leave my work as a teacher. My parents-in-law, my youngest son, and my mother all died suddenly within a span of ten years. I devastated and succombed to deep depression [sic]. Basically, I went to bed for months. During that time I was fortunate to have a wonderful husband and older son to take care of me.

In that state of depression, I came to realize that sometimes you just have to 'float.' The Fool just floats in Serendipity (his boat), downstream, through the rapids of life, trusting in the future to come."

The complex spirit of the Land of the Snows, on many levels, is akin to the Queen of Swords. A beautiful fighter. The Queen of Clouds. Mistress of Mind and Matter at once. The Challenger. The Challenge. 

This is a post about where I resisted the pull of the cold water current, when I was dashed against rocks, my means of learning to float as best I could, and gaining a new level of personal strength while on my recent pilgrimage.

First, let me share that I was really not suited to the the altitude of Tibet. It can be very challenging for someone who lives at sea level to make a 12,000-foot jump all at once. Preferably, according to medical texts and, well, sensible people, gradual acclimation over time is best. But that is not how pilgrimage works. Pilgrimage is not actually medically or sensibly driven. You don't have months to acclimate. Pilgrimage is a plunge and a surrender. You just kind of have to take the leap, and then you have to deal with that. Almost immediately when we arrived I got the normal splitting headache, and my heart rate went up. It's a common thing at this altitude to stop breathing and wake up gasping all night long. For the first few nights Albert and I took turns shaking each other and saying, "Hey, you! Breathe!"

Though some folks on the trip had no problem (Albert adjusted almost immediately), and a few more were mostly OK after a couple of days, there were several of us who had struggles with the altitude the whole time, and some who started out OK but declined over the course of 2 1/2 weeks. When we got home, Molly sent us this article by Jennifer Posada, which helped me place my own experience in perspective.

It took me 7 days of serious ups and downs, and 4 different types of medicine that failed (including Diamoxx, a western prescription medicine that lots of mountaineers swear by) before I finally got to a local doctor. He was amazing, a traditional Tibetan medicine doctor who gently took my pulse on both wrists and then, just based on that, was able to matter-of-factly explain everything that was happening in my body through our trip's guide and translator. He prescribed oxygen for 20 minutes daily as well as some local medicine he had (which tasted like gasoline, dirt, and patchouli all at the same time, and worked miracles), and he sent me on my way.

It all turned out fine, which is what is truly important, but by the time I got to the doctor, two symptoms had manifested that were pretty scary: 1) my heart was going 148 beats per minute when I was lying down, with sharp pains shooting down my left arm, and 2) (this one is kind of graphic) I started bleeding heavily and uncontrollably, despite not being anywhere near my regular moon time. My friend Ava remarked, "Your body was crying," when I told her this. The medicine fixed my heart rate and the oxygen cleared my headaches, but the bleeding continued for the entire time I was there. It finally ceased when we flew back out of Tibet. I bled a sort of shocking amount every day for 14 out of 17 days.

So, folks, let's just say, Tibet: 1, My Body: -2. I contemplated cutting the trip short and coming home, but I was determined to see it through if possible. I'm glad I stuck it out, because once I got the medicine, many things got a bit better physically. Then I was able to see some beautiful temples and enjoy the views of some truly majestic natural landscapes. However, I have traditionally associated the Queen of Swords, She Who Bleeds and Doesn't Die, with female health difficulties, and this situation certainly fit the bill.

Another way in which the Queen of Swords, She of Difficult Silences, is present, even now in this journey, is in how many things I want to speak openly and critically about, yet I cannot. I have some pretty strong opinions about the political situation there, the entire system of governance, historical and current cultural losses due to what Sam Webster termed "ethnocide," some serious problems I perceive in the system of guru worship, as well as the sexism, classism, cultural appropriation, and exercise of privilege in the white American Tibetan Buddhist community.

However, I do not want to put anyone at risk, nor I do not want to disrespect those who are sincere practitioners. So even though I have these critiques that I want to share with you directly, I do not feel it appropriate or safe to write about them directly. Instead, I will have to find ways to convey my points without relating anecdotes, names, or places, to protect the innocent. In other words, I have to sharpen my sword (that is, my pen), and be more skillful and circumspect in my ways of showing you some of what I saw.

The Queen of Swords, Mother and Defender, was at my back, hissing in my ear when I saw our appointed police "safety guide" kick a puppy and laugh. The Queen of Swords, Mater Dolorosa, dripped slow, sad tears when I heard the longing in the voices of some of our companions as they were singing or chanting certain practices. I saw the Queen of Swords, She Who Has Suffered Loss, in the grief of our tour coordinator and another pilgrim on the trip whose beloved Tibetan teacher died this past year.

The Queen of Swords, Heart of Conflict, snarled in my mind during my moments of impatience, and there were many of these. I did not expect to be so sick. I did not expect the streets would be strewn with all manner of animal and sometimes human feces. I did not expect that our bus would have no shocks, nor that we would be driving at 40kph the whole way, taking sometimes 10 hours per day to reach destinations that should otherwise have been easily accessed in shorter time. I did not expect the omni-present police officer accompanying our group everywhere for 17 days. I did not expect hotels where the bathroom floor was covered with urine, the sheets had been left unwashed for months, and we were not allowed to have even one more small extra towel in order to try to clean things up a bit. I did not expect the night we showed up at our destination after nearly 11 hours on the bus to find that we were basically camping in unheated sheds with smelly beds and a shared toilet which was a malodorous hole in the ground. I had very few expectations, actually, which made the difficult surprises even more tough to swallow. 

I had to stand face to face with my own intolerance and impatience, in a few wretched circumstances, and it took all the poise I could muster to swallow back it down. Mostly, I was successful. A few times, I allowed myself to speak up and say, "This is really, really hard." I let myself text home and ask for prayers. I cried a bit, for others, for myself, for a general sense of sorrow and futility at the state of the world there. Once, I blew up entirely and lost my temper. I was surprised to find how much little things meant, like toilet paper. I got a sharpness about me over the two weeks we were there. Albert did, too. There was an edge of irritation, discomfort, and the eternal dull thud-thud-thud of political oppression that drew us both in that direction, almost inexorably.

However, in direct counter to that sharp edge there was also Queen of Swords, Power of Air. I could literally go from despair to giggles, or at least smiles, in 2 seconds flat when our tour coordinator made a joke, or one of the women in our group fed one of the thousands of stray dogs, or when I heard the notes of music falling like gentle rain from the headphones of one of the guys on the pilgrimage with us. The more difficult moments were shot cleanly through with moments of laughter, joy, appreciation, and holy presence.

Many of you know that I have been working with meditation for a long time to bring my emotions to a middle point, that I avoid extremes whenever possible (and it is not always possible, for me!) But this whole trip was one big extreme situation. The whole thing! I was severely challenged in my practice of balance. I found something amazing, something real and raw in the power and depth of emotions I was feeling: anger, discomfort, fear, an excruciating sense of natural beauty, political outrage, devotion, soaring joy, and personal defeat. I feel like I touched something valuable in myself, a new aspect of my Inner Teacher. Not the stern authoritarian who raps me on the shoulder and directs me back to the text, but the wild inner dakini- that raw, feral feminine power that says, "This body, this Earth, this humanity, this stray dog--they are each of them Goddess."

Finding the Goddess at the center of everything, right where She usually is in my normal, matriarchal life, proved difficult in Tibet. There are many religious and cultural norms that support patriarchy there, and the Divine Feminine is somewhat demure, under-supported, and suppressed, at least publicly, though when you actually talk with people, they mention many enlightened women's names and profess their devotion to Tara. Just like in many places all around the world, the Mother is undervalued and taken for granted while the Father's benevolence is vaunted and treated like it's more special or precious.

Yet the Goddess was the giggling nun who secured my gaze and then, surprisingly, rolled her eyes at me when she was tired of chanting in the temple and just wanted to hang out with us. The Goddess was the old woman with the load of hay on her back whose entire wrinkled face lit up with a smile when Albert called her over and they wordlessly communicated. The Goddess was there when a part of me sat back on my animal haunches, sniffed the air, and said, "I'm not buying what they are selling" when time and again the male statues were depicted as HUGE AND GLORIOUS, with tiny female statues at their feet gazing up at them adoringly, while the reverse paradigm never quite seemed to show up. The Goddess was there when I snuck out of the hotel, looked up at the moon and performed our global Mother of the New Time ritual in Lhasa. The Goddess was there whenever, after a long day of bouncing around on the bus, just as everyone was getting cranky, one woman would break out her seemingly endless stash of dark chocolate with almonds.

The Queen of Swords, She of Prophecies, Madness, and Visions, showed up in my dreams and gave me messages. She showed up when I could not sleep and felt crazy from exhaustion. She showed up when I hit my hard wall of discomfort and found myself on the other side of it in a sort of spirited ecstasy. She showed up when the only thing to do was the crazy thing I thought I could not do, like get on the bus with a migraine, or walk to the edge of a 15-thousand-foot drop and look over.

The Queen of Swords, Wind of Life and Death, finally pulled me over the edge on the second to last day we were in Tibet. Body aching and literally bloody, vanity broken, pride in shreds, and feeling wild in heart and mind, as my resistance collapsed, as I totally gave up and finally surrendered to the riot of unpredictability, messiness, and challenge that just IS Tibet, the Queen of Swords and I sat next to a beautiful turquoise lake, panting, and she whispered,

"Just. breathe."

You don't know how important breathing is until it becomes voluntary. Until it becomes precious. Until it becomes the only thing you can really even think about doing. Then, all of a sudden, you realize it is literally EVERYTHING. When the sages say that everything rides on the breath, they aren't speaking figuratively. 

It is said that Yeshe Tsogyal was the Speech emanation of the Buddha. That she literally was his breath and word in a living being. On the second to last day in Tibet, so very conscious of every breath I was taking and every word I was choosing to say, I found renewed relevance in the wisdom of Yeshe Tsogyal, the Queen of Pen and Sword. She who recorded and preserved thousands of teachings, who fought bloodless battles with magical words, who won debates by chanting seed syllables. Everything rides the breath. I found the "so-ha" of my existence in my own weary quietude. I found that if I just sat down and breathed, everything else got better.

Queen of Swords, Gift of Air, Power of the Breath, Sky Dancer, I honor you and thank you for this learning.