An Encounter With Death and Resurrection

There are those who think that the world exists and that the world is real;

There are those who think that the world does not exist and that the world is not rea;,

Blessed are those who do not think, but who ever abide in the Absolute.

                                                                             Astavakra    (circa 3000 B.C.)


One evening, in the middle of a bhajan at Sai Baba’s temple in his ashram outside of Bangalore, Baba suddenly froze, stopped breathing and was totally motionless for at least five minutes. With Baba at that time, were the senior Brindavan College boys and a few of the teachers, myself included. Not one of us had ever witnessed this before, with Baba so totally immobile, for such a long time, although often during the bhajan we would see Baba go into a reverie and appear to go off somewhere. This time, when he came out of this long immobility, his body had suddenly become very sick. He appeared to be cyanosed with a blue cast to his skin. His breathing was labored and he was retching, trying to throw up but couldn’t muster enough energy to complete that. He slowly whispered to a couple of the stronger boys to carry him upstairs to his bedroom. We could see him through the handrail, just a limp body, as they carried him through the door. Then we didn't see him again for three days, nor did we hear any news about his condition.

On the evening of the third day, the students and teachers were again permitted to come into the central rotunda of the temple. The bhajan was started around Swami's empty chair. In the middle of about the third or fourth song, Swami appeared above at the balustrade looking very weak. He slowly made his way down the inner staircase, and with the help of some boys that jumped up to support him, he sat down and then slumped in his chair. The boys stopped the bhajan. Swami with considerable effort got one hand close to the glass of water set out on his table. He dunked a couple of fingers and flicked some water from them into his face. Then to the other hand.

In no time at all the whole pall of debilitating illness that had been cloaking him fell off, and Baba was good as whole again. I was sitting right by his feet and I spoke up and asked him, "Swami what happened?" He said, "Three days ago, Swami heard a woman crying out, "Sai Mata! Sai Mata!" (Mother Sai! Mother Sai!). She was 800 miles north in a Himalayan town, in great pain and about to have a massive heart attack. It would have killed her. She was a poor school teacher with five daughters. The husband was gone. If she died those five girls would have been out in the street. Swami had to do his duty and save her. So, Swami took on the heart attack. She just threw up and felt better, without knowing about the heart attack and Swami’s coming. This illness took several days to complete."

"But Swami, we were all so worried not knowing what had happened. Why did Baba have to take it into his own body and cause grief for so many devotees?" He answered, "Swami will not interfere with the laws of nature. Once an illness happens in a body it has to run its course and be completed in that body, or it can be taken on in another body. Swami's body is strong and so he took the heart attack into his body." I remember that he looked at me when he spoke, and suddenly a mystery was solved. That mystery is the context for the long story that follows here.

As we have heard, according to Baba, an illness goes through a natural cycle which must be completed in a body, whether the body is that of the one who got sick, or is another body to which the illness is transferred and who then completes it. Specifically, in this story, the figure who plays the major role is Gregory Bateson, who is healed by Sai Baba of a mortal advanced cancer, involving a transference in which, at Baba’s direction, I took part. Here is that account.

Gregory was a world-famous scientist. When I met him during the late 1970’s, he was already in his 70’s. At the time he was a popular professor at the University of California. He and his wife and young child lived in the Santa Cruz hills, but they also had a place near Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where I lived and taught.

Early mornings at Esalen I would hold open meetings several times a week, where any seminarians or Esalen staff and guests could come to meditate and join in, singing sacred songs together from different spiritual traditions. There were musical instruments around including a five foot tall, 100-year old tamboura previously owned by Ram Das. These meetings were a great way to start the day. The word got out and people showed up from the larger community, including Lois, Gregory’s wife. Lois became a friend and expressed an interest in knowing more about Sai Baba.

I met Gregory a number of times through Lois. On several occasions, Gregory and I took some walks together. He was a brilliant, quaint, heady Brit, interested in talking about recent advances in brain research and particle physics, but seemed to have little interest in what I was interested in, namely, Indian non-dualistic philosophy and ideas. During those years, I would make many trips to Baba’s ashram in India, typically two or three times a year, whenever I finished teaching one of my Inner Road to Health workshops at Esalen. As her interest in Baba deepened, Lois also chose to make some trips to the ashram in India, taking their young daughter along. This would have left Gregory behind, which he didn't much like. When he was not teaching at the university, he spent time on his writings and talks; but he also had lots of time to be with his family. One time, when his wife chose to go off to India, he decided he would rather go along then not. He couldn’t really see himself going to an ashram, but, after all, he was an anthropologist, so perhaps he could do some fieldwork there.

I remember a time when Baba was in his Brindavan ashram, outside of Bangalore. Gregory was there, with his little collapsible stool. While everyone else sat on the ground for darshan, Gregory would sit on his stool way in the back, off to one side and watch. But Baba would not leave him unattended. Practically every day when Swami came out to give darshan, he would go straight to Gregory, and say, "And how is the professor, today?" And then he would chat for a few moments with Gregory.

Well, Gregory began to warm up to Baba. He looked forward to the daily encounters with Baba and he liked the attention. Christmas time came around, and Baba came to Gregory and told him, "I want you to read the Christmas Carol to the college boys." This was to be a reading of Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim and company. It was held in the dining room of the boys hostel at the Sai College near Brindavan.. This college existed for years before Baba founded his top-ranked university, the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, in Prashanti Nilayam, near Baba’s birthplace of Puttaparthi. I was privileged to teach at both campuses for a number of years.

Gregory agreed to do the Christmas reading to the college boys. He read the passages in his professorial thespian style of British English, interposed with jocular comments and lighthearted telling of the story. The boys were fascinated and thoroughly delighted, and wanted to learn more about Dickens and some of the books they were studying. They kind of mobbed Gregory and stayed afterwards to ask him questions. Gregory loved it. He was really enjoying his visit to India.

His program was to return to California for a meeting of the Regents of the University of California on New Year's Day. He had been appointed a member of the Regents Board. The Regents of the University of California system was headed by the governor, and in those days the governor was Jerry Brown, who all these many decades later is again governor of California. Jerry Brown had been a seminarian, and at one time was preparing himself to take vows and become a Catholic priest. But instead, following in the tradition of his father, a former California governor, he turned towards politics, and was elected governor of California. He was a bright, simple guy and he easily connected with Gregory. He loved to take time out from his executive duties and come to talk with Gregory, recognizing Gregory as a great mind. I remember one time, Jerry Brown drove his old Plymouth to Esalen on the Big Sur coast, to visit Gregory. It was funny seeing him arrive in that old car with a state police escort, one police cruiser in the front and another behind.

So now, Gregory was going back to California for the Regents meeting on New Year's Day. Three days before New Year, on the day before Gregory was leaving for California, and after morning darshan that day, Swami called a number of Westerners, including myself, in for interview. After selecting the individuals for interview, Swami went over to where the professor was sitting on his stool, took him by the hand and led him across the long field to the interview room in the temple. Gregory was a big man, over six feet tall, and of course Swami was a mere five foot one or two, to the top of his crown of hair. So, here was this droll scene of Baba leading Gregory by the hand across the football-field-long plaza from the darshan area to the interview room in the temple. Gregory rambled along in tow, stooping over so as not to appear to stick out too ostentatiously.

We all got into the room ahead of them. When Swami showed up with Gregory, he said to me, "Get a chair for the professor!" He obviously paid a lot of attention to Gregory, and wanted to make sure Gregory would not have to sit on the floor like the rest of us. Then, very early in the interview, Baba called Gregory in. I was sitting by his chair, and Gregory said to me, "I've been wanting to have a good discussion. You can't really talk to the devotees here. All they want to talk about is their ideas of God and their spiritual experiences with Sai Baba. I don’t have much interest in all that. But, this Sai Baba seems to be an interesting man. I think I can hold a real conversation with him.”

Earlier he had confided to me that the Regents had a little-known assignment, laced with an annual budget of tens of billions of dollars from the Department of Defense. They ran all the nuclear weapons labs in the country. He and the governor wanted to get the Regents out of that business and, I assumed, he wanted to talk that over with Baba.

Baba called Gregory into the private interview room, but Gregory was in there no more than five minutes or so, when he came out. He had left some of his things by the chair so he came over to pick them up. I said to him, "What happened, Gregory?" He said, "Oh, it was so much rubbish! You can't hold a decent conversation with these holy men. I tried to discuss my topic with him but he just nodded and changed the subject, before I could get going on it. He asked me, “What is your sadhana?” I said, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Your spiritual practice.”  “I said to him, “Well, I would rather keep that private. I believe that is really my own business, isn’t it?”

Gregory continued. "He totally ignored my cheeky comment and went on with some spiritual platitudes that I had no interest in. Then he asked, “And how is your health, Sir?”

Then Gregory said, "By that point, I got the picture. That all he was really interested in was that guru/follower stuff, where I would have something wrong, or some life situations in which I needed reassurance, and he would provide the guidance. Well, I didn’t need any of that and I said to him, “My health is fine, Sir. And when I’m not feeling well I’ll go see a doctor. So, let us just let my health be.” That's when I decided it was futile to continue. I got up, thanked him for his time, announced that I was leaving, and left. There just wasn't any point in my being there. I’m now convinced that trying to hold a conversation with one of these gurus leads nowhere."

Gregory left the ashram shortly thereafter and took a flight back to California. On the flight to California he wasn’t feeling well, so once he got home, Gregory went to see his doctor. The doctor ordered chest x-rays and these revealed a huge tumor appearing on Gregory’s lung. He checked into the UC Hospital in San Francisco where they initiated an exploratory surgery. When they opened him up, they discovered that the cancer had invaded his aorta, and was inoperable. So they closed up his chest and informed Lois that Gregory’s condition was dire and there wasn’t much they could do. In all probability he had only a short time left to live.

Back at the ashram, right after Gregory left the interview room, Baba called me in and asked me, "Do you know that professor?" I said, "Yes, Swami. I'm acquainted with the family." Then Swami said, "He is a very sick man. His illness is progressing and is very serious, but Baba will help him. You go back and nurse him. Swami will be there.” To me ‘nurse him’ meant ‘do some treatments on him’. But Baba had told me two years earlier it would be best if I didn’t do treatments on people. I had been running an acupuncture clinic on the Big Sur Coast. Besides acupuncture I was also doing homeopathic prescribing and deep tissue work. After seeing people during the day, I would typically go home and feel sick. One time, when I came to India, Swami told me that I was becoming too sensitive, that doing these treatments on others was not good for me. I was taking on some of their illness and their karma. And so, it would be best if I stopped doing treatments and, instead, taught the various treatment systems that I was using in the clinic. That's when I totally stopped doing the clinic and started my month-long Esalen workshops on alternative healing.

Now, two years later, he told me to go back to America and ‘nurse’ Gregory, and it was pretty clear to me that he was directing me to be actively involved in some way, caring for Gregory. I mentioned my uncertainty to Baba, but he told me it would be OK now to do treatments on him. Of course I had no idea what specifically was wrong with him and what I was to do. At the time, I had no information on his condition. So I assumed that I would be shown whatever was to be my involvement with Gregory. Swami was in charge. I hadn’t planned to go back to California for another month, but after getting the assignment from Baba I knew I had to go back early, and so I made plans to leave for America at the earliest possibility. I got new flight reservations about a week later. Before I left India I was able to get in touch by phone with Lois and she told be what had transpired at the hospital, and how, without informing Gregory of the seriousness of his illness, she had convinced him, once his condition had stabilized and his pain was somewhat under control, to leave the hospital and come home, so that the family could be together as he recovered from the surgery.

I don’t remember having seen Lois in the interview room at Baba’s, and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to her before she left for California. When I did reach her by phone I shared with her what Swami had said about Gregory. I don’t remember her reaction, but it must have been a relief to hear that Swami knew about Gregory’s condition and was on the case.

And so, against medical advice, she took him to their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And that's where I found them when I returned from India. Lois warned me that in the hospital they had to give him morphine to knock him out and deal with the pain. But he didn’t want to take morphine anymore, so he remained in a lot of pain and was supersensitive to physical vibrations. She said I could go into the bedroom to see him, but she warned me to be very careful. Even just walking in, the vibration of the walk might trouble him.

I did the best I could. I quietly shuffled into the bedroom on stocking feet and saw that Gregory was awake and conscious. He was a huge man, and his feet were sticking out beyond the bottom of the bed he was in. He was quite lucid and he knew the situation. He told me he was dealing with much pain, but he didn't want to take any more drugs to deal with the pain. He lived by his mind and he wanted to remain fully conscious despite the pain. I told him that Sai Baba had told me to look after him. I don’t remember how he reacted to that, but I doubt that it meant much to him.

From my acupuncture I knew there was a powerful kidney point on the sole of the foot that the Chinese call “the Corpse Reviver”. For most people it’s a very sensitive point, commonly used also in foot reflexology. I asked him if I could touch his feet and he nodded. Then with all my strength I stuck a knuckle deep into the place, first on one foot and then the other. I felt guided to do that and stayed with it for a few minutes. Gregory screamed bloody murder, overwhelmed by the unbearable pain. Before he got all wound up, I stopped; and quite miraculously for him, he was suddenly completely free of pain, for the first time since the surgery.

He asked me “What did you do?”  I said, “I don't know. This is what I was guided to do.”

From that point on it was quite OK with him to have me around. I called Dick Price, the top guy at Esalen and asked him, “Can we bring Gregory to Esalen? He is dying of cancer.” Of course Dick knew Gregory. I told Dick, “He's in a lot of pain, and rather than be here in Santa Cruz, I think he should be at Esalen where we can love him up and do some treatments on him.” I mentioned to Dick that Baba in India had told me of Gregory’s condition before Gregory knew about it and said that Baba was going to help him, and that I should ‘nurse’ him.

Dick said, "We have nothing scheduled for Fritz Perls’ house after this week.” Fritz Perls, world famous psychiatrist who developed Gestalt Therapy and for whom I had worked some years earlier, had died and his beautiful house on the Esalen grounds had been used for group seminars and workshops. Dick told me that Gregory and family could stay there for as long as Gregory needed it. “He will be our new resident Fritz," Dick warmly stated.

Gregory was taken in a van to Esalen, a hundred miles away. Pauline, the Esalen nurse was in the van and hooked up some Oxygen for him. On the way he became deathly ill, nauseous, exhausted, rapidly failing. It looked like he wasn’t going to make it. He was almost comatose when he was carried into Fritz's place. I wouldn't have given him much more than another day or two, at that point. For me it was, ‘Baba, what are you going to do now? Gregory is failing so fast.’

For months earlier, at Prashanti Nilayam, Swami’s ashram, I would remain sitting on the veranda of the temple after the scheduled morning darshan, followed by Baba’s morning interviews and then the daily bhajans in the temple. After everyone dispersed, I would stay there, get out my book and study the homeopathic materia medica of ‘Rare And Unusual Remedies’. I remember studying the profile of a particularly rare remedy called ornithagalum umbalatum. From my observations of Gregory, that remedy fit perfectly. And it just hit me, that's the remedy that will help Gregory. If I could just get hold of that remedy in high potency, we might be able to save him. But where would I get such an unusual homeopathic medicine?

I called Hylands in Los Angeles, Boericke & Tafel in Philadelphia, Boiron in Chicago, Nelson’s in London, Barthel in Germany, and others. Several of them had the mother tincture, but none of them had it in high potency. To get the remedy I needed they said it would take at least a week to make it up and then there would be the additional delay of getting it to me. By that time Gregory would have been dead.

In desperation I called up Michael Tierra, a friend and well-known master herbalist and acupuncturist. He was living in Santa Cruz and had a school of herbology there. He frequently came to my workshop to teach herbs. It was always very interesting because people loved to learn about useful medicinal herbs, plants that often go unrecognized and are taken to be just common weeds. I said to Michael, on the phone, "Michael, Gregory is dying. I just got it that he should have a homeopathic remedy called ‘ornithogalum umbelatum’. Do you happen to know that Latin name? Is it a botanical?”

He said, "Of course it is, it’s a lovely plant. That's the little Star of Bethlehem! You'll find it all over the hills across the Coast Road outside of Esalen." He said, "Now is the season and there should be some buds in flower. Just go and pick some blooms. Then you can make up a mother tincture, and go through the stages of dilution to get the potency you want." And sure enough, within an hour we were out picking up Star of Bethlehems. We made up a potency of it and gave some to Gregory. He was so ill, he couldn't take anything internally. So, I just rubbed it on his wrists and on his temples, and also rubbed some on his lips.

It was miraculous. Within moments, Gregory sat up and asked for food. For the first time in days, he was free of intense pain. Clearly, the threat of immediate death had been taken care of. Then, every day, we would do something with Gregory. We picked herbs that Michael suggested. First we would do some foot baths for Gregory, and then a whole bath when we could get him moving a little bit. As the days went by, his scars from the surgery healed, and weren't bleeding anymore. So he could walk a little bit. We could help him into a bathtub right next to his room. And his humor came back. I remember one time he joked, "What are you, a bunch of Watusis, cooking up a Christian missionary in this soup?"

Gregory got better and better. I would do daily acupuncture on him, and I would do some massage and deep tissue rolfing on him, as well as other homeopathics, like Sulphur and Arsenicum Album. Every day I went there, and spend time with him. And every day he got better. But coming back to my place after doing some treatment on Gregory, I would feel terribly sick. Nausea, energylessness, stomach upsets, difficult breathing and deep gut pains. It seemed like my systems were closing down. Pretty soon, I couldn't go to see Gregory anymore. I had to get treatment, and it became clear that my liver was going.

After getting some tests and after palpating my rock-hard liver, it was determined that I had liver cancer, an extremely painful and low survivable disease. I chose not to go with Western Medicine, but to try treating it with alternative methods. So I went off to Tijuana, to the Gerson clinic. Max Gerson was a Jewish doctor who escaped the Nazis and came to this country. He had done cancer research for many years, and decided that by ingesting fresh raw unground calves liver to replace the human liver and using massive amounts of organic fruits and vegetable juices, as well as different organ supplements, and multiple daily coffee and castor oil enemas, the liver can be reconstituted and the tumor dissolved. The idea was to provide continuous input and output to circulate enough oxygenating enzymes in the blood stream to kill the cancer. I was at the Gerson hospital in Tijuana for three weeks, but I didn't get any better. It was a total disappointment to the Gerson folks, because I saw a lot of very sick people come in, and walk out of there smiling. But I was just getting worse and worse. I lost about 35 pounds.

A friend from Esalen came and drove me back to Big Sur. And in Big Sur they organized the Gerson therapy for me there. I bought a Norwalk hydraulic juicer, which cost around $2000 in those days, and whose specialty was that it hydraulically pressed rather than whirled the contents, and thereby preserved the cancer-fighting enzymes, which are destroyed in centrifugal juicers. Every three days or so, my sister Goldie, in Anaheim, would drive a hundred miles round-trip to a slaughterhouse, and get several fresh calves livers and send these up to me on a special flight to Monterey. Then, somebody from Esalen would drive a hundred miles round-trip to Monterey airport to pick it up and bring it back. So, for the purpose of getting that juiced raw calves liver into my system every three hours during the day, a complicated support system had to be activated, which required a major energy output for so many people, and was terribly expensive. But, as we will see it was all for naught.

After returning from Mexico, during the following two months I continued on the therapy at Esalen. By that point Gregory was coming totally into his power and energy again. His daughter Mary Catherine, who had left Teheran after the Islamic revolution, came to Esalen to help her father. Together they produced two important books which completed his revolutionary understanding of the nature of mind, and would otherwise not have the seen light of day, but for his new lease on life.

While I was engaged with the Gerson therapy at my place and being very sick, Gregory showed up at the door, one day. He had walked all the way down the hill from Fritz’s house to visit me, on the other side of Esalen. It was a strange turn-around. Gregory seemed to have put his physical crisis behind him. In his visit he was very kind, expressing in his best English reserve, his deep concern. But clearly there wasn’t very much he could do. He came, he said, to express his gratitude for the care given to him and hoped for the best.  But I was failing and obviously on a one-way trip.

And then, one day, I died. I simply left the body behind and found myself on the ceiling of the room, looking down on the body. I saw a doctor friend, a cardiologist who had come to Esalen for my class in alternative healing, trying to revive the body. I think he injected some epinephrine and did the chest pounding. But, I was already gone from the body and there was no intimation of returning back into it.

Then mysteriously the scene changed dramatically. As best as I could remember it afterwards, the ‘I’ sense left, and what remained was just pure consciousness, with this remarkable ability to be aware of everything everywhere at the same time, but with no sense of a self that was doing the perceiving. Just silent, peaceful, unbounded being with no involvement in anything that appeared to be going on. Happenings were happening. There was nothing to process, no retention or judgment. Everything was immediate; nothing was mediated. Apparently there was no one present, but inexplicably there seemed to be total presence. There was no sense of outside or inside, nor any sense of time or locality; just an endless fullness and completeness.

Somehow, somewhere in that, quite imperceptibly, self-perception reappeared. There was a sense of ‘I’ experiencing things again, aware that I was coming back into a familiar place, manifesting into the same body. I felt no sadness or elation to come back into the body. It was taken to be as what was happening; there was total acceptance and no resistance or judgment or interpretation associated with it. But at the same time, as I found myself back in this body and its mind, I felt curiously constrained. Somehow I had been returned unbidden, to again make a life in what seemed like being incarcerated in a garbage can. The unlimited freedom of being I-less awareness was gone. Fritz Perls, my old mentor, once wrote a book called ‘In and Out of the Garbage Pail’. Maybe this is what he was referring to.

Well, soon after this incident I was back on my feet, but I was still very sick. I had lost much weight and had no energy, Walking, or stumbling along, I had to hold on to keep from falling. But there was no more pain, and I knew the illness was over. Most amazing for me was that in this out-of-the-body, after-death happening, there was a total absence of fear. Previously I had been terribly afraid of death, perhaps hearkening back to my early days in Nazi Germany. This fear was a big deal for me most of my life. In homeopathic terms I was a lycopodium type, one who has no courage and is afraid of death. But after this experience, the fear of death seemed a joke to me. Why would anyone be afraid of dying and leaving this body, ‘shuffling off this mortal coil’, as Hamlet put it, if all that happens is the body and the ‘I’ thought drops off, and pure consciousness, ie., unlimited awareness, is all that remains. This shift away from the death-fear has persisted to this very day.

Right after I came back, I decided that I had to go to India as soon as possible. Before doing anything about that, I called my parents, who were living on the other side of the country in Saratoga Springs, New York; they were both in their 90’s. I told them that I had been very sick, but that now I was feeling much better. Then I mentioned that I felt I should go to India, because in my heart I knew that my guru had something to do with my recovery, and I wanted to go and personally thank him.” My father said to me, "Son, do you know that this is Yom Kippur? That this evening is Kol Nidre night, the holiest night of the year? And that it would be very good for you to go to a schul (a synagogue or temple) and thank God directly for all the blessings you’ve received."

"But Pop,” I said, “I'm in Big Sur. The nearest city is Monterey. I don't think they have any Jews living there that have a temple to go to. I'd probably have to go all the way to San Francisco, and that's over 150 miles away. I haven't been feeling well, and I can't do that. I'd love to go to a temple just for your sake, but I just can't do that now."

And my father replied, "Well, at least observe an all-day Yom Kippur fast."

I thought, after all this input and output of the Gerson therapy, all the enemas and juices and the raw calves liver that had to be freshly prepared hourly, and since I was feeling so much better, it would really be great to take a whole day off from all that throughput. For weeks there had always been three or four people around, making juices, and bringing in the stuff. And so I put up a sign, "For 24 hours, no juices or enemas. Thanks, guys, I’m taking a day off. Have a sweet day."

Further along in the phone conversation with my parents, I repeated again that I wanted to go to India and see my teacher. And my father said, "Please son. Don't go to India. We were just watching the news on television. There have been floods in India, and lots of people have died. And now there's cholera. Many people are very sick. You don't need that." He said, "Please promise me that you won't go to India. Call your guru. I’ll pay for the call. Surely he will tell you not to come."

I chuckled to myself. How naïve my father was. He thought the whole world is all hooked up with phones like the U.S. Of course I knew there was no way to phone Baba. But then again, I've sat on the veranda at Baba’s temple many times when Baba got a bunch of telegrams. I never saw him open any of the folded telegrams and read them, but he did always look at each one in turn to see the names of those that sent them. Knowing, as I did first hand, that Baba doesn’t need to physically read the message to know what the telegram contains, I figured that for Baba to know that I was sending him a telegram was good enough for me. So, I decided to go ahead and send him a telegram. I knew I couldn't do that from the phone in my place so I headed off to the Esalen business office, to see about doing it from there.

Now, that afternoon, after talking to my dad I started my Yom Kippur fast, and looked forward to some quiet time to myself without the constant traffic of volunteers coming to help me with the juicing. But before settling down in my place I went out to the office to send the telegram. As I walked across the Esalen garden, I had a piece of paper and my pen handy, and I composed my telegram to Swami. It said, "DEAREST  BHAGAVAN.   BODY  VERY  SICK.   WITH  BABA’S  GRACE  NOW  FEELING  BETTER.   PERMISSION  TO  COME  INDIA  PUT  HEAD  ON  BABA’S  FEET.   PLEASE  REPLY. "

As I was coming to the Esalen office, the gal behind the counter stuck her head out the door, shouted something towards me and waved her arms frantically, motioning me to hurry there. As I got closer she shouted, "Al, come quickly, there is a long distance call coming in for you."

A long-distance call for me? In all the years I was at Esalen, I've never had a call at the office. And now, just as I was heading there from my place a couple of hundred yards away, there was this call. The perfect synchronicity of it was really eerie. I ran in and went behind the counter to take the call. There was a lady on the other end. When I picked up the phone she identified herself as, "This is the international telegraph operator in San Francisco calling for Mr. Al Drucker."

For a moment I was speechless, and then incredulously I said to her, " I’m Alvin Drucker. But how did you know to call me at this office phone, just as I was on my way here to call your number and send a telegram?"

She said, "No, no. I’m calling because you have a telegram that just came in. We located you at this phone number and since the message seemed rather urgent we wanted to transmit it to you immediately, rather than sending it by post to Big Sur."

Ever more surprised I said, "Well, who's it from?  Where's it from?"

She said, "It's from India.     "India?  From where in India?  From whom?”, I blurted out.

She said, “I can't pronounce these difficult Indian names,” but she spelled out P-R-A-S-H-A-N-T-I      N-I-L-A-Y-A-M, which of course is the name of Sai Baba’s ashram.

I said, “Really? From Prashashanti Nilayam? Wow!"

She says, "Yes. And the telegram is from BABY.”

I said, "BABA?”  She said, “No, it’s signed ‘BABY’, and the message is short and simple. It says…”

I interrupted her with, “Please hold on a minute, I'm going to write it down." So I got out my little piece of paper on which I had jotted the telegram I wanted to send. And right after the last part of my as yet unsent telegram, the end of which said, ‘PERMISSION  TO  COME  INDIA  PUT  HEAD  ON  BABA’S  FEET.   PLEASE  REPLY”, I wrote the incoming telegram that she dictated to me. It said, "COME  IMMEDIATELY.   COME  TO  THE  ONE  WHO  LOVES  YOU  AS  NONE  OTHER.   (Signed)  BABY"

And she added, "You must have a sweetie over there who really loves you. Do you want to send her your telegram now?"

I said, "No. No thank you. It's no longer necessary. It's already been answered.” And so I hung up the phone. I was buzzing. ‘My God, what just happened here? Maybe I should kick myself to see if this is real?’ While I’m acting a little strange, other people who were in the office at the time came up to me to find out how I was doing. To begin with they were surprised to see me there, on my feet, when the last word of my condition was that I was dying. Everyone at Esalen knew I had been very sick, and hadn't shown my face for several months. They knew nothing of my death and resurrection the day before. Seeing me there they gathered around and asked “Al, how are you feeling? Are you OK now?"

I started to answer them, when I realized that the telegram said, “COME IMMEDIATELY”. It didn't say ‘take time to chat with people about your health’. No. It was, ‘Come to India immediately’.  I would love to have sat down and gabbed with all these friends who I hadn’t seen for weeks and who were so concerned about me. After all, there had been so many amazing miracles that had been happening to me just that past day, with the death episode, the complete turn around of the illness, and now this telegram, and my heading off to India, all happening on Yom Kippur. And for all I knew these miraculous happenings were still continuing. I was dying to tell somebody about it and share the wonder of it. But then, on reflection, there was really nobody there that would have understood if I tried to explain. And besides, ‘IMMEDIATELY’ meant ‘immediately’. So I said, “Please excuse me but I'm going back to my place to pack. I’m on my way to India” And I hurried home.

Then a remarkable thing happened. Within 10 minutes of getting back to my place the word had gotten out, and so many people descended on the little round house in Hot Springs Canyon on the edge of the Esalen property, where I was living at that time. The first person who came to see me off was one of my students, an American nun named Sister Mary from a convent in Indonesia. All the nuns in her convent were nurses connected with a Jesuit hospital that was training native nurses in Indonesia. She was the Mother Superior of the Order. She had come to Esalen primarily to study Chinese medicine and deep tissue work in my workshop. Besides the classes, she regularly showed up at my morning meditations before I got sick, and she undoubtedly had seen pictures of Baba there. But she never asked about it, and I never talked about it. Now she heard I was going to India.

As other people streamed into that space, she took me aside for a moment, removed her necklace, a gold crucifix, and handed it to me, saying, "Al, this has not been off my neck even once since I was a novitiate at the age of 14, almost forty years ago. Please take it to Sai Baba, and ask him to bless it for me." I was overwhelmed; I didn't know that she knew anything at all about Baba, and in view of her Catholic faith, that she would consider him a great spiritual light. But this was symptomatic of what was suddenly happening in that small cabin. It was remarkable. Baba’s presence just filled the place.

One young man who I didn't know very well at that time, came up to me. He was a follower of another Indian guru, Swami Muktananda, and would do weekly evenings of kirtans (spiritual chants) that I had attended a number of times. He said, "Al, you're going to need some money for the trip. The banks will be closed when you get to Carmel or Monterey. He counted off seven $100 bills and said, "Here take it. I don’t need the money now and I don’t want to keep it in my room. You can pay me back when you return." I objected but he insisted. Initially I thought I was just going for a week at the most, basically just to have Baba’s darshan and touch his feet. But as it turned out, I stayed for four months and lived on that money during my whole trip.

Another fellow came and said, "I'll call the airport in Monterey, and see what flights are available going either north to San Francisco or south to Los Angeles, whichever will connect you with an international flight to India." Someone else said "I'll drive you to the airport." Now normally it takes weeks to get ready for a major trip like that, but amazingly, within an hour of getting the telegram I was on my way to India. I had a passport, but I had no visa and I had no ticket to India, but I knew it would all be taken care of. A month or two earlier, somebody in my workshop had given me a present of a watch. It was the first of the new digital wristwatches. And it had an alarm feature on it. Earlier, when I had spoken to my father and resolved to do the Yom Kippur fast, I set the alarm so that 24 hours later I would end the fast. That was earlier that day. That watch was on my wrist. It plays a part later in this story.

There was such a commotion in my place, with all these people coming, I couldn’t really think straight just what I was going to take with me, but figuring that I was only going to be in India a few days I decided I would do with just a couple of changes of clothes and underwear, and then buy some dhotis and kurtas if I needed to in India. And so I packed just a few personal items in one of those little zip-on-top Air Force bags. It was a small thing I could easily carry. This was before the days of those rolling carry-ons. Since there was still room in the bag, I put in some of the organic apples and carrots that had been my staples for preparing the Gerson therapy juices.

And so I was off to the airport in Monterey. When we got there, there was a plane loading, going to L.A. They had room for me. Great! In LA, I ran across to the international terminal, and I discovered that remarkably, British Airways had just inaugurated a new 747 non-stop service from L.A. to Heathrow in London. And that very flight was scheduled to take off within an hour. So here was another unexpected development happening that day, I had never heard of flying from Los Angeles nonstop to London, all the way across America, across the Atlantic, and on to London. And in London, it would connect with a nonstop flight to Bombay. And then in Bombay, I could take an Indian Airlines flight south to Bangalore, and then a two and a half hour taxi drive to the ashram. All that was still ahead, but so far everything was developing smoothly. There was only one problem, I didn’t have a ticket or a visa for entering India.

I got to the British Airways counter at LAX, and asked, "When is your flight to London leaving?"

The agent at the counter said, "The plane is sitting out there. We'll be announcing it shortly. Do you have a ticket for it?"

I said, "No, I don't have a ticket. Is there a space on it?"

"Yes, there are still a few seats left. But of course you will need a ticket and a passport."

I said, "I have my passport. Can I buy a ticket here?" She said. “It will cost $1030 to go coach seating all the way to Bangalore. You can pay for it with an airline card.”

I asked, "Can I write a check?"

The counter lady said, "No, we don’t accept checks. Since we can’t verify your bank balance, our policy is not to accept personal checks. But you can use your airline card." These were the first plastic cards in those days. They had to have been previously purchased and they were very expensive; I believe you had to pay over $500 to get one of those cards. Apparently some of that money came back to you as you used the card. All hip travellers would have had such a card, and I must have looked the part, because she repeated, "May I have your airline card, please?"

I said, "I’m sorry I don't have one."

"Well, we can't sell you a ticket then."

I said, "Can I speak to your supervisor. It is vital that I get to India. Perhaps, there is some way I can pay with my personal check." The supervisor came, she looked me over and asked a few questions. I assured her that I had sufficient funds in my Bank of America account to cover the check. The truth was, there had been so many expenses to cover the therapy and so much money going out, I had no real idea how much money I had left in the account. I thought it was a little more than a thousand dollars but I couldn’t be sure. This officer said to me, "I can approve your check, but I have to personally vouch for it. If this check bounces, I will have to come up with the money." She hemmed and hawed, but Baba entered her heart, and she decided to sell me a ticket.

It wasn't until I got back from my trip many months later, that I discovered that there was barely six dollars more than that $1030 check, in my account. And Bank of America, in those days, would not have honored the check if it'd been even a penny more than my account balance. With the seven $100 bills in my pocket, I didn’t have to write another check until I was back in America, and it was at that time that I discovered I had just 6 dollars left in my account. Anyway, for now, Baba had taken care of all the needful and I was on my way to London.

Somewhere over Ireland, perhaps ten hours later, in the darkened 747 cabin with most of the passengers asleep, my alarm went off, and I knew it was the end of my Yom Kippur fast. I reached into my bag to break fast (aptly named), and I took out an apple and a carrot, and did the Sanskrit verses from the Bhagavad Gita which are done all over India as a prayer of grace before eating, to dedicate the food to the service of God. Who would ever have guessed that I would be on my way to India after talking to my folks the previous day when I started my Yom Kippur fast?

I got to London and the flight to Bombay left an hour later. Everything was clicking in perfectly. When I got to Bombay airport, the customs inspector asked me for my passport and visa. Of course I didn't have a visa." He said to me, “Well my dear sir, we’re going to have to send you back to where you came from. You can't come into India without a visa."

I said, "But I have to be here. Sai Baba sent for me. I had a telegram from him telling me to come immediately. There was no time to get a visa."     He asked incredulously, "You know Sai Baba?"

I said, "Yes, I've been to Baba many times. I am going straight to his ashram.”    He said, "And Sai Baba wants you to come?"     I said, "Yes. In California, yesterday, I received a telegram from Prashanti Nilayam, telling me to come immediately."

And so I tell the whole story to this customs agent. Sai Baba was known throughout India, and held in the highest regard. Many worshipped him as God. Obviously this customs man also knew of him. So he said, "Well, let's have a look at your passport."

I had previously made dozens of trips to India and all those comings and goings and the relevant three-month visas were there in the passport. He looked at the visa for my previous trip which at this point had expired. He said, "Well, this one says that it is good for three entries and exits, and you only used one." He simply overlooked that it was out of date and said, "We'll just use one of those entries." He stamped it and said, " Sai Ram, sir. Good luck to you. You’re good to go."

So, like that it went. In Bombay, I needed an Indian Airlines flight to Bangalore. I shuttled over to the domestic airport where there was a flight leaving soon, but it was full, as these flights always are. So I got on the waiting list, a scary No. 55 down the list. I hung around the counter and at the last minute I got called, and was on the flight to Bangalore. As I came out of the terminal at Bangalore airport, I saw a Muslim taxi man who I recognized; his name was Abdul. He saw me at the same time and came over and said to me, "Druckerji, you have come. Good, I'm going off to Puttaparthi to pick somebody up and bring them back to the airport. I first had to get their tickets here, so I thought, ‘This flight is coming in, maybe somebody would like a ride’. And here you are.” I said, "Abdul, fantastic to see you. Baba must have directed you here. Well, I’m all yours. Let’s go.”

It all connected so beautifully. Mysteriously, the whole trip seemed to be choreographed perfectly. When we got to the ashram, I discovered it was one of the major spiritual holy days, Dassera, and a huge crowd had descended onto Prashanti Nilayam. People were sitting for darshan. They were more than 40 lines deep. Swami was already out on the ladies’ side; he had not yet come to the gents’ side. Everybody in the darshan area, many tens of thousands, sat in the sand, tightly packed together. In back of the rows of sitting people there was a low wall that came up to waist level. You could stand outside it and see Baba as a small figure moving along in the distance, making contact with the devotees seated in the first few lines. Most of the overflow crowd that couldn’t get into the darshan seating area on the sand, were standing outside behind the wall, looking on. I found a place among them.

When Baba came by in the front he somehow spotted me and pointing and gesticulating with his finger called someone in my direction to come to him. I couldn’t believe he meant me, he was so far away. But everybody around was sure that Baba was calling for me and urged me to go to him. I had no idea how to get to him through that mass of people, but there was an ashram volunteer posted nearby to keep order. He took me in tow and made a path through the crowd and led me to Swami.

The first thing Baba said to me was, "Take namaskar (touch the feet).” That's what I had asked for in the unsent telegram that I had written on that little piece of paper, on the way through the Esalen garden to the Esalen office: “Permission to come to India and put my head on Baba’s feet”.

So, that was now concluded. Then Baba said to me, "Why do you fear when I am here?"    I said, “Swami, it was Cancer! This body died of Cancer.”      

And Baba answered, "Cancer Canceled!”

Imagine how great that is to hear, after having fought with the cancer for so many months and then having succumbed to it, without ever having any idea why it struck in the first place. When it first appeared, its sudden onset out of nowhere, after I had had an extensive physical checkup for renewing my pilot’s license and all my metrics had checked out well, was a mystery to me. I had had lots and lots of rolfings and my liver area, as well as the rest of my body, was very pliable and in good order. Physically and mentally I felt good. By all indications I was in great shape. And then wham!!... suddenly the cancer! There was no warning and I was totally befuddled. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was not my cancer, that it had hopped over and was just finishing itself in a surrogate body; namely, mine.

I started this article by recounting a time when Baba had taken on a devotee's heart attack. That particular incident occurred several years after the story I've been telling here of Gregory and my death experience. At that later time, Baba was asked by me why he had taken the heart attack into his own body and not just miraculously made it go away. In answer Baba said that he does not ordinarily interfere with the laws of Nature. That what had started in one body had to complete itself in that body or in another body that was better able to take it on. When he said this he looked straight at me. It was then that I put it together; that this transfer of illness had happened from Gregory to me. Gregory's cancer had to go somewhere and it completed itself in me. At that time I was ready to do whatever Baba assigned me to do. In saying, “You ‘nurse’ the professor. Baba will help,” he knew he could utilize my body to complete the healing process Gregory had to go through, which included his death. As I see it, that benefited me as much as Gregory. It gave me the unique chance to experience death and forever purge my fear of dying.

After I got to India I was going to stay for only a few days, certainly not more than a week or so. I was still very sick, and wanted to get back to the Gerson therapy and recuperate. The tradition in India, if you come from abroad, is to ask the guru for permission to leave, when it’s time to go. A few days after I had gotten there, Baba had shifted to his Brindavan ashram, outside of Bangalore. At one of the first darshans there I had a chance to ask him for permission to leave. And instead of the word, "leave", what came out of my mouth was “stay”. I had no intention of saying that, but inexplicably I had asked for permission to stay.

This was early in October. “Stay?” Baba asked. How long would you stay?”

And suddenly I thought, there are never any accidents around Baba. If I had said ‘stay’ it must have come from Baba, and he meant for me to stay. So when he asked how long I would stay I said, “I can stay till Baba’s Birthday, (November 23rd), maybe even till Christmas or New Year.”

“Oh, so long? What would you do?”   Now that was a surprise to me. Of course we come to the ashram to immerse ourselves in spiritual practices and imbibe the holy atmosphere there, close to Swami. This goes without saying, but now, not only was I suddenly staying instead of leaving, but I also had to justify my stay, something I had never before been asked in dozens of previous visits. And I never heard Swami ask anyone else that. Swami was up to something. So I did some quick thinking, and suggested I could do something for the college boys in Baba’s college nearby. It was before the days of sports in Indian colleges. They had no scheduled physical activity. At Esalen I had taught tai chi and yoga, and we would daily go running, using a marked off stretch of Highway One as our track. I had been in pretty good shape prior to the cancer episode, and it would certainly aid my recovery to focus on some physical activities to get back into shape.

So I said, “Swami, I can teach physical education to the college boys.”

He said, “Very good! Physics education!”         I said, “No, Swami, physical education.”   

“Yes!” he said, “Physics education!”  And he called over the principal, the one running the college, and said to him, “New physics teacher.”

My goose was cooked. After my ballistic missile period, I had been away from science and physics for many years. My interest had totally shifted to holistic medicine and alternative healing. But now, I was to be the new college physics teacher. The principal told me, “Take your time, take a week. Prepare. Then you can give some lectures to all the students. We have sufficient faculty for our classes, so perhaps you could give some talks to everyone on the new physics, on quantum mechanics, on Einstein’s relativity and the latest research in physics.” Well, this for me was a really tall order!

But I felt I had no choice; Baba had directed and I was committed. So, I went to Bangalore University in the city. In the stacks of their library, they had a good physics section. I just got lost in there for days. Once I knew I had to do this and that Baba was behind it, my mind became a sponge soaking up physics. Nobody knew I hadn’t specialized in this, that I had been a missile engineer with a grounding in physics twenty years earlier, but that the detailed technical interest in that stuff had all died in me. Now it was reborn. When Swami inspires, it's amazing what we become capable of. I prepared these lectures on quantum mechanics, on special and general relativity, on astro-physics, on black holes and the particle zoo of sub-atomic physics, including even their mathematical underpinnings. The students seemed to love the talks, and my self-confidence grew by leaps and bounds.

Swami had me stay in the hostel with the boys, where I was given a room. Living in the hostel with the boys was a wonderful experience for me. Every night, Swami would meet with the senior boys and teachers. They would have a bhajan and he would call on different boys to speak spontaneously on spiritual subjects and experiences. And he called on me as well, and I would narrate some experiences, and comment on their deeper spiritual meaning. At first the anticipation of being called upon at any time to speak publicly, and in Baba’s presence, terrorized me. But I soon learned to conquer my fears and even these off-the-cuff talks turned out fine.

Instead of staying just a few days I ended up staying over 4 months, and gave these talks weekly until the end of the semester. The following day at darshan, Swami said to me, “Now you can go back to America.” And so I left for California and my old hangout, Esalen Institute in Big Sur. I was sure that by now I had lost my place there, that Esalen would have taken it back. I didn’t know if I still had a job, or if I was still on the staff there, but nevertheless it felt really good to be going home again. As it turned out, Swami had made all the arrangements. When I got back, they were all happy to see me. Nothing had changed. I still had my place, and of course now I was free of the cancer. And after the 4 month trip, I felt well and fully recovered.

When I got back, I discovered that Gregory and his family were still in Fritz’s house at Esalen, and Gregory was now at the top of his form. Many students were coming to visit him. With the help of his older daughter, he had finished two seminal books, a documentary movie had been made of him, and he was clearly back in the saddle. He now had a new fun project. He got a Questar telescope, which is very powerful and compact, and could be attached as a super long-distance lens to his Nikon camera. He set up the telescope and camera on the deck at Fritz Perls’ house. Through the lens, he filmed a tiny hummingbird in a far off canyon, hopping around and hovering over its eggs for hours at a time. Apparently, this particular species of very tiny hummingbirds don’t continually sit on their eggs, but control the temperature by alternately hovering in flight over their eggs. And, according to Gregory, up to that time this had never been photographed before. He was a naturalist and loved to explore this kind of thing. I remember looking through the telescope into that nest and shared his excitement. He was looking forward so much to the day when the hatchlings would come out, breaking through those little bitsy eggs.

During that particular time his older daughter was not around, and his wife and young child were also away. So he was alone in Fritz Perls’ big house, preoccupied with his hummingbird project. One day, when the hatchling birth was imminent I went up to see him. When I got there it was still some hours before the little hatchlings would emerge. He suggested, “There is time before the blessed event. Since it’s lunch time, why don’t we go down to the Esalen canteen for lunch?” So we went to eat.

When we got back up to his place we saw signs of somebody having been there. The front door which had been locked was now open. Somebody had apparently been spying on him. Fritz’s house is built into a steep hill, and further uphill is Highway One, the Coast Highway. Somebody had lowered himself with ropes from the highway. The ropes were still hanging when we came back up there. So, this person had rappelled down the rope from the highway, packed the Questar telescope and Gregory’s Nikon camera, with all its telescopic lenses into a bag, and must have come through the house to the front door and seen that we were coming up and managed to make his way back up the rope to the highway and disappeared.

Gregory was grief stricken. To him, it was a dagger piercing his heart. He was so invested in completing his hummingbird project, and now this had slammed all the joy right out of him. A few days later he took to bed and started coughing; soon he was coughing up blood. A pneumonia had developed. He saw a doctor, who advised him to go back into the hospital. So he was taken all the way back to the University Hospital where he had been before. They took an X-ray of his chest, and it appeared not much had changed from the X-rays they had originally taken when he first came into the hospital, after coming home from India. It was now about three years later, but there on the X-ray was the same carcinoma image. The cancer had just remained in place where it originally was. It had become inactive.

It was later determined that what Gregory had was shingles, herpes zoster, that affected his lungs. So, he had contracted a very painful and serious viral infection in his lungs. I had never heard of lung shingles. It was only after he had been medicated for cancer that they discovered it. Apparently he died from the powerful drugs they had given him in the hospital. His cancer was not just in remission, his cancer was “cancelled”. But his work was done. His time had come.

Again the family arranged to take him out of the hospital. He was moved into the San Francisco Zen Center guest cottage, to see him through his transition. The head of the Zen Center, Baker roshi, oversaw all the arrangements for a sacred passage. The future roshi of the Zen Center, Reb Anderson, came with many of the monks to attend to him. The Sai people from the San Francisco Sai Baba Center came and did a bhajan session around his bed. Previous to that, he wanted nothing to do with bhajans and Sai devotees. But now he appreciated the love and admiration they felt for him. All his family gathered around him. His students and associates came to see him off.

I was not there since I was back in India with Baba, but I heard that it was a truly beautiful goodbye. He left on the Fourth of July. Swami had kept him alive long enough for his heart to soften and clear out a lot of karma, and probably short circuit many unnecessary incarnations along the way. And Baba also gave him the chance to cement his legacy, by completing his very important pioneering work during these divinely-graced extra years of life.

Shortly afterwards, my life also changed dramatically. At Baba’s direction I left America and moved to India, planning on becoming an Indian citizen. But that turned out quite differently, and called for many more bumps and jumps. So, stay tuned for many more episodes of this ongoing India saga.

--  Om Tat Sat  --


                                                                       Al Drucker, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

                                                                            March 2013