Harbin Hot Springs and the Ten Thousand Fragments of Brahma

A day, a night, and a dawn at Harbin Hot Springs

Goat Trails

Story and photos by Ryan Masters

Nov. 19, 2014—When surrounded by penises you realize that each one is unique. Not unique like the divine delicacy of a snowflake—grotesquely unique like the melting nose of a waxen clown. But still unique.

I am soaking in the Meditation Zone, a mid-temperature pool at Harbin Hot Springs, just north of Napa Valley. Above my head is a sign that reads, “Please keep the area free from conversation and sexual activity.” In addition to meditating on the general unattractiveness of external genitalia, including my own, I am pointedly ignoring a foursome of young lovers with unfortunate neo-tribal haircuts. Apparently they have interpreted the sign as merely a suggestion. But God bless ‘em, we were all young, tantric and tripping balls on ecstasy once. Regardless, I decide it is time to move on to another pool.

It’s a crisp, November afternoon at Harbin. Much of its 5,000 wooded acres burn yellow and sienna with autumn. Nestled into a scenic box canyon outside of Middletown, California, the hot springs have a rich, centuries-long history periodically punctuated by apocalyptic forest fires. As a result, one of the absolute, non-negotiable rules is no open flame of any kind.

Like any remotely attractive area in the country, the hot springs were initially a sacred domain of Native Americans—in this case, the Pomo. There is evidence of human occupation in the area that stretches back roughly 11,000 years. Then, beginning in 1821, your standard parade of Spanish soldiers and missionaries, Mexican land barons, and European settlers filed through the region and the Pomo were decimated.

In one particularly brutal incident rarely mentioned in Lake County Tourism literature, two settlers, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, enslaved a large number of Pomo in the late 1840s, pressing the men into servitude, sexually abusing the women and nearly starving all of them to death. The Pomo revolted and killed both Kelsey and Stone. In response, the U.S. army cornered 200 Pomo on an island in Clear Lake, north of Harbin, and slaughtered most of them—including scores of women and children. One of the Pomo survivors of the massacre was a six-year-old girl named Ni'ka, or Lucy Moore. She hid underwater and breathed through a tule reed.

Interestingly enough, I only know this because I got lost on the drive home. After a fatal accident closed Highway 29, I wandered inexplicably north from Middletown and came across both Clear Lake and a lonely little memorial for what is now known as the Bloody Island Massacre. In a galling historical side note, Andrew Kelsey has a Lake County town named after him, Kelseyville. Take from that what you will.

Anyway, once the Pomo were either assimilated or destroyed, Harbin Hot Springs became a spa for Victorian invalids, a boxer’s training camp, a family resort and then a hippie commune called Harbinger in the late 1960s. Typical of its era, the hundred or so residents of Harbinger were preoccupied with LSD, UFOs and various other hallucinogenic acronyms. They were not, however, popular with the local residents of Lake County. Especially since they attracted a surly contingent of Hell’s Angels that found the hot springs a perfectly delightful place to shoot speed, guzzle whiskey and basically be Hell’s Angels. Eventually, after a benefit concert by the Grateful Dead failed to raise enough funds to actually buy the property, the county health department dispersed the hippies and Harbin Hot Springs fell into a period of neglect and disrepair.

Enter Bob Hartley—or as he is more commonly known, Ishvara. I did not meet Ishvara as he is now in his 80s and lives the quiet life of a semi-hermit somewhere on the Harbin property. I did, however, read much of his book, Oneness in Living. And, quite frankly, I really liked what I found there and can wholeheartedly recommend it. In short, Ishvara began as we all do, pretty much feeling socially inadequate, sexually frustrated and wandering from place to place doing the things television tells us we should be doing and marrying totally unsuitable people. However, a healthy intellect and sense of curiosity about human psychology led him to Zen, experiments in meditation and guys like Alan Watts and Fritz Perl, the founder of Gestalt Therapy. Eventually, he decided to found an “intentional community” and bought Harbin Hot Springs in 1972.

Freaking Freely

When he initially moved in, the place was a mess. The local townspeople had allegedly been so enamored with the peace-loving hippies and Hell’s Angels that they had attempted to make the place unlivable by smashing the windows, pulling out the plumbing fixtures and leaving seven inches of debris on the floors of the ramshackle structures. Ishvara was undeterred. Well, actually he was plenty deterred over the years, most notably in 1978 when an anarchist started a revolt and managed to control the place for nine months—but he forged on anyway.

One of the primary reasons that Harbin Hot Springs has flourished under Ishvara’s watch is that he was quick to recognize the dangers of being a command-and-control guru. He understood that the dominance of one thought leader eventually creates a sterile environment. And, as he explains in his book, homogenous thought triggers a form of Gresham’s law: the uncreative drives out the creative. To counter this, Harbin not only welcomes new people but makes them an integral part of the system at all levels. As a result, the residents make up something of a spiritual university—different belief systems are “described, observed and practiced without favoritism.”

The physical grounds of Harbin Hot Springs reflect this all-inclusive ideology. Among the restored Victorian buildings are Eastern-influenced temples, utilitarian camp structures and the odd Mongolian yurt. Trippy, organic-looking flourishes of painted concrete reminiscent of Gaudi or the Dagobah System reach like tentacles along the pathways and under bridges. And where the spring water flows there are lush pockets of green, serene altars littered with sparkling crystal and abalone shell.

As a man fond of extremes, my favorite pool is the hottest one. Its 113-degree waters pour from the ensconced mouth of a whale into a four-foot deep pool housed inside a shrine-like hut. Through the steam and subconscious lighting, the bust of a goddess in a flowered headdress gazes down on her devotees. The pool is enclosed with a magnificent handrail of hammered chrome, its angles and corners festooned with symbols suggesting original sin. From the mouths of two apple-bearing serpents, a long bar of this chrome extends over the pool. As I soaked, I watched a gray-haired woman hanging from it by one arm like a graceful, hairless orangutan. As she stretched and twisted her aged but supple body, I decided there must be something to the theories about Harbin’s healing properties.

Behind the shrine of hot water, an alarmingly cold pool rests at the mouth of a verdant gorge. For long periods of time, I traveled back and forth between the two—from the fuzzy dream of the hot water to the stark, clear bite of the cold. It was like submerging into and emerging from a dream state over and over. By the time I was done, I felt delightfully disembodied.

Sacred Ground

The hot springs are only one aspect of Harbin’s charms. The place offers a wide variety of amusements and spiritual pursuits—from live music and movies to yoga, meditation and AA meetings. On the hillside across the canyon, the blue Watsu domes loom like lonely moon units or surgically enhanced dolphin breasts. Originally developed at Harbin, Watsu is described as aquatic bodywork used for deep relaxation and passive aquatic therapy. I took a pass this time around.

But perhaps the best thing about Harbin outside of the pools is the surrounding hiking trails and countryside. After soaking all evening in the pools, I hiked up one of the trails and slept under the stars in a clearing overlooking the property. Below me, the lights of Harbin twinkled as the cold November moon rose. Before dawn the next morning, I continued up the hillside, passing a vacant teahouse, stone cairns and trees decorated with feathers and baubles. Just as I emerged onto the canyon ridge, one of the most glorious sunrises in recent memory lit up the sky.

Alan Watts, who Ishvara considers a major inspiration, used to recount a story in which Brahma, or God, decides to fragment into “the ten thousand things” in order to experience life relationally. In the process of fragmenting, Brahma “forgets” its identity and commences a cosmic game of hide-and-seek, continuously revealing itself to itself in an infinite number of ways throughout the universe.

I am reminded of this story as I watch day atomize the night sky in an awe-inspiring display of form and color over Harbin Hot Springs. Perhaps life exists so that the Universe can experience itself. There is no question—especially when watching a sunrise like this one—that everything is interconnected and unified. Maybe our goal as humans (and as fragments of Brahma) is to recognize these other aspects of our Self and resolve everything back to its original Oneness.

Who knows? If so, Harbin Hot Springs provides plenty of opportunities to recognize fragments of Brahma. It is everywhere—in the steam rising from the pools, the sun rising over the valley, the prayers rising from the altars. It’s there along the hillside trails, inside a vacant teahouse, in the smiles of four young lovers—you can even find it beside a lonely memorial to the victims of a massacre.

Ah yes. But what about the penises, you ask? I imagine the fragments of Brahma can even be found among Harbin’s cavalcade of uniquely grotesque penises. If you wish, go forth and seek God there.

I, however, shall look elsewhere.

Ryan Masters writes a weekly column for Hilltromper.

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For more information about Harbin Hot Springs visit