Many years ago, when I was in college, I took several months off, to take a break, to regather my focus and determination, to get better acquainted with my own motivations and inherent direction. It feels like another lifetime really, but it is a portion of the path that lies behind me still. At the time, I was attending Indiana University in Bloomington. I was an undergraduate philosophy major, and philosophy had given me no direction at all; it had provided, instead of a sense of truth, only a sense of befuddlement, and that my university professors, despite admirable credentials and broad intellectual knowledge and skill, were as lost in the world as I was.
Just before I’d left for my “holiday” from university, I’d had a small discussion in the office of one of my professors, my ethics professor. I’d been experimenting with what I’d considered to be “alternative faculties of awareness” (no, I don’t mean drugs, although I certainly considered that avenue as well, but found it, after only two or three practical inquiries, to be unsatisfying). I attempted to explain to him that all reasoning processes which attempted to “arrive at” truth were doomed to infinite regression and could never get there. I was beginning to experience what I considered to be an alternative to reasoning as a pathway to realization. I told him that I thought you had to simply “know truth.” There was just no other way. I gave him several examples about how this was manifesting for me. I tried to explain these insights as honest perceptions which appeared true and valid but which could not be reached by argument. I said that argument chased them away in the same way that a bird runs away from children brandishing sticks and calling raucously after them.
Of course, he was having none of it. He sought to apply his considerable analytical skills to my statements, showing (he believed) where they were contradictory, attempting to have me prove them to him. Eventually I came to see, how could I prove to him something which he had to see for himself, with his own inner vision, in order to know that it was true? It’s an impossibility. So, for him, what I offered became like a flock of fleeing sparrows in a wind storm and he could see no beauty in it at all, and no truth. To me, however, it was the path home, however faintly I was then aware of it.
I don’t want to convey the impression that I believed then, or now, that what I was experiencing was absolute truth. What I was experiencing however was sincere inquiry. It was, to me, the practical application of the what Socrates had lovingly suggested millennia before when he said “know thyself.” He had said that all else, all truth and insight, proceeds only from such contemplation, once it has fully matured.
That conversation was the last straw for me and I realized that I was not progressing in the way that I needed to do while at the university. I had to step back and reconsider my path. So I decided to take some time off and live at home in Decatur, Indiana for several months.
While there I spent a lot of time walking and jogging, reading and contemplating, and writing poetry about various insights that seemed to come forth out of the silence that I was courting. Because I was at a loss about where to go next in my life, it was a huge blessing to have what could only be called a time of retreat.
I spent as much of the time as possible wandering about in the nearby woodlands. During the winter, when the snow and frost came and went, I reveled in the purity of the snow, the bracing cool, the silence that it brought to the landscape. So much beautiful peace and inner direction came out of the example that the imagery and experience of those things provided, and in the stillness of listening and knowing that I didn’t know a damn thing. The following bit of prose, from my book Gathered Rain, is based on one of my little strolls out in one of the nearby woods.
One day while it was snowing, I went for a walk in the woods. The trees were adorned each with a light column of snow concentrated on their eastward face. The snow brightened cracks and contours of bark, making the trees appear as if lighted from within, as if in listening to the wind and the ice-crystals they were attaining a sublime spirituality. In one place among a cluster of trees I found a quiet bank of snow through which protruded clumps of thin brown reeds, just as do those in the sand along the ocean. It inspired a strange feeling: the place transported my mind back to the sunny beach, but my body was still standing in the cold, brilliantly white snow. Warmed inwardly, I walked on through the woods, among the praying trees, the eternal snow, the restful wind.
For some other articles about my book, Gathered Rain (a collection of poetry and artwork), click on this link.