I Was In It All When Suddenly I Felt My Body Collapse (Flashback #2 Concluded)

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Existentialism And Mysticism-Shake, Don’t Stir

Jan. ‘78

I asked Dr. Folkart at the beginning of the semester if I could sit in on his Mysticism class. He mostly taught Hinduism and Buddhism, but this class was going to be a combination of a lot of Asian religions. It was his first time teaching it. I was glad when he gave me permission to join the class. The class was divided into two parts, readings, lecture, and discussion–and the practice part. Of course, there were going to be exams, two of them, but the practice part also required a written account of the feelings and emotional changes that either happened or didn’t happen.

Mysticism, according to Dr. Folkart, referred to a reality that was rarely experienced, and because of that there was a great deal of skepticism and doubt concerning its existence. The claim to that other reality, though, was not merely stated; its credibility came out of a direct experience of it and no description could substitute for that direct experience. According to Dr. Folkart, it was kind of like when an unsuspecting push put you in the deep end of a swimming pool. “How do you prepare for that kind of experience?” he said. In order for mysticism to be believed, it had to be experienced, but we were not expected to become mystics, in this class anyway. Dr. Folkart just wanted us to learn how to take seriously the centuries-old claims of the mystics.

Professor Folkart did his PhD work in India, on the Jain religion. He told the class, “If you keep an open mind and do the practices, I guarantee that some of the potential that lies dormant in each and every one of you will be realized.” It was obvious; he really wanted the class to develop an appreciation for the mystical tradition. With that end in mind, he handed out the class syllabus. It had a description of the exercises that were supposed to correspond to the mystical traditions that we would study: nature-mysticism, body-mysticism, and mind/consciousness-mysticism. The exercises were to be explored separately and in combination. For the most part, they were basic control-disciplines, with emphasis placed on silence, solitude, and fasting. Some of the exercises were optional. The meditation and scheduled yoga sessions (under the direction of Dr. Folkart), however, were required.

The class was not your typical class, but it sure was a lot of fun. Before starting the class, I already had an appreciation for the mystical traditions. I’m sure it had more of an effect on some of the other students, however. The best part of the class, for me at least, came when Dr. Folkart asked me if I would read and report back to him on a book that he had not read. The author, Keiji Nishitani, a Japanese Philosophy Professor, had studied under Martin Heidegger. My professor knew I had studied Existentialism, and he wanted some input on that part of the book. After I wrote my report on the book entitled Religion and Nothingness, I wrote a summery to make it easier to understand. That summary should be helpful here also:

The Cartesian division of reality into immaterial, invisible, subjective consciousness and material, visible objectivity is not the whole story. In fact, basically, that’s just plain wrong. With descriptions of more meaningful and comprehensive levels of experience, both mysticism and existentialism move beyond this limitation. For instance, Kierkegaard tells us that movement inward is movement forward, and, if pushed far enough, results in an intense religious experience. The short story here is that an inverse relationship exists between a person’s outward ego and the gap that separates a person from God. In other words, big ego-big gap, little ego-gap closes. For Kierkegaard, “one’s nothingness before God” is the end goal.

A similar thing is going on in the thought of Heidegger. Dasein, in thrownness, begins in nullity and ends with authentic being—Dasein’s most potential being possible. This is ditto for Nietzsche. His nihilism is not an attack on differences per-se, rather it is the “eternal recurrence” of the destruction of everything, hence the affirmation of everything. In the philosophy of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, one discovers the theme of liberation. That theme is not so obvious in Sartre. His path to deeper subjectivity takes us no further than the freely chosen act. His cogito is so shut up within itself that it can never escape from its own nothingness. Sartre’s philosophy is a dead end, or so says Nishitani, who then goes on to describe a much more powerful liberation theme.

The cogito of Sartre does not lead us down the path of inner subjectivity because sunyata—absolute emptiness—is not the ground of the subject. Antipodal negativity or the opposite of existence, takes us nowhere. “It is not that the self is empty,” says Nishitani, “but that emptiness is self; not that things are empty, but that emptiness is things…On the field of sunyata, each thing is itself in not being itself, and is not itself in being itself.” In the end, sunyata fills the gap between subject and object, between man and God, and between God and creation. Sunyata reaches across into the ground of all other things by gathering all things together in relationship with one another, and, as such, fills the chasm at the root of being. Sunyata, in this sense, says Nishitani, is not just absolute emptiness; it is the “Great Affirmation.”

Flashback #2 Concluded

Juan’s basement sitting on the bed

May 30, ‘72

May 30—night

A lot has happened today, and since I have the time, I’ll put it down. First off, it has been a fantastic day. In the beginning it was all uphill, not too much traffic, though, and a lot of scenery. Towards late afternoon I reached the summit, or at least the top (passes are usually cut through the lowest part of a mountain range). It was a long climb; it took me two days of bicycling. The Big Horn Mountains are big. As might be expected, at the pass there was an overlook for people to enjoy the view. On the pass, the snow was four feet deep. On the south side of the peaks, along the edges, the snow had melted, leaving bare rock for me to climb on. I left my bike in the parking lot and started up the mountain. High up along one of the peaks, I found a nice sunny spot and settled in for some quiet time.

When I climbed down, the sun was moving toward the horizon, and the air had turned chilly. In the parking lot, I got on my bike and headed down the mountain. It wasn’t long before I stopped peddling. At first the decent was steep, and the switchbacks were frequent and scary. I knew this was going to be quite a ride, especially when I came to the sign that read, “Down hill next twenty miles.”

I hated to brake, but not braking here, ultimately, would create a meld of bone and rock that I was desperately trying to avoid. (There was a concern that my brakes would fail, but I tried not to think about it). Soon, the switchbacks going down the mountain lengthened, and the 40 to 45 mph speeds that I had to negotiate became less threatening. On top of the mountain the frigid snow reflected blinding sunlight. At lower elevations, though, the heat from the sun warmed my face. As the sun got closer to the horizon, it added a rich yellow hue to the already spectacularly colored canyon walls, the walls of Ten Sleep Canyon. The vision was as overpowering as it was irresistible.

On wings of light, sailing down the mountain, I lost all feelings of attachment and weight. The farther down into the canyon I went the more I was filled with the overwhelming beauty of the place. I felt transparent to my surroundings. It was at that time, in the beauty of it all, when suddenly, as if a chair had been pulled out from under me, I felt the contours of my body (my exteriors) collapse. What was left of me after that was/is impossible to describe, but it felt like this: “It was Wow! Amazing! I was upside down and inside out.”

A feeling of “grasping,” of “being engaged” substituted for what used to be my body; but even that connection, that subject-object connection, was extraordinarily strange because I felt it from the outside – in, not from the inside – out. I did not fight it. I just let it happen. In that joyous trembling, throbbing, moment, zooming down the mountain, with a warm wind in my face and unbelievable beauty everywhere, I metamorphosed into an infinite array of connection with my environment. I had no idea as to what had just happened to me, but it was a fantastically passionate experience. There was no anxiety, fear, or negatives of any kind in it. I had never felt that way before (nor probably will again).

As I reached the canyon floor, I knew that if I died right then and there, it would be okay. From the vantage point of being inside my outside environment death had no meaning. It was an illusion. Once I had gotten outside of myself, once I became entwined within the environment, the Truth that death was an illusion was everywhere apparent. When I started peddling again it was as if I was peddling in a dream. It took a while to come down, to come down out of that dream. However, on the canyon floor it was 95 degrees and peddling in that kind of heat was a reality check all by itself. When the orange sun slipped beneath the horizon, it was still 92 degrees. Again, it was as if I had just landed on Earth after some intergalactic journey. I acclimated well, though. I came upon a restaurant-bar, and, of course, I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to reflect on what had just happened to me, so I went inside and ordered a beer.

At the bar, two Mexican Indians struck up a conversation with me. Apparently, they had watched me ride up on my bicycle. When I told them how far I had come, they were surprised. We drank some beers together, and Juan told me I could sleep in his basement if I wanted to. I agreed, but before arriving at his place we went out into his fields and I helped him redirect some irrigation water. Now it was his turn to impress me. He told me that he was under contract to provide all the barley that went into making Schlitz beer. Back in Michigan, I drank a lot of Schlitz, but in Wyoming it wasn’t available. Juan couldn’t even remember how the beer tasted. I assured him it tasted great.

Standing four inches deep in mud, surrounded by a field of green barley, and after another one of Juan’s friends had stopped by to help us drink the beer that Juan had stashed in the back of his truck, I guess you could say I made my way back to Earth, but even then, in that relatively innocuous moment, poetry flourished. The four of us–two orthodox Catholics, one agnostic military lifer (the new guy), and myself, at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains, in the cooling twilight of a very hot Wyoming day, talked God and religion. That was the second time in less than a couple of hours where language failed me. Words did not help me then and even now, in my attempt to describe that situation, I cannot find the words, so I won’t try.

In Juan’s basement I was sitting on the spare bed writing in my journal while trying not to listen to Juan argue with his wife upstairs. When I walked up to the house and entered through the door I could tell that his wife wasn’t happy. Juan, before we met his wife, told me that if I wanted to stick around for a few days he would put me to work. I said, “Sure.” I even told him that I would work for free because I wanted to get a feel for what it’s like living at the foot of the Big Horns, and that for me was worth more than money. He said, “You can thin sugar beats and I will pay you, maybe not much, but you’ll make a few dollars.” It didn’t look like any of that was going to happen now. Judging from what I was hearing upstairs, I decided not to unpack my things.


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