After coming home, with my purpose finished and a new one needing to be defined, with the structure of my joyfully repetitive walking days gone, I fell into a deep several week depression, fell being an almost literal meaning since it came upon me suddenly, without realization, expectation, or warning. The world felt gray, dull, without meaning or truth; it was chaotic. Passions and joys dissipated, any distractions became welcomed companions, the light at the end of the tunnel faded. It was a descent like Dante into my own personal hell.
Winston Churchill called depression the black dog; he may have been speaking truth in more than just a metaphorical sense. A black dog, unlike the normal, happy, unerringly loyal dog, this one simply pesters you continuously, sometimes being chase away, but always, always returning. Until you turn around and consciously choose to start fighting it off, that is. But that requires becoming the hero of my own mind, each of us in their own minds, just like those mythical hero legends we’ve all learned about growing up. This is a battle played out daily by trudging through the depths of the self, and it’s different for each of us, and if we choose to never to stand up and fight them off these aspects of ourselves that each of us fear will run roughshod over our lives.
Part and parcel to the human experience is meaning, how we perceive it and our fundamental need for it. Viktor Frankl wrote about how he stayed alive through the Holocaust by grasping desperately onto the hands of meaning, the unrealistic belief that his wife was still alive somewhere after she was sent to Auschwitz and he was sent to work camps. Friederich Nietzsche wrote that “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” It makes sense to get depressed when you don’t have meaning or when you lose it. Nietzsche also thought that what he termed “God is dead” was leading society to nihilism, the loss of life having any kind of meaning–in essence, I think he meant the loss of spirituality, not necessarily of organized religion. And as if that weren’t enough, he predicted that nihilism would be very destructive to humanity. I can only speak for myself; and for me, the past inability of seeing a deeper meaning to our existence has been self-destructive.
The meaning I’ve tried to redefine for myself is the search for some kind of truth out of this world and some kind of spiritual connection, whatever that ends up entailing. My search has become like an obsession the past few weeks, as I pored over beliefs, philosophies of existence, religions, myths, psychology, anything I could find, trying to answer this question, the existential question of why we exist, and to what purpose. It’s an eternal question of humanity that most of us grapple with in our lives, sometimes more than once; the question seems to manifest through people undergoing mid-life crises and crazed episodes of being that takes them from the security and ordinary of everyday existence into a chaotic world in which nothing is certain, where reality as we see it with our eyes starts being questioned. It’s just like the step Neo from the Matrix chooses to take when he is offered the red pill or blue pill, ultimately opting for red: the truth of reality. I am interested in sharing some of the things I’ve learned over time and the things I’m newly learning each day, not because they are correct in any sense, but simply because we all sometimes need a new way of looking at the world in order to break out of these thought loops and repetitive patterns of existing that we keep finding ourselves in.
In searching for the truth, I noticed myself starting to go in circles of thought, often times getting trapped in a particular cycle of thinking that would keep going round and round searching for some kind of truth, but only finding similar ideas with different fundamental assumptions. It started becoming apparent that I wouldn’t find some level of satisfactory truth, and a conversation with my friend Lee led me to the startling idea of searching within. I have tended to conceptualize the act of thinking as going within, but that seems erroneous if you view it as a conversation we are having with ourselves. Thinking is like background noise that resembles something similar to rush hour traffic, it blocks out all other noise. Only the act of stopping our thinking allows us to hear what we are actually saying. It sounds so counter-intuitive. We are told in our daily lives that the answers to our difficulties and challenges all lie outside, from knowledge, other people, anywhere, but doesn’t it make more sense that the answers of living should come from ourselves? Thinking so much, about every little thing, is a distraction from discovering the self that’s living inside the body, as are technology, games, entertainment, work, every bit of them are distractions. We have been sold a great lie by science and even many religions: a widespread message which exerts control over us and tells us that only the external world our body is interacting with is important; that the deep inner part doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist. There is an inner part of ourselves and we should be paying attention to it. For the first time in my life last night, I at times sat on the floor and other times laid on the floor, I cleared my head of thought and started listening within. Strange things started happening. Visualizations, physical reactions, feelings of warmth and pleasantness.
It’s funny, I’ve always wanted to travel in the outside world, go to exotic places, sleep in ancient locales, meet fascinating people, but it took a while for it to click that I was neglecting myself, neglecting the opportunity to explore within. It’s hard for me, maybe for most of us, to actually take the first steps down into the dark unknown cave within our bodies, because it is actually frightening. We often talk about the external world being scary with its pervasive mortal dangers around every corner, but the real scary part is within, figuring out who we really are. Based purely on my own experience, a great deal of what we fill our daily lives with–movies, games, books, drugs, anything distracting, the bar scene or the clique of friends–seems to waylay us from actually listening to what’s going on inside.
Some day, I’ll be back on the road in the outside world, but for now I’m also exploring the road within.
A Strange Encounter
I’ve heard people say that travelling is a state of mind, that we often seek the experiential wonder and joy by going abroad, failing to realize that a similar world of discovery rests right outside our own front doors. Maybe the serendipitous encounters which pervade every travel tale are waiting right in front of us in our own countries, we just have to be open to looking and listening for them to be actualized. Such an encounter fell into my lap earlier today, Sunday.
I was hanging about a coffee shop, trying to write with a pen, not a computer, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a grayed, larger fellow with a beard, perhaps in his 50’s, glancing in my direction. He went off somewhere, came back, and this time we looked at each other at the same time, perhaps sensing some mutual pull towards a necessary, meaningful interaction. Scott, as I learned his name to be, started immediately launching into some spontaneous burst of knowledge spewing forth from his mouth, talking about an already forgotten author and these intense dream states she was having, human civilizations beneath the earth, invisible antennas on the moon spreading signals which cause us to dream, the thickness of the rings of Saturn, his deeply held belief that humans came from Mars, and that there are aliens living on other planets in our solar system which we are capable of communicating with, all of it in a calm, logical, apparently sequitur manner. He talked for almost three hours straight, until the coffee shop closed, telling me I had some glimmer of intelligence because I was listening to what he was saying, trying to understand. By the frequent glances and odd facial expressions of other customers glancing in Scott and I’s direction, I gathered they viewed his ideas as crazy, bizarre, perhaps thinking his were the thoughts of a severely mentally ill person.
I had a funny thought though in the midst of conversing with him. Scott was wearing one of those universal jumpsuits, coveralls, without an undershirt, the ones you see a lot sci-fi movies. Hell, for all I know maybe the guy was really some out there time traveler. Who knows?
I’m not fully sold on his ideas, but what’s the harm in just trying to listen to this guy instead of categorizing his beliefs into some abstract idea like mental illness? Some of his other ideas–in particular the human ability to reconceptualize and reframe things around us–made sense. Also, he thought redheads were exalted human beings. It’s about damn time someone in the world saw us for what we truly are!
Scott was performing a pretty unique thing: expounding his own view of reality to the world. It made me realize that most of human history is written by the few people we decided to arbitrarily listen to; isn’t the story of science and religion–some people’s weird ideas caught on and others’ didn’t. I suppose I’m trying to figure my own view of reality out right now too, to continue the spiritual awakening that came from the Camino de Santiago. I stopped going to the Mormon Church around age 14, but had genuinely stopped believing in it somewhere around age 8. When I left, I didn’t replace church with anything meaningful, anything in life to keep grounded. Writing here is also becoming my own journey, then, of recovering some kind of spiritual belief structure following from what I felt and experienced on the Camino, that recurrent energy embodied by the Mantra “The Way provides.”