Hitting the Wall: Into the Present Moment
Going into the wilderness to find oneself? What is it about a wilderness fasting experience that leads to oneself?
We are always - whether we are aware of it or not - living in the present moment. We must be, because it is the only moment that actually exists. But we are seldom fully aware of the abundant richness of this moment, and consequently we are generally unable to make use of that richness. What stands between us and this richness is concerns focused outside this moment. Regrets about the past. Worries about the future. Obligations, expectations, guilts and anxieties. Beliefs about who we are supposed to be, what life is supposed to be like.
All of these barriers to "being here now" are rocks in the river of our existance. If the power of the flowing water is sufficient to flow on through them all is well. All rivers have rocks. But if, on the other hand, the rocks become so large and/or numerous that they begin to dam the flow of the waters we find ourselves approaching a personal crisis. We begin to sense that we are not living our own life. We have "hit the wall". The living, present moment has become obscured by the past and the future. Here's another way to say it: the living mystery of being oneself has become overburdened by excessive structural constraints of one's history.
How do we set the river free again?
History and Mystery: the Eternal Dance
One can see the opposite of mystery as history, for while mystery is timeless and consequently in the moment, history is fundamentally a timeline extending in both directions just outside the present moment. In a universe whose ultimate reality is likely always to be a complete mystery to human consciousness, humankind has found itself feeling very small indeed against the deep night sky. In early times the realm of the "known", i.e. "history", was a small realm indeed. A simple thunderstorm was a mystery, with no awareness of where it came from, why it came, or even, indeed, what it was. It was a natural process for humankind to try to convert mystery into history by formulating an account of the nature of such a storm. Early accounts attributed the lightning to Zeus. And this had practical benefits because one could at least believe one had some influence to hold the lightning at bay by avoiding angering the deity. Later formulations have led to our current meteorological understanding of such storms in terms of troughs and ridges of pressure, streams of high altitude moisture, updrafts, downdrafts, dew points and so on, such that, generally, we don't take them as having personal meaning, as being retribution for our actions. We are freed instead to focus our energies on minimizing damage from them. We are inclined to think we have, in this way, made "progress" over those earlier ancestors of ours, but have we? We think we know what the thunderstorm is, but do we?
In fact, one can become quite comfortable defining progress as the taking of mystery and converting it to history, or, deriving the known from the unknown. And western culture has assumed this definition for several centuries. Within this assumption there is an implicit notion that "progress" is linear in nature, always moving toward greater and greater knowledge and ever diminishing mystery. Most people would consider it completely nonsensical to suggest that the alternate process of converting knowledge, or history, back to mystery is also progress, but mysticism does indeed make this suggestion.
Within this frame of reference history and mystery, the known and the unknown, are engaged in an eternal dance. And "progress" results from the ebb and flow between them as we come to be more aware of the nature of the dance. Thus, we move through phases of converting the unknown into known, and then the known into unknown. Both parts of this cycle represent progress. Progress from this perspective is circular rather than linear, and is advanced fully as much by letting go of the previously "known" as it is in finding new "knowledge". In the language of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is the "power of loving", or Eros, that guides this ebb and flow in the "power of knowing", or Logos. It is the ongoing, circular experience of relatedness and logos that fuels progress, rather than a linear increase in knowing.
Mysticism offers us a pathway toward being able to dissolve the rocks and free the flow of the river once again. Mysticism is based on the notion that we can step around the usual perceptual and intellectual "apprehension" of the world into a realm of "direct experience".
What does it mean to say something is "beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension" and at the same time "directly accessible by subjective experience?" The distinction lies in the words "apprehension" and "directly…experience".
To apprehend is to grasp, or seize, or hold something. An essential dimension of this verb is the ability to immobilize something over time, to preserve it beyond the present moment. To tie it to its roots in the past and its continuity in the future, and "catch" its underlying principles. When we find our truths in "perceptual or intellectual apprehension" we are finding them as they stretch "beyond" the present moment. Or, we are seeing the present moment as a reflection of these enduring principles.
On the other hand, when we "directly experience" something we are focused very precisely and exactly - and only - on the present moment itself. In this mode, any kind of "apprehension" is not only absent, it would be entirely distracting and, therefore, undesirable. It is not overreaching to say that the experience of mysticism is, at heart, an absolute "being in the moment." In the moment, apprehending is replaced by relating, or, logos is replaced by eros. Concepts, in particular, are absent. (More on this later.)
From the history of English-language mysticism, one of our earliest and most enduring manuscripts is the work, unsigned, titled "The Cloud of Unknowing." An early assertion in this marvelous meditation is the notion that there are two "powers" by which we can comprehend our experiences in life: one is the "power of knowing", and the other is the "power of loving". The author contends that, when it comes to comprehending the great mystery (which he assumes is God - we will look closely at this assumption later), the power of knowing is useless, while the power of loving enables each individual to "comprehend fully…but by each in a different way."
Here we see two principles of mysticism emerging: First the two powers, knowing and loving; and then the realization that the experience of mysticism is necessarily unique with each individual.
Bringing it all back to our question, "What is it about a wilderness fasting experience that leads to oneself?", we can say now that it is the stepping out of one's history completely enough and for long enough to begin orienting one's attention to the mystery of one's own unique existence in the present moment. Here are two poems that catch the essence of this experience (both from AE, the early 20th century Irish mystic poet).
Wake drowsy spirit in the ear,
The voices in that murmuring shell
Echo the Zodiac. You shall hear
The planets ringing like a bell.
Your sister spirit in the eyes
Pierced them with its own light, to see
The high-hung lanterns in the skies
Echoing its own infinity.
Within that quivering shell, the ear,
Far borne, a myriad voices throng.
Be still and listen. You shall hear
The universe revealed in song.
A Mountain Tarn
The pool glowed to a magic cauldron
O'er which I bent alone.
The sun burned fiercely on the waters,
The setting sun:
A madness of fire: around it
A dark glory of stone.
O mystic fire!
Stillness of earth and air!
That burning silence I
For an instant share.
In the crystal of quiet I gaze
And the god is there.
Within that loneliness
In the silence what ancient promise
Then the wonder goes from the stones,
The lake and the shadowy wood.
Writing about this poem shortly after its birth, he said:
"It is difficult to get into words a mood that inhabits you for a moment so that you seem to have gone into eternity and come out in a second of time."
This is what happens when one steps into a full enough solitude. An empty enough solitude. And abundant gifts emerge.