My First Metaphysics Lesson

                                                     for Helen Hye-Sook Hwang

In the fall of 1964, I was a freshman scholarship student at a small liberal arts college in the midst of the Iowa cornfields (no drought then—the tall-grass prairie that had been broken to the plow turned green with lustily growing rows of corn from horizon to horizon). I wasn’t paying attention to the surrounding crops, nor even to the weather; I was avidly searching for signs of the life of the mind, which I had imagined would flourish in that place.

I didn’t find what I was looking for, but one remark by the professor teaching us “Introduction to Philosophy” did turn my attention in the direction of studying philosophy. We had just spent fifteen minutes of classroom time on the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, who taught that everything was water, when our teacher said, Consider how extraordinary this is—to look at the multi-form ever-changing world and see flowing through it a single invisible unifying “something.”

I considered, and I was hooked.

The word philosophy comes from the Greek philos (loving) combined with sophia (wisdom; also the goddess of wisdom), so it means literally “loving wisdom” or “loving Sophia.” But, as I would find out the hard way, academic philosophy in 1960s middle America had strayed far from its roots. There was little love, not much wisdom, and most assuredly no goddess in it. It was not a way into the life of the mind; it was intellectual jousting for the purpose of determining who was the smartest guy in the room (by definition, that wouldn’t have been me).

Four years of extreme study in philosophy departments did, however, give me a built-in bullshit-meter—I could tell almost instantly when someone was saying or writing something that made no sense. Through constant use of analytic reason, I learned what a handy-dandy all-purpose tool it can be. But a tool is no more than a tool. It doesn’t guide you, and it doesn’t inspire you. And I was becoming increasingly disillusioned and unhappy. So I gave up my fellowship for graduate study and turned my attention to more pressing matters, like the bombing of Cambodia instigated by Henry Kissinger.

My first metaphysics lesson had to wait for another twenty years, until the mid-1980s, when my friend Debbie and I decided to eat two little dried-up fungus-buttons another friend had passed on to her. We thought we were ingesting the sacred mushroom used by shamans, but who knows what those wrinkly things really were or where they’d come from. We were both, however, all set for our trip into Big Mind.

It was a bitterly cold and clear full-moon night, and we were inside Debbie’s cabin, situated halfway up a snow-covered mountain in Vermont, and surrounded by woods. We each ate our “mushroom,” bundled up, and went outside. I looked at the full moon and saw it as I usually did, perfectly clearly, but over it and surrounding it was a see-through diaphanous creamy-pink lotus blossom. I blinked, and saw the full moon as usual. I blinked again, and there was the moon with her see-through lotus-double. I blinked again and again, and the lotus-moon appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in the same way.

Then I looked at the bare trees in the moonlight, and saw see-through lithe young women lying along the branches. Only they were too tall and too beautiful to be human. I blinked and they were gone. I blinked again and there they were; I could see the solid branches through their shimmery bodies. I cried out to Debbie, “Metaphors are Real!” and felt as if I’d just made a momentous philosophical discovery.

By this time, though, Debbie’s dog was yipping and biting at our heels, having had enough of the great outdoors. We went back inside, and he plopped down on the rug in front of the door. Debbie put another log on the fire, and then I saw her little dog’s see-through body sit up, trot over to the woodstove, and curl up beside it. A split-second later, his wet furry normal-little-dog’s-body sat up, trotted over to the woodstove, and curled up in exactly the same spot. Oh, I thought, so that’s how it works: dream-body leads, touch-body follows.

The next morning I woke up feeling as if I’d been kicked all over by a horse, which abruptly ended my enthusiasm for dried-up fungi. But for more than a year afterward I could see the lotus-and-moon on clear nights when the moon was nearly full, if I bent my knees. And since that night, although I’ve managed to doubt almost everything else, I have not doubted that the world is double, and that the more powerful, initiating part of it we have been conditioned not to perceive.

There is nothing ordinary about reality: that’s what my first metaphysics lesson taught me.


Note: When Helen Hye-Sook Hwang asked me to contribute to the new “Return to Mago” blog, I got all excited and wrote this little philosophy story for her. She published the first version of it on 9 September 2012 at http://magoism.net

The Teacher

The Teacher

When we howl, children,
we give it all we’ve got.
Think power, think passion,
send your voice over the mountain,
“I am here, where are you?”

Everyone ready?
Deep breath—
fill out those lungs to the ribcage—
ears back,
nose to the sky,
now yearn! yearn! yearn!
and re-lee-ee-ee-ease.

You just scared the pants off those two-leggeds
down in the valley.

Harriet Ann Ellenberger
25 March 2015

Howl

Long silence owing to life (and death) taking over.

Here in rural New Brunswick, Canada, the winter of 2015 has been what Siberia’s winter was thirty years ago. Now I know in my bones why Stalin and the czars before him exiled their dissidents to Siberia. Our new Siberia is beautiful (the stars look stunning in bitter cold) but it’s dangerous. Any energy you might have poured into subversive writing gets sucked up by an icy wind.

My partner, the indomitable and determinedly anonymous Mr. Bear, feeds me the statistics. Between 1 December 2014 and 1 March 2015, we received 13.3 feet of snow (that translates into 127 hours of snow removal using a farm tractor). In the same three months, we experienced 47 straight days and nights of the wind-chill temperature never rising above zero degrees fahrenheit. In northern New Brunswick, some nights the wind-chill temperature was hitting 50 degrees below zero.

It gets worse. On March 6, 2015, just north of Houlton, Maine, the temperature rose 43 degrees fahrenheit within 8 hours. Up until now, that kind of extreme temperature change happened only around the poles — in the Arctic and in Antarctica.

There’s only one thing to do in circumstances like these — HOWL.

“Tree Spirit” by Patrick Nelson

Patrick Nelson,
“Tree Spirit” by Patrick Nelson

I love to look at this painting, and over time the tree spirit in the painting has become the guiding spirit of my writing. Tree Spirit plays for every being who listens, and the turtle (in the lower right-hand corner) listens most intently of all.

“Tree Spirit” appears here by permission of the artist, who can be reached at thegreateruniverse@gmail.com.

Desire Spoken Under a Night Sky

I’m in the process of migrating my old website to WordPress — please wish me luck.

And in return I offer this poem, to be used as a charm for difficult times.

 

Desire Spoken Under a Night Sky

May the earth live,
May we live on the earth,
May love in our life flower,
May the transformation be realized.

May it be stone that we stand on,
May winds bring us fast-moving thought,
May our heart bathe in salt waters,
May spiral galaxies light our way home.

 

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger (March 2014)