In the first few weeks of my freshman year of college, I sat breathlessly on the edge of my seat in every class. But no class was a greater joy than Introduction to Humanities, and in those first few weeks, Dr. Mills introduced us to the story of Plato’s Cave. And I, uncritical of any of the problems with that story, dove headfirst into Platonic thought. The idea that everything we see here on earth is just a shadow of pure forms in Heaven – that made sense to my Christianized mind. And so I spent the next few years chasing what I thought were the realities signified by everything I saw and experienced here on earth. (This wasn’t Dr. Mills’ fault, of course, it was my own freshman bullheadedness chasing down the first interesting idea I came into contact with).
And as I tried to reach out and find the deeper truth behind the physical world, everything became a copy of a copy of a copy. I couldn’t look at a damn tree anymore without trying to make it into a metaphor for god, or something. When I was climbing a mountain in Vermont, I would hum hymns under my breath to keep my mind focused on who made all this natural beauty. I wanted literally everything to have “spiritual significance.”
It became a wearisome exercise that continued to yield very little result. And when I couldn’t make everything into a spiritual experience, I started to doubt myself, think it was my own “sinful” mind getting in the way of the truth that must be hiding somewhere.
I did’t stop this way of thinking all at once. I drifted away from it out of pure exhaustion. I didn’t reject it so much as just let it go.
But recently I’ve bee thinking about spirituality again. About what, if anything, is true that can’t yet be explained by science (or even perhaps if some of the things explained in science also square away with what we might feel are “spiritual” realities).
And as I am learning that if there is anything “spiritual” it is to be found within the physical, experienced through the physical, I realize that all that time I was just chasing shadows. Shadows that grew fainter and fainter and became more and more just concepts in my head. Shadows that led me away from the reality that was all around me, waiting for me to notice it.
When I was in that ferny, sun-drenched clearing on that Vermont mountainside, sitting on a mossy boulder, taking in the quiet green glory all around me, I didn’t need words of any kind to express or communicate with whatever reality was there. I felt it (can feel it still, now, remembering that place), and sometimes that feeling is enough. I’ll go further and say that if I’d quieted myself and simply taken in what was around me, experiencing it for what it was, I’d have found more fulfillment than I ever found through muttering hymns or trying to find metaphors for tenets of organized religion.
What is so wrong with each and every thing, mundane or transcendent, being taken simply for what it is? Why should we assign meaning and metaphor to it instead of accepting the meaning it already has? If there is extra meaning we will find it not by screwing tortured metaphors and concocting shady “truths” out of what we find around us. We will find it through this world, not by rejecting this world. And a system of belief will never trump experience but must instead be born out of experience (though it may be informed by the experiences and traditions of others).
This is where my journey has taken me, away from a Platonic cave of my own devising, shadows of my own projection, and into the real world, bursting with life, that was waiting here all along.