“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.”
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins
It was 45 years ago, and yet I remember the day as if it were yesterday.
Our high school English class was dissecting J.D. Salinger’s classic novel Catcher in the Rye. If you haven’t read it, the book is narrated by the young, cynical, and very mixed-up Holden Caulfield, who hates adults and has landed in a psychiatric facility after being expelled from prep school.
The class was talking about Holden’s character, why he was so angry and disillusioned, when the discussion moved into personality types. Was Holden an introvert or an extrovert? How had his brooding, loner ways of thinking and acting led him into the pickle he was in?
It was then that one of the girls in the class pointed at me.
“Jim’s an introvert,” she said. “He’s really quiet.”
It was true that I was painfully shy back then and didn’t say a lot in class. But I wasn’t cynical or angry, didn’t hate anyone, and definitely wasn’t a flunk-out. Yet, here I was being held up as an example of someone who didn’t quite make the grade socially.
The teacher looked at me and nodded his head in agreement.
“Yeah, you got to watch the quiet ones,” he said. “Still water runs deep.”
I didn’t know what to make of his words. I knew I was someone who felt things deeply and had a lot of stuff going on beneath my seemingly placid surface. But wasn’t that a good thing? Why would quiet, introspective people like me need to be watched? Was I in danger of going down a dark path and ending up in a bad place, like Holden?
I mentally filed away the experience, adding it to my still-nascent sense of identity. My father, himself something of a loner, was always encouraging us kids not to conform to the crowd, to dare to be different and forge our own paths in life. If there was a dark side to being a dreamer, I would embrace it. I would be someone who didn’t just skate on the surface of life but who dove deep to get to the juicy marrow of things.
Looking back at it now, I wish my youthful self had chosen a lighter, happier path for the years that lay ahead. I could have saved myself a lot of needless suffering, and had a lot more fun along the way, if I had approached life more as a skater than a deep diver.
But, alas, we don’t get a do-over in life, and I probably wouldn’t have chosen a different path even if I could have. I was born an old soul with scuba equipment, intent on plumbing the depths of the powerful feelings that so often took hold of me. Feelings of profound joy and connectedness, but also inexplicable feelings of sadness and loneliness, as if there was a hole deep within that couldn’t be filled.
Explorer that I was, I wanted to experience the whole range of emotions and find out how deep they would take me. And boy, did I ever. A couple bouts of clinical depression. Years of sometimes crippling anxiety. Even a few-days stay in a clinic, which I relate in my book The Long Walk Home.
But while going deep has taken me to a lot of dark places in my life, it has also been my savior. By going deep into my own psyche, I was able to free myself from a prison of my own making. It involved a lot of work over many years, and it’s work that is never complete. But it was worth it for the peace and happiness I’ve enjoyed over the past 20 years or so.
What I’ve discovered in my journey is that the mind indeed has mountains. It can carry us to dizzying heights of joy and accomplishment, but it can also take us over sheer cliffs to a place of mental and spiritual desolation.
Many fellow journeyers over the years have written of that place and the dark terrors and strange creatures that dwell there.
Perhaps the most potent description is in the opening lines of Dante Alighieri’s famous prose poem Inferno:
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more…”
I discovered Dante’s Inferno when I was going through my first bout of depression soon after graduating from college. Like Holden, I was mixed up, not sure of my place in this great big world I was entering. Dante’s words perfectly captured what I was going through and helped me put it into an archetypal framework that I found comforting.
The fact that Dante wrote the poem 700 years ago told me that my suffering, awful as it was, was not unusual, that it was part of the human experience, and that this human experience hadn’t changed much over the centuries.
It’s interesting, I think, what Dante writes next in those opening verses of the Inferno:
“I cannot well repeat how there I entered, so full was I of slumber at the moment.”
Dante seems to be saying that human beings get to this place of mental and spiritual desolation unawares. We blunder into it by being asleep, so to speak—by being unconscious of the inner landscape of our own psyche that leads us to suffering.
That was certainly the case for me in both my journeys into the inferno. The first time, in my early 20s, I pushed myself too hard to achieve things I wasn’t ready for and I got caught in a downward spiral of fear feeding on itself. The second time, in my early 40s, I whipped myself into a state of nervous exhaustion by being unable to reconcile the conflicting feelings brought on by a grueling separation and divorce.
Both times I blundered into the trap of suffering by being unaware of the way thoughts and feelings work, and of my own inner wiring. I didn’t understand the full extent of my sensitivity, my genetic tendency toward anxiety and depression, and the way I threw fuel on the fire with my thinking and reacting.
But if unawareness is the path into suffering, then knowledge and awareness are the path out.
We gain knowledge by peeling back the complex onion of our own internal manifesting machine. Why do we think and believe certain things? Why do we keep repeating the same mistakes? Why do we react a certain way when our spouse or significant other says something to us? Why do we feel so crappy when things don’t go our way or work out the way we’d like them to?
We won’t find out the answers to these questions by skating the surface of life. We have to put on our scuba equipment and go deep. Deep is where the answers are. Deep is where the chains are forged and where they can also be unshackled.
By going deep, we can plumb the depths of our innermost selves and learn what makes us tick: all the impulses, trigger points, reflexes, and limiting beliefs about ourselves and the world. How do we go there? Through counseling, through yoga and meditation, by reading self-help books and listening to podcasts from teachers and seekers who have walked the path.
A word of caution, though: It’s no joyride to the depths of the psyche. It’s ugly down there when we’re slopping through the sewer-swamp of things about ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge or look at. The deeper you go, the uglier and more terrifying it can become.
Which is why you don’t want to stay down there.
Don’t make the mistake I did and dwell in the underworld just for the sake of experiencing the awful feelings that dwell there. Go down, learn what you need to learn, and come back again to light, to joy, to happiness.
Do it right and you may never need to go back down there again, except for occasional reminders. That doesn’t mean you’ll never suffer again. To be human means to suffer. But how much do we want to suffer, and for how long, and over what? Most of that is within our control.
Through knowledge, we gain power. We move from being victims of our circumstances, our genes, our parents, whatever…to being creators of our own reality, masters of our unique, individual destiny.
Once we figure out our internal map of manifesting, we can live peacefully in the outer world.
Still water may run deep, but it also makes for thick ice in the winter.
I’m off to do some skating…
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