The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

A Zen encounter with loneliness

by Terrance Keenan
January 6, 2015
Tue, 01/06/2015 - 13:52 -- Terrance Keenan

An excerpt from Terrance Keenan’s recent title Zen Encounters with Loneliness.

From St. Nadie in Winter

With a lamp and keys
Desire prowls among these trees
crippled with diseased soil.
Do not meet it.
It will eat any scrawny wish,
swallow you whole.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Is it only the Dead say something
worth remembering,
or is it each small soul bent,
huddled outside the enemy camp,
genius and immortality grey or broken
in its hands?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
A crow flaps and is still
in the dead harpy’s worms.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Who does not wish to be air
free of itself
alone in red sky?


Life continuously refuses to show us the plot. The desire to give life shape, and by shape, meaning, is so great anything will do. But Orwell would have us stand against all the “smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” I am struck by how difficult it is to get back to something we knew to be true once we have been converted, forced by circumstances, or simply denied and turned away from that knowledge, to whatever lonely mess we have managed to make since. It is as though the experience of unhappiness were more valid than that of joy. We all know the experience of wanting something badly, only to have it disappear as we approach it. Rarely do we look at the wanting self. My shadowless shadow. We don’t cope with much grace, neither the grace of civility, nor the grace of physical being, nor the grace of the spirit. There is at bottom no real distinction between them anyway. Perhaps I am too often absent from my own being.

When I was eighteen or nineteen I lived with my parents and sisters on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. At the northeast tip of the island is a mountain pine forest called Las Mercedes. We lived a short ride from there, near the old city of La Laguna. One day I determined to take a camping trip to the forest. I borrowed a sleeping bag from a colleague of my father’s; a strange and testy Dane named Steen, who hated to lose at chess, though he usually did, even against inept me. I took a skin of wine, a loaf of the crusty local bread, some cheese, and fruit in a pack with the sleeping bag and made my way by bus. I don’t recall what I said to my father or sisters, but I told my mother I was going for a mystical experience. Odd as it may seem, she accepted this. She knew I had an intense relationship with nature. She used to joke with friends, when I was little, “Terry is so cute. He talks to trees.” I had been feeling myself slipping away from that “conversation.”

I took the bus one afternoon to the end of the long valley, east out of La Laguna. There was a small grotto by the bus stop used for picnics and as a toilet by those awaiting the bus. I found a trail leading up the mountains and followed it. The day was sunny and dry, the scent of pine heady in the air. I crossed a road and continued upward, following a trail leading into the mountains that kept disappearing and then reappearing in odd places. I began to pause frequently, partly from the steady climb, partly from the slippery footing of the pine needles on the forest floor. There was little undergrowth. Just before dusk I reached a ridge. The trees grew right to the top of it. I found a small bowl-like indentation in the slope about ten feet across, filled with pine needles, that faced southwest. I decided to settle there for the night, hoping for my “experience” while the sun set, as though I could schedule an insight into the true nature of the universe. I took out my food and ate half of everything, happily watching the sun go down. It was lovely, but nothing “happened.” I crawled up to the ridge, overcoming my fear of heights somehow, and looked over. It dropped off suddenly several thousand feet, but instead of darkening forest and ocean, I saw a sea of grey as a vast bank of clouds spread just below me. With the cooling air after sunset, the clouds began to rise toward me and flow over the top, filling my side of the forest with thick fog and a soft, misty rain that was part of the air itself. It became cold and damp. I pulled my clothes and food into the sleeping bag and hunkered down for a long, silent, wet night. I was tired from the long climb, so I slept regardless.

The first edges of grey light and the dawn birds woke me. I sat up stiff and wet. Cold. Feeling a bit sorry for myself. Disappointed I didn’t have the special moment I had come for. I took a leak, watching the little yellow river flow under the pine needles and down the slope. My bread and cheese had remained dry, so I made a small breakfast for myself and washed it down with the remaining wine in the skin. Then I just sat there for a while. I stopped assessing the situation and joined the still trees as the last of the fog drifted down toward the valley. No sound but the soundless sound of fog moving off in the sunrise. After some time, I have no idea of how much, there was a kind of music off to my left. Someone was whistling a tune. I heard footsteps and saw a young man, perhaps only a few years older than myself, striding down the trail. He burst into song briefly, into one of the local cantos folkloricos, and then continued whistling as he forgot the words again, on down the mountain. He never saw me among the pines. I remained still as the whistling faded. Some resistance in me followed the whistling away and I was suddenly filled with a great and inexplicable love for this stranger singing in the morning. For the silent trees around me. The welling love burst me, or rather there was in that instant no me to burst, only the forest, the mountain, the teeming, sun-misted valley all humming and huge and breathing itself.

Times later (seconds, hours, eons) I found myself again, shaking, tears running freely down my face. Whence this vast exhausting unconditional love? I used to marvel at the story of St. Tarcisius, whose name seemed a little like mine, who was martyred holding the Host against his breast. I felt this burning joy in my own breast as I methodically and neatly gathered my things and walked home, the whole way, ignoring the bus, past farms and dogs and the outlying hamlets. By the time I got home, dusty and quiet, I had banked the coals of that fire into a corner of my inner hearth.

This was not an occasion for exalted self-feeling. It was not forced, though initially I had tried to force it. It was not reasoned attention to nature or to myself but an experience to which I could avail myself only by dropping any pretense of a participating individuality or self. And I had to drop it without thinking about dropping it. The completion, the presence, brooked no inner nor outer sensibility, no being part of nor being apart from. I never spoke of the experience. I never questioned its reality, but, as I had with similar ones when I was younger, I learned not to say much about them. Imagine my shock of recognition when I discovered these lines in Wordsworth’s Prelude:

Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself. . . .

I was not alone. No one is alone. This is the first understanding.

A professor of religion I know at Syracuse University once declared that the “Age of Miracles” is past, that insight experiences are no longer possible in our empirical world. He is wrong. It was through such experiences, affirmed by reading in Wordsworth, and through these words I read at sixteen in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that I decided to give up dreams of being a botanist or some sort of scientist, according to family wishes and my own desire to be with plants, to become a writer: “Welcome, O Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated consciousness of my race.”

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