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Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is
by J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda)
Ancient Greek myth says that Icarus and his father, Daedalus, escaped from
Crete on artificial wings fashioned by Daedalus out of wax and feathers.
Icarus, over-confident with the joy of flying, ignored his father's advice
not to soar too high. As he approached nearer and nearer to the sun, the
wax on his wings melted, and Icarus plunged to his death in what has been
known ever since as the Icarian Sea.
Many of the old Greek myths contain deep psychological and spiritual truths. In this one we find symbolized one of man's all-too-frequent mistakes: In his joy at discovering within himself some hitherto unsuspected power, he "flies too high," ignoring the advice of those who have learned from experience to value humility.
I had discovered that, by will power, faith, and sensitive attunement to certain things that I had wanted to accomplish, I could turn the tide of events to some degree in my favor. I could learn new languages. I could choose to be well, and I was well. I could walk confidently toward certain of life's closed doors, and they opened for me. In all these little successes there had been two key words: sensitivity and attunement. In learning Greek, I had tried to attune myself sensitively to the Greek consciousness; the important thing had been that attunement, not my mere resolution to learn the language. In the affirmation "I'm a Greek," Greek, not I, had been the operative word. But now, in my exuberance, I fairly flung myself into the breach. Partly, indeed, I was moved to enthusiasm by the sheer grandeur of my new insights. But because my enthusiasm was excessive, sensitivity and attunement often got lost in the dust cloud kicked up by my overly affirmative ego.
I wanted wisdom. Very well, then: I was wise! I wanted my works to inspire and guide people; I wanted to be a great writer. Very well, then: I was a great writer! How simple! All I had to do was some fine day produce the poems, plays, and novels that would demonstrate what was already, as far as I was concerned, a fait accompli.
The idea probably had a certain merit, but it was marred by the fact that I was reaching too far beyond my own present realities. In the strain involved there was tension; and in the tension, ego.
Faith, if exerted too far beyond a person's actual capabilities, becomes presumption. Above all it is best always to tie positive affirmations to the whispered guidance of God in the soul. Knowing nothing of such guidance, however, I supplied my own. That which I decreed to be wisdom was wisdom. That which I decreed to be greatness was greatness. It was not that my opinions were foolish. Many of them were, I believe, fairly sound. But their scope was circumscribed by my own pride. There was no room here for others' opinions. I had not yet learned to listen sensitively to the "truth which comes out of the mouths of babes." Yet I expected ready agreement with my opinions even from those whose age and experience of life gave them some right to consider me a babe. I would be no man's disciple. I would blaze my own trails. By vigorous mental affirmation I would bend destiny itself to my will.
Well, I was not the first young man, nor would I be the last, to imagine the popgun in his hand to be a cannon. At least my developing views on life were such that, in time, they refuted my very arrogance.
For my junior year I transferred to Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. New perceptions, I felt, would flourish better in a new environment. At Brown I continued my major in English literature, and took additional courses in art appreciation, philosophy, and geology. But my attitude toward formal education was growing increasingly cavalier. I didn't see of what possible use a degree would be to me in my chosen career as a writer. Nor did I have much patience with an accumulation of mere facts, when it was the why of things I was after. Even our philosophy course, which ought to have been at least relatively concerned with the whys, was devoted to categorizing the mere opinions of the men we were studying. When I found I wasn't expected to concern myself with the validity of their opinions, I took to reading poetry in the classroom in silent protest.
Intent on developing the identity I had selected for myself, I played the role, for all who cared to listen to me, of established author and philosopher. A few people actually did listen. For hours they and I sat together, engrossed in the adventure of philosophical thought. I got them to see that joy has to be the real purpose of life, that non-attachment is the surest key to joy, and that one ought to live simply, seeking joy not in things, but in an ever-expanding vision of reality. Truth can be found, I insisted, not in the sordid aspects of life, as so many writers claim, but in the heights of human aspiration.
Most of the writing of my student days has long since been consigned to fire and blessed oblivion. One piece, however, which escaped the holocaust expresses some of the views I was expounding at that time. It may serve a useful purpose for me to quote it here, unedited.
"My countrymen, having begotten what is in many respects a monstrosity, go about saying what had never before been said so strongly, that we must go with the age if we would create great things. That it is necessary for them to repeat what should normally be too obvious for repetition shows how slight is the hold this century has on our hearts.
"They have, moreover, misunderstood the true meaning of democracy, which is not (as they suppose) to debase the noble man while singing the virtues of the common man, but rather to tell the common man that he, too, can now become noble. The object of democracy is to raise the lowly, and not to praise them for being low. It is only with such a goal that it can have any real merit.
"God's law is right and beautiful. No ugliness exists except man's injustice and the symbols of it. It is not life in the raw we see when we pass through the slums, not the naked truth that many 'realists' would have us see, but the facts and figures of our injustice, the distortion of life and the corruption of truth. If we would claim to be realistic it is not reality we shall see from the squalid depths of humanity, for our view will be premised on injustice and negation. Goodness and beauty will appear bizarre, whereas misery, hatred and all the sad children of man's misunderstanding will seem normal, and yet strange withal and unfounded, as if one could see the separate leaves and branches of a tree and yet could find no trunk. It is not from the hovel of a pauper that we can see all truth, but from the dwelling place of a saint; for from his mountain, ugliness itself is seen, not as darkness, but as lack of light, and the squalor of cities will be no longer foreign, but a native wrong, understood at the core as a symptom of our own injustice.
"The more closely we watch the outside as a means to understand the inside, the farther off the inside withdraws from our understanding. The same with people as with God."
My ideas were, I think, basically valid. But ideas alone do not constitute wisdom. Truth must be lived. I'm afraid that, in endless discussions about truth, the sweet taste of it still eluded me.
One day a friend and I were crossing campus on our way back from a class. Lovingly he turned to me and remarked, "If ever I've met a genius in my life, it is you."
For a moment I felt flattered. But as I reflected on his words, shame swept over me like a wave. What had I actually done to deserve his praise? I had talked! I had been so busy talking that I hadn't even had much time left over for writing. And his compliment had been so sincere! It was one thing to have played the part of the author and philosopher to convince myself. It was quite another that my acting had convinced others. I felt like a hypocrite. Sick with self-disappointment, I withdrew from then on from most of my associates at Brown, and sought to express in literature the truths I had hitherto been treating so lightly as coffee shop conversation.
It didn't take me very long to realize that it is much easier to talk hit-or-miss philosophy over a coffee table than to transform basic concepts into meaningful writing. There are levels of understanding that come only when one has lived a truth deeply over a space of years. Initial insights may suggest almost the same words, yet the power of those words will be as nothing compared to the conviction ringing in them when their truths have been deeply lived.
St. Anthony, in the early part of the Christian era, was called from his desert hermitage by the bishop of Alexandria to speak in defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Arguments had been raging throughout Christendom as a result of the so-called Arian heresy, which denied Christ's oneness with God. St. Anthony gave no long, carefully reasoned homily in defense of his ideas. His words, however, charged as they were with the fervor of a lifetime of prayer and meditation, conveyed such a depth of power that, among his listeners, further argument ceased. All St. Anthony said was, "I have seen Him!"
Alas, I had not seen Him. Nor had I deeply lived a single truth. My painting was more a sketch than a finished work. Try as I would to express my ideas in writing, the moment I picked up a pen I found my mind growing strangely vague. Whatever I did write was more to develop my literary technique than to express what I really wanted to say. I described situations with which I wasn't familiar. I wrote about people whose living counterparts I had never met. To master my craft, I imitated the styles of others, hoping to find in their phrasing and choice of words secrets to clarity and beauty of self-expression that I might develop later into a style of my own.
I had the satisfaction of being praised by certain professors and professional men of letters. Some of them told me I would someday become a front-ranking writer. But at nineteen I was far from justifying their friendly expectations. Worst of all, in my own opinion, was the fact that I was saying almost nothing really worthwhile.
I worked on the psychological effects, in poetry, of different patterns of rhyme and rhythm. I studied the emotion-charged rhythms of Irish-English, which the great Irish playwright, John Millington Synge, captured so beautifully. I wondered why modern English, by comparison, was so barren of deep feeling, and pondered how, without sounding studied and unnatural, to bring beauty to dramatic speech.
One of the dogmas I had been taught in English classes was that iambic pentameter, the blank verse form of Shakespearean drama, is the most natural poetic rhythm for speech in the English language. Shakespeare, of course, was trotted out as the ultimate proof of this dogma. But in modern English, blank verse sounded to me much too courtly. Maxwell Anderson, the Twentieth-Century American playwright, used it in several of his plays, and the best I could say of them was that they were brave attempts. I certainly didn't want to confine myself to the sterile formulae modern writers so often follow who try to render speech realistically. ("Ya wanna come?" "Yeah, yeah, sure." "Hey look, I'm not beggin' ya. Just take it or leave it." "Okay, okay, smart boy. Who says I don't wanna come?") Shakespeare, even when imitating common speech, idealized it. My problem was how to follow his example without sounding artificial. If literary language couldn't uplift, there seemed little point in calling it literature.
For my summer vacation in 1946 I went to Provincetown, on Cape Coda haven for artists and writers. There I rented a small room, turned an upside-down dresser drawer into a desk, and devoted myself to writing a one-act play. To make the few dollars I had stretch as far as possible, I ate the chef's special at a local diner for lunch every day. For forty-five cents I got a greasy beef stew with one or two soggy slices of potato in it, and, if I was lucky, two or three slices of carrot. After two months of this daily banquet, even the bargain price could no longer tempt me to endure such punishment another day. I went into the diner one afternoon, ordered the chef's special, watched a slice of potato disintegrate as I stabbed it half-heartedly with a spoon, then got up and walked out again, never to return.
Toward the end of the summer I spent a week on a distant beach, "far from the madding crowd." (How wonderful it would be, I thought, to be a real hermit!) My one-act play, which I finished on those dunes, didn't turn out badly, though I hadn't been able to shake off the hypnotic charm of Synge's English.
The summer itself was pleasant also, despite my penury. But above all what it did was show me that I was as much an outsider in artistic circles as in any other. Increasingly it was becoming clear that I would never find what I was seeking by becoming anything. To say, "I'm a writer," or even, "I'm a great writer," wasn't at all the answer. What I needed above all concerned the deeper question of what I was already.