At some point early in life a feeling came that I was eccentric. I thought I wanted something no one around me seemed to want, and that was sincere, dependable love. All I found from people, young and old alike, was instead indifference, rejection, untrustworthiness, unpredictability. So I thought, if I was able to so intensely want something that seemed unimportant to others, that must have meant I was insane. Only in God could I put my trust, because a God unknown, unseen, nebulous certainly would not, could not betray me. God was the center of my devotion, my life. Slowly, though, the considerable commotion in my head I called intellect and reason made me abandon it.
Several more rejections and betrayals of trust from those around me, and I declared, “Love is a myth.” I was furiously baffled at the way I was created, feeling such a strong desire for something that could never be true. By declaring–––pretending, really–––I knew the truth about love, I unwittingly saved myself from feeling utterly devastated by the conviction that it closed its door on me. I began keeping a journal. Only in the blank pages of my journal could I confide safely. Something that doesn’t have any capacity of returning my love would not, could not reject me.
Young adulthood was a period of restlessness and confusion from not knowing what I sought in life. I thought I was unrealistic, “too philosophical,” wanting and doubting too much. Moreover, I saw that I was a different person from one day to the next, unable to keep a promise I made to myself. I became unpredictable and untrustworthy, exactly like those I had condemned. I looked around at my peers and saw them sail away, seeming to know where they were going. There I was, an enigma to myself, feeling I was left behind. “Did I miss a class everybody took?”
As loneliness pervaded uncontrollably, I isolated myself more by turning toward texts and dead scholars, looking for hard, solid, steely wisdom. I had a notion that it would take me superiorly beyond any dependence on others, and I would then be impervious to the pain of rejection. And dead people, they surely would not, could not reject me. The search for wisdom gave a purpose, a grand one, in fact, and a direction to my life.
My notion of wisdom at the time was a kind of knowledge I would swallow or possess, and the best chance of finding it was in the academic humanities. So I made a plan to lock myself in the university ivory tower and shut the door on any personal relationships. I was convinced that anything to do with my heart was a major distraction, complication, obstruction. I was on a lone secret mission, believing no one would understand it, or worse, they would ridicule me if they found out. I was not going to let myself be rejected ever again.
Shortly after the plan was made but not yet realized, my father died. The incident gave me an intimate preview that we all die, and we die alone, without exception. But my newly found purpose protected me, for better or worse, from being in touch with the situation of my heart. My rocket was on and nothing was to stop me.
Before the first semester even began, I met Art Ticknor at a meeting of the Philosophical Self Inquiry in Pittsburgh. During that first meeting he engaged me one-on-one, and I was surprised to find myself saying things I would never have said to others. Shortly after came another surprise in the form of trust. Brief though it may be, it was impressive because my life hitherto has shown it to be impossible. There was also an element of judging Art by his cover, as well, I suppose. He dressed typically, and I tend to peer with suspicion at people in robes living in the 21st century Western world. A massive gong fell and hit my head when I received my first major confrontation: “The direction is within,” he said. With all my might I tried to yell “No!”––but to my dismay, I was convinced he spoke the truth. I had just moved across the world on a search that had barely begun, when I realized I was to turn around. A giant monkey wrench thrown into my plan. Nonetheless I was compelled to turn around and look at the only “within” I knew. What I saw then, what was brought to light, was how separated I had been, alone and thoroughly lost in the wilderness. It reminded me of the preview I’d seen, that we all die, and we die alone. I was a lost sheep feeling certain that if ever there was God, It was not looking for me. The feeling of utter aloneness combined with an immediate conviction that the project I had taken on was too big for this little me led to the onset of a depressive period like I had never thought possible.
Art showed me a direction I thought I already had. First and foremost, he showed me trust and friendship I had stopped looking for. Deep down, though, I couldn’t help but still wanting them. To a sick, sick person, however, sweet water tasted bitter. The confrontations hit so many sensitive spots that I recoiled from pain and fright, and contracted inside. I was unable to see friendship, I saw only threats. Fortunately (I can say this now), I kept on coming to the meetings, albeit all closed up like a porcupine ball, compelled by a force I could neither understand nor ignored. Left to reason alone, it would not have made sense to keep on touching a hot stove when I already knew it was hot. But something other than reason told me I needed to take the bitter medicine to get cure.
I received my diagnosis early and am grateful for that. The sickness turns out to be ec-centricity, that is, being off-center–––that childhood feeling confirmed. The rejections I perceived in my childhood may not be the cause but actually the result of this feeling. I had lost my center long before I abandoned my childhood God. I don’t even remember how and when this happened. But once upon a time….
My life so far seems less about finding cure, than it is about realizing the pervasiveness of the sickness. Being out of center seems to also mean out of touch with reality. The idea of becoming schizophrenic, out of touch with reality, used to spiral me into panic. But reviewing over a decade of journals shows me undeniably, time and again: I live in the mind, not in the world; I interact with perceptions and stories, not reality. After years of psychological work and spiritual education, I am no more ethereal, no more sober, no more liberated. I wonder if I myself may be the cave of Plato, and not simply in it.
Coming in contact with Art and TAT rocked my boat till it almost flipped over. My life-cruising and life-building slowed down considerably. A good thing, I think, for I was only building a house of cards, and cruising through life as a sleepwalker, shutting my eyes to where my life will inevitably conclude, as I saw with my father’s. Adding spirituality to my life doesn’t seem to redirect its course either. My life is still going nowhere but toward the cemetery. For a while I used depression to deny it, but now it feels like a returning to reality. (Every impressive, sometimes seemingly out of the world, insights I ever had feel now like a simple return to reality, not an addition of knowledge like I had expected in my grand search for wisdom.) I can no longer pretend that death belongs to some distant, nebulous future and won’t really happen to me. I can no longer believe that aging is going to magically prepare me for it. My father did not have time to prepare for his death and spent his last moments in panic. If truly we all die, and we die alone, I don’t want to die in panic. Even then I still forget all too often.
That said, if self-inquiry has resulted in anything so far, it is only that I became less and less sure I know the self whose life and death I’ve been so concerned about, the one in this story, telling it, reading it. Honestly, I only claim to be a self-inquirer without having actually done much of it, because I was so confident I knew the “I” I was referring to. But everything I can refer to, perceive, sense, conceive of seems to be the mind through and through; an experience all the way down, including myself, my existence. What then? Do I just wait till this experience is over, since experience comes and goes? Is there something, anything, beyond experience? I’ve heard there’s a place: within. The work now is figuring out where within really is. I thought I knew, and that resulted in a deeper depression because I unquestioningly accepted what I saw there as “that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing else to be done. Might as well be dead now.” Pretending to know is a heavy burden, indeed!–––one I’m so prone to fall into. Truly, one must doubt everything especially one’s claim to knowledge.
Here’s another way to say it all over again. A principal intuition is confirmed, one that has been driving my life but I tried to deny. Behind the devastation of rejection and the desire for friendship and trust is a feeling for, pull toward, Utter Love. Because It was inconceivable to my mind, in my bewildered anger I called It a myth, a mere idea that could never, ever be real. Along the way, though, I learned that inconceivability does not equal impossibility. Love is possible. My contact with Art, to name only one person, has made me doubt my claim that It is impossible. Moreover, the search for Love turns out to not be a lone endeavor. It is acknowledged, praise the Lord, through my contact with fellow eccentric, off-center seekers. And this is another confrontation to one of my beloved beliefs: a challenge to the belief of being an individual doesn’t have to always be painful, after all. Now I finally hear what a French philosopher, Henri the black cat, said a while ago: “The life of a philosopher cat is nothing without friends. Perhaps I should share my treats with others.”
I still don’t know what Love is. So yes, you can say this “business of seeking” has not turned its full “profit” (though thinking of anything in terms of a business upsets the bohemian in me). But acknowledging the possibility of Love, isn’t this itself already a miracle? This acknowledgment is really the restoring of my faith in Love, because faith is always in relation to something one can’t conceive of but sense possible. This alone is already worth more than whatever it has cost, if it did cost anything of value!
I’ve been living my life for a distant goal. Be serious and work hard now, and reap the reward later. If ever. But it was probably no seriousness, no real work, but a playing around in a make-belief of what life was about and the proper way to live it. But I did not know life, and do not still. Now that depression and panic have slackened their claim to knowledge about life and death, I want to play. Not to play around, for, God help me, I no longer want to live a make-believe life toward an imaginary, distant dream. But to play to get in touch with I-know-not-what, call it my heart, that is most authentic, most alive, most actual. Then to express it, or to get out of the way so thoroughly that that Genuine What may come forth unobstructedly. To live a life of devotion again. To live in love and wonder every instant. It’s a feeling that every day I’ve been striving to contact and approach. Still much frustration, that at the end of the day I somehow miss, and I go to bed with an unfinished business. Strangely, writing this wish feels already like a prayer come true.
Coda: In telling this story I sounded like I knew what was happening at the time it was happening, and where everything was leading to. Actually, though, the directing and the shaping only happen here in telling the story, in selecting certain things and leaving out many others. In telling it, the story loses solidity. It’s all so neat and tidy. It may well be a creation, for my whole life is a memory.
- Ike Harijanto