Striking Out on a Philosophical Journey

From time to time, we need to step back from ourselves and look at the world through a different set of eyes. We must consider that our certainty may be a symptom, not a solution. If we examine the world through another’s perspective, we may realize that our lenses could be tinted with a miniscule drop of blood or a tiny smudge of soot.  We may discover we see the world in reverse, as if our lenses were placed in our eyes backwards; the smallest image enlarged to give the widest view and the largest image shrunk to the most microscopic.

Be soft in your practice.
Think of the method as a fine silvery stream,
not a raging waterfall.
Follow the stream, have faith in its course.
It will go its own way,
meandering here, trickling there.
It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices.
Just follow it.
Never let it out of your sight.
It will take you.

~ Sheng-Yen ~

I love the admonition, “Be soft in your practice.” It covers such an enormously wide spectrum of behaviors, yet it is such an amazingly precise piece of advice. If I could successfully live by a single phrase to guide my actions, day-by-day, “Be soft in your practice” would be the one. It would guide my reactions to disappointment and to good fortune. It would steer me through my mental and physical responses to fear and bravery. The counsel to “just follow it” and the assurance that “it will take you” seem contrary to my earlier advice, in the introductory paragraph, that our certainty may be a symptom rather than a solution; but I think not. Sheng-Yen‘s advice is to follow the course through uncertainty.

Some mornings—and this obviously is one such morning—I think philosophically. My thoughts on such mornings do not center on the enduring but, rather, on the ephemeral. On these mornings, I wander aimlessly through translucent mental forests whose trees are ghosts of thoughts I had a thousand years before. I question whether I am real and whether the thoughts in my head are simply figments of a fictional imagination. Those mornings call into question the legitimacy of matters that usually command my attention. Does it matter whether the sheets were washed? Will their relative degree of cleanliness matter in a million years? Or even later today? Or now?

What time is my appointment with the doctor? Will she wait for me if I am late? Will the lives of all the patients that follow me, from this moment and into the next millennia, be altered by my tardiness or my punctuality?

No, on these mornings my mind leads me along dangerous trails on steep mountain ridges, where a misstep in any direction can result in my plunging headfirst into raging rivers full of ideas in which I would almost certainly drown. Here, on these precarious pathways, ideas become both weapons and protective cocoons. Experiences, here on these footpaths so high above the clouds, are impossibly complex. They are both sensually alive with overwhelming ecstasy and painfully dull and dreadful, as if an eternity of dry sand and howling, hot winds awaits.

My descriptions of where I am on these certain mornings may seem awful, but the reality of thinking philosophically—about things that matter and those that don’t—is that it tends to heighten my senses. It makes me more attuned to the sublime. It takes my hopes and my desires to levels I rarely encounter, levels from which I can look down and barely see the tiny peak of Mount Everest miles and miles below.


Togetherness after being alone and loneliness after being together give the taste of their opposites a unique, appealing character. Solitude feels different when contrasted with the joy of intimacy; solitude is no longer as alluring. Yet even intimacy can seem invasive if it is permitted to enshroud solitude in an opaque cloak, making solitude inaccessible. Given enough dedicated contemplation, one begins to understand that solitude and intimacy (or, loneliness and togetherness, to use different terms) are necessary and complementary points along the same strand of experience. Or, to use another favorite term, along the same spectrum. Desire applies to both ends; we all want and need both time alone and time in which we are deeply intertwined with one another. The trick to avoiding the pain of too much or too little of either is to mix them together within small pockets of time; just enough of both to keep one’s soul intact.

I do not believe there is a soul. But of course there must be one.  But it is not what we commonly think of; instead, it is the fire of connection that keeps us in love and keeps love growing ever greater, even when love seems too strong, too soon, too overwhelming, too necessary. And it is the ember that keeps us in love when the strength and length and power and necessity of love mature and change over time, filling in the gaps and making life comfortably full. That’s what the soul is. It is the fire and the ember and the contents of the furnace.


Usually, when I am in this philosophical mood, I tend to stoke it with emotions to keep it from drying up and becoming a little like bitterness on steroids. But this morning I don’t feel the need to shore it up with an overabundance of emotion. That’s a good thing, I think.


Tonight is the World Tour of Wines. I’ll read a poem I wrote on request for the event that was to have taken place more than a year ago. I will be accompanied by my girlfriend, who, in such a short time, has become so much more than that term can begin to describe. The rest of the day will be divided between what I have begun to call “A gathering of geezers,” and a church board meeting. The “gathering of geezers is simply a group of guys who get together each week, as availability and weather and circumstances permit, to chat and develop bonds that otherwise would either not exist or would wither. I think today will be a good one. I feel it in my bones.


More coffee will help ensure the day progresses as I wish. And so off I go.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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