Somewhere—perhaps in the deepest, distant reaches of places no one else wants to go—is an isolation so spectacularly alone and so excruciatingly desolate it makes me sob in reverence. I have seen such a place, but only in passing. I saw it from the window as the train on which I was traveling slogged through the emptiness  of North Dakota and Montana. I saw it in the parched landscape fifty miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. I’ve seen it in precious few other places. Far from humankind’s intrusions and close to the raw reality that’s left after Time wears away what once held a different kind of magnificence.

The desolation and sensation of being utterly alone require more than untouched landscape and endless sky. If those attributes were the only ones necessary, the deserts of Nevada would be among those rare places. That incredible isolation would exist in Big Bend National Park or the desert west of Odessa, Texas. There would be dozens of such places, if empty landscapes and open skies, alone, could call forth that emotion of reverential awe.

There’s something else, though—something absolutely impossible to describe or define— that makes a place so uniquely alone and desolate that it simultaneously feel like both Heaven and Hell. Even to a person who believes in neither. It’s odd that so few places have felt to me like I was on the far fringes of experience. Almost on the edge; and willing and prepared to go over, just to see beyond. Even if there is no turning back; no way to return.

Maybe, though, it’s not so much a place that translates the wisdom of supreme aloneness into a willingness to step off the edge of experience. Maybe it’s the context of that place. The surroundings of that experience. But I’ve already said it…it’s impossible to describe or define just what makes ecstasy and torture not only attractive but essential.

Maybe the hunger for solitude and togetherness contradicts itself, but perhaps those two desires owe their origins to the same fundamental human need. And maybe that need manifests itself best in places in which one of those desires is supremely felt. Maybe that’s why I am so deeply in love with the idea of being the only passenger on a train slipping through miles and miles and miles of grain fields; with not even a telephone line or pole to break the monotony. As I watch the repeating patterns of grain, I imagine being with that one person who is my opposite on matters in which I need balance and my emotional mirror on matters in which I need solace.

“I need.” That’s the problem. It should be “I can.” As in I can provide the balance and the solace to that one person who is my opposite and my mirror. But, still, there’s the matter of the isolation so spectacularly alone and so excruciatingly desolate it elicits reverential sobs.

Where is the right place? Where is the balance and the mirror? And for whom should they stabilize and reflect?

All of these questions and these observations fly in the face of what I have been trying to learn my entire life. Especially now. Because, now is all we have. Yesterday, I listened to a practitioner of Zen Buddhism explain his approach to the world, which involves cultivating a “don’t know” mind. That is, acknowledging that we know nothing about what will be, because we haven’t experienced it yet. And we don’t know much else. But I know there is that place where there exists an isolation so spectacularly alone and so excruciatingly desolate it makes me sob in reverence. Yet I don’t know where, precisely, it is or how to get there. But I’m beginning to understand, as I mull this over on this early Monday morning, that “there” is in my mind. As is everything else. I  am beginning to understand the  power of acknowledging that I don’t know. I don’t know. I simply don’t know.

A close friend sent me links to some articles written by yesterday’s practitioner of Zen Buddhism. One of them, a deeply personal revelation about his response to circumstances surrounding his father’s and his son’s cancer and the effects of those experiences on his own thinking, caused me to think more deeply. And the more I thought, the more I came to the realization that I don’t know. And acknowledging that I don’t know has the potential of bringing about the end of that fruitless search for that elusive serenity about which I write so often. Or, if not end of the search for serenity, at least the realization that I don’t know whether that’s what I’m after.

I am not alone in my quest for whatever I’m after. Knowing there are others doing precisely what I have done is reassuring. But it is depressing because, if isolation and the serenity it brings is really what I’m after, then joining the company of others who are in the same boat will run counter to what I am seeking. Catch-22. I wonder whether Joseph Heller was secretly as Zen Buddhist whose method of explaining and then accepting the disappointments in life was documented in his best-selling book.

My thoughts seem to be like a tightly-wound spring that suddenly comes unwound, then slowly winds again. They (my thoughts) serve no function, other than to provide a backdrop against which a tightly-wound spring can be examined.

About John Swinburn

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