Stewart was nineteen years old when it happened. It was mid August, 1990, and he was staying at his parents' home on a break from college, where he had just written a paper for a final exam in a Philosophy of Mind course at UCDavis. He had just finished reading "Lord of the Flies" that morning, and turned on the radio before stepping into the shower. Once in the shower, he heard the sound of the water falling, but also could hear the radio, as if they were two completely different sounds. But then he realized that his eardrums don't differentiate between the sound of the music and talk on the radio and the sounds of the shower water raining down on him—but that that differentiation had to come from his understanding after his eardrums registered the vibrations; it was some sort of conditioned differentiation. He wondered whether, as a baby or a very young child, if he could "hear" the difference of the sounds as coming from two different sources, and reasoned that he likely would not be able to differentiate as a very young child, because then, he would just hear the truth of the sounds, and not edit them, not sort them. He sat down in the shower, closed his eyes, plugged his ears, and tried to re-hear the sounds about him as one sound, whole and undifferentiated. He felt that if he tried hard enough, he might just be able to do it.
After awhile, he emerged from the shower and dried himself off with a towel in the bathroom, and while doing so, he began to feel that he was a tremendous community of millions of little cells, each with a tiny bit of consciousness. He felt that his whole experience of self—of "I-ness" was only an emergent property of these millions of cells, working together in their community, and that if he really was only those cells, then why didn't he feel himself as those cells—those myriad individuals. Suddenly, he felt that his "I-ness" was, in a way, a convenient disservice to those cells, some of whom had been and were currently working very hard to make the whole organism called "Stewart" work. So he wondered if he could surrender that overlordship—in a way, give back his consciousness to all of the individual cells that created it, acknowledge and thank them for their service, and let them be honored each and independently.
As he tried to do this, something happened, and for the first time, he fell into a tingling state of bliss—a kind of ecstasy—where his normal chatty mind dissolved, and he became only that community. His body felt like a hive of buzzing bees, humming, each little part alive and independent, but all working together. And those bees had, at last, been seen, recognized for what they really were and had always been, and took joy in this recognition. And the image of an hourglass came to Stewart—with the feeling that "we are all the living sands of an hourglass," as time passes though us, and cells are born, live, and die, and yet the continuity of the whole organism seems to hold together. But, like differentiating the music on the radio from the sounds of the shower raining down, the wholeness and the partitions were, both, in a way, illusions. In this altered state, he returned to his old bedroom, pulled out a bottle of ink and a sumi brush, and began to paint the phrase that came to him on his bedroom wall.
Suddenly, his parents entered his room, and saw him painting writing on the wall, and they panicked, pulled the ink and brush from his hands, where it spilled over his fingers in the process, and they dragged him back to the bathroom and washed his hands, looking into his eyes, and asking him repeatedly, "What drug are you on?"
But Stewart hadn't taken any drugs. In fact, he had never taken any mind-altering drugs before. What was happening just was happening on its own.
And in his state of surrendering to the microorganisms of his being, he began to see that his parents were also made of myriad consciousnesses, but that in their state, they could not see this. His mother, yelling to his father that their son had "gone crazy," in an act of desperation, grabbed a pair of scissors, grabbed the lock of hair on his forehead, and cut his hair off at the scalp.
In his state of mind, Stewart could see that there was no other way that his mother could be. That she was scared and confused, and could not see or understand who her son really was: a community of cells, just like she was. And so he did not flinch, and did not resent her, because there was nothing else to do but let it be as it was, as it unfolded. And as she removed the lock of hair from his head, he left their house through the front door, and walked slowly to the neighboring field. And as he walked, he began to realize that just as all of the little cells that created the community that was his body, his being did not have an awareness of "Stewart"—that is, before Stewart became aware of those parts of which he was made—so the individual human beings on the planet did not realize that they were participating in greater minds—corporate minds, and national minds, and even a mind that emerged from the whole of humanity. And the more he gave over his own mind to the cells within him, like a beautiful communist revolution, where every cell became recognized for who it was and could have its say, so, simultaneously, Stewart's cells realized that they were participants in these greater minds, and ultimately, a mind that incorporated all of the plants, all of the animals, all of the minerals that flowed within all of those cells and the body of the Earth itself.
None of this is easy to put into words, and unless you have had the experience yourself, you cannot imagine it. But then something else happened: Stewart felt his being disintegrating and merging with the entire planet Earth—and the living, sentient mind of the Earth touched the mind of all of the cells and bacterium and minerals in the thing that some once called "Stewart," and, like being struck by a lightning bolt, he felt open, and opened, and overwhelmed with the intensity of energy that was flowing through him, to him, from him, and around him. It felt to him like a toaster had been plugged into a nuclear power plant, and all the circuits were burning up, frying with the sheer power and vastness of the experience.
And those around Stewart felt something too, as he sat down next to that field, merged with the Soul of the World (what he would later learn was called by ancient Romans as the "anima mundi.") His sister and her friend had followed him out of the house, and the friend burst out into tears. His parents dragged him back inside their home, placed him on a bed in their study, and tried to reason with him. But Stewart knew their thoughts form in their minds, before they spoke them, and felt their fears and their self-imposed and self-enforced limited-ness, which seemed all so unnecessary. He began to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but, at the same time, sob at the pain of it all—and, laughing and crying, writhing on the guest room bed, both hysterical and heart-wrenching at once—he cried out, "All I've ever really wanted was the Truth, and now I have a taste of it."
It took him several hours to return to a state where he could speak, walk, and eat again. But he would never be the same person he was before that day. The experience changed the course of his life from that day forward, and he knew then that everything except that truth was but a different flavor of illusion, of forgetfulness of what and who we really are.
He tried to explain the experience to his friends back in college; one told him that it was like a good acid trip. He passionately tried to describe it to other students in his Philosophy courses; they though he was mad, or that he was trying to start a cult. Hegel, Nietzsche, and even Plato all had different meanings to him than to his peers in school. Even many of his teachers felt that his interpretations were too "mystical." And for a long time, he felt very much alone among his fellow human beings. Without having had that experience themselves, how might anyone understand it? How might anyone even believe that it was possible? It was the most profound experience of his life, but anyone he told just laughed or rolled their eyes at him, and so, for another thirty years, Stewart kept his experience a secret.
But this little piece of writing by Thich Nhat Hanh showed Stewart that he was not the only one who has experienced such things. Our world is far more alive than we usually remember or give it credit. We are legion, and as we surrender to that legion and let that legion come alive within us, we open ourselves up to a more intimate participation in the far vaster community, the greater song, of which the millions of tiny souls within us play a part: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, and at all levels, there is mindstuff, awareness, and sentience.
Thank you for sharing this this reading with us.