I remember a time when I was lost in a dark forest, about a quarter of the way through this life's journey. How did I get there? I've often struggled to pull this memory from the depths of my head in its completeness, but, no matter how hard I try, I can only get it in a fragmentary form.
My memory of this event begins with being abruptly in complete blackness. Nothing but the cold air anxiously being breathed in through my nostrils indicated to me that I was outdoors. I remained like this, panicked and cold, for at least a few minutes. But as I kept breathing, it soon dawned on me that there was an earthy scent in the air. I smelled pine cones, too. So I'm in a forest, I thought. I take one very cautious step forward and feel cold soil on my bare feet. This soothed me almost immediately. At this point I still couldn't see anything, but the chill earth had grounded me.
Taking a few more very cautious steps forward, I felt the air brush against my legs and make the hair on them stand up. To my bewilderment, I realized I am completely naked. This confused me, but I was not embarrassed by it at all for some reason. Knowing I was in a forest, I felt deeply secure even in my vulnerable state.
Step after step, my eyes began to adjust to the inky darkness. I looked all around and saw that towering trees enveloped me, and their thick foliage blocked out any possible light from the moon or stars. There was a grim beauty to it all, but then the thought of running into predators, like wolves, had wandered into my mind, disturbing the peace that I had found previously. With great difficulty I tried not to project images of wolves or terrible monsters into the darkness. Looking straight ahead I could see that there was nothing ahead of me, so I walked much more quickly.
A few times, I cannot remember how many times, I sped up because I thought I saw faces looking at me. Since I wasn't sure if they were real or just my imagination, I didn't take any chances. There are a few such faces that I half-remember, but the one I recall the most vividly was a face that seemed like a horned, grinning man. That I remember the most because when I saw it, or thought that I saw it, I picked up my pace.
It didn't seem like I would ever get out of this forest. I didn't even notice that by now I was stepping on dry leaves which covered the ground, so that cracking noises followed my every footstep. There was a clearing up ahead in the distance. If I go there, I thought, I might get an idea of where I am by looking up at the sky.
So I started to walk even more energetically, making all kinds of noise that surely would draw the attention of anything out there in the forest. Just when I was about to enter the clearing, a root caught my foot and I fell face-first into the leaf-blanketed ground, letting out a little yelp as I did so.
Though this was a shock, I didn't waste any time in getting up. Instantly I noticed, on a tree-stump, a stone statue of a cross-legged man. Staring at it I was perplexed. It was a very smooth stone. The statue was naked except for a loincloth tied around the waist. Beyond that it didn't have many features, or so it seemed. Something about this mysterious statue seemed sacred. It put me in a reverential mood. Taking two very slow steps forward, trying to avoid making any noise which I failed to do, I got to take a closer look. The statue's face bespoke of an inner tranquility. All of my fear of monstrous faces or predators had dissipated from beholding this statue.
It seemed appropriate to bow to this image of serenity. I got on my knees in order to bow and shut my eyes. Perhaps if I stood in the presence of this statue long enough, some of that inner tranquility would rub off on me. It seemed already to be happening.
I'm not sure how long I stayed like that. But what happened next, I could never forget. I opened my eyes, and the statue was now standing levitating on the tree stump, and smiling at me. The darkness had fooled me. This was no statue. It was a man. His skin was so pale, and he was so still, that he had seemed like a literal statue. Even now that he was standing he seemed more a religious idol and less like a real person.
Those noises I made from earlier must have disturbed his meditation. But he did not seem displeased in the slightest. His smile was among the tenderest I had ever seen. "Oh thou youth," as soon as he began to speak to me, the fullness of my attention was his. "Lost in this dark wood hast thou found thyself, and thou knowest not the way out". His voice was loving and soothing, like a mother's. "But truly, truly, this whole world is as a stroll in a dark wood. In the darkness of our ignorance, we are tormented by things that are nought but the phantoms of our own minds. We ascribe importance to things that are dream-like in their impermanence and illusoriness."
His words had a powerful effect on me. He paused, and I wasn't sure if he was waiting for a response or if he was going to keep talking, which I would rather he do. He started speaking again, thankfully. "Oh thou youth! This worldly life and the enjoyments in it, the pleasures, honours, wealth, and knowledge - all of these are but as dreams. When our mind is held under their sway, their reality seems total, but after a period of time all these outer things fade as though they were never there at all, and men wonder what they were ever concerned about. Do not be under the spell of the worldly dream, but be as one who is awake, whose mind is not perturbed by the fear of, or desire for, illusions".
This advice seemed wise, but unattainable. I began to notice that the levitating monk’s face was glowing subtly with an unearthly light. The more he spoke, the greater the light became. It was like moonlight, but the sight of it was spellbinding in a way I had never experienced before. Looking into the ethereal glow emanating from his face somehow helped me to understand him. His spontaneous sermon continued: "I was once a king, with all the highest fruits of worldly life - wonderful friends, fine foods, luxury, beautiful women, plentiful gold, servants - at my fingertips in great abundance. But even with this I found myself unsatisfied, as were all other worldly men that I had seen. None of those things could satisfy the infinite desire that we humans have. All worldly men are unsatisfied, for their pursuits never end. What they enjoy is finite, but their desire is infinite. Nothing temporal can satisfy our want for an eternal happiness"
When he said those words a strange feeling came over, which I had never felt before. All of the wants I had ever had, to enjoy my senses, to have companionship, to be recognized, to express myself, to understand life, all of them, had evaporated like fires being quenched by rain. What I felt in the absence of these desires was something radically new: A deep serenity that was profoundly unattached to itself. The more this feeling washed over me, the more it seemed like this serenity had actually always been with me. It was hidden behind all of my desires as the sky is hidden behind all of the clouds. The clouds of desire arise and dissipate, such that I might sometimes not see the serenity that is always in me, but it is always there even if I don't notice. It was my core.
Peace that surpassed understanding washed over me. The levitating monk sat cross-legged, and I followed him deep into meditation. Soon the peace transformed into an overwhelming bliss that threatened to consume my sense of self. After this point the meditation had increased in difficulty. My desires returned to me, like mosquitos on a nice summer day that continually return to suck away your blood no matter how much you pest them away. Gradually I had sunk back into feeling "normal" again.
The monk had noticed, and he ended our meditation session by saying softly: "What you felt, before you became entangled in desire again, was eternity. The birthright of your soul. The inner wellspring of bliss”.
"What worldly and foolish men seek is the temporary. But what the wise seek is the eternal. Desire is infinite, and only the eternal can satisfy it, not the temporal. Wise men who continually renounce their desires and turn within shall dwell within unshakeable peace all their days, knowing neither want or fear."
This excited me. The prospect of being free from anything bothersome, and having that feeling of deep calm forever seemed now like the only way to live.
"Oh thou youth!" He addressed me again. "I have forsaken my palace for this tree stump, my friends for my breath, my luxury for my nakedness, my women for my inner peace, and in this I have found eternal peace and bliss. But strong is the stranglehold of desires upon our minds. Renounce the dream-like pleasures of the worldly life before they have a hold on you. The less your desires have been satisfied, the easier it is to detach yourself from them completely. The never-ending fountain of inner joy within your soul is yours to drink forever, if only you give up the outer joys". The monk went deep into meditation again, instantaneously. The moonlight-like light from his face was still there, but not as strongly as before, and I rested my gaze on it, rapt in wonder. It was hard, but I went on my way so as not to disturb him.
The words the monk spoke to me went deeper and deeper into my heart. I had never seen a happier person than that monk. I thought of all the people I had ever known, who I guessed the monk would have called "worldly people", and thought that he was right about them: They were never satisfied, since outer things never satisfy, and are always chasing after the next thing. But the monk had attained the eternal happiness that they so desire just by sitting on a tree stump in the woods and wanting nothing.
I was filled with conviction to be just like that monk. Something stopped me, though. I was still very young, and had hardly experienced the pleasures that the monk had spoken about. But, I thought, didn't the monk say that the younger you are, the easier it is to be like him, precisely because you haven't experienced much of anything yet? Why bother going through the whole song-and-dance of wanting and getting if all I end up with is dissatisfaction, anyway?
To hell with it all, I thought! I will be just like that monk. All I need is a good tree stump. A part of me wished I hadn't have left the monk alone, because I felt that getting into that state of eternity that I was in before would be a lot harder without him. But I'd have to try.
So now I wandered in the woods again, not with the intention of finding my way home but just with the intention of finding a tree stump. I'm already naked, so I won't have much to give up, I thought.
Now, I can't remember how long I was looking for a tree stump, but it felt like an awfully long time. A few times I thought I saw a face in the shadows, but this time I wasn't scared. It was just an illusion, like the monk said. Even if it was a real face, which it probably wasn't, it was still an illusion, in a way.
Along the way I found many bushes and trees filled with fruits. Blackberries, apples, bananas. They were so colourful and full of life, even in the dark. A slight breeze made the scent of them go straight towards me, and I was teased with hunger. But I denied myself. It was hard, but I remembered the monk's words. It would be unsatisfactory to even attempt to pursue those fruits, because the satisfaction I got from them wouldn't last, so why bother?
Finally I found a tree stump. It was a little small, but that's okay. When I got up to sit on it, trying as much as possible to imitate the stance I found the monk in, I thought for sure I had heard the sound of leaves cracking underneath feet.
Well, it's probably the monk, I thought at first. But even if it was a person, who cares? There is nothing to fear or want.
Without hesitation I plunged deep into the waters of meditation. For what was perhaps days, I struggle to remember for exactly how long, I would meditate and then stop only when being in ecstatic eternity felt painful. It was not a bad kind of pain, though. It was a pain like it was too good to be true, too good to handle. The pesky desires I had before kept struggling for life, but I was starving them all to death, not feeding any of them with my attention like they wanted. When it was really hard to meditate, I would pace around my tree stump and think of the worthlessness of worldly life.
Love is illusory, wealth is slavery, and knowledge is vanity, I thought. I deconstructed everything like this. More and more, everything out there in the material world seemed hollow due to its impermanence and unsatisfactoriness.
This continued for a long time. It took effort, but not the strenuous effort of worldly pursuits. It was a simpler kind of effort, a relaxed discipline. This was a mode of action that was new to me. But I rode my intuition deep into meditation-land.
I remember one day the peace I felt was particularly intense. My whole consciousness was filled with a subtle inward ecstasy. It seemed like I could just stay like this forever.
"BOO!" A mischievous voice yelled behind me. I was so startled that I fell off my tree stump. My legs were so asleep from sitting cross-legged for so long that I couldn't stand up after I had fallen.
Whoever scared me was belly-laughing at my displeasure, since I couldn’t get up. It took a good while for my legs to recover, and he laughed the whole time. Finally I got to turn around, and what I saw made me think I was on drugs.
It was a hairy, tall and lanky goat-headed man, with big cloven feet and playful eyes. He had a flute in his right hand and horns that seemed almost a little too big for his head.
As soon as we made eye contact he tilted his head like a confused dog, and then he laughed like a hyena and pointed at me. "You're naked! Oh my god, tree stump man is naked!" he said as he pointed and laughed. I hadn't been aware of my nakedness this whole time. I covered myself with my hands, embarrassed, and turned around.
"Never mind me, just making sure you were still alive" He said, giggling a little as he did so. "How long have you been just sitting there, you weirdo?"
I was about to answer, but then he leaped straight over me. Even though he was very big, he moved nimbly and seemed to glide through the air like a dancer, hardly making a noise as he did so. When he landed he started to hop up and down like a little kid with too much energy.
"Hang on a second, buddy. I got you". When he called me buddy I smiled, in spite of myself. He started playing a funny tune on his flute, which made all the leaves around me float through the air and twirl. They moved to the sound of his flute, and then they started to circle around me. As the satyr played, the leaves obeyed the rhythms of his music, until finally they started to form a pair of pants around me that fit very nicely.
"There. We're good now. Why have you been walking around this forest with your junk just hanging out?" His question made me so irritated. Up until now I was having something of a spiritual experience. But now it all seemed absurd since I was naked the whole time. He could tell the displeasure on my face and said, "Oh that really... got your goat, didn't it?" He laughed a little too hard at his own joke, but despite my best effort I ended up laughing too, and then we were both laughing at the fact that I was laughing at his really terrible pun.
"You're an alright guy. I thought you were someone else for a second. I thought you were the prince of boredom somewhere over there. Man, that guy is such a buzzkill". He was speaking about the monk, and I was mad to hear him spoken about in this way, since I revered him. Who could mock someone who had a beautiful spiritual light glowing from his face?
Before I had the chance to defend the monk and his philosophy, the satyr spoke again: "Oh no, you don't actually like that ol' fart over there, do you? Fella used to be a real playboy back in the day. Then he got hung up about all this Eternity horse-poop". He spat, and as he was mostly goat it was quite a formidable spit at that. "He was more fun back in the day but, well, you know, he always had a bit of a stick up his, well, his you-know-where". Now, I was really offended by that statement. "Oh? You didn't know where I meant? Well, I meant his ass, of course!" He said and then he laughed obnoxiously and leaped over me again. He played a loud note on his flute, and then the leaf-pants he had magically made fell apart instantly into a normal pile of leaves. Embarrassed, I covered myself and tried to flee into a bush so the satyr couldn't see me.
Naturally the satyr was having just a grand old time with me and he laughed again. "Alright,alright" he said after wiping a tear from his eyes, "I'll help you out again". He played the same tune he had played before, but this time much faster, and the same pile of leaves that had fallen off of me formed into a pair of pants around me again. I stepped out of the bushes.
I really wanted to ask if the satyr and the monk had known each other before, a prospect that I found strange. It was almost impossible to imagine these two together. But before I could get a word in, he said: "Lemme tell you something, bucko!". He leaped onto the tree stump, and landed on his hands, doing a hand-stand. "Life is short - and youth is shorter!". That seemed really profound for someone with a goat-face, so I paused and thought about it.
"But don't get all sad about that. The, how do you say it, the uh... what's the word... the fleetingness! Yeah. That's it. It gives everything a special relish. It's like life is this delicious cake, and the fleetingness is this wonderful icing on it that makes it all the sweeter. Except the icing is making the cake disappear all the time, so I guess that doesn't make any goddamn sense, but hey, neither does life! Whenever I'm feeling kinda bored, I just think about how life is a disappearing cake".
The satyr started playing his flute upside-down, which I must admit is an impressive feat. I was afraid my pants would fall apart again, but instead the song he played made a breeze carry him from off his tree stump and land him directly in front of me on his feet. When he landed he started leaping away from me. He yelled back at me, "Come on! Let's have some fun!".
I ignored him and started walking back to my tree stump. But as I felt the foliage of my magic leaf-pants against my legs I started to feel an irresistible desire to go and follow him. So I did. It took some running to catch up with him, but I caught up.
The next few days after that were a blur. We gorged ourselves on blackberries, bananas, and apples. We swam, we chased animals, we danced, we sang. Then, one night, after being tuckered out from dancing in a drunken frenzy by a fire, I woke up and found he had disappeared. I can’t remember a full day from this whole episode, but all of the fragments that I have are very bizarre. We smoked mysterious plants and looked up at the stars, lounged by river-banks, and whistled along with birds in the woods.
While looking for my goat-headed friend I found my tree-stump from before. As soon as I saw it I was filled with guilt. I had resolved to renounce the temporal and seek the eternal, but I got lead astray by my passions. I had failed to heed the monk's advice. And he was right: It seemed like it would be much harder now to feel the eternal peace I felt before now that I was more experienced in terms of desire. Since the appetites of my desires had been whetted, they had a strength now that they didn't have before when I was completely innocent.
I felt lost. Like I had been given a gift of immeasurable preciousness by the monk, but had lost it for the sake of a few moment's joy. I could have been among those who follow wisdom, but now I was just a parable for someone else to learn from. I sat there and sulked by the tree stump, torturing myself with my conscience for a very long time. All of those fleeting pleasures I had experienced before seemed evil to me now, like the temptations of demons, and the calmness I felt before that seemed like a holy goodness.
Then I got up. This time, in order to find the monk again. While I was looking for him, I found a blackberry bush and was reminded of all the parties I had with the satyr. All of his delightful songs started coming back to me, and all his silly jokes. I laughed recalling some of them. Those memories will always be with me, I thought. There is something special about that.
We had so much fun together, the Satyr and I. To be lost in wild abandonment like that with him felt like it's own kind of liberation, though of a qualitatively different kind than the spiritual sort that I felt earlier. It is nice to be an animal who just does things without thinking about it. You can't worry about all your existential fears when you're totally lost in the moment, be it dancing drunkenly by the fire to a satyr's flute or eating delicious wild blackberries and telling jokes. There was one night with him where he yelled, "I feel so alive!" triumphantly at the top of his lungs, and the sheer power of his affirmation of life made me party madly for the next few days, being carried in the momentum of his energy. I wouldn't mind doing it again.
As soon as that last thought came to me, that I would like to do it again, I was filled with horror. The monk was right. You can spend your whole life chasing the temporal pleasures of life, and you'll never be satisfied. Eventually your youth will run out and your life will run out, and you'll be just as unsatisfied as when you started, because nothing in the external world can satisfy us, only the inner bliss of the soul.
But didn't the Satyr kind of have a point? To be so full of vitality and energetic joy, to be emboldened by life's fleetingness, surely there could be nothing wrong with that kind of experience? Maybe if you just spent your whole life pursuing that, a different kind of eternal happiness would be yours. Namely, the lingering effect of having made so many positive memories. Maybe If you just partied hard enough and lived madly enough, then the collection of memories in storage would cheer you up on a bad day and remind you that life is good even though everything is destined for disintegration.
Or maybe the monk was right. Trying to satisfy desires with temporary things just makes you have more desire, and in the end it's all pointless because all external things vanish, leaving no traces. Where will all those memories be when I'm dead? What will the point of drinking and feasting be then? Should I really just waste my life in silly dalliances? The only way to be happy is just not to desire anything at all and to pursue the only thing that lasts, the eternal wellspring of joy within.
A breeze passed through the forest, forcing the scent of the blackberries into my nose. The sweet smell roused my hunger, but at the same time it roused my confusion. Should I eat them, or should I not?
My whole being was petrified with doubt. I stood there struggling between whether or not I should eat the blackberries for a very long time. Each time I said yes, I had a reason to say no, and vice-versa. The tension became so intense that I felt my soul crack. I sat down defeatedly, facing away from the black-berry bush but still not carrying myself away from it either. I was torn, not between good and evil, but between temporality and eternity.
As hard as I try, I cannot remember anything else of my time in the dark forest. I have dug hard and deep into the mine of my memory, but I have not been able to find anymore of the gems of this memory no matter how hard I try. It bothers me tremendously that I can't remember how I left the forest and found my way back home. But it doesn't bother me nearly as much as whether or not I ate those damn blackberries!
In a way, I have never left the dark forest. The soul I carry with me everywhere is still there, collapsed beside that bush, struggling with the ultimate question: Should I eat the blackberries, or not?