3.WISDOM AND THE SOLITARY LIFE
The Withdrawal-Return Pattern
Wisdom like love is rhythm based. Its pulses come from conserved expansion/contraction rhythms evolved by single-celled organisms.
What began as a movement between the nucleus of a cell and its parts becomes, by many turns, as I hope to show, a dialogue between the soul, the self and the worldi n human life,.
It began in the swelling and shrinking of independently living cells. Then, on a larger scale, became number of cells moving in synchrony across tissues and organs.
Rudolpho Llinas suggests that we generate consciousness as an emergent property of neural synchronies in the brain.
“Neurons that display rhythmic oscillatory behavior may entrain to each other via action potentials. The resulting, far-reaching consequence of this is neuronal groups that oscillate in phase—that is, coherently, which supports simultaneity of activity. Consider the issue of coherence from the perspective of communication, for coherence is what communication rides on.”1
Withdrawal and return generates its own sensory grids. They are internal. They do not build up from Hall’s four social distances. The sensory flow has interoceptive and proprioceptive origins. Withdrawal and return generates gut sensations. Stimulated by humoral secretions and nerve traffic, they influence breath and heartbeat, skin flush or pallor, pheromone flows, arousal, relaxation and to some extent all moods and states of mind.
Fallings, risings, elations, depressions, aches and chills, little scintillations, gut rumblings, sensual thrills, tastes and revulsions, balance and imbalance are the sensory landscape of the withdrawal-return journey. The inward senses register pains and pleasures, warmth, coolness, pressure, visceral states orchestrated to the rhythms of breath, heartbeat, digestion and tremor. “The various permutations of which these organic changes are susceptible,” William James said, “make it abstractly possible that no shade of emotion should be without a bodily reverberation as unique, when taken in its totality, as is the mental mood itself.”2
From this palette of sensations, we derive our sense of inner security or insecurity, well-being, despondency, despair or joy. No animal, however primitive, does entirely without these inward sensations and their inward-outward, efferent-afferent connections. In human life, they form the basis for self-knowledge.3
Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century Danish existential philosopher, observed that “The only reality to which an existing individual may have a relation that is more than cognitive is his own reality, the fact that he exists; this reality constitutes his absolute interest…”4 From this place a person makes choices. Here ethics lives. Kierkegaard insisted, “The ethical, as being internal, cannot be observed by an outsider. It can be realized only by the individual subject, who alone can know what it is that moves within him.”5
During the earlier phases of withdrawal, the senses first turn away from the outer world. Over the course of numerous mini withdrawal-return events, withdrawal comes to dominate.
Like love, wisdom has a fractal structure. As with love, wisdom combines its mini-cycles of withdrawal and return, perhaps down to some irreducible quick social turning, into larger patterns of meaning. As in love, no stage of wisdom in the succession of stages is wisdom itself. No single realization, insight or epiphany constitutes wisdom, only the process as a whole; as with love, constancy is the illusion, change is the reality. We may seek the perennial wisdom, but we cannot find it. God’s truth is inaccessible. Mystics who climb close fall away. In Jewish mysticism, God himself withdraws and returns, comes closer and gets further away depending on our readiness to turn toward Him. Teshuvah, the Jewish notion of repentance, depends on these turnings.
The full course of a wisdom quest can last for months or years until its small polar units arrange themselves into an overall pattern of withdrawal-return with a central turning point, a turning of turnings, as its shape-giver. In both love and wisdom, the big turning passes quickly compared to the arduous trail of tests and attempts that leads to and from it.
However, unlike love, we experience the force of wisdom in solitude. In solitude, the mini-withdrawals become progressively longer. They pull us further inside ourselves. The mini-returns become brief and superficial. Internal sensation draws us away from the surface, not always willingly. In pursuit of wisdom, we dig our way into our own depths wherever else we go. After a deep turning, another fractal journey takes us back to the social world.
The daily sleep cycle is a fundamental unit for withdrawal and return. Animal species widely distributed through the tree of life sleep and rise. Sleep divides human life into its narrative units. Waking is always a return, sleep a withdrawal. We remember our days and sequence them into stories. Sleep itself is divided into stages lasting 90 minutes or so, and these stages oscillate in patterns of withdrawal and return. Nathaniel Kleitman first identified these patterns.
Allen Hobson describes the sleep rhythm as a shift in sensory interest from “stimulated neuronal information” (i.e. from the outside world) – to “spontaneous neuronal information” (something the brain is doing internally) with dreams as outcomes.6 When we include dream life in the sleep/waking cycle, we have the basic ingredients from which human inwardness very likely developed.
Beside sleep and dream, other briefer oscillations shape the inward/outward journey. Perhaps the rhythms of normal tremor, as with love, set the beat for the interchange between behavior and cognition. Perhaps it is the briefest unit that communicates between deeds and the effects of deeds on character. In those frequencies, life carries the transformational power of events back into physiology and from physiology into solitary awareness. Single-celled colonial gonium, perhaps the earliest social species, vibrate in the tremor frequency range. More than one great creator has shaken like a leaf in the moment of discovery when the “frisson”, the thrill felt on the skin, accompanied the epiphany.
We can consider the 300-millisecond P300 wave, the evoked response potential, as a candidate for the basic cognitive unit. That is the time it takes for the EEG to register the brain’s response to a stimulus, and may be the fractal unit that first organizes cognitive processing into patterns of withdrawal-return. The amplitude of the P300 itself varies with circadian rhythms, and along with the rest/activation rhythms, and other rhythms we will treat later in the book, it may represent one of the “ticks” of the body’s many living clocks.7
Neurobiological evidence suggests that, just as we bind together the separate data from the outside world into whole perceptions by means of cortex-spanning neural synchronies, in similar ways we bind the inner world and its internal sense data together. As sensory following responses, imitation, introjection and projection bind us to others, a parallel entrainment occurs in the world of solitude inside the bounding membrane of the organism. It links us to our own rhythms, our basic cognitive units and the nuances of our emotional lives. This pulse of coordination suggests that we construct our sense of self from a drama of withdrawal/return.
The Phenomenology of the Wisdom Journey: Withdrawal
Because the way inward and the way back rarely run smoothly, we experience the wisdom journey as a succession of adventures and ordeals. The stages, because they come together from combined nonlinear biological oscillators, acquire great complexity. The world subjects them to perturbing forces. The stages differ in intensity, content and outcome. Though the root pattern of withdrawal and return holds, each quest has its own time course and branching moments. They take detours and hit dead ends. Every wisdom path, as lived, is unique.
Withdrawal-return patterns differ, first, by the circumstances that draw a person inward. Suffering, disappointment or illness, or loss in material, political or economic life can trigger a withdrawal. Relationship problems can force one away from the social world. Some individuals go inward to find or preserve sanity, to leave behind a consensus reality they find stifling. Such departures can happen in the midst of apparent success, when success comes up empty or seems absurd.
Depending on a person’s makeup, withdrawal can turn a man introspective, ruminative, concentrated, agitated, obsessed, and bewildered or depressed, each in various successions and combinations.
In deep withdrawal, the map of custom falls to pieces. The context by which we orient ourselves in the world breaks down. The habitual sequencing of personality parts shudders apart; the pieces shift or fall away. We become awkward. Our characteristic gestures and patterns of muscle use, our habitual expostulations, sighs, grimaces, seem empty. We jumble our competencies and emotions. Our ways of accessing the body falter. We realize that the “I“ that departed on the inward voyage, whether with high hopes or dread, can no longer be counted on as the familiar “I”. It has turned into a stranger whose motives are uncertain and whose worth is untested. Our plans no longer fit our circumstances. Our emotional stability is shaken. We can no longer rely on ourselves.
At some point, the retreat of the senses from the outside world to the sensing of the body may become troubling and threatening. Periods of anguish and anxiety mark this condition. Unable to receive affirmation from outside for what we no longer are, and reluctant to ask the world to acknowledge what we have not yet become, we retreat into solitude. Life impels us to question our steadiest assumptions.
Hans Castorp’s experiences in Thomas Mann‘s novel The Magic Mountain, show these stages of withdrawal and return with clinical clarity. In his first weeks at the Swiss tuberculosis sanitarium, Castorp feels tired, enervated, his senses dulled. Then, though he had nothing wrong with him when he arrived he gets faint and feverish, the thermometer confirms his fever.8
A similar sequence occurs in C. S. Lewis‘ description of his suffering after the death of his wife. In the first entry in his journal, later published as A Grief Observed, he writes, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”9 Notice how he focuses on interoceptive sensation. Lewis is moving into darkness, into distances of removal. “At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.”10 The long period of indwelling sensation drained his interest from the outer world of the senses. “I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn out looking? Then I remember.”11 Uninvited memories well up, shaping a world increasingly phantasmagorical.12 The absence of outward anchoring consensual validation in our wisdom quests amplifies the impact of the disruptive forces in the stages of withdrawal. “To some I am worse than an embarrassment,” Lewis wrote, “I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married couple I can feel them both thinking. ‘One or the other of us must someday be as he is now.’”13 The world Lewis left behind had given him his map coordinates. But when sufficient emotional and physical pressure bore down on him for long enough, the consensual world slipped away. Under those pressures, our image of how others see us recedes. They no longer remind us of who we are and where we fit into the world. People retreat from us, or we push them away, and the loss of amity and comity opens us up to chaotic shifts in our internal fields of sensation. Something in us is cut loose. Where we were once deferential, we become aggressive; where gregarious, now remote; where motivated, now lax. What was opened seems closed; what was closed seems open. What we once knew we do not know now, what we never noticed before plagues us. We live with shocking uncertainty.14
We get no comfort either in the extremes of loneliness or the extremes of engagement. Our very hold on ourselves thins out then. The threat of loss of self is characteristic of extreme situations and sometimes brings with it tremendous accessions of fear. In these moments human nature—the lived reality of it, I mean— throws us into disarray. We respond to pressures from inside and outside by decohering. Turbulence degrades the body’s oscillators. A person under remorseless pressure can break down emotionally or get ill. The ordinary sense of wholeness retreats.
Most people experience the perturbations and the biochemical cascades as a kind of inner dissociation. The I-sense is denuded. Subpersonalities move in and out of frontality seemingly on their own volition. In this condition, we yearn to hold on to the self. We do not want to let go. But there comes a time when, unless we let go, we must abort the turning process toward which we have striven. The anxiety that comes with holding on to what is determined to slip away anyway can alienate a person from his or her real needs. To experience and endure transformation you must hang tough, even while in doubt, adhering to doubt. But you hang tough by letting go of the old self-system. Like Odysseus, you stay present in the storm even while the boat founders.
Whatever provokes it, and whether you go willingly or not, you experience withdrawal into the depths as a painful, turbulent and destabilizing time. To reject the surface of life and turn inward (and to be rejected for rejecting it) gravely tests the spirit.
Dante’s Divine Comedy opens with the poet lost.
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray,
Gone from the path direct…
Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia, travels alone through solitary perils following the death of Enkidu, his only friend and soul brother.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu -- Mesopotamian cylinder seal
In his story, we are told, “When he had gone one league the darkness became thick around him, for there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. After two leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, etc….” Then “In his bitterness he cried, ‘How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart?’”
In this earliest written record of a mythical journey, Gilgamesh travels to the ends of the earth seeking the secret to eternal life. Only this boon (which he intends to offer to the respected elders of his city first and then use himself,) will console him for the death of Enkidu. At the ends of the earth, he learns about a plant of immortality growing at the bottom of the sea. He dives for it and sinks into the unknown. The adventure of withdrawal reaches its nadir. “He tied heavy stones to his feet and they dragged him down to the water bed. There he saw the plant growing; although it pricked him, he took it in his hands; then he cut the heavy stones from his feet, and the sea carried him and threw him on the shore.” The turning moment comes when he cuts the heavy stones from his feet and bobs up to the surface.
Phenomenology of the Wisdom Journey: Return
After the turning, another sensory shift occurs. this time away from interoception toward external sensation, and with it comes a redistribution of energy. One experiences a change from frustration to enthusiasm for action, often accompanied by a sudden experience of simplification and a sense of the heightened power of the moment. The autonomic nervous system shifts gears. Imagination surges. It discovers new motivations for action. It leaves behind its compensatory fantasies and ruminations.
In the return phase, we find ourselves saying yes where we used to say no and no where we used to say yes. Our sense of our own prospects changes. We talk to people differently. Time flows differently. Space opens up. Meaning is new. We revise our model of reality. And these changes bring with them not only fresh understandings but the chance to attain new deeds, and as a side-benefit, if one is attentive to it in ways I shall describe later in the book, you acquire a measure of voluntary control over autonomic functions previously inaccessible to consciousness. These new skills and powers change the way we distribute our energy on the long leg back.
The circumstances endured and surmounted on the inward journey serve us best when the turning point lines up with a readiness of the world, a readiness to receive us when we come back – a readiness to receive the gift we are offering. How wonderful when the world seems to want us and opens its doors!
However, the world may refuse our gifts or use them wrongly. What then? We have to keep offering them wholeheartedly. In round trip wisdom our strength lies.
When we travel into the depths with sufficient motivation and bravely endure its trials, the ordeal becomes transformative. It has ethical force. It provokes a creative crisis that expands our range of choices and enlarges our circle of freedom. But choosing something and doing it are different. In the turmoil of the turning, we must find the strength to return in actuality. We must take real steps in that direction. You take the first real step with a sealing gesture; it puts you on the road back to the world of others.
Without a return to the world commensurate with the pull of the inward journey, a person’s growth is stifled. The half journey makes one angry, bitter, or crazy. Only the full round-trip confers the benefits of wisdom. Every cultural tradition, from Gilgamish to Odysseus to Dante, celebrates the full round-trip journey as the source of renewal in life.