'My First Metaphysics Lesson' by Harriet Ann Ellenberger

(metaphysics: the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things)

In the fall of 1964, I was a freshman scholarship student at a small liberal arts college in the midst of the Iowa cornfields (no drought then — the tall-grass prairie that had been broken to the plow turned green with lustily growing rows of corn from horizon to horizon). I wasn’t paying attention to the surrounding crops, nor even to the weather; I was avidly searching for signs of the life of the mind, which I had imagined would flourish in that place.

I didn’t find what I was looking for, but one remark by the professor teaching us “Introduction to Philosophy” did turn my attention in the direction of studying philosophy. We had just spent fifteen minutes of classroom time on the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, who taught that everything was water, when our teacher said, Consider how extraordinary this is — to look at the multi-form ever-changing world and see flowing through it a single invisible unifying “something.”

I considered, and I was hooked.

The word philosophy comes from the Greek philos (loving) combined with sophia (wisdom; also the goddess of wisdom), so it means literally “loving wisdom” or “loving Sophia.” But, as I would find out the hard way, academic philosophy in 1960s middle America had strayed far from its roots. There was little love, not much wisdom, and most assuredly no goddess in it. It was not a way into the life of the mind; it was intellectual jousting for the purpose of determining who was the smartest guy in the room (by definition, that wouldn’t have been me).

Four years of extreme study in philosophy departments did, however, give me a built-in bullshit-meter — I could tell almost instantly when someone was saying or writing something that made no sense. Through constant use of analytic reason, I learned what a handy-dandy all-purpose tool it can be. But a tool is no more than a tool. It doesn’t guide you, and it doesn’t inspire you. And I was becoming increasingly disillusioned and unhappy. So I gave up my fellowship for graduate study and turned my attention to more pressing matters, like the Henry-Kissinger-instigated bombing of Cambodia.

My first metaphysics lesson had to wait for another twenty years, until the mid-1980s, when my friend Debbie and I decided to eat two little dried-up fungus-buttons another friend had passed on to her. We thought we were ingesting the sacred mushroom used by shamans, but who knows what those wrinkly things really were or where they’d come from. We were both, however, all set for our trip into Big Mind.

It was a bitterly cold and clear full-moon night, and we were inside Debbie’s cabin, situated halfway up a snow-covered mountain in Vermont, and surrounded by woods. We each ate our “mushroom,” bundled up, and went outside. I looked at the full moon and saw it as I usually did, perfectly clearly, but over it and surrounding it was a see-through diaphanous creamy-pink lotus blossom. I blinked, and saw the full moon as usual. I blinked again, and there was the moon with her see-through lotus-double. I blinked again and again, and the lotus-moon appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in the same way.

Then I looked at the bare trees in the moonlight, and saw see-through lithe young women lying along the branches. Only they were too tall and too beautiful to be human. I blinked and they were gone. I blinked again and there they were; I could see the solid branches through their shimmery bodies. I cried out to Debbie, “Metaphors are Real!” and felt as if I’d just made a momentous philosophical discovery.

By this time, though, Debbie’s dog was yipping and biting at our heels, having had enough of the great outdoors. We went back inside, and he plopped down on the rug in front of the door. Debbie put another log on the fire, and then I saw her little dog’s see-through body sit up, trot over to the woodstove, and curl up beside it. A split-second later, his wet furry normal-little-dog’s-body sat up, trotted over to the woodstove, and curled up in exactly the same spot. Oh, I thought, so that’s how it works: dream-body leads, touch-body follows.

The next morning I woke up feeling as if I’d been kicked all over by a horse, which abruptly ended my enthusiasm for dried-up fungi. But for more than a year afterward I could see the lotus-and-moon on clear nights when the moon was nearly full, if I bent my knees. And since that night, although I’ve managed to doubt almost everything else, I have not doubted that the world is double, and that the more powerful, initiating part of it we have been conditioned not to perceive.

Patriarchal religions and their spin-off ideologies tend to split apart “spirit” and “nature,” but when I ate that whatever-it-was, I experienced for myself that “spirit” (the see-through part) and “nature” (the solid part) are so glued together, they can’t be separated. They’re aspects of one another. Nature isenspirited — the cosmos is enspirited — and no reductive set of human beliefs, and no appalling pile-up of human-caused destruction, can alter the first principles of things, the way things are.

There is nothing ordinary about reality: that’s what my first metaphysics lesson taught me.