David Tresemer, PhD
First published Spring 2019
The search for truth has motivated many an expedition into the wilderness of sensations. Many explorers return empty-handed. Anthroposophy can be a helpful guide in the wilds of raw experience. Let’s take an example.
In Australia, I join a Sunday bushwalk, four hours up and down through different eco-zones. In one of them, I encounter a creation that I’ve never beheld. A thick dark brown stalk grows up from the ground, a foot in diameter, as tall as my head. From its top there sprout hundreds of long thin green wires, pressing up and out in all directions. These fronds are each three or four feet long; they are tough and springy; a slight bobbing in the breeze creates moving moire patterns as they visually cross one in front of the other. The many intersections create something that I almost hear as a pitter-patter of rain on a metal roof, or a zinging.
I am drawn to come close and put my head in among the bobbing fronds. My senses beyond sight become active. I smell a pungent odor. I hear a slight susurration as a portion of the hundreds of fronds lightly scrape against each other. Within my being, I feel a kind of buzzing of excitement. I feel the fronds, their hard tips, the long surfaces between flat and cylindrical, raspy like sandpaper, hard yet flexible. And then I get a feeling that goes beyond the senses, a feeling of being in a world where gravity is less in charge, where buoyancy rules, where hundreds of individuals dance every moment of the day, in relation to each other, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away, dances of pure joy, beaming these pleasures in shifting intersection patterns out to the watchers of the forest.
An alphabet is made of letters distinguished by characteristic cross-overs and movements. This plant makes letters, many each moment, letters that exist for the sheer fun of it, that don’t add up to any sort of words, yet are playful poetry. My head inside the plant, I revel in the source of poetry—its qualities of inner experience. From within, I look out through a green haze, through a being of green. The browns of the landscape are framed and reframed by shifting bouncing green lines. I feel delight. One could say that time stops, but more accurately, time changes scale from bouncy-quick to long silence.
The tour guide finds me, and announces loudly, calling to the other walkers, “Here is a good specimen of Xanthorrhoea—grass tree.” The walkers gather round. Of course, a complicated name such as this requires pronunciation three times (zann-thoh-ree-ah), spelling five times, two quizzes, now a classroom setting around the grass tree with me still inside it. Etymology is brought in to help with the name, xanthos being yellow and rhoea being flowing, because of the yellow resin that is exuded, which, when mixed with wallaby blood and clay, was and is used by aboriginals as a great multi-purpose glue. Et cetera, et cetera. All this explained with me still inside the plant.
I am intensely aware of a gloss that has been laid over the plant, as if a large piece of semi-opaque plastic had been draped over the top with the name in large letters, “XANTHORRHOEA: Grass Plant,” and all the other words of explanation in small print. This presses me out, next to and separate from this identified object of observation.
At that point, the tour leader takes this photo of me.
What has happened? While my head was in the plant—in a gravity-free joy-space—I was in a rare zone of flowing dream. The grass tree had drawn me in, and there I reveled in shifting qualities of feeling. In the service of helpfulness, the tour guide had abruptly brought me back to consensual reality, where we have labels for things. After this naming, and the command to continue our walking, for the next twenty minutes, the tour guide, and sometimes one of the other walkers, would say, “Oh, there’s another Xanthorrhoea!” Then silence; we now had that new experience handled—or pinned down (as a lepidopterist might say when putting a pin through a butterfly’s abdomen to affix the specimen in a display case next to the printed label of species, genus, and common name).
Through the rest of the walk, I felt the struggle, when seeing another of these unique and amazing plants, between naming and enjoying. The enjoying drew me in, but the walk was moving on, so I did not slow time to enter another grass tree.
To understand these dynamics, it’s helpful to distinguish between the three soul functions of Thinking, Feeling, and Willing.
Most of the time our awareness roves down along the bottom, creating thought-balls out of an image from Thinking, with an energy-pack from Willing. Most of the time, we don’t create new thought-balls, but rather reference ones already created. I now know how to name Xanthorrhoea, and that thought-ball has energy in it, and relates to other memories (thought-balls) of that bushwalk. Sometimes we venture up into Feeling, and can know we’re there when we have no words. “I can’t describe what I felt” is not necessarily a failure; it is more an indication that you have entered realms of feeling beyond names and labels.
So what’s true? Traditionally, Plato’s division of the ideals of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness have been assigned to Thinking, Feeling, and Willing. But it all gets mixed up. Marketers—those creators of thought-balls—try to take over Beauty; they evoke powers of sex and package it round with images. Yet we all know what true Beauty feels like, and it doesn’t have words or images. Likewise with Goodness: we all know what a true good deed feels like. And with Truth—we all know what a true Truth feels like. And that’s the point here: we must engage Feeling, as I did with my grass tree experience, to understand what is truly true—to complete the aspects of truth appearing as scientific names, metaphors, images, and photographs with the necessary inarticulate feast within this special being of green.
Some people respond to this story by faulting the taxonomic exercise that forced the author (and the other walkers) into conceptualization into the Thinking pole. Indeed, there is a sorrow in leaving the sweet reverie—“For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise” (Coleridge). There is suffering in leaving Eden. Yet the task before humanity in this era is not to go backward. We must permit the sacrifice of Feeling attendant upon our giving dominion to Thinking, and then find our way back again, where Thinking becomes servant to Feeling, not its master; where none of Thinking, Feeling, and Willing is banished; where they are integrated.
David Tresemer, PhD, teaches in the certificate program in Anthroposophic Counseling Psychology (AnthroposophicPsychology.org) in the USA, and works also through the Sacred Arts Practitioner training (sapcp.wildapricot.org) at the StarHouse, Boulder, Colorado.