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The Mud Man

by Tim Garvin | Oct 2, 2019| Essay 

One of my college classes met in the living room of the professor. He had a little statue on the coffee table there. It was a Rodin-like figure—maybe even a Rodin copy—of a man encased in clumps of what looked like mud from about his chest down. He was struggling to be free, straining upwards out of his mud cocoon. The class was on Heidegger’s phenomenology. We read Being and Time. Heidegger had done a lot of hard thinking in that book, and we had to do a lot of hard thinking to keep up with him. I don’t think he saw all the way to the bottom of things, but I did like the class and the way Heidegger and phenomenology tried to bracket out extraneous mind-stuff and see the world cleanly.

But mostly I liked that statue. Every time I saw that statue I got a sort of quivering, excited feeling. It completely expressed what I was feeling in those days—a passion to free myself from what was holding me prisoner. The mud-encased man had it easier than me though, and also you, because he could see the mud that held him. He could work a shoulder free, then an elbow, then a hand. But I was bound, and we are bound, in a maddeningly invisible prison. It’s so invisible, mankind has not even come to agreement about what the prison is, or even whether there is a prison. As a young man, I certainly didn’t know. I guessed it had something to do with inhibitions, self-repression, elusive inner fears of some kind. The best thing to do was to identify every false thing you could and not fall under the sway of ideas. I grew my hair long, but only halfway liked the hippies. I prized the word inauthentic back then and thought they were falsifying things by crayoning hope and love over the abyss. I thought hope and love were fine, but mostly I wanted the truth. I suspected hope and love were part of that but too far off to get worked up about. First you had to make the mud visible.

So I tried meditation and had some experiences. I saw that, yes you can train the mind and activate inner energies. I had no ambition for that though. There was a void in my being, located center-chest actually, that tormented me, and the energies that meditation activated were located above that, somewhere in my head. In short, I wanted my heart to fill. What it might fill with I really had not much notion, but maybe love, maybe courage, maybe wisdom, maybe gladness. All those best things everyone agrees are the best things.

Eventually this began to happen but not by meditation. I figure my heart is maybe 1% full now, maybe .1%, but I understand the process, which is a giant valuable main thing.

I wrote the poem, The Forest, about this. Here’s a bit of prelude to make make the track of the poem clear: It’s about the inner life, written to the poet’s friend or simply to someone interested in the truth possible from inner search. The poet begins by observing that the forest, the inner life, is available wherever you are, where you live, just behind your own home. Things are not certain in that forest, since “the only light is shadow” and even when the creek is found it can only mumble something true. But no matter. The experience is full of wonder and beauty, even though “beasts,” our less elevated feelings and impressions, haunt the thickets. There is commonality there as well—“everyone goes upstream” toward greater and greater fullness. Toward the end, irresistible thirst develops, a thirst natural and common and good to have, a thirst that must be satisfied even at the cost of tearing out the chest bones that guard the heart. Finally, the last two lines bring home the truth that though the poet seems to speak from a position of height, he really has no more authority in inner matters than his friend. His last request makes that clear.


The Forest


A forest starts behind your house.
Eventually you’ll want to wander there.
Go when you must,
In the daylight or the night.
There time is unimportant,
And the only light is shadow.
The eyes of beasts will follow you from thickets,
But so what?
You have as much right there as they do.
Dappled clearings, misty starlight,
This and that.
Notice what you can.
The forest is immense.
No one can notice much.
Eventually you’ll find a creek,
And deeper wonder starts.
See the way the water moves.
Everyone goes upstream,
And so will you.
Eventually the earth inclines,
And you’re deeply breathing.
The water’s clear and cold
And mumbling something true.
Notice what you can.
No one can notice much.
Eventually wild thirst begins,
And you’ll get so tired of dryness,
You’ll tear out all your chest bones
To let the water in.
If you can,
Kindly let me know what happens next.

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