A man stopped by my camp site last evening as I sat having a glass of wine and reading “Treasure Island.” We got to talking and it turns out he is a seeker of places in this country that are what he called “spiritual vortexes,” and this valley here is apparently a strong one.
“How do you know when you’ve found one? What makes them different from other places?”
He thought for quite a few minutes. “I feel a sense of deep peace.”
I tried to get more specifics from him, but deep peace was it.
While I cooked my supper I mused on how interesting we humans are, with all the different attributions and explanations we come up with for identical feelings and events, and often without having a single split second of doubt that ours is the only possible one. I find this place deeply peaceful also, and I attribute it to a combination of things: the particular landscape, the huge lovely green spaces between each campsite, my thoughts and feelings at the moment, and maybe even how delicious my dinner tastes.
I walked early this morning on the little road that runs along the middle of the valley, a few miles from the Teton mountains which rise suddenly out of the flatness into their towering rocky spikes straining upwards into the stratosphere. The sun disappears behind them in the late afternoons, sometimes causing an intense white shimmer around each peak, making me want to bow down before them. Or run like hell.
The valley itself is fairly plain, flat and grassy, with a few outcroppings of trees here and there, stretching uninterrupted for miles in every direction. The only claim to fame, as far as I can tell, is the presence of moose and elk. As I walked I tried to imagine what it would be like to believe without question that the feeling of great peace that this valley inspires is proof that this is a spiritual vortex, whatever that might be. It certainly would add an element of excitement and importance to imagine that some kind of cosmic beings, whatever they might be, were aimed right here at me at this spot. For me, the deep feeling of peace was enough, I didn’t need that excitement, even if I could have believed it.
But wait a minute. It turns out I experienced my own particular kind of excitement. I was suddenly hit, seemingly out of nowhere, by a rare aha! moment. Instead of coming from out in the cosmos it seemed to me to bubble up from within myself. The man I talked to had told me he has written a book, or rather that he wrote down a book that was dictated, word for word, by a saint that he channeled (was it Germaine? Jerome?). He was vague about what this saint had to say, but assured me that he learned a great deal about himself in the process. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine that my aha! moment was dictated by the voice of a dead saint. That line between those who can take the leap of faith and those who can’t is just too wide and deep for me to cross, even in imagination.
Now I know that listening to someone go on and on about their therapy session or their dreams is about as boring as it can get, unless you’re their therapist or they are your offspring or your soul mate. But here I am, nevertheless, about to tell you about my discovery. It concerns a pivotal event which changed the course of my life because it was the exact moment that I decided to become a psychologist. It happened right here, near where I was walking. I’ve always known this part of the story.
It was 1965, and, along with my then-husband and the two tiny daughters who had been born so far, I was having a lively lunch with friends in their cabin here, laughing and talking, the sun streaming in the windows. Down a shadowy hallway was a closed door, behind which the mother of one of the friends was lying in the dark under the covers, apparently so depressed she was unable to move. A psychiatrist neighbor was called in. He walked down the hall and closed the door behind him. I was transfixed, wondering what in the world he was saying to her, how in the world he could make a difference. When he emerged I heard him whisper something about “she’ll be feeling better soon” as he left ( I hadn’t yet heard of psychotropic drugs). It was at that moment that I knew absolutely that I wanted to learn whatever it was he was doing in that room. As soon as we got home to Berkeley I signed up for my first psychology class.
What I suddenly realized on my walk this morning was that there was much more than intellectual curiosity involved in that decision. Why had I never seen that before? What brought it to my attention was a memory from my growing up days unexpectedly popping into my head. I had never put the two together before but I immediately saw the similarities. I think what did it was thinking how dramatic that lunch was made by the extreme lighting: the sunniness of our happy lunch in contrast to the darkness of the room behind the closed door. It brought to mind a similar extreme lighting design, the one that illuminates my entire childhood.
I lived with a cruel aunt and the eight retarded children she cared for on her farm, from the time I was three years old on, and when I was five I began spending the school months in another farmhouse, a tiny boarding school run by well-intentioned but sad remote emigrees from war-torn Europe. Both houses represented darkness to me, made especially noticeable by the lighting change as soon as I crossed the threshold and ran outside. I was always alone but had complete freedom after my chores were done or the school day ended. I was able to run and chatter and sing and explore and lead the happy part of my life outdoors in incredibly beautiful countryside.
The first aha! moment of my life, and probably the most transformative one, happened when I was about six. I had just run out of my aunt’s house, chores finished, and was running along the little dirt road that led to the barn, when I stopped short in front of the road sign that said Slow Children. For some reason at that moment I realized for the very first time that I was not one of the slow ones, I was not like those children in the house, I was different. There was hope for me.
Hope! Hope for me. And that’s what I felt again at that lunch here in the Tetons so many years ago, and didn’t realize it until now. That psychiatrist had somehow made the depressed woman feel better, and before that moment I hadn’t realized such a thing was possible. (You see how naive I was). Maybe the bottomless black hole of utter despair and isolation, that I had assumed everyone teetered on the edge of, was peculiar to me, and thus maybe I could find a way to shrink it, lighten it. When we got back to Berkeley, besides signing up for my first psychology class, I also started looking for my first therapist. Lucky me, I found a good one.
So maybe there is something going on here worthy of the word “vortex.” But then again, the simpler explanation incorporates the compelling, even poetic, words: “random happenstance.”