“Each person is a pilgrim in the dream of god and each slips in predictable and surprising ways. How else could it be? We ride on the breath of god and usually fail to know it until we fall from grace.”
In his book The World Behind the World, Michael Meade tells the story of Markandeya, the first pilgrim, who wandered in the very beginning, as the world was being created. He slipped off the path, fell out of creation and into the void. Despite this inauspicious beginning, all turns out well for Markandeya; where he might have drowned in nothingness, he is scooped up and swallowed by Vishnu, and thus returns to creation. But no one can be the same after a face to face encounter with the void. From there on out, Markandeya lives with the knowledge of it, knowing what it feels like to swim in such uncertainty and blankness.
The Sunday school teachers most of us grew up with would make a morality tale out of this – Don’t go for a walk or you might fall of the face of the Earth. Stay home where it’s safe. But the old stories tell it a bit differently. The whole point is to go for a walk and fall off the face of the Earth. As Michael Meade would say, the point is to get into the right kind of trouble.
Until recently, I would have said that the thing I enjoyed most about my neighborhood was that I felt safe going for walks by myself. There are always lots of people out, the streets are well lit, and it’s a good neighborhood, all in all. I’ve been walking here for over 8 years, and it wasn’t until recently that I fell off the face of the Earth a bit, getting robbed just a few blocks from home by some kids with a gun. There isn’t a lesson to be taken from this. It isn’t about not going for walks, or not doing so by myself, or not in this neighborhood. In any neighborhood, in any company, one can fall out of the familiar world and into a frightening void where kids have guns and know how to point them at people with confidence. It isn’t much of a trick to stop walking. It is a much better trick to live with knowledge of the void without leaving a piece of oneself drowning in it.
Recently I spoke with friend in the military who told me about how it felt when he had to point a loaded gun at another person, wondering if he would be required to shoot. He had stumbled into the same void I had, albeit from the opposite end of the gun barrel. I recognized his description of it all too well. I recognized too the symptoms of perhaps a bit of ongoing drowning on my part, a feeling of less than full awareness, a certain powerlessness or tiredness that creeps in all too easily.
In Michael Meade’s telling of the story, Markandeya walks differently after his fall. Knowledge of the thin veil that separates creation from the void carries with it the possibility of a great and powerful awareness, but it also opens the door on emptiness and despair. For now, I’m still learning to walk with this new knowledge, this new balance.