“My lifetime dream is to be sitting at the bottom of a well.” –Haruki Murakami
Down the street from where I live there is an empty irrigation well, with nothing but an old wooden ladder reaching far, far down into it. The ladder leads all the way down into the bottom of the well and as many times as I had followed the ladder with my eyes to the bottom, I never had the courage to step down into it. I approached the well with the same kind of fear and apprehension that a person might when approaching a potentially intimate relationship or an airplane. Every time I pulled my head over the edge and looked downwards into the well, it was as if a gravitational force was pushing me in the opposite direction. I often felt upset with myself for feeling afraid to do the very thing that I knew I needed to do most- sit at the bottom of the well.
Life seems to have a rhythm all of its own making. Undoubtedly things happen in a non-quantifiable way. Those who try to quantify life’s rhythms, tend to lose a certain quality of magic and spontaneity. It’s a Faustian bargain I suppose. I have never been one to believe in metaphysical explanations for phenomena, but I do acknowledge a fundamental and uncontrollable rhythm that is always pulsating. We can hear it if we are willing to just stop and listen. Sometimes this rhythm creates the most mind-blowing sounds, other times the rhythm causes us such pain and suffering that all we can do to protect ourselves is plug our ears. Why it was that I was suddenly compelled to walk into the well that summer afternoon, I will never know or try to explain. All I know for certain is that as I looked down into the bottom of the well (for the hundredth plus time), I felt a complete absence of fear. Without hesitation, I draped one leg over the side of the well and put my foot on the first step of the ladder. Everything else seemed to happen on its own.
For a few months before prior to that afternoon, I had not been feeling well. My spirits were low and I was apprehensive about so many things. I felt like I was coming down with the flu but never really manifesting any visible flu-like symptoms. There was anger present but my anger had no specific object to release itself upon so I slipped into a subtle but always present depression. I felt physically fragile and knowing that I no longer possessed the invincibility and reduced odds that my youth afforded me, I was acutely aware of the impermanence of all things. When reflecting upon my own life and everyone and everything in it, I felt sad. In my sadness I was desperate to figure out away to make everyone last forever, and the best way I had found thus far was to push everyone away. The moment that I draped my right leg over the edge of the well, the negatively charged chemicals that seemed to be turning my thoughts against me, disappeared.
Step by careful step, I proceeded to walk down the ladder- further into the darkness. The ladder made strange, hollow, grunting sounds. Only an object that was really old could produce such sounds. I knew that what I was doing was not a dream, because as I climbed down the ladder the splintered wood pushing into the skin on my hands caused me to clench my jaw. I have always struggled with a form of claustrophobia that has always gotten in the way of my freedom to roam. I was glad to notice that as I climbed down the ladder I felt no shortness of breath, no tightness in my chest, no sweat on my palms and zero frightening thoughts in my head. I was on an adventure. The first really exciting adventure I had been on since I was an anxiety free kid.
When I put my foot on the bottom of the well, I heard what sounded like the crushing of little pebbles into sand. The same sound was made as I placed my other foot on the ground. The sound echoed off the concrete walls and caused my skin to vibrate in tune with the rhythm. I released my grip from the ladder’s wooden handles and felt an absence of pain in my normally tension-filled finger joints. The bottom of the well felt so uncomfortably cold that I contemplated climbing back up the ladder and returning home quickly to grab one of my winter coats. Even though there was an absence of detectable light at the bottom of the wall, I was still able to see a few feet in front of me. I noticed liquid slowly dripping out from the cracks in concrete wall, oozing down the wall until it disappeared before touching the ground. For a moment I tried to figure out how the liquid could evaporate so fast. I assumed that maybe it was because of the sharp cold, but deeper down I knew there was no logical explanation for what I was observing.
My superstitious nature prevented me from going beneath the ladder. I kept myself positioned on one side of the well. I looked around with curiosity and interest. I checked to see if my feet were actually on the ground and when I realized they were I felt a victorious kind of feeling. It was the same kind of feeling that I imagine a person would feel after they accomplished something they never imagined they could. I let out a loud and enthusiastic “yes!” Finally, I had made it down to the bottom of the well. As much as I often doubted it, at that moment I knew for a fact that I was experiencing happiness. Yes, happiness. I knew it because of the large smile on my face. I could feel the edges of my smile poking me in the eyes. I was beyond the fear that had hobbled me for so long.
As I looked up at the top of the well, I could see a small, tubular ray of light hanging out above me. The ladder that I climbed down seemed to become smaller and smaller the further up it went. My smile was causing my mouth to open and as I looked up I could taste the light. I know that it makes no sense to attribute a taste to light, but ever since that moment I have always been able to taste light. If I try hard enough- I can smell it. As I looked up at the small circular patch of light above me, I was again perplexed by the absence of fear. I was alone, in a small-contained foreign space. If anything happened to the ladder, I could potentially be trapped forever. There was no help to be found anywhere. But still I felt calm. The kind of peace that in my punk days I would have pointed my middle finger at. I could have cared less about anything going wrong. I was at the bottom of the well and that was all that mattered.
I exhaled a deep breath and felt chilled dust settling on my hair and face. My smile started to adjust itself accordingly as I slowly squatted down onto the ground. I put both palms of my hands down onto the ground and then lifted myself into a four-legged position. I don’t know why but I started to laugh a little. I investigated the ground with my eyes and hands. How long had these pebbles I was sifting through been down here on the ground? When was the last time another human being was down here? I saw no footprints and nothing that resembled the imperfections that occur upon human contact. It seemed as if I was the only person in the world. Claustrophobic me, a discoverer of an entirely new world. How cool was that? I didn’t care that the threads in my $159.00 pants were being ripped away by the small pebbles on the ground. No one discovers a new land, without getting a rip in their pants.
I will never be able to represent accurately with words, what happened next. If I was able to compose music, a song might better describe what took place. I am not a very spiritual or religious man so I don’t attribute my experience to anything supernatural. It was what it was. I’m ok with the mystery.
I sat down on the ground in a kind of tangled lotus posture, with the side of my left shoe resting upon the inside of my right thigh. My right foot was being compressed into the ground by my left leg. My spine was attentively upright as I rested the palms of my hands on the top of my thighs. I closed my eyes and began listening to the sounds of my breath moving in and out through my congested nose. I noticed the sensation of microscopic vibrations, in perfect tune with the rhythms of my breathing. I was not trying to explain to myself what was going on. I was present. Not one step ahead. Not one step behind. For once there was an absence of madness in my mind. I was no longer a slave to thinking about all the things that need to get done and all the things I didn’t like. I was letting my ego slip away. Time disappeared and as a result, so did I.
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I’m not sure how long I was gone for. Could have been a few minutes, could have been hours. With my eyes still closed (I did not want to open them yet) I realized that my hand was holding what had to be my heart. It felt like the frog that I had dissected in junior high school, except this was palpitating. I was not afraid or freaked out (as you would think you would be if you realized you were holding your heart in your hands). I was just enjoying the peculiar sensations without any need to know how it got there or to validate its presence with my own eyes. I felt a cold, lactose like liquid dripping on my hand and assumed it was blood (which, strangely was not there when I opened my eyes). I can’t remember the last time I cried but in that moment, tears were streaming down my face and onto my chest. I wish I could use another word to describe my experience but the word love fits perfectly with what I felt. There was an abundance of love coming out of this pulsating muscle that I held in the palm of my hand. The feeling was upsettingly bliss-filled. Even with my eyes closed I could see all the pulsating light waves that were illuminating the bottom of the well. If I had been around another person earlier that day I would have been certain that they managed to slip LSD into something I consumed. But just like most days, I had been alone.
It is not like me to feel like this. As I type this account now I am finding it difficult to find the right words to describe the experience. As I sat there, I knew for certain that what I was holding in the palm of my hands was not just a heart, but also the physical manifestation of love. I had so much love in me towards everything in my life. My dogs, my birds, my wife, my family, my teachers, my enemies, the world. A stream of thankfulness was pouring forth from the center of my chest where once there had been so much constriction and heaviness. Everyone who ever caused me hurt, I thanked. I thanked all the people I could think of. Everyone. Instead of the Oscar for best screenplay in my hand, I held my heart high in the air and thanked, and thanked, and thanked. What a liberating feeling it was, even though within a few short hours the feeling would be gone.
Occasionally I wonder, if in those few moments I was able to somehow heal my heart from the harmful effects of all my anger and fear. I’d like to hope I did. I have heard neurobiologists talk about how the heart has neurotransmitters that are stronger than the ones in the brain. When a person feels love the heart is able to flood the body with these feel good neurotransmitters, which in turn has a healing effect upon our entire organism. Even though I did not see it, I like to think that it was the neurotransmitters exuding out of my heart that illuminated the bottom of the well. Who would have thought that on that afternoon, at the bottom of a discarded irrigation well in the middle of a lower-middle class neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles County, a middle-aged man would be conducting a symphony of love and neurotransmitters with his heart in the palm of his hand. That’s got to be worth something.
The moment I opened my eyes, I knew it was time to go. I looked down at my hand. My heart was not there. I was perplexed since I did not doubt that I was holding my actual heart in my hand. My hand was resting flat on my chest just above my heart, which was safe behind ribs, tissue, skin and my white t-shirt. I smiled and laughed a little as I tried to comprehend what the hell just happened. Maybe I imagined everything. But it all felt too real. There was no way this was all a creation of my imagination. No way.
I looked around at the walls and noticed that all the liquid that had been dripping was also gone. Not a drop was anywhere to be found. Was there ever any liquid there in the first place? To say I was perplexed would be an understatement. It was not as easy as I will make it sound here, but I lifted myself off the ground and back on to my two feet. I bent over and dusted off all the dirt from my pants. As I put my aching feet and hands on to the steps of the wooden ladder and looked up towards the daylight (it seemed to be almost dusk), I prepared myself for my ascent back up the wooden ladder. One final time I looked around the bottom of the well and said goodbye to no one. Then I began taking step after step up the old ladder. The more I stepped up the ladder, the more vibrant and excited I felt. I had not felt this way in years and climbed the ladder with the energy of a teenager. Mid-way through my climb I realized I had completely forgotten about how cold it was at the bottom of the well. That was strange, since it was the kind of cold you would find on the inside of a glacier. I looked back up at the daylight, which was not much further away, and continued to climb towards the opening.
I returned to the well a few days later to see if I might still have the courage to climb back down and sit at the bottom of the well again, but the ladder was gone.