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Dumbfounded: to be filled with astonishment and perplexity. Around 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon, I dressed with an extra layer against the autumn chill, put on shoes instead of sock-less Birkenstocks, checked for reading glasses and cash in my shoulder bag, and took my body for a walk. Two weeks after surgery I felt ready for a test-drive.

At two points along the way downtown I experienced a rush of pure sensations — within and outside of my/self. In fact, there seemed to be no boundary between one and the other. Simply and purely waves of awareness. Around me I noticed rays of sun on my face and hands, maple trees lining Pandora Avenue, two tall buildings, parochial St. Andrew’s Elementary advertising “Kindergarten: everyone [?] welcome,” people scurrying past the homeless shelter, a security guard outside the music academy next door, cold air touching my exposed skin, an overall sense of well-being, of convalescing: simultaneously vulnerable and confident. I stood still and wept.

A while later, staring at the shelves inside Russell Books, the monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) came to mind. During a rare excursions outside the monastery, en route to a doctor’s office, he experienced an epiphany*:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. 

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own.

*epiphany: “sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience” ( text source: “Conjectures of a guilty bystander,” in Cunningham, L. (2002). Thomas Merton, spiritual master: the essential writings. Paulist Press, p. 144. image credit: Autumn Maple Blaze trees by Erik M. Lunsford.


3 responses »

  1. Peter I have often thought of dumbfounded as “beyond belief” though I know the true meaning is as you say in your post. But somehow ‘beyond belief” for me seems to fit with your story and that of monk Thomas Merton. Thankful for your story and you dumbfounded experience. Terrill

  2. yes, well beyond (the confines) of belief, into not-knowing. funny thing about the photo i picked: looking for maple trees, i found an image by a photographer who hailes from Louisviolle, KY — the very city where Merton had this epiphany.

  3. Peter…that was lovely! Enjoying the ordinariness of living. I was just reading ‘Heal thy self’ and the chapter I was on talked about this as well. I was ‘confined’ to my house for 4 days, living in my pj’s with a kleenex box always within reach. Yesterday, I got dressed and went outside….wonderful feeling. The freshness of the air, the glimimers of sunshine, green grass, people, ordinary life. While I did not have quite the epiphany you had Peter, I did ‘notice’ and enjoyed my ‘coming out’ of convalecence! My mindfulness practice is having an effect on me!


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