Robert N. Sollod (real name) received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia University and is now a full Professor of Psychology at Cleveland State University in Ohio. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Turn-Around at Delphi
Robert N. Sollod
In 1962, I requested a leave of absence from college. As a science major, I was undergoing a major identity crisis and was despirited. Science was not offering the expected answers to the questions that I, an atheistic whiz-kid, was asking, “What is the secret of life?” “What is the origin of life?” After exploration of the mysteries of chemistry and biochemistry, I became convinced that the answers lay elsewhere. There was also deep disappointment in the fact that many science professors – would-be heroes – seemed unfeeling and aloof, even though some were among the most famous in the world.
Fortunately, I was able to spend a few months of the remaining academic year traveling through Europe. I stayed, for the most part, in youth hostels and traveled along the route of the Orient Express from London to Istanbul. Gradually, as a result of the lack of pressure and new experiences, my outlook improved.
After about ten weeks, I found myself in Athens. I felt inspired by the Greek countryside and decided to take a bus ride to Delphi, the site of an ancient Greek temple. I found myself drawn to the ruins. The actual spot where the Delphic oracle sat was available to the public, and I made a point of sitting there. Even though most tourists visited Delphi for only a few hours at most, I was so drawn to it that my stay lengthened to six full days. Most of the time was spent exploring the ruins and checking out the museum. The motto of Delphi was, “Remember yourself at all times and everywhere.” It had been a sacred spot before the time of the ancient Greeks and well into prehistory. I saw the famous statue of the charioteer in the museum. His poise and balance reminded me of President Kennedy.
At Delphi, everything seemed more alive than usual, and the bands of tourists who explored the ruins were cheerful and energetic. They scampered over large rocks with surprising dexterity. I attributed their energy to the low humidity, to the clear sunlight and lack of smog, and to the great view of mountains and of the sea, far below.
After this period, I felt ready to return home. For no apparent reason, I abandoned my plans to continue to Istanbul. It seemed that whatever I had been looking for had been reached. There was an inner shift, and I no longer had the desire for further travel and exploration.
On the train back to Vienna, where I stopped, and then on to London through the Alps, I felt a new and vibrant sense of aliveness. My perceptions of other people changed. They seemed somehow more vital. The passing scenery also was transmuted. I could feel the aliveness of nature. I felt myself no longer separated and cut-off from the life around me but part of the whole. Strongly joyful and loving feelings of a quality unlike any I had ever experienced pervaded my being. My perception of time changed. It seemed to stretch out almost endlessly. During this experience, my atheistic views collapsed. “For the first time,” I wrote in my notebook, ” I realize that God exists. We are not alone in an unfeeling and uncaring universe. The love and life of God animate the universe and the lives of people as well.”
This experience of being filled and cleansed by love continued well into my return to college that summer and on into the fall and winter. I was no longer the same person I had been. My personality had changed. Formerly an introvert, I became more interested in others. Psychology and the study of personality replaced the physical sciences as the focus of my intellectual activity. New friends, activities and interests emerged. It was a death and rebirth experience – with radically changed values and a new approach to life. I felt connected with a universal source of love, energy and wisdom. I thought I understood those mystics who had felt close to the love and power of God.
Around this time, I had a very vivid dream of being locked up in a dreary dungeon. People were spending their whole lives behind cells, largely focused on activities involving their own human sacrifice which they deemed a most meritorious fate. The other inmates said that I was wasting my time exploring ways to escape.
I discovered a key to the cell door. It was hidden in the dirt. When I tried it, the heavy door opened, and I was able to leave. “I am free!” I shouted to the others, but they were so preoccupied with their activities that they did not wish to follow. Even though I showed them the open door of the cell, they did not believe it was really possible to leave.
Instead of the physical sciences, psychology became my passion – particularly the study of personality. Each person, I came to understand, reflected the life and joyful energy of the Infinite. Also, I began to take a series of creative writing courses, which gave me the opportunity to express what was happening inside of me. I felt attuned to Berdyaev’s Freedom and Slavery, Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, Emerson’s essays and the writings of Meister Eckhart.
One excerpt of the writing which flowered from inner experiences of bliss and insight was, “True knowledge is not knowledge of the world’s forms. It is rather, knowing that one is not synonymous with these forms, that these forms are but reflections within the mind and that one stands apart from them, that one is, in fact, above the form even though one realizes oneself in form.”
I wrote this around the same time, “The noblest time in a person’s life is when he knows that he is free. Then he is a son of the wind, a son of God. His power rises above the forms which for so long have kept him contained. His once split and shattered world becomes a whole one.”
Along with states of joy and bliss, strong experiences of isolation and even fear occurred. Other people seemed trapped in their worlds of preoccupations and separateness and did not seem to experience the same emotions that I felt. At times I felt genuine caring love toward others. Although I had some new friends, there was no-one with whom to share my inner experiences.
My perception of time was changing in a way both exhilarating and dangerous. The future and past did not seem real, and the sense of the present expanded. When listening to a symphony, instead of feeling that I was traveling through something with a beginning and a middle and an end, I felt that I was experiencing the entire symphony at once. I felt like standing above the symphony and looking down on it in its entirety.
I wrote,” If a man sees time as a series of events that occur one after the other, stretching before and after, if he reacts to these events as if they were realities, then he is trapped within forms and subject to the world. If he is whole, then time to him is incidental except insofar as he seeks to realize his being within the world.”
I became concerned about flying “too close to the sun.” and losing my hold on the practical aspects of life. There was no spiritual teacher or guide of whom I was aware who might understand my experiences or be able to direct me. Mental health professionals did not appear to be a promising source of help.
As a result, I eventually tried to get away from these intense inner experiences and succeed by means of a great deal of outward activity. (In recent years, I have seen the negative effects of those who opened too quickly and, in retrospect, believe that the decision to turn off potentially overwhelming spiritual experiences was probably wise.) When the level of inner experiences subsided, relief was mixed with some sadness and remorse. I became focused on finding out more about what had happened to me.
Eighteen months later, as part of this search, I attended a meeting concerning the teachings of Gurdjieff, conducted by Mr. Willem Nyland in Boston. At the onset I sensed that Mr. Nyland knew higher states of consciousness from first-hand experience and was able to teach means of reaching such states. This lead to a decade-long period of close association with Gurdjieff’s teachings as conveyed by Mr. Nyland in his meetings in Boston, New York and eventually in Warwick, an upstate village. During this period, my work in psychology continued along conventional lines. I was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University in clinical psychology.
Self-remembering was a major part of Gurdjieff’s spiritual work. Mr. Nyland often quoted the Delphic motto, “Remember yourself at all times and everywhere.” I felt that I had come full circle from the turn-around at Delphi and that I had found a spiritual path.
Editor’s comment: Gurdjieff’s ideas about training attention to “wake up” from the trance like state of everyday life can be conveniently accessed in P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of Miraculous as well, in a psychological form, in my Waking Up and Living the Mindful Life books.
Contributor’s Comments on the Experience
I have worked on integrating the spiritual dimension of life into my work and writing on education and on psychotherapy. The experience opened me up to a whole range of human experiences and ideas to which I had been closed. These experiences represent a major chord in my life which has resonated throughout subsequent years. At times, I re-evoke my memory of the experiences at Delphi and subsequently to renew my commitment to a whole life, that is a life in the many dimensions of reality.
I have been a leader in the movements to integrate spirituality into clinical training and to respiritualize higher education