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Jean Toomer's Epiphany

Returned from Tenant's Harbor and waiting idly one evening on the plat­form of the Sixty-sixth Street el station in New York, not in any hurry to get his train home, Toomer suddenly had a feeling of inner movement, as if some other power had taken over within him. Gradually, something like a soft light seemed to unfold from just behind and inside his body and to shape itself into a new body, a new form enveloping his physical body. "This was no extension of my personal self, no expansion of my ordinary awareness. I awoke to a dimen­sionally higher consciousness. Another being, a radically different being, be­came present and manifesting." He still felt identified with his everyday self, but he could clearly see both as if from outside. But the next step was a shift of identification---a change in location but without movement. Without choice, his "I" was surrendered to the larger freedom of the new being. His body stood motionless; his being was waiting to receive him: "Precisely I was being trans­ported from exile into Being. Transport is the exact term. So is transcen­dence. . . . Liberation is the exact term. I was being freed from my ego-­prison. I was going to a strange incredible place where I belonged." He could not go back if he wanted to. His ordinary self, with its feelings, desires, and confusions, had disappeared for the duration of the experience. Yet within his new larger consciousness, his awareness of sensations and use of faculties re­mained. He was not in the kind of trance in which the body is inert. His body then seemed small and removed from him, no longer identified with the "I": "I had been born above the body." His being towered above the platform and the streets: "I saw the dark earth, and it seemed remote, far down and removed from the center of the universe, a small globe on the out­skirts. . . . Not only was I not of that world, I could not feel myself even to be within its boundaries." Somehow, feeling that he was an intrinsic part of the extended universe, he also could closely observe the people walking---mechani­cally over the earth's surface, as little in touch with it as if it were a large metal shell, as little in touch with their bodies as if they were robots. He then felt cut off even from his own body, as if he had died: "It seems I was in the illimitable reservoir of life before it is poured into moulds----a place that was awesome, empty, "watched over neither by man nor God." 

After a time---perhaps two hours, he guessed---a thought came that he might try to move his body. It seemed inconsequential whether or not he did, except that the body might be missed or noticed if it was not in its usual place. Could he move it? He found he could manipulate it, as though it were a toy, and he got it on the next train, struck by the tongue-in-cheek idea that "inasmuch as I was newly come to this planet, it was lucky that I was in league with a body that had been born and reared here. It spoke the language and knew how to get about. . . . It had money in its pockets. . . . We'd get along quite well." Looking at earth-beings closely for the first time, sitting on the train, he began to realize that they could see only his body, not his real being; therefore if he could see only their bodies also, they might be in the same state as he. Their haggard faces, however, convinced him that they had somehow lost the "wonderful Power" within them. He experienced a sharp pang for their loss.

Returned to his apartment, operating his body from somewhere above and behind it, he saw the walls as "penetrable curtains" to the universe. "A seg­ment of my life was represented by this place, several years of unconscious­ness"---there, body and he moved about, discovering things. Apprehensive that this new state might be lost when he awoke, and feeling a seemingly inex­haustible energy, yet he decided to take a chance and went to sleep full of grati­tude for that evening's experience.

In the morning, however, he found himself still in the larger consciousness. His body managed its usual morning routine while familiar objects presented new wonders---water, cloth, metal, wood, and the orange, rolls, and coffee he had for breakfast were seen and felt intensely, almost as living things. His body felt free and flowing as if a weight had been lifted from it; it enjoyed food more than ever, but needed less. Riding on the top deck of a Fifth Avenue bus, he seemed to be up in the sky and down on the pavement at the same time. There emerged a radiant impression of oneness with all the people around him, "a swift contact of essences." "There was no filter between myself and things, no buffer between myself and men. . . Each contact had an electric quality. Life crackled, and I enjoyed the sting of it." As he was walking, in the midst of pedestrians, "the impression of walking-bodies-sleeping-beings was so sharp that I had a sense of moving in a crowd of somnambulists." Lunching with a friend who was unusually sensitive and aware, he had hoped that some commu­nication of his state would come about. But the friend noticed nothing un­usual, and midway through lunch, Toomer's "being" recognized the being of the other, saw its separation from the personality, and vividly saw the friend's personal self strangling his essential being. The strong sense of kinship with all others refused to leave him. It was reinforced in his room by a vision in which he had no boundaries, was an open channel for love, and saw the people of the Earth "enter here, enter me, and go down into the sacred root, and ascend from it, as I did." This secret fraternity, the awareness of the "Brilliant Brother­hood," extended to all his meetings with people: "Walking around the Battery I came upon beings called bums, and some called cops. There were those called street walkers, and business men, Americans, foreigners, Jews, Christians, blacks, whites. And with them all, without exception, it was the same, the same radiant weaving of being into being, of beings into God." 

At length his joy and peace were penetrated by a sharp sense of personal responsibility, a profoundly discomfiting duty, a self-dependence with no end, no external guidance, no expectation of happy accidents. The center of this feeling of responsibility began burning within him like a bright sun, the over­powering force of what he called "Being-Conscience"---as different, he says, from ordinary conscience as his new level of consciousness was from the "nor­mal" somnambulist state. In his experience of this sense, a man feels respon­sible, not only for himself and his life on earth, but also "for his character, conduct and development in this life and all life, in this world and all worlds, to everyone and to everything." Being-Conscience is not formed by outward training like ordinary conscience, but purely inward and so powerful that no force in man can withstand it. Its strictures apply directly to oneself, not, like the moralist's conscience, primarily to others.

The pressure of this conscience grew enormously: "It seemed that I was in an incredible furnace whose fire consumed yet renewed me. . . The very existence of this seemingly excessive Conscience must mean that there was an inconceivable goal. . . . But I felt that I would burst long before I reached that goal." Enduring what to him was unbelievable torture, trying to affirm the suffering as positive but unable to bear more, he finally tried to dim this new conscience by sleeping (unsuccessful because the energies it generated were inexhaustible) or by temporary respites such as going to a movie. The movie escape was no use. Conscience and con­sciousness burned as always, showing him his small self amid circles of re­sponsibilities, the other moviegoers in a secondary dream level beyond their daily dreaming. "There was no hiding in this house, no dreaming with this film. . . . I was alone, exposed.". However, on the way back from the movie, he found a new equilibrium, and the burning sun of conscience was beginning to subside. For the first time in days, he slept well. Next day he was startled and appalled to notice that with the withdrawal of conscience, Being-Consciousness was leaving him too. He felt he was losing volume, losing altitude, literally falling, but he had the sense that, as in his entrance into Being, the process was directed by a Mind or a Hand. Toomer felt then he knew what Adam's fall was, "the mysterious way in which a being, through radical change of consciousness resulting in loss of Consciousness, seems to pass out of the Universe and exist apart from God." The leave-taking took about twenty-four hours. "The intolerable freedom to suffer as a being was giving way to a tolerable confinement": he was returning to exile. "The body of my being diminished until it was hardly larger than the physical body, and then vanished. The instant it vanished I made the reverse transit back into body-mind. . . . Fallen from the state of awakened beings, I was again one of the exiles---but, remembering." 

The whole experience lasted about two weeks. It burned into him many convictions about man and the universe, including the first conclusion that such an experience is possible. "If two weeks, then two months is possible. If two months, then two years, twenty years, a life-time. What can happen to one can happen to all. . . . My work as a being in this life was made explicit." He knew then, with an unshakable conviction, that he was to demonstrate to others the truths he had discovered. The experience itself, however, was so awesome that it was twelve years before he tried to describe it on paper.

The Endless Search © 2004 Ian C. MacFarlane