Monday, December 20, 2010

Silence and Solitude: A Winter Solstice Meditation (20 December 2010)

Tomorrow night is the Winter Solstice, and this year I’m looking forward to a Full Moon and the lunar eclipse that will be visible here after Midnight tonight.  I hope I’ll be able to see the eclipse here, but if I don’t, JPL has an eclipse-watching site up on the web where people can put up their pictures over the course of the evening.  Tonight I’m immersing myself as much as possible in the darkness of this ‘next to longest’ night of the year.  The house is lit only by a few candles and the lights on the Yule Tree.  To keep myself ‘occupied’ (so I don’t just sink into meditation and ‘stop’ – however pleasant that might be, tonight), I’m baking a rum cake and listening to Loreena McKennitt's CD “To Drive the Cold Winter Away.”  This particular musical tapestry always tempts me to floating away into imagined mystical scenes, as if ‘on the other side of the sídhe.’  If I allow myself to follow where the music tempts me, this may be my night of poetic dreaming and travelling, tomorrow night then being more focused on the natural landscapes of Winter Solstice Night, enhanced by a Full Moon’s light!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Embracing the Darkness (12 December 2010)

Original versions posted on 12/21/2007 and 12/01/2008 at MySpace

Tomorrow is the first day of Yule, and as I sit at the trailhead of my journey to the Dolmen of the Winter Solstice, aware of the ice and snow and awaiting inspiration, I turn to embrace the darkness that is growing around us every day. A major thrust of my spirituality at this point involves affirming Nature as-it-is and striving to understand myself as a part of Nature. As such, I never associate ‘darkness’ with 'evil.' Darkness is 'the absence of light,’ as the old cliché goes (a statement of the obvious); yet it is much more, poetically and existentially—and I continue to find rich rewards in meditating upon the darkness and reveling in it as the Winter Solstice approaches each year. I dwell deeply in Earth & Spirit, affirming darkness as 'natural' and even 'necessary' to our pathing of wisdom’s touchstones. To be ‘earthen’ in a spiritual sense we must embrace darkness and befriend it; for we seek the wisdom that darkness embodies.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Anticipations of the Winter Solstice (1 Dec 2010)

Thanksgiving now behind us, I await the Winter Solstice.

It is not a revel I anticipate, but a solemn pilgrimage. I am beyond the emotional highs of Christmas-tide celebrations and the myth-induced fervor of my younger days; yet I am vibrant, awake and spiritually expectant as Winter Solstice draws near. Winter Solstice is a natural event, and it is full of wondrous possibilities for experience; both imaginative as well as in the ordinary daily rounds of work, play and rest. So, as I become aware that the Winter Solstice is just three weeks away, I grow silent and still_ full of an adventurous energy_ for Winter Solstice is coming; inevitably, as always—unstoppable and ineluctable.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Earthen Spirituality and the Mysterious (25 November 2010)

(Edited version; originally posted at MySpace; 3 November 2009)


It is the season known poetically and spiritually as “the Gloom.”  I stand between Samhain (Halloween) and Winter Solstice; two very powerful, symbolic moments in the earthen round of the seasons for me.  These two ‘holidays’ always bring out my imaginative side!  This year for Halloween we set up a séance table on the porch with an old witch ball in the middle of it propped up on an LED light, so it was illumined from below.  We sat to either side of the table with end-tables decorated with pumpkins and skulls, cornshalks and candles, etc., and then acted as if we had just ‘conjured’ a spirit and were waiting for it to ‘materialize’ on the other side of s curtain that shut off the far side of the porch.  There we had set up rocking chairs to which a string was attached, so I could make the one rock by pulling on it.  We had made a CD-R of spooky music that we kept playing throughout the evening, and had a really good time.  Now, I’m anticipating beginning to decorate for the Yule (probably later this afternoon).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Enclosure: Towards a Spirituality of Winter (23 November 2010)

It is the time of the year that has long been called ‘the Gloom,’ and I’ve been out for an afternoon walk in wooded places.  “The Gloom” describes that time between the falling of the colorful leaves and the coming of the snows that whiten the world and remind us that Winter Solstice is growing nearer.  The Celts called this season An Dudlach, and in Tolkien’s world, the Elves refer to this same time as ‘The Gloaming.”  This time of year has always inspired me.  It is a transitional time, when my symbolic engagement with the natural world shifts.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Naturalist’s Faith (20 October 2010)

"In my mind, a naturalist is someone who comes to understand the biological life and ecological relationships of a particular place with some depth and seeks to use this understanding to forge an appropriate relationship with earthly life." (14)
 - Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)

The polarization of faith and reason in our culture is unfortunate, as it limits our options and undermines our wholeness as human beings.  Those who have 'faith' seldom reason as well as they should, and those who live by reason seldom allow themselves to have any degree of (at least acknowledged) 'faith.'  For me, a naturalist perspective grounded in science demands just as much 'faith' as I needed when I was religious; it is just anchored differently and expressed more subtly.

There are two senses of 'faith' that must be considered.  Big 'F' faith is the kind of 'absolute trust' that fanatical religious and ideological cults demand of their followers.  This kind of Faith is all-consuming – as anyone who has been a "true believer" knows – and as such blinding.  Big 'F' Faith is the kind of 'trust' that can tolerate no doubt and no challenge to its subjective authority—as it is ultimately very weak, and as a result makes the person of Faith very insecure.  Therefore, they have to be constantly bolstering their Faith, making Big claims for it, and – sometimes even without meaning to – foisting it on others.

The second kind of faith – small 'f' faith – is what I mean when I allude to a Naturalist's 'faith.'  This is the kind of faith that manifests itself as trust in one's environment, in one's friends and family, and in the world as a place where, because we have evolved here and become more or less adapted to our world, we are able to survive.  The kind of faith that I have as a naturalist is a basic trust in the world as it is; as we have found it upon coming to consciousness as individuals.  Many of us are born into a world where there is more or less continuity; some degree of security and always new horizons to explore and move beyond.

Our species has been walking about on this planet for something like 200,000 years, and our ancestors – "proto-human species" for lack of a better term – have been ambling about, making a living out of their environments, and doing self-enriching things for somewhere on the order of 200,000 to 5 million years.  We are a fairly successful species, generally speaking, and as such – barring environmental catastrophes and despite the deplorable state of injustice that leaves some billions of our fellow humans in poverty while the rest live in more or less resplendent style – we are likely to survive for some time.  This, for me, engenders a kind of faith in our existence.  We are more or less well-adapted to the planetary environment in which we have evolved.

We are also endlessly creative and industrious, so it would seem changes in our planetary environment may well be overcome, providing we wake up in time and assuming they are not too disastrous or happen too quickly.  Now, if we could just correct the economic and social injustice in the world, develop a global ethic that would be workable for everyone, and find ways to make sure whole populations aren't starving, at war or under-valued, then we would have an even greater reason for faith in our situation.

As a naturalist, I also have faith in reason.  This is not the kind of Big 'F' faith that bestows worship on something, but rather the small 'f' faith that can be construed as 'trust-in' something.  I try to use reason to the fullest extent; to figure out the nature of reality, to come up with ways of living my life that are compassionate, creative and honest, and to work out my ethical responsibilities.  I also use the imagination to do these things, and I'm a very intuitive person as well; so I am not a "reason-monger" or a "reason only" advocate.  The emotions – with which evolution has invested us and which natural selection has not weeded out but rather preserved – are also poignant guides to the living of life, and I can say that, as a naturalist, I have a small-f 'faith' in these human faculties as well.  Intellect—Imagination—Emotions; these are all important tools.  It is important to always keep these different abilities (reason, emotions, intuition, imagination) in perspective, to know their place in the project of being human, and to acknowledge their limitations.

Faith – from this naturalist's perspective – is what produces solace and gives us peace; respite from existential angst (when properly placed) and a sense of dwelling in Earth & Spirit that is, in itself, humanizing.  I would argue, ultimately, that small 'f' faith is part of our existential toolkit as human animals, and that to 'deny' it's value is to be less prepared for living life to the fullest.



"We watch, hopefully.  We keep watching.  We fill out days with care, watching our words and minding our vision and our evolution continues.  We branch, we rise." (50)

-        Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Naturalistic Mysticism (17 October 2010)

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." (191)
-        George Elliot  Middlemarch
(New York, New American Library, 1980)

This quote speaks to what I often refer to as "naturalistic mysticism," an experience of the mystery inherent in the universe.  Not 'mystery' as a 'problem to be solved' or a reference to things as yet beyond our ken; but mystery as an affirmation that, no matter how much we come to understand the Earth & Cosmos, it will still be ‘mysterious’—something awe-inspiring and wondrous.

Elliot speaks here of opening to the ordinary; experiencing the depth and profound import of the daily—something sought by religious mystics in many traditions.[i]  The ordinary is a gateway into the mystery of all-that-is.  The genuine experience of the ordinary contributes to wisdom and self-realization. If we are unaware of our environs – our actual lived context – then we cannot act effectively.  As such, awakening to our place in Earth & Cosmos is necessary for a genuine spiritual praxis, which delineates proper action, thought and reflection. 

Elliot – like so many of the mystics – intimates that if we became truly aware of our surroundings; really awake and alert to our context and what was happening all around us – that it would be 'like' hearing the grass grow or 'hearing' the beating of a squirrel's heart.  These expressions are similes that speak to our 'deafness' to normal, everyday surroundings.  They imply how much there would be to experience – and the wonder we would experience as a result – were we to 'wake up;' i.e., metaphorically, if the 'scales' would fall away from our senses, enabling us to perceive our environs with clarity of mind and heart.

As a result of such a 'waking up,' we might well become conscious of the ROAR OF EXISTENCE; I love this phrase!  And this would inspire 'dread' – in that old mystical sense of being so overwhelmed by our experiential input that it would be 'like' a death.  She says we would "die" of the "roar" that would resound from "the other side of silence."  The ‘death’ she is speaking of here need not be literal; it alludes to the death of the ‘old self’ that was perfectly willing to lull-about in life, deaf, blind and dumb – completely insensate – to the wonders all around us.   The ‘silence’ she is speaking of here is the result of our ‘muting’ of ordinary reality; the ‘quieting’ of our normal, everyday surroundings.  This ‘quieting’ is to some extent necessary if we are to carry on with life and do the routine things that we need to do to survive.  Too much input can be as deadening as too little!  Yet while perhaps necessary in a limited sense, we need to enliven our senses to be able to appreciate the reality of Earth & Cosmos.  In those moments when our 'vision' and 'feeling' become 'keen,' we may enter into a fuller apprehension of what-is.  And this is the naturalistic dimension of mysticism; the experience of the mystery of What-Is; the flux and flow of being-in-becoming and an appreciation of the wonder of it all!

This experience is not something 'supernatural;' it does not depend upon superstitious belief.  The mysticism Eliot implies here is perfectly natural; it is an emotional experience grounded in our neurology and interpretable by our intellect.  It is an experience that we have been equipped for by evolution, most likely by accident (though I might argue that mysticism has an evolutionary advantage).  However we came by the ability to have such profound experiences, it results in awe and wonder and can lead to such experiences as a ‘cleansing’ of our ‘senses’ and a radical realization of the ‘import’ of our surroundings—our being at-home in Earth & Cosmos.  These experiences have been known to mystics down across the centuries – both religious and non-religious – and are a normal manifestation of our ability to engage with our surroundings in an open and accepting way.

An experience of naturalistic mysticism can also be transformative, regenerative and have a healing effect.  You are never quite the same after such an experience.  The mundane cannot hold sway over you; you know there is more to reality than what we experience in the state of “normal consciousness” as Abraham Heschel called it in The Earth is the Lord’s (1978): 

“Normal consciousness is a state of stupor, in which sensibility to the wholly real and responsiveness to the stimuli of the spirit are reduced.  The mystics, knowing that humankind is involved in a hidden history with the cosmos, endeavor to awake from the drowsiness and apathy and to regain the state of wakefulness for their enchanted souls.”

While framed in a religious worldview, I would suggest that this passage speaks to the same kind of 'awakening' as that to which Elliot was alluding.  To nurture this kind of mysticism is to contribute to our wholeness in a perfectly naturalistic sense; a psychological, existential sense—one that can be thought of in spiritual terms.




[i] In the Christian tradition, Augustine, Brother Lawrence and other mediaeval mystics emphasized the importance of being in touch with the ordinary; of being able to appreciate the daily round and not allowing it to become merely the ‘mundane.’  Modern spiritual writers such as Joan Chittister (see e.g., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, 2009) and Thomas Merton have also urged an awareness of the ordinary.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Science and Spirituality (1 October 2010)

"Does a scientific explanation of the world diminish its spiritual beauty? I think not. Science and spirituality are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality. Science does this in spades."
-        Michael Shermer Why Darwin Matters (2006)

“Science, like painting … has a higher aesthetic.  Science can be poetry.  Science can be spiritual, even religious in a non-supernatural sense of the word.” (27)
-        Richard Dawkins A Devil’s Chaplain (2003) 


These quotes say something that I am always trying to say; often meditating on—and seeking to understand.  They allude to a relationship between science and spirituality that is often overlooked, if not obscured, by our culture's biases.  There is a bridge between science and spirituality; each area of human endeavor can inform and guide the other.

As we explore the universe and the world around us in ever greater depth and particularity via the sciences, this question of the relationship between science and spirituality needs to be brought more to the fore, especially if we are eventually going to grow out of superstition and supernaturalism and get existentially grounded in the world as it is; not as we would simply like it to be.

The idea that science somehow diminishes our existence; that it 'robs' us of what is most important to us, seems to me to be the whining of those who are coming out of the closeted aesthetic and experiential existence that so often characterizes a religious or ideological worldview into the wider, brighter world that is our common home.

Of course, science will wreck any claim to truth that is inconsistent with what we are actually able to demonstrate to be true about the universe, ourselves and our world.  Such truth is based on empirical evidence and the extrapolations from evidence that ground the theories that the sciences have been able to construct and solidify through decades of research, observation and experimentation.

Certainly, for those who have lived within the ghettos of supernaturalist belief that are so characteristic of religion and ideology, it is quite a shock to realize that the world is not the way you once thought it was (I experienced this 'shock' myself, when I first turned from religious worldviews to a scientifically grounded one).  There can be a 'come down' off of imagined aesthetic, emotional and intellectual heights, as you leave the narrow confines of religious and ideological worldviews behind; yet this is but a temporary condition, at least for those who push on into the wondrous depths that the sciences offer up for meditation and reflection!

If spirituality is an affirmation of life and a search for ways to better live life; to develop practices, rituals and stories that engender wonder and lead on to self-realization, then science is certainly, as Shermer and others have said, a boon to spirituality; science and spirituality feed off of one another, each inspiring the other—ideally if not always actually. 

The quest to understand ourselves through what science is revealing to us about our biology and our place in the natural environment deepens the earthen seeker, and leads on, potentially, to wisdom (i.e., that kind of knowledge that enables us to best live life as the kind of beings that we are).  Spirituality grounded in science leads to awe and wonder _and to the discovery of the nature of what-is, and results in new 'highs' – emotional, aesthetic and intellectual – that embellish our worlding and inspire us once again to epiphanies; this time genuine ones not rooted in illusion and superstition.

The world as revealed by science is a beautiful, awesome; and it takes a lifetime to appreciate it.  _For this reason, and many others, science is a boon to spirituality. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Meaning Generating Animals (24 September 2010)


The 'problem of meaning' is something we hear a lot about; people are always searching for ‘meaning’ for their lives, or else they are despairing that life has no meaning, or else – and worst of all – a certain number of people argue that unless you believe in what they believe in, there can be no 'true' meaning for you.

I have come to think that the 'problem of meaning' stems from the fact that we are ‘growing up’ as a species and coming to terms with the fact of our existence in ways that our ancestors never had to face.  We live in a world that is as extensive as the earth itself; we do not live in the kinds of small, isolated, communities that managed their own meaning-generation – via mythological and religious systems of belief and thought – as our ancestors did, more or less unchallenged by an ‘outside’ world.  We are instantly connected with people on other continents by way of the internet and television broadcasts, newspapers and phone calls.  We are thus more vividly aware of the incredible diversity of cultures, beliefs and life-ways than our ancestors, even a century ago, ever were.  This has often been cited as a source of the 'loss of meaning,' for how can what I believe to be meaningful have validity, when there are people who believe something different? 

The problem of meaning is embedded in the problem of diversity.

The 'problem of meaning,' as I see it, seems to stem from the fact that there are multiple ways of making life meaningful, and there is no 'absolute' standard for what is to be considered 'genuine’ meaning.  What we have to understand, however – what we must grasp if we are going to get over this 'problem' – is that we are the meaning generating animal, and that this provides the key to a meaningful life for us as individuals, as well as the rune for any kind of genuine meaningfulness for communities.

It used to be thought (and still is, unfortunately, by many supernaturalists, religionists and others who appeal to some kind of “authority”) that 'meaning' is something that can only be 'given' to us by someone or something bigger, higher, greater, more powerful, etc., than we are.  By this I mean that, for many people across the ages, life was made meaningful for them because they believed a god or else a human tyrant told them what life meant.  They 'received' their meaning 'from above,' whether that meaning was religious or ideological.

The solution to the 'problem of meaning' is to be found, I would like to propose, in an evolutionary perspective on life and depends on ourselves as a manifestation of the ages-long process of evolution on this planet.  We have evolved as a sentient species that has consciousness, a key aspect of which is the capacity for symbolic and metaphorical interpretation of life and all that we find in the world. 

Human history is suffused with symbolic systems of meaning; whether these were religious in nature, or else political, philosophical or simply personal and thus idiosyncratic.  Human beings interpret their worlds; their contexts—their ‘environment’ isn't just taken 'as found,' but is given a depth of resonance by the way in which we symbol things, use ‘things’ as metaphors, and tell stories about ourselves and the cosmos in which we 'find' ourselves.

What I would like to urge, here, is that we are still symbolic animals; we are interpreters, and that – once we see that this is the result of our particular evolutionary history – the revelations of science regarding the world we find ourselves in and our own species can become the fresh foundation for new interpretations of life such as will can make our existence and our situation in the world meaningful once again.

But we must first embrace an evolutionary understanding of ourselves, and accept that we are the meaning-generating animals.  We have emerged as sentient, conscious animals from a universe that has no implicit meaning in itself.  However, evolution has invested us with a symbolic, metaphorical mind, as well as a rational mind, and by way of a symbolic, metaphorical kind of thinking and feeling we can make meaning for ourselves in the world as science has revealed it to us.

The truth that we are meaning-generating animals and that this is our evolutionary inheritance is something that needs to be embraced spiritually.  The realization that we make our own meaning is not 'the end of religion' or 'the end of faith;' it is simply the end of a childish understanding of ourselves that insists that only some transcendent authority figure can give us meaning.  If there is something corresponding to the word 'God,' and that being has something to do with the way we are (perhaps it could be seen as "the artist of the evolutionary history of the cosmos") then the fact that we are the meaning-generating animal would have theological consequences, as well as spiritual implications for those who are religious.

Yet one does not have to be religious in any way – or even have supernatural beliefs – in order to accept that we are meaning generating animals!  A thoroughly naturalistic worldview is sufficient to ground our understanding of ourselves as meaning-generators.  And this may well be deeply liberating, as it means that every single human being on the planet – every single person who has ever lived or who will ever live – has the capacity to interpret their world, their environment, and their life-path in ways that are symbolic and metaphorical, as well as historical and empirical, and therefore generate meaning for themselves.

Communities of people also have this ability, and groups of people devoted to the love of life, in one way or another, have the freedom – simply as the kind of animal we are – to find a sense of meaningfulness for themselves as well.

So we no longer need to look to authority figures; or even to look outside ourselves – for the source of meaning, for the origin of meaning lies within us.  Meaning arises from an interaction between us and our environments filtered through our experiences.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Life with Augustine (15 August 2010)



This blog could have been called “Wisdom from the Ancients,” and be a first installment in a series of reflections on the topic, ‘how do we – from an earthen, naturalistic and poetic perspective – glean the glimmers and seeds of wisdom from ancient and mediaeval writers?’  Here, though, I want to start with a more focused, personal reflection, one that might illumine the wider subject.  I don’t usually write personal process blogs, and I promise not to get too profusively subjective; I will try and address issues of interest to any reader who is on the way to wisdom—yet my experience with Augustine over the last 30 years is indicative of the kind of ‘reclaiming’ I would like to do in future blogs.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lughnassadh Dancing (2 August 2010)

“All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their pre-ordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions, or, as I prefer to think, call down among us certain disembodied powers, whose footsteps over our hearts we call emotions; and when sound, and color, and form are in a musical relation, a beautiful relation to one another, they become as it were one sound, one color, one form, and evoke an emotion that is made out of their distinct evocations and yet is one emotion.”
-          William Butler Yeats  The Symbolism of Poetry (1900)

          There is ‘music’ in the seasons of Earth & Cosmos, and there is a ‘music’ in us that animates and – if we heed it – keeps us awakened to possibilities.  There are the rhythms of circulation and the melodies of thought, the harmonies that exist between different parts of our bodies, as well as the harmonies – or perhaps dissonances – that characterize the interface between our inner and outer lives.  From a naturalistic or earthen perspective, one of the primary aims of spirituality is to ‘tune’ our lives; to bring ourselves into ‘harmony,’ which involves coming into harmony with Nature and our human surroundings in such a way as to encourage and promote flourishment.  When we are well-tuned, we ‘dance.’ 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Is there a Cosmic Chill? (18 July 2010)



I have occasionally run across the sentiment that, for those who accept a scientific view of the world, there can be no meaning, ethics or real pleasure in life.  This idea is sometimes summed up in the notion of a "cosmic chill."  This idea can be traced back to the naturalist John Burroughs, who lamented – in The Light of Day (1900) that:

"Feeling, emotion falls helpless before the revelations of science.  The universe is going its way with no thought of us. …  This discovery sends the cosmic chill, with which so many of us are familiar these days."

While this idea has probably been expressed in other sources, later and earlier, this quote evinces well enough what I sense when people talk about how "meaningless" life becomes once you accept the findings of science.  The idea is that the universe is so vast and so uninterested in puny little us, that we can't possibly function in any really humane way; our emotions are "helpless" before the immensity of the universe.  The only option, for Burroughs and others of this opinion, was to be "chilled."  Donald W. Markos said in Ideas in Things: The Poems of William Carlos Williams (1994), that:

"[T]he prospect of an indifferent universe exerted its pressure on subsequent modern writers either as a condition to be tragically resigned to, retreated from, or resisted and fought on grounds other than those laid down by modern science." (31)

Many existentialists, I now suspect, also felt this "chill" in the face of the indifference of the cosmos, and responded by saying that "we create meaning for ourselves," even if we are puny little nothings faced with a big ugly world that doesn't 'care' for us.  _I think this is why existentialism never quite sat well with me; it smacked of surrender or possibly even pessimism in the face of reality.  While the great existentialists have profound things to say and faced life with verve and a resolve not to give in to nihilism, I now think that this sense of a "cosmic chill" colors their contributions.  [I'm open to argument on this – or any point, of course]

I now think – after almost a decade of delving more deeply into science and being transformed by its "revelations" – that this feeling of "cosmic chill" is symptomatic only for people who have been deeply religious and who are moving from a mythological world-frame into the openness of a scientific worldview.  People of Burroughs' generation were still so close to the mythological worldview – especially the Judeo-Christian one – wherein a paternal father figure looked after your every need and cuckholded you toward salvation, redemption and "everlasting" company in his presence – that the discovery of how the universe actually is was a shock to their systems (physical, philosophical and spiritual).  I understand the sense of disillusionment for those who experienced this shock.

However, I would like to argue that this sense of "cosmic chill" is not a necessary concomitant of a scientific worldview.  As a spiritual person, who did in fact sojourn in western religious traditions for 25 years, I find a thrill – rather than chill – in embracing the immensity of the universe!  I feel emotionally enraptured in the act of contemplating the size and age of the universe!  I am riveted with awe and suspense in my on-going discovery of the intricacies and dynamic workings of evolution!  In short, the scientific worldview inspires in me WONDER AND AWE, and, as Awe and Wonder are the foundations of humility and as humility is a deeply spiritual value—I find that the scientific worldview brings me to the trailhead of a naturalistic spirituality.

To practice an earthen spirituality you have to have accepted the universe and our place in it as given, and to be seeking the touchstones, anchors and inspiration possible in the physical universe as Given; as we find it—as we discover it to be.  Awe and Wonder are what initiate spiritual awakening and lead to the search for meaning in life; a search which leads on to value.  To think about our ‘smallness’ and our place in the universe awakens us to what is necessary for genuinely existing in Earth & Cosmos; the potential for vivacious ardency and compassionate agency.  We must also contemplate the uniqueness of our being here, and allow ourselves to feel incredibly fortunate to be able to discern something of the nature of the universe and discover its laws.

Alas, there need be no "cosmic chill" for those who have never suffered from mythological (i.e., religious) or metaphysical illusions about their having a ‘central place’ in nature and the universe.  To be awake in the universe as we find it is to experience exhilaration in the face of Mystery.  Wonder at it, and stand in awe of the universe and of life!  For you are part of this expanding universe, and you participate – with every breath – in this unfolding mystery.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Science and Transcendence (9 July 2010)


         I love a good question; it is like a sudden fire—igniting and then lighting your way as you path possible new horizons.  Good questions provoke thought and dialogue.   From the mess that oft arises out of the initial forays toward 'answers' once the question has been heard, direction is discovered, and then what insight is possible gets rendered or perhaps 'distilled' out.  A good question, asked at just the right time, can become the stimulus for a disciplined process that may result, in time, in a small swig of wisdom's good wine.

An old friend – who asks good questions – recently asked me how I make sense of transcendence from a scientific standpoint.  I was stirred up in the attempt to cull an answer from the sediments of settled thought and the – I assumed – already reasoned-out consequences of my own journey.  I was surprised at what I ended up writing, and my thinking about this has continued for a few days.  If I continue the dialogue here, will I possibly reach new tethers of understanding?

Transcendence is that quality of experience in which we 'feel' ourselves to be 'out of ourselves;' and perhaps 'in touch' with something greater than ourselves.  The Transcendent is a state of consciousness; and as such has long been an object of the spiritual quest and the subject of mystical experience.  At root, ‘transcendence’ names the experience of 'going beyond' ourselves; 'jumping out' of ordinary waking consciousness into a 'something more,' however briefly.

One does not have to believe in a deity to experience transcendence.  It is not so much about a 'something out there' as it is a 'something more' that we are capable of experiencing; because of the way we are ‘wired’ as human animals.  To experience transcendence is to have a moment of transforming union with the 'what is.'

As I've often said before in these pages, science is a method that opens us to the "what is" by revealing the nature of Nature to us.  Science has the power to take us beyond our personal and cultural biases. It shakes the cardboard hut of self-assured belief in which we too easily cocoon ourselves, and awakens us to the objective reality of the world around us.

Many people are threatened by the revelations of science, but fear does not make them any the less revelatory.  If we are to have genuine self-knowledge; if we are really to "know ourselves" [a prerequisite for wisdom] we must embrace and accept what science has shown us to be true.  While scientists are always out on the frontiers of knowledge, either discovering new things about the universe (such as dark matter and dark energy; whether or not these turn out to be 'real,’ the experimental and observational evidence points to ‘something’) or else filling in the blanks in our understanding of something already known [e.g., the history of life via evolution], there is a body of knowledge that science has shown to be true that is not likely to change.  It is in this that we must be immersed if we are to come to a true knowledge of ourselves and each other.

Two questions are helping me explore the issue of transcendence from a naturalistic and spiritual point of view:

*     Does science foster transcendent experiences?
*     Does it enhance our experience of transcendence?
_Let me tarry here, and explore these questions.

I think I would answer both of these questions in the affirmative.  I can see how both the study of science and the practice of science foster experiences of self-transcendence.  Understanding the revelations of science (that body of reliable knowledge about the nature of Nature) enhances those transcendent experiences that we have.  Let me try and explain this in some preliminary way.

Once we learn what the sciences have revealed about the cosmos and we accept it, the world may shift around us.  When going deep into evolutionary biology and paleontology for the first time, I felt myself moving into the real world in a way I had never known before; all prior understanding of the world through evolutionary biology has been vague by comparison!  I was taken 'out of my skin' when meditating on the depth of time and the scope of environments through which life has evolved.  When I reflected on my own existence as a result of this long, deep process of change through time, my perception of myself was irrevocably transformed.  In this way, the study of the revelations of science has fostered a transcendent experience of myself in context with the history and diversity of life on this planet.

Different sciences open me to transcendence in different ways.  

  • I find biology and chemistry opening me up to the world in the 'downward' direction – leading to "subscendence" which is just "transcendence in the 'opposite' direction.’  [To experience the 'beyond' is independent of spatial metaphors; whether you go 'up' or 'down' into otherness is ultimately [or fundamentally] {there we go again!} irrelevant.]  
  • Earth sciences open me to the 'ground' of our existence; revealing our nature as Nature.  Paleontology and Historical Geology open the soul to transcendence in the horizontal direction; that of time.  I often have moments of transcendent 'uplift' while meditating upon myself as one being in the flux & flow of time; a 'moment' in the evolutionary fabric of being in becoming—moving ever onward; life having been here for billions of years before my advent and (hopefully) going on for many more billions of years after my demise.
  • The study of Cosmology and Astronomy seem particularly conducive to experiences of transcendence, carrying me 'up' in the more classic 'direction' of most western mystics.
To study the Universe is to stand in awe at the threshold of the whole of existence; an experience that induces in me a state of self-transforming wonder.  Studying the processes by which the universe has come into existence, evolved, changed and is now unfolding have led to an experience of what I can only describe as 'union' with the whole, however 'imperfect' it was, on at least a dozen occasions over the last decade.  [And what does talk of 'perfection' mean in an 'imperfect cosmos' anyway?)

I have read various accounts of scientists who, in the throes of discovery, have had what amounts to a moment of self-transcendence.  A description of Marie Curie's initial elation and wonder over her discovery of radium, as well as descriptions of Crick & Watson's euphoria at finally getting their model of DNA right, seem to qualify as moments of transcendence.

If you read scientists' accounts of their work and especially the personal and psychological 'rewards' they find in practicing science, it seems that at least some of them are aware that the experiences they have had are at least similar to some of the experiences of mystics.  It's just that instead of the repetition of prayers and the chanting of psalms, their moments of transcendence have been triggered by the repetition of experiments and the focused disciplines of research, prolonged reflective thought on a specific problem, and other behaviors engaged in single-mindedly, as well as the ecstatic ‘opening to the universe’ that oft results from the experience of discovery.

Science fosters transcendent experience; it does this by building upon and enhancing our experience of self-in-the-world; grounding us in the "what is"--i.e., that which cannot be changed just by the way we think about it.  There is a subjective realm in which our experience is 'our own' and in which the way we think about things does have an effect on how we understand those things.  There is also an inter-subjective realm of experience in which our understanding is dependent upon our interactions with others, both those significant and unfamiliar to us.  But then there is "the Given" – that which is what it is and is not changed by us changing our minds; it is the objective dimension of reality.

As an example of the Given, I often ask students if, during the Middle Ages, when people thought the Sun and the planets orbited around the Earth, they in fact did?  Of course not, they usually answer.  And this references that dimension of reality that is 'Given.'  You can believe that Jupiter orbits the Earth as passionately as you like, and yet Jupiter – along with the Earth and the other planets, asteroids and other bodies – will just continue orbiting the Sun as it always has since the origin of our solar system, some 4.5 to 5 billion years ago.  This is not a matter of 'opinion' or belief!

What science reveals is primarily about the Given.  Yet what is Given affects and influences the subjective and inter-subjective dimensions of our existence.  As the experience of transcendence has a subjective as well as an inter-subjective dimension, the better we understand what science reveals, the more our understanding of moments of transcendence will be enhanced within a framework of what is real.  When moments of transcendence are triggered by superstitious beliefs or by immersion in outdated mythological and religious systems, a person may still have an experience of transcendence, but it will be out of touch with what is known to be real.
                                               
... Alot more needs to be said about this_ but perhaps I have said enough for now.