Friday, June 11, 2010

Naturalism and Transcendence; A New Moon Meditation (11 June 2010)


           What is mysticism?  Many traditions around the world – religious as well as 'philosophical' – have a 'mystical' dimension, yet what is called 'mystical' is so unique to each tradition in terms of content and expression that it's difficult to see what the mystical 'element' or 'factor' might be.

It seems many people assume that mysticism is connected to the supernatural; it involves experiencing something that is 'not of this world.'  Experiences in prayer and experiences triggered by group singing, chant and dance, are oft thought of as 'mystical.'  But what I want to suggest is that mysticism is first and foremost a naturalistic phenomena; that what a mystical experience is – at its root – is not primarily supernatural, but something arising out of our biology and psychology.  This is not to deny a religious interpretation of mystical experiences, but rather to point to a common ground—and to allow the possibility of mysticism for those who are not religious.Recently, while walking up this trail near where I live, I found myself stilled, and so stopped along the creek that runs to the left of the path in the picture.  Because I have practiced meditation for four decades, I recognized the sensation as a moment of what has been called 'gathering;' in which I 'collected myself' and came to my 'center' and was there refreshed; suddenly feeling all of the stress of my week slip away and leave my body; laving me much more at peace that I had been.
I'm not trying to 'brag,' but simply describe the experience I had on this particular walk.  As I stood by the creek, I felt my whole body 'energized' by the sudden melting away of stress, and my face turned upward (probably because of years of training in various religious traditions, from Pagan to Catholic) and the sunlight fell on my face, refreshing me and seeming somehow 'cleansing' as it warmed my flesh.  I took three deep breaths and then stretched my hands up toward the tree tops.  I was then 'stilled' there even more powerfully; I did not want to move or leave the spot where I was standing.  I felt a sense of 'communion' with Nature; that I was 'part of it all' (which I am; we all are—it’s just that we don't usually experience it so consciously or intensely).  I stayed there, stilled, for at least 25 minutes, immobile; almost unable to move (though I could have, had people come up the trail or something else interrupted this 'moment of peace').
Of course, this was a very intense experience, and things like this don't happen all the time; it was a peak experience—something like this may occur three or four times a year, if I'm diligent in my praxis and am both practicing meditation regularly and also practicing wakefulness as I walk through the rounds of the day (i.e., trying not to fall into being 'asleep at the wheel of life.')  More modest experiences of centering and un-stressing occur more or less regularly for someone who practices meditation and related disciplines.  Yet these are always overshadowed by these 'peak' experiences.
What is going on here?
I used to assume that this kind of thing was supernatural; and while there may be some kind of 'divine' element to it, at root this kind of experience seems to me to be perfectly naturalistic.  It is something that is happening in the body; in the nervous system—it involves the emotions and stems from the physical state of the brain.  I have of course prepared myself for experiences like this via decades of practicing meditation and related disciplines; I have chanted and danced and thought about 'transcendence' my whole adult life, and this has certainly 'primed' my nervous system; my mind and my body--for 'extra-ordinary' experiences (whether or not they have a supernatural dimension is a secondary question here).
These experiences epitomize what mystics know as 'transcendence;' a 'stepping above' or 'stepping out' of our ordinary, day-to-day consciousness, into a state – biological, bodily, emotional, mental – that un-stresses and revitalizes us. This 'transcendent' state of consciousness is possible because of the 'wiring' we have as the particular biological beings we are.  Our species, I would suggest, is 'wired' for mystical experience at this naturalistic level; and perhaps this is why so many religions feature 'mysticism.'
Why is this important?
Because it reveals our nature to ourselves and helps us understand our religious traditions from a more naturalistic standpoint.  Back in early the 1990's I had an experience that changed my spiritual outlook.  I was involved at that time in an ecumenical meditation group; i.e., its members included a Buddhist, a couple of Catholic friends, a couple of wicchan practitioners, a goddess worshipper and a young man who was an atheist.  At the time, I was interested in Celtic mysticism and monastic prayer.  We were all practiced at meditation in our own particular traditions.  As we sat together in a circle, each meditating in his or her own way, a cacophony of voices arose, chanting and singing.  _It was rather amusing!  But then, as we each got beyond the threshold where vocalization was necessary and deep breathing took over, each of us arrived at a state – unique to our own belief system – that brought us to the place of peace.
The feeling of 'union' between the nine of us in that circle was intense, and I've never forgot it.  Eight of us came away with a vivid sense that our religious traditions were all 'pointing to the same thing,' whatever that might mean.  But this, of course, left our atheist friend rather disturbed, as he had no belief in a god or goddess or anything supernatural, though he, too, had experienced something 'calming' and was in a 'beautiful state.'
Over the last 20 years I've come to see that what really united us in that circle was the fact that we were all having bodily experiences, involving mental an emotional elements, brought on by chant and song and rhythmic breathing.  Despite the differences in our beliefs, there was a 'common ground' to our experience – our biological nature.  We were having a human experience of transcendence.  We were just interpreting it differently; according to different symbol systems.
Over the last decade my spiritual journey has taken me from a religious to a scientific interpretation of the world, yet I'm still having 'mystical' experiences, because I'm still practicing the disciplines that open me to moments of transcendence.  I practice the disciplines because the effect is beneficial, and because I'm still open to the mystery of 'what is.'   What I've learned is that mystical experience is a naturalistic phenomenon.
There is research being done on this (if you are interested, the work of Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili, beginning with Why God Won't God Away (2001) and then Dean Hamer's The God Gene (2004) is still a good starting point).  I will try and write more about this, but I think I've said enough for one day.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Three Modes of an Earthen Spirituality (1 June 2010)


          It is almost High Summer, and as I work and take hikes and meditate, I devote myself to earthen thinking, reflecting on the 'walk' that is life.  This evening it occurred to me that there may be three modes of an earthen spirituality; three 'ways' of practice that cultivate the necessary experience and insight we need to live life well.

The World each of us inhabits – i.e., whatever constructed World we have made for ourselves or have accepted as our own, be it religious, secular or aesthetic -- is always, at root, 'located' in the Earth.  We live HERE.  That is, very obviously, none of us lives anywhere else than on this particular planet, and even when we do go elsewhere; e.g., to the Moon or up to the International Space Station – we have to recreate a semblance of this Earth wherever we go, if we are going to survive, for we are of the Earth.

While a few philosophers, mystics and poets have put forth a naturalistic perspective over the last 2 to 3 millennia, modern science has made us much more deeply aware of this fact of being “of the Earth” than was ever understood before.  My sense is that not until the late 20th century could a fully-ledged naturalistic perspective really be formulated.  Modern biological evolution, genetics and paleontology has shown how we and all other living things on this planet are related; life having its ultimate origins some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.  Modern Cosmology and Astronomy have revealed the origins of the Earth in this solar system, and then the origins of our galaxy and ultimately the origin of the universe itself in the Big Bang.  Indeed, cosmology in the 20th century broke though the earlier misconception that the Milky Way was in fact the whole universe, and showed us a cosmos much grander than anything yet imagined by our species.

As such, any spirituality that human beings practice must, by necessity, acknowledge the basic fact that we are biological beings and that we are specific to this planet; we are of the Earth.  We are manifestations of Earth & Cosmos.  Whatever symbolic, narrative or metaphorical ways we accept and use for interpreting life's particulars and generating meaning for ourselves – be they drawn from ancient religious and mystical traditions or from literature or film, etc. – at the root of any genuine spiritual practice today must be these touchstones of earthen awareness as revealed by the various sciences.

Recently I have thought that there may be three "modes" of practice that enable a person to work out the implications and deepen their experience of the earthen dimension of our existence.  They are:

1. Experience of Nature
2. Study of Nature (via science)
3. Expression (both Aesthetic and Philosophical)

Our love of Nature begins with the experience of Nature.  Nature can mean "everything that is," and I like that idea, but I intend it here in the more specific sense of ‘our planet and its biosphere.'  Initially I think a person needs up-close and immediate experiences to foster their love of Nature; distant and abstract phenomena can then be better appreciated later.  _But I don’t intend that as a ‘hard and fast’ rule or anything.

Experience of our natural environs is necessary to ameliorate our usual cultural 'distance' from Nature, and to build up a store of memories and sense-stories about the natural world.  Hiking, observation of natural vistas, engagement with the phenomena and other beings – organic (e.g., flora and fauna) and inorganic – we encounter, and meditation on our experiences out in the woods or in fields or deserts or wherever we happen to be sojourning – all contribute to deepening our awareness of ourselves as of the Earth.

Study of Nature – is a natural outgrowth of the experience of Nature.  We experience something, perhaps while out on a hike or right outside out back door, and we want to find out more about it.  We may develop a love of certain phenomena in Nature; seashells for one person, frogs for another, flowering plants, birds, and beetles for others.  We deepen our knowledge of these things via reading and experiment, disciplined observation and even by taking formal courses on various aspects of nature.  These train the mind to better understand our place in the Earth and our nature as biological beings.  As we grow and mature, our interests expand and deepen; our spirituality comes to be informed by an ever closer dwelling in Nature.  Study of Nature helps establish us within the actual, physical horizons that constitute our existential limits.  Study is important, as we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Knowledge of Nature combined with an ever-deepening experience of Nature brings us to thresholds of insight and inspiration.  Expression of our experience and understanding of Nature is a natural outgrowth of those modes of engagement with Earth & Cosmos.  Both aesthetic and philosophic expression is grounded in meditation.  On the way to such expression we might chant:

“We are in the World and of the Earth
Children of the Universe.
Descended of stars long ago gone supernova.”

By "aesthetic expression" I mean the creation or enjoyment of stories, poetry, films, plays and other creative mediums that express what we have learned about Nature via experience and study.  To create art, music and narratives that express our place in Nature and that explore our nature as biological organisms is the fruition of the quest for meaning; i.e., it helps us understand who we are and why we are the way we are; once – via science – we have come to understand what we are and where we are.

By “philosophical expression” I mean the fruition of devout thinking and reflection on our place in Nature; who we are as biological animals with the kind of consciousness that can reflect on something like ‘our species place in Nature.’  “Philosophic expression” in this sense is not technical, academic philosophy; though it could give rise to such detailed and meticulous expression.  Rather, what I intend by the expression is what might have once been called “Life Philosophy” and today would be understood as “Spirituality.”

I think these three "modes" constitute a basic working praxis for an earthen spirituality.