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.

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