Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Winter Nemeton (29 December 2015)

“Solitude is the luminous silent space of freedom, of self and nature, of inflection and creative power.” (299)
“In the silent hours near dawn when people wander through your thoughts, in the bright noise of almost-absorbing encounters when you suddenly glimpse, over a shoulder, a quiet place that wants you alone, a vision forms and draws you in: it is a vision of wholeness, of a life in which solitude and encounter, lived to their full intensity, find harmony and true balance.” (300)
-       Philip Koch
Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter (1994)[i]

The Thirteen Days are past and I have passed beyond the fulcrum point of Winter’s Solstice.  More and more as I live and dwell in the world, I find the December ‘Holidays’ less and less attractive as touchstones of a spiritual pathing of wholeness and self-transfiguration.  The ‘Holidays’ have become, for me, a time of overwork and exhaustion.  Those around me seem caught up in the rush to sell or consume, and there is little time left for peace and solitude; for the silence of a wintry night and the beauty of stars, snow, frost and mist.  _I find myself getting run-down instead of rested up.  _I want to  repudiate the ‘Holidays’ as a season of unrelenting acquisition.
I began pathing my way to the Winter Solstice last month, as I usually do, by beginning to get out the seasonal music and decorations with which to ‘deck my living space.’  [Not as poetic as “Deck the Halls” but then, you don’t need grand halls in order to brighten up your place of dwelling.]  As usual, I entered the Season formally at the Feast of Nicholas and the Elves (6 December) and then ‘observed’ each of the Thirteen Days (13 – 25 December) in succession, taking a few minutes each day to orient myself to their symbolism and motifs.  I have lived with the Thirteen Dayes of Yule, now, for over thirty years, and they are fully integrated into my psyche.
A couple of times this month I have thought to go out and visit the Whittiers on Deer Hill; but I was often too exhausted for such imaginative excursions.  At last, as I reached Solstice Night, I thought I had made as much of the Yule as I could, and wasn’t expecting any more.  That night, however, during meditation – in which I was listening to Stile Antico’s new CD “Wondrous Mystery” and going deep and rising – I had the sudden inspiration to go out – in my mind’s landscapes – and visit a nemeton that has been presenting itself to me for a couple of years.  It is called “The Crannog Oratory,” and as soon as I thought of it, I realized I was about to go ‘out on the witch,’ as I used to say, seeking solitude in an imagined faeryland!
It was on the verge of this imagined adventure that I realized just how much I had missed Silence & Solitude during the Yule.  Not since before ‘Thanksgiving’ had I been centered deeply in Silence; nor had I savored a taste of sustained Solitude since the first days of December.  In anticipation of the Feast of Nicholas and the Elves (6 December) I had listened to Anonymous 4’s CD “Legends of saint Nicholas” (1999) and fallen into a Deep Quiet that lasted most of an hour.  After that, however, I do not think I found my way once into my Internal Nemeton; the Cave of the Heart_
Until Solstice Night!
We all need places we can ‘go’ where the hustle and bustle of the world around us is left at a distance and we can re-center ourselves in the best version of ourselves we can conjure; where we can be ourselves without the push and pull of the world’s demands.  Of course, it is living in the world that makes or breaks us; it is in the flux & flow of what must be, what can be, and what cannot be avoided—that we forge ourselves.  But there must be an ingot there to put into the forge, and over the course of our lives we strive to render it as ‘pure’ [for lack of a better word] as possible.  Meditation and the various other spiritual practices that are common to our species help us to ‘hone’ that ‘ingot;’ – it being the ‘person’ we each are when we are most centered, healed and undistracted.
The place I was thinking of going last week, at dusk on 21 December, is an imagined nemeton that has come together for me since May of 2013.  I first discovered it on an imagined ‘flight’ and then found my way back in meditations over the next few weeks.  I came to calling it “The Crannog Oratory” almost as spontaneously as I had found it.  I have returned to it periodically; often at times when I am most stressed or washed-out from living too much in the world—when I need a retreat into the Quiet of the Night in Solitude.  It has evolved into a place that reflects all of my best aspirations and deepest interests, from science and mathematics to poetry, music and literature.  It is a symbol of who I am; the person who walks out into the world each morning and returns each night.
I find the need for Solitude to be especially urgent during and after the December ‘Holidays,’ and last week – on Solstice Night – I had a refreshment that launched me into a deep pathing in which I am still engaged tonight.  While the Thirteen Dayes of Yule are over, I am at last sojourning at the Place of Silence & Solitude.  Silence is more than the absence of noise; and it is the very antipathy of the kind of disengagement that leads to boredom and ultimately depression.  It is an engagement with the Earth & Cosmos that transcends the need for words and the banter that so often buffets us in our daily rounds.  True Silence is akin to an internal ‘Stillness of the Soul;’ a calm of the psyche—in which we can listen to the ‘hum’ of what-is without distraction.
Solitude is similarly a state of being-in-becoming that is like a ‘place;’ we can ‘go to’ our ‘place’ of Solitude by turning inward and finding the Deep Center of our being.  It is – in an old phrase that still has resonance for me – a way of being “alone with the Alone.”  It is not loneliness, but a state of engagement with Earth & Cosmos while being solitary.  You can be in Solitude in a crowded place, once you learn how to facilitate it; but the best way to discover Solitude is to find yourself alone in a state of uplift that is open to discovery_ and even adventure; where we can allow ourselves to be caught up in wonder and awe!
The best way I know of to learn and sojourn in Silence & Solitude is to create imagined places that inspire in us a sense of peace, rest, reinvigoration and restoration.  While visiting such places in the world – groves, shrines, caves, chapels, etc. – is a good way to condition the body and the mind to the experience one wishes to nurture, these places are not always available, and so it is necessary to ‘construct’ them within our own Internal Worlds—using the imagination tempered with our own experiences to create ‘nemetons’ where we can resource, heal, reinvigorate and reconstruct ourselves.
 The Crannog Oratory is all of those things for me.  It is the latest in a long series of Internal Nemetons; the first of which I probably created in my mid-teens.  Along the way, they have been imagined according to different religious and spiritual symbol systems; Wicchan, Christian, Literary, Monastic and Celtic—but they have all served the same basic functions: to inspire, to cull me back into peace and allow me to hone myself into the best version of myself that I could imagine being at each stage of my life’s journey.  They ‘call’ to me, and I ‘go’ there when in need of restoration and reinvigoration.

When the Crannog Oratory first ‘called’ to me, I was led to a lakeshore where – shrouded in mist – I experienced the cry of a loon and saw deer wandering up and down the banks.  At first, I didn’t even ‘see’ the Crannog[ii] or know that the small structure built upon it was an ‘Oratory;’[iii] i.e., in my own spiritual vocabulary at that point, a place of creativity and inspiration.  On the next inspired journey, I was able to see the Crannog, and then, on a later journey, realized the name of the structure out on the wooden crannog at the edge of the imagined lake!  Later yet, I was able to ‘walk’ out to the Oratory on the walkway connecting the Crannog to the shore.  Eventually, I was able to enter to Oratory, where I had a series of imagined meditations on creativity, poetry, science and mathematics.  I even once imagined myself studying Trigonometry while listening to the swashing of the water lapping at the pillions that support the Crannog!  On another occasion, I was playing a lute and singing olden songs.  I am always alone at the Crannog Oratory; it is a manifestation of the need for Silence & Solitude.

Eventually, as I pathed the Crannog Oratory over a number of occasions, a ‘journey’ unfolded by which I could go, find and visit it of my own volition.   Here is how that journey always goes; for now, at least, it is always essentially the same in its broad outline:
I find myself standing at the edge of a Great Olde Forest; the wall of it stretching on for miles in either direction.  Before me there is a Great Doorway; it has huge tree trunks as its doorposts and another one as its lintel.  The whole doorway is carved with runes.  I sense the Doorway is a Trailhead, and it is calling to me—so I mount my broom (lol)[iv] and ‘fly’ in through the Great Doorway.
I travel along the path, which twists and turns through the Great Forest, flying only a few feet above the ground,  The Forest is Deep Green and ever-moist, and there are Great Trees marking ancient sources of Inspiration and Poetic Power along the way.  I turn one way and then another, following the ley-line of the path below me, until I come to a Clearing!
I stop my flight at the edge of the Clearing and dismount my broom.  [There my broom vanishes and I see it no more in this imaging.]  The Clearing seems familiar.  It is about two acres in size, and at the very center of it is a stone hut!  I have seen this hut before; it is the Hermitage of Meath—my own Internal Nemeton from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s!  I am being ‘invited’ to walk out into the Clearing; it is now always night time and the Moon rides the white clouds above the Forest and the Clearing, illuminating the tall grasses, the stone hut, and my own desire for Silence & Solitude.
After lingering near the edge of the Clearing for an indeterminate time, I stride out into the field and walk toward the Stone Hut.  Reaching it, I see that it is in a state of disrepair; the artefact of the once inspiring nemeton being no longer a viable place of Silence and Solitude.  I lay my hands on the stones.  Then, after a few seconds, I enter the Hermitage of Meath_
Suddenly I am no longer in the Forest Clearing; nor am I in the Stone Hut.  I am on the sandy shores of a lake.  It is Night and though there is fog and mist, I can see – not too far from me – the outlines of the Nemeton I seek; the Crannog Oratory!   It is ‘sitting’ on its pillions about two feet above the rustling water level, the top of the Oratory itself rising about ten feet above the crannog platform.  The Oratory on the Crannog is centered on the platform about 20 feet out from the lakeshore.  There is a wooden walkway leading out to the Oratory itself, which is a beehive shaped wooden structure with one door and three small windows; one facing up the lake and one facing down its length and one opening to a view across the lake.  The doorway faces the shore.
A sense of awe and wonder come over me!
At this point any number of imaginative things can happen in my meditations.  On one occasion, instead of finding myself on the lakeshore, I found myself – after having passed through the Hermitage of Meath – standing cruciform, shoulder-deep in the water up-lake from the Crannog Oratory!  I stayed there, in meditation, for most of an hour, stilled and quieted, solaced in body and mind by the imagined setting and by being immersed in the cool lake water!  On other occasions, as I’ve indicated, I have entered the oratory and imagined myself engaging in a number of inspiring activities, from mathematics to music making.

This is all a matter of self-directed imaging; it is the positive use of the imagination—a praxis in which I have been engaged for most of my life.  There is nothing supernatural going on here; but there is a depth of psychological work happening – in me – as I engage in these extended meditation sessions.  While often inspired to undertake the journey to the Oratory, and while conscious of my experiences, much happens that is spontaneous and unanticipated!  I respond to my subconscious mind and intuitions in as positive a way as I can.  I usually sojourn at the Oratory or somewhere near the Crannog for a time and then come out of meditation, refreshed and ready to get on with the day’s work and obligations, and sometimes more ready to face the world once again, seeking ways to heal it in any small way I can.  This is the kind of imaginative work that takes discipline and practice, but such work has rewards—and I am experiencing some of them tonight, having written this blog.
This is now my Winter Nemeton; in which I will hopefully dwell until The Hinterlands (i.e., “Epiphany”  6 January) and possibly afterwards.  As I finalized this blog and summarized for a friend what I had written, he asked me – laughing a bit at my boldness – why in the world I would tell people how to the find the way to my Crannog Oratory?  “What if someone else finds it,” he then asked_ and laughed at the strangeness of his own question!  I told him I doubted anyone else could actually find my Internal Nemeton; and we laughed together at the idea!  But if you do, I will welcome you heartily at the Crannog Oratory, and we shall sing and dance and engage in ‘earthen prayer’ at the lakeside until the coming of the dawn!

Blessed be!

[i] This is a wonderful old book, and well worth repeated readings.  I know of almost no other book on solitude that has this depth of insight.

[ii] ‘Crannog’ is a term from the Celtic World.  It refers to a structure – a house, fort or shrine – built out upon the water on a platform which sits on pillions above the water and is stationary.

[iii] Oratory literally means, “House of Prayer.”  I understand prayer as ‘deep attention to the world’ and imagine this one as a place of creative aspiration, contemplation and spiritual awareness.  It is not an ‘escape’ from the world, but rather a place of restoration and self-recreation wherein we pay deep attention to the world and its troubles from a distance that lends us perspective.  From the vantage point of the Oratory, I hope to seek ways of changing what-is, where possible. for the better.

[iv] I had been watching the Harry Potter films all through December, and so was in that imaginative mode wherein a broom came quickly to mind as a mode of travel!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

An Enlumined Night (28 November 2015)

“Our contemplation of the cosmos stirs us.  There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height.  We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.” (145)
-   Carl Sagan, from “Cosmos”

“It always amazes me the effect a light skiff of snow can have on one's experience of the woods and fields in which one is walking ... "

Yesterday afternoon I took off early from work and headed out to the woods.  With only a couple of hours of daylight left, I wanted to get as much time out on the hoof as possible before dark.  The weather was changing, and I felt the temperature dropping as the day waned around me, dusk coming quickly.  I thought of night hikes I have taken over the years, and was inspired to remember vivid conversations about philosophy, earthen spirituality and imagination that I’d had with friends along the very trails I was walking.
As the light began to fade, I thought of the poetics of mysticism and how mysticism is an art.   The beauty of the oncoming twilight lifted me into thoughts about the depths of reality and how poetics, coupled with science, has become my best ‘engine’ for exploring and elucidating the world in which we live and dwell and have our being; the natural world—the Earth & Cosmos.  Mysticism from one angle is an ‘art’ in the old sense of it’s being a ‘craft.’  The experience of Mystery is the impetus to Mysticism; yet if the mystic hopes to express their experience of Earth & Cosmos, they must turn to symbols, metaphors and analogies—that is, to the use of a poetics.

“The light was dwindling as I hoofed it along the familiar trails_ and soon I began to feel enlumined!”

A careful line has to be held when describing and interpreting one’s experiences of Mystery.  Too much baggage can too easily be imported into the experience, as when – on a hike in the mid-1980’s – I interpreted three beams of sunlight falling down through breaks in the evening cloud cover, falling into a pine grove in front of me, as a manifestation of the three-personed Trinity manifesting itself.  [LOL]  A genuine poetic interpretation of such an experience is never that 'direct' or literal; the light-beams could be interpreted as symbolic of the Trinity; but could not be the that imagined Transcendent Truine Unity itself.  They could just as easily have been interpreted according other ways; according to different poetic systems.  _Alas, I was still a fairly young and inexperienced mystic!

“As I walked, I had not noticed that clouds had covered the skyscape, and now_
Snowflakes were falling, quickly covering the ground with a glistening of white!”

On the other hand, an experience of the Mystery inherent in Earth & Cosmos can be so underplayed that one misses out on its depth and wonder.  Being lifted out of the ordinary by wonder or awe, it is best to savor the experience and allow it to imprint itself on the ‘soul;’ i.e., one’s being-in-becoming.  As the snow fell, I felt a sudden refreshment, and let go of the cares of the world for a few moments; the awful news stories of events around the globe that seem to illustrate our very human nature at its worst.  As I walked in the world now being garnished by the falling snow, the white snowflakes patterned against the backdrop of the dimming twilight seemed to stand for a temporary ‘return to innocence;’ not in any na├»ve way, but perhaps as a hint of what William Blake would have called “radical Innocence”—that ‘Innocence’ that can be nurtured after one has passed through the Vale of Experience.

Innocence—Experience—Radical Innocence.

Mysticism as an art entails crafting one’s interpretation of an experience of Mystery with the tools of Poetics and Imagination.  It demands responsible speaking – the mystic must endeavor to never put forth an interpretation that merely serves his or her own needs or, worst still, prejudices.  One must be diligent to re-present the experience of Mystery in words, images, sounds, etc., and not distort it.  Of course, it takes time to mature out of one’s early biases; imprinted as these are by our upbringing and then reinforced by society’s mores.  But, in time, if you persevere honestly in seeking the truth, beauty and depth of mystical experience—much of your early bias may well fall away, eventually, allowing you a slightly better access to reality.

“Things appear more as they are, in the enlumined night of being.”

I suddenly stopped in my tracks as I came down off the hill towards town.  It had stopped snowing, almost as quickly as it had started.  The snow that was now lying upon the ground was ‘giving off’ a wondrous, subtle glow.  It had a blueish cast, owing to the light being refracted through_ and reflected off of_ the crystals in the fallen snowflakes.  The glow seemed to form an ‘aura’ above the ground, and I realized that as the ground had been warmed during the day, a slight mist was now forming, about 2 feet deep, floating above the late Autumn leaf mulch, sticks and stones of earthen ware.

“I was stilled in the ambience of the snowshine; I was deep-enlumined!”

I walked down off the hill, marveling at the quality of light given off by the slight layer of snow that was covering the mulch all around me.  I thought of the optics of the phenomenon and then of the metaphor of being enlumined; which I thought of as “a mystical state of openness to reality in which we allow the beauty and sublimity of Nature to imprint itself upon us in experiences such as these.”  I have long found that such experiences enable me to cope with life and deal more adroitly with its exigencies.

“The Snowshine_ that’s what we used to call it_ infused me as I left the Woods and sauntered homeward.”

I came home and did all that needed to be done in the evening.  I went to bed but could not sleep.  I was not 'restless;' I was just not ready to fall asleepstill infused with the beauty of the snowshine I had witnessed.  I got up and came down cellar to meditate.  I got Stile Antico’s CD Puer Natus Est out for the first time since Epiphany last January, and, listening to it, went down deep into the Well of the Self.  I hummed along with some of the chants – which are becoming familiar to me – and began to think about what I might write and compose during the Winter Solstice Season!
I felt enlumined as I dwelt in the Cave Nemeton of the Self.  The Cave of the Heart seems lit up as with snowshine!  I was on the threshold of an imaginative journey, and I went with it_

I got up and danced around the Meditation Circle in time with the chanting on the CD.  After a while I sat down in front of the Meditation Table.  Peace enveloped me.   As an icon for my meditation I used the picture of Stile Antico standing in a circle, back to back, that’s on the inside of the CD case. There is something about that photo that wakens me every time I see it!  I think of them singing without seeing one another, having to cinque with one another by sound – and possibly body language – alone.  The sense I get from this photo is of something deeply earthen; the circle being so important in earth-centered spiritualities.  I also thought of Nicholas of Cusa, the mediaeval Christian mystic and mathematician, for whom the circle stood as a symbol for the completion of Creation as well as the infinity of the divine.  The circle, for me, is a profound rune for the ‘circle of existence’ in which we dwell in Earth & Cosmos.
As I meditated on the iconic photo of the choir and listened to them sing those beautiful works by Tallis, Taverner, Byrd and others, I went on an imagined journey; flying in the Moonlight across snow-covered landscapes—seeking the entryway into another of my imagined nemetons: the Crannog Oratory!  I saw standing stones and a dolmen in the open fields below me; all lit up by moonlight—though I never found the Oratory.  I flew down close to the ground a couple of times, and felt the spray of cold, icy snowflakes on my face and hands.
At the point where Robert White’s Magnificat came on, I returned to my Meditation Circle; having been ‘out and about’ in my imagination. I arose up out of the Deep Well, ascending into the candle-flickered darkness of my own rooms as the choir began to sing Puer natus est.  I stayed in the Meditation Circle until Sheppard’s verbum caro was over.  In the silence I sat for a few minutes before rising.

After the music ended, I went back up to bed, refreshed and in a state of near wondermentas if I was about to dream.  I didn’t; at least not that I remember.  Yet I awoke at 7 AM this morning feeling refreshed and ready to engage with the day.  I’d had an Enlumined Night.

“As I drifted off to sleep, the blueish snowshine enlumined my bedchamber with subtle hues and calming effect.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Musing Art, Music & Mysticism (4 October 2015)

Musing the First

I’ve been to the woods this afternoon, and it was beautiful, cool and refreshing.  As I walked and left the stress of the day behind, I kept coming round to thoughts of music, art and naturalistic mysticism.  My imagination was drawn to something Simon Russell Beale said in the BBC program on Tomas Luis de Victoria[i] about the composer being sent to Rome by Teresa of Avila.  As I remember, Victoria was born in Avila and may have met the mystic when he was a boy.  Later, it was said, El Greco – the painter and sculptor – was doing in Art what Teresa was doing in mysticism; that – somehow – his art had a similar contemplative logic as Teresa’s mysticism.  It was also suggested that the composer Victoria heard the world as the artist El Greco saw the world and as the mystic Teresa experienced it.  This led me into imagining a conversation between the three of them!

A Composer—A Mystic—An Artist

Perhaps I am exaggerating the implied relationship between these three creative people, but I cannot keep them from coming to mind; I am imagining them in scenarios which are certainly contrived by my own powers of fantasy.  _I see them sitting together in the same place discussing art, music and mystical experience in very naturalistic terms—which is quite contrary to their respective orientations to the world.  Yet this has become a powerful mental rune for me of the relationship between Art, Music and Mysticism.  _What would someone of their genius have talked about if they had gotten together at some remote chapel or shrine, had a good beer or two, and then sang and prayed and created together?  _I actually just shivered when I wrote that—a thrill went through me!
I have put a disc of Victoria’s motets[ii] on the CD player and am looking at El Greco’s paintings online.  They are amazing!  It is said that he anticipated Impressionism by four centuries, and that his art was a revelation to those who saw it!  I can see it!
Victoria—Teresa of Avila—El Greco
So far, I have found no published literature on the implied relationship between these three creative geniuses, except one brief blog that more or less ruminates on the similarities between their works and which parallels what was said in the BBC program.  Perhaps it is only an observed relationship, from the point of view of those who study them, rather than a relationship between the actual people?  If anyone has any information to the contrary, please let me know.
Even so, I am deeply and creatively moved by the idea of them having known one another and gotten together to discuss Music—MysticismArt!   Last night I imagined writing a dialogue between them, written as if they had been friends and had discussed these issues.  This idea reminds me of other dialogues I used to think of writing, such as a dialogue between Mary and Brighid, or Jesus and Cernunnos—back when I was religious and trying to sort out the relationship between the different mythologies in which I was immersed.  But the dialogue I am thinking of writing tonight has nothing to do with mythology or religion, even though all three of the interlocutors were deeply religious!
The dialogue as I imagine it would be about the relationship between Music, Mysticism and Art from a naturalistic perspective.  What if the three of them were reincarnated in the late 20th century and found one another, recognized each other, and then, after resourcement (an old Keltelven expression for recovering one’s memory of a former life) became friends and discussed the nature of their particular arts over a course of nine days and nights?
This is, of course, a fictional framing for a rational discourse; its own kind of literary mysticism—a necessary set-dressing for deep reflection on the relationship between Music, Mysticism and Art.  Mysticism is an art; a narrative and experiential art.  It requires creativity on the part of the mystic to interpret ones experience in positive and re-creative ways!  So be it!

Musing the Second

I have been to the woods again this afternoon.  It was a warmer day than on Thursday; still beautiful and inspiring.  I walked down through the gulch beyond Bear Ridge and then out to the edge of the State Park and down to the Olde Farm and back up again.  I then made another circle around the trails on Bear Ridge before coming back to town.  Along the way I kept thinking about Music, Mysticism and Art!
All three of these creative disciplines are grounded in our biology; we have evolved as a species to be capable of them.  It could be that their appearance in the archaeological record is evidence our species reaching a significant cognitive threshold around 50,000 BP.  Whatever we make of the so-called ‘cultural revolution’ at that time (whether or not it even was a revolution), our species seems to be characterized by its ability to create Art and Music and by its capacity for Mysticism (as may be indicated in the content of some early cave art).  Religion is also part of this complex; but it, too, should be treated as Art.  Most of its primary rituals, myths and beliefs have about them an element of primal creativity and aesthetic presence.  Religion may have begun as Art employed as survival psycho-technology.
While religion has too often become destructive; an inhibitor against enlightenment and a danger to our survivalit may have once been adaptive.  Now, its tendency to tribalism, its prejudices – left over from the Iron Age – and its justification of violence against those who do not conform to its tenets must all be overcome if we are going to survive as a species.  Yet there is much to redeem from religions, even from a naturalistic perspective.  When I reflect on religious Medieval Art and Music, I am glad that the beliefs of these geniuses and their society permitted them to look beyond the ordinary and the banal; to find vision enough to transcend itand to create lasting tributes to the human capacity for transcendence.
Art and Music do not have these built-in negative tendencies, though they may be practiced and experienced in prejudicial, destructive ways, and they can be polluted with political ideology as well as the personal prejudices of the artist or composer.  Yet Art and Music have not been the sponsors of inquisitions, holocausts and wars; have they?  Usually, they suffer from the destructive behaviors unleashed by religion, ideologies and politics.   And, as we can see from current world and domestic news, Art and Music can be destroyed in the pogroms of religious and political zealots, never to be recovered.  Enough said.
"Mysticism is a creative art."
I said this in the first part of this blog, and have been pondering the truth of it since.  In what sense is Mysticism an art?  Or perhaps “Art?”  Is it creative, or does it the experience of Mystery 'create' us?  I want to suggest that it is a creative interface with one’s experience of the transcendent; with transcendence itself, as experienced in moments of powerful self-transformation, and that a self-realized mystic is always a creative person at some level.  Mysticism requires imagination and storytelling as well as a maturing into self-awareness.  It is a narrative art as much as an imaginative art.  Mysticism integrates experience and reflects upon it through an imaginative interface that generates stories and explores psychological realities; the response of the mystic to their environment in relation to their own personal growth.
Mysticism – as I have been saying for years – is an openness to the experience of Mystery; the mystery of our being-in-becoming and of the Earth & Cosmos itself.  A Mystic is someone who experiences the Mystery of What-Is; that ‘dimension’ or ‘quality’ of our existence that stimulates Wonder and Awe.  The Mystic is someone open to experiences of the Transcendent; which is, in one sense, another name for Mystery—though transcendent experiences are in essence different from experiences of Mystery.
What do I mean by that?  _That in the experience of Mystery a person can be lifted out of the banal ordinary into an experience of transcendence!  So mote it be!

“Often we feel a sense of transcendence, as if the boundaries of the self had been expanded.  The sailor feels at one with the boat, the sea and the wind; the singer feels a mysterious sense of universal harmony.  In those moments the awareness of time disappears, and hours seem to flash by without our noticing.” (xiv)
-        Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)

[i] “Sacred Music: God’s Composer” (2012) – A video program from the BBC featuring Simon Russell Beale (narrator) and Harry Christophers and “The Sixteen.”  Part of the larger “Sacred Music” series from the BBC, this program focused on Tomas de Luis Victoria’s music and life.

[ii] "Tomas de Luis Victoria - Motets" by Victorian Voices and Viols and Andrew Hope on the Gaudeamus label, 2003.  Wonderful recording!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Nature, Music & Transcendence (12 September 2015)

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.  It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.  It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.” (x)
-        Richard Dawkins  Unweaving the Rainbow (1998)

Recently I’ve been drawn to the idea of transcendence.  Perhaps by the effect of the sacred music I’ve been so intently listening to and studying the last few months; perhaps it’s been my more frequent walks in the woods this summer that’s urging me ‘up’ and ‘beyond’ myself.  Whatever the cause, I find myself centering toward a sense of elevation and a ‘journeying beyond’ ordinary daily horizons; that refreshment that comes from time to time—in moments of transcendence.
This morning in meditation I found this quote by Dawkins in an old preliminarian; a touchstone—it was one of the early texts that led me to see there was an element of self-transcendence in the pursuit of scientific discovery; for if “the feeling of awed wonder” can arise out of the practice – and I would say, also, the study of the findings – of science, then the person invested in scientific discovery is on a path that may well lead to the mystic’s rarified moments of ‘self-transcendence.’
This quote comes from a book in which Dawkins was debunking the aspersion of John Keats against science that it undermines the poet’s experience of the rainbow.  When I first read RD’s assertion that science generates that same “deep aesthetic passion” known to poets and musicians, I finally accepted that I had not abandoned my spiritual quest in turning to science; I had simply re-grounded it—moving its foundations from a mythic construct (Celtic/Christian mysticism, etc.) to a rational construct (science).  This shift has made all the difference in my life!
A spirituality grounded in science deepens one’s experience of self and world; science is the best method we have for revealing the objective dimension of Earth & Cosmos (Art, Music, dance, Literature better explore the subjective and inter-subjective dimensions; though science contributes to these dimensions as well).  A spiritual praxis that reflects what science has revealed situates the poet, the mystic and the philosopher – as well as any spiritual seeker – in that wider objective world.  Science augments our subjective and inter-subjective experiences with a correspondence to the what-is beyond our personal and inter-personal worlds.  While the revelations of science provide the flesh & bones of a naturalistic spirituality, it is not limited to those revelations.
Long before I got into science, I’d had deep, passionate interests that drove and sustained my spiritual and psychological development.  Music and an aesthetic engagement with Nature have long been central to by subjective interests and general love-of-life.  Story—my third major interest—has long guided me in the pursuit of truth, meaning and self-realization.
Storying life (in devout reflection; journaling, etc.) and engaging in stories (in film, theater and literature) helps me understand my own experiences as well as the wildly varied subjective and inter-subjective possibilities of a human life-as-lived.  Being out in Nature refreshes and sustains me aesthetically, psychologically and physiologically.   Listening to music and singing also bring deep refreshment; helping to relieve stress and guiding me along auditory paths to those thresholds where transcendent experience occasionally becomes possible.
The project of a naturalistic spirituality is fundamentally one of grounding our ability to self-transcend in Earth & Cosmos—in what is known through the revelations of science.  Transcendence is itself a naturalistic phenomenon.  Our brains are wired in such a way that transcendent experiences are possible—without reference to an external supernatural source or impetus (i.e., a god or gods, God or Goddess, etc.).  There does not need to be any ‘supernatural’ order or being(s) for us to experience what mystics and others have called ‘transcendence.’  We can have transcendent experiences because we are human; because we are the particular animals that evolution has ‘made’ us to be.
It is possible to experience transcendence in and through our encounter with Nature as well as through coming to understand Nature via both the study of science and reflections on the myriad revelations of science.  The response we have to the wonders of Nature – both in experience and in mental reflection on it and our knowledge of the natural world – is similar to but distinct from that experience called ‘worship’ in a religious paradigm.  Moments of transcendence are often characterized by a sudden sense of ‘uplift,’ a centering in ourselves and then a feeling of ‘release’ from the ordinary bounds of daily life.  This all happens in our brain and nervous system.  We do not actually ‘leave our bodies,’ though it may feel like that at times.  Moments of transcendence are also common for those who are engaged with Music; both the immediate experience of hearing or performing it, as well as in aesthetic reflection on Music, amplified by devout study.
I recently had an experience of transcendence that involved a walk in the woods that was then followed by a further experience in the context of listening to music:
I was out in the woods on Thursday, and was stilled, twice, by the beautiful effect of the sunlight shining down through the canopy; illuminating the green leaves on the trees, vines and bushes.  I stopped and stood still; but this was simply the outward manifestation of a deeper, inward ‘stilling.’  Then came that experience of ‘release’ when a chill runs down my spine and I get tingles all over; or at least on the top of my head and down the back of my neck to my shoulders!  I believe this experience – which usually only happens once I’ve been out on the hoof for an hour or so – to be the ‘release’ of the stress that I live with and the burden of life in general; all this falls away, more or less—leaving me liberated into a more aesthetic, energetic and imaginative state of being.
Whereas for me that ‘state’ was once accoutered with mythic and religious iconography and belief, it is now defined and illuminated by the revelations of science.  As I walk in the woods, I know that I am part of a bio-system that pervades and suffuses our planet. I see all around me the workings of biology; I imagine the cells in the plants, insects and small mammals I see all working according to the laws of chemistry and physics; processes that make life what it is.  Via what the sciences have shown us about Earth & Cosmos so far, I participate in the Grand Story of Being-and-Becoming.  The living things around me have evolved and are the fruit of billions of years of evolution.  Thinking about this, I was reminded of what Eric J Chaisson said in Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (2001), that:

“The evolutionary epic … is as ennobling as any religion—enlightening, majestic, awesome, providing a sense of the ‘ultimate.’  Material reality, when scientifically analyzed in both depth and breadth, brings to mind not only elegant grandeur and a sacred narrative comparable to any religious tradition, but also enriching empiricism and a genuine connection to the cosmos extending into deep history much older than most religions.” (221)

As I walked along the familiar wooded trails, I reflected on the evolutionary and ecological connections between the different plants & animals as well as the inorganic matter in the ecosystem I was passing through, and came to a deep sense of the physical beauty inherent in this complex of relations.  I am capable of this experience because of having studied science for the last 15 years.  Understanding science has deepened my experience of Nature inestimably.  The cumulative effect of the study of physics, chemistry, geology, evolutionary biology and cosmology has transformed me and provided me with touchstones for understanding my participation in – and being part of – Earth & Cosmos.  I am more ‘oned’ with Nature than I ever was through religious practices.

I was in a quiet reverie as I came down off the hill, so inspired was I by the liberating experience I’d had while walking along the winding trails.  But there was more to come.

After supper I was inspired to listen to the 1610 Vespers again.  I played it at a somewhat higher volume than usual—one which best brings out the dynamics in the recording.  (i.e., not ‘blasting’ my neighbors with it, but loud enough that I could imagine being solitary in an cathedral nave or hidden chapel, listening to a live performance).  I was not even through the first track when I got lost_ I went ‘up’ and ‘out’ of myself—and stayed ‘gone’ for about half an hour, suspended in a wondrous state of elation!  _I felt as though I went ‘somewhere else’ for a while, though I no longer believe this to be in any way a ‘supernatural’ experience.  It all happened within the parameters of my biological being-in-becoming.  It was psychologically and neurologically grounded.  And when I ‘returned;’ i.e., when I settled back into a more routine neurological and emotional state—I was deeply refreshed!
I was prepped for this experience, no doubt, by the earlier experience I’d had in the woods.  Had I not been to the woods, and had I not had such an uplifting aesthetic experience out in Nature, I might not have responded to the music in quite the same way.  Perhaps I would have been moved by it, but not ‘transported.’
This all says something to me about the state in which many of us are living, and the need to find release and go deep.  Many of us are usually so compounded by anxiety, stress and needless care that we cannot experience our true selfhood, much less go beyond the ordinary in transcendent experiences.  Beyond this, the real events of the world can weigh heavily on us; the injustice and inequality in the world can wear down one's hope.  My two-hour day-hike before supper opened me to Nature in an aesthetic and existential sense, deepened by a scientific understanding. That experience then prepared me for a moment of transcendence in response to Monteverdi’s Vespers.  
I think there is a need to find those things that can initiate a ‘release;’ a liberation from fear, anxiety, needless cares and stress—in order to carry us ‘beyond’ the ordinary rounds of daily life and be resourced, emotionally and aesthetically.  Some days I don’t even know that I’m en-mired in a stressed state!  Yet, even on such days, I have occasionally found a doorway to liberation through an excursion out to the woods (however brief) or else in listening meditatively to uplifting music.

The experience on Thursday was a healing experience; and while such experiences don’t come very often—when they do I notice a real difference in my state of mind and my ability to interact with others.  As the mystics in many traditions have often said, the experience of transcendence has practical consequences for dwelling in the ordinary in an authentic way.  This played out for me at work yesterday, where I was more calm and open to what was going on around me; more than I had been in the couple days before the experience.  I worked at my tasks as diligently as usual, but with less of the ‘buzz’ of stress beneath the surface.  I was more perceptive to what needed done and I enjoyed my walks to and from work more than in the few days prior to Thursday’s experiences. 

I will likely sink once again into the doldrums of the banal; but so long as I am aware of the ongoing struggle for self-awareness and the value of moments of transcendence in that struggle, there is always hope of further moments of liberation through experiences of self-transcendence.  The spiritual life is always about the struggle to remain ‘awake’ (waeccan); to not be asleep at the wheel of our own lives.  So be it.