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.

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