Reflection 121: Spirituality

June 26, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

The center of the spectacle is straight overhead. Looking up, I see streamers shimmering from around the horizon toward that focus where, wavering, flowing, they whirl together in a pulsing gyre of living forms that spreads and contracts and shifts its shape as I watch. Glowing spiders turn into snakes into eyes into butterflies. The air is clear, sky dark, each star a vivid needle of light. Beneath the stars, the cartwheel aurora rings its changes without repetition as if two eyes aren’t enough to take it in and I need ears as well. I am having a whole-body experience. Candle flames turn into running wolves into great whales into chickens, rays shooting above the trees all the while, feeding the gyre, spinning it round and round and into itself. Roses turn to sparklers turn to ants turn to dinosaurs. The spectacle goes on for hours, each second requiring my whole attention. What if I blinked and missed something? But eventually, cold, stiff, tired, I not only blink but go to bed, my head swimming with the best display of northern lights I’ve ever seen—and as it turns out, ever will see in my life.

I wrote it all down next morning, as much as I could remember, making lists of images in sequence as one led to another. But I lost the list, so rely on fading memory in writing this post, trying to get the feel at least in place of exact details. I didn’t know I was having a spiritual experience at the time, but looking back, that’s what I’d say it was now. Wholly engaged and alive, I met the cosmos half-way as it revealed itself to me as if I was part of the lightshow itself. As if I belonged there so I could participate on my own scale of wonder as the sky showed what it could do in spreading its mystery and glory before me. The cosmos was shining down, and I rose to the occasion by paying it the attention—the homage—it deserved.

Speaking of homage, the English words homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all descend from the same root in an ancient language spoken near the northern end of (what we now call) the Caspian Sea seven thousand years ago.  Languages in Europe and Asia based on such roots include (among many others) Persian, Hindi, Kurdish, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and English. Homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all have meanings relating to Earth because that’s what their common ancient root dhghem- meant in the Proto-Indo-European language long ago.

Like reverence and veneration, homage is a show of honor and respect to another to whom it is due. In my scale of values, paying close attention to something is a way of devoting my consciousness to it as a sign of its importance in my little world. It is one way to give of myself in return for what consciousness gives to me. That is exactly how I felt watching the shape-shifting aurora overhead. I wasn’t passively observing it; I was interacting with it on a mutual basis, serving it by giving it prominence in my mind. I call the giving of personal homage in that way a spiritual act.

Typically, people think of spirituality as implying a relation with capital-g God, but that’s not how I mean it. God comes with too much baggage and too many special needs in being the so-called creator, supreme ruler and judge of the universe, party to a covenant favoring one group of people above all others, yet another male in superhero guise, and advocate for subjecting the natural world to human domination. It is exactly that sort of program carried out by the faithful that has led to Earth’s desecration. So many people in America claiming to believe in such a figure leaves no doubt in my mind why this nation is in the sorry state it is today. The God story doesn’t even make a good read as a myth because the main character is so arrogant, demanding, excitable, and intolerant—so patriarchal. As a concept in the human mind, God is a regrettable habit it is time we outgrew—or impeached. No, for me spirituality has nothing to do with God or any religion centered on God.

If not God or religion, what then is the basis of spirituality? Not scripture, surely. More, some form of nonverbal engagement with someone or something deserving the highest level of attention and respect. Such as the display of northern lights I brought up at the start of this post. Like the exquisite lion’s mane jellyfish three-and-a-half feet across I met while rowing, the most beautiful creature I have ever seen—better than a unicorn (had I encountered one). It wafted to Taunton Bay via the Labrador Current; it might well have splashed down from outer space—off Baffin Island, say—and drifted the rest of the way. Amethyst, shaped and billowing like a submersible parachute, fully transparent, it swam just under the surface three inches below me: I could see every detail, including the barbed tendrils it used to snare its prey. I’d seen countless smaller lion’s manes washed up on shore, looking like day-old helpings of raspberry Jell-O. Usually in winter. But this was a bright spring day. I rowed off to get my camera, and of course the jellyfish was gone when I got back. I followed the current but never saw it again. Like the cartwheel aurora, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But that one encounter was what it took to forge a memory I will take to the crematorium.

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope. What I get for exercising my spiritual consciousness is a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, of having a place in the All. Not only a place but having a sense of participating—as myself—wherever I am. I am not obliged to worship anything, beg forgiveness, tithe, genuflect, or confess my sins. Free to be myself, I find my own way in a universe I happen to find very stimulating and often attractive. I am deeply appreciative, but get far more back from the All than the attentions I give. I don’t ask for beauty, it simply appears, particularly when I do not expect it.

Wholly engaged in such a way, I am moved to be alive in that place at that time. We come together, cosmos and I. The word I use for that wordless state is spirituality.

Spirituality, then, is the sense of affirmation that comes back to me when I care for the world that consciousness reveals to my awareness. Care is the essential factor, the feeling not just of being there, but of putting myself out to care for and about where I am. As an Earthling in good standing, I willingly oblige myself to care for my home planet and to respect its inhabitants, both human and otherwise. Spirituality is a looping engagement with my Earthly surroundings such that my awareness is enriched by paying attention to events which return the investment many times over.

I am on top of Cadillac Mountain at dawn as two artists in residence—two dancers—give their final performance. The stage consists of two granite slabs close together. Lighting is provided by the rising sun shining on the barefoot dancers from behind—revealing them as silhouettes. One is seated facing the sun, the other standing with raised arms poised in welcome. The sun moves; the seated figure rises on one knee; the other beckons with stretched arm to the side. As the dance progresses, it is clear the movements are for the benefit of the sun, not the audience. We are merely a backdrop. Suddenly I realize I am made of granite, a kind of menhir, placed among other standing monuments to mark the commencement of a new day. We’ve been here since the Laurentian Ice Sheet retreated 12 thousand years ago. The dancers move about gracefully on their respective slabs, then after a while come to a halt. The menhirs around me clap, bringing me to my senses, so I clap as well. Appreciations are murmured, then dancers and audience drift off. The slabs remain, showing no trace of the performance. It was dark when I arrived at the summit; now the sun is well on its way to a summit of its own.

Spirituality is transformative. It spurs exploration of other dimensions of consciousness, providing novel perspectives on everyday life. I don’t need drugs to achieve such a state, or endless chanting, or stressful postures. All I need is to give myself wholly to experiencing the moment wherever I am. In that sense, spirituality is a celebratory attitude toward consciousness itself.

The word spirituality refers to the state of being spiritual, which means having the nature of spirit, which derives from Latin spiritus meaning breath, breathing, air, life, soul, and other good things. The concept of spirit is based on breathing seen as the essential medium of life. When the baby cries at birth, she takes her first breath; when the codger issues his last gasp, he dies. Life is the interval between first and last breaths. So very early on, breath was interpreted as the vital, animating principle bringing inert matter to life. At a particular time and place, the name for that principle was spiritus, and that name has stuck to our day.

In the meantime, our understanding of life has advanced so we know oxygen in the air is essential to life, but it is not the whole story. We also know food providing calories to burn in the presence of oxygen is essential to life, as many chemical nutrients are essential. And a genome of some sort is necessary to provide bodily architecture enabling the many processes of life. The so-called life principle turns out to be far more complex than the ancients could grasp. Breath and breathing come nowhere near accounting for life. And nominating God as the agent bestowing life by breathing in a baby’s mouth and withdrawing it from the old codger, in light of what we know today, appears not only old-fashioned but simply wrong.

So we are left with the word spirituality in our vocabulary that cannot possibly mean what it once did. Understanding has moved on, leaving it an orphan, a word without meaning. Yet, too, a word toward which we have an attitude of respect because it was so useful in explaining the mystery of life. What do we do with it? We have a choice: stick to old ways, or graft new understanding onto old roots. Keep the term but give it a new meaning—exactly what I am up to in this post. That way, we acknowledge our nature as creatures of habit, but give ourselves a push forward in updating the conventional wisdom of our day. (The term God, too, needs updating because its former meaning as spiritual ruler of the universe is now so eroded as to be full of holes, leaving many of us trying to catch rain in a sieve. But that’s another post for another day.)

Take One: I am in a parking lot, beneath a poplar just leafing out. Carole and I are ignoring the cars, looking up at a yellow-and-black bird singing on a branch of the tree like the muezzin in his minaret. We have cause to listen: that male goldfinch is announcing himself to (the female portion of) his world, “I will support you with my vigor and the territory I am claiming even now; won’t you join me?” Truth and beauty from the beak of a bird. Take Two: We are entering Acadia from Route 3 by a path leading across the top of a beaver dam. The air is filled with music. Carole points across the pond to a red dot high in a dead tree. That dot is the source of the melody we hear—a male scarlet tanager singing his heart out—commanding us and every other eared being within range to listen with awe to that one voice of all voices in the universe. Take Three: I am alone on an island in April, walking from the stone cabin my father built in 1940-41 to the shingled cabin I built in 1976. It rained in the night; everything is damp and dripping, including me as I brush spruce boughs aside. Even so, I am having the time of my life listening to a male robin I cannot see in the tree overhead, caroling what I take to be the finest song ever sung. I didn’t know robins had it in them. But they are thrushes after all, related to hermit and wood thrushes, so I stand still for twenty minutes and give myself to wet woods that can produce such a sound.

Spiritual takes, all three. Transporting, transformative, never to be forgotten. When the universe calls, I stop to listen. Spirituality is that simple. Finally, another encounter with northern lights that rocked me not back on my heels but in my boat.

The night is clear and still. I am rowing to the island after a meeting that ran late. I keep looking over my shoulder to see the pale green aurora arching over the island, and its reflection under the island in the still bay filled with stars. The total effect is of a green eye with a black pupil: the island and its reflection being inside the shimmering green lozenge of the aurora and its reflection. Of all creatures on Earth, I am the only one to witness the apparition of this celestial eye looking back at me. In a sense, an illusion, but all awareness is illusion. I give up trying to row and turn my boat around so I, at my rowing station, can face north. What can I say? This is a time for looking, not speaking. For savoring, not acting. Everything comes together in this moment, island, aurora, universe, and me.

Sunrise-72

 

 

 

 

 

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