413. The Life Force

January 23, 2015

Whether we keep watch on the world or on our inner life, we employ the same mental equipment. I call that equipment our situated intelligence. Situated in the sense of always being in our heads under the particular conditions that make up our awareness at the moment.

So in switching my focus in this blog from my inner world of perception-judgment-action to my outer world of nature-culture-community-family, I the watcher am still the same conscious being, relying on the same mental energy and equipment, facing the same difficulties in making sense of what is before me.

This view runs counter to our everyday assumption that when we open our eyes, we look out on the world as it truly is. But no, we don’t live in any such privileged position. Always, always, always we peer out from the depths of our psychic intelligence as situated in one fix or another.

We cannot escape ourselves or our current perspectives. We live in our minds, not our physical bodies in their various physical settings. Even if we look upon the Gulf of Aqaba or Grand Teatons, we look from within the same old intelligent self that is referenced to the same old memories we truck with us wherever we go.

It is forbidden us to walk in anyone else’s moccasins; we are stuck in our own footwear wherever we go. Our ever-changing situations are in our minds, not the world.

As I have repeatedly said, those situations are made up of the psychic dimensions that affect us at the moment. Those dimensions may include a varied mix of imagination, impressions, values, understanding, emotions, memories, aesthetics, beliefs, ideas, attitudes, interests, expectancy, attention, habits, ideology, prejudice, life experience, motivation, and what I call the life force with which our metabolisms drive us to perceive, judge, and act.

That is my credo. The belief derived from thirty years of personal introspection. My reality, the frame of mind that I live in every moment I work on this blog.

The point I want to make in this post is that the fuel that drives our personal life force does not differ whether we are focused on our inner or outer worlds. No matter where we are, we are the same person driven by the same force.

Most people I know do not believe that. They believe in forces speaking to them from the heavens. Mystical forces. Spiritual forces. Forces out of the blue. But awareness of any such force is securely seated inside us, and I would say is projected outward by mistake when it is deep within our most basic awareness all the time.

Even the splendor of the stars at night is within us, because that is how we take those stars in, the climate in which we reach out to them and receive them in that very splendor, as our personal life force drives us to receive them.

I am saying that our individual portion of the life force drives us to respond to our thoughts and perceptions in certain life-fulfilling ways. That force is always positive, urging us to make the most of the moment, to be fully aware, to seize the moment by making the most of ourselves.

The splendor of the sky stems from our native susceptibilities and sensitivities, which we bring with us as carried along by the life force we bear in every cell in our bodies. The spirit we see all around us is the spirit we bring with us to be released on such occasions.

Our metabolisms derive our life energies from the simple food we eat every day. Spirit rises from that energy in preparing to meet the adventures and challenges we may face on any given occasion.

Once in our cells, that energy is ours to respond to, to direct, to express in our every action. It is that energy that lightens our step as we go, heightens our spirits, lifts us above the cares of life so that we can thrive in good health with an attitude that reaches out to our every engagement with our world.

The life force is world energy made ours. It is sunlight brought to life. First in our food, then in us. In our wayfaring, it is the fuel that drives us in taking step after step, always anticipating the view we will have around the next bend, across the next river, from the peak of the next mountain.

It is we who respond to the message our situated intelligence translates into the language of our personal behavior. How we address the world in making our rounds day-after-day tells who we are. Our share of the life force is ours alone to use, direct, and express. It is the resource that gets us through the day, no matter what happens. Its source may be the sunlight that reaches the Earth, but its power is within us as a reservoir of energy we can release in our daily activities.

In writing this blog, I am driven by my share of the life force derived from sunlight striking the Earth and transmitted to me in the food I eat. In reading this blog, you are driven by your share of sunlight stored in your personal reservoir. Together, we are guided in our actions by our respective reservoirs of the life force.

Yesterday, my partner said that she appreciates the spiritual support she discovers in life by seeking guidance in her daily activities. “It feels like the spirit is on my side,” she said movingly. I responded that that guidance is already within her, and is hers to respond to as she will. My point being that each of us is responsible for directing our activities for good or for ill. It is not some external spirit that guides us, but our own inner vision, fueled by our share of the life force.

May that force live within you.

 

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(Copyright © 2010)

With this post, I am laying my blog to rest—at least for the time being. I intend to go back over what I have written so far with an eye to rearranging the content in less hectic order, better to convey my cumulative understanding of conscious experience. And to reveal gaps that need filling-in. Maybe a book will result, maybe not. I invite you to explore and ruminate on what is on offer. Check out postlinks (above) and look around.

In Reflection 121: Spirituality, I wrote of witnessing over the years a cartwheel display of northern lights, two dancers atop Cadillac Mountain at sunrise, a male goldfinch singing, and an aurora seen above an island joining with its own reflection to form a cosmic green eye. Of these sorts of experiences I wrote:

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.

Yes, that intuitive feeling of connectedness is a big part of what I call spirituality—but it is not all. An explicit feeling of thankfulness at being fully present to such moments also contributes to spirituality, a giving of self in gratitude for being alive to participate in yet another memorable instant of existence. Beyond feelings of thankfulness, often food and sex serve as vital dimensions of our relationship with partners, family, friends, and community. Without such driving values as food and sex, we would not be alive to enjoy the fruits of consciousness.

Lately, I have been trying to imagine myself crawling into a cave—say, Altamira or Lascaux—to witness images of animals such as bison, horses, lions, and mammoths painted by upper-Paleolithic peoples some 30 to 10 thousand years ago. My search is for purely visual patterns of experience so that I can stand before them without laying any preconceived meanings upon them, determined to claim the experience of uninterpreted (uncategorized) sight as if for the first time. How would it be to hold a dim, tallow lamp close to the walls of a cave to discover those hand-drawn animate forms? In my own era I am jaded by having seen a thing many times before so that I know immediately what it is, seeing more with my conceptual memory than my eyes. Recognizing a sight as representing a class of similar sights is not really seeing.

So I picture myself entering a cave in my mind, watchful over my little lamp, led by one who knows the way, stooping, crawling, expecting, yet not picturing what I will find. My hope is to see something so strange and wonderful that I am forced to reinvent myself to take it all in. Categorization makes me no bigger than I was; I want to live a life that grows larger every day. I need fresh visions and discoveries to feed my hunger for sensory experience, understanding, and to whet my curiosity about what might yet be possible. Celebration is what I’m after, of my fleeting self on my winding, serendipitous path through the universe. But that is an idea; I’m not after ideas: I want sensory evidence as proof that I am fully alive where I am, when I am.

In a grotto, by the glow of my tallow lamp, I am awestruck by what I find. It is nothing I know or recognize. The patterns are intuitively familiar, but like nothing I have seen before. There are no landscapes with grasses, shrubs, or trees. No sunlight beyond my little lamp. No clouds in the sky. No trickling streams, no birds. Not even rock walls. Nothing is moving, yet the scene seems to gallop through my head. I am sure I hear hooves rushing by, snorts, whinnies, growls. Startled, I look around, but quickly return to the scene just inches in front of my eyes. The essential core of the animate world is here, and I am connected to it and part of it. This is my world. Yes, I feel it, my little life depends on this scene, on these particular beasts—woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, horses, reindeer, bison, bears, stags, lions, ibexes. Without them, I wouldn’t be here in this cave—or anywhere. I never realized it before, but now I climb above my daily grasp of things and join the higher life beyond. These forms give shape to a transcendent grasp of reality, which I can only call spiritual because it is not of my everyday world. I owe every thought and experience to the scene that opens before me deep in the cave of my mind. This, truly, is where I live. In this scene, with these animals. Nothing else matters. This is the ultimate vision, seen by my ultimate self. I have risen; now I can die.

But before I do, I want to register my own presence. I have no votive offerings. Only a small piece of charcoal. What trace of myself can I leave? I have no sense that the patterns before me are drawn by human hands. They are primeval, here before the people came, here after we go. But one before me has made an appropriate gesture in response. A handprint to show he was here—and is still here—has become part of the scene. Intuitively, I bite off a small chunk of charcoal, grind it between my molars, mix it with saliva. Raising my free hand against the cave wall above the back of the horse, I blow black pigment around my pressed hand, leaving, when I take it away, a silhouette of my presence—my hands-on contribution to this magical scene.

Spotted Horse and Handprints

That mental excursion suggests the state of my mind this week when my son and his wife returned from New Mexico and gave me a gift from Bandeliere National Monument near Santa Fe. It was a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing a Native American design which the park service adopted as the emblem of Bandeliere: the four directions (suggesting their totem animals, such as golden eagle, mouse, bear, white buffalo) placed against the face of the sun, with a small handprint in the center—extending toward—as if to touch or bless—the bright solar disc.

Bandeliere Sun with 4 Directions & Handprint

Suddenly I get it. Reaching out in gratitude for the gift of radiant energy that supports life on our planet. No matter in what form it is made manifest—animal, plant, mineral—it is the same energy. Solar radiation. The gift of sunlight that feeds almost all life on Earth. Certainly the life forms we are familiar with, especially those we depend on as our life-support system. 

Cut to Jesus at his last Passover meal breaking bread and drinking wine with his companions. What was it he said? According to Matthew 26.26-29 (New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition):

During supper Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples with the words: ‘Take this and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them with the words: ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

This is my body, this is my blood. These words are in keeping with the symbolism of vegetative renewal that is at the core of the Jesus story. Bread from grain; wine from grapes. Both  miraculously renewing themselves about the time of the vernal equinox and the Passover feast held shortly thereafter. In the rites of Dionysos-Attis-Adonis held at that time of year, seeds were buried in soil held in small baskets, sprinkled with water, and when in three days they sprouted, celebrants cried the local equivalent of “He is risen, he is risen!”

“Palestine is a fertile land,” writes E. O. James in From Cave to Cathedral: Temples and Shrines of Prehistoric, Classical, and Early Christian Times (Praeger, 1965):

Having a temperate climate . . . agriculture flourished, and . . . the people for the most part were peasants with an agricultural economy, dependent largely upon the seasonal sequence as in Mesopotamia.

. . . . Normally in April the hillsides in Galilee are decked with a profusion of wild flowers with the green corn waving in the cool breezes on the fields below, the north especially being ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills . . . a land of oil, olive and honey.’ . . . From the end of May there is constant anxiety about the condition of the grain during the dry season, especially when the seasonal rains are pending. This found expression in a Canaanite myth and ritual of the Tammuz type and a seasonal drama (page 167).

Over thousands of years, Paleolithic hunters morphed into latter-day agriculturalists. Again, in the words of E.O. James (Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, Barnes & Noble, 1961):

As food-gathering dropped more and more into the background until finally it was abandoned, . . . the fertility of the soil and the succession of summer and winter, springtime and harvest, together with the associated pursuits—tilling and ploughing, sowing and reaping—became the centre of interest and of the ritual organization. . . . Nature was no less precarious for the farmer than for the hunter, consequently at the critical seasons an emotional reaction to the prevailing tension called forth a ritual response to ensure success in the food-producing activities at their several stages, and overcome the unpredictable elements in the situation outside human control by natural means. . . . Around this cultus a death and resurrection drama in due course developed (pages 33-34).

The union of Sky-father and Earth-mother symbolized the sacred marriage of spring rains with fertile soil, resulting in the birth of the divine child—manifest in the crops that sustained human life. As W.K.C. Guthrie tells the story in The Greeks and Their Gods (Beacon Press, 1950):

The young god who stands primarily for ‘the whole wet element’ in nature, as Plutarch describes Dionysos—that is, not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants—meets us under different names all over the nearer parts of Asia and in Egypt, as well as in Thrace, as Dionysos, Zalmoxis, Sabazios, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris and many others (page 156).

Whether based on the historical record or the mythic tradition, Jesus-as-portrayed is one representative of that distinguished company. As other gods did before him, he at first symbolized the hope of seasonal renewal to early farmers at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Very much an essential link in the chain from upper Paleolithic cave art to today’s fascination with the one-time offer of eternal life, Jesus was swept into high office on the reputation of his distinguished predecessors. But the organized church wasn’t satisfied with merely seasonal renewal. It wanted an all-time guarantee of life everlasting so that all we need do is die—and we will be born not just again but forever. Nothing short of eternity will do. No problem—as long as our indulgences are paid for in advance.

In focusing on the mythic symbol himself instead of the vital seasonal renewal Jesus initially symbolized, the Roman church cut itself off from its roots in Earth’s annual cycles of vegetation, disparaging the worshipping of such cycles as pagan and heretical—even though they provided the experiential grounds of its own metaphorical teachings. The priesthood was looking St. Peter's Basilica, Romeafter itself by centralizing its authority in urban basilicas—great stone galleries much like caves built aboveground. It proved far easier to manage abstract symbols from such central edifices than to engage widely dispersed farmers tending herds and tilling rural fields—those on the forefront of belief, but who were not within easy reach from comfortable apartments in the city.

When Episcopal priest John A. Sanford wrote in The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings (Lippincott, 1970), “We have . . . in Jesus of Nazareth the paradigm of the whole person, the prototype of all human development,” he makes clear that he is speaking of an idealized concept of a perfect man, not any person who might actually have lived. Leaving the faithful yearning to connect with the living force that provides for them in producing the crops and herds they actually eat to gain nourishment for bodies that sweat, get sick, grow old, and fail, not with some idealized exemplar whose body and blood they might pretend to ingest as a ritualized diet for the soul. No calories, true, but no real nutrients for the spirit either. Leaving seasonal renewal out of the picture, church dogma became a hollow conceit taken on faith, not in the light of actual experience.

Of lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, E. O. James writes of one deity who stayed in touch with the people, a deity who provided the foil of anathema to orthodox teachings throughout much of Hebrew and Christian scripture:

Once Prince Baal “became ‘the lord of the furrows of the field’ responsible for the rain and the kindly fruits of the earth, a series of temples were erected in his honour in Palestine and Syria in and after the fourteenth century B.C.” (From Cave to Cathedral, page 169).

In nearby Egypt, the ankh was a symbol of eternal life, as the cross subsequently became in Christianity. But one cannot eat symbols; they are food for the disembodied mind. The mind Goddesses of budding flowers, offerings, and happiness, bearing gifts of long life. Fifth Dynasty.embedded in its mortal frame craves a more substantial diet bearing, beyond flavor, both energy and nutrition. It is that diet I am trying to get at in writing this post because such food, indeed, sustains us and makes us who we are. That is the universal food humans require to keep going, no matter where they might live aside from their respective mental caves. Organized religions give us preinterpreted symbols when what we are starved for is raw sensory patterns most strange and wonderful—something to celebrate, not to obey.

It is the role of consciousness to guide us toward such a food supply that we may nourish ourselves—we who are minds in bodies with emotions, senses, thoughts, ideas, judgments, and capacities for action—to make ourselves whole, caring, and wise. That is, to conduct our day-to-day lives in such a way to transcend the limited vessels we have become in order to place our personal handprints as a mark of full witness and approval on life as we actually live it and not the pretend life others would have us lead for their benefit, or we would lead to please them.

I am talking here about leading an original life worthy of our personal uniqueness bestowed on us by our genetic heritage, prenatal life, early experiences, schooling, training, job history, native haunts, and the times in which we live. No two of us are alike. Yet our culture sorts us into crude bins (e.g., True Believers and Heretics) and expects us to behave as we are profiled and sorted by others, regardless of who we know ourselves to be. With the sorry result that we become creatures of our run-of-the-mill culture and not of our unique, individually conscious selves. Instead of consuming more and more goods, we do better to savor the sensory evidence that is ours alone, so to arouse a sense of connectedness with a beautiful world, to stir thankfulness that we are fully present to that world, and to activate primal values to prove we are fully engaged and alive. In short, we want to reach up and blow a handprint from inside our minds onto the only world that will take us just as we are, adding our personal energy and fullness to the universe of all being.

I am aiming for transcendence here. A jolt of energy-releasing transcendence lifting us into that true and higher life binding us to all that is—principally to the Earth, our only home in the darkness of space, and to all of Earth’s peoples of every tribe—that’s what I’m writing about. Is that too much to ask or even contemplate? In spite of our frailty, we can reach that high if we choose to enter the cave of our minds and keep trending toward that goal. We all know more than our credentials seem to warrant, in very personal ways that build on our unique perspectives instead of denying or denigrating them. Our value on Earth lies precisely in our gifts to one another of our personal uniqueness, not our assumed sameness with everyone else. Lives suitable to our heritage and experience cannot be bought off the shelf. We have to tailor them from the scraps we are given, and keep sewing for the rest of our lives. Transcendence is that easy—and that hard.

I will end with an item lifted from an e-mail my brother sent me today:

Re Time Magazine in the dentist’s office [see Reflection 198: Of Heroics & Aesthetics]:  I remember covering a symposium on Canadian art in Washington DC and hearing the director of the Innuit Gallery in Toronto say, ‘There’s a communications satellite in the sky now beaming down American television on them [Eskimos] and in one generation the spiritual content of their artwork is going to be gone.’ Perhaps no single sentence I ever heard in my entire life depressed me as much as this one. I did the only thing I could—bought a piece of Eskimo sculpture and two prints before that happened.

Hunting FamilyWalrusesMary Igiu, People of the Sea 

 

 

Your Handprint in This space

(Copyright © 2010)

“God,” “heaven,” “the night sky,” and “the universe” are four different characterizations for a sensory phenomenon that looks something like this:

One TurningOur sense of the motion of the stars at night is one of the most powerful and enduring wonders of human experience. Because we can have that experience again and again throughout a lifetime, we know it is true. Yet it isn’t true. The apparent wheeling of the stars is an illusion. The stars are not moving in unison—Earth is turning on its axis, carrying us with it, making the stars appear to be rotating overhead while all the time it is we who are rotating. We have names for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon—two heavenly bodies closer to home—yet, again, sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset are illusions created by the dipping of the eastern or rising of the western horizon against the background of the solar system and stars beyond. Projecting our Earthly motion onto the sun and the moon, as we do on the stars, we stake our claim to being the center of the universe, even though that concept is a convenient fiction in the human mind.

Earthrise experienced as sunset Universe means “one turning” or “turning oneness,” reflecting the sense of unity we feel when all about us shares the same motion. The concepts of God and heaven arise in the sighted consciousness of every human who has ever stood in the dark after the western horizon has swallowed the sun and celebrated the stately dance of the stars overhead against the background  of eternity and infinity. There is no escaping the feeling of awe and reverence which that ceremony kindles within us. Projected onto the scene, we categorize our feeling as being in the presence of the gods or of deities, which is what the words signify—the shining ones, from the Indo-European root, deiw-, to shine (and in such derivatives as sky, heaven, god, deity, divine, divinity, dios, Jove, and Jupiter).* Halos about the Heads of sacred figures reveal the cosmic origin of their holiness—and of the awe we bestow upon them. 

Early shepherds and other night folk noticed that seven great lights moved against the cyclical pattern apparently set by the stars, and we still dedicate the days of our week to those lights.

  • Sunday to the sun;
  • Monday to the moon;
  • Tuesday to planet Mars personified as Tiu, Germanic god of war;
  • Wednesday to planet Mercury personified as Odin, Woden, or Wotan, chief Teutonic god;
  • Thursday to planet Jupiter personified as Thor, related to Late Latin thunor or thunder;
  • Friday to planet Venus personified as Old Norse Frigg, wife to Odin, goddess of love and of heaven;
  • Saturday to planet Saturn personified as the rustic Roman god of agriculture.

This seven-day week is an amalgam made from several different cultural systems:

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number. In A.D. 321 the emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar (The American Heritage Dictionary, Word History for Wednesday).

Distancing themselves, various religions dismiss these categorizations as pagan, that is, being of the country where uncultured peasants dwell, but the characterizations linking planets and gods in the human mind have stuck for thousands of years, suggesting the true power of such primal images and associations. In themselves, these images are neutral aspects of our placement in Earthly surroundings, but consciousness endows them with a salience of grandeur and significance, requiring the categories we project upon them be of the very highest order.

The four quarter days of the year demark the four seasons, summer and winter solstices when the sun “stands still” at the extreme turning points on its journey along the horizon, and spring and fall equinoxes when the sun rises and sets due east and west, respectively, and night and day are of equal length. Our compass of 360 degrees (reflecting an early approximation of the seasonal cycle repeating after that many days) is based on the normal (right-angle) alignment of Earth’s axis pointing due north toward the Pole Star and the east-west line between sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. A great many pyramids, temples, basilicas, cathedrals, and city plans are oriented in time and place to harmonize with the evident plan of the universe as early observers interpreted it in light of their understanding and experience. As Earthlings, humans have had no other choice. Sensitivity to the cosmos is built into consciousness, calibrating our senses of orientation, correctness, and wonder.

Since 1994, I have joined a group of friends in observing theVernal equinox vigil “sunrise” at 5:35 a.m. on the day of the spring equinox as viewed from Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. Equinox It strikes me still as the right thing to do—make a personal effort to celebrate the  ending of winter and coming ofEquinox potluck breakfast spring as one of the most decisive events of the year. Following the vigil, we retire to the home of a couple living nearby for a potluck  breakfast. After orienting our lives to the seasons, by 7:45 a.m. we are ready to walk into our days heartened to be in synch with the cosmos.

  Using the simplest tools, early astronomers projected lines and angles onto the night sky in mapping the positions of stars and planets, giving birth to geometry, navigation, and astrology at the same time. A friend once had my horoscope done, informing me my rising sign is in 03 degrees Scorpio:

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge—for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism (Astrolabe @ alabe.com, 2001).

As a characterization of myself, that’s about as accurate as any resume I might concoct on my own. All based on heavenly alignments and relationships bearing on the date, time, and place of my birth. Those who devised and refined the system were conscious and observant Earthlings determined to conduct their lives in keeping with the order of the heavens as they perceived it. Perhaps subtle planetary alignments actually do affect the epigenetic connections of our brains as we lie deep within the refuge of our mother’s womb. I think it more likely that our placement in time and locale on the Earth sets the conditions of our formative development. We become creatures of that particular era and place, adopting or reacting to the ways of family and community as exemplars we ourselves would do well to follow.

In Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness, I wrote of my young self discovering fossils as a vital part of my early life, and splashing about the springtime hills surrounding my native haunts:

Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

Which, for me, captures the essence of who I am in engaging the specific circumstances of my placement on Earth, forging interests and attitudes to last a lifetime. I detect that same essence in the horoscope fragment quoted above, and in the image of early peoples enrapt by the slow dance of stars and planets across the night sky. Consciousness aligns us with the turning of the universe we are born to, committing us early on to lead the lives we fulfill as we age. For me, spiritual guidance is found not in churches so much as in open spaces—estuaries, mountain ridges, shores, bogs, deserts, and wild areas of every sort where natural processes flourish today as they have since beginning times. If I can resonate with those processes without disturbing them, then I am more likely to thrive than those who degrade or deplete them.

Joining the dance of stars and planets in the night sky is a bit like hopping onto a moving freight train or spinning carousel. You have to get up to speed before making the leap. But when you do leap, you are already with the program, so have a better chance of furthering the general order than upsetting it, of adding your weight to the one turning than stumbling and being flung aside as disruptive or irrelevant. How we characterize the dance determines how we live—in or out of harmony with Earth and its cosmos.

 __________

* “Indo-European Roots,” Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Earthfall, March 20, 2006

(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