The spirit of this mysterious universe

2013-11-20 00:00

MOST of us, like our ancient ancestors, have looked up at the starry Milky Way at night, sat in a forest of trees, beside the surging ocean or rushing river, gazed in awe at soaring mountains, and felt a vitality, a potency invisible to the eye, something mysterious, transporting us beyond our mundane existence.

For those searching for a holistic, alternative worldview able to link their reverence for all life, human and non-human, with a passionate environmentism, a non- or post-theistic spirituality, akin to nature mysticism, can offer such a home.

Nontheism involves the rejection of a concept of a personal supernatural creator, embracing, rather, the perception of spirit pervading all nature.

To view all nature as imbued with a vitality or sacred presence is to blur the artificial boundaries between humans, non-humans and every other facet of the natural world: the belief in an essential interconnectedness of all things, that the entire universe is ultimately one creative energy. The separation of the world into animate and inanimate is seen as illusionary, as the entire natural world is experienced as infused with life.

Moving beyond the concept of duality, replacing it with the concept of monism, is found in many traditions, offering an alternative spirituality, reaching beyond the limitations of theistic religious traditions.

The mystic Meister Eckhart expressed this insight that “all blades of grass, wood and stone, all things are One”.

From Francis of Assissi to Meinrad Craighead in contemporary America, many have recognised the bonds uniting human and non-human, allowing a depth of communion between species, rejecting domination and exploitation.

The Hindu tradition, from early Upanishadic times to the neo-Vedantic monism expounded by Vivekanada, offers an elucidation of the belief that the entire universe is a single reality — Brahman/universal consciousness — beautifully summed up in this Upanishadic passage: “As rivers flowing downwards find their home in the ocean, leaving name and form behind, so does the person who knows, from name and form released, draw near to the divine Person who is beyond the beyond … and really become brahman.”

This final state has been likened to a deep, dreamless sleep.

Many poets and artists have expressed a heightened consciousness of the incomparable worth of every aspect of life, generating a perception of radiance shining through all matter.

William Wordsworth, “long a worshipper of nature”, described his experience above the ruins of Tintern Abbey: “And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts ... A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.”

Not merely the huge and overwhelming can evoke a sense of wonder, but also the miniscule; to see, like William Blake, “heaven in a wild flower”.

The novelist Iris Murdoch had a marvellous ability to capture the personalities of animals, their confident beauty, and inner mystery; their desire and ability to communicate with their human relatives.

Her sensitive, completely unsentimental, description of a parrot is moving and powerful: “Grey glowed with health and beauty and grace. His clever eyes, surrounded by an ellipse of delicate white skin, were pale yellow, his immaculate feathers of the palest purest grey, and in his tail and wingtips, the softest most radiant scarlet. About his neck and shoulders he wore ... like a mobile coat of chain mail, a collar of small closely packed ‘fishscale’ feathers which slithered about upon his athletic frame most expressively according to his moods.

“Gerard knew that Grey understood how much Gerard loved him, and returned his love. The clever inquisitive white-rimmed yellow eyes expressed fearless faith and love. The gentle firm clasp of the small dry claws, the lightness of the entrusted body, the sudden scarlet of the spread tail, expressed love, even the hard dense stuff of the curving black beak seemed mysteriously endowed with tenderness …”

Murdoch creates a mood of reverence and love, referring to “the wordless mystery of their own mortal being”, a mystical response which through quiet contemplation of the beauty of these creatures, brings a sense of oneness with something sacred and ineffable. In a moment of self-transcendence, a reality greater than the sum of its parts is encountered. To marvel at the exquisite perfection of the feathers round the parrot’s neck, is to become conscious of the vitality connecting the vast web of life.

The awesome energy of nature is also terrifying; an immense power revealing the dark side of life. The natural world bears witness to exquisite creativity as well as terror, decay and death. An unpredictable randomness and remorselessness undermines our attempts to totally control our lives and make sense of experience. This is a truth that is difficult to bear, with which one battles to come to terms.

But, to develop the capacity to appreciate and revere the smallest particular details, to find joy and renewal in one’s response to the mystery of nature, can produce a kind of cosmic consciousness, however fleeting, of being in harmony with this immense scheme, a oneness with the immortal Life Force pervading the entire universe.

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