Boing Boing points to a fascinating essay by author Ken MacLeod in Aeon Magazine about moments of ego transcendence and “ineffable encounters” that he’s experienced over the years, and how he experienced them completely outside a spiritual or religious container.
“I was on my own, exploring the banks of a river that ran along a broad, deep gully. I wasn’t far from human habitation but I don’t remember any sound except the river on the stones, dripping moss and humming insects. The sun was high in the west, brightly lighting one side of the gully. I was on the other side, in shade but nothing like darkness. There was nothing spooky or scary about my surroundings, nothing dangerous about my situation. Out of nowhere, the feeling of presence came back, ringing from the rocks.”
Interestingly, the first person I thought about when reading this essay was famous naturalist and conservationist John Muir, who embraced a pantheism, a religion of holy nature, that completely transcended his Christian background.
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.”
Muir would no doubt explain the presence “ringing from the rocks” that MacLeod experienced as nature conversing with him, or perhaps even the God in nature reaching out to him. What Muir isolated himself in nature to experience, MacLeod, free from the shackles of a traditional religious education or upbringing, came upon the feeling naturally and left its mystery intact by not trying to attribute it to “God.” I call this a sort of proto-pantheism because both of his experiences happened in nature, while alone, and both left him with a feeling of there being a “enormous presence. It was everywhere, like the shimmer of the heat in the air.”
The mystery of MacLeod’s experience, and his other experiences of ego transcendence, are the building blocks of spirituality. The containers we create to give names to the ineffable things we can’t rationally attribute. Paganism and indigenous religions often reach back to these building blocks, especially among our mystics and seers, who commune with nature, and seek to remove themselves from their conscious ego. Our structures following natural cycles of season, sun, and moon, our powers and omens seen in wind, fire, storm, and thrashing wave. Today our faiths, while closer to the building block moments detailed here than some belief systems, also have generations of tradition and detail to contend with, factors which lead us to label these moments and perhaps even diminish them in a haste to understand.
These moments should be an opportunity to lose our containers, and simply be. I think the mystery and lack of explanation are good things, goads to our creativity, a sense of interconnected wonder at the world we live in and the finite lives we lead.
Oh, and do check out Aeon Magazine, there are some interesting essays to be found there.