Quick Note: The Unexplainable in a Secular Context

Quick Note: The Unexplainable in a Secular Context September 29, 2012

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.

John Muir, Washington Column. Yosemite

“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.

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9 responses to “Quick Note: The Unexplainable in a Secular Context”

  1. Experiences like this have been the foundation and lure of my paganism. The “opportunity to lose our containers” very well put!

  2. Jason you are correct such chances in the whole of life are fleeting and need to be enjoyed . In my almost 60 years i have had a few experiences as this . . Like one summer night a few years back i was at the sea shore . managed to see a full moon rise over the gentle evning surf was magnficent in it’s glory , i just had to stop, sit down and marvel at the beauty of it all for while , took my breath away . i just sat there for some time just soaking it all in, was wonderful . The times we do get to enjoy the awe and beauty of nature must be treasured for those times a few are far between . Kilm

  3. The paradox isn’t that MacLeod has these experiences outside of a religious or spiritual container. The paradox is that so many people committed to a rational or materialistic metaphysic resist such experience because they think it *must* come in such a container and they reject the container.
    I spent decades committed to a rational, materialistic metaphysic, but did not deny myself such experiences. Accepting biological and geological evolution as the source of what I encounter in nature, I had no problem with a naturalistic setting for my experiences. My nervous system, evolved as such on this planet, was responding at its most subtle level to other products of the same evolutionary processes.
    Of course, look where I wound up. After an epiphanal experience of the Goddess I found the container “Pagan” more congenial than my old one of “Humanism” and started to acknowledge some of these envents as mystical experiences. But that’s just the box I’m comfy in; it’s my box, not the universe’s.
    And, yes, we need to step ourside our boxes from time to time so that we can see that clashes over “The Innocence of Muslims” or “Piss Christ” are conflicts between the boxes, not their contents.

  4. I try and experience this at least once a year (hopefully more than that).

    I have often wondered if this feeling, this experience was the birth of religion/spirituality many millennia ago.

  5. This reminds me of one of my favorite stories:

    When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to
    attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.
    At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with
    bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment
    Chiyono was set free!
    In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

    In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
    Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about
    to break
    Until at last the bottom fell out.
    No more water in the pail!
    No more moon in the water!http://deoxy.org/koan/29

  6. When I was a kid, my parents fretted about me “thinking too much.” Here’s a case of it. Experience of and in the world is experience. It does not come to us all fresh in the package and pre-tagged for easier placement in the museum of memory. Hashtag holy, or some such.

    What I gathered from mulling over the life and times of John Muir (whose farm was just across the bridge from my hometown and was held up a worthy local celebrity) involves commencing with nature as a whole and enabling it to carry on as a whole–with you in it! You screw with the watercourse or the forest or the plants and animals and you screw with nature as a whole. You insist that one day of the week is for the sacred and the holy and the other days are unsanctifiable. You don’t chop up your life experience into shards and fragments, you nurture your life experience in the whole to grow the whole.

    That’s the kind of thing I picked up from Muir. I endeavor to live and practice the sort of Paganism that looks to Nature as a Whole and me as whole in it.

    Many of us could write a blog post or an article about big optimal flow-y experiences happening outside of culturally or personally expected containers. Good, thinkable articles. But thinking too much…

  7. The point of my sharing of the seashore moonrise is not thinking too much, when i happened apon that not even realising there was a full moon that night , just stopping to enjoy such an event getting lost within it . Was what i meant . I’ll agree with you on that point tho , way too many people try to overthink things , just not enjoy a wonderful thing when they happen across it . Unfortunatly i spend most of my time in the Mid Atlantic Suburban Sprawl., Don’t get to spend as much time in natural surroundings as i’d like . I’m a CR , in that methodogy we aren’t as into moon cycles as Wiccans are, we are more tied to seasonal cycles than lunar ones ..

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