Category Archives: Big Picture

Posts that address large, connective, or underlying themes and understanding

Winter Solstice: All hearts meet as one

A thin layer of week-old snow glistens with sparkles, each tiny pinprick an icy mirror angling out toward the sun blazing low over the southern horizon. Way down across the long arc of the deeply-tilted Earth our local star, the Solar Heart, is flashing bright and fractured through the dark, silhouetted upper boughs of piney woods while two tender nostrils tingle deliciously with each pulse of winter-chilled in-breath, fueling the fleshy heart that beats inside my chest.

Right now, these woods are rolling across the top side of our planetary ball, which is leaning back from the sun as fully as it ever does. The coastal plain here alongside the Gulf of Maine is spinning its way eastward toward that midday moment when it faces the sun, slipping along there among the branches, as high as it will get on this winter solstice day, this sacred day when the long waning of daylight turns and begins waxing toward summer’s fullness.

The winter solstice is prime time for being able to see and feel the eternally tipped earth beneath us. For one day, its 23½ degree tilt (more than a quarter of the way to lying on its side!) is perfectly aligned with the sun—the Antarctic bathed in 24-hour sunshine and the Arctic never glimpsing its light. Those of us living between these polar extremes also experience the full extent of earth’s tilt, revealed here in New England by the sun’s low arc through the sky. Today’s solstice sun is less than half as high as where it stood a three months ago on the equinox noon; the fact that the earth is leaning far back from the Solar Heart is inescapable—obvious to eyes and geometry as well as in the cold air and the soft light brushing across the landscape.

This shortest-day, lowest-sun, backward-tipped moment is not only a touchstone of the seasonal cycle. It’s also—amazingly and coincidentally—the turning point of our Galactic Year, for the winter solstice portion of Earth’s orbit around the sun happens to take us through the place in space that lies on the far side of the sun from the center of the galaxy. So today—and for the week or so before and after solstice—the Galactic Heart sits nearly directly behind the sun in our winter sky; the Milky Way’s glorious splash of diffuse light, that starry trail that on summer nights draws our spirits out into the largest of our visible bodies—the galactic body—is today shining invisibly alongside the sun, and for a brief moment at midday this Galactic Heart and the Solar Heart meet our hearts as each local landscape in turn spins at twelve miles a minute across the sunward edge of the earth to face them.

It may feel startling or unfamiliar, but don’t let this rapid expansion of the horizon disorient you: all this attunement to the planetary, solar, and galactic bodies is simply a broader view of our familiar ways of connecting with—and being a part of—the place where we live. When we really notice the shapes and forms of the land and life around us, and the natural cycles and enduring relationships that tie it all together, we begin to appreciate the larger rhythms within which life springs forth, and so also come to feel the mystery of our lives as a barely perceptible—and cherished!—glimmer within a larger majesty.

As always, it is our lived experience in the world that connects us to the spiritual heart of the matter. My neural-laced body—tender skin stretched around juicy meat and articulated bone—wakes each day as part of a blooming, buzzing collusion of soil, water, and embracing air wrapped close around its earthly ground, a just-right goldilocks world where creation flares forth with all of its inherent intelligence and symbiotic design, opening into pine needles and tumbling streams, root hairs and auroral ripples, hooting gibbons and seabottom vents, ant colonies and sky-shaking storms, moon-tugged tides and all the shapes and sounds of human societies.

We humans have long recognized our embeddedness within the natural world; this unity comes alive in a new and radically expansive way as I begin to see and feel my place on the earth spinning along in its eternal circle dance with the sun, each of my days enlivened by that generous, infinite source that has forever called the human spirit forth.

Just as my spiritual connection with the woods emerges from attention to the physicality of trees and leaves and seasons and weather and light . . . or my love for the American West grows out of the bodily experience of traversing the fantastic forms of its sprawling mountains and vast rangelands . . . or the patterns newly woven across the sand by each day’s receding waves shape the way my soul is soothed by the shoreline . . . and just as the solace of caring human touch can nourish a lifelong blending of hearts . . . so too do I attend to the dance of this lovely planet around our life-giving star and feel my way into the rhythms within which our whirling solar system revels us with its seasonal cycle of vistas into the embracing arms of our galactic home.

Each of these glimpses of direct perceptual experience and bodily presence (of embracing woods, the expanse of a continent, the shifting edge of the sea, loving touch, earth and sky) opens doors through which my sense of self—my very identity—expands and joins in communion with the same mighty and generative force that knits together the cosmos, pours through the sun, and forever blossoms so subtly and wildly within this biospheric blanket of our precious planet.

And so today one receptive, attentive body looks skyward through the pines and honors the moment when these woods of home turn to face the solstice sun and the galactic heart beyond. Yet another fleeting instant among the days and seasons of a piece of land spinning once a day around the steadily-tilting axis of this planet traveling the great circle of the year around our mighty star within the vast expanse of its galactic home—all seen and felt through the limited senses and mind and the boundless heart and spirit arising within one fragile, resonant human being. Here on the edge of the world, all my hearts meet as one.


The Solar Body

Solar System and Galaxy300web

We may “know” the universe of galaxies is out there, and we do indeed gaze with wonder at our galactic body shining across the summer sky.  But the largest of the bodies we are really able to experience is the Solar Body.  We see this body from different angles, as earth circles the sun.  We watch it change over time, our cycle but one figure in the eternal dance of our sister planets.  And we feel it with our animal bodies: the sun warming our tender skin, human beings reveling in the seasonal breath of life within the skin of the earth.

Check it—that’s how high the sun gets on my birthday! Tip the ol’ head back, to its natural easy limit (just shy of craning) and I’m looking right at that great ball of plasma at the center of it all. Seems pretty far up there; it really does take a leap in February, after the two chilly months straddling Solstice; for so long, we’re looking way down across the winter planet’s deep backwards tilt, while the southern horizon swings eastward not much more than hands-breadth below our precious local star.

Ah, Bodhi. Another year gone by and again the anniversary of my birth is being spent within your warm embrace. Morning on the back porch, catching some eastern rays as the orange and white cliffs spin down and away from the brilliant beacon in the sky. Midday finds me on a bench under bare cottonwoods, continuing my day of reading and integration. And now, as the afternoon fades to evening, the pools call and the books are set aside. Ah, Bodhi; earth-warmed waters, take me in. How I love the touch of your cobblestones under fingers and palms that slowly pull this floating body across the pool, sun rippling on stones below, chin slipping through the subtle, pliant surface tension of your waters.

Body temp rising, head now resting in a grassy nook between a couple of rocks along your edge, high clouds streaming through the deep blue sky. Ah, Bodhi, here in this mighty canyon, where ancient waters scoured away towering layers of limestone and volcanic ash all the way down to where today’s small, lively stream dances ceaselessly a few feet away. . . and draws my awareness out, and up, beyond the cliffs shining upstream in soft afternoon sun.

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Ecology, Cosmology, Theology: The Creation Story 3.0

Curve-billed Thrasher reappeared in the yard today, orange-eyed, alert, dashing away jays that deigned to also seek out some of the seed scattered there on the path.  The entire yard is aflutter with winged ones, steadily stoking their inner fires at the feeders, here in the midst of what will likely be a full week of below-freezing days and several sub-zero nights.  The valley is blanketed by six inches of snow—settled from the fluffy foot that fell two days ago—and the hillsides all around are a speckling of pine-green branches mottled with snowy white mounds.

This activity outside my door is but the local embodiment of a hemispherical pulse as our planet slides its way toward the point in its annual ring-around-the-sun in which we in the north find ourselves leaning far back, away from the Solar Heart, now skimming low and briefly over the southern horizon, unable to fully warm the air above and around us.  And the nights, ever longer, so deeply chilled: stepping outside, we are—instantly, intently—aware of our skin, the insides of our nostrils, our eyes, these tender edges of our bodies through which we meet the world around us, now in a palpable, vulnerable relationship with the very air.  No longer a benign emptiness, the air takes on a physical presence, a sharpness, a density, actively reaching into us through these permeable boundaries, the very heat of our bodies seeping out into the dark night.  Ah, the vividness of deep cold!

And that’s not all. These long nights are aglitter  again with the glorious starscape that we revisit at this time each year. As the deeply tilted Earth spins us into and through the sunset band of color, our one most sacred star is shadowed by the rocky water-world beneath our feet, and the sky opens wide into the larger local surroundings that spread away from Sol on the winter side of our orbit. . . Orion bright and wide around his belt and sword. . . the V of the bull’s face (red eye aglow). . . seven Pleiades sisters splattered high in the sky. . . while Sirius gleams low over the hills, sparkling magenta-now-teal-now-golden-now-white, following not far behind our sun as both are swept along in the great currents of the Milky Way’s slow turning.  Joining the wintry delight this year is mighty Jupiter, king of our planetary brethren, outshining everything: so big, so close.

All this—pecking juncoes, snowy junipers, sun low over the shoulder of the valley, nights frigid and fragile and brilliant and vast, our own eyes and hearts taking it all in—is this not God made manifest?  What more might we worship than the dance of life (co-evolution of a planet), within the miracle of the seasons (solar pulses spurring that dance into Earth), embedded in a galactic home that dazzles us with its expansive spiral embrace, itself a remote condensation of matter within a vastness of energy surging forth from a source beyond understanding?  To see, and feel, and honor this dynamic and incomprehensible power and beauty—and intelligence, and yes, design—that pulses across these nested scales of creation’s embodiment; to walk a path through this world that acknowledges this grandeur while seeking simply to be a vessel by which it may live within our hearts and actions; what else does anyone’s God ask of us than this?

Bud350We are living beings within a living world in a living cosmos, a cosmos whose dynamism and beauty reveals patterns we recognize also in wave-lapped shorelines, wind rippling through woods, the slow surging forth of dawn across drifting clouds, and our own churning feelings, questing souls, and deepest longings.  As has ever been the way, to see our small lives—giving and receiving, breath by breath and touch by touch—as expressions of a design and creativity so much larger than us is to bow before that mystery, our purpose becoming one of service, and care, and reverence.

Around thirty years ago, a new story began to be told, a story that continues to unfold and become richer, deeper, truer with each passing year and each added voice.  It weaves together sciences and religions, history and today, our human bodies and the starry depths.  In books by many different authors, several films, and conversations in churches, wilderness retreats, and living rooms, this new story is still coming into form, and has built quite an audience among leading environmental and religious thinkers.

It’s a Creation Story, the first such story to emerge from diverse voices from around the planet, rather than within a particular local or regional culture. For millenia, primal peoples the world over  told tales  of mythic beings and forces taking shape as sky, earth, humans, animals: Creation Story 1.0. Later, organized religions emerged and spread, with Asians honoring a pantheon of Gods while the three cultures of the Middle East each revered a single God: Creation Stories 2.0. Today, both animism and deism remain potent belief systems, while science stands apart, examining the matter and energy that gave rise to our world.  It’s time for a story that can embrace each of these mighty threads of human inquiry: Creation Story 3.0.

Thomas Berry is a lodestar for this new story of the sacred universe, as is Joanna Macy.  Many others have informed its heart and its tendriled edges: Gary Snyder and bioregionalism;  E.O. Wilson, Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffman, and other integrative scientists; poets of intimate and expansive embodiment like Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, and Jim Harrison; the list goes on, with multiple strands back in time to Whitman, Emerson, Goethe, Rilke, and so many more.  Each of us has our own litany of others upon whose shoulders we dance, and reach, and dream.

The new creation story draws on what we’ve learned in recent decades about the common themes seen in the formation of the cosmos and our solar system, the evolution of biological life, and the emergence of human society and consciousness, yet it retains an allegiance to the sacred—the fathomless power and intention within the very essence of all creation. This new story doesn’t aim to replace anyone’s God or faith; it’s a place to gather together humanity’s diverse ways of seeking to understand this world. . . and so know one’s God more intimately and fully. Still, the story leaves room for all ways of seeing, feeling, knowing, and understanding the deeper source of the the beauty we see around us: a creator-being, complexity driving emergent properties, the spark of love, “dark” energy, blind chance (though this last one tends to be frowned upon in these circles!). All that the story asks is that we see ourselves as part of this world, rather than somehow separate from it, and that we acknowledge that there is something more than what we can see: a set of connective and creative principles and energies that underly and flow through all we know. The more spiritually inclined among us look beyond the principles, yearning toward their source: an unfathomable mystery and intelligence. Many know this as God; others simply acknowledge the presence of a life force or spirit of some sort.

So: this new creation story is rooted in profound personal experience of—and relationship with—the world around us, and an equally profound openness to the divine, the core driver of our reality, however we may each see it. The story, while enlivened by this direct, lived experience, is expanded and informed by an ever-richer understanding of the synergies that drive growth and change within physics, biology, and culture—recognizing especially the ways in which science’s understandings are yet still laced with unreachable Mystery. The sacredness of all life grounds the story, while the eternal desire to know the world and our place in it is the breath that gives it voice.

The new creation story need not replace our many local and cultural stories, with their established foundations of purpose and meaning. But it would serve us well—in this time when modern communications and global challenges are both pulling us closer together as a planetary culture—to also weave a larger story that can hold all of humanity’s rich histories and cherished beliefs within its embrace.

These musings—today’s reflections you just read, and all the glimpses shared throughout this site’s witness to the years—are bits of my own ways of hearing and telling this new global creation story (my particular fascination has to do with becoming more concretely attuned to the nested physical scales within which we live, and to the relationships, the giving and receiving, found within and between scales).  These few paragraphs, more specifically, bubbled forth after listening this afternoon to a recent hour-long talk by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, which is one of the best  and most concise distillations I’ve heard of this thirty-year collaborative global endeavor; this little essay borrows part of its title from one Michael’s themes.  Michael and Connie have been weaving their versions of this great story for over a decade, and Michael in particular is especially interested in bringing it into churches (he’s a former evangelical minister); this talk frames some of the key themes of the new global creation story in ways that aim to bridge the scientific and the religious ways of looking at both creation and the choices we make in our individual lives.  He, and many others, see this new story as one that can be embraced by followers of many religious traditions, while also adding an appealing depth to the modern secular worldview.  I highly recommend this talk both to those looking for an introduction to these ideas, and to those who’ve been following these themes for years.  The first 25 minutes will give you the nut of Michael’s recent new framing of what this may be all about (try to listen at least until the Thomas Berry quote about honoring the earth); the second half explores many of these fascinating ideas in more depth. Again, here’s the link.

Photo: Jim Cummings

The (really) big picture

Taking Neil’s exhortation to “walk like a giant on the land” to heart, here’s the latest entry in astro-dazzle sweepstakes: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has turned their early data into a three-dimensional map, and further proceeded to create a video fly-through for our mind-blowing pleasure.  

The SDSS has so far covered just a third of the sky, and this is just the first batch of 3D data to be released from that.  And oh, they’re not looking at stars.  That’s so yesterday.  This here is but a fragment of the physical structure of the universe, as revealed in these clusters and filaments of galaxies upon galaxies upon (repeat ad infinitum…):

The cosmologists and astrophysicists say that this new 3D data about these large-scale structures will help unravel the mysteries of dark matter (which seems to account for about 25% of the universe’s mass) and dark energy (which exerts enough influence on matter that scientists say it accounts for 70% of the universe).  So, yup, all those bright shiny galaxies in the video: less than 5% of the universe.

At the risk of blowing my scientific front here: I can’t help but think that such framing (especially of “dark energy”)  is simply a fancy way of saying “we have no idea” what underlies the structure of the universe and the wonder of creation.  Is it so hard to posit that this mysterious integrative energy – the fundamental driver and shaper of the formation of all galaxies, stars, planets, forests, and diatoms – is something more like “spirit” or “life force” than what we normally think of as “matter” and “energy”?  

Perhaps the equations and theories that are brewing around all this will turn out to be valuable, though if so, I’d bet it’d be in revealing totally unexpected and even more mysterious causal complexities (ala the ways that “sequencing the genetic code” has revealed a dynamic ecosystem of interactions that’s more like a mysterious dance than the workings of a causal machine); or maybe this inquiry is taking place in a deep lost corner of the mechanistic rabbit hole, trying to fit the ineffable into a nice square hole.

I say go for it, academicians, see what sense you can make of this, our biggest picture of life.  But meanwhile, I’ll content myself to marvel at the beauty of it all and rest in the ease of simpler explanations, ones that are content to flow from an omnipresent ground of mystery.

50 years of seeing the big picture

320px Mercury Friendship7 Bassett Celestia

Fifty years ago this week, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. While we remember this largely as a technological achievement, one of many steps toward flying humans to the moon and robot probes to the planets and beyond, it was also a profound aesthetic, experiential threshold for all of us down below. By the end of the decade, NASA celebrated our forever-changed awareness with the publication of the first book of space photos, This Island Earth (amazingly, still available for spare change from used booksellers!). Glenn and those who followed him into orbit, and on to the moon, remain a vanguard among humanity; they saw with their own eyes, felt with their bodies, breathed with their souls, something the rest of us can only feel in our imaginations.  Their words and pictures have charted a vision of our place in space that we’re still only beginning to live in to.

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic put together a short and evocative post that draws on today’s vast library of space images to illustrate some of Glenn’s radioed descriptions of things no American – and only two other humans, Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov – had ever seen:

“In the periscope, I can see the brilliant blue horizon coming up behind me; approaching sunrise. Over.” Mission Control replied, “You are very lucky.” Glenn said, “You’re right. Man, this is beautiful.”


Head on over to read Alexis’s post in full; it’s well worth the couple of minutes it’ll take!!


Occupy the Future

As we turn the page from 2011, the year when the world rose up and said “enough!” and now embark on the journey of  2012, a year arriving with mythic baggage galore, I find myself heartened by big-picture reflections from several writers who often shed fresh light on our society’s struggles and dreams.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen pieces by Alex Steffen, Rebecca Solnit, Starhawk, and Michael Meade that are typically incisive and heartening; each has his or her own deeply resonant perspective on life, society, and engagement, and I recommend them all!

Rebecca Solnit sets the tone with her year-end missive, Compassion is Our New Currency:

Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement.  Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?

Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1% economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.


Storyteller of the soul Michael Meade hits the nail on one of its many heads with his recent piece, Occupy vs. Nihilism: All or Nothing at All:

The Occupy movement may be an instinctive response, not just to the greatest disparity of wealth and power in the history of America, but also to the emptying out of institutions and loss of meaning at all levels of life. An underlying instinct to inhabit life more fully may be arising and taking root in different places for different reasons. The message of Occupy may be “all over the place” because the underlying message is about “place,” about reclaiming and more fully inhabiting public places, about being more present to the critical issues in each place, and about taking one’s own place in life more fully.

When mini-Occupy sites appear at individual houses threatened with foreclosure and neighbors set aside typical disagreements in order to protect each other’s homes, the roots of community are trying to resurface. Genuine grass roots movements can cross typical “party lines” and dissolve class distinctions as the deep-rooted connections between people and the underlying dreams of the country rise up from below. The difference and distance between those who inhabit the land and those who rule the nation become revealed. For, it is not simply that government has gotten too big, but that it has become so empty of meaning and devoid of the values that sustain common humanity.

Alex Steffen, of WorldChanging fame, recently reposted a piece he wrote in early 2010, entitled Putting the Future Back in the Room.  He sets the tone this way:

The future that my parents’ generation warned us about forty years ago looks an awful lot like our present. The ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, the planet is thick with people, most of the world’s primeval forests are gone, the seas are in crisis, and pollution, famine and natural disasters kill millions of people a year. Compared to the world we might have had, had the progress of the early 1970s continued steadily through the following four decades, we live on a half-ruined planet.

That half-ruined planet, though, is our home. People old enough to remember the first Earth Day can well grieve for that other, healthier Earth we might have had if only older generations had made different choices. Kids born today won’t have that luxury. This world is the only one they’ll ever know: they’ll have to make the best of it; life goes on.1970 is the same distance in time away from us now as 2050: that’s how close the future is…In an amount of time about equal to that from the first Earth Day, we have to remake the world.

Starhawk’s most recent missive addresses one of the key human challenges facing those currently engaged in this attempt to remake the world, which involves finding ways to compassionately respond to and provide for the needs of some of our most outcast citizens, the homeless and neglected people who tend to become a major presence at most urban Occupy sites. The inclusiveness and compassion at the heart of the Occupy movement creates social dynamics we’re not used to: the marginalized people are welcomed rather than ostracized, and in most cities have become a significant presence in the social reality of the camps and the General Assembly meetings (rather than being limited to their normal role as a tiny sliver of our daily lives, easily – and unfairly – discounted as merely drunks or freeloaders or lacking in ambition).  In the occupy camps, they are seen in their full complexity, as human beings with their own particular backgrounds and perspectives and wounds.  It’s manifested in the dynamics between the drum circles and those working to accommodate neighbors living near encampments; it’s also common to hear of General Assemblies being disrupted and pulled far off-topic by verbal outbursts from folks who react badly to any structure, planning, or authority.  The challenging dynamics this creates has been the focus of some media features, and crops up in the reflections of most facilitators:

Even more than troubles with the cops and city authorities, the biggest challenges the Occupy movement faces seem to be internal.  How do we make decisions together?  How do we resolve our own conflicts within our groups?  Once we’ve said “We are the 99%”, how do we set standards of behavior and say what is okay and what is not?  Once we’ve renounced force and coercion, how do we enforce those standards when we do set them?

None of these are easy questions to answer, (and) the Occupy movement poses them in a form more stark than I’ve ever encountered before, in four decades of horizontal organizing.  Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together.

After the break: Steffen’s insightful breakdown of the heartfelt worldviews pulling against each other in this time, Starhawk on questions of strategy and the need for linear thinking guidance in horizontal consensus process, Solnit on the depth of the movement’s heart, and Meade’s evocation of the soul of the movement, of America, and of each of our lives. (Thanks to Riyana’s always-compelling Wild Serenity blog for the three color images in the strip above, and to Alex Steffen’s post for the black and white one.)

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Attenborough’s Wonderful World

On the occasion of his final BBC series, here’s to Sir David:

My favorite comment on the YouTube page: “David Attenborough should narrate my life.”

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s indispensably rich and diverse blog (politics, science, religion, society, wonder), The Dish, for the heads-up!

Spirit in a time of remembering

I’ll admit to having a hard time winnowing my lists of online reading; I want to, I really do, but new wellsprings of worthy writing keep appearing.  One of the latest is a spin-off of Killing The Buddha, a long-established fount of reflections on spirituality in our culture.  On the new site,, which I glance at once a week (it’s part of my “Tuesday” tab set), this hit me like a ton of bricks:

The present epoch is historically unique in that the spirit-side of life can no longer be taken for granted. It appears both in innumerable fragmentary shapes and as massive blocs of fundamentalist and totalizing conviction, and quite often it seems to not exist at all, as though there were some kind of systematic power at work to drive it out of our lives.

Lydia larson watch over me350WEB

Indeed! Call it consumerism, media overload, mechanistic thinking, or simply lives too full of things to do and places to go; the end result for too many of us is a fragmentary relationship to spirit, and for more still, a disengagement from what has been, for most of human history, the central unifying thread of individual and community lives.  But what do we mean here by “spirit?”  Joel Kovel begins this essay, entitled spirituality, revolutionary by laying it out out about as concisely as I’ve ever seen:

In all places and all epochs human beings have used some such word as “Spirit,” to designate the animating, world-moving force within them; the relations with ancestors, demons, totems, ghosts and other “spirit-beings”; and the Supreme Being, the godhead that permeates the universe and creates the world and is bound together in our religions. In sum, what has been known as spirit relates the human self to the universe and all its beings and forms of being. Spirit is no residual category, then, but an ontological potential of humanity, a vital part of being human. It is as essential for human nature as building a web is for “spider nature.” For all creatures are inserted into nature at a certain point and with a certain internally articulated set of relationships. These frame the possible arrangements that creature has with the rest of nature.

No doubt one reason Kovel’s piece hit fertile ground in me this week is that I’m currently re-reading David Abram’s most recent book, Becoming Animal, which can be seen as taking that final thought above and running with it: into the wilderness, around the world, and deep inside our own engagement with the landscape around us. Abram reminds us of one way back to spirit: by coming alive in our bodies within the larger body of the earth.  And more than that: he questions our cultural conviction that our experience of the world is somehow an interior thing, each of us with our own skull-encapsulated mind, which may be just an ephemeral consequence of purely mechanical neural activity. What a lonely and hollow way to experience this essence of what it is to be human! Reflecting on the obvious communicative interactions among all the living things of the world, Abram suggests:

Mind is not at all a human possession, but is rather a property of the earthly biosphere—a property in which we, along with the other animals and the plants, all participate. The apparent interiority that we ascribe to the mind (may) have less to do with the notion that there is a separate mind located inside me, and another, distinct mind that resides inside you, and more to do with a sense that you and I are both situated inside it—a recognition that we are bodily immersed in an awareness that is not ours, but is rather the Earth’s.


Never fear: Abram’s “mind” is far more than our thinking selves. His renewed animism aims deeper, reminding us of traditions, science findings, and direct experiences that suggest a deep coherence, a world in which the western split between spirit and matter is rejected, bridging the great divide created by Descartes’ declaration that the human mind (and spirit, the “I am”) stands apart from the entire material world.  Instead, we are invited into a remembrance that our local habitat is a “diversely differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has gifts relative to the others.  And we find ourselves not above, but in the very midst of this living field, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.”  All the miraculous wonder of our earthly creation (and in a subtler way, also the sun and cosmos beyond) sharing a fundamental commonality of reciprocity and mutual engagement in which “our own sentient organism is…an intensification or fluctuation within the sensitive flesh of the world.” This is an embodied spirituality both ancient and utterly revolutionary in our modern world.

More after the break: (image above right: Lydia Larson)

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RIP, Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis died this week shortly after suffering a stroke.  She was a biologist whose work became one of the foundations of my understanding of life and of the mysteries of creation and evolution; she’s right there with Gary Snyder and Thomas Berry in my pantheon of inspirations and guiding lights (see my memorial post for Thomas here).  Lynn’s fundamental insight was that evolution is driven at least as much by symbiosis as by competition and natural selection; she was convinced that the forward motion, the new forms, the creative impulse, underlying life was at its heart a process of two or more different organisms coming together and becoming something different than either could be on their own.  At the largest scale, she saw all life on earth as the result of collaborations between bacteria: her biggest contribution to science was the realization that plant cells and animals cells began as symbiotic collaborations of bacteria.  Rather than seeing animals, or humans, as the pinnacle of evolution, her picture celebrated the entire biosphere as a reflection of the unimaginable complexity of bacterial communities. Her lasting legacy is a view of life on earth  that is centered on collaboration more than competition – a blending toward a greater purpose rather than a struggle for individual domination.

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