I have a naturally restless mind. The conflict between immersing myself in current goals or ideas, and planning new or better futures for myself, is a regular one. I am, however, blessed with the occasional moments of transcendence. After all, my “successes” and “failures” are constructions of my own ego, and ego is a slippery business. I interpret my past experiences, temper them with the values of the world around me, and am genuinely surprised at the indecision this creates for me. I can’t hope to fully understand my place in the world, especially without help, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. You see, by self-judging my efficaciousness as a human being, I indulge my ego, I stoke the flames of my own will, and I lose perspective on my place in this great mystery we call life. I believe many of us are prone to similar flaws. This is the age of individualism, where a lack of connection hinders our sense of perspective. We become lost in the maze of our own mind searching for deeper meaning. This is the spiritual malaise of modern society. As we lose that sense that we are connected, in infinite complexity and reverent beauty, to something bigger than ourselves, it is easy to feel empty or helpless. Our motivations change. Our behavior changes. Mine certainly does.
Luckily, we are experts in avoiding the pain this might cause. You know what I’m talking about – those things that quickly make us feel better. Social and news media, sugar, fat, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, sex, drugs; pick from a smorgasbord of self-appointed doctors and their comforting medicine. Often I ask myself demanding questions based on the values of others: “Am I justifying the amount of time I spent in education?” “Am I keeping on top of my weight?” “Am I successful at work?” I can temporarily quieten these internal voices with any combination of medicators, but ultimately I know the whispers will begin to shout if I continue to smother them in this way. Even in my most egotistical states, I am aware of this truth. The alternative, for me, is to seek a more authentic, permanent form of peace.
Now if I had a foolproof, step-by-step guide for achieving peace and serenity, I would share it with you. That claim, for now, lies with Bill and Bob, although even they would admit that their formula is ultimately, and necessarily, imperfect. After all, humans are imperfect, and unique. However, it is my belief that, for any individual to find peace, they must acknowledge the divine uniqueness within them, the divinity of their spirit and their psyche. This is how I interpret the pursuit of spirituality. As someone with no formal spiritual background, I am extremely prone to egotistical cognition that betrays my spiritual immaturity. My most promising strides towards spiritual growth are best realized when I am deep in nature. Whether this is as a walk in one of Tennessee’s amazing parks, growing vegetables, or simply taking a moment to sit outside and appreciate a beautiful view, it is here I have the brief moments of transcendence I referred to earlier. James Joyce called these moments “epiphanies”. Joseph Campbell, my most trusted guide in finding a spirituality that I find palatable, suggests that in spiritual experiences we are witness to affects aptly described as sublime. The sublime needn’t be beautiful or pleasant – the sublime is a core aesthetic principle of Gothic art and architecture, for example – but instead it inspires awe and humility within us. Witnessing the sublime is a process of diminishing ones ego, so that consciousness can expand momentarily outside the sensory limitations of the human body. Think about it – the way we interpret the rest of the world is dominated by information gathered by five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Men like Socrates considered this to be a bit limiting in the search for divine understanding, and supposedly he was a man worth listening to. The sublime describes an experience beyond these limitations, where more profound insights are possible.
I am no Socrates, that’s for sure (no, ego, I promise you I’m not). But I do notice I have a better sense of myself when in nature. For example, I find tangible improvements in my relationship with sexuality and mortality. I can zoom out and witness the regenerative effect of death; how its ultimate function is a life-giving one, how death is a celebratory and empowering process when viewed through a less self-interested lens. However briefly, I find peace with my own mortality. Similarly with sex, that most hostile of subjects, a fundamental act that nowadays divides us through money and gender and vanity and, you guessed it, ego. Particularly in my younger years, sex had a predatory presence in my life, being so attached to misguided ideas of virility, status and hedonism. Nature reminds me that sex happens in many different ways; it provides the vehicles for life and consciousness. My hang-ups around modern-day sexuality are lessened in nature, where the true nature of the act is exposed, and I see myself as a person who has merely internalized messages from society. Or in other words, listened too much to other people. Who are as flawed as me, as egotistical as me, as clueless as me, as beautiful as me. Sex and death are just part of the bigger picture, a cog in the wheel of the universe. By spending time in nature, I occasionally see a flicker of the cosmic order, and my place in it. The more I experience this, so I continue to find greater peace in my life. In the sublime tranquility of nature, I can know who I really am, if only for a moment.