Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual Guide

Book Review: Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual Guide
By Carl Von Essen, M.D. (Bear & Company 2007, 2010)

This book explores nature mysticism and nature trance in general. It is a well-researched book that approaches the subject from many angles including biological, neurological, psychological, religious, and through personal experience.

He begins by examining the Greek creation myth given by Hesiod in his Theogony. Here it is said that first there was Chaos, then Gaia, then Eros. He sees this as a metaphoric natural progression or evolution from chaos to biospheric awareness and finally to deep love. He suggests that knowledge of biology and evolution can be a foundation for nature mysticism. Since consciousness appears to evolve and have a developmental history and all our experiences are based on consciousness then it is also possible that that the whole history and evolution of consciousness somehow exists within us and is retrievable in some ways. Evolution appears to move from the simple to the complex and perhaps from chaos to order. The biosphere, our home, is revealed to be fragile. We seem to be part of the biospheric organism. The author points out biologist E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia – “… the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” Wilson equates biophilia to our attraction to nature and fellow life. We seek and enjoy contact with pets and to watch birds and wild animals, trees and plants. We enjoy gardening. Connection with nature seems – well natural – and therapeutic. The forms in nature, the irregular yet regular patterns of fractals found in many growing things, can be fascinating. Appreciation of form is art and aesthetics and something to which we humans are attracted. This delight in nature is part of the Eros section of the metaphor of Hesiod as interpreted by the author.

The hunter’s trance is examined. ‘The Hunter’s Trance’ was the previous title of this book. Being alert while alone in the woods among other creatures that are secretive and adept at avoiding – can be exhilarating. I see this as the ‘Art of Stalking’ and have done it myself mostly with plants but sometimes with animals. The author notes his own experiences on remote fishing adventures. He also reminds us that until about 10,000 years ago all humans were hunter gatherers – keenly aware of our natural surroundings that contained both danger and food. Von Essen describes the hunter’s trance as  mindfulness without presumptions and compares it to Zen contemplation and also to a warrior’s battle-awareness. A similar trance can accompany a naturalist, who is basically a scientist hunting knowledge through observation. Some say there is an instinct specific for hunting but it may just be a basic questing instinct. The author also explores the precision awareness of the archer and the Zen of archery, and the kinesthetic awareness of the rock climber. Each requires unwavering attention as well as a relaxed quality. A similar trance can be had by the explorer. There is delight at finding a hidden patch of food, of plants, of mushrooms, an unknown stream or landform, and of wild animals. Finding special places, ancient humans made temples and sacred groves there and from such places was probably derived the notions of geomancy and feng shui. Along with biophilia there is topophilia, our intuitive connection with the land and its forms and intricacies. This book is also filled with poetry and the words of nature mystics such as Emerson, Thoreau, Goethe, John Wheeler, Wordsworth, Annie Dillard, William James, John Muir, Ansel Adams, Ted Hughes, and many others. Each seems to promote a different way of seeing, often a more mystical way. Indigenous peoples are also often said to have different ways of seeing and experiencing nature. Often a precursor to a natural mystical experience is simply solitude, preferably extended solitude. This is the format of the ‘vision quest’ often undertaken by Native Americans. The animism of many indigenous peoples is not disimilar to biophilia. The nature poet transforms the wonders of nature into language. It is another means of connecting through recollection. The author, along with many others, seems to have some disdain for the use of recreational drugs as a means to experience mystical states, seeing it more as a sickness than a quest. However, this too was a method of indigenous peoples the world over.

The mystical states of warriors and athletes are examined. Battle duty and awareness are the subjects of many of the sagas of the past. The Bhagavad Gita is most noteworthy in this respect. Fight-or-flight brings out neuro-chemicals and a more compelling immediate awareness than to which we are accustomed. Athletes often claim to experience a high, a “flow”, a groove. It is often described as a sort of ‘self-transcendence’ that is in some sense automatic. Runners call this a “runner’s high” and say that it most often happens after an hour of running. Bummer, I usually only run 30- 45 minutes and only ever seem to get a mild high. John Muir described a moment of danger during a mountain climb that resulted (after an initial state of fear and confusion) in a mystical state of great awareness. The author describes this type of experience as engaging the “ecstasy of danger”. I once met a woman who was mountain climbing in West Virginia and was bitten by a copperhead, a poisonous snake. That might just have sucked! In any case, in dangerous situations there can arise an intense enhanced state of mindful awareness as many have experienced. Certainly the trauma of danger and war can bring on unusual hyper-alert states.

The poet and the artist as nature mystics are examined. The nature poet explores the inner being through the metaphor of the outer world. The author goes through the nature poetry of Wordsworth and the critiques of Wordsworth’s poetry by Aldous Huxley, who the author seems to think is excessively arrogant (outspoken he puts it) – perhaps as a result of his antagonism toward drug use, though he does note others’ critiques of the sometimes overblown nature poetry of the transcendentalists. Wordsworth was from Britain and was especially descriptive regarding the mysticism of nature – perhaps a bit like a New Ager today.  The 19th century transcendentalist poets – Thoreau and Emerson to which he adds Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville are well covered. Also examined are the works of Ted Hughes, who explored the roots of Celtic Lore, particularly the story of the Salmon of Wisdom and knowledge of the ways of nature in general. Though not mentioned it is indeed true that the salmon may have taught Paleolithic man that nature exhibits a regularity that can be exploited for food as being present for the spawning runs upriver in spring meant abundant food. The Paleolithic hunter is also represented by the explosion of sublime human art on deeply remote and barely accessible cave walls. Fascination with hunting and nature seems to be the main subject. Special and remarkable landforms and rock formations were likely places of veneration and reflection if only for the distraction of their uniqueness. Taoist Chinese traditions of venerating special rocks evolved into the depiction of mini versions called ‘scholar’s rocks’ that were erected in smaller spaces to be like altars of nature in the home. The Zen stone garden is a similar manifestation where natural forms and relationships are contemplated. There is also a section on – The Healer – the author is a doctor and surgeon so knows this aspect through personal experience. He compares the healing arts of the shaman to those of the modern doctor and notes a “healer’s trance” not unlike the hunter’s stalking awareness. He notes that the physician’s skill is both an art and a science. He mentions the sage words of a mentor of his, the Canadian physician Sir William Osler: “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.” He even suggests that it can be a ‘calling’ to practice medicine much like the shaman is ‘called’. He also notes observing the trance-like work of Balinese woodcarving artists.

Part Two of the book deals with theories and perspectives of mystical experience. First there are the – four properties of mystical experience – described by William James: 1) ineffability – from Plato to Lao Tzu this quality has been noted; 2) noetic quality – this is the quality of unshakeable truth that a mystical experience can convey – akin to Richard Bucke’s “cosmic consciousness.” 3) transiency – the experience typically passes and is retained only in memory as we get on with mundane existence; 4) passivity – he gives passivity as having two components: the suddenness of mystical revelation and the receptivity of the experiencer who is free of pretence so that the revelation can be “received”. Mystical experience is often more emotional than intellectual. Other mystical models are Henri Bergson’s “supraconsciousness” and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy toward greater unity and the “peak experience.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the peak experience and described it as “flow” and the “total involvement with life.” He noted these tendencies with artists, musicians, athletes, and rock climbers. Herbert Benson described it in terms of the “relaxation response” where a sort of stabilized and relaxed awareness is associated with peak experience. E. O. Wilson called it his “naturalist’s trance.” Biologically these states can be tied to lower heart rates and lower blood pressure relative to the normal state. Many others had similar models of mystical awareness: Freud’s “oceanic feeling, Einstein’s “ambivalence,” and the neurologist and Zen practitioner James Austin, who described various stages of mystical experience.  (indeed in the meditative traditions there are many models of levels and manifestations of various states).

Models of consciousness have long existed and evolved. Fechner, in the 1800’s described a simple wave idea of consciousness where a line was drawn through the center of a sine wave pattern and all above the line is waking consciousness and all below is unconsciousness, the line being the threshold. Aldous Huxley spoke of a “mind at large” where the unconscious flooded the conscious realm during mystical experience. Modern neurology notes that the brain is involved in consciousness in various ways but how this relates to mystical experience and the subconscious is only beginning to be unraveled. William James made a three-dimensional model similar to Fechner’s wave where waking consciousness is like a ripple on the stream of consciousness rising above the threshold. Physicist David Bohm thought similarly. Beginning with Herbert Benson’s “relaxation response” as an interpretation of the alpha brain wave state, neurologists have measured various brain responses and activity in various parts of the brain during certain states. Hooking electrodes to various parts of the brains of those in meditation, sensory isolation, and under the influence of chemical substances and pathological states has revealed much about the relationships of experiences and brain activity. Brain activity is different when the senses are disengaged then when they are engaged. Even though brain and brain chemical activity can be measured there is still a subjective component to these experiences as the activity is correlated to feelings or to self-described states.

The author mentions the phenomenon known as “photism” or the experience of light or luminosity. This has been a feature of many mystical experiences and many well-known ones included from religious literature. Ecstatic experience is full of these accounts of “enhancements and distortions of light and color.” Hypnogogia and near-death experiences may be related phenomena especially when related to physical and mental trauma as some mystical experiences are. The author makes an analogy of mystical flow states to Ohm’s Law where resistance may be decreased due to “cooling” resulting in a sort of mental superconductivity. He suggests this may be equated to “pure consciousness, emptied of sensory and cognitive content.” Physicist Alan Lightman described it in a similar analogy – like a “loss of frictional drag when sailing a boat.”

The neurology of religious experience has been studied now for a while, even getting its own name – neurotheology. Some researchers do point out that neurology may be limited to only telling us about the mechanics of various experiences and this may not have so much benefit. The notion of endeavoring to describe that which is beyond description may not be a very fruitful endeavor. Nonetheless, neurology will probably yield much in the way of understanding and probably have useful health and psychological applications.

Pathological states are examined. Thomas Merton referred to some states such as Hitler’s racist megalomania and the overly superstitious nature worship of some primitive peoples as “false mysticism.” Mob psychology and charismatic cultism may fall into this category. Psychoses and psychological disorders such as schizophrenia often involve altered states of consciousness that may be intense and share qualities with those of mystical states. Drug induced mystical states are another overlap. The author seems to think these states are less meaningful than those derived through other means. He mentions Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary – seeing Leary as a sort of goof off. I am not sure if I agree there. Sure – Leary as psychedelic priest and his off key behavior  could be disconcerting but he was a distinguished Harvard psychologist and wrote quite a bit about consciousness as well as delving into the psychedelic drug experience. His model of the “eight circuits of consciousness” could have easily been included here. Certainly mental states are influenced by brain chemistry and drugs influence that brain chemistry in profound ways.

The section on – Ecocrisis - refers to the state of the world today where species and habitat are disappearing and global warming threatens. Human population is the source of much of the disappearance of nature though much of our exploitation of nature has been wasteful and not entirely necessary. Population pressures, the quest for resources, and the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels are difficult problems we need to deal with and it is uncertain how bad things will get. In some ways it is necessary for all of us to be ecologically aware – to contemplate these difficult problems together in a manner of speaking. It is our duty to be well-informed and not overly biased. Some humans are optimistic that we can solve these problems. Others prophesize doom. Unchecked growth and industrialization is not sustainable and needs to be stemmed to some extent. The environment needs to be monitored in many ways – on global, regional, and local levels. Energy needs to become much more efficient. People need to be frugal and practical. Nature needs to be respected. These needs should be fairly obvious to everyone. The author goes through the views of Georg von Wright from is book “Science and Reason” regarding the future of humanity and the planet. Like many others he notes that we are heading for catastrophe if current trajectories continue. Predictions of others range from barely sustainable to totally apocalyptic but without a doubt we are stressing the planet and the biosphere we inhabit. The ability to love and to commune with the natural world that we inhabit may be a boon to stabilizing the ecocrisis. Certainly being aware of our individual actions is a step in the right direction. The author as well as others like David Suzuki speak out against increased urbanization but I think that perhaps they fail to see some of the benefits of urbanization – centralization, decreased transportation of people, products, energy, and electricity, and more chances to share things. Certainly urban living can distance one from nature a bit but most cities seem to have ample places where there is some greenery and wildness. Whether consumerism and materialism pull us apart is not a given. Certainly most of us suspect that there is a lot of junk out there that people seem to want for whatever reasons – perhaps just because it is available. The author suggests that what is needed is the “moral equivalent of war.” Personally I do not like that approach and see what is needed as – more detailed collaboration and problem-solving. We need to figure not fight. Sure we need to do it with vigor but we also need to do it in a collaborative spirit.

This is a worthy book to read and is a good overview of nature mysticism in general.

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