Spiritual musings

2 Mar

I don’t know what it means to have a spirituality when you’re an agnostic who withholds judgement, pro or con, about things that cannot be proved by the mind or the five senses. I know I find what could be called “spiritual comfort” in the workings of nature. And not just because that’s about the only thing we can prove anything about. I just feel spiritual when I’m in nature, and that happens on the ineffable level of emotions, something very deep.

I found this poem this morning. I’m not sure if I agree with all of it, but it captured the sense of connectedness I feel to something greater than myself when I’m in nature:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blu air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver, 1986

8 Responses to “Spiritual musings”

  1. knullabulla March 2, 2004 at 11:08 am #

    ooh! Mary Oliver!
    One of my favorite poems, also by Mary Oliver:
    The Summer Day
    Who made the world?
    Who made the swan, and the black bear?
    Who made the grasshopper?
    This grasshopper, I mean–
    the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
    the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
    who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
    who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
    Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
    Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?

  2. neshaffer March 2, 2004 at 11:16 am #

    I love this woman!
    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?

    She knows how to take the nihilism out of naturalism

  3. knullabulla March 2, 2004 at 11:42 am #

    it boggles me that there are people who think that naturalism is equal to nihilism
    Naturalism is about feeling connected. I can think of few things that make me feel as connected to a big spiritual *whatever* as when I’ve got that feeling of connecting with life in general. Does that make sense? It’s that feeling you get when you realize that the air touching you is connecting you to everything else in the world. It might not have me say, “Yes! There most definately is/isn’t a higher power out there!” But naturalism is an exercize in asking oneself, “How?”. And wanting to know the answers to unanswerable questions is an act of spiritual contemplation–even when one is withholding judgement regarding the whole “god” issue.[/amateurish philosophical wank]
    And–perhaps I’ve misunderstood the meaning of the word, so correct me if I’m wrong–nihilism is about breaking down connections. It’s the very antithesis of what naturalism is.

  4. randomways March 2, 2004 at 12:42 pm #

    The Nihilist
    “Somebody, I suppose,
    Remembering the medieval maxim,
    Had tossed me in,
    Had wanted me to learn to swim,
    Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
    From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
    Ever learned anything at all
    About swimming, but only
    How to put off, one by one,
    Dreams and pity, love and grace –
    How to survive in any place.”
    -Mary Oliver
    Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets too, and I’m gratified that other people I know have heard of her — she’s not particularly famous, all things considered.
    The pure nihilist eschews all values. Truth and knowledge dissolve, meaning flickers and dies out. It is a precursor to modern existentialism, though the existentialists generally focus more on the idea that values are simply relative, not nonexistent. The poem above, “The Swimming Lesson”, is one my favorites, not only because of the entrancing poetic rhythm and imagery, but because Oliver capture perfectly the sense of being hurled into the unknown, the murky and savage world. Note the ostensible nihilism of those last lines. Putting aside dreams and pity, love and grace, the speaker learns to simply survive and struggle for the surface. She doesn’t learn to adapt to her environment, to swim, but simply to fight upwards again. The unnamed person who tosses the speaker in is certainly a loved one trying to teach her…and therein lies an irony as the speaker discovers the failure of such bonds. This is not a swimming lesson at all, but a lesson of an entirely different sort.
    The analogies are obvious, but the real question is whether this is a nihilistic poem. The “medieval maxim” recalls a brutal era, an archaicism that belies the supposed progress of humanity. Here endeth the swimming lesson. Here begins the lesson in survival, in casting off humanity. But I don’t think it’s nihilistic. The lesson is obviously the wrong one in this case. Whether it’s a necessary one is another question, but if the speaker doesn’t learn to swim, then there must be another swimming lesson out there that works better.

  5. neshaffer March 2, 2004 at 12:48 pm #

    Re: it boggles me that there are people who think that naturalism is equal to nihilism
    Well, yes, I guess it depends on what definition of naturalism you’re using, and there are many, depending on the context.
    I was thinking of it in terms of a view opposed to theism (there is a god or gods), spiritualism (there are non-physical entities in the universe), and dualism (humans are made up of both physical and non-physical components). The view, in short, that all that is real is physical.
    I’m not saying I am a naturalist. As an empiricist agnostic, I withhold judgement on statements that cannot be proved true or false (i.e., “Everything is physical”, or “there is a god”). However, I do spend time thinking about what it would mean to by a naturalist. A lot of people become very disheartened. If there is no god, no spirits or souls, no non-corporeal plane we go after we die or whatever, if everything is physical, acting according to mindless mechanical natural laws, then what is the point of living? What is the point of morality?
    Eeesh. The point of living is to experience joy. The point of morality is to help everyone else experience joy. The world would be a better place for all of us if we experience joy.
    And if naturalism is true, what is the point of spirituality? Well, if spirituality is defined as a connectedness to something greater than yourself, naturalism gives you that in abundance. I am connected by emotions, experience, and genes to my family, through genes and traditions to my anscestors, through experiences and traditions to my country, through shared genetic heritage to other animals and plants. I am connected to my planet because I was born here and my species evolved here. I am connected to the universe because the particles in my body once came from the sun and the comets and they came from other stars way back in pre-history.
    It’s all how you think of it.

  6. neshaffer March 2, 2004 at 12:54 pm #

    Re: The Nihilist
    Yes, if you really want to teach someone how to swim, you take them gently into the shallow end and show them the dog-paddle and the back-stroke and the butterfly and all those other strokes.
    You don’t throw them into the deep end and say, “now stay alive”. That is teaching them another lesson altogether, which is, as you say, pure survival. And is “pure survival” a lesson we must all learn? Some people are very harsh with their, “only the strong survive”, forgetting that hordes of people in history have lived sheltered, even pampered lives and never needed those skills. And why? Because it’s not always the individual against the unknown. We live in societies. The skills we need there are more refined.
    It’s a balance, I think.

  7. ljash March 2, 2004 at 4:12 pm #

    That was lovely. I don’t feel that way often enough; I also find the holy only in nature, but I haven’t felt it in a long time.
    PS I like your mood icon for “spiritual” 🙂

  8. neshaffer March 2, 2004 at 7:26 pm #

    I also find the holy only in nature, but I haven’t felt it in a long time.
    I really need to be in the right frame of mind. I went camping back last May, hoping being surrounded by the forest would make me feel spiritual, but I was too stressed out. I went back in August and had a wonderful experience. But yeah, the forest, the ocean, these are my spiritual places.
    That icon is actually my icon for “grateful”. I wanted one that was peaceful and sort of humble.

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