Well- I don’t care how rich you are
I don’t care what you’re worth
Cuz you know when it all comes down
You’ve got to go back
You’ve got to go back to
Heart, Mother Earth Blues
So last month, finally, after referring to it for years, I read Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams. It is a combination of a scholarly, philosophy-heavy, treatise on the relationship between literacy and our cultures disconnect from the rest of the community of life, and a personal exploration of what it means to find that connection once more. I was far more interested in the personal/experiential component. But I have to say, even when I was most resistant to his philosophical arguments, once he had finished making his case, I usually find myself grudgingly conceding that the argument was reasonable and well developed. But at its heart, I simply don’t care about that.
The first morning I started reading the book, I was sitting on the porch in the early morning sun. Latter that day, I read more laying on the grass at the park. After that, I found myself abhorring the idea of reading this particular piece of literature anywhere but sitting in the sun. So it took me a long time to finish as the rain was insidious this year and frequently I was unable to get to the park or otherwise during fair weather. But I did finally get it all the way done a week or so ago.
In any case, the primary point of the entire book is this: the aniministic worldview of primitive peoples all over the world is not a question of religion or philosophy, but one of pure experience. Human peoples saw themselves as members of a vast web of life because every second of every day the world around them showed that this was so. And unlike the characterizations of missionaries and early anthropologists, primitive peoples are not overburdened with silly or stupid superstitions and complex mythologies, rather those (so-called) superstitions and mythos are solidly grounded are in the real world that they experience every day and inform them of how the world works at least as effectively as our modern science:
The next morning I finished the sliced fruit, waited for my hostess to come by and take the empty bowl, then quietly beaded back behind the buildings. Two fresh palm leaf offerings sat at the same spots where the others had been the day before. These were filled with rice. Yet as I gazed at one of them I suddenly noticed, with a shudder, that one of the kernels of rice was moving. Only when I knelt down to look more closely did I see a tiny line of black ants winding through the dirt to the palm leaf. … I walked back to my room chuckling to myself. The balian and his wife had gone to so much trouble to daily placate the household spirits with gifts — only to have them stolen by little six-legged thieves. What a waste! But then a strange thought dawned within me. What if the ants themselves were the “household spirits” to whom the offerings were being made?
The idea became less strange as I pondered the matter. The family compound, like most on this tropical island, had been constructed in the vicinity of several ant colonies. Since a great deal of household cooking took place in the compound, and also the preparation of elaborate offerings of foodstuffs for various rituals and festivals, the grounds and the buildings were vulnerable to infestations by the ant population. Such invasions could range from rare nuisances to a periodic or even constant siege. It became apparent that the daily palm-frond offerings served to preclude such an attack by the natural forces that surrounded (and underlay) the family’s land. The daily gifts of rice kept the ant colonies occupied–and, presumably, satisfied. Placed in regular, repeated locations at the corners of various structures around the compound, the offerings seemed to establish certain boundaries between the human and ant communities; by honoring this boundary with gifts, the humans apparently hoped to persuade the insects to respect the boundary and not enter the buildings.
But that is not really what I wanted to write about today. You see, reading the book I found myself opening long dead centers of awareness. Once, long ago, during my personal exploration of neo-paganism, I went for a walk on my grand-parents farm. I got to the top of a hill, at the notch between a once-cultivated field and a wild glen. I sat down in the tall grass, overlooking a small pond, and opened myself, my senses, my awareness, and for a short time I simply experienced that place. I communed with birds, butterflies and bees. Felt the wind on my skin, the grass tickling my legs, the sun on my brown and a million other small sensations. After a time, I stood up and followed the ridge to the woods, passed through to the swamp at the back edge of their fields and gradually made my way back to the house. It was an experience I never repeated. Paganism appealed to me, but never quite seemed right, so my attention shifted back to school, to work, to stupid entertainments and I forgot.
Until a couple weeks ago.
For the last month of more, I have been taking hikes up into the wild country behind town. Thousands of acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. Dry hills, mostly desert, between two ranges of real mountains. I’ve been hiking up there, looking for something… something I couldn’t quite define. I think perhaps the ghost of a memory of that day in central Wisconsin drove me out there. Not that I mind. The hikes were wonderful, the views stunning, the feel of the hills intoxicating.
But for all that, it was one day, sitting in the park, at the edge of downtown, just above the river… I was reading Spell and simply enjoying the fact that I had nowhere to be, nothing to do…. I would read a little, then watch the birds, read a little more, laugh at the antics of the squirrels, read more, then mentally touch the trees, the sky, the sun. Finally I set the book aside, closed my eyes and succeeded in fully opening my senses. I was sitting with my legs outstretched, leaning on one arm, and I was completely overwhelmed with an awareness of life. Then I reached back and placed my other arm behind me. It was like completing the circuit in an electrical system. I looked around me, I couldn’t not smile. Everything was so alive and life is good. More than good. Brilliant. How could one ever be unhappy when joy is everywhere?
At the time, I had recently separated from my partner. He was supposed to meet me at the park to do some repairs on my car (it had died there the night before). I was anxious for him to arrive so that I could show him what I was seeing. Feeling. But when he arrived, he quickly got upset and angsty. And I was wide open, senses expanded. So instead of showing him what I saw and felt, I crashed. The depression and anxiety I experienced that day was as extreme as the joy I had felt earlier. I couldn’t control it even the least bit. It was truly horrible. Of course, I have always been sensitive this way, its just that when I touched the sacred, I threw away all of the defenses I have learned and developed over the years. Lesson learned. Not that I will hesitate to open myself up again – but I simply need to be aware of the situations I step into in the afterglow.
One comment: I have described this experience as touching the sacred. Before anyone gets the wrong idea: the sacred is not divine, nor otherworldly, nor spiritual. It is purely sensual. The world around us, as it is. It is each of us, the sand under your feet, the bird circling over your head, the coyote crying in the distance, the river bubbling and gurgling over rocks, and the rocks it is rushing past. Its even in the computer you are reading this from and the chair you are sitting in. It is everywhere, everywhen, everything… but we have learned to shut it out. And I cannot encourage anyone enough to open yourself to letting it back in.