It happened again today. That sudden "bottom falling out from under me" feeling, sort of the mental equivalent of being startled by an elevator going into free fall.
I like the feeling. It's the most genuine sensation of spirituality, not really an apt word, but best I can come up with, that comes over me in my churchless way of looking at the world.
What it is -- and I'm also struggling to find the right words here -- is awe that existence exists.
(Other attempts I've made to describe that marvelous mystery can be found scattered through this search, by the grace of Google.)
I was walking along with one of our dogs on a pleasant rainless mild Oregon day, enjoying the early spring sprouting greenness on a trail that leads through woods to a nearby lake.
I'd been thinking about how nature has no straight lines, no obvious rigid order, no firm demarcations between this and that. Only the human-built structures along my way possessed those features.
Then my vision of nature became much more cosmic. In an instant I was swept past all the various manifestations of nature into a void of mystery which was as much an ultimate fullness as an absolute emptiness.
Down the rabbit hole. Cut the elevator cable. Dive out of the balloon with no parachute. Exhilarating.
Time stood still. Or rather, time no longer existed. I was face to face with what is for me the only unarguably true spiritual sensation:
Existence exists. Always has. Always will. Is now.
I've also been fascinated with the seemingly related question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" But this strikes me as a conceptual notion, one that fires up a less primal feeling of awe.
When I'm in my existence exists state of wonder, I feel a kinship with every member of Homo sapiens who has ever marveled at the simple truth that things exist to marvel at.
This morning Netflix informed me that "The Tree of Life" has reached the top of our queue and the DVD will be in our hands shortly. That spurred me to read what Roger Ebert had to say about the movie. His blog post was called A Prayer Beneath the Tree of Life.
His words, though not consciously remembered during my dog walk, probably helped spur the sensation of cosmic mystery I felt later in the day.
Terrence Malick's new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude.
Not long after its beginning we apparently see the singularity of the Big Bang, when the universe came into existence. It hurtles through space and time, until it comes gently to a halt in a small Texas town in the 1950s. Here we will gradually learn who some of the people were as the film first opened.
In Texas we meet the O'Brien family. Bad news comes in the form of a telegram, as it always did in those days. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) reads it in her home, and gives vent to grief. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) gets the news at work. We gather a child has died. It is after that when we see the universe coming into being, and Hubble photographs of the far reaches.
This had an uncanny effect on me, because Malick sees the time spans of the universe and a human life a lot like I always have. As a child I lay awake obsessed with the idea of infinity and the idea of God, who we were told had no beginning and no end. How could that be? And if you traveled and traveled and traveled through the stars, would you ever get to the last one? Wouldn't there always be one more?
In my mind there has always been this conceptual time travel, in which the universe has been in existence for untold aeons, and then a speck appeared that was Earth, and on that speck evolved life, and among those specks of life were you and me. In the span of the universe, we inhabit an unimaginably small space and time, and yet we think we are so important. It is restful sometimes to pull back and change the scale, to be grateful that we have minds that can begin to understand who we are, and where are in the vastness.
Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.
Yes. This is the only sort of religion we really need. A sense of awe at what surrounds us, and is us. Eyes wide open before the mystery of existence.
Explaining that mystery away through made-up human fantasies is the business of religion. Standing before that mystery with the "prayerful" attitude Ebert talks about -- that's genuine spirituality.
This is what one of the commenters on Ebert's post said. Wise words.
"We are born in mystery, live in mystery and die in mystery" is a quote I came across years ago and it has stuck with me.
Marvellous! And highly synchronistic with a comment I just left on someone else's blog, you may read them too, but it hasn't appeared yet so that was quite weird haha... Yes, awe seems to be the response to this which feels most 'true', don't you think. Maybe the fact that we can ever think of life as just 'mundane' is one of the most comically awe inspiring responses when you look back at it from that perspective. 'Normality' is as far-out as the most surreal dream. After all, 'mundane' means what? Of the world? Oh so of a spherical shape spinning around in the void of depthless space . Yawn. How obvious. Haha! Great you had that experience. It may sound slightly flakey but I really think experiences like that ripple out to everyone else. Like how you said that the seed may have been planted by reading that review, well who knows what seeds have been planted in your readers and beyond. I will have to check out that film too. Cheers!
Posted by: Anonymous | April 03, 2013 at 11:34 PM
"Explaining that mystery away through made-up human fantasies is the business of religion. Standing before that mystery with the "prayerful" attitude Ebert talks about -- that's genuine spirituality".
Wow Brian! I can feel your presence in your words. Besides the place of awesomeness that you are pointing at and in, your mentioning of human fantasies is the business of religion comes across without any psychological history. It comes across as being light and free of the weighty emotions of your haunting past with religiosity. It is more of an observation, absent of that self-stuff we carry around with us. It is like you are immersed and absorbed in the everything.
Posted by: Shawn | April 04, 2013 at 11:31 AM
Meanwhile, a little further down the rabbit-hole, this mystery made these humans who made up deluded fantasies about it. How does that fit into the overall awesomeness?
It's easy to miss something here - an implicit dualism that runs very deep. If you don't go down deep enough it always gets you on the way back out :-)
Posted by: Tom | April 05, 2013 at 09:11 AM
Damn I can't edit here... Oh well, I'd like to add that, despite appearances, I do appreciate the point of this post, Brian, and agree with you that this is the only kind of prayer and worship that makes sense.
BTW I must apologise if I exhibit a tendency for nauseating argumentation. It comes from being frequently dissatisfied with my written expressions and hacking them down until quite often they become unintelligible (or at least empty of humour!)
Posted by: Tom | April 05, 2013 at 10:12 AM
I am an awestruck, wide-eyed, no-nothin' ninny as often and for as long as I can be, but I can't seem to blog about it, so thanks, Brian.
If I didn't hate emoticons, I'd put a smiley one right here:
Lucky for us all I hate the damn things.
Posted by: cc | April 05, 2013 at 06:21 PM
"BTW I must apologise if I exhibit a tendency for nauseating argumentation."
I didn't notice any "argumenatation", but I do find "prayer and worship" nauseating.
Posted by: cc | April 05, 2013 at 07:28 PM
The "awe that existence exists" is a state of mind, perhaps similar to C.S. Lewis's "Surprised by Joy", that I first felt at the age of maybe 8, and which eventually led me up the Sant Mat path - which is what you have also blogged about at length (though not recently?). Your frank, fair and informed appraisal of what I too took 25 years to recognize was a cult and to 'unconvert' from has been a great help for me to read. Many thanks. (I can remember enjoying your book, Life is Fair when it came out.) I remember turning up at the Dera as an unannounced 21-year-old seeker the next summer after you first spent time there, and when there were only half a dozen satsangis about. One was a young fellow by the name of David Lane who was hoping to speak with Charan Singh on a book project. But perhaps these reminiscenses belong elsewhere on your blog, which I keen to explore more thoroughly.
Posted by: Hadashi | April 05, 2013 at 09:38 PM
What is an awestruck?
Posted by: Roger | April 06, 2013 at 11:37 AM
"What is an awestruck?"
An "awestruck, wide-eyed, no-nothin' ninny", dummy.
Posted by: cc | April 07, 2013 at 09:55 AM
LOL......cc.....good reply.....i think i am an awestruck....
Posted by: Roger | April 08, 2013 at 11:31 AM
Because I don't have such experiences I am always suspicious of people who do. I think I must read similar books to you and share the same interests. Consequently I feel the same pull to have a transcendent experience, of actually seeing the world in all its is-ness, with the accompanying weirdness that both I and the world exist. It is the opposite of taking things for granted. We feel obliged to feel a sense of awe to compete with religious people's transcendent moments. We pretend we are wowed by what we see through the Hubble telescope because Hitchens also claimed to be.
I think these are merely self-induced moments of weirdness. There is a determination to feel them, even when they appear without warning. It is like religious people claiming to feel the grace of God. Of course they don't, not really. They just convince themselves that they do.
For decades I have read about these kinds of experiences like in Huxley's 'Doors of Perception', Virginia Woolf's 'Moments of Being' and so on. I therefore feel a pressure to feel them myself, otherwise I would be missing out. But I think it is all self-deception, at least on my part, and possibly on the part of others too. We are like people who go into raptures about a view they have seen a thousand times before. Yet they are just going through the motions of what they should feel.
Occasionally I feel something a little odd one day and later I then exaggerate it into an almost mystical experience. "I suddenly saw the stoneyness of the stone" etc. But this is all just self-deception. It was just a slightly odd feeling brought on by my effort to see the world in a 'Wow, how weird that I and the world even exist' kind of way.
Posted by: Keith | April 09, 2013 at 04:45 AM
cc, I do find the conventional practises incomprehensible and mostly superfluous. But, I don't know, I feel the words are reasonable pointers for the state that Brian is describing, or, more precisely, for the honour he gives it.
Keith, here's the way I see it: These kinds of perception don't happen on demand. They can only be real when you are being real yourself, and that can only genuinely happen once you've lost the desire to modify your perception. If you ask me it is nonsense to try to replicate an experience reported by another. All you can do is honour your own experience i.e. get comfortable with yourself. Then as the dissonance between reality and expectation subsides you find things sweeten all by themselves. Then one day you realise you've been having those magical experiences your entire life, only your notions of 'normal' and 'ordinary' put a lid on them.
Posted by: Tom | April 09, 2013 at 09:02 AM
"Because I don't have such experiences I am always suspicious of people who do."
I for one do not sense any of your suspicious speculative explanations to Brian's attempt to explain his experience. With the little I know about Brian, I very much doubt that he would fall into the cultural peer pressure in trying to postulate an experience that competes with transcendent moments that other people proclaim. What for? Brian is not the kind of guy that seeks self induced mystical experiences. All Brian did is express through words his breathtaking moment he had. Were all of his words perfect and correct reflections of the reality of his experience? Probably not but so what?
It seems to me that you are trying to box everyone into your limited experiences in life. Do you think that just because you haven't experienced a particular transcending moment that it makes that particular experience absolutely invalid? Do you represent all there is to experience and that anything outside of your experiences represents falsehood? In the light of the endless unsearchable breadth and depth of life, I find that your confidence in your small speck of experience in life to be quite arrogant. Why would you subjectively judge based upon your puny experiences (or lack of) in life? Does your life and thoughts represent the reality of the universe and beyond?
This is what I call belief in non-belief. You are determined to believe in your non-belief with that same close-minded dogmatism as a Christian has towards their belief in Jesus.
Posted by: Shawn | April 09, 2013 at 10:25 AM