You can do it! Maybe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In 1993, in an article in the New York Times, naturalist Natalie Angier wrote, Even the most elite human athlete is thoroughly pathetic compared with nature’s other aerobic masters. She goes on to give examples: the cheetah’s seventy miles per hour sprint; the hummingbird’s twenty-four hour migration vigil powered by wing beats of thousands per minute; the pronghorn antelope’s ability to maintain runs of sixty miles per hour over long periods of time.

We enjoy these comparisons. It’s also fun to compare the records of elite Olympic athletes to animals’ skills.

  • The Sprint: The Jamaican runner, Usain Bolt, 27.4 miles per hour vs. sprinting animals, the cat at 29.8 to the Cheetah at 61 miles per hour.
  • The Lift: Soviet/Belarusian weight lifter, Leonid Taranenko, 586.4 pounds vs. the elephant, 661 pounds.
  • Swimming: Brazilian swimmer, Cesar Cielo, 5.34 miles per hour vs. water animals, 22-80 miles per hour.
  • The Long Jump: American jumper, Mile Powell, 29.4 feet vs., snow leopard, 49 feet

These are impressive numbers for both the humans and the animals. What is missing in these comparisons, however, is the recognition that, while an animal can excel in one ‘event,’ human athletes can excel in all, aerobic as well as those where length or height or strength is the basis of achievement.

Now the Olympics are upon us.  Unlike animals, who  compete for food, water, shelter, and safety, Olympic athletes compete for status and for being the best in their event. And in that regard, the athletes of today are facing some challenges that did not exist twenty or thirty years ago.

Recent analysis of all of the Olympic records set between 1896 and 2016 has lead researchers to believe that Olympic athletes can expect fewer opportunities to set new records in the future. These data show that the pace at which sports records are being set has slowed, and might have even plateaued during the 1980s. In addition, records that are being set are happening in smaller increments.

As an example: in the 2014 Olympics, Joseph Schooling bested record holder Michael Phelps in the butterfly event by a mere two tenths of a second.

Can an athlete feel pride and accomplishment by overtaking a world record by  two tenths of a second? Or muster up the courage and dedication to train for such a small margin of gain?  Can the loser avoid cynicism and disillusionment?

Then there are big questions which have arisen from all the number crunching:  Is there a finite level of physiological capacity, both for humans and animals? Are Olympic athletes at the end point of skill building?

In his research, biologist Mark Denny asked those questions regarding speed in race horses, greyhounds, and humans, all having been trained to run. Horses and dogs had been racing competitively for centuries. Humans, for millennia.

In dogs and horses Denny identified limits to the speed they were able to cover over a given distance. Also, even when an intensive program to enhance performance was initiated, race speeds in horses and dogs have not increased in the last forty to sixty years.  These animals appear to have reached their limit.

In humans, the analysis of the hundred-year historical data suggests that a limit exists, and that the speed is only a few percent greater than observed to date. But Denny claims that humans have not reached a plateau in running speeds.

Which brings me to my conclusion. Humans and animals, and animals and animals, must not be compared for evidence of superiority of one or the other species. All are a part of one family and, like all families, there are differences among its members.  Yet, each brings something valuable to the mix. Each adds to the whole.

Please enjoy this video that looks at the connection between humans and animals.

 

A Soundscape of a Different Sort

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The coffee shop. A self-contained environment with its distinct soundscape.  The whirr of a blender.  The hiss of a cappuccino machine. Music playing in the background, not too soft, not too loud, just right.  All the muted and not-so-muted conversations. An occasional cough or giggle.  A chair being dragged along the floor.

This mixture of sounds happens within the coffee shop, where people flock for stimulation or to get out of the boredom or loneliness of working at home. Some are looking for anonymity and separation, but not aloneness.

The constant hum is comforting for its familiarity and lack of surprises. Out-of-place noises, like people arguing or a mother scolding a child, can cause discomfort. It’s not a part of the natural way of the healthy coffee shop.

As I described in my blog post on soundscapes, in nature all the inhabitants of a healthy habitat create their own sonic territories – called niches – where they can hear each other unimpeded by their neighbors’ voices.

It appears that those who inhabit coffee shops have created their own version of sonic territories. Ear phones and ear buds, cell phones and computers, these help maintain the separateness amid all the sound. Small tables allow for intimate conversations.

Not only can people hear each other unimpeded in the soundscape of the coffee shop, but as research has shown, the ambient sound of a coffee shop may be at just the right level – around 70 decibels – for maximizing the possibilities for creative thinking.

Maybe that would explain why the chat you are having with a friend may seem more interesting than it would if you were standing on a street corner. Or maybe you feel you are more interesting.  Maybe your friend is more interested in the conversation than she would be sitting at your kitchen table with a cup of tea and a slab of homemade zucchini bread.  Maybe that business idea you are proposing sounds more appealing to the potential investor.

If that’s the case, and if indeed the ambient sound of the coffee shop has the effect of enhancing creativity, it will come as no surprise to learn that some very clever entrepreneurial types have latched on to the research findings.

They have created soundscapes of, not only the typical coffee shop, but have come up with a repertoire of sounds that can be downloaded and mixed and matched for escape into one’s own self-designed soundscape.

For those who love ambient noise, maybe rain would be their choice. Or thunder.  Or leaves blowing. Or any combination of the many choices offered by websites such as Coffitivity or Nosili, a couple of the popular companies that produce recorded sounds.

Think of how creative you can be creating soundscapes.

I wonder if Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, would support what seems like an unnatural and artificial way of evoking our creativity. He was concerned about the negative effect on our mental health and on our psyche of gadgetry that separates us more and more from the natural world.

Jung taught that the unconscious, the source of creativity, works with our intuition to creatively solve problems outside of our awareness. Can a recording of a cappuccino machine tap into that part of the psyche?  Can a simulation of rain falling or a bird calling do that?

The developers of Café Restaurant, the ultimate coffee shop noise machine, would say yes. They explain that their product boosts creativity by masking distracting noises. “All you have to do is pop your headphones on,” they claim, “and adjust the volume of myNoise high enough to mask the distractions. The noise will recede into the background after a few minutes. If real world sounds intrude, it will be heard as babble noise and no longer pose any distraction to your work.”

Café Restaurant and Coffitility are two companies that have developed their product around the findings in the research study I mentioned above. The article is often cited in the literature about the digital world and was featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, and appears to have been carried out rigorously. The researchers examined ambient noise and how it affects creativity. With five experiments, they were able to demonstrate that their hypothesis that a moderate 70 decibels of ambient sound – as opposed to a low 50 decibels or a high over 80 decibels – enhances performance on creative tasks.

But a second part of their hypothesis is that such a condition would increase buying likelihood of innovative products.

Excuse me if I end right here. In the end it’s all about buy, buy, buy.

Goodbye.

 

The Language of Trust

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I spent four days becoming acquainted with a robin.

It all began when the poor creature slammed into my living room window and dropped to the ground, unconscious.

I picked up the panting bird and carried him into the house, where I left him in a spare bedroom in a box with a container of water and bird seed I had run out and purchased from the local hardware store. Like the city girl I was at the time – a recent transplant from Los Angeles to the Sierra foothills – I assumed he would eventually wake up, eat and drink, get well and happily fly off.

When I returned to the room an hour later I was pleased to see he was awake, but he had shown no interest in either the water or the seed. And as I approached the box, he became agitated and made awkward movements as if trying to escape. But he could not fly. One wing and one leg appeared to be injured.

It was then that I saw him, really saw him, for the first time. Not as a robin, but as a being in distress in a strange and unfamiliar environment. Then, almost as an instinct, I began to console him, to talk to him quietly, trying to soothe him. I reached out with one finger and rubbed his head gently.

These actions seemed to come so naturally. And whatever I was doing appeared to have a positive effect. Somehow I had gained his trust, and he stopped struggling.

I picked him up and felt along his body, along his wings, and his legs, all the time I talked to him, gently, telling him he was going to be all right. I can still feel his warm, silken body, relaxed and calm, his little heart beating rapidly in my hand.

The robin would stay with me for four days. Each day I held him and talked to him. Each day he became stronger and livelier. Eventually I took him out of the box and he began to move about.

It was on the third day that I found him sitting up on the windowsill looking outside. Apparently he had gained the ability to fly. The water and birdseed remained untouched.

Since I assumed he was getting ready to leave, I removed the window screen and left him sitting on the sill. When I came back several minutes later, to my surprise, he was still there. My robin – yes, MY robin – would spend one more day with me, flying back and forth from the floor to the window sill.

On the fourth day, when I entered the room, he was gone. I looked out the window and there he was, sitting on the limb of a cedar tree. He sat and looked in my direction for a few moments, and then he flew away. For several days I looked out at the cedar tree, but the robin did not return.

As I’ve thought back on the experience, I realize it was only after I engaged emotionally with the robin that I was able to reach out and to assist him. Something did pass between us, something more than a sincere look, or even a calming voice or a light touch could explain.

Primatologist Frans De Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, focuses his research on emotions in animals. According to De Waal, giving consolation is an outcome of empathy. His book contains many examples of animals engaged in empathic and consoling behaviors.

Perhaps my empathic feelings towards the robin prompted me to console him. Perhaps this created an emotional linkage between us, a universal sharing of feeling that set up the bond of trust that was able to last four days.

Nature’s Soundscapes in Danger

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In case you’ve not come across the term soundscape, I would like to start with an illustration:

You wake up in the morning to a cacophony of sound: birds singing and calling; a dog barking somewhere outside; a neighbor starting his car; a truck stopping in front of your house. These are some of the overlapping sounds that exist in your environment. They are part of the soundscape of your neighborhood.

In wild nature the neighborhood includes the elements that make it possible for organisms to find food, shelter, and protection, and where they can reproduce and raise their young. The natural soundscape is made up of all the sounds produced together by the organisms within their neighborhood, or habitat.

Soundscape ecologists study the sounds that come from a particular habitat. Typically, a researcher will traipse to a habitat of interest, set up field microphones and recorders, and listen.

Soundscape ecologist, Bernie Krause, has spent almost fifty years recording soundscapes. He has amassed an inventory of almost four thousand field samples, which he calls the intricate symphonies unique to each habitat.

In a healthy habitat, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals create their own sonic territories – called niches – where they can hear each other unimpeded by their neighbors’ voices. These are essential for their survival, Krause explained. In degraded habitat this cohesion breaks down.

An unintentional outcome of Krause’s work has been the discovery that, over the years more than half of the habitat soundscapes he has captured have been totally silenced or severely damaged by human activity.

The natural soundscape is very fragile, said Krause, and it’s disappearing very quickly.

For your listening/viewing pleasure: Bernie Krause and Nature’s Orchestra

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdqBUXyZPF4

Bernie Krause Ted Talk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTbA-mxo858

 

3 Lines, 13 Words, 19 Syllables

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A haiku by environmentalist, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Gary Snyder: (from his collection danger on peaks, 2004)

Hammering a dent out of a bucket

a woodpecker

answers from the woods

What a poem! A celebration of connection and acceptance and shared space.  Dignifying self-reliance and industry.

In 3 lines, 13 words, and 19 syllables Gary Snyder has offered us a peek into the workings of nature. Individuals going about their lives, each in his own way, but connected.

After I read this poem I thought about my home and its little patch of ground. I thought about all the living beings who cross my lot lines, openly and with no hesitation, entitled, doing what they do…

The neighborhood cats who show up at mealtime and, stomachs full, stretch out in the sun on the deck…

The raccoons who appear after dark to cash in on my having left the cat food outside…

The skunks, whose calling card is their scent, but who rarely show themselves…

The blue jays that hop around the deck, a kind of playful dance, just before pilfering a kibble of cat food…

The squirrel who chatters high in one of the pines or cedars, mocking a cat below who claws at the bark in frustration…

The spider who dangles from a strand of web outside the dining room window…

The deer, who appear silently, graze silently, rest on the ground in silence, and depart without a sound, but who never fail to leave behind a sense of awe and peace…

They know they belong here. But it’s doubtful they are aware that they enrich my life and have become my companions of a sort. They make me laugh. I’m charmed and amazed by them. I worry about them. Sometimes they make me angry. And sometimes they make me cry.  Like….

When a robin slams into a window and drops…

Or when, in the middle of the night a deep-throated scream tells me that a cat has been taken by a coyote or a raccoon, and the air fills with the barking and howling of dogs near and far. I wish I were a dog so I could bark and howl.  But I cower silently in my bed.  My heart races. It goes out to the ill-fated creature, and to his predator, who needs to eat.

It’s remarkable. After experiencing this poem I can no longer think of my home without feeling the presence of the seen and unseen beings who come from time to time to play and seek food and build webs and nests and take rest.  Where sometimes they kill.  And sometimes they die.

This poem has deepened my appreciation for the vibrancy of our little community, where we are destined to share a little piece of turf as we go about our lives.

Gary Snyder has been writing environmental poetry with the power to transform our view of our place in nature since his days as a “beat” poet, some sixty years ago, long before the emergence of a global ecospirituality movement.

We [the beat writers] didn’t have a big theory of what we were doing, the 87-year-old Snyder said in a recent interview. We were trying to just simply loosen up the heart and mind of people and ourselves.

Well, mine is one heart and mind that certainly got loosened up by his poem.

An Ecologic Ethic

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The idea of creating a global ecologic ethic, as described by Aldo Leopold in his essay The Land Ethic, has been running around in my brain.  I think humanity is ready to pull it off.

  • We are finally acknowledging that the Earth is mortally ill and that we bear some responsibility for its present condition.
  • We are finally ready to take care of the Earth, and hopefully reverse the effects of our bad ecologic habits.
  • The promising ecospirituality movement is helping religious and non-religious people around the globe recognize the need for us to change our concept of and our relationship to nature.
  • Earth Day, since its inception in America on April 22, 1970, has grown to almost 200 countries participating worldwide each year. That’s hundreds of millions of people, maybe a billion. That is a lot of people collectively paying attention to the environment.

The ecologic ethic I imagine would begin with a spiritual mantra: nature is sacred and worthy of care.

Something that is sacred has the power of arousing feelings of reverence and awe, drawing to it devotion and respect. These emotions can affect how we treat each other and, consequently, how we treat the earth.  These emotions call on us to act with compassion, integrity and charity. They call on us to exercise modesty.

I envision a kind of ecologic Sabbath, a weekly, apolitical, non-activist Earth Day of simplicity. No productivity or consumption of natural resources, a time when we buy and sell nothing. A day we share our rest with nature.

Our Earth Day Sabbath would be spent in celebration of Nature’s inherent order, spending time with family and friends, reading and reflecting about the universe and studying ecologic themes. It would be a day obliging us to renounce the use of tools and gadgets and electronics of every kind for twenty-four hours.

The idea of an Earth Day Sabbath came to me after speaking with an Orthodox Jewish woman about nature and spirituality and how she sees their connection to the traditional Jewish Sabbath – which runs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.

These are her words…

It’s a time to give nature a rest. I have a friend who won’t walk on the grass on Shabbat.  See that fly buzzing around and annoying me?  I would not bother him. He would not be swatted on Shabbat.  It’s also about conservation. You do all your cooking ahead of time. You mete out the food. You can’t be shopping for more. You can’t consume more than you’ve prepared.  It’s a lesson in self-restraint.  Makes you feel stronger as an individual. You feel disciplined, connected. It makes me feel connected to God, but not only God. When I am lighting my Sabbath candles, I know that women all over the world are lighting their candles at sundown.  Powerful – it unifies you.  It’s a spiritual connection.

Touching Nature is taking a holiday break until January 4, 2018.  Happy New Year to you all.

Ecospirituality: Beyond the Oneness

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is not a post about climate change. But somehow I’m unable to talk about spirituality and nature, at the same time ignoring the extreme weather events occurring around the world. To me it seems clear that, in Bob Dylan’s words, something’s happening here, and Mother Nature doesn’t seem too pleased about it.

A few stats:

  • The 2016 autumn freeze-up of Arctic sea ice was exceptionally slow, but even stranger things were going on. In mid-November, the sea ice actually started melting
  • Last year saw examples of extreme transitions from drought to above-average rainfall. The most dramatic transition occurred in Australia, which resulted in extensive flooding of inland rivers. (Those of us who live in the foothills of the Sierra can relate to this.)
  • Two separate outbreaks of major hailstorms occurred in Texas, one around Dallas–Fort Worth in March and a second centered on San Antonio in April, resulting in hailstones with a diameter of 4 1/2 inches.
  • Outside the United States, a notable hailstorm occurred in the Brabant province of the Netherlands on 23 June, with hailstones up to 4 inches.
  • The world is getting warmer, but parts of it are actually getting colder. In 2016, northern and central Argentina, Paraguay and lowland Bolivia experienced significantly cooler temperatures on land. South-western Australia experienced its coldest winter since 1990.
  • British Columbia is suffering through its second-worst fire season.
  • By December 8, 2017 Corpus Christi, Texas had received more snow than Denver.
  • In July, Death Valley experienced the hottest month ever recorded on Earth.
  • During a dinnertime conversation, friends who live in foothills of the Sierra express alarm at the unseasonable appearance of flowers in their gardens, the need to continue watering their plants because of the lack of rain, and the early budding of otherwise winter dormant trees.

OK, I said this is not a post about climate change.  So, now to the point….  Ecospirituality.   This is a global, sacred, nondenominational movement aimed at strengthening our spiritual connection to nature, at changing our very view of what nature is.

Ecospirituality affirms the holiness and inherent value of all of nature. By pairing spirituality and religion with science, ecospirituality seeks to transform the human relationship to the land into a healing force for our degraded Earth.

How to understand ecospirituality:

Think of spirituality and religion partnering with biology and ecology, of holiness and reverence and benevolence hooked up with stewardship and responsibility for the land. Imagine justice and equality for all living beings attached to environmental activism, and religious and spiritual transcendence grounded in ethical constraint.

Ecospirituality does not eschew established religion. To the contrary, the broad spectrum of supporters associated with the movement includes world religions, and brings a variety of practice and ritual to the table in a shared commitment to reviving our ailing environment.

Deep Ecology. Green Religion. Dark Green Religion. Ecofeminism. Nature Religion. GreenFaith. These are just a few of the groups that have emerged under the umbrella of ecospirituality .

In 1949, in response to his observation of the rising commercialism and materialism associated with the outdoors, environmentalist Aldo Leopold proposed the establishment of a land ethic.

Leopold conceived of the land ethic as the third step in the evolution of the human ethical experience, as introduced in the Bible: the first was the Ten Commandments, which placed constraints on individuals in our struggle to relate morally to one another; the second, The Golden Rule, which set down a framework for the struggle for the moral relationship between the individual and society.

This third ethic Leopold envisioned as an ecologic one based on the premise that all members of nature, including humans, are interconnected and interdependent. As such, it would lay out the parameters for the moral relationship of man to all the land, including the soils, waters, plants, and animals.

According to Leopold, an ecologic ethic, by encompassing all of life, would impose a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.

Perhaps the ecospiritual movement, in taking up this struggle, will be able to contribute to the formulation of an ecologic ethic, one that reframes the relationship of humans to nature from owner and overseer to that of partner and comrade.

Perhaps, through an ecologic ethic, degrading environmental trends like climate change can actually be reversed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Poem, Two Photographs, An Article

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In today’s post I am sharing several reader responses to the article Engaging with Spirit: Awesome Awe.

A POEM
Marcia Goldberg of Montreal, Quebec writes about three personal miracle days.

Always Waking Up
Awe lies dormant till that realm
in nature flies open, self so small
it’s an icon, a footnote, the screen
of conscious unconsciousness
broadly supplying transcendent couplings,
the parietal lobe blitzed, space awareness
toggled to radical amazement:
the mother-self overriding/undergirding
late morning glacial pond on a pier;
top of the skull peeled, stripped, upthrust
in a rush of clouds at Arlington Cemetery
while standing under a maple by a grave marked Blue;
that day at North Palm Beach afloat
in quiet surf, you an outcast
from a trip-of-a-lifetime experience
comported in a split second to an exact impossible illumination
of Magen David overhead, twenty minutes insistent that this is real.

TWO PHOTOGRAPHS
Susie at foothillfotos.com writes about perfect reflections and shadowy self blending…

I sometimes walk to a nearby pond in the morning when the sunlight is just perfect for reflections and reflecting.  The reflections give me a sense of being a part of an impressionist painting. There is something about a perfect reflection, where it appears that two worlds have blended into one, that fills me with a sense of being part of another dimension; one that is only composed of tranquil beauty.

If the sunlight is just right, and I am standing in just the right spot, I can sometimes photograph my shadowy self blending into the scene.  When I get home and download the photo, I love the experience of seeing that I have become a small unobtrusive part of what I had witnessed.

AN ARTICLE
Amateur HAM radio guru Joe Frank (W6JLF) recommends……

New Study Links Living Near Forests to Healthier Brains

living-near-a-forest.jpg

Tom Jacobs posted Nov 30, 2017

Evidence keeps mounting that, in stressful times, there is much to gain by surrounding yourself with plants and trees. As images of the still-burning Northern California wildfires confirm, living on the edge of a forest comes with considerable dangers. But new research from Germany suggests proximity to a wooded landscape may also have a huge benefit.

People who dwell on the border between city and forest may be better able to cope with stress.

In a study of older urban dwellers, it found living in close proximity to forest land is linked with strong, healthy functioning of a key part of the brain. This indicates that, compared with those who live in a mostly man-made environment, people who dwell on the border between city and forest may be better able to cope with stress.

The findings suggest “forests in and around cities are a valuable resource that should be promoted,” writes a research team led by Simone Kuehn of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Its research is published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

Engaging With Spirit: Awesome Awe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Awe is more than an emotion. It is a way of understanding, an insight into a meaning greater than ourselves….Awe is the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.  (Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Who is Man?” 1969)

A man stared into a canyon and felt one with everything….

A woman stood between two trees and flashed on the interdependence of all of nature….

A horse trainer walked into a forest and entered a parallel universe….

These were not substance-induced perceptions. These were not spirituality workshop assignments or planned outdoor events. These were spontaneous, fleeting moments of spiritual engagement with nature, triggered by a sense of awe.

Why awe?

Because awe is awesome. Awe is an emotion that resides in us all, dormant, on call for those moments when we behold something in nature’s spirit that invites us in. Awe connects us to our unconscious knowledge of being part of something larger than ourselves, gives us the opportunity to transcend our everyday world and connect spiritually.

Heschel describes awe as the sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the worldAwe allows us to transcend our current frames of reference. Awe triggers transcendence.

Transcendent experience, the kind sparked by nature, involves momentary feelings of appreciation for beauty, a sense of unity with nature, God or the universe, and peacefulness. During a transcendent event we feel diminished.  Our sense of self fades away in what author Jordan Rosenfeld describes as a temporary blurring at the edges.

It’s beyond our capacity to fully grasp what loss of self means. But science now has the technology to probe the brain and, although the answers to what and why are still elusive, at least research is beginning to answer the question of how self-disappearance might occur.

There is some evidence to suggest that areas of the parietal lobe, those which affect our spatial sense, may be involved in the awe experience. Images of the brain show that during intense transcendent episodes there is decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, leaving the brain incapable of separating the self from the surrounding environment. This might contribute to our sense of self-loss and to the blurring of the boundaries between self and other things in the world.

It’s no wonder that such an experience can elicit fear in us; we earthbound creatures, comfortable in knowing who we are and where we exist in space.

But take heart. There may be a good-news point to all of this. Experiencing our smallness through awe may make us better people.

Psychologist Paul Piff and associates conducted a series of experiments designed to test the hypothesis that experience of awe would trigger a sense of small self that would, in turn, lead to greater prosocial behavior – that is, voluntary behavior intended to benefit another person, such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.

In one of the studies, after having gazed at 200-foot eucalyptus trees for one minute, students reported feeling less self-centered and exhibited greater generosity when given an opportunity to help another person. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, the researchers concluded, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.

So, here we are. We are spiritual beings.  We have the capacity for transcendence. What now?

In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words: Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

 

 

 

Engaging With Spirit

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is not simple, venturing into the obscure, formless realm of spirit. So, for comfort’s sake, I’ll ease in with a definition.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines spirit as an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms – a.k.a., nature. Based on that definition, and recognizing that we are part of the natural world, one way to think of spirituality might be as the human capacity to engage with nature’s life force, its spirit.

To take it a step further, what does it mean to engage? If spirit is what gives nature life, and if spirit resides in us as well, then to engage implies a joining together, a merging, of our spirit with nature’s spirit. In other words, through spiritual engagement we experience our oneness with nature, and we experience this in what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments.

It’s no surprise, then, that at such times we might be driven beyond the physical into other-worldly places. A woman is urged by nature to reach out and hug a mountain. A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A horse trainer enters a different dimension where he exists in a state of heightened awareness. The mountain tells a 4-wheel driver he’s where he belongs.

It’s as if at those times, in moments of spiritual connection, people willingly relinquish the rational and take part in their altered reality.

And here is where we touch on one of the most intriguing – and at times, one of the most challenging – aspects of engaging with nature’s spirit; contending with the emotions that well up inside and the feelings attached to those emotions.

As we saw in Iris’ story, the feelings can be difficult. Iris did not negate her spiritual experience. She recognized and accepted her emotions of awe and humility and the appreciation of the beautiful connection between animals and plants. But the amorphous feelings about her spiritual experience made her uncomfortable.

This makes a lot of sense. These feelings can be disorienting, scary. Like having the rug pulled out from under you.

Dr. Lisa M. Christie, adjunct lecturer in the Women’s Spirituality Program at the California Institute for Integral Studies, explained that some people have difficulty integrating mystical experiences into their lives because these experiences can radically shift our understanding of the nature of ourselves and our world. This feeling of disorientation can be frightening.

Further, because these experiences are often discounted in Western culture, people who have them sometimes doubt their  own sanity.   Or they may be censured by friends or relatives.

People can become more comfortable with this kind of experience, with this different sense of ourselves, said Christie. It takes time. It requires a shift from seeing oneself as separate in the world to being part of everything. Connected.

And then there is beauty, a physical aspect of nature that touches us deeply. We marvel at her loveliness, her majesty. When we behold something in nature we consider beautiful, however, our spirit can be stirred beyond an appreciation for the physical.

Marine biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber refers to beauty as aliveness felt.

Nature is about beauty, according to Weber, because beauty is our way to experience aliveness as inwardness. Those awe-inspiring, wow moments that seize us in the face of something beautiful tell us we are alive, engage us with all of life, with spirit.

This reminds me of a story told to me by a backpacker friend. She arrived at dusk at her campsite after a day of hiking. After setting up her tent she went and sat at the edge of the canyon at the periphery of the campsite. The sun was setting behind her. Suddenly, a ribbon of color lined up along the crest of the mountain across the canyon. Like a rainbow lying down, resting in the waning day, is how she described it. As she sat there, a sense of awe washed over her, then utter peace. She needed nothing.  She wanted nothing.  It was a perfect moment.

The words of psychiatrist Carl Jung captures the essence of the backpacker’s experience: One looks out and surrenders all self-importance.

Although there is much in nature that engages our spirit with its beauty, the stars, by offering us a peek into the expanse of the universe, stand out as instigators of spirituality. After all, who can gaze into the heavens and contemplate the universe without feeling some measure of awe and wonder, and for some, connection?

When a man stares at the stars, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1831, he becomes aware of his separateness from the material world.

To end the discussion of beauty in nature, and this post, I have chosen to reproduce here the blog post, Nature’s Beauty, written by Robert Folzenlogen, May 15, 2009.

I believe this offers an interesting and expansive perspective on nature’s beauty, one that I wanted to share with you.

Nature’s Beauty

For most humans, the beauty of nature is represented by spectacular sunsets, magnificent vistas, colorful foliage and graceful wildlife. But her true beauty lies in her diversity and in both the interrelationship and interdependence of her physical forces, chemical processes, biologic systems and countless life forms. Nature is both evolution and extinction, life and death, growth and decay. She is a mosaic of heat and cold, light and darkness, fragility and awesome power. Nature offers sunshine and hurricanes, swans and maggots, rain forests and pond scum, whales and bacteria, distant galaxies and the molecules of life. Nature is neither good nor bad, benevolent nor judgmental, sentimental nor discriminatory. We enjoy her gifts and are subject to her whims. We are, after all, a component of her beauty, just like the golden eagle and the dung beetle.