Navigator of Being
What a winter. It just won’t let go! Here are some impressions from a recent walk:
“What a sky! Winter and spring, Yin and Yang. Cold breezes recall winter’s sting. Days of rain, a stream that drains the stormy waters and cleanses the heart. Waiting for Flora’s season to break open her art. Ready for a languid stare at petals so fair, while birds and bees listen to the trees. The wet leaves glisten for a heart that will listen. I walk with eyes lifted to a nature so gifted.”
From these Woods Walking posts, you know that I love my hikes. It’s a passion that was planted by my parents, as described in “Woods Walking #9: Three Nights of Affirmation,”¹
“I recall a raw, early sense of wonder in my pre-teen years; a seed planted by my parents during walks on pleasant spring evenings through the garden, or sampling the sweet nectar from the honey suckle blooms picked by my dad as we took walks along our street.”
I caused a little stir a few times after these early walks with my folks. I went off alone at a very early age a number of times to walk, wander and wonder. The first time my mother called the police, but after that, she knew where to look – in the temple of the Dryads.
In the video series “Meditative Moments,” featuring Brother David Steindl-Rast², Brother David says that even as a child he felt an attraction to quiet contemplation in nature. It offers an inviting, spacious presence that, met with quiet mind, speaks its own language.
The important point is to be present with what Meister Eckhart called ‘beginner’s mind’: dropping all preconceptions and the cares of the day, letting the warm Sun, soft breezes and the song of birds touch your heart.
Sense of Place
From these early walks to now, I know that we have an innate navigator that gives us a sense of place. My wife will tell you that I may not remember the name of a restaurant, but I always remember exactly where we sat, regardless the number of years since our first repast. It’s that shared instinct inherited from our evolutionary lineage, an essential tool that tells whales how to find their summer feeding grounds, or directs birds as they fly south for the winter. Or the sense that even guides a lost cat or dog that miraculously finds its way home.
Our innate sense keeps us oriented in our journeys, whether on an evening hike, or a protracted journey of relationship, learning – or simply being.
I’ve had the great fortune to become a private pilot and ‘learn the ropes’ of sailing. An essential rule to flying is “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.”
Today’s advanced navigation aids tend to rob us of our innate sense of place. I make it a habit while flying to follow both the GPS map and the paper charts in the event that the GPS or ship’s power were lost, I could take over without that disorienting feeling of being lost. Of course, if one is flying ‘in the soup,’ you maintain a spatial awareness of place that is confirmed by many cross checks, but that reside in the guiding mind of the pilot in the present moment, mile by mile.
I remember my first hikes on the Ault Park trails after just a quick review of the trail maps. My trained sense of north, south, east and west, plus visual cues of light, place and direction helped me find my way on the many connecting trails with ease. Of course, there’s a sense of satisfaction in the confirmation of arrival as expected.
Navigator of Being
So, how does one navigate the endless skies of meditation without that hopeless sense of disorientation? It’s funny, before I even knew I was on a journey in spirit, I began to pull back the veils of the heart, to follow touchstones along a path. For me, it was much as Maata Lynn Barron describes her journey in metaphysics that lead to her eventual experience of rapture.³ It started for me as I was a student of philosophy at Xavier University (Cincinnati). More from “Woods Walking #9”:
“In the year leading up to my encounter, I experienced the enjoyment of philosophical pursuit and the wondrous, revealing process of new metaphysical analysis, breaking my own trail through natural law and its logical lattice. All of this led to many sleepless nights with mind racing, pulling back the many curtains of deeper levels of understanding. Later reading of mystic and writer Emile Mersch I came to appreciate the meaning of his term, “mind aflame.” “
But now, from a more experienced practical, accessible sense, this same unveiling can happen in a more exoteric journey – from where we are now using our immediate senses and trusting our intuition and following — appreciating — the path that enabled our very being. Since “Woods Walking #2: The Metaphysics of a Fork,”4 I’ve referred to this path as ‘substantial lineage.’ It is literally walking back along the historic, evolutionary path of the stuff that we are – that matter that is our hands, our bodies, our aware self. In my blog “Today’s Koan: Substantial Lineage”5 I use a quote from Carl Sagan to provide the first step on this path:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.”
Sagan describes the path, the river of being that started with the Big Bang – as far as we know – and led to the accretion of our Sun and planets, descended from stars before us — and whatever preceded the Big Bang.
As I mentioned above, when I took the first steps along this path, I didn’t know where I was going. As classically described by all spiritual seekers, there were many dark nights following a desire, an appetite, an allure that is unknown, but is instinctively compelling – like a male dog compulsively following the scent of a bitch in heat. Something deep within us knows this allure – the Source of our being calling us back, completing a circle to, as the Sufis say, die before you die.
“The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation. When everything is lost, and all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is needed.”
Joseph Campbell, “A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living”
Nothing that is Everything
But where are we ‘going’? The paradox is that we seek ‘nothing that is everything.’ In the “Meditative Moments” video, Brother David mentions the starry sky as a source of wonder, a compelling place whose spaciousness – and nothingness – are alluring. We reach for that sky just as a sapling is compelled to reach for the Sun through the thicket of other trees around it.
In the wooded trails on a dark night, I know where I am in that moment because I have been there many times before. And I hear the breeze in the trees around me, but I also know that the entire forest makes that same call to the breath of wind. So by listening close, I also listen afar – to every tree in the woods. Their shared response is an arboreal ‘prisca theologia’ that is the same sound of every tree bending to these same winds.
So it is with our spiritual presence. I am here, but in stretching out in awareness — and in Spiritual Presence — suddenly I am everywhere. As the poet Rumi said, “We are the ocean contained in a drop.” The substance that we are returns in awareness, in conscious presence, to That from which we came. And in consent to those vast, calling waters, we are Everything again.
Yet this consent requires a personal emptying, a release that is the ‘nothing’ that takes us to everything. It is the release, the open hands of Presence found in the quiet of meditation or centering prayer.
The peak is what Maata Lynn Barron describes as ‘primordial wisdom,’ the flow of consciousness that is before the beginning – that always has been, and always will be.
After navigating in this sense of Being, that is a quiet resting place for us after a dark, confusing journey.
We start with “I am,” just me, just you, then go out from where we are, step by step, and thought by thought. I describe it in “Today’s Koan: River of Being”6 this way:
“From that centered self, then, we can do what Fr. Norris Clarke, SJ describes as going out horizontally, embracing all that is around us from this new, intimate presence to self. It is where we begin to feel a sense of belonging that goes beyond just friends, family and community. It is your presence to Being; to that which is. Paradoxically, it is a loss of self as one is absorbed by that which is around us. Metaphorically, it is a river of being. It is real and palpable and ever changing, just like a river, flowing in its quiet grandeur.”
1 “Woods Walking #9: Three Nights of Affirmation”: http://wp.me/p11gpL-15
2 “Meditative Moments with Brother David Steindl-Rast”: http://youtu.be/MPIFJ0_GQOc
3 “Interview with Maata Lynn Baron,” Golden Sufi Center: http://youtu.be/MJUmMuKbop0
4 “Woods Walking #2: The Metaphysics of a Fork”: http://wp.me/p11gpL-r
5 “Today’s Koan: Substantial Lineage”: http://wp.me/p4cmRf-1H
6 “Today’s Koan: River of Being”: http://wp.me/p4cmRf-2E