Nature Mysticism in the writings of Traherne, Whitman, Jefferies and Krishnamurti Mike King
The purpose of this essay is to attempt an investigation of what a 'nature mysticism' might be as indicated primarily by four writers: Traherne, Whitman, Jefferies, and Krishnamurti. These have been chosen because their writings are substantially mystical or at least because their mysticism is more easily identified than with others such as Wordsworth and a whole range of other writers and poets through the ages. These other sources are vital to a fuller development of this subject but time does not permit the much longer trawl through these less populated 'seas'.
1.1. Mysticism: Some Definitions
Any writer on mysticism will inevitably bring certain assumptions with them to the subject, so it is important to state these at the outset. While broadly sympathetic to the definitions of mysticism given by James, Underhill, Zaehner and Happold (whose ideas are explored in more detail below), I am generally interested in a mysticism that does not require either the religious, the paranormal, or the occult. Hence no great effort will be expended to justify the concept of a nature mysticism against the very real (to them) worries that an orthodox Christian might have; nor on the other hand will it readily be ceded that nature mysticism might expand to include Blake's or Steiner's angels or any other occult or supernatural phenomenon. I also have to state that I accept the perennialist view (popularised by Huxley) as against the contextual view (promoted by Katz et. al.). The perennialist view holds that at core we are looking at one phenomenon called mysticism as against many, so that any taxonomy of mysticism is more a taxonomy of paths than of ends. On the other hand the traditionalist view (epitomised by the works of Frithjof Schuon) is not useful here as it assumes that any 'real' experience of God has to come via established religion, so it would neither accept the importance of Traherne, Whitman, Jefferies, or Krishnamurti, or even the concept of nature mysticism.
Another important caveat on a too-ready acceptance of the above scholars' definitions of mysticism is that their definitions are perhaps too bound up with mystical experience. Although a discussion of discrete experiences, usually understood to be in some way 'peak' experiences, is useful, it obscures the fact that the lives of the mystics need also to be characterised in terms of their continuum or orientation.
As a rough working definition to begin the discussion of nature mysticism we can say that it is an expansivity triggered by Nature. This expansivity will include not only discrete experiences (such as certain raptures often cited as examples of nature mysticism) but a mystical continuum or orientation in which Nature plays a role.
1.2. Via Positiva and Via Negativa
Although the place of nature mysticism in existing taxonomies of mysticism will be explored later on, it is worth introducing at this point the distinction, widely held to be useful, between via positiva and via negativa. Via negativa is the more easily defined of the two: it is the path to mystical union via the denying of all manifest things. The work of Dyonisius the Areopagite is perhaps the best example in a Western context, but the same principles are found as far afield as in branches of Hinduism ('neti, neti' — meaning 'not this, not that' is its Indian formulation); in Buddhism (in the very concept of nirvana or nothingness); and in modern sages like Krishnamurti and Douglas Harding. Via negativa carries with it associations of withdrawal, solitude, contemplation, silence, simplicity, and renunciation, though these are often caricatured, as in the supposed Christian 'heresy' of quietism.
Via positiva is the path of expansion, a growing capacity to lose boundaries and temporality until one becomes the Whole. Perhaps the best exponent of this path is Whitman (though as this may be an unfamiliar proposition, it will be defended in more detail below). One might more readily recognise via positiva in an ecstatic like Rumi or Kabir. Clearly nature mysticism will be more readily associated with via positiva than via negativa, but it does not in the least require one aspect common in via positiva: the devotional orientation, or at least not a theistic devotion.
The distinction between via positiva and via negativa is a difficult one, and even more so the relationship between this distinction and those between bhakti and jnani, heart and intellect, love and awareness, and theistic and monistic mysticism, and so on. All of these are useful signposts however.
1.3. The Role of Nature in Mysticism
If nature mysticism is perhaps more closely related to via positiva however, then what is the role of Nature in this form of mysticism? Some pointers as to what we are looking for are needed here. We have mentioned that Nature might be a trigger, that is a trigger to a discrete mystical experience, and that it might also be part of the continuum or orientation of a mystic. We can easily investigate the first case, as there are many recorded accounts of mystical experiences that took place as a result of the contemplation of a mountain, sunset, or even of humbler commonplace Nature: these are ecstatic or sublime moments. How can we learn about Nature as part of the continuum of the mystic however? The answer may lie in a simple characterisation of a mystic's writings: they may pedagogical, or they may be the spontaneous celebration of the delight they find in their condition. This distinction is very important because the pedagogical is more often a picture of the mystic's audience than of their inner world — for some such as Krishnamurti there is no allowance made for the listener, while for others such as Gurdjieff it is almost impossible to disentangle pedagogical device from the real teaching. Hence to understand the role of Nature in the continuum of the mystic can take some detective work.
Nature as a trigger to mystical experience can be understood, as identified earlier, as part of an expansivity. It may also cause the resonance of some faculty that goes beyond time, so that as a cause of the loss of boundaries and as a cause of the loss of the sense of time Nature somehow works on certain individuals. Nature is vast, though this is often lost on city dwellers, and it is timeless in the sense that it regenerates itself. It is also prodigious, and this is part of via positiva: Arjuna's overwhelming experience of the cosmic nature of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is partly due to the abundance of creation that is manifest through Krishna. The views of Nature that we shall come across in nature mysticism are not romanticised views of Nature however, even if they may seem so on the surface. Nature can also be seen as the destroyer of the false, and this is important in Buddhist mysticism for example — the Buddha nature is revealed once the imperfections of vision are removed, rather than by grace as in the Christian tradition.