Nature Mysticism

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Let us return to the question of looking. What is there in Dillard, and by implication in 20th century thought, that makes looking more pessimistic than in the 19th century, more inclined to see the 'leeched turtle and the frayed flighted things'? What did Jefferies and Whitman possess, what did the naturalists of the great American wilderness possess, that modern man and woman does not? The cynical answer is naivety, but that will not suffice here. An alternative answer to explore is simply 'a sense of proportion.' Is it not conceivable that the modern mind has lost a sense of proportion that our forbears had, for the simple reason that we have lost the very contact with Nature that we are trying to re-establish here.

Dillard is saying, as so many would agree, that the life of creatures is full of suffering, both in living and dying. Tennyson articulated this view with these well-known lines:
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Though Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed.
These very lines were quoted by Anthony Freeman, a vicar sacked by the Church of England for 'not believing in God.' He writes about the 'design argument' (a proof for the existence of God) which relies on the perception that the created world has intelligence and goodness behind it:
Emotionally I hung on to the design argument long after conceding that there was no intellectual force in it. And it was my emotional response, to a growing doubt that the universe really has a design, which finally tipped the balance against it. I can still admire the way in which elements of nature interlock, but I can no longer accept that it is part of a plan. For example I can marvel that animals have so developed that they can breath air; I cannot accept (as the old view required) that God made air the way he did in order that the animals could breathe. Nor can I accept any longer (as traditional faith requires) that a good and skilful God would have designed so much waste and violence into nature, 'red in tooth and claw.' (Freeman, Anthony, God in Us, London: SCM Press, 1994, p.18)
So, we have 'waste', or profligacy or prolific fecundity, whichever way one prefers to call it; we have violence in the acts of predation which no one can deny, and we have suffering. But, the question is, in what proportion? This question is almost never asked; it is an everyday wisdom that life 'is' suffering, and this idea found of course a unique expression in the First Noble Truth of the Buddha. Let us take a typical predator/prey ecology found in Nature, that of lions and zebras. We watch with differing degrees of revulsion when our television screens show us the chase and the final act of killing and eating the prey, although we have already pointed out that we identify more with the lioness than with the zebra. From the moment that the first claws enter the zebra's flesh, to the death of the animal, usually by asphyxiation caused by the lioness's jaws at the windpipe, what interval elapses? How long does the animal suffer? Thirty seconds? One minute? Two minutes? It is very rare in Nature that creatures take longer than this to die from the natural violence of predation. Starvation, it is true, can take longer, but if we de-anthropomorphise the situation, that is, avoid the temptation to attribute the animal with the anxiety we would feel, we actually observe that very little suffering is involved. It was realised for example that the culling of elephants in South Africa through helicopter-born rifle teams was infinitely more distressing to the animals than the natural wasting away caused by drought. If we take the average situation of the higher animals in the different niches they occupy in the food-chain, then in all honesty we have to admit that suffering is a tiny, tiny fraction of their life's experience. The other point almost never considered is how much animals simply enjoy life. From the intense pleasure that the young of the gorilla species (and this is typical of all mammals) display in walking, running, jumping, and play, to the quiet introspections of the oldest silverback, is all that not worth a hundred, or thousand, or million times over the suffering that may, in the proportion we observe, be their lot?
Let us consider a different example, the frog of Annie Dillard. She tell us that the horror of what she saw 'sapped her' almost daily for several years, but admits to us that the entire scenario of the frog's death, as its brains turned to 'broth' lasted no more than a second. One second! Perhaps the frog had lived for six months up to then, as egg, tadpole, and finally in its amphibious form, feeding, we note, on insects. Did it not enjoy the day and night, the fluid ease of its mastery of land and water, its encounters with its own kind, and the delicious array of insect life provided for it? And was it not entirely fitting that just for once a frog should in turn provide a meal for a insect, especially a giant one? As Burroughs says, 'The physical aspects of death are unlovely and repellent,' then adding that the 'grave is not dark or cold to the dead, but only to the living.' The frog was gone in a second, its grave the stomach of another creature, a place that was only dark and cold to Annie Dillard. One second for the frog, but two years of being sapped by 'strong feelings.' Of course, this is what makes us human, that we can be sensitive and brood on things, but is this in any kind of proportion? One second to six months is about one in fifteen million. Or 0.0000006% of the frog's lifetime. Let us say that the frog was extremely lucky, and that as much as 1% of an animal's life involves suffering, i.e. 99% of an animal's average lifetime is free of suffering. Given that life lives on live on the planet Earth, it might seem that Nature, far from being 'red in tooth and claw' has designed the system extremely well, if not compassionately. Six months of happy froggy pastimes for one second of searing agony. Not a bad deal surely.
Let us pursue this train of thought out of the realm of pure Nature, and into the human realm. We might well say that humans have a greater capacity for suffering. If we give the animals a 99% pain-free life, what might a realistic figure be for people? How about 90%? That would mean that in the present population of six billion people on this planet 5.4 billion people had a 'nice day' in the last twenty-four hours. Isn't that a staggering achievement?
No, a great many would reply, William James amongst them. He might have accepted the figure of 90% non-suffering, but would find no cheer in it:
To begin with, how can things so insecure as the successful experiences of the world afford a stable anchorage? A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain. In the healthiest and most prosperous existence, how many links of illness, danger, and disaster are always interposed? Unsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up : a touch of nausea, a falling dead of delight, a whiff of melancholy, things that sound a knell, for fugitive as they may be, they bring a feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness. (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 136)
James's point here is that if life is a chain, then one experience of suffering is enough to break it. But is this metaphor convincing? For a start, if life is a chain, then while one end may be secured in the good fortune of birth the other end has no anchor-hold at all because it is located in death. Furthermore what kind of fortitude is there in a person if it cannot take any suffering in its stride, or even grow in some way from it? Does James really admire the personality that retreats after the smallest reverse? Is not one of the most admired men of all times Nelson Mandela for whom such a large proportion of his life was spent in prison, and a large proportion of that in solitary confinement? While we may be willing to accept our 90% guess for the average person, does not the far more unfavourable percentage for Mandela show how a truly wise person still finds in Life's favour after such disproportionate deprivation?
James's analysis of the 'religion of the sick soul' and the reasons he finds overwhelmingly in favour of this pessimistic outlook is instructive and thoughtful, and it is pointless to suggest that rational argument can sway a person who, by instinct, sees life this way. Nevertheless it is still important to argue a case for a sense of proportion, as we are doing here. James includes the following point in his discussion:
We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good in fact that flies beyond the Goods of nature. (Varieties of Religious Experience,p.140)
It is not hard to find a host of intelligent men and women down the ages who share this view, including Vivekananda (Ramakrishna's disciple) who was quite convinced he could design a better world. And we agree with James in one sense, that to find the deathless and incorruptible is the whole journey of the jnani (and the bhakti for that matter), but we disagree with James and Vivekananda that the manifest world itself could offer a 'life without death, a health not liable to illness.' The insight of the great naturalists and Nature mystics is that Nature requires death, ours just as much as the frog's or zebras'. Their great skill is to find the eternal and the deathless in the very fabric of the natural world, the one that Dillard is so ambivalent about and that James and Vivekananda would 'redesign.'
via positiva
We now come to some more general and perhaps radical ways of understanding the manifest world and via positiva. It is not that likely, but let us say that we convince a James or a Dillard that they have wanted for a lack of proportion, and that they come to an accommodation with suffering and predation on that basis. A further step is need to obtain to the full via positiva of whom Whitman is the best epitome. This involves a deeper understanding yet of how our quintessentially human needs are met by the very structures in Nature that have been objected to so far. Anthropologists are pretty clear, and stand in disagreement with the more vociferous of the vegetarians, that human physiology and the human brain developed through hunting. Our very intelligence, keenness of sight, alertness, our socialisation, and above all our willingness to take risks, all stem from an evolutionary adaptation to hunting in groups, and the survival bonuses that go with an omnivorous diet. Alongside all of this we have the aggression and the territorial instincts that lead us to war.
But what if Vivekananda was able to design the world that fitted with his preferences? Could we conceive a of a world where life did not live on life, where there was no competition for survival? Even Vivekananda ate vegetables, which either had to die to give him life, or give up their possibility as grain, seed, or nut for growing into their own potential, rather than his. But perhaps we could at least design out the carnivores (and redesign us as pure herbivores): this would rid us at a stroke of 'Nature red in tooth and claw.' But the world is finite, so as gentle herbivores, man included, how would the animals allocate their territories? Is it not true that all the males of even the most rigorously plant-eating species fight each other for space and resources? In Vivekananda's ideal world perhaps a gentler process could be found. But as we travel down this hypothetical road we are successively denying to Nature the primary mechanism for its creative impulse: the struggle for survival. The beauty, strength, intelligence, and sheer vibrancy of a plant-eating gorilla or zebra derives as surely from struggle as the beauty, strength, intelligence, and sheer vibrancy of a predator like the polar bear, lion, or eagle, or for that matter, man. And it is only in the drama of hunting and being hunted that the real 'quickness' of life emerges, as in that wise old expression 'the quick and the dead'. Dillard mused on the seals that they were either 'fat or dead,' but this older expression is wiser.
And this brings us to the central point. Through the drama of the hunt we are either 'quick or dead,' but this way of serving Nature's mechanism for the creation of its evolutionary masterpieces is not in itself why we are addicted to life, but because of the drama inherent in it. To be witness to a drama is the deepest life-impulse in us. A 'safe' anodyne life where danger has been designed out of existence is to very quickly turn us from 'quick' to 'dead.' It is Dillard's gift as a writer to bring alive the dramas in Nature, and even to be part of them, by allowing the death of the frog to haunt her, and us too through our vicarious powers as reader. At the heart of the via positiva, if one is to truly accept one's identification with the whole, and with all things in it, one needs to develop this understanding of the dynamics that shape the manifest world: that its structures revolve around drama. The mystic and Nature mystic have in some important way transcended the personal identification with these dramas, and so paradoxically may seem naive, but in reality have simply understood the proportion of things, and the dynamics behind them.
But all of this discussion has only really dealt with some objections to Nature Mysticism as a form of via positiva. We have argued, and some might find convincingly, against the objections, but let us look more closely at how via positiva evolves from these early steps. First of all we should say that the choice of this path is more by temperament than by reason. Those inclined to this path are engaging in a process of progressive identification with a larger and larger sphere of the world, and in the case of the Nature mystic, they are starting with the natural world. We have pointed out that the first obstacle, that of suffering and predation, arises perhaps from the very sensitivity that draws the individual to Nature. But a sense of proportion, and a profound understanding of the dynamics that give rise to the very fabric of human experience, and a recognition of the intrinsic role of the dramatic, all temper those initial objections. Temper but not desensitise of course, because the aspirant on this path has to become more alive and more open, has to quiver with every beautiful leaf and dewdrop, and shudder with every cracked bone and ripped hide. Nature teaches well, if one can listen, and we have seen how it taught some of the geniuses of this path. But the lessons and deeper understandings of the dynamics that shape the natural world have to be extended to the human world, a progression that Thoreau perhaps could not make, where Whitman could. To see that the dynamics of survival play their role in the human drama, intertwined with the great human capacities for love and comradeship, and to accommodate the human counterparts to the acts of predation in the natural world, all this takes a great soul indeed.
We have pointed out that the via positiva is harder in its earlier stages, and looked at the obstacles, and they are formidable. But the outcome is a kind of spirituality that has not yet been truly celebrated, apart from here and there. It is far from Panglossian, Arcadian, anodyne, 'happy-clappy', naive, 'healthy-minded' (in James's sense), and a real study of the life of Whitman shows 'no dainty, dolce affetuoso', but a 'grizzled, grey-bearded, forbidding'' seasoned man of the world, and containing such a benign wisdom. It is a wisdom that is utterly different to the Buddha's. At the same time the destination is the same; in the words of a Zen tradition: 'no self, no person, no living being, no lifespan.' One has become none of those things by becoming all things; furthermore, like Whitman, we find 'no two alike, and each one of them good.'
Which brings us to a vital element in this debate, the delicate subject of compassion, delicate because, like love, it is trespassed against in words, not because of its treatment there, but because of its scarcity in deed. By proclaiming that 'life is suffering' the Buddha is accorded the sense of magnificent compassion, but in the instant of proclaiming that 'life is good' one is open to the charge of indifference to suffering. All we can do is take again our best example of the via positiva, Walt Whitman, and remind ourselves, not of his words, but his deeds, which were a lifelong manifestation of compassion in action. James was mistaken to say of Whitman: 'He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it', or that he 'was cut of from even a transient sadness or a momentary humility by a kind of congenital anaesthesia'. A closer look at Whitman through the eyes of those who actually knew him showed that indifference was the last thing they found in him, and as for the capacity for sadness and humility, he showed these in abundance too. He simply wasn't morbid (though he seemed to have produced some unpublished verse that is morbid in the extreme, perhaps his own way of purging it from his system). The facts of Whitman's life showed him always in the service of others, never more so than in the accounts of his ministrations to dying soldiers in hospital, a role he took on entirely from his own promptings. He helped in simple ways like bringing fruits or sweets, or making them comfortable in their crude beds, and in practical ways like writing down and posting the last expressions of the love of an illiterate man for his family or sweetheart, and more profoundly still by bringing his benign presence to them, so that they would 'swear that they had been in the presence of an angel'. And then, through his life, like the Buddha, he taught the discipline of transcendence to any who had the inner ear for it. The real compassion is to bring the awakened heart to bear on those who still live in the relative nightmare of false identifications; both men spent their lives on it. The false identifications are equally dispelled by via negativa, or via positiva.


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