[This post was written for unpsychology magazine, an ecopsychology journal based in the U.K, in the winter of 2019-2020 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was recently published in their issue 6 with the theme of connecting with the other-than-human world. The journal issue is currently available online. I’m sharing the story below for easy access.]
As a young boy living on a small farmstead I bonded with the world in ways that connected me with many non-human lives. At that young time of life, I didn’t have a framework to describe other-than-human lives, they simply were – just as I simply was a wandering, observing child closely monitoring this, tasting that, digging and poking here and there, listening to the many voices of insects and animals as I fell asleep on summer nights with the window open.
Reflecting now, it was a natural matter of me having a presence-of-being as a child that said, “I am”, and in turn each creature and plant seemed to be echoing a divine “I am” that formed a holy presence of the world. I felt no separation between myself and ‘Nature’. I did not have a concept of a wild ‘other’. I was in the wild and the wild was in me. This is the way we are born.
Much later as a young man in the early ‘90s, I was studying and conducting research in graduate school with the intention of becoming a scientist. I was learning to ask and answer questions based on empirical evidence using the scientific method. I became as deeply immersed in observing animals and ecosystems from this scientific framework of understanding as I had been immersed in my former “I am” and “You are” way of being as a child discovering nature.
Toward the end of my graduate research program I had begun to sense that the world of science was too often simply a more precise reflection of the deeply embedded Cartesian view of the earth and universe as machine. This world view has allowed us to use a mechanistic industrial-military process with humans as overlords to subdue and manipulate the earth and all of her lifeforms for our sole benefit. This is a way of life that is all taking and no giving. This way of life runs counter to billions of years of evolution of life. It is impossible to sustain.
By remaining steeped only in the world of science it was easy for me to rationalize away my questions about my own soul, or my recurring dreams of a grandfather spirit calling me to deeper connection with the earth. I meditated on Einstein’s quip that a problem can’t truly be solved by the same type of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. I started listening to my inner desire to learn how I might live in a time of great destruction without contributing to that destruction. I began to explore if there were other valid ways of knowing. I longed for the possibility that there might be somewhere an existence of a balance between head knowledge and heart knowledge.
What follows are several personal accounts of what I describe as mystical experiences of the more-than-human world as a young boy and then also as a young adult that I now recognize helped to shape who “I am” today. In reflecting back on my own mystical experiences, I know that they were and continue to be important for me in learning to open to my deeper self, to listen to my heart as well as my head, and to foster a positive partnership between spirituality and science.
One of my earliest memories as a child playing outside happened on a late spring day. I was not yet four years old. My parents had moved to a trailer home on a small farmstead belonging to my mother’s family. For me, it was a place with plenty to explore, and I was often outside doing just that. My parents grew large gardens, and my grandparents farmed the surrounding cropland planting, growing, and harvesting corn, soybeans, and wheat.
I would often wander down into the unmown pasture where the grasses were still taller than me.
It was an old pasture that grazed a few cattle when my grandparents lived there. There was an abandoned underground cistern that held water for the cows at the end of the pasture near the road, that had been filled in with rocks. It would transform into a tiny pond after a soaking rain. The ditch tile along that section of road was broken and so this area of the pasture was often wet and marshy with a few cattails growing and was full of frogs, red-winged blackbirds, and insects like dragonflies darted through the air.
It was during such a time that I wandered down to the end of the meadow to see what I could find. It was there that I discovered a small snake among the remains of the broken drainage tile. I remember fetching a dead branch that had fallen from the giant pignut hickory tree growing nearby. As if I had done it a thousand times before, I offered the branch to the snake and asked if he would be my friend. He slithered up onto the branch and twined himself around it. In my memory it seems as if time stood still, and without words the snake and I connected and understood one another.
I talked with the snake as I walked us through the tall grass meadow and up to the mown grass in front of our mobile home where I sat with the snake and watched as he moved his sinuous body in and around the branch as I slowly waved it through the air.
Right then my mother had noticed me from out the front window and I heard her exclaim. She ran outside and down to me telling me to let go of the snake while picking me up.
Before that moment there was nothing else in the world except snake, me, the grass and the sunshine, and everything felt timeless. I did not have any knowledge that snakes could be dangerous, or that a snake might not be the best playmate.
There are still times when I see a snake and recall my memory of the day I bonded with my friend the snake.
It was a hot summer, as most summers are on the prairie peninsula of western Indiana. I was about eight years old, and had been recently stung by a wasp several times. Honey bees are one sting and done. A wasp, I learned through experience, can keep on stinging. It was painful and reminded me of the time my sister and I had been chased by a hive of feral bees when we were very young. We had been stung many times during that incident. Thus, I was afraid of bees and now I was especially afraid of wasps and it was affecting my normal desire to be outdoors.
I don’t remember who it was that suggested it to me – one of my parents or grandparents – that getting stung by insects was a part of being alive in the world that I needed to accept. They suggested it would be a good thing if I could overcome my fear of wasps. That the wasps were perhaps as afraid of me as I was of them. The wasps were doing good work, too – pollinating our fruit trees, and eating caterpillars that feasted on our garden veggies.
It happened one day soon after that I climbed into the top of a small two-story storage barn and “playhouse” that my father had built. It was like a hot dry sauna in the top of the barn. As I climbed to the top of the attic-like second story I noticed a paper wasp nest at the ridge timber of the barn just a few feet above my head. There were many wasps crawling around on the nest.
I had a sense that overcame me that this was the time for me to face my fear of wasps and invite them to be my friend. There were two small doors that opened out onto a ledge on the second floor of the barn. I very slowly crawled out onto the ledge, sat in the sun and removed my shirt.
I called to the wasps to come to me. Within a few minutes one, and then two, and then more wasps came and landed on my arms, back, and chest. I breathed slowly and gave them the message that I meant no harm. I sat there motionless in a peaceful state – eventually with seven or eight wasps on my body. They were thoroughly checking me out. I watched as they each sniffed and tasted my skin.
After a long while they all flew off seemingly satisfied. I felt both a relief and a degree of kinship with them and bid them farewell, leaving them in peace. I was no longer afraid of wasps.
It was on December 10, 1993, on the heels of leaving my Ph.D. program, that I went into the woodlands to fast from food and drink and to pray for guidance. There was only the sound of the cold wind through the dormant trees, and the yet unfrozen creek gurgling below the forested hill where I sat on my sleeping bag with a journal and some water to make into herbal tea.
After two days of fasting and meditating on the hill the first snow of winter began to lightly, almost silently, fall to the forest floor. As dusk overtook the woods, I pulled my wool hat down over my ears. Hungry and tired, I burrowed into my sleeping bag and fell into a deep sleep. I began to dream. It was not like any dream I had experienced before. The dreamscape included the hill and the trees and the creek where I was fasting, and I could see my body lying there. I felt awake and lucid.
A coyote appeared on the opposite side of the creek. Its body was dazzling, pure shimmering white energy. It ran and jumped very high into the air. As my eyes followed its leaping into the air, I looked up. The night sky opened and expanded into the wide circle of universe with vivid starlight. There in the sky that was both night and day together a large red-tailed hawk was circling above me.
In one single moment the eyes of the hawk connected with my eyes, and its eyes became my eyes, and my eyes melded with the hawk’s eyes. The spirit of the hawk flew into me and filled me. I then awoke, startled, breathing heavily. A coyote howled from just across the creek. I lay awake listening to my pounding heartbeat wondering about what had just happened to me.
The following morning, the snow the night before had melted and the ground was still unfrozen. I walked barefoot and silently down to the creek and crossed it to find coyote tracks in the muddy edge where the woods met the creek. I left my footprints there beside coyote’s.
It began to snow again. I could hear the individual flakes of snow as they landed on the dry brown leaves of the forest floor. I could smell the fragrances of the forest that I had not noticed the day before. Although I was still not sure what I would do next in my life, I felt alive in a way that my animal self was alive within me.
I had been away from civilization for six months learning and living with and from the wild. I was then alone from other people for one month during the autumn living adjacent the Rainbow Lake Wilderness area near Lake Superior where black bears and timberwolves were also living.
One night I went to sleep in my wickiup shelter not knowing where I belonged in this world. Early morning the next day looking out over birch forested Line Lake I was thinking about the moose tracks I found on the opposite side the day before. I turned to see a red squirrel a few feet away speaking directly to me with his squirrel language. At that moment it was as if a fog lifted and everything became very bright. Time stood still.
I heard the voices of the trees, the animals, even the lake. They distinctly spoke to me and told me I was one of them, that I was accepted, that I belonged. It was one of the most joyous moments of my life. I have no words to fully convey the feeling or experience, but I felt I was at home again. Ever since that day, even though I live a modern lifestyle now, I know that I belong to Mother Earth and to Life.
I’ve been reluctant for a long time to share any of my own spiritual experiences with the wild ‘other’. I feel quite vulnerable in sharing them publicly. I’ve decided to share some of them here because I think there are likely many others like myself in modern culture that have had and continue to have deeply mystical experiences that are (or could be) meaningful to their lives. It isn’t only the kind of experiences I’ve written about here, for any experiences of awe and wonder of the universe are as important as any experience we can have as human beings.
The awe and wonder of the stars in the night sky, hearing the call and response of two barred owls, standing in the midst of a circle of giant redwood trees, or witnessing the birth of your child are a few of the infinite examples of awe we can witness and experience. Experiences of awe are mystical, spiritual experiences that I believe are central to what it means to be truly human. Rabbi Abraham Heschel said that there are three ways to respond to Creation: to exploit it, to enjoy it, and to accept it with awe. Accepting Creation with awe and ineffable radical astonishment is a sacred act. For human beings, awe is the beginning of wisdom. I think of awe as the amygdala of the ‘wild mind’.
Recalling and acknowledging my own mystical experiences as real and as part of my full experience as a human being has allowed me to re-open myself to sacred wonder and joy of the holy creation that is the Earth, my home.
Although I do agree that our modern ways of thinking and our way of life has us standing on the knife’s edge of an ecological double bind1 as Gregory Bateson and others demonstrated more than six decades ago (and that indigenous peoples of North and South America clearly recognized and pointed out to us more than 500 years ago), I do not believe that we can purely think our way out of such a bind. It is time to become grounded in our bodies again, to make way for re-developing our wild minds that humanity was born with.
This requires a balance of knowing and unknowing. To paraphrase a teaching from Franciscan elder Richard Rohr: As much as we embrace thinking and knowing, we must also embrace unknowing. This allows us to grow into the mystics (lovers) we are meant to be, to cultivate love, and then, “loving becomes its own kind of knowing – the deepest kind of knowing”.
We will care for and protect that which we love. In light of this, I’m sensing a need to let go of any rigid dichotomy; of physical and non-physical, of science and spirit, of body and mind. I’m beginning to reimagine my own humanity in a way that unites my mind and body, honors my spirit and the spirit in all things, and fosters pathways of creation and imagination reconnecting my whole heart with the Earth again – not unlike my childhood self – to love myself and the Earth, and the connections thereof.
I’m also sensing that humanity might survive if we embrace an ethic of what Enrique Salmon describes as ‘kin-centric ecology’. Where we are in the wild and the wild is in us. There is no separation of “nature” or “wildness” with humans. Such an ethic will require that we make room for and embrace methods and ways of living that help us to all re-develop our ‘wild mind’.
In the modern age, to re-develop our wild mind is to meld the mystery of life into a spiritual ecology2 that honors both science and spirit. To acknowledge other ways of knowing (and unknowing) that will strengthen our head knowledge of ecology to birth a deep ecology of the human spirit.
Albert Einstein, arguably the most well-known scientist of our modern era, had embraced a similar way of being and observing:
“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”Albert Einstein – The Merging of Spirit and Science
I did not come of age in a culture that values the kind of mystical experiences of the wild ‘other’, and thus have had little guidance from my own culture. The ability to name our mystical experiences is a necessary part of self-empowerment. Without guidance and a cultural framework – a living cosmology – for understanding and integrating such experiences into everyday life, such experience withers on the vine. As Creation Spirituality theologian Matthew Fox offers, we need new wine skins (a living cosmology) in which to put our new wine (new interconnected spiritual, mystical, and yes, scientific ways of knowing).
It was only through seeking out people from a native culture deeply grounded in spiritual understanding of Nature for a thousand generations that these other ways of knowing and my mystical experiences were acknowledged. However, I was an outsider. Ever since, I’ve longed for my own culture to embrace a way of being within a living cosmology that allows us and our descendants a chance to become truly native to the places we live. To do this I believe we must unite body and mind, mystical with the material, experience with thought, and become children of awe.
Such a new story to live by won’t happen as in flipping a light switch, yet with quiet patience and listening long into the night as the barred owl does we will find the path, like the advice that Rilke gives us:
“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart…try to love the questions themselves…do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them – and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.”Rainer Marie Rilke
Preparing and opening ourselves to enter into mystical experiences with Divine Nature is a key pathway we can begin to heal our relationship with the Earth, and better understand our place and sacred role in this holy communion of Creation that is our home. To emerge wild – rooted in our authentic selves and emerging from that place out into the wide world as our fully human selves in awe of and taking care of Mother Earth.
1ecological double bind – phrasing popularized by Gregory Bateson referring to the intractable bind of our modern culture, on the one hand, wanting to preserve and protect our natural environment; while on the other, everything we do to grow our economy and preserve our standard of living disrupts the natural environment and our relationships with it.
2Spiritual Ecology – recognizes that there are spiritual elements at the roots of environmental crises. Spiritual ecologists call for an integration of the spiritual with the science of ecology in order to birth resilient ecological wisdom; that conservation work, ecological restoration, and efforts to develop sustainable living include spiritual elements, and that contemporary religion and spirituality include awareness of and engagement in science and ecological issues.