Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kali in the Forests of Symbols

Hiking along Patrick's Point State Park
Kali Yantra-Painting on Cotton Courtesy of the British Museum
Is the Divine abstract or personal? The beauty of many spiritual traditions is that it is both. I am fascinated by images of the Goddess. While walking along the Northern California coast, the image of the inverted triangle, the yoni, in the religious symbolism of Tantric Yoga and in the devotional practices of worship of the Hindu goddesses, suddenly struck me, riveted me. The soft breezes wafting through me, the vivid sea foam green, the startling triangular frame, all raised in me the roaring presence of the goddess, Kali.

Like the yantra from the British Museum, the scene was both formal in its geometric boundary lines and personal: in one case the fragrance, the trees and the stream gurgling below, in the other, the image of Kali mounted over a demon underneath which lies an inert Shiva. 

The multiple correspondences between nature, the abstract and the personal is not just limited to the religions of South Asia, but, from time to time, can also be discovered in the Western tradition. The 13th century Theologian Saint Bonaventure wrote in his "The Soul's Journey into God":

“Concerning the mirror of things perceived through sensation, we can see God not only through them as through his vestiges, but also in them as he is in them by his essence, power and presence.” (Ewert Cousins, St. Bonaventure, Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ, (1978), pg 69).
Bonaventure, in his Neoplatonic style, viewed all of Nature, as vestiges or footprints of God. We can through contemplation of Nature, trace back these footprints to the Divine. Even more recently, the irreverent, bad boy poet, Baudelaire, wrote in his poem, Correspondences:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

So Nature, the Goddess, and form intermingle. Each encircles the other, spinning threads of  corresponding hints, bringing us to the awareness of our world of symbols.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sublime and the Beautiful in Spiritual Life

Patrick Point State Park and the Mad River Mouth, North of Arcata CA

I have often contrasted the sublime and the beautiful after the fashion of the 18th century philosophers like Burke and Kant: the sublime being an aesthetic experience of dizzying heights of awe or infinitude leading to, maybe, "anxiety attacks" in contemporary psychological parlance, while the beautiful being an experience of calmness and color and harmony of form that can soothe or nurture us.

Like these aesthetic philosophers, I also have categorized people's character or attitudes; some prefer the beautiful, others the sublime. They went so far as to categorize nations with Northern Europe aligned with sublimity and the Mediterranean with beauty. I have even suggested that Unitarianism, in its unifying theology is akin to the sublime, while Universalist love is kindred to the beautiful. But I oversimplified and reduced the complexity of spiritual lived experience to two overly constrained boxes.

As I have reflected more deeply on my own experiences in nature, I've grown to realize that the experience of journeying in nature embraces both poles of awe and love and that the structure of outdoor experience alternates between the beautiful and the sublime, like the sonata form in music. In fact, walking in the woods is like the exposition of a plot--from moments of peaceful steadiness immersed in the splashes of the colorful to those heart pounding times standing near a precipice overlooking the vast Pacific. You literally feel almost swallowed up by the sea.

So living out the beautiful and the sublime, is a little like breathing or similar to the dance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system: the former gearing us up for fight or flight; the latter, slowing our breath and restoring calm.

Let us dance in beauty and let us dance in awe.