c h a n g e d m i n d s

"If you assume that there's no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, there's a chance you may contribute to making a better world. That's your choice."

- Noam Chomsky


Thursday June 4, 2020

Stalking Natural Spirit:
Toward a Creation-centered Spirituality

By Bill Cahalan

I believe that the major moral challenge of the twenty-first century is to find ways to reverse the relentless unraveling of the web of life caused by our industrial-consumerist civilization. In a number of ways, beliefs and practices of the Religious Society of Friends are especially suited for helping us to face this challenge.

Our sense of personal access to the Divine Light within can be extended to include a more explicit recognition of the radiance within the other-than-human Creation. Our practices of waiting worship and everyday listening spirituality may be extended toward more direct engagement with and receptivity to this radiance. Such growth in our faith and practice may move us toward the heart-felt, sensuous spirituality needed to ground and inspire us as we struggle to slow industrial culture's momentum and to discover sustainable ways of living.

Only such spiritual practices, involving more direct, compassionate attention to the healthy, nurturing aspects of Earth's natural communities and processes, as well as to violations of their integrity, seem capable of nourishing and motivating us deeply enough for the changes we must now make. I have been inspired by my explorations with such a spirituality, and I share some of these here with the hope that they will suggest some directions for your own journeying.

Science can be a major source of continuing revelation in rediscovering the spirit presence within all nature. Directly encountering the natural world in a sensuous, receptive manner is also essential for opening to such revelation. Such experiential engagement can be illuminated through knowledge gained from the sciences..

Annie Dillard wrote, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, of a mystical experience for which her knowledge from quantum physics, combined with regular immersions in the natural world, seemed to prepare her:

"When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw 'the tree with the lights in it.' It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I'm still spending the power."

An organizing and animating intelligence

A problem with the illumination of spirit through science is that many people still think of nature in the terms of nineteenth century Newtonian science. This involves a mechanistic belief in a clocklike (or lately, a computer-like) Universe of inert matter, a collection of objects in which the parts are more basic than the whole. Such "reductionist materialism" does not inspire the kind of spirituality to which I allude here. Even many scientists appear to be having a hard time letting go of this mechanistic world view and incorporating the revelations of twentieth century co-evolutionary biology, holistic ecology, quantum physics, and scientific cosmology.

The revelations of these sciences open us, including the participant-observer scientist, to the Cosmos as more like a living organism than a machine-- a communion of subjects, rather than as a collection of objects. Scientific findings suggest the omni-presence of sentience (the capacity of something to "feel" the presence of other things and thereby be influenced by them) and creative motion (McDaniel), of an "organizing and animating intelligence" (Hellmuth), which permeates and contains all things. Science thus reaffirms and also extends an ancient intuitive awareness which has existed across cultures for thousands of years.

Before the twentieth century we did not know that there were any galaxies beyond our own "River of Light" or Milky Way. Now we know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with an average of about l00 billion stars (and how many planets with life?). The galaxies coalesce within millions of galaxy superclusters, and these superclusters are all expanding away from each other. Gazing into the night sky and trying to absorb something of this large-scale Cosmic reality begins to expand our consciousness past familiar borders, toward a mystery which is ultimately beyond our comprehension.

After the discovery of this Cosmic expansion, physicists "ran the film backwards" to the beginning of our Universe in its present form-- a Big Bang or Primordial Flaring Forth (Swimme & Berry, l992) of fire and light about l4 billion years ago. After this primal light had cooled for about 300,000 years, it formed the first, simplest atoms, hydrogen and helium. The discovery that the entire Universe has been evolving, rather than only Earth's life, together with the shift in emphasis from competition to cooperation in evolutionary biology, are world-shattering discoveries of twentieth century science. Such radical shifts from an older, more static and mechanistic cosmology seems to have major implications for our beliefs about ultimate reality, and therefore for our sense of human meaning and purpose.

Another discovery of the past century which also shifts us from the older, mechanistic world view, is that atoms are not reducible to their "parts", but are composed of mysterious, ceaselessly moving waves/particles which are impossible to measure or define exactly. And the atom is more than the sum of these energy events, as each of us is more than the sum of our organs, molecules, and atoms. So, just as the Cosmos is revealed as more immense and magnificent than had ever been imagined, so are the smallest of things composing matter found to be ultimately mysterious.

Earth's emergence

After about l billion years, the early hydrogen and helium, having gathered through gravitational attraction into "protostars" within "protogalaxies", illuminated the now dark Universe a second time as the first stars blazed into existence. Billions of years later, as second generation stars became depleted, some of them collapsed and in the process created all the other elements beyond hydrogen and helium. Our Sun, the Earth, and the other planets formed from the dust and gas of one such star about 5 billion years ago. So we and all life are composed of elements which were birthed in a dying star.

At first on the early, cooling Earth there was only lava and rock, water, and an atmosphere of gases which included much less oxygen than today. Some of the atoms within this matter, especially carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, sensed and reacted with other atoms, combining to form organic molecules, which eventually formed the first single-celled organisms.

Such a formation from "non-living" matter was not an accidental result of random activity. All atoms engage in incessant motion involving self-organization and self- renewal. The sub-atomic aspects or energy events of each atom engage in activity which sustains the atom as a larger system or "self". By self I mean a whole or system which actively maintains itself and often includes emergent qualities not present in its parts. Brian Swimme (l984) beautifully elucidated the connotations of calling such realities "selves". The term emphasizes the omni-presence of subjectivity or sentience in the process of "unseen shaping" or self-organizing, and thus the similarity between the rest of nature and our human selves. Atoms appear to apprehend or sense other atoms, selectively rejecting some and bonding with others. These early atoms eventually composed themselves into more complex systems or selves-organic molecules, and later into living organisms.

A communion of selves.

All things, not just "our" selves, are thus selves-ceaselessly self-organizing and in the process both differentiating from and communing with each other and with the larger selves which contain them. Everything, including ourselves, is interwoven with everything else, constantly receiving from, giving to, and ultimately transforming into other beings and elements.

Each self is contained within progressively larger selves -atoms within molecules within cells within people, for example. Even a "gathered meeting" of humans or a thunderstorm may be seen as a self. And people interwoven with other animals, plants, microbes and the ever-cycling elements constitute the Earth as an enduring self, as a body within which we are transient "cells". And Earth's solar system belongs to the Milky Way galaxy within the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies. And each of these self-organizing beings is a temporary expression of the ultimate, enduring Self, the Cosmos.

Earth, as such a self, has for more than 3 billion years evolved an ongoing increase in complexity. This has included an increasing diversity of living beings, as well as increasingly complex natural communities composed of these beings in predominantly cooperative relationships with each other. However, the relentless expansion of human settlement and economic activity is now bringing about Earth's sixth major extinction spasm. We have ended the 65 million year Cenezoic era, the greatest flowering of diversity in Earth's history. This is perhaps the deepest tragedy of our global ecological crisis.
So the web of life evolved from matter which is "non-living" but which nonetheless embodies "organizing intelligence". We are composed of the elements within soil, water, air and light. We constantly return parts of our bodies, and eventually will return all, to these elements. The entire living web or biosphere is not only formed from these elements, but also has shaped the composition of soil, water, and air, and actively maintains them in what would otherwise be a state of disequilibrium. Life keeps these elements in the kind of dynamic state necessary for life to continue. For example, the oxygen content of the air has never been outside the range of l5% to 25% which has allowed life to exist continuously for 3.8 billion years. Without active maintenance by the web of life, oxygen would never have reached a significant level, or if it had it would have decreased to a very low level again by merging with certain other elements, as is its natural tendency.

The elements which compose us are forms which the Light of the original Flaring Forth has taken. And we not only come from and will return to, but also help the web of life to maintain these ever-cycling elements, forms of Light, which compose us and contain us. Is this not a revelation of great mystery and beauty? Might it not help radically transform how we experience ourselves and our fellow beings within nature's body, within the wind, the rain, and the very landscape and sky?

I see the pervasive, intelligent activity which I have been describing here, this "organizing and animating intelligence", as equivalent to, or at least as a significant manifestation of Spirit, Divine Presence, or God. Spirit is thus in no way separate from matter, but is a quality of all matter-energy , and both contains and permeates each self or entity in the Cosmos.

Various theologies or beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality are possible here. Personally, I lean toward Arthur Green's statement, in an article proposing a new form of Jewish mysticism, that this "new story" provided by the sciences suggests a relationship between the Universe and God which is less that of Creation to Creator than that of surface to deep structure-or in other words, to Spirit. But this sense of immanent divinity also allows the somewhat different belief by others in a Creator who transcends the matter and energy of Creation, as well as dwells intimately within it.

A fear of idolatry

In addition to the mechanistic view of matter and the Universe already described, various hurdles to such a Creation-centered spirituality exist, often below a level of clear consciousness. These hesitations are experienced by many Christians, members of other monotheistic religions, and even "non-religious" citizens of western culture. One is the idea that the Earth and all matter is in a fallen state, as are we, awaiting a millennial era or an afterlife of release from life's realities and sufferings. There is a wish expressed in much of the Bible for human exemption from the processes to which other-than-human life is subject, especially from death. Such a longing is also present in the fervent industrial-consumerist belief in progress as perpetual, quantitative economic growth. The millennial era to be attained involves universal material prosperity on Earth.

In addition, there is an old related suspicion among many people that reverence for, or sensuous engagement with, physical Creation is idolatrous. I have heard of one Friends meeting objecting to the placement of a flower arrangement in the room where worship was held. Reverence for a tree or mountain on the part of Native Americans tended historically to be misinterpreted as distracting them from, rather than providing an opening or window into, the reality of the Whole or the Creator. William Blake's well-known verse describes such mystical discovery of the Whole in and through the small details of nature:

     To see the World in a Grain of Sand,
     And a Heaven in a wild Flower;
     Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
     And Eternity in an hour.

Perhaps we need instead to suspect the despiritualized vision of nature, along with the related idolatry of material possessions aquired through the human domination of nature. Such misplaced reverence is pervasive in industrial-comsumerist culture.

Another objection some Friends and others may have is that such spirituality distracts from concern for fellow humans and for social justice. Of course, as with any orientation there can be abuses. Such a spiritual orientation does shift humans from center stage as the exclusive focus of Divine love, and relative to other species we are indeed not seen as the pinnacle or culmination of evolution. But I think that a Creation-centered focus tends to extend and enrich, rather than detract from, a person's sense of self worth and the worth of fellow humans.

As Thomas Berry wrote, if for example Bald Eagles were to become extinct, humans would also be diminished in certain ways. The extinction of even one form of life eliminates forever a unique embodiment of the Divine, and detracts from all who remain. And if, for example, I experience my relationships with my wife and my child as embedded within the "family" of our local natural community, and as a manifestation of sentient/symbiotic relationships existing throughout the non-human Cosmos, this can add much richness to my family life.

Peace on Earth has to include peace with Earth. Globally, we see expanding human numbers and consumption rates, along with relentlessly declining natural sources for such consumption. It is becoming clear to more and more people that we can not make peace with people whose air, water, cropland, and forests we are polluting or destroying.

Illuminating everyday experience

How can the new recognitions about our living, evolving Cosmos, and all its manifestations, be embodied in day to day spiritual practice which grounds us and inspires us, as we shift to a simpler, more sustainable way of life? Without embodiment in experience and action, the knowledge I have summarized here remains merely intellectual, of little help in facing our Earth's crisis. Of course, Friends are also called toward individual and group action which seeks changes in lifestyle, economy, and government. I do not have the space to discuss such action here. But action and activism not rooted in a deeply nourishing spiritual practice easily leads to rage, despair, and burnout.

 In l983 I began leading weekend retreats to help others and myself develop an everyday practice of "natural awareness". This involved opening the senses and imagination to the spirit presence of the living world, entering into the lives of fellow beings and natural processes as subjective presences or selves, rather than as objects or mere resources. I have continued leading these retreats every year, experimenting with various approaches and settling on a format which I adjust to the group and place.

For the last two years I have also met four afternoons a year with others from past retreats, near the time of seasonal change, for mutual support in our ongoing practices of natural awareness. As at the retreat, we talk about our spiritual journeys, engage in a preparatory "Earth-body meditation", and go into the fields and woods for an extended, meditative, solitary walk. We return to our starting place to tell of a being or place which moved us or called us out of our contained selves.

Through such practice, a more sensuous, relational, and broadly compassionate consciousness has begun to grow in us as we awaken from our alienated relationships with nature. Our sensory awareness is enriched by the kinds of scientific knowing which I have described here. This consciousness involves an intentionally cultivated, vivid, moment to moment awareness of our constant give and take within the web of life. There must be such intentionality and regular practice because so many elements of our built environment and culture, of the "technosphere" we have built around ourselves, incessantly invite us to remain within the mechanistic, dualistic world view.

Our built and social worlds, which are rooted in this world view, constantly influence us to relate as spectators to the natural "environment", rather than as sensuous participants in the living, evolving body of Earth and Cosmos. Even when we leave the house, car, cell phone, and asphalt to take a stroll in woods and meadows, we tend to internalize this "armoring", unconsciously numbing our bodies and skimming over the world with our senses, as we engage in distracting "mind chatter". This armoring serves to maintain a narrow focus on functioning efficiently as workers, consumers, and owners.

Another practice, which I first experienced at an annual meeting of Friends Committee on Unity with Nature, and have led at Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, is outdoor worship sharing each morning. We sit in an open semi-circle to represent a larger sense of meeting membership which includes the other-than-human community, responding to a new query each morning. Once a year at weekly meeting for worship our Cincinnati community does something similar. At times in such a meeting I have felt profoundly addressed by the movement of clouds, by refreshing rain, by a sudden breeze-emmanations of something vast and indescribable.

Have you tried other such practices in your meeting for worship to invite a deeper listening for the voice of the Spirit in nature?

It is possible to waken and open tightly-sealed windows and doors, stepping out every day from the house of the domesticated, enclosed self. We may then find ourselves entering, from time to time, the mystery at the heart of things, discovering an ecstatic sense of kinship with all of life-a sense which is both new to us and very old.

* * * * *

I rise from my books and papers, stiff and bleary-eyed. It is late on Saturday morning. Time to shift gears. I know I need to get out of the house and out of my self.

I begin to shed inner chatter and stiffness as I walk down the back yard path. I enter the stillness of the woods, treading on damp leaves. The quiet contrasts with the creaking maple in the breeze high overhead, and the distant chatter of a chickadee. The trees, mute on the hillside and down the valley, are lit by the February sun. The creek's pools below reflect sky blue.

After walking a while along a deer trail, I stop. The leafy ground is interrupted here and there this warm winter with green clumps of wild onion and chickweed. At first all the browns and tans of the leafless trees and ground spoke of emptiness and lifelessness. But now, as my own pulsing body wakens from my couch-potato morning, I begin to feel the hidden roots drinking soil minerals for bark-covered veins in all the trees. Budded branch-tips high above sense the growing light and are beginning to draw on the roots' nourishment.

I move toward a massive white oak growing out from the creek bank, an old friend I've visited over the years. The oak, its rutted trunk thrusting branches into the bright sky, seems to call me out of myself, whispers to me of its slow and patient life, here before my birth and lasting beyond my death. The oak is even now making itself from pungent soil and last night's rain, breathing the sky's brightness. Suddenly I catch a glimpse of the whole shimmering web of this woods' life embodied in this tree, in this creek valley, in myself, and a blissful shiver moves through me. After a time I come back to myself, and reluctantly turn to go.

I meander out of the woods and toward the house. The books and afternoon schedule beckon me once again into the narrow, domesticated world where I spend so much of my time. Before going in I turn briefly and let remembered smells and sounds from the pulsing woods stir in me. Later, pausing from the word processor, I move to the window and travel back to the oak, feel the Earth turning toward sunset, and toward spring.

Intentionally cultivating this sort of deep listening for the breath of the Spirit in nature nourishes me every day. It helps me be less caught in the predominant view of nature as backdrop scenery for our human drama. I live more and more in a felt experience of the spiritual-material Creation which birthed me, sustains me, and will receive me back again. And once in a while I am suddenly filled with a sense of this Creation as a great symphony which contains and flows through each of us, whose notes sound in the hearts of all that is.

Bill Cahalan, May 2002


Abram, David The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Pantheon Books, l996.

Baylor, Byrd. & Parnall, Peter The Other Way to Listen. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, l978.

Birchard, Bruce The Burning One-ness Binding Everything: A Spiritual Journey. Wallingford PA: Pendle Hill, l996.

Cahalan, William Awakening to Earth: Natural Awareness as a Spiritual Practice. Burlington, VT: Friends Committee on Unity with Nature, 200l.

Capra, Fritz The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of living Systems. New York: Anchor Books, l996.

Green, Arthur "A Kabbalah for the environmental age" In Tikkun Magazine, Sept.-Oct. l999.

Hellmuth, Keith Analects for an Ecology of Faith. Unpublished manuscript.

MacCormack, Carol "The watchmaker reconsidered." In MacCormack, Carol ed. There Is Another World But It is This One. London: Quaker Universalist Group, l99l.

McDaniel, Jay "Physical matter as creative and sentient." In Environmental Ethics, Winter, l983.

Swimme, Brian The Universe is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story. Santa Fe: Bear & Co. l984.

Swimme, Brian. The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos. New York: Orbis Books, l996.

Swimme, Brian & Berry, Thomas The Universe Story. San Francisco: Harper, l992.

Wilson, Edward O. The Future of Life. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2002.

Top of page

www.ChangedMinds.org - Contact Us