Steven Fortney Essays


Secular Mysticism

An Attempt to Explain What Canít Be Explained

The text for the mystical experience is nature and life experience. What has been called mysticism is really an aesthetic experience, an artistic arrest which belongs to one of the subsets of art. The ecstasy one feels as a member of a chorus singing a great piece of music such as Griegís Landskending, or the Gloria from a Mozartís mass, or as one of an audience watching Randall Duk Kim playing Lear, or watching the dance sequence of the death of Don Giovanni with Salieriís astonished commentary in Amadeus, or reading Gerald Sternís great poem on masculine creativity, God of Rain, God of Water, or seeing Rodinís Balzac for the first time, is the same rapture that one experiences in mystical arrest. The mystical event is all this and much more; and, moreover, up to a point, it can be described rationally and scientifically. It can be understood. After that point only the language of poetry is capable of pointing beyond the limits of silence. How the poem sees through nature and experience is various.

Four men are canoeing the Brule River in far northwestern Wisconsin. This river is part of an ancient highway that has been used for hundreds of years by Lakota and Ojibwe, French Voyageurs, and Bois Brulť woods rats. One can travel it with few portages from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico, from Duluth to Baton Rouge. Its cold waters are full of rainbow, brown, and brook trout, and coho and chinook salmon. The four have spent hours paddling downstream south to north, creels full of fat trout, their canoes sounding like giant tin drums as they bang against river rocks. The day clouds. Threatens. Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles. It is not a good idea to be exposed on this river in the violent storm that is coming. They race over fast water to the take-out at Big Lake. No fishing now. In their hurry in the twilight of a cool late evening they crunch against the gravel shore. A brilliant lightning flash. For an instant a brutally clear sharp day. The thunder detonates. But they are safe now. ďGod,í one of them shouts, ďI love that river!Ē

The Lake Superior the Brule empties into is the God of the upland north. It is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the word. Some winters the western Fond du Lac freezes over completely. Moose and wolves cross from Minnesota and Ontario into Wisconsin. One very early spring the children went out on that ice and played over water that would kill them with its cold in minutes later in the year. The storms are awesome here. The winds out of the northeast blow over three hundred or more miles of icy water. A sailboat flying only a shortened jib can barely stay afloat. The deadly green water driven by a November gale buried the fantail of the Edmund Fitzgerald, broke that huge ship apart, and sent it to the bottom, all hands lost. This inland ocean whose waters one may drink can swallow navigation whole. The storms have littered shipwreck buried under hundreds of feet of water. Fishermen work Superior for trout, salmon, whitefish, cisco, herring. The people eat good food. Life is sustained. Life flourishes. Life is sweet. This God destroys and nurtures indifferently.

The love trinity: English is word poor for once. The Greeks knew better; their three, agape, philia, eros; charity, friendship, sex, all three of which demand leaving off the petty self caring for the well being of another; the warmth of affection, man for man, woman for woman, men for women--the friend, so declares the Anthology, is another self; and then is that high rapture of sexual love and its explosive unpersoning release, la petite mort, the little death that is the sublimity of climax like victory in a killing war. The troubadours, chanting a square deific, uncover a fourth inflection of love: Amor. This courtly love enters the heart through human eyes and opens it to the glory of woman and the world. When one climbs loveís four ladders, convention, and even order itself, is shattered. The poetry of them stands high above all rooftops; its speaking elevates and terrifies. Its speaking unites the comedy of reconciliation, the tragedy of self destructive, city-destroying world-shattering violence.

Hikers in the woods. The air is still. Pines and popples stand like cathedral columns. Wild strawberries, cinnamon ferns, wood anemones, princess pines, wintergreen, rug the floor under the canopy. They stop. The heft of this silence is rich, potent. It feels like holiness. Listen for birds. A pileated. Indigo bunting, chickadee, pine siskin, blue jay, black and white warblers. Crow. Barred owl, great gray, raven. White tail deer and grouse abound. Coyotes caterwaul of an evening. An explosion of bear. The wolves are here, the animals in the current packs approach seven hundred animals. They and northern harriers hold down grouse and white tail numbers. Huffing bear, wolf cry in the middle of the night make the blood run cold. The sacred woods are not without danger. Cougars have appeared here recently.

The trillium is a large wild lily up to four inches across and is bright but delicate. The white of it is among the purest of whites in the woods. On the way to the northwest corner of Wisconsin in April , in May, there are patches in the open shade of early spring woods so covered with flowers that it may be taken for winter remnant snow. The roots were chewed by the Anishinabe here for various medicinal purposes. Leaves are used as cooked greens. But when the leaves are picked this lovely plant dies as this kills the roots. Our meal kills the food and medicine. Life eats life. Life kills life.

Straight winds of one hundred miles an hour, tornados a half mile wide flatten the largest trees, shatter a house into splinters. Hurricanes, cyclones wreck coasts and shipping. Exploding novas destroy whole worlds, black holes eat a galaxy, the universe oscillates in creation and destruction over unimaginable time; the big bang precipitates a universe from which emerges the life-energy that shapes this writing.

Though growing up in a soldierís family, what war he knew he knew indirectly. His father served as a chaplain and earned three World War II battle stars, Pearl Harbor D-Day, Bulge. His son saw only aftermath Germany in 1947. Wrecked buildings, fire puckered wounds on a shepherd's hands, pink, painful healing with one finger only left to hold his staff. His Schweinfurt home aircraft machine gun marked in a lazy graceful crescent. He played one picnic day with his parentís friends next to a trout stream in a wrecked Sherman tank. Colonel McCracken caught all the fish, in spite of the disadvantage of having one leg partly shot off two years before. The boy did witness another summer day some army live ammunition field maneuvers. This permitted him to feebly imagine the sublime violence of battle. Men torn to shreds. Dresden incinerated. The ball-bearing factory not far from home reduced to rubble. The Russian army looting, killing, raping its way into a Germany that had slaughtered its millions.

Consciousness emerges up and out of the hectic cosmos itself. The seeds of human genius are planted in the molecules of organic chemistry, in the particles of the atom, in the vibration of strings, or whatever the ultimate furniture of the cosmos actually is. The most far-reaching and deepest question remains: What is the nature of a universe that can allow human genius to emerge from it, the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach; the visionary science of Newton and Einstein; heartbreak exaltation of Danteís, Miltonís, Shakespeare's, Homerís poetry; the art of Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso;the abstract lyric in the philosophy of Plato, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger; and the poetry (all and it ever and only is) of theology, Origen, Augustine, Thomas, Occam, Nagarjuna, Nasruddin, Rumi, building as they did on the revolutions of the Axial geniuses of the Hebrew Prophets, the Golden Age Greeks, Laotze, Confucius, the Buddha?

And following them, Jesus and Mohammad? The mystery of sentience, of consciousness is linked, welded, identified with the cosmos. It is the cosmos in little. A cosmos in Cosmos. Uncovering how it works will challenge even the most transcendent genius of science. If this puzzle is ever solved, then the entire universe itself in its life-energy, living, exploding, endless process, will become a bit more evident, and wholly awesome.

The starry skies above was one of two things that filled Immanuel Kant with awe. For us, however, the universe as dynamic process, is so much larger than Kantís and even more awesome. Karen Armstrong calls him the Star of the Axial Age. Siddartha Gotama. The Buddha revalorized the ideas of the Jain, the Vedas, the Upanishads and Brahamanism and turned them inward. The three ritual fires of India, for only one example, that were lit and constantly maintained in order to support the cosmic and social order become the fires of anger, greed, delusion. The Real, thought to be eternal, is not unchanging; absolutely everything changes including, and not the least, the self itself. All is process. The self is process. It has no fixed and immutable essence. It is Heraclitus' fire. The universe is on fire. We burn.

Kantís second object of reverence was what he called Ďthe moral law within.í For us this is largely a matter of sociobiology and the depth psychology of a herd animal. But if one knows we are interconnected with natural cosmic processes, then on the most fundamental level we must know we share an identical consciousness. At that level all humans are the same. All traditions espouse a Golden Rule. Thereís nothing mysterious about it. To treat others as you would be treated follows logically from the cosmic decision that we emerge as congruent threads out of the whole weaving of universal process.

The two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex reportedly have complementary functions: reason and feeling, the logical and analogical, art and science. In a healthy brain these two are joined by a thick bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. We will use this oversimplified report as metaphors, since the current science of the brain is unfinished. Metaphorically, the most astounding of aesthetic events has these three working together.

A lifetime is spent creating an inventory of events. In one mind is stored rivers and storms, great brutal seas and shipwreck, nurturing and killing nature, the work of fishermen, all the wondrous expressions of love, caring, friendship, lust, the opening of the heart, loving earth, the danger of earth, the whiteness of trillium and whales, the destruction of star systems, the heartless brutality of war, high art, deep science, consciousness, hectic reality, caring. A whole life.

Suppose that all the items of this inventory, heretofore scattered, sequential and separate, suddenly, by some unknown process, whether using the broad highway of the callosum or by some other agency not known to us yet, leave off their atomically discrete lives and become simultaneous, everything happening at once, a whole life happening at once, united and making sense, locked into the cosmos itself, but accompanied by a bliss so deep, songs that leap to the spheres, with a helpless sense of oneís miniscule portion of the cosmic storms, that the result is fear, even terror. Consolidated and made meaningful by what myth the culture supplies the adept with: Job, Prometheus, the two Buddhas. Goddess. God. Exploding nova. Quasars. Galaxies.

Why terror? This is certainly not la petite mort of sexual climax. The fear, however, comes from a realization that the enlightenment experience opens the mind and heart to the greatest of all deaths, the annihilation of a self while still conscious, one once thought to be eternal, fixed; a sense of the intolerable immensity of universal process, all of it for billions and billions of years of which we comparatively have had no part at all. We are so small as to vanish to minus! Our rages, though we give them full voice, disappear amid the roar of the collapse of the smallest star. Our Nobility is a subtracted whisper.

Yet thereís more. If it is possible that our consciousness emerges out of the deepest particle physics, the richest organic chemistry, then it must be that at rare moments the mind drifts beyond all categories of thought and is astonished at getting in actual touch with whatever the reality of the cosmos truly is. Astounding, this is. Concepts canít handle it. Language turns away, so the Hinduís teach. A wordless bellow, a shocked silence. The adept twists upward out of his crouch. He stands. Or he runs. But there is no away! there is no outside haven. There is no outside. The hounds prowl in the heartís own heaven.

If a universe can produce sentience, let alone genius like Mozart, Buddha, Michaelangelo, Edward Whitten, what then is the nature of that universe? A machine? A giant clock? An enormous thought? Life-energy? What? A terrific question to be approached with reverence, gratitude, and awe.

It is this huge aesthetic arrest that is the basis for all religions. Where orthodoxies give answers, the mystic keeps always the questions open. His poetry pushes, prods, disturbs, shatters. It becomes prophetic, almost divine utterance. Even so worldly a writer as Truman Capote sensed a certain Grace in his own creations at the highest level. Conventional men are forever discomfited by the nearness of the singing poet, the razor critique of the rational knower. The heart-song of the poet points to and touches the vast music of the cosmos itself. To the orthodox, those who crave answers, the mystery song points to is intolerable.

All that is left to the pilgrim is sunyatadavada and karuna, agape and kenoma, emptiness and compassion, an all-out mindful contending against doctrine and ideology and compassion for those trapped by them. This, when all is said and done, is all one is left with.

The rest is silence.

Oulu 25 May 09
Stoughton 2 June 09

Steve Fortney


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