The God of Wild Places By: Roger Chamberlain
It seems to me that this is one of the great paradoxes of our time. As a race we have been struggling for millennia to tame the forces of nature and to make for ourselves a more comfortable life than our ancestors could have dreamed of, insulated and protected from the daily hardships they suffered just to get by. Yet, now that we can live divorced from those privations and wander at our leisure through a neat and controlled world of concrete, Plexiglas and carbon fibre, our urge to return to the wild and primal world of untamed nature in search of something indefinable, but at the same time powerfully attractive, is stronger than ever.
The mountaineer, the adventure racer, the desert explorer, the backpacker trekking in remote mountains or jungles- what is it they are seeking, and why are they seeking it in the extremes of nature and the elements? Undoubtedly there is some "vital urge" in us that thirsts for new and more intense sensations and experiences, even those potentially painful or arduous. But does this urge have its roots in something deeper, a spiritual longing or impulse from the soul?
Certainly the belief that God exists intrinsically in nature, in its objects and forces, has its origin in prehistory. Early religions worshipped physical things as individual Gods that must be appeased, and it was only thousands of years later that the view of God as a being above, and separate from nature and the world became prevalent. A synthesis of these views appeared in the Upanishadic spirituality of ancient India, with God (or Brahman) defined as a Supreme consciousness pervading all things – immanent in nature yet transcending nature, experienced as a presence in the perishable things of the physical world yet at the same time immortal, eternal and infinite.
The Isha Upanishad says of Brahman:
"That moves and That moves not; That is far and the same is near; That is within all this and That also is outside all this."
The Vedic and Upanishadic seers derived their knowledge not merely from observing the outer world and theorising as to its origin or meaning, but by meditating to explore the inner nature and awaken the subtle ability to perceive the inner dimension of the world – that not revealed to the physical senses. The modern-day Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy offers us a view which is accessible, simple and profound:
"The beauty of nature is the expression of the One who is all Beauty. Whenever we see something, we see inside that thing the inner presence, the inner consciousness, of its creator. The Creator of nature is God Himself. He expresses Himself in and through Nature. When we see nature’s beauty, we get overwhelming joy because the Creator and Owner is God. When we see a house, if we love the owner, we love the possession. The One who is all Beauty is inside His creation, like a mother’s heart is inside her child."
In the western world, untamed nature was seen for centuries as a hostile force, a threat, and indeed this is understandable in the context of our ancestor’s lives as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers in harsh northern climes, at the mercy of extremes of weather and vulnerable if caught out – alone and isolated – in a remote forest or moorland. Only when sections of society had escaped this hand-to-mouth existence did we see the popularisation of the romantic view of nature as something "sublime", inspiring or innately divine. This spiritually surcharged love and reverence for nature – especially for high mountains, rivers in spate and other glorious extremes, was expressed powerfully by poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley and also explored in the philosophy of Ruskin. The Romantic poets led the way in expressing this newfound love of nature and it’s divine origin.
Later the transcendentalist poetry of Whitman brought a forceful and dynamic expression to his descriptions of the world around him and its inherent divinity. While Wordsworth offers us a sensitive voice, awestruck by nature and irresistibly attracted to it’s divinity and power, Whitman seems to merge with that natural power, and it’s potency flows through his work giving it a compelling vibrancy and urgency:
"It is that something in the soul which says, Rage on, Whirl on, I tread master here and everywhere, Master of the spasms of the sky and of the shatter of the sea, Master of nature and passion and death, And of all terror and all pain."
In quieter moments he urges us to join him on his quest:
While poets have sought to articulate their belief in the divinity of nature in words, there are many who have expressed their attraction in a less cerebral but perhaps more compelling form. The mountaineers and explorers, whose "golden age" ran from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, may not have knowingly shared an ideal with the romantics and transcendentalist poets and the believers what became known as the "doctrine of immanence". But we need look no further than the journals and letters of these great adventurers to see a clear parallel. Mallory, the climber who tried three times to conquer Everest and ultimately met his death on its upper slopes, famously explained his reason for climbing a mountain with the words "because it’s there". Perhaps these words reveal no more than the simple fact that his true motivation was inexpressible. Along with the polar explorer Robert Scott, who also gave his life in the cause of pushing back the boundaries of exploration and human endeavour, Mallory felt an irresistible attraction in remote or wild places and, significantly, in taking on the immense and incredibly dangerous challenge of going where no human being had gone before. This urge to go beyond the limits of experiences already attained and to push ever onward and outward into the realms beyond is surely an outer expression of the inner, spiritual force within human beings. Some have suggested that this inner drive to transcend is the same force that drives our evolution, and has seen life on earth evolve from the simple protozoan, first to plant, then to animal and finally to reach its zenith – for the moment – in humanity.
The climbers and explorers of that golden age were often trained scientists. For many of them, undertaking research to expand the horizons of human knowledge was an important part of their motivation. Others had to at least pay lip service to this scientific cause, as it helped them gain the backing of the academic world when seeking to fund their quests to the South Pole or Himalayas. Often there was an uneasy relationship between those who sought only the answers to scientific riddles and those who saw some innate value in reaching the pole, the summit or the undiscovered land. A similar antagonism existed between the romantic poets and the rationalists who saw nature from a purely scientific or utilitarian viewpoint and were unable to understand or accept any reverence for nature as something sacred or divine.
Today we still see a clear divide between the "scientism" of the rationalists who accept only physical truth and the spiritually inspired view of those we might term "seekers", who set more store by spiritual principles and inner wisdom that falls outside the narrow confines of biology or physics. The view of scientism appears to be that he physical reality is the only reality, the phenomenal world the totality of existence. Professor Martin Kemp reminds us of this viewpoint when he speaks of "the mechanisation of the world view".
The spiritual person could argue that they have experienced first-hand another world, an inner world, and that this powerful and undeniable inner experience should not be excluded merely because the instruments of the scientist fail to detect it’s existence. Sri Aurobindo, the spiritual teacher and seer poet of twentieth century India, sums up the spiritual view in a compelling anecdote from his time spent locked up alone in a cell in Alipore Jail as a prisoner of the British:
"They proved to me by convincing reasons that God does not exist; Afterwards I saw God, for he came and embraced me. And now what am I to believe- the reasoning of others or my own experience? Truth is what the soul has seen and experienced; the rest is appearance, prejudice and opinion."
To return then, to our mountaineer, explorer, trekker and extreme sports enthusiast. Something is driving them to seek out new and powerful experiences in the quest for self-understanding, and something is driving them toward nature and the elements as a part of that quest.
To me this is undoubtedly a spiritual search – a rejection of the mundane as an unsatisfying and unfulfilling sphere of experience, which the seeker longs to transcend. This inner hunger can become so intense as to drive the unconscious seeker – the explorer, the climber, the extreme sportsman or sportswoman – to be reckless even with their own life. Again Sri Chinmoy offers us an insightful explanation of this unrequited longing from within:
"The deer grows musk in his own body. He smells it and becomes enchanted, and tries to locate its source. He runs and runs, but he cannot find the source. In his endless search, he loses all his energy and finally he dies. But the source he was so desperately searching for was within himself. How could he find it elsewhere?
Such is the case with you. Your special mission ? which is the fulfilment of your divinity ? is not outside you, but within you. Search within. Meditate within. You will discover your mission."
For me, this clearly sums up the answer (to the rather nebulous questions with which I began this rambling essay). I began my own seeker-journey as a lover of nature, one who at times felt compelled to leave behind some of the twentieth century’s comforts and to live under canvas in the forest in search of some kind of answer to the questions of life. Later, when I discovered yogic philosophy and became consciously aware that the real answer must lie within, I turned to the path of meditation, just as those students of Upanishadic thought had done millennia before. A convergence, or synthesis, of both these approaches became clearly crystallised for me during a trek in the Huang Shan, or Yellow Mountains, of Anhui province in China.
With a group of friends from my meditation centre, I began the climb in the early morning mists of a cold, wet Chinese winter’s day. Eschewing the cheap but unexciting ride in a cable car, we made our ascent on the old stone steps of a path trodden by poets, artists and ordinary adventurers for many centuries. As we gained height, we were treated to tantalising glimpses of the exquisite peaks above us as the chill wind momentarily cleared away the heavy mist, only to bring it swirling back around us moments later. Finally we found ourselves above the mist and cloud, emerging into clear and impossibly bright sunshine among dramatic mountains that seemed to form some sculpted expression of a classical heaven. After reaching the summit of the Lotus Flower, the reigning peak of the Yellow Mountains, we headed downward on a sinuous path between pine-clad slopes and precipitous cliffs, towards the Bridge of the Immortals – a famous stone structure spanning a narrow chasm between two shear mountain faces.
As the path descended we came suddenly to a rocky platform with expansive vies into a valley filled with rock y pinnacles Standing like islands in a swirling sea of cloud. It seemed too beautiful to be real – the silence and the drama of the scene took our breath away. "Okay, lets meditate here," said our de facto leader, but he spoke for all of us. We made ourselves comfortable on the ground, on rocks, or on a simple stone bench at the trailside, and meditated undisturbed to our heart’s content. The mist flowed slowly around the pinnacles like an ebbing tide; the sunlight seemed to radiate from every atom of the sky. In those moments, God’s mystical presence and profound peace came to us, in sky and mountain, in swirling cloud and silent stone. He was within all this. He was within us. Immanent, transcendence, all-where.
Article By: Roger Chamberlain
Roger Chamberlain was born in Surrey in 1968 and now lives and works in Wales. Brought up in a Quaker family, he developed an interest in mysticism and spirituality at an early age. Opting out of mainstream society in his teens to pursue the alternative lifestyle of a new age traveller, he followed "the well-trodden route to India via Glastonbury" before settling in Bristol where he was introduced to Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy. Roger is now an active member of the Welsh Sri Chinmoy Centre.
Photo credit: top – Richard Pettinger
Photo credit: Bottom – Atulya Berube, Sri Chinmoy Centre Galleries