My Ancient Spiritual Trail

Summer and the Radiation Moon

My friend Rich sees mussar as a metaphysical, not a psychological discipline. It’s soul work, deeper and more consequential than therapy.

Over the last year and a half my skeptical view of soul has begun to break up, fade away. First, from the Cosmos and Psyche (thanks, Tom) insight: Skepticism is a tool, not a lifestyle. Second, from a spiritual realization that despite its implication in the arguments over, say, original sin, soul nonetheless points to a felt reality for me, a phenomenological knowing. Not a dogmatic or doctrinal one.

Big deal, right? You always knew this? Or, no way, dude. Either way, so what?

And, of course, you’re right if you follow this often used, little understood idea back to its sources in Judaeo-Christian thought. Its use either assumed-you always knew this, or, so mean and inhuman, eternal hell for a few years on earth-no way, dude.

The Judaeo-Christian understanding incorporated the Greek notion of psyche, “…the mental abilities of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking” with a notion of immortality connected to behavior in this life.

I want to push back, back beyond this narrow conception of soul. There was an assumption among the ancient Greeks that soul had to have a logical faculty, and, that it was the most divine attribute of a human soul. ( The current scientific consensus across all fields is that there is no evidence for the existence of any kind of soul in the traditional sense. Wiki.)

First I want to speak for the trees. Let’s call it the Loraxian understanding of the soul. The lodgepoles in our yard, crawling up Black Mountain, growing along Brook Forest Drive as it winds down the mountain. They have souls. They are both alive and animate, creatures with a telos, or end goal. They interact with their environment and grow strong or weak, tall or short, but they remain lodgpole pines, trees with a particular role in a montane ecosystem, a role which they give all they have to fulfill.

The same is true for the mule deer, the mountain lion, the marsh marigold, the elk, the bear, the fox, the squirrel, the dandelion, the cheatgrass, the Indian paintbrush, the mountain trout, the raven and the magpie. Are their souls more or less than ours? Wrong question. Are their souls more like ours or more unlike? Don’t know. I just know that living things on the planet share the wonder of life, an independent spark. That spark gives us organic matter that moves and does so with intention.

Holy Well, Wales, St Dynfog

I’ve felt this way about the world for a long, long time. Taoism, Emerson, the Romantics, gardening, the Celtic Great Wheel. The mystical moment on the quad at Ball State. Oneness. With it all. I’m even willing to entertain faeries, elves, duendes, daiads, Gods and Goddesses. OK, I know I lost a lot of you with that one, but I’m going with my gut, my revelation to me rather than the dry dusty bones of theirs.

But. I want to push one step further. I believe in the spirits of the mountains. They have visited me here on Shadow Mountain, the mule deer on Samain, 2014, and the elk on my first day of radiation. The mule deer and the elk were angels, that is, messengers of the mountain gods, dispatched by the careful, slow, deliberate entities that are the Rocky Mountains.

I believe in the vitality of rushing water in Maxwell Creek, Cub Creek, Blue Creek, Bear Creek, the North Fork of the South Platte. I believe in the entity that is Lake Superior, that is the great deposit of ores on the Minnesota Iron Range, the ebb and flow of the Oglalla Aquifer.

I believe in Mother Earth, the great Gaia, a living system of ecosystems, biomes watered by rains and the snows, irrigated by streams and rivers, planted by Boreas and Zephryus, and given power to change by the true god, Sol.

Neither animals nor plants can grow without the sun’s energy or the food locked in minerals and vitamin: “Our soils support 95 percent of all food production, and by 2060, our soils will be asked to give us as much food as we have consumed in the last 500 years. They filter our water. They are one of our most cost-effective reservoirs for sequestering carbon. They are our foundation for biodiversity. And they are vibrantly alive, teeming with 10,000 pounds of biological life in every acre. Yet in the last 150 years, we’ve lost half of the basic building block that makes soil productive.” Living Soil film

As it appears, I am an animist, a pagan, a person who has found his spot in the great scheme. I’m a moving instance of matter formed in the great fusion furnaces of stars. I’m a temporary instance, holding together a few atoms for a human lifetime. I’m a significant instance of meaning created by the universe observing itself, throughout my short path, as the dynamic, interlocked, soulful reality that it is.

I need no human word to guide me. I need no idea, no rule. I am and I am within all this. The Arapaho National Forest. The Rocky Mountains. Our nuclear family. Our extended family. The community of folks at CBE. The United States. The Mind of God.

My soul and that of Kepler, Rigel, and Gertie dance with each other. In Andover Kate and I danced with bees, fruit trees, perennial flowers, vegetables, raspberry canes. Here we dance with the mountain spirits.

Long ago I set out on a spiritual journey that went down and in rather than up and out. That is, I would not find validation somewhere outside of myself whether Torah, Gospel, Constitution, or political ideology. I would not privilege the idea of transcendence, or a three-story universe. No god is in heaven, and yet all’s right with the world. My ancient spiritual trail has been to turn within for the source of my revelation. And, I have not turned back.

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