There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight, to me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
These lines from William Wordsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” have echoed around in my head in recent years. When I was younger, wild nature often seemed to me “apparell’d in celestial light.” Or perhaps, I might better describe what I felt as my soul seemed to glow as I wandered around in the wilds. Not only as a child, but even as a young man just being in touch with the earth, with the landscape, had this effect on me.
Wordsworth poem continues:
It is not now as it hath been of yore; –
Turn wheresoe’er I may, by night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
As I have gotten older, I, like Wordsworth, have increasingly found that the simple joy, that celestial-seeming radiance I once felt, I rarely feel anymore. But last week, while traveling in Southern Utah, I felt again that “glory and freshness” in the great outdoors. It was not as my wife and I hiked in the glorious canyons of Zion National Park, or while we wondered about the fantastic hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, but it was while seated in a chair outside my room, looking across the parking lot of the Cowboy Country Inn in Escalante, drinking a cup of coffee, that it was present again.
I don’t want to get too mystical here, but I can only describe this experience as a sense of timelessness, a sense that there is something eternally young, something ageless in the soul; something always there but clouded over by the everyday concerns of my egoistic life, yet ever capable of reappearing.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration, but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” That is what I felt that morning, that I was effortlessly present to the present; that rather than being in the flow of time, I was the banks within which the river of time, metaphorically, flows.
Some Thoughts on the Idea of Timelessness
In a book about time titled, Chronos: How Time Shapes Our Universe, French physicist Etienne Klein observes that though we speak of time flowing, in fact time is the one thing that is always present – we never find ourselves in anything but time. We remember the past and infer the future, but we always do so in the present. The present is the only time we actually experience.
This morning I was trying to remember what day it was and at the same time I watched a nuthatch wander about a tree in my front yard. As I watched, I thought that for it, days are not named and numbered, nor seconds or minutes or hours or years. It knows no such grid of time as we humans have created for ourselves. There is day and night and the changing seasons, but otherwise it must live in something like an ever present now.
As I thought about how the little bird experienced time, I realized the extent to which my whole sense of time is based on an artificial grid. A grid of clocks and calendars. In the experience of timelessness, as I described above, that grid evaporates; time is whole, not divisioned.
In Zen, there is the term “original mind,” to describe the mind as it is behind all of the splintering and divisions that we gain from language and culture. Zen places great value on the attainment of “original mind.”
Now, I place great value on language and culture and have no interest in going primitive. But to occasionally escape the confines of language and culture, with its grid of words and numbers that we convince ourselves is reality, and return to the “original mind,” I place great value on that, also.
In addition, there is an important piece of knowledge to be gained from that experience and that is simply that “the map is not the territory.” There is a time to use the mappings, but also a time to truly inhabit the territory.
I began this article with Wordsworth’s metaphor of celestial light and made a quick shift to a metaphor of timelessness. Lest I be accused of mixing metaphors, I will finish by trying to bring the two together.
Above I spoke of “something eternally young, something ageless in the soul.” By soul, here, I mean nothing other than our felt sense and awareness of being.
I don’t wish to get into the question of just what this awareness, or consciousness, is. (Despite the claims of some, I believe that is still a genuine mystery.) Rather, I just want to explore the recurring metaphor that equates this awareness with light, and play around with the possibility that this equating of awareness with light may actually be more than a metaphor.
Light, a form of electromagnetic energy (EM), is a rather wondrous thing. It is both a wave and particle, depending on how you view it, and the speed of light is also the speed of time, so that a photon traveling through space exists in a timeless present. And those are just two aspect of the strangeness of light as revealed by relativity and quantum mechanics. EM seems to me as magical and mystical as the deities and angels of the various religions? To ask “how many photons can dance on the head of a pin” is as unanswerable as the old theological question asking how many angels can dance there.
But there is more. Chemistry is an EM affair – for it is the electromagnetic force that binds atoms one-to-another. And thus life, which at base is a chemical affair, is also an affair of EM. The very warmth of our body is all about photons; photons turned into sugars by plants via photosynthesis, turned to heat by our metabolism. It is also well know that our brain cells function using electrical pulses and the our neurons have a resting electrical potential of about -70 millivolts. So it seems reasonable to me that what we experience as awareness is a part of this same EM affair – that en-lightenment is not just a metaphor, but a kind of fact. At any rate, in the experience of “celestial light,” I feel like I have become a thing of light. Not just metaphorically, but actually.
So if, as I am suggesting here, EM is also what underlies sentient awareness and consciousness, than it is that which provides the world an inner dimension, gives being to bare reality. How magical is that?
How wonderful to feel all that while sitting in the parking lot of the Cowboy Country Inn, watching the first rays of the morning’s sun illuminate a section of the Grand Staircase? And more wonderful, I still feel something of that radiant light as I sit here back at home pecking at the keyboard of my computer. Life can be so wonderful – I wish I could stay present, always, to it.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.