The River of Contemplation (Nature and Soul, the Sacred Unity)

When I was young, I lived in a house on the banks of the Mississippi River. Not the grand, storied Mississippi of the South, but a young Mississippi only a hundred miles or so from it source in Lake Itasca. As a child, I spent many an hour sitting by the river watching the water flow.  The river provided me with a natural lesson in contemplation; though I didn’t think of it like that at the time.  

Perhaps because of the river, I grew ever more curious about Nature. In addition to spending a lot of time wandering through the countryside observing wild nature, I spent time at the local Carnegie Library. There I borrowed every book in the collection that could teach me about the plants and animals, rock and minerals, clouds and the constellations of the night sky — the things that I could see and hear and feel around me. In particular, I was interested in birds. Great flocks of birds followed the Mississippi in spring and fall, and I wanted to know what they were, where they came from and where they were going. In later years, I would delve more deeply into the sciences behind these various phenomenon, biology and astronomy, physics and geology, but as a child (and still today) I was more interested in the concrete things I could sense, than the abstractions of science. These were the things I observed and mused upon as I sat by the river (though I probably spent more time thinking about whichever girl I had a crush on that year).

My family moved to the city when I was sixteen, and I no longer had the river to sit by. Shortly after moving, I became interest in Zen Buddhism and a few year after that was able to study meditation at the local Zen meditation center. Zen led me to a more inward focus of contemplation.

Ages ago the writer Heraclitus wrote, “You cannot discover the limits of the soul such is its depths.” If my contemplation along the river had helped me extend my imagination outward toward the edgeless horizons of Nature, in Zen meditation I experienced something of the limitless depths of the soul. Many who are innocent of the experience of meditation suppose that when you go inward you find more and more of the “self.” Based on this misunderstanding, some even suggest it is selfish to meditate. But things are quite different. As one travels the paths of the inner (for which I will use the word “soul”), one does not find more self, one rather quickly comes to the otherness wherein the individual self is rooted; it is not the self that has great depth, but this otherness.  And this otherness is ultimately the process of Nature.

Ultimate Origins
Both the outward study of science and the inward study of Zen brought me up against the mystery of ultimate origins. In science, the ultimate origin of everything has been explained as a long-ago event called “the Big Bang.” But the scientists who study the universe as a whole, the cosmologists, have realized that the Big Bang is not self-explanatory. While these cosmologists have devised some very clever theories for what caused the Big Bang, none of them are taken very seriously. For all practical purposes, the question of why the Big Bang occurred, and why we are here to think about it, is simply a mystery. A very big Mystery.

In Zen, the mystery of ultimate origins is experienced in the very fact or our awareness; in our sense of being, experienced right here, right now. From the perspective of our dualistic culture, those two mysteries are about as conceptually far apart as you can get. From the Zen perspective, the two mysteries are just different aspects of the world. 

The Sacred Unity
Zen is a form of Buddhism, but one that is deeply influenced by Taoism. Over the years I have perennially returned to the central text of Taoism, the Tao Te ChingFor Taoism, the Tao is the ultimate Source — the great process from which all things arise and to which all things return. It is, thus, “the mystery of ultimate origins” that both science and meditation had brought me up against.

Some people have compared the Tao to the “Laws of Nature.” Given the goal of science, however, the concept of Tao is far too vague to be of any use to science. But given the goals of spirituality, it is ever so apt. What makes it so apt is that the Tao is both a cosmological and a psychological principle.  As a cosmological principle it represents, like the laws of Nature, the ultimate source of Nature’s regularity and creativity.  As a psychological principle is represents the ultimate source of experience, that which spontaneously gives rise to our ever changing individuality.  Tao is a concept in which the two mysteries, the origin of the cosmos and the possibility of subjective experience, are conjoined as one mystery. In the Tao Te Ching, this mystery is called “the dark.” 

In all the world’s spiritual traditions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist, we are told of the experience where subject and object are one and the same. In Taoism, this is the contemplative experience where Tao as a cosmological principle and Tao as a psychological principle, object and subject, become one and the same principle, one and the same mystery. 

Science offers us a treasury of knowledge about the outer world going all the way back to the origin of time. The discipline of contemplation helps us clear away the clutter and quiet the noise of our inner world until we get to that which we most truly are. Together, the inner and outer ways, form a whole. Too much emphasis on the outer leaves people rather soulless; too much emphasis on the inner and people never experience the adventures and creative possibilities that life in this world offers. This, I’d suggest, is the whole that Spiritual Naturalism can offer – the sublime story of the cosmos as we learn more and more of it through scientific method, brought together with the sublime silence of pure being.

The experience where subject and object are one and the same, what is sometimes called the mystical experience, is a rather rarified one. Most of us are too involved in the everyday necessities of our life to give the kind of time and attention required for such an experience. But anytime we take a walk or a bike ride, even if in the city; any time we sit by the banks of a river, or lake or the ocean, or perhaps just sitting at our local coffee house, we can try to pay more attention. Paying better attention is the gateway to all forms of contemplation or meditation. It is also a requirement of scientific observation. It is something spirituality and science have in common.  


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