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Holy water

Yesterday evening I packed some food and warm clothes and walked down to the lakeside. The lake is still covered by ice, but there was a thin strip of open water in shoreline. Apparently it is still too early for spike spawn, so I didn't bring any fishing equipment with me. Instead I picked a nice place under a pinetree. I collected some fir branches and laid them on the ground. It was already getting dark when I made small fire and enjoyed the food. There was a crescent moon in the sky, and as the temperature fell the ice was singing with cosmic sounds. The lake is several kilometres wide - imagine a thin crack suddenly opening up, turning the layer of ice into a giant drumskin, howling and moaning like a chorus of mermaids and eerie water spirits.

I placed my sleeping bag on top of the bed made of fir branches (they provide a layer of insulation on top of frozen ground). With all of my warm clothes I slipped into the bag, listening to the sounds of ice I slowly drifted into deep sleep. Something woke me up in the dead of the night - it was all silent and peaceful. Listening to the silence I again fell asleep. Early morning when the world was already lit with the first sunlight I got up and started a fire. What was a strip of open water in the evening was now covered with a thin layer of solid ice, as the temperature had been well below freezing for the night. With a stone I made a hole in the ice and scooped water with my kettle. I cooked coffee. The sun was rising, the birds of spring started to sing, and as the temperature was slowly rising it made the ice to emit an occasional howl.

While drinking my coffee I was slowly thinking about an article I recently read. It was by a science columnist Jani Kaaro (the article is in Finnish, here.) If I read him correctly, he is thinking if we have lost something with our scientific worldview. Like, the premodern tribal people lived in a world filled with gods and spirits, a world rich of meaning and magic. With science we have learned that there are no gods and no spirits, but does that leave us with a life devoid of any higher meaning? How are we supposed to find a solid sense of great meaning in our mundane world where the science says that all of our actions are motivated by aiming at (immediate) rewards like pleasure and producing off-spring. If there is nothing higher behind those rewards, then doesn't that feel somewhat shallow if we really stop to think about it? And, for a person born into a non-spiritual scientific culture, there seems to be no return to the pre-modern spiritual way of experiencing the world. There might only be a fleeting moments of sense of awe and wonder (most often triggered by astonishing beauty of nature), but those moments never last for long, and soon life is back into its ordinary flow.

In my thoughts Kaaro's line of thinking got connected with Jonathan Haidt. In "The Righteous Mind" Haidt writes about pre-modern tribes drumming, singing and dancing around a bonfire. Haidt notes that it is not so much the belief in supernatural spirits, but the very physical dancing which creates a feeling of being connected to something bigger. Scientific studies seem to suggest that collective synchronized physical movement helps people to slip into a state of mind where a sense of individual being is merged into a collective sphere of "us". And, in its deepest moments, this comes with a sense of holiness and gives rise to common belief in gods and spirits. (Sure thing, belief in supernatural beings can exist independently of collective experience of a ritual - but it is this physical and deeply emotional layer which gives the binding power to the gods. People with different opinions and selfish needs are able to merge into a single family dancing together for the common gods. Cognitive beliefs alone are rather weak compared to this kind of deeply felt emotions.) Haidt thinks that collective rituals haven't disappeared - they survive in sports events, political rallies, techno raves, and even in military drilling where collective marching might induce a sense of begin "us" instead of a loose group of multiple individuals. Haidt also notes that the feeling of being connected to something greater doesn't necessarily depend on physical presence of a tribe. He uses Darwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson as examples of people who have reported nearly religious sense of awe and wonder when standing alone surrounded by great beauty of nature.

So, Kaaro and Haidt seem to agree that a modern man can, even briefly, experience a moment of being connected with The Great Spirit (or what ever name we decide to use). And they both leave it somewhat open if those are just fleeting moments which are bound to fade away as our minds return back to the ordinary, scientific, mundane and individualistic way of experiencing and thinking. And this is exactly the point I'd like reflect on.

Let's start with some distinctions. A tribe dancing around a bonfire might feel that they are "us" - and it necessarily follows that there is a distinction between "in-group" and "out-group", "us" and "them". Similarly, for a ritual place to be sacred and holy, it follows that other places are mundane. For something to be pure there must be other stuff which is filthy. And beauty implies the existence of ugliness. If the distincion is dropped, then "us", "holy" and "beautiful" make no sense, and everything blends into a uniform porridge of "all-the-same-it-doesn't-make-a-difference-so-who-cares". Or, this is how we often think. Just like pre-modern tribal mind operates on this kind of distinctions, so does the science. Science analyzes and breaks the complex world down to simple explainable phenomenons. And in the process of doing so the science finds that there are no supernatural forces behind the phenomenons, no place is sacred and holy as the whole universe is just a mundane collection of particles. The gods vanish away and we are left with the huge machinery of scientifically explained matter, time and energy. It is all the same everywhere, plain ordinary non-magical stuff called nature. Mere uniform porridge of material existence.

In my late teenage years, when I was wandering alone in nature and occasionally feeling my soul merge with the mystical universal absolute existence, it not only was a brief moment of non-mundane experience. It also transformed the way I think, it made my mental patterns to re-align. In my notebook I wrote that it is not about seeing something extraordinary; it is about fiding a new way of seeing everything. The high of mystical experience fades away, but nothing is the same as it used to be. The ordinary mundane way of being feels different, as if there was an unseen golden glow inside everything - you know that it is always there, hidden inside the visible facade of matter. What happens is that everything becomes holy and sacred. The material world is no more a big machine but an infinite dance of matter and energy. So, if there used to be two alternatives; 1) a sharp distinction between "us" and "them", "holy" and "mundane", and 2) scientifically explained non-magical porridge of material existence, then a third alternative opens up; 3) omnipresent holy dancing beauty of mere existence. With this third way of thinking everything is seen in a new light. The whole biosphere of The Earth becomes "us", there is a sense of solidarity and good will, a deep tribal feeling of being connected to the common god called "The Universe". There is no out-group, no "them", there is only love and beauty.

Now, as said before, that kind of total love doesn't mean that I couldn't harm other beings. No, I kill for food, and that is just another humble ritual of confirming my connection with the bioshpere. It is a great dance of energy, and the question is to find the beat and the flow inside one's soul and then dance to it. So, with these thougts I sat by fire, drinking coffee cooked with lake water. It is all holy water, the whole lake filled with this special nectar which sustains the life as we know it. Sipping this holy water is a collective ritual. Animals and plants alike, we all come to the source of the holy water and drink it to accept our physical dependency of the Great Universe. And to understand this it is not necessary to return back to primitive magical world view. It is plain ordinary science which tells us that our lives depend on water. Imagine a scientist observing me drinking my coffee; he would be tracing a single water molecule, how it goes down my throat, enters my stomach, swims down my intestines and gets absorbed into my blood. Now where is the exact line when a single water molecule ceases to be part of the lake and becomes part of my body? Any such a line would be just an arbitrary construction of human mind. We have such a strong natural tendency to make distinctions and to see contours around objects that we often think that those contours are somehow part of the reality in itself. But as little as I understand, the science tells us that everything is connected and we are nothing but a tiny part of a great flow of energy. Simple as that. And it also seems that our brains come with a natural ability to slip into a first hand experience of being a part of a great holy beauty of existence.

So, for me it is not so much about peak experiences. It is more about a transformation to new mental structures. That "third alternative" comes both with a sense of deep meaning of ones own life, and with a sense of empathy serving as an unquestionable motivation of ethics. And all this without any non-scientific gods and spirits, without chemical substances altering the consciousness, wihtout tribal dancing. Just wandering in the woods. But, once again, I'm not going to preach this as a new religion wishing that everybody would adopt my way of thinking. It might well be that different people find different ways of contacting with the deeper meaning of the existence, and the difficult thing is that some find so much power and awe from belonging in the group of "us good" which is fighting against "them bad". I'm afraid there is nothing I can do about that, so I just retire back in the woods, sipping the holy water on daily basis.

late evening by the lakeside
late evening by the lakeside
early morning by the lakeside
early morning by the lakeside
a ritual of drinking holy water in form of morning coffee
a ritual of drinking holy water in form of morning coffee
Ice cracs, emitting howling and singing sounds
Ice cracs, emitting howling and singing sounds
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I read this during my visit by Päivi Quist. I like your style of living and thinking.

Wonderful place and nice thoughts ;)

Thanks for feedback, all! And greetings to Päivi.

Powerful writing! I think understand what you are talking about here, similar thoughts have entered my mind at times, and I think (whether they acknowledge it consciously or not) the very act of urbanised people 'getting away' to the country, be it to camp out or simply walk in nature, is a spiritual, meditative experience for people. Our brains and bodies are still very much tied to the natural world we evolved in and I think people feel a real discomfort from being outside of that in their day to day lives...

Some of what you talk about is covered in the Edinburgh journalist, Graham Hancock's book 'Supernatural' which is all about the development of spirituality, religion and altered states of consciousness, with and without ethanogens.

The connection to something greater is definitely a feeling I experience when I am in nature. Last year, before I had my house and I was very poor, staying on a friend's camp-bed in their workshop I was feeling quite miserable, homeless and loveless on the edge of an unfamiliar city (and, as you can guess, I was beginning to understand the changes I have needed to make to my life recently!) Living on the outskirts with a large country park five minutes away, rather than in the heart of the city, I really feel that helped save me. When pressure got too much, I cycled into the woods and set up camp. An oddly-shaped birch offered me a comfy seat, so there I settled, a warm fire, fragrant with cederwood and pine, tea from birch-sap and lime-flower, that changing spring air, from crisp and refreshing in the early morning, but warm in the evenings. Simple things, but I still feel like that peaceful place balanced me and helped me become whole again.

Its interesting when you talk about identifying 'holy' or special places. I think humans have a unique ability to identify such places. I don't know whether it is about the composition of a place, the aesthetics of its geography, or of a specific tree or rock, the air or the light of a place, maybe it is a combination of all those things, but sometimes, though a place may seem little different from another, you can still *feel* it to be special in some way.

Which reminds me, I have a book I think you would really appreciate, I think it fits with your general philosophy and way of thinking. Its by a Scottish lady that lived just a mile or so from the house I grew up in and is all about her wanderings in the mountains, on the Cairngorm Plateau. She was fascinated by the interactions of people and place and understanding what she called the 'inside' of the mountain - looking beneath the surface, not just the outside and the masculine 'conquering' approach of mountaineering - the obsession with reaching peaks and summits rather than experiencing the mountain as a whole.

Thanks for sharing!

I won't be surprised if science one day finds out that plants emit pheromones which, when inhaled, affect our emotions. (Sure there are other mediums of nature - mind -interaction, too. But pheromones might be something what empirical science at its current stage is able to identify and to explore further.) I think there already is proven evidence that plants communicate with chemicals they emit in air, and that they process information and react to "messages" sent by other plants. So it just might be that some of that chemically transmitted information is readable for humans, too. (Birches, I like birhces)

Oh well. I'd love to one day re-visit the Scottish mountains - to wander the highlands and to read those books you mention. A year or antoher, time will come =)

Mica, is the book you are talking about the one by Nan Shepherd?

Amazing Rob! Surprised you've read it, She's quite an obscure writer, but there is a beautiful poetry to her work. My great Aunt (who was an artist) hung about in a little, quiet NE bohemian clique in the 50s.


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