numinous – of or relating to the numen (a presiding deity or spirit of a place; a spirit believed by animists to inhabit natural phenomena or objects; Creative energy; genius. –American Heritage College Dictionary
Reflections, including a review of The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.Vintage Books. New York.
It is happening. Even as I stand on the edge of the North American continent mourning the passing of summer, I notice with joy the shifting of light, the sweet crisp smell in the morning, the odd leaf floating lazily to the ground. Last year I was so grieved to see the end of our all-too-short sunny season, I took to scolding the trees for dropping their leaves. “Go back,” I chided rudely, “not yet.”
It is impossible not to see a reflection of my own fear of mortality in this unseemly behavior toward the innocent trees. I’m not doing that this year. I watch each leaf floating toward me on the wind with a new sense of wonder and respect, even humor. “Feels good to let go, doesn’t it?” I whispered to a descending maple leaf. Letting go of all illusions, all of the expectations we humans heap upon ourselves to be or think a certain way, achieve a standard of perfection defined by a world ignorant of the unique inner landscape, needs, and creative forces within each of us.
I attribute much of the change in my relationship to my trees, leaves, and luminous water droplets cradled on the fronds of cedar to David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. He captures, in a most original way, a vision of the numen, the divine, embedded in nature that follows in the tradition of Black Elk Speaks, or The Tao of Physics, or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Fragrant Palm Leaves.
Using references from Native tribes around the world, including Navajo and ancient Hebrew, Abrams opens a world to the reader where everything of the soul is right here, now, a vibrant, observable spirit present in plant, and animal life, the water, the wind. Human beings are, in one way, simply a part of this evolving plant/ animal kingdom. We are not split off into a higher realm of intellect and projections of a patriarchal God, looking down on the creatures we can dominate. The “happy hunting ground” of native lore was never separate from the landscape, simply over a near hillside, just out of view.
Abram nourishes us with many chapters on the history of oral language, an art form that came from the observable natural world as interpreted by the human mind. He goes on to tell us how the creation of written language became an inadvertent tool for separating us from our direct experience. Later the Cartesian scientific model taught us to ignore direct perception and focus on abstract ideas. All of this is fascinating – not that we need reject everything created by the “left brain”, but that it too, requires integration into the whole reality of our natural, perceivable soul-rich world.
The most transformative section for me is on pages 202-203. Abram shares an exercise he did in the woods one day. This certainly evoked for me images of the young Henry David Thoreau, or John Muir, forebearers who found meaning and spiritual reality in the wilderness. Abram invites us to join him in sitting in the woods, or any natural setting, Close your eyes. Imagine your Past, everything you have ever lived or remembered – joys, losses, regrets, in a giant bubble. Beside it, imagine the Future: projects, deadlines, hopes, plans, fears, desires. Breathe into these joined states. Then, gradually, imagine the Now. As you breathe, take in the smells, sounds, coolness of the wind on your face. As you focus your mind on the Now, imagine the Past and the Future as two giant balloons, growing smaller and smaller. They grow small as the Now increases, until they go away, and it is only the imagined, expansive Now. Open your eyes.
Abram describes what he sees, “I find myself standing in the midst of an eternity, a vast and inexhaustible present. The whole world rests within itself—the trees at the field’s edge, the hum of crickets in the grass, cirrocumulus clouds rippling like waves across the sky, from horizon to horizon…”
He goes on to describe how long it lasts, that this vast world includes his rusty car parked at the top of the hill…nothing is separate.
I do my own version of this on my morning walk. This vision of a birth-less/deathless world is not some floating ideal. It is quite down to earth, known to my senses. Nor does it take away the loss and violence in the world. Last night a storm came through, knocking down trees and power lines. We humans continue to make war. All creation and destruction is contained in Abram’s “vast and inexhaustible present.”
I invite you to try this exercise. It has brought to me a sense of calm, wonder, and acceptance that was clearly needed for my psyche’s development. I no longer scold the leaves for dying, or rage at the Universe for taking the life of a beloved. Living in this numinous now does not take away the tragedies and injustices of the world, but it does, for me, bring a sense of wholeness and peace, to see so clearly my place, humble but conscious, in the vibrant fabric of Being.