Archive for December, 2008

Energy and Spirituality

I just finished reading Mary Oliver’s book of poems titled Thirst.  I was prompted to write about it here after reading the epigraph, quoted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

The least I would do, I thought, would be to post this quote.  Perhaps it could speak for itself!  But it’s so beautiful, I will try to explain what about these words is appealing to me.

Just as an aside, I always thought Oliver was a Unitarian Universalist, because she is so often quoted during UU services.  For example, I recited her poem “Summer Day” during my friend Reverend Tony Lorenzen‘s ordination ceremony when he became a UU minister.  But after reading Thirst, which details her discovery of faith while or after dealing with her partner’s death, I don’t think so anymore, for there is direct reference to the bread and the cup of Christian ritual.   While the deep reverence for nature still shines through these poems (“My work,” she says in the opening line of the opening poem, “is loving the world.”), she now overtly uses religious language to express the awe and gratitude that her poems have always so wonderfully expressed.  Whereas before she wrote, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” (in “Summer Day”), she now prays directly to God in the poems themselves.  Some of the poem titles indicate this:  “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” “Coming to God: First Days,” “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist,” “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate” and so on).  One poem, titled “Praying,” is instructions on how to pray:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The power of her poetry is not at all diminished as a result of this turn toward the holy and the explicit language of reverence, and I don’t find it distracting as I might in the work of others with less skill and sensitivity.  You can see that she still maintains the beautiful simplicity and humility of her previous books.

So, anyway, back to the epigraph.  As a good number of this blogs’ entries indicate, I like to read and write about energy–the science of it, not the vague new-age mysticism that is popular these days.  But I think that poetic expressions of energetics as seen in this quote above are not far from truth understood (conceptual-)metaphorically (see entries in my category “metaphorical concepts” for more detail on conceptual metaphors).  In the quote, a very spiritual man asks what he can do beyond praying, meditating, etc–all of the common and recognizable forms of spiritual practice.  He is told to “become all flame.”

One purpose of my focus on energy studies–I’ve been calling it “energonomics” to suggest a new field of study that can unify many disciplines across the academy–is to try to better understand energy flow and to identify how we can use energy more efficiently at all levels:  from our own, personal management of energy (caloric intake, exercise regimes, emotional control) to a broader application of the concept to global concerns about climate change, deforestation, and resource management in general.  I believe that it is possible to “burn more brightly,” to become more energetic and active in changing the world for the better, to live more reverently and awe-fully and enthusiastically (enthusiasmos in Greek meaning “to be inspired as if by a God”), to sustain a high-energy fully-engaged “spirituality in action” (as Parker Palmer writes in The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring).

If the word “spirituality” turns you off, think of it in its etymological sense meaning “breath”:  in this sense, spirituality in action would translate to “breath in action,” or, simply, just being alive–but being alive in the fullest sense of the word, in the way that all life is alive on this planet.  In the words of Francois Jullien, writing in Vital Nourishment,  “‘spirit’ does not mean an entity opposed to the body but refers to an endless unfolding of one’s abilities by way of refinement” (115).  For Jullien, “The question then becomes how best to prolong one’s life, since the possibility of doing so  depends entirely on how we manage things” (121).

And how can we best prolong our lives?  By learning to “live like climax ecosystems” (Schneider & Sagan, Into the Cool p. 296); by taking care of our bodies, exercising regularly, and living optimally;  by joining with others in purposeful activity; by avoiding fear and other destructive emotions; by “feeding our breath-energy” in the words of Jullien:  “Thus it is not my ‘soul’ or even my ‘body’ that I ‘nourish’ but my ‘breath-energy.’  In the end, my internal dynamism is the most important thing to nourish” (Vital Nourishment 80).

And so it is that we can become all flame–to be filled with an energy that can light up others, to burn like a sun in the sky, to let the energy that comes to us flow through us and beyond us, unimpeded, to do the work of creating ever-more complex thoughts in the noosphere.

29 December 2008 at 2:23 pm Leave a comment


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