Natural Mystics

• March 11, 2012 • Comments (2)

Finding mysticism in the midst of ordinary life – by Thomas Moore

People have different ideas about what a spiritual life is all about.  Some emphasize belief and define themselves by how they picture life.  Some see church attendance as a measure of their spirituality.  Others look to special practices like yoga and meditation.  I characterize spirituality by what we hold sacred.
The stories of Jesus make it clear that the most sacred thing you can do is love, especially love those who are different from you or in a different group, outside your circle.  The Buddha stresses compassion, again especially for those who are judged badly by the world.  I follow those two teachings, but I also value what I learned from the ancient Greeks—to find every aspect of life holy.

For most of my life, especially since I began reading Teilhard de Chardin, I’ve been interested in a spirituality of the world.  Call it, as my friend Lynda Sexson does, “ordinarily sacred,” or “the sacredness of the commonplace,” as my friend Alice O. Howell does.  These days I want to focus on the experience of being absorbed by the holiness and beauty of the natural world and ordinary life.  I’m calling this approach “natural mysticism.”

I’ve always thought of mystics as extraordinary people who achieved a phenomenal union with God or the source of life through their intense meditations.  But then I began to notice certain artists who were profoundly engaged with the world, so much so that they, too, seem to be mystics.  Think of William Wordsworth and William Morris in England, or Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson in America.  They were much in the world and yet developed a mystical attitude toward life.

One thing interesting about each of these people is that their deep absorption in the natural world and in the subtleties of ordinary life led them to be unique individuals and to express themselves in sublime ways.  Wordsworth’s poetry is like a sacred text in a natural form of religion.  William Morris imagined himself restoring the sublime realm of Arthurian values and then he made ordinary things like books and wallpaper achingly sensual and intense.  Emily Dickinson saw the world in a grain of sand, remaining for the most part in her house and garden, writing poetry that again creates a spiritual way of life.  Henry Thoreau famously retreated to Walden Pond to “front the essentials of life,” like a part-time hermit or monk.

I think that we all have the opportunity to become natural mystics in the midst of our mundane lives.  We may have to find an art or craft that will allow us to become absorbed in life and the world, to the point of self-forgetfulness.  One purpose of the mystical life is to lose yourself in what you are doing or in the world around you.  This loss of self is a deepening of the ego, which desperately needs roots and context.
One of my best methods for creative disappearing is to play the piano for myself on ordinary days.  I get lost in the music, as my fingers take me to places otherwise inaccessible.  A walk in the woods with my dog spirits me away, too.  My daily work of writing and studying also lifts me out of the concerns of getting along in the world, and time passes so that I hardly know I’ve been hard at work.

I’m interested in sketching out a truly ordinary kind of mysticism, momentary departures from the rush of life that together create a contemplative existence.  I had the good fortune in my youth to learn about spiritual practice by living in a monastery.  Today, no longer a formal monk, I apply those lessons to a life that I consider both sacred and secular.  I don’t want to make the sharp distinctions I used to assume were necessary.
When I bring up issues such as these in my teaching and lecturing, some people complain that it’s all too light and not serious enough.  I’ve been labeled an advocate of “lite spirituality.”  The criticisms don’t slow me down, because I know the spiritual traditions quite well, and they seem to back up my spirituality-in-the-world approach.  I don’t trust the splitting of the sacred and the secular, and I find inspiration for my natural mysticism in Zen and Greek polytheism, as well as in Catholic monastic practice, where mundane work is considered a form of prayer.

Thomas Moore

We are entering a new era, and the old forms of spirituality are fading.  Guilt, moralism, dogmatism, rote learning, and empty rituals are disappearing, to be replaced by a more personally engaged spirituality.  I hope that we are also heading for a visionary style that doesn’t divide the ordinary from the holy or the secular from the sacred.  I hope to see new kinds of mysticism, more along the lines of the models I mentioned, because deep down I believe that every human being needs a way to merge with life, momentarily losing self-consciousness, discovering himself in the world and not outside of it.

More Information:
Thomas Moore will be over from the USA in the late Spring and gives a talk at the Isbourne Holistic Centre in Cheltenham on Monday 23rd April entitled A Religion of One’s Own.  For further information CLICK HERE

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  1. Barque says:

    Thank you, Thomas for sharing your “spirituality-in-the-world” approach with examples who inspire you.

  2. Thank you for this piece. I love the way you weave together several important ideas: living lightly, finding the work we are called to do, and seeing the spiritual and the secular as indivisible. As Thich Nhat Hanh says: “There is no enlightenment outside of daily life.”

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