Haunting the Wood
I went walking in Rendlesham Forest, to escape into woodlands, to escape into Nature. I went along one of the popular trails that skirted the Woodbridge Airfield, a place with its own interesting Cold War mythology. For portions of the trail there were others in sight, families out for a walk, and at other times I found myself to be alone. At one such time, probably about a mile east of the airbase, I was struck by the quality of the silence, and so I left the dirt path and strolled into the forest a little way until I found the ideal spot. It is surprisingly difficult to find a spot such as this in Suffolk, to find yourself in thick woodland, and for the only sound to be that of the wind in the trees. A spot devoid of the traffic’s hum. I was standing amongst the tall conifers and silver birches, light reaching down to the detritus-strewn woodland floor, pines, leaves, and clusters of bracken growing, the sound of the birds singing, as I took a deep breath, and breathed in the smell of pine resin, and the wild air. That’s the spot where I simply waited. This morning, let us wait together in the wood.
Spirit of Love and Light,
Light that reaches between the swaying branches,
Bringing its vitality to all it touches,
Even to this place,
Wherein your secrets are hidden,
Where dreams slumber.
Amidst the cool and silence
Where all is wild and free,
Here, where the invisible breath resides,
Where the melody can be heard, where the light
causes even our souls to bud forth.
Stir within us we pray.
My imagination continued to haunt the wood where I seemingly misplaced my soul, but alas, time had compelled me to withdraw. And it wasn’t until a few days later, at the witching hour, when I was inhabiting that transitory state between wakefulness and sleep, that I was brought back, and I found myself once again amongst the pines and birches, back at that spot in the woods. But this time it all had an uncanny/unworldly quality to it. I looked upon the trees and they seemed to be radiating their vitality outwards. I was profoundly aware of each tree’s relationship to the other, to the soil, to the air, to the animals and insects, which though unseen, I knew were there. There was a unity, and an interconnectedness, which defied language. And I myself, this frame that I seemingly inhabit, was likewise caught up in this unifying sense. Was I in Nature, or was Nature not in me? Identity, role, preoccupations with the minutiae of life, all dissolved into the background, leaving in its place a profound sense of liberty, a contentment, and a mindfulness.
After a moment of simply inhabiting that spot, of communing deeply with that natural space, I was taken deeper into the woods, where the branches were making a more determined effort to reach one another, reaching across clearings, and touching, even melding one with another. I too seemed to pass in and out of the bark, in and out of the soil, earthiness infusing all in all. My thoughts were almost subsumed entirely, but that’s when I caught sight of something glinting up ahead. It resembled a mirror, suspended in mid-air about a metre off the ground. As I approached, I could see figures dimly through the glass. And the closer I got, the sharper the images became. One of the figures was a man, salt and peppered hair, pinched features, and he was looking down at the second figure. It was a young girl, no more than twelve. I heard their voices. “How was school today?”, “Daddy, come and tuck me in.” “I don’t want to see any left on your plate.” “Hi Dad, I love you.” Then the male figure stopped. There was a frown on his face, he turned his head and seemingly looked right at me through the glass. An aching pit formed in my stomach. I didn’t just see his desperation, I felt it in my bones. This game that was being played, shallow, stereotyped, a meaningless exchange, “What do you want for Christmas?”, “Have you done your homework?” Two people on fixed tracks, two automatons playing out a predetermined, pre-written program. This was the father-daughter program. A blinding spectacle, which masked the truer, far deeper phenomena, which was that these two beings, these two points of awareness, these two divine intelligences, with interior worlds of unique meaning, which were just so happening to find themselves in close proximity within this space time continuum, were reduced, cruelly, to playing out characters in a puppet show.
The more I looked into his eyes, the more unbearable and overwhelming it felt. His despair was mine, his hell was mine, and so I reasoned that if I were to emancipate him, if I were to show him his own blindness, if I were to tune him into the bigger picture, well then, would his liberation not be mine also? His freedom, my freedom, his interior awareness, mine, his ability to disrupt the program and truly connect, mine, his sense of unity, mine? And so, instinctively, I reached forward. As my hand struck vainly against the cold, thick glass, terror convulsed through me. I gestured, but he could not see me. I spoke but he could not hear me. In a crushing moment of realisation, I saw that every effort on my part would be endlessly and infuriatingly fruitless. Deeply disheartened, I stepped back from the glass. It was darker now in the wood, my eyes had to readjust to the twilight sky that was drawing in. Somehow in that strange light, the mirror before me, glinting and suspended in the air, seemed to show up all the more clearly. That’s when, in the corner of my eye, I noticed a little higher off the ground another mirror suspended, again, containing dim figures. Beyond that, another. As my eyes darted from side to side, I realised the wood was teaming with mirrors, teaming with desperate, contained figures, all trapped, and locked behind glass. I could see a sea of mirrors stretching out without end. My heart quickened, I gasped, and woke up.
When considering this spiritual realm then, this universal underlying substrata, I generally consider it (in this Meeting House) in relationship to Christianity, as I most naturally draw upon Christian vocabulary, being as I am most familiar with that tradition by a long way. But of course, in saying that this spiritual reality is the universal underlying substrata, I am making a broader claim which includes all other religious traditions. There is that often-expressed sentiment, amongst pluralists, that all religions lead to heaven, and (although I know it’s an aphorism which means well) I am not very keen on it. This is for a number of reasons, firstly because it essentially attempts to squeeze all religions into the Christian mould. in regards to heaven. It’s a Western sentiment, influenced by a received Christian cosmology. Some traditions, as you all know, most notably Buddhism, don’t even have a conception of heaven (at least not anything like the Christian conception of heaven), and yet this saying has them all going there anyway. Secondly, I’m not keen on it, because it puts the emphasis on this thing called ‘religion’, and ‘religion’ tends to denote a surface level institution with rituals and a structure and hierarchy, and a set of precepts which determines ones’ status.
A large part of Jesus’ ministry was railing against religion, watching people get upset about things being done in the ‘wrong way’, and then asking them if what they’re upset about is really that important, really worth getting worked up about. The implication being that it wasn’t at all. That it was in fact a complete distraction, getting in the way of what really does matter. And when you frame things in this way, through a spiritual lens, or through Christ’s eyes, the concerns of this world are turned upside down. As the passage we heard expresses it, by juxtaposing human wisdom with that wisdom which was taught to us by the Spirit. Which is why it follows that to this world, to those trapped behind the glass, those who are living by the spirit, living with the mind of Christ, or drawing upon that underlying substrata for guidance, will be reviled, misunderstood, and seem foolish. And so, religion is really not what it’s all about. Religion is an outgrowth, a codified expression, built upon the shoulders of those individuals having that original and fundamental first-hand experience with this substrata. And so, religion continues to have value in as far as it is able to act as a signpost to that substrata. Every other concern, again as our passage puts it, is doomed to perish, ultimately that is. And so it’s interesting to point to religious traditions, other than Christianity, that have arrived upon the same point. For example, here is a short reading from the Sufi mystic, Rumi. Titled: ‘One One One’.
The lamps are different
But the light is the same
So many garish lamps in the dying brain’s lamp-show,
Forget about them.
Concentrate on the essence, concentrate on the Light.
In lucid bliss, calmly smoking off its own holy fire,
The Light streams towards you from all things,
All people, all possible permutations of good, evil, thought, passion.
The lamps are different,
but the Light is the same.
One matter, one energy, one Light, one Light-mind,
Endlessly emanating all things.
One turning and burning diamond,
One, one, one.
Ground yourself, strip yourself down,
To blind loving silence,
Stay there, until you see
You are gazing at the Light
With its own ageless eyes
Again, here, there is very much that sense of rooting yourself to place, grounding yourself within Nature, and then doing the work, until one is able to will that mystical reality open, and have it laid bare before you. And speaking of waiting for these mystical experiences in Nature, the Yoga Sutra text and tradition is another good example of this. When we think of Yoga, now, in the West, we don’t really think of a mystical tradition. We think of people stretching and working out, and the various postures - tree pose, cat pose, etc. But this whole tradition, which arose in the late Upanishads period in India, somewhere around the 4th Century BCE, was not about these positions. It wasn’t about the practices, per se, it was about reaching those interior states of being. Again, reaching that universal underlying substrata, achieved by these practitioners by going into Nature, into the woods or into caves, where they could find their quiet centre. The texts, of which we heard a little, were the snippets of wisdom these yogis then returned with, when they emerged out from Nature, out from their deep meditative states.
And what are they writing about? Well, the same stuff we’ve been talking about: not over identifying with this world, not being overly wrapped up in this world, not allowing our concerns with this world to overwhelm our thoughts. Releasing and freeing ourselves from the ways of this world. This attitude is mirrored over and over again in these mystical traditions. The signposts are everywhere, and the question, ultimately, that we’re left with, is to what degree are we (we collectively, or we as individuals), a signpost to the underlying substrata, for all is chaff in the wind.