Secular To Sacred Nature

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By Mark Lundegren

If you are pursuing or learning about natural health, and the title of this article caught your eye, I would like to share an idea with you.  Since you chose this article title among others, the idea may prove quite interesting to you in particular. It may be one you are sympathetic with, and can use and share yourself.

The idea I want to talk about is quite important, but often overlooked or misunderstood.  The idea may change the way you think about your surroundings and your own life.  On one hand, it is simple and concrete.  On the other, the idea is not simple at all.  It is a complicated idea that has some history.  The idea involves persistence aimed at having an experience.  And once we have this experience, it begs for new action and priorities in our lives.  For now, let me simply call this simple and not simple idea, the Sacred, or more rightly, our experience of the Sacred.

It may seem strange to you that, as part of a discussion of the science of our natural health and well-being, I should want to introduce a thing that might possibly be called Sacred.  Maybe you expected us to confine our talks to chemistry and biology, to anthropology and psychology, and that we would remain objective and dispassionate and avoid the rhapsodic.  You even may be unsure of what I mean by this old and admittedly weighty word.  But I can think of no better way to describe the idea I have in mind, even though I am not a religious man.  Nor can I think of any better time to talk about and begin to explore with you an experience of the world as I have called, simply and unsimply, the Sacred.

This experience that I call the Sacred has been a frequently recurring theme for me over the last few months, but I realize it goes back to a time when I was much younger.  Then, I struggled to understand and name it, as I still do now.  Lately, the Sacred, as an idea and as a real experience, often surfaces in my walks in nature and in my talks with friends.  Perhaps this theme and my more frequent experiences of the Sacred come now that I have reached a point in my life where I am past the preliminaries of health and well-being.  It may be because I have now cumulatively spent several years outdoors, walking and hiking in the natural world, much more than the average modern person (though still far less than a typical hunter or shepherd).  Being healthier and outdoors a great deal changes your perspective.  It slows you down in an important way and lets you see new things, or the same things in new ways.

I expect that many people in the HumanaNatura community, or who spend considerable time outdoors and in nature, think about and experience the Sacred, whether they call it by this name or another.  As we improve our health, as our improved health heightens our awareness and attentiveness, and as we move ourselves into greater and more attentive contact with the natural world, I suspect the discovery of what I have called the Sacred emerges in many of our lives.  Maybe in varying degrees, depending on our orientation and circumstances, or maybe depending on the amount of time we spend in and attend to the natural world. 

I do worry that we may sometimes feel the need to repress or hide these experiences and the feelings they engender, and am sure this is a mistake.  Our feelings and experiences of the Sacred are not just intimate and personal, they are universal and a deeper aspect of our human life.  They are old and new, and it is tremendously important that they are spoken about, in our new and more scientific time in history, so others can learn about and share in our experiences.

Many others have written about the experience of the Sacred, even in our times and even people who are otherwise modern and have an entirely modern worldview.  I believe the experience of the Sacred is natural and healthy, a sign of growth and maturity, and of insight and understanding, even if it is seemingly antithetical to the prevailing sensibility of our time.  In truth, the experience of the Sacred amidst modern times and a modern worldview is instead a phenomenon still newer than our modernity, a synthesis of new and old, and not antithesis at all.

If you are having experiences, ideas, and feelings that may be similar to mine, I guess what I want to say is, you are not alone.  I would encourage you to examine and pursue these experiences, and to talk about them with others.  If you aren’t having vibrant perceptions of the world, ones that might be described as experiences of the Sacred, if natural health is still anthropology and biology only, then I definitely want to encourage you to explore your natural health some more – and to consider that there may be more involved in your health than you realize.  I have been a natural health practitioner for a while, and this idea of the Sacred took a while to come to me in its current and now more coherent form.  The Sacred is an experience of the world that has ebbed and flowed in frequency for me over time, but lately it is decidedly far more flow than ebb.

It is of course worth clarifying what I mean by the Sacred, so we are sure we are speaking of or searching for the same thing, and I suspect it is exactly or nearly the same thing for each of us who are modern, healthy, and nature oriented.  In the past, and still for traditional people today, the Sacred usually referred to the divine, to the metaphysical, and to religious customs linked to the divine.  If you know me, personally or through my work, you know I must be speaking about something other than this traditional meaning when I refer to the Sacred, something more worldly and natural.  This is true, although perhaps not wholly true, especially in feeling.  If you don’t know me, let me say simply that I am a child of science and not religion.  Where others see the Sacred as metaphysical, I instead describe it as meta-personal – a direct and heightened experience of the world that is larger and more expansive than our normal perceptions and thinking, larger and more expansive than our normal selves.

For me and perhaps for you, the Sacred is an experience of the natural world and the things around us in a new way.  It is seeing greater depth in the world and in ourselves.  As I pursue natural health and natural living (HumanaNatura’s term for restructuring our daily lives for greater health), I more and more often experience nature and the world as Sacred.  And I mean this emotionally and passionately, not intellectually or ideologically.  The Sacred is an ambient, open-ended, ineffable, and deeply personal experience of the world.  It is not categorical or arrived at or understood by reasoned, even as I am sure it is universal.  It is an experience and feeling, and must be felt and experienced to be known.

This experience of the world as Sacred is artful, mystical, and spiritual, but it is physical, tangible, and specific too.  It is the same each time, an experience very different from, but strangely a complement to my life in and near science and ideas.  Even now, if I look up from my computer and attend to the sky above me, to the earth and water near where I am, and to the intricate grain of the wood of the window sash, I find I am again and immediately in the presence of what I call the Sacred.  This available and repeatable experience is of the world in its primordial and ancient state, in its more real state, in its freshness and mysteriousness.  It is our regular world examined more closely and revealed more deeply.  The world of course is always this way, always Sacred.  It is only you and me that so often fail to attend to our world properly and to see nature in this way – sudden and vivid, whole and physical, ancient, gripping and even mesmerizing.

You might use different words to describe this experience, or would prefer to express the Sacred in an entirely different way.  A kindred spirit of mine, from a generation before my time, called the Sacred the experience of Being, distinct from the hurry and commitments of life that are simply Becoming.  For me, when I am outdoors and in nature especially, walking or simply looking out on the natural world, I can feel and witness the Sacred, or Being, whenever I take the time to perceive the world in this way.  This wordless experience can be called by many names, none adequately but often still usefully to others.  The Sacred is the experience of the wonder and solemnity of nature, and of the great age of all things in the natural world – from stars to rocks to plants to newborn insects.  We are made larger and more human from the experience.  I even can feel that I am part of the Sacred, that I am Sacred and ancient too, in ways that are bigger than me. 

I believe that most or all of us can look out on nature and perceive in this way.  We can feel this human awe and reverence for the world, the depth and intensity in the world around us, can experience the world we dwell in and our lives as Sacred.  Some of us may not have had these feelings or experiences since we were children, or may have never had them, may have never had the experience of the natural world, in its entirety and in all places, as Sacred.  Such people may be religious and strictly so, or they may be deeply immersed in modernity as so many of us are, or they may be blocked from experiencing nature as Sacred in some other way.  There are many barriers that might keep us from these feelings of Sacredness toward the world, but I suspect they all stem from a lack of receptivity, openness, and attention to the natural world around us.  Even to a lack of love of nature.  As such, they are all obstacles we can overcome.

If we can find the time, persistence, attentiveness, and love to experience the world as Sacred, it immediately opens a door to us.  Not just to a new experience of ourselves and aspects of our lives as Sacred, but equally to other aspects of our human world as not Sacred, as Secular.  Our modern society is seemingly immersed in constant work to descend from its heights and naturalness – to be Secular and dispassionate, to be timely and to squeeze out the rhapsodic.  Because of this, the Sacred is fleeting feeling in our modern world, as the force of traditional religious conviction declines and as people become more and more immersed in the Secular.  But the Sacred is still with us, even of it must be recast after the rise of science, in a new and truer form.  I even hope that the Sacred is now returning to us, in the new and transfigured forms I have described.

Still, when we immerse ourselves in the Secular – which we increasingly and often completely do through the work and ideas, and the categories and deadlines of modernity – we close ourselves off to the experience of the world as Sacred, just as a dominating religious focus once did, recasting nature negatively and insisting that the Sacred was other worldly.  In all times, the Sacred experience requires attentiveness and openness to the larger world around us, a suspension of commitments and even our preconceptions and thoughts. 

If we miss this experience in our time, we live without the Sacred and the feelings and perspectives it engenders.  We may ascribe ideas of the Sacred to earlier religious thinking and may openly doubt its existence, even when people speak of it.  Our lives are then likely to become ever more Secular and narrowed, ever more unaware of and unable to reach into our natural human capacity to experience of the world and ourselves in this larger way, as Sacred. As with human-centered religion, with human-centered Secularism, we become increasingly alienated from nature, from our natural health and human nature, and thus from our full selves.  We live and experience the world personality, and never meta-personally, and therefore in smaller and more specific ways as time passes.

By contrast, if we can break free of all ideologies, new and old, and simply live more naturally and attentively, more personally and in our lives, we reconnect to ancient human perspectives and feelings.  We experience nature and our lives more directly and naturally, and more slowly and vividly.  Our experiences grow richer and larger over time, and the Sacred returns to us.  We again understand can tap into ancient human feelings.  We rediscover our ancient human capability to contemplate nature and perceive its Sacred quality.  It is a religious experience of nature, an original and uplifting human experience from a time before religion, one that likely was the basis of all the religions of our earliest civilizations. 

Such feelings of awe and reverence in the presence of nature have been quite pronounced for me recently, compelling me to think about, and now write about, the Sacred.  As I said, it is a feeling or experience I can summon when I want, as long as I have time for summoning and am not distracted by pressing demands.  As someone who found the Sacred amidst a scientifically-oriented life and on the scientifically-based path of natural health and natural living, it is a new and unexpected experience, one that enlarges my own ideas of my self and my health.  It alters my experience of daily life, when I am again so often immersed in the Secular, surrounded with new and unancient things, with material and hurried things, with glittery and fleeting things of the present day, with things far from nature.  Far not just from nature but from my full human nature too, and from our almost always available communion with the Sacred, with nature and the greater world outside our humanity. 

As you pursue your own health and natural life, I would like to invite you into an exploration of these things I have called the Sacred and the Secular.  I encourage your exploration of the feelings and meanings each engenders for you.  This is new work, new synthesis of the old and the new into something still newer.  I expect this will be an opportunity for many of us to explore new ideas and experiences essential to our well-being, to see our health and wellness in new and fuller ways, and to see what is superfluous or even detrimental to us in new ways too. 

So, let me close by asking what is Sacred around you and in you?  How do you feel in the presence of old and natural things, from the earth and water to the sky and stars above us?  What do these experiences call you to do more of, and less of?  And what about the Secular around you?  How do you recognize and define it?  What thoughts and feelings does it engender for you?  And how much of your personal surroundings and focus today are Sacred and Secular.  How do you feel about this balance?  What would you like to change?

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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