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As I write to you, it is the autumnal equinox where I live, though the subject of this writing has little to do with autumn or the equinox, both favorite topics of mine.
My themes this time, in fact, are about perception and transformation, about the opportunities we have to stop routine ways of living and thinking. Such opportunities can happen at any time of the year, and should as frequently as we can make way for them, when our goal is greater learning, growth, health, and life.
An equinox is the time in the year of equal day and night. Unless we are right on the equator, this happens twice yearly and marks the beginning of spring and fall on many calendars. When the equinox comes, including the days immediately before and after it, the natural world is in a period of special balance and harmony, not just half light and half dark, but half summer and half winter too, for all of us, wherever we are. For me, and for many others past and present, this is an extraordinary time in the year, and more than a celestial event. The equinox is an important opportunity to reconnect and bring new balance to our lives, just as the hemispheres of our world reconnect and return to balance at each equinox.
When we think of balance, we are apt to conjure ideas of moderation and temperance, of prudence and restraint, of fighting opposing forces, and even feelings of guilt and anxiety for our excesses and past imbalances. If we do this, it often reflects the strong, unnatural, and often very biased socialization many of us are subject to as children and adults. We are apt to think of our balance, and even the seasons of spring and fall, as more winter and less summer, though this is clearly not correct and a prescription for an imbalance of a particular sort in our lives. Perhaps, deep down, we may suspect as much, but cannot articulate this truth involving us. We may thus live and endure with a deep bias in our lives, even suspecting something is wrong, that something is out of balance in us in the way and as we seek balance, but remain unable to name or act on the source of this feeling.
For some of us, the more ardent and headstrong especially, I suppose that more winter and less summer is the right prescription to achieve new personal balance. It is the path we may need to traverse to find new well-being and receptivity, though perhaps our ardor is a result of earlier imbalance and unnaturalness in our lives. Though winter can be a harder time, its air is often clear and reaching, and the season itself is receptive in its way, seeking new sun and allowing an eventual return of warmth into our lives. For many more of us though, as I’ll talk about in a moment and as my title suggests, we have far too much winter and not nearly enough summer in our lives today, and by this I mean excessive routine and inadequate natural spontaneity. In truth, this bias is a common and terrible thing to carry in us, a bias toward our fears, one that works to reduce our health and limit the power of our lives.
For many of us, living amidst the cool demands of the modern world, it is far more summer and much less winter that we most need to better balance our lives, and even to advance our health and lives, whether or not we realize or can name this need in us. For billions of urban-dwelling people today, it is more wildness and more seeming chaos that we most need, not less. We require sun and long summer days, if we are to become truly balanced and whole, and optimally healthy in our lives. As moderns, and now as post-moderns, we dwell in an environment that is often too comfortable, too structured and constrained, even as it offers new freedom and prosperity, but as it also distracts and preoccupies us. Of all the gods in the ancient pantheon, it is Eros that we now most need – that we most need to reach to today.
* * *
I have just completed a move to a new part of the United States and, simultaneously, taken a step more deeply into nature and natural living, my phrase for organizing one’s life for optimal health and well-being. I now live in the country, instead of a city as I did before. I am on a lake, amidst trees and wildlife, with miles of country roads and trails to amble on. It is very idyllic and I know I am lucky to be where I am now. As compensation, I try to be as attentive as I can to the many lessons this place has waiting within it, even as modern life sometimes works against this.
My most recent move was a reminder that every move is a hundred steps, a hundred details and tasks, even for people who live as simply, naturally, and directly in our lives as we can. I can imagine the moves of larger, less simple households, ones holding the legacy of years of accumulated things. They may come with many hands to help, but perhaps also ones less inclined to let go of old things or feel the need to make way for new things. There, a move is more like a thousand steps, difficult and tender ones even. This may be why many people do not move very much or very far, even as this may be much to their detriment.
In comparison, my move was straightforward enough and not especially difficult. As part of seeking greater health and more natural life, I had planned this move for some time, and had used the time to make choices and align my life for my impending future, for the future I am living in now, and had shed the things I thought that needn’t or wouldn’t move with me. Still, a move is a move, and there is always some amount of work involved in the act of moving one’s life to a new place. While mine was easier than many, changing places means making new connections, in the world and in ourselves. It is always a bit disorienting when and right after we move. It is even, at first, slightly dizzying to be in a new and unfamiliar place. It takes time for us to settle down and feel like ourselves again. We must unpack, not just physically, but psychologically too.
When we do begin to settle down and unpack ourselves in new surroundings, we often find that not just our location has changed, but that we have changed too. We are all strongly affected by our environment, after all, and there is nothing like the work and new setting of a move to remind us of how closely our sensibility and our surroundings are so closely reflected in one another. For this reason only, for this learning about self and surroundings, I would encourage you to move from time to time, and to learn to chose surroundings that more and more help to create the self you want to be.
Though work, and disorienting and even dizzying at times, a move makes you learn and forces you to change. Even the elementary physics of moving help you to confront yourself, to sift through and examine your possessions, and the priorities and past they reflect. A move, any move or any break from our routines, but particularly a move to better and healthier places, holds the prospect to make us better and healthier ourselves, and larger and even more alive as new places often are to us all.
* * *
As you may know, Eros is ostensibly the ancient Greek god of love, as this is how he is most remembered or last conceived in earlier times. If your knowledge of classical religion and literature is fading or threadbare, or if there is little original memory to become worn, a short time at Wikipedia will provide you will an excellent summary of Eros and his many compatriot deities.
In truth, there were two conceptions of Eros in classical times, an earlier and then a later one. Eros was originally seen as embodying not only erotic love, but also the creative force of nature more generally. In the most ancient Greek myths, long before the age of Pericles, Eros was part of a trilogy, one of three primal forces that sprang directly from Chaos, along with Gaia, the earth, and Tartarus, the underworld. Eros was first seen as the creative force of life, spreading itself across the world, and equally into day and night.
Much later, the concept of Eros changed, likely reflecting the increased urbanization and gentrification of Greek civilization and culture. Eros then became more associated with sexual love and especially the sharp sting of helpless sexual infatuation. In this transfiguration, Eros became a playful god, making mirth for himself by creating asymmetrical or ill-timed romantic entanglements, and causing trouble for gods and mortals alike.
This denigration or diluting of primal life force of Eros continued over the centuries until he became Cupid in later Roman times, a fluttering and somewhat insipid cherub with gold and lead arrows. Still later, with the rise of Roman Catholicism, Eros and erotica more generally, given their now more narrow definition and the canons of monotheism, became re-cast as vice and sin. This overall transformation was taken up in our time with great passion by the modern philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the fact of the once primal force of nature gradually becoming viewed by society as evil was an important metaphor and part of a larger mosaic of social change that occurred before our time, both suggesting the need for a radical re-thinking of our inherited values and social structures.
When I talk about reaching Eros, I do mean the opposite of vice and evil, though I certainly don’t mean virtue in the modern sense either, which as we often use it, is also really in a medieval sense and not as the word was used in still earlier times. In the ancient world, perhaps before our own human decline and dilution in parallel with Eros’, virtue used to have a meaning much closer to forcefulness or strength, and this is closer to where I am aiming when I speak of Eros, if I may assume the role of an archer for a moment.
In using the word Eros, I mean to talk about forcefulness and the primordial energy of life, our acting more willfully and with new strength in the world, and our opportunity to spread out again into the world, equally into day and night, in a renewal and rediscovery of our ancient connection to wild nature. By Eros, I mean to talk about the border between our human world of order and apparent natural chaos around us, and the strength and openness that is required to enter into this chaos, and the force and profundity that send us forward upon our entering. I mean to speak about our opportunity for new equinox too, for post-modern life balanced in a new way – equal parts of the sunlit earth and of the underworld that is all human order.
I also do want to talk about love and fertility, and about life and erotic sensations of life, in their richest and most full sense, sensations that make moderns blush and made medievals scorn, in both cases because our perception of erotica has become so limited and alloyed with unnatural guilt. By Eros, I mean to talk about our health as human beings, as natural beings, and about our opportunity to connect to our oldest, most natural feelings, and to trust ourselves in a new immersion in them.
I want to talk about creating a new and ancient natural balance in our lives today, that is so often lacking or channeled in distorted and unhealthy ways, as life and we ourselves have been dulled by routine, by urbanity and gentrification, just as was Eros more than 2000 years ago.
* * *
Amidst the many steps and distractions of my modest and well-planned move, amidst the cleaning and organizing, the unpacking and unfolding of things, I couldn’t escape the sight and thought of my new neighbor, the sparkling lake at my doorstep. As I worked to bring order to my new home, to adjust it to me and to adjust me to it, the lake’s waters gently beckoned and beckoned.
I should tell you that it is late in the year for swimming where I am now, and the weather has been unseasonably cool. Because of this, and finding it easy to be busy with my move and new circumstances, I had put off the idea of swimming. Maybe if there is a warm day, I had thought more than once, as I sorted through my things and worked on my new home, or maybe I’d just wait until next spring. I had a list of things to do to make my new house a home, to feel reasonably settled and to be something resembling myself again. Still, the lake waited and the water beckoned, especially each sunny afternoon – when the last low rays of summer bent down into the lake and splashed against the forest around it.
I began spending more time by the lake, sitting on the bank in the morning, in the dawn and gray mist before the day, bugs dancing like raindrops on the water’s surface amidst the first stirrings of birds and fish. After a week in my new location, on an especially clear night, I went down to the lake in the evening and watched the stars, both overhead in the cool autumn sky and equally reflected in the dark water beneath my feet. Maybe I would swim if we had a warm day, I thought that night, or if I got hot enough from lugging furniture or working in the yard to overcome the growing chill in the air and water.
And then it was my second Sunday afternoon in my new house, my second Sunday afternoon cleaning and straightening, lifting and unpacking, working through my list of things to do with October and colder weather not far in the future. I remember it wasn’t especially warm that day. And I wasn’t especially warm myself either, though I was dirty from cleaning my previously unused and intricately cobwebbed garage.
Suddenly, in an unexpected impulse, I was at the lake. And then I was in the water to my knees, adjusting to the not so cool water and thinking to myself that I was most certainly going in, right then, and for better or worse.
* * *
I don’t know if you’re an experienced swimmer or if you enjoy the water, but I am and I do. I grew up by the ocean and count swimming as one of my special pleasures, even one that has been, on many occasions for me, quite sublime.
From across the lake, someone observing me might have simply seen a person diving into the water on a late-September afternoon, amidst the leaves overhead just starting to change color, and perhaps little else. For me though, the experience was more, much more than this. I instead entered into something other than water, something more viscous and tactile and living than any water I had ever experienced.
What I had dived into was far more than this new lake by my new home. I was suddenly in a different world, resplendent and primal, where every sensation was vivid and lingering. I could feel each air bubble clinging to my skin, and see and feel how I was shrouded in undulating light and darkness, and moving through rippling warmth and coolness. This new medium was liquid and slightly dangerous, but vital and invigorating too. It was an emotional and physical world, where I felt animal joy and abandon, and peril and control. There was uplifting light everywhere and probing in all directions against the darkness. I had reached into Eros.
Writing this, a few days later, it is hard to sort out what was so singular about this first swim in the lake outside my window now, what it was about this particular swim that made it so transcendent. I remember that the sun was bright and dappled the trees and water around me. The lake felt clean and refreshing, but also strangely heavy and mysterious, its surface more like a syrup than water, as I glided out away from shore. My body was light and fleeting in comparison, but held gently by the radiant water. The sensation was of pleasure and vulnerability and freedom, all at once. Psychologists call these ambient experiences, when our environment and senses overload our brains, leaving us awed, humbled, and oddly enlarged at the same time. But this word does not begin to contain the experience I has that day.
As I swam away from shore and into the full afternoon sun, the hundred steps of my move fell away from me like the hundred drops of water kicked into the air around me each moment, or like the dry dirt that had been stiff against my skin only a minute before and now was gone entirely as my skin was made soft and flowing. I felt completely alive and unrestrained, happy and contented, in a way that I somehow knew well and yet could not recall last feeling. I had the idea to swim toward a small island in the middle of the lake, and did. I swam back toward my house in a long, wide arc, staying in the warm autumnal sun, seizing the autumnal warmth and the rich colors around me. I wanted to savor the experience and not force it to end before its time, and wondered why it need end. Nearing the shore, I then headed back out again into the middle of the lake, alternatively gliding quietly through the sunlit water and kicking its surface into bright foam, keeping the lake and experience alive as they kept me in their embrace.
Like a child, I swam for almost an hour and would not stop. I stayed in the warm sun and moved through the water, alive at its surface with unstoppable sunlight, alive where the sun and water meet, entirely apart from the land. I stayed away from my life on land, from my life of the land, away from my moving and the hundred things, away from temperance and moderation, away from the past and future. I was only in this long unending moment, at the edge of the world and the underworld, a moment that is there still and waiting for us all in our lives. Abandoning myself to the world, I returned to a pure and ancient experience of nature, one that people may think is evil or dangerous or distracting today. Perhaps it is all these things, especially to human order as it is in our world today.
Reaching Eros, as I did that day, I found a new possibility for balance, a new and larger side in me, a stronger and natural forcefulness in the world, a new sense of summer and winter, as the world moved around me in afternoon and equinox.
This more intricate order, this only seeming chaos, is in truth our more natural human life and our more natural human balance in the world, which awaits all of us who will reach into and be renewed by it.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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