Profound Experiences

One day, I was listening to NPR. The program host was interviewing people who had had profound spiritual experiences that they could not explain and that had changed them for life. The story that I remembered most was told by a 60-year old woman who described what happened to her as a 14-year-old girl on a car trip with her family. The family arrived and everyone then got out to stretch their legs. The woman said that, as she was getting out of the car, she had an experience of a veil that suddenly dropped. She looked out at the roadside scene and everything she saw was sparklingly alive: the trees, those silent piles of wood, crackled with life. She could see air molecules and their interactions with each other and with the trees. She said the gravel and asphalt of the road was living, buzzing and moving with life and in connection with her and with everything else. The boundaries of her body and self disappeared and she said she felt utter, complete and profound connection with everything on earth. She said that the 3 or 4 seconds of this experience was the most consequential of her life…yet she never told anyone about it until that interview on NPR. She was afraid she was crazy and she didn’t have the language to describe this experience. She never told her mother, her friends or family because she didn’t know what had happened but she knew she had been changed.

Clearly you don’t need to be on the back of a donkey en route to ancient Damascus to have been possessed by a life-shattering, mystical event. Paul’s experience of being confronted by God on that roadside knocked him to the ground and rendered him blind for three days….until the scales fell from his eyes and he was changed. In both of these stories, Paul and the woman on NPR felt as though they had connected to a profound truth. The reality wasn’t a slow realization but a lightening bolt of altered perception. You are confronted with a truth, your perception shifts, and you are changed. 

I think we underestimate how much we all live inside our own heads. Our thoughts wrap and wind around each other, getting knotted with anxiety, increasingly separating us from each other and from the truths that are right in front of our noses. I work as a park naturalist at Huntley Meadows Park and it’s literally my job to get park visitors outside of that headspace and make a connection with the natural world. I show woolley bears to kindergarteners, teach adults how to draw ferns and flowers, and point out migrating warblers to Virginia Master Naturalists. I try to pry people from their air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned lives and get them outdoors to find emotional ties to non-humans so they will notice, and love, them…and work to protect them. These relationships help to conserve the natural world but they also save us, as well, emotionally and spiritually. They free us from ourselves.  

I wrote about connectivity for Emmanuel’s Lenten blog series, “Who Do You Say I Am?”. I hope to expand the idea of relationship beyond human-to-human to include the natural world where awareness of our connections can be equally boundary shattering and profound. In his book “Entangled Life”, Dr. Merlin Sheldrake, a mycologist or fungi scientist, describes an interconnected world of infinite, uncountable relationships between fungi, plants and animals. I formerly thought that individual plants lived alone, competing with other trees and shrubs for water and sunlight…a world of competition and dominance…..until I was confronted with the profound truth of how forests are entirely knitted underground by fungal strands in relationships with plants called mychorrizae so that no individual plant functions alone. This fact changed my perception and I’ll never never see forests as I did before. All trees, grass, shrubs and moss exist in a hyperconnected whole, a forest super-organism. Nutrients are shared through these mychorrizal connections. You can see these fungal strands at work whenever you turn over a rotting log: the white fibers and masses are the body of the fungus and they connect the nutrients in the rotting log with living plants in the forest. Mycologists have called this “The Wood Wide Web” jokingly but I see this circuitry as a profound truth: that no tree or plant is on its own. None are alone. All are connected.

Family Reunion, Margaret Wohler

Unfortunately, some people don’t want to be connected to either to the “dirty”, busy and messy natural world, with its decay and predation, or to other people, with their annoying problems. I feel this way myself sometimes. We like to see ourselves as acting alone, as individuals, not dependent upon anyone or anything else. We want our spiritual experiences to be like an Italian painting, on a mountain with angels flying through sunbeams, lofty and clean…above the natural world….in a beautiful and orderly church pew, indeed above the experiences and lives of other human beings. Superior. 

I’m reminded of CS Lewis’ words in “Mere Christianity”: 

“There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

Humans have historically ordered the natural world in a straight vertical line: with bacteria and fungi at the bottom and vertebrate animals on top, with humans as the ultimate being, the top boss, the kings of the world. Our chauvinism has prevented us from recognizing a profound truth: that we are enmeshed both with all other humans and with the natural world; we are not above, or apart from, either. In fact, we can’t live without these connections. 

In his book “I Contain Multitudes”, author Ed Yong writes that half of the cells in our body are non-human. Think of that: we are more “ecosystem” than “individual.” Our bodies contain millions of bacteria, fungal cells, mites, gut biota, viruses and parasites, both helpful and harmful, of all kinds. We are built literally of relationships. To deny this truth is to sit alone in a delusion that we are aloof from other life…the kings of ourselves, that we created ourselves, pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps to be the superior beings that we are, that we alone can fix ourselves. We don’t need relationships with humans or nature. We don’t need God or his holy community, his kingdom on earth.

People who view themselves as apart are ultimately lonely and alone. Paradoxically, their world does not become more grand for their aloof superiority but it contracts. They view the earth’s thousands of tree species, with their ancient lives and their infinite variations on fruit, flowers, seeds and leaves as just….lumber. They view the millions of beautiful animal species, with their spectacularly adapted bodies, their herds and families, their social lives as simply…..steak. One powerful person also has viewed Ukrainians, with their multiple ethnicities, separate language and thousands of years of history as not Ukrainian at all but in fact Russian…and that is how it is because he says so and they don’t get a vote. To think that one detached man has the right to decide the identity of an entire population is folly. It’s a world view that is both brutal and lonely….and unnecessary.

Fungi live in a world that is vastly different from our above-ground home. They are far older than us, silent and discreet, but always growing and making connections. Fungi evolved more than a billion years ago; modern humans have been on earth for less than a million years. Fungi display a type of intelligence that is not on a human scale and has been hard for us short-lived people to even see or detect. A single fungus can live for thousands of years and is hard to discern even as a separate individual since it connects to every other life in its orbit and reconnects back on itself. Fungi function as enmeshed, entangled life….a brain-like, living intelligence. 

Today’s reading from Job :12 requests that we “ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you”. I’m going to get a little weird here but bear with me. Dr. Sheldrake also describes the effects of eating “magic mushrooms” and their hallucinogen psylocibin on human perception. They can shake awake the realization of our connections to nature. People who eat them describe an experience of almost cosmic expansion and connection…that the boundaries of the individual melt away and the soul is both free and connected to all living things….and that everything, including the air itself, is alive. The revealed dizzying myriad connections between and among living and non-living things suggests a plurality of truths in life…that many things can be true at once. Perhaps no one of us has the corner on the Truth…the one truth with a capital T. 

Psylocibin appears to offer no real advantage to the fungus. It isn’t a poison or appetite suppressant to discourage other organisms from eating it. It isn’t an enzyme or hormone to aid its physiology. Dr. Sheldrake hypothesizes that perhaps the fungi use psylocibin as a tool to communicate with the animals that eat it….to allow other brains to be fitted with the means of understanding the entangled, fungal life with its expansive, uncountable connections. Psylocibin perhaps allows fungi, our vastly older sibling, to grab us by the shoulders and look us in the eye and gently say: “You’re not the boss of the world.” For this understanding we should forever thank God. It releases us from the confines of pride.

Then good news is that you don’t have to go on a psychedelic drug trip to get a feeling for the euphoria of losing your individual aloneness. One of the best ways of puddling our personalities in becoming a sort of super organism is through singing. Have you even been on a road trip with friends, with the windows down and the radio on…with everyone singing a favorite song together? You feel the boundaries between you dissolve in the joy of the moment. Music is a profound way to pool people into one…..and has bound groups of people together to face tough tasks or to celebrate happy moments since, forever.

What would it be like for us if we all could have a profound experience with this truth: that we are truly not alone but bound to one another and to nature? How would we be forever changed by this understanding: that the lives of the world are not ordered in a hierarchical, vertical lineage with humans at the top….but rather are a mass of horizontal connections to each other…with none being superior but all being vital? The understanding that we are not alone, but supported by all life in relationship is I believe what God’s desire is for us: to live in community. Think of the thousands of small human interactions we have that enrich our life and keep us sane: the chat with the lady in line at the post office, the pat on the head of a stranger’s charming new puppy and the smiles that accompany that interaction, the talk over the fence with a neighbor. The pandemic has taught me one thing: we need these thousands of interconnections, regardless of how small or superficial. Our lives are made up of these tiny moments, these greetings and hellos, these smiles, these laughs and tears. We disregard them at our own peril just as we disregard the delight we can take in nature: the bird sighting, the new flower, the bees pollinating our garden, the thunderstorm bringing light, sound and rain. But we need to notice these small interactions first. Once we recognize and expand our holy community to both other humans and to non-human plant and animal lives, we will genuinely recognize that we are never alone. We’ll be resurrected from an isolated individual to an entangled member embedded in communal life. Like our older sibling, the fungi, we are always in connection with life and with God. So, on that note, let’s cue the choir and get singing!

— Margaret Wohler

For further reading click on links below:

A Non-Believer Tries to Make Sense of the Visions She Has Seen as a Teen

Awe With and Without the Gods

When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?

Merlin Sheldrake: Entangled Life

I Contain Multitudes

Annals of Inquiry: How I Started to See Trees as Smart

— Margaret Wohler

Nature Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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