July 2005

Barbara J. King


In Praise of Immersion: The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004

“The way to understand this thing is not by analysis but by immersion.”

OK, it’s no Buddhist koan. Maybe it’s not even the deepest of insights. Still, this sentence snapped me to attention. Offered by a Japanese monk to an American seeker of Buddhist wisdom in Maura O’Halloran’s essay "Annie Mirror Heart," these words resonated for me emotionally. As it turned out, they held the key to reflecting not only on the contents of The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (hereafter, TBASW) but also to a pesky few things weighing on my mind.

Admittedly, I had cracked open this anthology with an agenda firmly in place. Like Annie in the essay, I too was seeking an alternative path. In the midst of writing a book on the origins of religion, I wanted company in my retreat from too-much-in-favor evolutionary theories that smack of scientific reductionism. The thought of reading one more book that “explained” religion as rooted in our genes [see my June Bookslut essay on The God Gene], or in our ancient, specialized, Swiss-blade-knifelike brain modules, was too much.

I needed a fix badly: a reunion with the light and heat that emerges when people, real people, engage with the spiritual. As a scientist, I opened this book wanting some evidence to support some answers. I wanted to shore up my own ideas about how spirituality is rooted in emotional relating, how it emerges when people are transformed so much by their relating-to-each-other that they begin to relate outward and upward, with the invisible, the unknowable.

As my scientist-author self engaged in this seeking, it occurred to me that I was caught up in a parallel personal search as I near what Bill Maher calls the “seven squared” birthday [Utne Reader interview, July-August 2005]. Alternately energized and horridly restless, I was undergoing a period of self-questioning. But here too I had fallen into my tried-and-true method of looking for some evidence that would lead to some answers: all black and all white, please; no shades of gray need apply.

Thus I began reading TBASW with pen at the ready, together with whatever analytic capability I could muster. Light and heat were indeed forthcoming, as in Dan Bellm’s beautiful poem "Parable" involving two Sabbath candles. Here’s an excerpt:

….And as they reached their end
the one became turbulent, sputtering, loud,
the left one on the table, the one facing my heart,

the heart, of it burning out impurely and rough,
a red with tarry shadows, spitting death at me,
the other placid as prayer, clear light and patient
in the copper hourglass bowl, steadfast as the soul
of the one I love, soothing me, being also alive….

Yet as I dove fully into the 10 poems and 24 essays (plus preface and introduction) in this volume, I found something unexpected: immersion-not-analysis; turbulent questioning without the accompanying need for starkly dichromatic answers; opening oneself to all sorts of natural forces that push you and pull you -- but still, you don’t close yourself off to them; and wonder of wonders, the comfort of uncertainty.

In the essay "Physics and Grief," Patricia Monaghan describes her crushing sense of loss and disorientation at her husband’s death. Rejecting not only “those happy visions that religion held out” but also “nonreligious spiritualism,” Monaghan plunged into “an abyss of meaninglessness” as she wondered whether her husband lived on, in some form, somewhere in the universe. When she turned to reading physics, her perspective shifted. She thought a lot about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle [from an online dictionary: the statement that one cannot simultaneously measure both the position and velocity (actually, momentum) of a particle with arbitrary precision]. Monaghan found enormous comfort in the idea that “enshrining uncertainty at the center of perception and knowledge [made] anything and everything both possible and impossible at once.”

Oddly, my initial response to Monaghan’s essential realization was “well, yes… but that won’t work in science.” Only then did the obvious really sink in: this comes from physics! So yes, absolutely: in all science, as in my own anthropology; in all life, as in my own life.

Immersion and the comfort of uncertainty imply openness, indeed an embodied openness that can be learned from nature.

From Mark Doty’s poem "Fire to Fire":

If I were a sunflower I would be
the branching kind
my many faces held out
in all directions, all attention,
awake to any golden
incident descending;
drinking in the world
with my myriads of heads,
I’d be my looking.

Page after page, I found immersion, uncertainty, openness. Part of what prayer is, writes Lindsey Crittenden in "The Water Will Hold You: A Daughter at Prayer," is a “dive, [a] bold impulse, pure throw of yourself into the unknown…” When faced with sorrow and disappointment, writes Noelle Oxenhandler in "Ah, but the Breezes": we can still find “a buoyancy in the heart of the heaviness," a sense that “I can’t quite see it now, but I know it’s there.”

No flat homogeneity mars this anthology, however; for what uncertainty be, if its borders were never challenged; what would immersion be, if only into tepid sameness; what would openness be, if only to the familiar? I struggled, for instance, with the Buddhist exaltation of emptiness described by James Fredericks in "Masao Abe: A Spiritual Friendship." But the struggle was enjoyable, an engagement of the mind with an idea-attractor, indeed a difficult idea that fluttered restlessly around the edges of my comprehension.

I can’t say it was enjoyable, exactly, reading Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s "In the Beginning was Consciousness." For Nasr, an immense gulf looms between spirituality and modern science, such that, for him, “the word sacred does not mean anything in the context of modern science; it is just sentimentality. And with the loss of the sense of the sacred came the loss by human beings of their home in the cosmos…” How alien such thoughts are to me, when I am so at home in a world filled with animals -- from apes to frogs -- to whom I feel a genuine connection.

And how much more at home I felt reading David James Duncan’s "Earth Music," which describes the “growing reverence for nature and its mysteries among scientists.” Duncan gets immersion just right: “I’ll stand by the ocean, see the slight curve of horizon, feel the ocean’s hum, and see: the very seas are a single spherical note.”

Keep reading and meet Miss Ivory Brown in Robin Cody’s essay; reflect on light in the desert as captured in Peter Friederici’s "Fifteen Ways of Seeing the Light." Readers will appreciate B.K. Loren’s "Word Hoard": “When you use the word flummox, for instance, your tongue rolls across the same territory of every person who has ever spoken that word. It carries every sentiment every flummoxed person has ever implied, plus your own.”

Closing the covers of TBASW, I was certain of fewer things than when I had opened them. That’s a keen recommendation for any book, I’d say; it’s a great feeling, too, one that I can recommend in its own right. And it is, I think, a good place from which to write a book about the evolution of spirituality… and maybe from which to square my seven.

--Author Barbara J. King thanks those family and friends (you know who you are!) who have accepted, even encouraged, her turbulence.