I recently spent an entire weekend indoors. I was outside for a total of maybe two hours, but the rest of the time I was in the house cleaning, unpacking, and dealing with all manner of computer-related tasks: budgeting, financial aid, scheduling, and the important business of following what smart people have to say on twitter. By Sunday evening I was in an irrationally foul mood (I nearly had a tantrum when I lost a game of Magic: The Gathering to my partner, for one thing). I took to my journal to reflect upon my various discontents. No fresh air, no exercise, no creativity, and entirely too much internet.
In short, for two days I had resided solely in the human world.
Wait, but isn’t the human world just…the world?
I used to think that, and it took me a long time to wise up the fact that my assessment of reality at any given point in time is not the whole of reality. Aspects of my understanding may be true, but it is not the whole truth, and is often flawed. Society’s assessment of reality – from which most of us take our cues – is likewise partial and flawed. The judgements we collectively and individually bring to our experiences are just that: judgements. We have no choice but to participate in the world of human thought – this is where we grow together – but that world is not all that exists. There is a world beyond the last human thought and the last human judgement that is available to us too (the palm at the end of the mind?), and which is essential to our happiness as spiritual beings.
This other, hidden world is beyond the knowable. It is a world of mystery, of wisdom, of divine creativity that is acknowledged by most faith traditions and is readily available to us in nature, in music, in prayer and many other forms as well. It requires us to assume the awe and openness of children, and to leave our judgements at the door.
For the past several hundred years, this “other” world has not been very popular. Western thought has adopted a mechanical, anthropocentric outlook in which human thought is the ultimate indicator of reality (I think therefore I am), and even forays into spirituality quickly devolve into dry how-to’s. We go outside not as childlike witnesses to the beauty of nature, but because the doctor says we need to get our vitamin D. We exercise not to experience the joys of a body in motion, but because a study came out indicating that metabolism slows after twenty minutes of sitting.
Many of our most brilliant scientists are starting to move away from this model and towards a more holistic, cosmic framework, but the human-centered mold is hard to break, and too often spiritual practices are seen as just another means to material ends. In Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, which I am reading for a seminary class and which therefore frames spiritual practice in Christian terms, the author writes:
“It is hard to overstate how saturated we are with the mentality of popular science. Meditation, for example, if allowed at all, is not thought of as an encounter between a person and God, but as a psychological manipulation. Usually people will tolerate a brief dabbling in the ‘inward journey,’ but then it is time to get on with real business in the real world. We need to move beyond the prejudice of our age and affirm with our best scientists that more than the material world exists.”
Perhaps I am late to the party, but I just recently heard of “thin places,” which is a Celtic-Christian term for places where the veil between the visible and invisible worlds is lifted. Traditionally the term alludes to physical places, but I also like to think of it as a state of being, a state in which our preconceived judgements are lesser (thinner) than usual, and we are thus freed to interact with the divine. This interaction may take place in a wood, it may come in watching a spider weaving a web; it may be in singing or writing a poem, when the outer edges of the mind suddenly seem to mingle with divine inspiration; it may come looking fully into the face of another human being and seeing something of magic there.
I don’t want to tell you what particular form your encounter may take, but I do want to tell you that existing there, in that thin place, is nourishment for the spirit. More than that, it will make you wiser and fitter for the time that you necessarily must spend in the human world.
While I have avoided describing the other/invisible/thin world in overtly religious or Christian terms (chiefly because that would double the length of this essay), I absolutely see encountering it as a Christian (though not uniquely Christian) experience. The precepts I have been mentioning – of approaching the divine as children, of setting aside judgement, of praising and abiding in God who made and is in creation – comprise much of the work entrusted to Christians by Christ.
Whether you identify as Christian or not, or as secular or not, doesn’t really matter, because your status as a human being grants you access to not only the human world, but the other world too. Consider the following excerpt by Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town:
EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.â€
Saints and poets stand apart from other human beings not because they have ditched the human world entirely, but because they have taken the mystery of the other world into the center of their being, and have oriented themselves around it. They live in a thin place. The “real” world does not suffer their loss, but benefits from the otherworldly wisdom that now lives through them.
We are all potential saints and poets. The divine has extended that offer – it’s up to us to take it. It’s not the sort of transition that happens at once, or which takes firm root at our first awareness. I have been awake to the existence of “thin places,” even if I didn’t identify them as such, for years, and yet I still sink most of my time and energy into the human world alone. I am at the point where I can start to regularly check in and ask myself if I am exercising my duel-citizenship as often as I should. It takes practice, but that practice is self-reinforcing: the more time I spend away from the human world, the calmer and abler I am when I come back. Compassion comes more easily. The call to justice is clearer. I can only envision a future wherein the beauty of the divine, other realm defines my experience of the human world, and wherein the same is true of everyone else as well. What a kingdom that would be!