“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This is a beautiful poem, isn’t it? It ennobles the imagination, even as it reminds us of the sacredness of nature, and the immediacy of natural experience that’s so easy to forget as we grow older.
There’s an deeper dimension I believe Elizabeth Barrett Browning was referencing as she wrote these words… a dimension that as a young child, I had assumed everyone could see. Of course, for the obvious reason that children are smaller, and therefore closer to the living things that grow from the ground, as well as not yet being socialized, habituated to ignore the real in favour of adult politics, these objects of natural perception are still more immediate, more vivid, more appealing to their imaginations.
But what Browning refers to is deeper still than this.
I believe at some point in her life, Browning may have caught a glimpse of what I once saw as a child and which as an adult, there are yet infrequent, fleeting glimpses…
Though many of my childhood memories are unclear, dulled by the years and an ageing body and mind, this memory is still clear and vivid. I can still remember the family camping trip in an Alaskan forest. I was a very young boy, at an age when I hadn’t yet caught on to the unwritten social code that discourages sharing direct experience of the spiritual Reality that some children still perceive.
Together with my family, I was hiking along a trail in the forest. Something caught my attention… something brilliant, clear and luminous. There in the midst of this beautiful natural setting, I experienced a timeless instant in which the numinous was shining through the physical form of the environment… taking in the beauty of the forest, I found myself entranced by the leaves of a tree that were glowing, backlit by the sun.
Now of course, a beautiful sight such as this could easily inspire one’s mind to thoughts of the sacred. But in this instance, there were no thoughts of an abstract Divine. There was direct cognition of something deeper, a divine “something” that was immediate, pervasive, and not separate. To begin with the vibrant glowing green of the leaves on the trees… it was as if that green were a green, luminous fire. Divine particles of green fire, that constituted the leaves’ very form… and that luminous green fire was not confined to the leaves. They were only the initial gateway through which my young mind first perceived the all-pervasive presence that permeated not only the forest, but myself as well.
And the fire was God.
Not the God I’d learned about in vacation bible school, but a God not separate from myself or from anything. A God dwelling in all places as all things. A God whose divine beingness comprised the very substance of the forms of the world and all the living things therein, as well as their spirits…
And I was amazed. Not in an outward way, but at the perfectly natural fashion in which this vision of the Real had revealed itself, and the perfectly loving nature in which it seemed to enfold all things.
There was nothing external about this experience. It was all silence… a deep and profound stillness. The entire experience unfolded in one perfect, timeless moment.
However, my youthful exuberance could not contain the joy I felt. So without knowing the adult social code against openly speaking of such things, I blurted out: “Mom, look! God is in the tree!” I didn’t yet have the vocabulary or intellectual context to understand the (non-dual) distinction between mere presence, and fundamental divine substance. So my exclamation was couched in the same dualistic language that is the bread and butter of our learning to interact with and conceive the seemingly separate things of the physical universe.
I’m certain my Mother, a deeply religious woman, was glad to hear me speak in this way. But her response, predictable for almost everyone who has lived past a certain age, was: “Of course honey, God is present there, because he made these trees.” Her conception was of a Creator who was separate from his creations.
And this was a turning point in life, spiritually speaking. What I’d seen and then expressed so inadequately, was so much deeper than what my Mother seemed to think I was talking about. Could she not see it? It was of course, right there before her eyes. Not to mention that I hadn’t seen it myself until that holy instant.
It took no longer than a few moments for me to realize intuitively, that what I’d seen was far too subtle for me to point out or explain using words, especially to a mind grown beyond childhood. Thus began a life-long series of progressive insights into the process whereby human minds are prepared to deal with the “real world,” and step by step, lose the kingdom of heaven.
Of course at the time, I was just a kid. Adults give little credence to the perceptions of children. Even those who knew me at that age, reading this essay, would likely roll their eyes, though the same perception is equally open and possible for them, as for all.
Yet Christ stated: “Unless you become as one of these little ones, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” So I began to wonder from, whence arises this fundamental disconnect between human culture and Christ’s natural perception of the kingdom of heaven?
It’s a question I’m still asking today.
But one thing is certain: that decades old moment in the woods changed the direction of my spiritual life forever. Having once seen that “something,” all the words ever spoken from all the church pulpits would ever reveal their disconnectedness from the truth of that integral spiritual Reality. They would ever reveal that they were in essence, man-made. Even those which originally stemmed from a real breakthrough centuries ago, of some other mind that had also seen that fundamental Ground of Being. Eventually culture takes these sacred perceptions and begins to obscure their real import, covering them with centuries, nay millennia of cultural, political, and religious encrustation.
Perhaps this is why prophets arise at certain times in history. The sacred dimension that underlies this world of name and form chooses to reveal itself once again, to minds that have succumbed to the ignorant slumber of cultural or even scientific convention.
There have been other moments such as this through the years. But this was the first, and most momentous in terms of it’s meaning for my own life. This has often placed me at odds with the cultural milieu by which we’re all surrounded, which is, like water to the fish… so close to us that we can no longer see it’s influence in our lives. Yet despite my own personal mistakes and detours from the truth (we all make them), holding true to what I’d seen has remained of utmost importance, for this world is only temporary, is it not? As Christ has said, “Do ye not then, barter that which is eternal, for that which dieth in an hour.” (Essene Gospel of Peace, Book 2)
Sacred history is marked by such moments. In the book of Exodus, Moses saw a burning bush on Mount Sinai:
“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked and behold, the bush was burning yet it was not consumed. When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ Then He said: ‘Do not come near; take off your sandals, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
How do we take this Bible story? Do we take it as historical, symbolic, or a literary convention meant to convey some sacred principle?
Or did Moses also, rapt in his vision of the natural world, also see something deeper? Something simultaneously beyond the natural world, yet not separate from it? It’s my firm conviction that he did.
It’s also my conviction that like myself, he was nothing special. It’s my conviction that none of the prophets are essentially different from any of us. All that distinguishes them from us is this direct perception of the Spirit in which we live, move, and participate in Being. But that small distinction makes all the difference in the world, and it’s a perception that like the kingdom of heaven, is open to us all.
In the Gospel of Thomas’ saying 113, relates Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question: “On what day will the kingdom come?”
Jesus answer may not have been what they expected: “No one will say: ‘See, it is here!’ or: ‘Look, it is there!’ but the Kingdom of the Father is spread over the earth and men do not see it (variant translation: because of the hardness of their hearts.)”
Christ’s vision was far removed from the vision of a warrior Messiah some of the Jewish people of his time were hoping would arrive to liberate them from their oppressors. His vision instead, was of that timeless moment that is eternally present, in which the mind that has finally given up all selfish, clinging attachment finally sees it’s oneness with the Source of it’s Being.
And even in our own time, India’s modern religious savant Swami Vivekananda openly exclaimed:
“The whole world is filled with the Lord! Open your eyes and see him!” in harmony with the Psalmist, who also said: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof… the world and those who dwell therein.”
The history of sacred literature through the centuries is filled with such expressions of those who attempt to describe their vision of a natural world that is in-filled with the same Divine Being from whence it arose in the beginning.
But we are trained not to see what is right here before us, in the interest of our worldly success. But our blindness can never diminish the glory of that One. In truth, Moses’ burning bush was not only literal, derived from his own direct experience of the reality of existence, but also symbolic, for the burning bush is everywhere. It symbolizes the God that has become the world, Who exists as every living thing.
This intimate vision was comprehensive for the mystic Kabir, not excluding any place or thing. He was unwilling to make God bend to his religion, or be confined to any sort of box or limited category whatsoever:
Are you looking for me?
I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas,
not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
not in eating nothing but vegetables.
For me, it boils down to this simple truth: that all the religions, spiritual belief systems, and theologies of the world are attempts to reconcile human ideas with spiritual realities. But they are not the Reality itself. They are still only ideas, and no matter how close to the truth they may come, being relative, can never transmit the full truth of existence to us without at least some slight distortion or modification.
Tradition offers us mentally fabricated images of the Real, that are at least once removed from the Real, being only it’s image as reflected in the mirror of our intellects. But if the image is not correct or our understanding is imperfect, we can end up going down paths that lead to nowhere or worse yet, to harmful consequences.
Therefore, we must work hard for truth, combining personal experience and reason, to be certain that tradition does not blind us.
If it is followed in a way that is both loving and rational, tradition can be a great help to us in our quest for truth, but if conceived and followed in irrational ways, it can also blind us to the self-evident truth that both indwells and surrounds us, as the source and substance of our being.
Which will we choose? It is as easy as simply choosing the better path?
I believe it’s more a matter of cultivation.
We must not assume that our perceptions or our understanding have already brought us to a mature understanding of the truth of things. For if we do, this is the death of inquiry. When we do not inquire, we are not interested in truth, but only in our own ideas.
What must we cultivate? Openness. We must allow the world itself to teach us it’s nature, what is true about it. Not the world of culture, of ideas… but of simple, unadorned nature. Beyond this, we must also cultivate the faculty of attentiveness to what is. We can be very open minded, but if we’re not paying clear attention, that won’t serve our awakening.
Even Christ suggested that by our self-certainty, we blind ourselves:
And to all, he said: “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind…” (Luke 9:23).
This particular translation from the New English Bible is a bit different from other versions such as the NIV, which substitutes “deny themselves” for “leave self behind.” However even these other translations do convey this same implication, only it’s not so explicit, and more work is needed to understand it. The New English Bible, by bringing the text more in line with original texts, simply brings this subtle meaning to the fore, for purposes of clarification.
Now it must be asked: What does it mean to leave self behind? The ego-self is constantly certain of itself, it’s knowledge, it’s opinions. It is a god unto itself, or so it imagines. It constructs a mental world of beings, objects and meanings that prop up it’s personal image of it’s own greatness, so it isn’t really interested in what’s going on outside it’s own concerns.
And this is the barrier that walls it off from experiencing what’s real.
This barrier comes to be, simply because ego-self simply isn’t paying attention: It’s too busy worshipping itself, and imagining that everything going on in the world, is somehow impacted by or dependent upon it’s own existence.
Are there biblical clues on this topic?
When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, Moses is told that the Divine Name is “I Am That I Am.” In other words, God is that which precedes and underlies the world of limited human egos. God is that infinite, all-inclusive, Divine Ego, which doesn’t assert itself, but like the Tao, quietly embraces all things within it’s unity.
Instructing Moses to remove his sandals before proceeding further, God is teaching him – like Jesus – to leave self behind. If Moses were to explore the Real through personal ego, his understanding would not be holy, and would not conform to what truly is.
Leaving personal ego behind, the very light of God that dwells within all living things, becomes visible. Even a lowly bush will shine, burning with God’s light, which is everywhere, in all things, if only we have the eyes to see.
Coming back to the parallel between Moses and the opening stanza by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we can surmise that by “sit round it and pluck blackberries,” she means the worldly distractions that veil from us that same divine glory seen by Moses.
Her poem is an invitation to leave behind everything inessential, so that we may find consummate realization of the true divine essence, that waits silently back of the phenomenal world, waiting silently for us to pay attention.