Nature Mysticism

Via positiva has been outlined so far with no reference to spiritual teachers or traditions. We will come to some of the older spiritual traditions before long, but in this section we will look at Nature Mysticism and how it illuminates the via positiva. The term Nature Mysticism was coined by scholars of religion when attempting to account for the mysticism of 19th century writers like Walt Whitman, Henry Thoreau and Richard Jefferies (more of whom later). On the whole it was regarded as an inferior spirituality, perhaps for the more naïve. This was the view of William James in his influential book 'The Varieties of Religious Experience'. For him the 'religions of the sick soul' were more profound and mature than 'the religions of the healthy-minded', by which term he sought to dismiss Whitman in particular.

'Nature Mysticism is a route to the transcendent via nature. Most spiritual authorities have dismissed it or misunderstood it, but it holds the keys to via positiva, and is the spiritual path above all others when it comes to the survival of the planet. It gives the spiritual foundation for ecology'.

Nature Mysticism starts from the premise that Nature is not just good, but can be a spiritual teacher. The Nature Mystic does not agree with Tennyson's characterisation of Nature as 'red in tooth and claw', but, by patient observation and contemplation of the natural world sees predation and death as a small but vital element in the whole pattern. This pattern is joyous and benign, despite the presence of suffering. Again, it is a question of proportion. Most living entities are free of pain up to the moment of death, which is of a very sort duration in compared with the life-span. We can say that while all living entities are food eventually for other living entities, Nature arranges this in such a way that minimises suffering, a view that does however require a maturity and an ability to accommodate the act of predation without flinching.

In jnani terms, the Nature Mystic loses the narrow sense of self by identifying with Nature as a whole. This means that the quality of eternity that the jnani aspires to is found in Nature as a self-renewing principle. Individual life-forms of necessity flourish and die, and the eternal creativity of Nature in fact depends on it. (A world where nothing died could contain no creativity — remember also that 'creature' has the same root as 'creative').

Nature Mysticism and via positiva both require an aesthetic sense, which is no means universally present in people of any period in history. If one finds no beauty in Nature, or in human beings, then there is nothing to counterbalance the undeniable suffering that is woven into the fabric of existence, and the argument put forward here that suffering represents a small fraction of human experience carries little weight. It would seem that the Buddha for example had little aesthetic sense, and was never moved to comment on the beauty of the manifest world, small wonder then that his first 'Noble Truth' was that of life as suffering. In contrast the great jnani teacher Krishnamurti had a well-developed aesthetic sense (for Nature at least), though it was not sufficient for his teachings to be characterised as wholly via positiva. Krishnamurti found little positive in human behaviour, so for that we need to turn to the poets of via positiva: Thomas Traherne, William Blake, and Walt Whitman. (For a detailed discussion of Nature Mysticism see the 'Nature Mysticism' section.)