“Religion is what the individual does with his solitariness.” – A. N. Whitehead
I know absolutely nothing about Mr. Whitehead. The quote above came from I And That – Notes On The Biology Of Religion by Alex Comfort, which I got at the free book stand in front of Downtown Books, a local bookstore that has somehow managed to stay in business. It’s a good book. The title refers to Martin Buber’s I And Thou, obviously. I haven’t finished it, but the gist of it is that the impulse to religion is inherent to the human animal; that the reason all of the world’s religions share so many common ideas and themes is that all people share the same biological blueprint, which is reflected abstractly in the ideas and themes of religion. This is a concept that I’ve encountered many times before, but Comfort delves into it in more detail. I And That is a bit dry, but certainly worth the effort.
Whitehead’s line about religion is thought-provoking. The first thought it provoked in me was “The word is solitude, not ‘solitariness’.” I certainly think religion is a little more than that, but that is a good starting point.
I had some solitude recently, an unusual thing. A whole day with no work and no little grrrl. I laid around drinking coffee for an hour or so – which is how I begin every day – then went out to Fridley’s Gap, one of my regular National Forest haunts. Usually when I go there I tread the same ground, but this time I decided to find my way to a rock face I’d been admiring on a ridge I’d never been to. I guessed where it was – I couldn’t see it from the bottom of the gap because of trees and didn’t want to climb above the tree line to get oriented. I just lit out a-walking. It was a beautiful morning of sunshine and cool breezes, butterflies and birds, scratches and spider webs. I wandered through some blackened areas – they were doing controlled burns out there last month – and was pleased to see the little green shoots coming up through the burn, ants crawling out of charred logs, new life popping up all over.
As I got higher, the mountain got rockier. Big hunks of stone jutting up out of the earth, like bones. Higher still, the trees thinned and I could see the valley stretching out, brown and green rectangles of farmland. The turkey buzzards were soaring in slow circles, riding the up-drafts. I could see their red heads turning from side to side as they searched the gap below for brunch. There were feathers on the rocks and I gathered a bunch of them, shoving them into the band of my hat. I found a dog bowl and slate marker on a cairn. I shed my cut-offs and laid there naked in the sun on a rock that was a hundred-billion years old. The mountains here were once like the Himalayas. They were that big. Unimaginable time has worn them down to the gentle, rolling mounds they are today.
I was in a slightly altered state up there on the mountain. I felt like I could just wander and wander, seeing and seeking the next rock face, scanning the cliffs for the chance to climb down for another wing-feather, gazing off at ridges and valleys and then suddenly seeing the shape of the wind-blasted cedar right beside me. It happens every time. I always feel like I could just drift off and become part of the mountain and I expect one day I will.
Eventually, I started heading down. There were more burned areas to blacken my feet, thorns to scratch my shins, bear shit to remind me to look for bears. I found a trail. There was actually a trail that led pretty damn close to where I was going which I followed back to where I’d begun. I was glad for the trail, which made returning easier, but glad I had forged my own way out. There’s a little swimming hole at Fridley’s Gap which I jumped into and then down to the truck. A bunch of cars pulled into the parking area when I got there – big, loud people with lots of kids, coolers, folding chairs and assorted errata. I was glad they were going to the swimming hole and gladder that I’d already been.
There are always carcasses around the parking area at Fridley’s. Hunters kill deer, cut out the loins and saw off the racks then leave the rest to rot. I always look around for bones I can use. This time I found a coyote. There’s no good meat on a coyote – people kill them just to kill them. The skull had been busted, but was mostly intact and I was able to find both pieces of the lower jaw. I brought it home and was able to wood-glue it back together pretty good.
Nap. Worked on some recordings. Dinner was beans and rice with a liberal amount of pickled Thai chilis. Then I went to hang out with friends, which ended the solitariness.
Every bit of that was my religion. But as I said, that’s only the starting point. Hanging out with friends is part of my religion, as is taking the sprat to playgrounds and working and sleeping and anything else I do. I’ve come to agree with the great mystics of all religions who say there is no sacred and no profane. Everything is a thing of God/Brahman/WakanTanka. Every action is a rite. I’ve spent years attaining to this understanding. Yes, I am sometimes less conscious of it, but I’m always somewhat conscious. It takes work and practice and repetition, but it does come and when it does, the world is different. Some people experience it as a sudden awakening. For me it’s been more gradual. I have had epiphanies, but mostly I’ve just grown into my awareness that the world around me is a manifestation of Divinity and that I am as well.
Comfort is quite correct. Religion is a reflection, in abstract language, of our inner selves. Jesus said as much. So did the Buddha. God/Nirvana/Shiva are within us already. All we have to do is realize and start acting like it.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.