Part 1: The Portable Grand Canyon
Back in 1999, I needed a break from hard, banal, and blasphemous reality to treat a bad case of world-weariness. So I ran away to the Grand Canyon, where I signed on for minimum wage at Grand Canyon Village as the world’s oldest errand boy. My pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon turned into a crash course in spiritual energy.
My professional job description included collecting garbage from trash barrels lining the south rim of the canyon, douching out toilets and urinals in the public restrooms at the Bright Angel Lodge, mopping floors all over the village, doing chores for grumbling guests, and cozying up to the resident ghost rumored to reside in the elegant, rustic, and historic El Tovar Hotel.
I liked to think of this paranormal guest as Teddy Roosevelt, minus his horse laugh and all the Roughrider protoplasm.
As I was carrying out these critical duties, I couldn’t help but notice how well my English degree had prepared me for this job. It undoubtedly qualified me for Garrison Keillor’s Professional Organization of English Majors, or POEM, along with all the other English grads working at Burger King or Stop & Shop.
The only fringe benefit of my underemployment was free mental health insurance. My chores allowed me to indulge my real purpose for being at the Grand Canyon, which was total immersion in spiritual energy. I was there to get back in sync with the laws of nature, get back in touch with the infinity of myself, back in harmony with the pulse of life. It all amounted to the same thing.
Chasing that secret agenda, I interrupted my menial jobs many times each day to take a break from unfettered life. I would stand on the rim of this cosmic canyon and suck up the atmosphere churning invisibly, invincibly, indivisibly inside.
One universal truth I learned from this mystical experience, my four months living on the edge of forever, was a real shocker; that I didn’t need to be there to conjure up the Grand Canyon and its wonder. I learned that we carry the Grand Canyon with us wherever we go. It squeezes into any back pocket. I found that we can pull out the Grand Canyon any time, any where we are, by simply sensing the subtle, mysterious, wild, and welling energy thrumming through all nature.
My discovery of this portable Grand Canyon is also the Transcendental truth at the center of everything Thoreau practiced at Walden Pond. Spiritual energy pools in the font of everywhere and springs eternal in the human soul.
Hard to believe? Maybe. But, in fact, you can make contact with that energy right now, right here, right away, even as you read Back to Walden.
Imagine yourself on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and feel its supernatural power, throbbing through everything. The throb is out there, drifting on wind currents. The throb is out there in wing beats of condors. The throb is out there in those immense rock formations, shivering like water. The throb is out there in brushstrokes of sienna, ocher, cadmium, amethyst, rouge, and rust, which infuse the canyon lands with divinity. The throb is out there, flowing in the Colorado River as it traces its lifeline in the palm of existence. The throb is out there in the electric silence. Feel the throb.
To make contact with this flow of life force, you don’t even have to imagine yourself at the Grand Canyon. You can envision the force anywhere you are, sense it in vivo by peering deep within yourself. You can draw upon spiritual energy at any point, as I consciously do many times each day; as I channel the Grand Canyon. It galvanizes your thoughts. It shoots across your synapse gaps. It beats through your bloodstream. It fuses you with the cosmos. It confers passionate aliveness.
There’s no reason not to stop at any time and tap into the lovely stuff of infinity. I still do it, much the same as when I worked at Grand Canyon Village.
Nature is the medium for this supernatural pulse. Nature’s energy flows to all your senses. The energy dances on incoming tides, along with surf scoters, positive ions, ancient secrets, extinct species, dead languages. It kindles heaven with heat lightning. It transmits the babble of a forest brook. It warbles through the sound waves of birdsong. It finger-paints the sky with Northern Lights. It rides the wake of water striders on Walden Pond. It strums the arpeggio of evening crickets. It wets your brow with morning dew. It perfumes the breezes. It’s anywhere.
Though poets, painters, hikers, philosophers, mystics, monks, yogis, priests, naturalists, sailors, shamans, healers, trekkers, pilgrims, runners, explorers, mountain climbers, astronauts, and other seekers of every kind have sensed this ubiquitous force for many thousands of years, spiritual energy has always persisted as one of life’s sacred mysteries.
Transcendentalism rests on a premise of this unifying energy that generates all reality, holds it together, and allows us to transcend the trials and tribulations of daily existence.
“I believe there is a spiritual energy here for all of us,” said Reverend Jenny M. Rankin of the First Parish Unitarian congregation in Concord, Massachusetts, in a 2010 sermon about Transcendentalism. “Something that we can touch and tap into. Something that will help fuel us in our own spiritual seeking and our own social justice doing.”
What she was describing here, I feel every day, many times over. To me, spirituality means tapping and distilling nature’s transcendental sap as it rises, second by second, and branches through my consciousness.
Transcendental painter Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) drew upon this same source. Kent “reveled in the spiritual energy of remote wilderness,” according to Jake Milgram Wien, the guest curator of a 2005 Kent exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. Wien said that Kent’s paintings are “grounded in the writings of 19th-century American Transcendentalists who celebrated the divine rhythm of the natural world and its intuitive mysteries.”
The brilliant, freaky, and unearthly poet William Blake addressed the phenomenon of this spiritual life force by simply concluding that “Energy is eternal delight.” Later, Romantic poets referred to this same life spark as “moral energy” and pictured nature as pulsating with it.
These seething spiritual vibrations have been sensed since time immemorial by numerous sages in numerous civilizations from numerous traditions in numerous altered states. Spiritual energy is known as Prana or Kundalini in Yoga, Akasha in Hinduism and Buddhism, Chi or Qi in Chinese medicine. Other, more poetic terms from other belief systems include the current of life, élan vital, spiritual life force, life energy, spiritual fire, grounded luminosity, somatic energies, the breath of life, auras, rays, vibrations (or, in the 1960s, good vibes!), that oceanic feeling, subtle energy, and the breath of heaven.
All these concepts of spiritual energy vary in one way or another, yet they are all variations on the same theme. They purr with the common “presence” described by Cass Adams in his lovely anthology, The Soul Unearthed: Celebrating Wilderness and Personal Renewal Through Nature. “In the neutrality of nature, I open up to a presence that is both in me and far beyond me, a presence that reaches out into the infinite unknown of the sky and the material world before me…It is an inherent and integral part of who I am – and of who we are – to experience wonder, joy, and abundance.”
In fact, this kind of “wonder, joy, and abundance,” this kind of “presence,” is what you, yourself, can experience at any time in any place, as if you were suddenly transported into one of Rockwell Kent’s “mythical, timeless realms.” Simply use your own intuition to appreciate, to breathe in, to sponge up the metaphysical energy around you, within you, without you, and everywhere.
But what exactly is this charged essence that for eons many generations of ultra-sensitive, spiritually sophisticated individuals have been experiencing? In the next section of Back to Walden, I’ll explore some of the surprising possibilities being studied by some of history’s most celebrated skeptics, known collectively as the scientific community. These explorations are quietly shaking science to its core.