Banish the Edges

Banish the Edges
4-25-10
Rev. Douglas Taylor

According to the reports and articles, the movie “Avatar” by James Cameron, is a blockbuster. It broke the record to become the highest-grossing film of all time in the world. Steven Spielberg said this movie is “The most evocative and amazing science-fiction movie since Star Wars.” So I’m thinking it is a pretty safe bet to assume that most of you have seen this film or have at least heard about it enough to know something about the film.

It is a science fiction piece: ten-foot tall blue humanoids, giant floating mountains, six-legged horses and pterodactyl-like flying animals. There are enough high-action chase and fight scenes, and falling in love scenes, and cool technology scenes for the average sci-fi film lover to be truly satisfied. The film is a little light on the plot and character development, high on the use of tropes and clichés. But that is not so bad for this sort of movie; Star Wars, after all, was one cliché after another and that was a great movie! What I most liked about it, and why I am mentioning it in the context of a sermon, is the way it presented the relationship of the Na’vi – the big blue people – with nature.

The Na’vi are portrayed as living in harmony with nature and worshiping Eywa, the great mother goddess. There are strong overtones of Native American spirituality and Hindu spirituality. There is a very clear moral to the story that has to do with environmentalism and imperialism. Cameron said in an interview [Press, Associated, August 18, 2009] that he wanted this to thrill people but also to touch the conscience of people, “that maybe in the enjoying of it makes you think a little bit about the way you interact with nature and your fellow man.” Cameron was working to create a myth for our times. In another interview James Cameron has said that he “tried to make a film that would touch people’s spirituality across the broad spectrum.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Themes_in_Avatar#cite_note-TOI-60]

Here is a fascinating piece of this that I wish the film had done more with: The Na’vi have a biological connection point with nature. They have a cord, a tendril coming out of the backs of their heads which feeds directly to the brain. It is a sensory organ that can link with the biology around them. The Na’vi can connect with a tree or an animal through an electrochemical neural link and transfer signals such as thoughts and memories. It’s like a biochemical USB port. We mostly see this used in the movie as a means for the protagonist to ride other animal and for the Na’vi to connect to the trees. It offers a whole new concept of ‘communing with nature!’

I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a direct link like that with trees or animals around me. I was just up at a retreat center this week, the ministers and religious educators meet for three days together just ahead of our annual Unitarian Universalist District Assembly. We were on a beautiful lake with trees around us. Whenever I am at a retreat I make an effort to go out and find a wild place. Usually we meet by a lake or in the woods so it is rather easy for me to find a trail or a path to start with. Invariably though I have to get off the path. I want to wander through the trees and weave around the undergrowth. I want to duck under branches and step over logs. I need to be surrounded by nature and let my spirit feel the wild places. Growing up I was able to do this regularly, weekly or even more frequently as there were wild places around my neighborhood. I stand (or sit if the ground is dry) and just breath, listening to the wind and the animals around me. My spirit needs this.

What would it be like to have a more direct link, to feel that connection? I’ll be honest; I can’t get my head around that idea very far. It is an intriguing starting point, but I can’t imagine what the sensations would be like coming to my brain from a completely foreign sense organ.

I was recently offered a poem that uses the sensation of sight to talk about this sort of experience. It talks about a different way of seeing the world and our connection to nature. It is from poet Lisel Mueller and imagines a response from Claude Monet to a suggested surgery for his eyes. It is fictional – Monet did have cataracts removed when he was in his 80’s.

Monet Refuses the Operation

Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent.  The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases.  Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
~ Lisel Mueller ~

What might it be like to have a different way of sensing the natural world around us? What would we see or perceive? Our Unitarian Universalist theology talks about a connected and interdependent world. Science certainly supports this idea of a ‘web of connections.’ For example, researchers in the genome project have shifted from looking at single genes to sequences and patterns of genes for clues about issues ranging from illness to evolution. When scientists and theologians and poets start to offer similar perspectives it is worth taking note – This is not just a fad or a cultural delusion. This is real. We are interconnected; we are not a mere cacophony of diverse isolated individuals. We exist in a pattern, in relation to other things and other people. Isolation is not real. As John Muir put it, “when we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

So when I am on retreat and I wander off the path into the undergrowth and ramble around among the trees, I am not isolating myself. I am softening and blurring the edges between what is me and ‘not-me’. As the poet wrote, I eventually banish the edges, the lines of division. At some point the air around me ceases to be air and becomes my breath. It moves through my body in an intricate way I do not fully understand and then back out. And somewhere along its way out the breath ceases to be me and becomes the air that is part of the world that is not-me. Or we can banish the edges and allow the connections in.

When I try to imagine having a biochemical cord, like the aliens from the movie “Avatar”, I think I would be overwhelmed by the sensory information. If I really let the divisions slip, would I lose all sense of individuality? I must admit I am not ready for that entirely. I like the occasional experience of being one with all that is, and the times of communing with divinity – but I am not ready to loss all the edges. I would like to see them softened and blurred from time to time.

There is an underlying unity we notice and connect with, a pattern through existence that matters. The environment we live in is a part of us, defines us in a way. The ‘edge’ between what is me and what is not-me is less a wall and more a semi-permeable membrane. Someone pointed out that perhaps a better biological phrase to use is to say we are ‘selectively permeable.’ We choose what we let in. That would certainly be the point – to develop our sense of connection to all that is to the point where we can actively choose what we let in.

I sit among the tall trees and the grasses and undergrowth and these things become part of me. The trees and the lake and the people and my small self become part of an intricate connected pattern that is me. The edges blur. Such a way of seeing is the reason I care about the environment and about peace among people and about racism and healthcare and war and so many other social issues. I am a part of the pattern, I am a partner in all that is; the edges are blurred. Oppression, destruction, suffering of others people and of the earth is part of my life and my existence. This is why I care. This is why it matters to me that we deal with the social ills of our world.

Let me end with one last story, this from Anthony DeMello, cautioning me to stay grounded in the midst of my flights of mysticism.

“There are three stages in one’s spiritual development,” said the Master. “The carnal, the spiritual, and the divine.”
“What is the carnal stage?” asked the eager disciples.
“That’s the stage when trees are seen as trees and mountains as mountains.”
“And the spiritual?”
“That’s when one looks more deeply into things – then trees are no longer trees and mountains no longer mountains.”
“And the divine?”
“Ah, that’s Enlightenment,” said the master with a chuckle, “when trees become trees again and mountains, mountains.”
(DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom p 47)

In a world without end,
may it be so.