The Ghost and the Machine
Jay Michaelson

If Being is everywhere, why is it so much easier to perceive it in nature?

Think for a moment about evocations of God, or transcendence, or the Now -- whatever your way of conceptualizing the reality of Being -- both in popular conception and in mindfulness, contemplation and religious practice. How many of them are set in places of natural beauty, or in places of retreat in the countryside, forest, or desert? Most. From the most commonplace cliche -- "God" pictured as light streaming through clouds -- to the desert environments that marked the beginning-points of all three Western religious traditions, from retreats in the Berkshires to the sheer awesomeness of the Grand Canyon or the human genome, it seems as though we repeatedly associate places of higher awareness with places of nature.

And yet, of course, all Being is one; all is one; God is one. Why, then, is Being so much more immediate in the wilderness than in the city? Of course, there are counterexamples, the most important of which, for me, being the possibility of perceiving God in relationship with another human being. God's love, so annoyingly touted by idiotic televangelists, is not some emotion distinct from the love expressed by a lover's eyes or caresses, or that of a mother for her child. Being is immanent (and I am deliberately using theistic and non-theistic language interchangeably, as the concepts are, to me, equivalent) in even the most fleeting of human interactions: a momentary courtesy, a gratuitous act of kindness, a cry for help. Certainly when we pause our rushing trains of thought long enough to look someone in the eye, and communicate with him or her such that our partner is no longer a "he" or "she" but only an immediate, present "you" -- surely God is there too.

But consider environments created by humans for humans. Cities, buildings, air-conditioned rooms. Places where human design seems to stand in front of God's. We may say, theoretically, that of course God is in this table and this wall, but do we really experience It in the same way as in a lake and a tree?

Earlier today, I had been writing outside, surrounded by the landscape of New York but also by plants, sky, birds, insects, a breeze, the sun, a few white clouds, and millions of other expressions of Being that had nothing to do with I, me, or mine. But when I moved inside, I met an air conditioner, printer, desk, floor, doors, windows, file cabinet, guitar stand, coffee mug, calendar, etc. There are a few plants here, but even the plants have been put where they are, by me, for my own benefit.

This, I think, is the first meaningful distinction between places where Being is easily perceived and places where It isn't: whether or not the place has been purposely shaped for our convenience.

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Photo: Motoko Rich

August 2002

jay's head
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