The Ground of Spirit: A Manifesto

I propose that Nature is the absolute ground of being for all spiritual matters, regardless of where a person may place their religious focus. Formulated in this manner, individual spiritual practices are not invalidated. Adopting this worldview—or rather, grounding one’s perception to include this reality—provides the spiritual seeker a vast new field of possibilities roughly mapped to the shape and contours of the Land they inhabit.

In paganism, this should be considered a glorious opportunity. In fact, neopagans often make the assertions that they are “Children of the Earth” and that they work with “natural elements” such as air and fire. The Earth is often considered in terms of the Divine Mother, just as the Sky and the Wilderness are considered Fathers. We follow ritual patterns meant to anchor us to a greater reality, now hidden in the mists of time, without the magic passwords required to pierce the centuries and reach for ancient gnosis.

Unfortunately, neopagans are heirs to Neoplatonist and Cartesian separations and philosophical confusions. By perpetuating the separation of body from soul or mind, and insisting upon perfect ideals separate from our world of experience, modern thinking unmoors we merry pagan folk from the Divine Source we seek alliance with. Reinterpretations of ancient myths are themselves flawed in this way, thus adding a layer of confusion in our understanding of the world. Because they are separate, the gods are idealized and objectified, disregarding many indications from past records where they were understood as agencies within the natural order.

Glimpsing this true pagan understanding may happen by accident, but more often than not there is a dearth of language to speak of it. The experience becomes ineffable or diluted through the altered myths we have inherited from a wounded age. Thereafter, the truth of the experience beckons and invites us into a dialogue we cannot begin, let alone follow. The “signs and portents” the gods speak with—the shapes of the clouds, the subtle shifts of wind and flame, the ripples and flow of water—become an oracular mess many would sooner give up on. The gods fall silent after a while, their urgent messages unheard, or worse, misunderstood.

There is an alternative to this confusion. When faced with this babel, the choice presents itself: to be rid of the worldview that impedes direct dialogue with the Sacred Ones of Nature, or to go on blindly. This shift in consciousness demands we examine and abandon each twisted structure of modern thought. It brings us into radical union with the natural elements we merely spoke of before, but now speak back to us. The process is slow and, by necessity, methodical. It requires patience and enough confidence in one’s sanity and faculties to reap the rewards. But, ever so slowly, the fruits of this labor emerge from the fertile ground of our minds. The old patterns and grooves that have conducted experience for two hundred thousand years, and beyond, awaken from slumber.

How can this process be initiated? How can this path toward enchantment be trod?

It begins by steeping oneself in Nature and slowly carrying out the work of remembering the old, very human relationships established by our immediate ancestors.

That word—ancestors—will soon germinate beyond the narrow boundaries of blood relation. But, at first, it is necessary to believe it refers to thousands of great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers. The first illusion of modernity is the harmful and unnatural idea of the nuclear family. It cuts us off from the wisdom of our elderly relations, or the legacy we carry stretching down the ages. Even if a person is lucky enough to dispel this illusion, there is another behind it. Those lucky few who form “chosen families” by sometimes painful circumstances in life, stop the story of their bloodline at the story of their nation.

“We are Americans,” many will say and go no further. More steps are required to follow one’s story back to the Old World, or find tentative roots in the twin American continents. Do not stop here! With very few exceptions, this rewinding of our ancestral history does not yet escape the alienation of our worldview. Go deeper into the past, beyond recognizable names or landmarks. See yourself in the so-called Pax Romana, the migrations into and out of Europe by wanderers and Neolithic gatherers, leaving Africa back when the ice sheets reigned over the world and ourkind was little more than a few thousand.

Dig deeper. Become the last common ancestor with chimpanzees. Enter the so-called animal world, as if you were not already an animal, a mammal. See the shrew-like faces of the first-furred, scurrying about to escape predation from dinosaurs. And then, further still until you have scales, gills, and fins. Until you’re microscopic, swarming, held within the womb of Mother Ocean. Until you are organic compounds, potential life awaiting some emergent miracle. Until you are the soil and water, the carbon, the nuclei of atoms bonding in the heart of ancient stars, the soup of fire that was the Beginning of All Time, the vast undifferentiated dark Before.

That is your ancestry. When you perceive it, you will sense the atoms that now make you up reach back to you and be recognized. Thou art that. Seven billion billion billion parts of you have been seven billion billion billion other things before.

This shift opens a door to a deeper connection, if you bother to fully experience it and integrate it into your psyche. Cleansed of these illusions, you are ready to proceed. But, though honoring your ancestry has broken apart old misconceptions, you cannot stop here and wander the world enchanted and essentially vacant.

Returning to my proposition: Nature is the absolute ground of all being. Be reborn.

The birds around you sing for their myriad purposes, not all beautiful or harmonious, and you feel your throat work. They take flight and your back muscles contract, imaginary wind whispers at your ears. Beneath, the grass bends and teaches you about adapting to new circumstances while you caress a blade. The wind dances with the rest. Shade filters through the trees, blotches of light and dark, or is it dark in the light? The smell of Nature pierces your nostrils and demands your involvement in siren calls and alarms. There the bee buzzes to the nectar, there beech trees warn of bark beetles on the prowl.

This is the dance of life, and there is a Lady dreaming up the world. She is not alone. There are many here with her, every aspect of the world is wrought by the attention of a kind of consciousness, but it is more: participation. No part is truly independent, and the water seeping up the roots of the plant will one day transpire from the leaves above. Along the way it gives structure and transport, it enables chlorophyll to do its magic, then joins a new dance between air pressure, heat, and the breeze. It flowed with comrades, who became sap and honey, now hydrating insects and birds.

You are here with her, surrounded by her kin in their daily labors. You participate in the creation of the world because you are present and exchanging atoms. Your own kind of consciousness may harm or help the processes around you, diminishing or enhancing the quality of relationships between all parties concerned. Were you to leave and bring back the saws and bulldozers, this dance of life and mind would crumble to silence. Were you to follow the natural instincts of your body, the wisdom of your ancestors, you’d enrich the conversation.

This is the ground of all being, this participation in the world of Nature, which is life and mind and all things that support it. Together, we awaken to a web of relationships that modern thought will often overlook. Dwell in this space of relationship for as long as possible, return to it gently when you feel yourself drift away from it. To make this connection is to absolve one’s guilt and instantly be pardoned. Nature holds no grudges, but it does sweep away what does not serve, what is cut off.

Above the ground of all reality lies the stories we will tell ourselves about it. The myths of the past, present, and future all dwell in this invisible layer. This might be the first layer that is uniquely human, for no other species have been known to create myths or even need them. Most seem content to exist simply at the ground of all reality, or we do not possess the insight required to ask them better questions. Perhaps the dolphins dream of gods, perhaps the crows worship. What matters is that we address our own reality and, like our own perceptions, ground it back into the world of Nature. Myths disconnected from reality distract ourkind, and sometimes lead to harm and alienation.

Here I will address primarily pagan mythology from the Mediterranean and Northern European cultures most often referenced in neopaganism. Other myths and worldviews are entirely compatible with this exercise, but not necessarily germane to my audience. I invite everyone to follow the same steps, to improve upon them, and to share their results. It is likely this practice is but a shadow of an existing one, in which case, I would absolutely love to learn from it! Teach me.

We start with the first stop for most new neopagans: Greek mythology. Beyond the extremely anthropocentric stories of the Olympians, there are the older stories of the world’s beginnings. The fertile roots of a mythology lie here, though they sometimes emerge elsewhere in lurid forms. At the foundation of Greek myth is Gaia and her struggle to give equal space and recognition to all Her Children, no matter how monstrous her husband and descendants consider them. It isn’t hard to pierce the veil of illusions here: Nature is ever fecund and embraces all the diversity that grows from and upon her body.

It is the increasingly powerful consorts of the Divine Mother that see distinction, separation, alienation. They turn on their own siblings and children because they refuse to acknowledge the bestial core that ties them to ancestors they would rather not have. Thus, the Hekatonkheires and Cyclopes were separated from the world by its would-be master, Ouranus. Gaia would have none of it. She reached out to her grandson, Cronus, and inspired the next generation to depose and castrate their father. But Cronus did not free or make peace with their younger siblings, which he considered monstrous. He was his father’s son, after all. It wasn’t until Zeus that a degree of change happened. The Cyclopes were freed and some of the Titans imprisoned instead, but the one-hundred-handed giants remained too monstrous to be admitted to the shining, glorious family of the gods. Zeus avoided Gaia’s revenge, however, by spreading his seed liberally and thus avoiding a strong successor.

This Theogony, ascribed to Hesiod almost three thousand years ago, clearly states the problem and the broken nature of the world of antiquity. The radical act of dissolving into one’s deep ancestry, which is the ground of all being because it grounds us into the fabric of reality, cannot be completed here. The Olympians do not exist without deep problems of their own, either. Each and every one of them suffers a unique flaw or malady. Their shadows sabotage their happiness, as in the case of Apollo’s doomed lovers. Though they strive valiantly to carry on the work of Nature, having usurped the Natural order, they remain incomplete.

A world divided cannot stand. Nature sweeps away what does not serve. Though self-wounding, Gaia’s revenge held sway for centuries after the fall of the Classical world and the rise of Christianity. Now, as the worship of the Dodekatheon emerges again, we must put to rights what was broken. Release the giants, redeem wise Zeus, and heal the Olympians to serve their intended functions. The world needs them, after all. Artemis howls in the wilderness as it disappears around her, her wolves and nymphs cut down by ax and chainsaw.

Next, let’s examine the roots and destiny of Norse mythology, powerful life blood of heathenry today. Here we must critique the feud between the gods and jotuns, realizing it follows much the same pattern as the Greek myths. It begins with an inability to accept ancestral kinship and leads to Ragnarok and the World’s Ending. At the dawn of the world, we’re told, both jotuns and gods emerged from the frozen ground. It is of Ymir that the world was formed, though it was conceived of slaughter and fated for cataclysm. Time and time again we are told of the great size and power of the giants, like mountains, but we’re also told how almost every god has at least one drop of giant’s blood. What separates them other than arbitrary circumstances? Enmity, of course, and a failure to realize they emerged from the same Earth.

At the end of all things, only the fire giant Surtr remains to consume the world in a fiery blaze. This elemental being was there at the beginning, opposite the frozen Niflheim, where Hel rules with the dead. That is, the ancestors that remain among gods and humans. They too ride against the gods at Ragnarok, having been forgotten and shut away with one of Loki’s monstrous children. In the Norse myths, it is Loki’s machinations that are said to bring about the Twilight of the Gods, but these are the work of Odin as well. It is Odin who assigns the fate of each of Loki’s children, who discovers the truth of Baldur’s nightmares and tells Frigg. They’re locked together in disastrous Fate, because the world was made from slaughter, and Nature will not let it stand.

Is Ragnarok to come or already past? Perhaps it is a warning: If things are allowed to stand as they are, a violent end is guaranteed for all in the nine worlds. It’s not difficult to see the events prophesied in this myth mirrored in today’s world. The structures that humanity has built in the absence of the gods are a monstrous edifice heading for collapse through war and an unstoppable climate crisis. The titanic forces of the Earth will rise to push back the established order of Law and Justice the Aesir represented. The fertility of the Vanir dries up since we took away their power and engineered the Agricultural Revolution without regards to their ancient wisdom. There is no room for the gods, or Nature, in our lives today.

The stories remain with us, however, divorced from their ancient web of meanings. That world passed with conversion to Christianity, and perhaps before then by mere contact with the post-Roman world. The seeds of modernity were already germinating by the time the Great Heathen Army brought the kingdoms of England to their knees. Interestingly, it is those Nordic countries today that lead the world in the preservation of Nature and non-exploitative industries. Many credit an ancient ethos of working in relationship to Nature.

For the mythic layer of reality to take root in the ground of all being—Nature—those myths we revive today must answer the problems of our living world. They cannot simply slake our thirst for the fantastic, but provide the blueprint for planting our culture in the elements. In the Greek example, we must honor Gaia, not merely as a Mother, but as a struggling great-grandmother who tirelessly fights for equality. All her children must be counted and our ancestors going back to hydrogen must be remembered. In the Norse example, remember Auðumbla, who licked the gods out of the frozen ground and fed Ymir from her udders, deeming them both worthy of sharing the world with her. Remember, a world divided cannot stand. Nature sweeps away what does not serve.

Returning to the foundation of this argument, a realization awaits: the gods are our ancestors, too. That is, if we are the atoms forged in stars, recycled through this world that feature their stories; if their myths contain coded messages of how the world was experienced in antiquity; if our world is, after all, a single unity of being. We rise above the ground, but only just enough to peek over the tall grass of the savanna. We see a mystery on the horizon that we cannot yet comprehend, so we make up stories to explain our fears and lives. In them reside the monsters we cannot bear to face, but must, and the wonders that sustain us. In them is a map of the Land, our Mother.

It seems we forgot the map was not the territory—it was so real, so alluring, that we became entirely distracted from the trees and clouds and sun shining above. Growing pains. Bewildered, we believed that we were alone and made prayers and rituals to establish contact. Mystery and confusion followed. A thousand cultures and a thousand gods, each a step further away from nourishment. We awaken now in a nightmare world, devoid of relationships or connection, even as we crave for nothing else. We stretch our arms to the heavens and pray, “Oh gods, oh spirits, ancestors, listen to my prayer and comfort me. I am utterly alone.”

Nature fashions flesh again for ancient gods, half-forgotten, and reaches out to us.

She says, “My child, my child. You cannot be alone. You are surrounded by your kin, reflections of your spirit, fulfillment of your dreams. Awake now. We’ve been waiting for you.”

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