Mystery, Humility, and the Wild

by Steven Harper

It was late August. The tundra had already begun to take on fall colors and the nights were finally getting dark enough that the northern lights could put on a show. A two-month expedition across the Northwest Territories of Canada was coming to an end and I had the opportunity to live with the Inuit community of Chesterfield Inlet on the upper region of Hudson Bay. Before I came north I had seen what I had thought to be impressive northern light displays. I had read a number of books and the latest articles giving the scientific explanations of what and why. None of this prepared me for what I experienced.
It was 1:00 in the morning and I was up walking the gravel streets of Chesterfield Inlet with a few of my newly made Inuit friends. As we walked out of the small settlement and across the tundra the display of light became richer in color and more intense in frequency. Even my Inuit friends who had grown up accustomed to such exhibits of the cosmos stopped to look up. Curtains of multicolored light rippled across the night sky. Each successive wave grew closer and intensified. At its crescendo an undulating curtain shot across the expansive sky coming so low I instinctively hit the ground fully expecting to be struck by the light itself. My Inuit friends were bent with laughter as I lay surprised on the ground looking up at the ongoing dance of light (though I noticed they too had been impressed). There on the cold tundra, humbled and laughing at myself, I felt in awe of the mystery of all life, of all existence. Overcome by a feeling of wholesome contentment, embraced by mystery, all became sacred.
The mystery of wilderness is exactly what draws so many of us to it, just as the wild that lies within draws many seekers inward. Through the eons our human urge to explore has led us toward unknown frontiers to find the source of mystery. Mystery has the simultaneous ability to drive people destructive with frustrated desire and also provide a magic sparkle to life. Without mystery the magic of life drops away. Paradoxically, as we search out answers to our mysteries we must also be willing to accept and embrace mystery, as it is. The Dutch philosopher Aart van der Leeuw best stated our dilemma when he said, "The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced." Our culture, in its fear-based reaction to mystery and wilderness, has sought out answers in very destructive ways. Contentment and wholeness is dependent to some degree on our ability to be with and embrace mystery. It is a part of ourselves and a part of the natural world. Embracing mystery is not a blind acceptance of unanswered questions, but instead a curious wonderment of that which is inexplicable— the mystery of it all.
In the civilized environment we are surrounded by human-made, human-explainable things (cars, buildings, machines, etc.). When we enter the natural environment of wilderness we are met with the inexplicable wonders of nature. While the biological and physical sciences have successfully answered many of our questions of the natural world, the fundamental questions still remain unanswered. Even if these basic questions are answered, most of those answers will only bring with them more questions. The wilderness environment puts us back in touch with the magic of life and the enlivening spark that goes with it. The wonder of it all brings a wholesome respect and reverence for all life. When felt deeply, all becomes sacred.
In reflection I believe the contentment I felt that August day was not in finding answers, but in finding I could, for a moment, live with all the magic of mystery for exactly what it is, nothing more, nothing less. Most of us have had those rare moments when all our "stories" about life and the universe fall through and we are touched by raw feeling. We allow the fullness of reality to touch us, without shielding the self with questions. While I value questions, I also see that we can easily use questions to protect or remove ourselves from direct answers. Life is "a reality to be experienced." One of the geniuses of modern times, Albert Einstein, gave us these wise words:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery--even if mixed with fear --that engendered religion.

Living in wilderness, we are close to the awesome, incomprehensible, uncontrollable forces of nature. The "stripping down" to a more fundamental lifestyle and the direct contact we have with both nature and mystery is humbling. The experience of a lightning storm, an avalanche, or the magnificent beauty of a cascading waterfall gives us a natural perspective on our place in the world. Our culture can afford a less pretentious stance, a simple acknowledgement of our shortcomings, and a basic respect for the living and nonliving things of nature. Humble pie may be just the diet for our cultural indigestion. Rene Dubos gives us this human-wilderness perspective:

Humanized environments give us confidence because nature has been reduced to the human scale, but the wilderness in whatever form almost compels us to measure ourselves against the cosmos. It makes us realize how insignificant we are as biological creatures and invites us to escape from the daily life into the realms of eternity and infinity.

Interestingly enough, the very word humble is derived from the Latin word humus, which means soil or ground. So, in a sense, to be humble is to be close to the soil or earth. Humble, humus, homage, human, and humane all come from the same root word meaning earth, giving us yet another perspective on our place in the natural world. Quite literally, we can humbly pay homage to the humus from which we humans came. In other words, we can modestly regain respect for our soil— our earth. With our hands and feet "grounded" in the soil of this earth we can experience a primal union with the earth and reinhabit our true home. To be humbled by the mystery of wild nature is to never be quite the same.
Mystery and certainly humility are not virtues that our culture popularly supports. In our contemporary culture, for example, we are considered failures for not knowing and humility is often mistaken for weakness. Wilderness on the other hand supports and cultivates a taste for embracing even finding strength in mystery and humility. I am reminded of the Zen teacher who encourages students to cultivate "don't know" mind, an unassuming mind that is surprised and fresh each moment even with the ordinary and everyday, an alive mind that is simultaneously empty and full of creative possibility— perhaps true mystical experience.
Do you want to transform your life? My recommendation is a simple one: go out in the wilds, take off your shoes, sink your feet well into the ground, and be touched by mystery.

Published in The Soul Uneathed edited by Cass Adams
copyright Steven Harper