Let’s Get Physical

I walked into a JMW Turner painting this morning. This one:

Joseph Mallord William Turner Paintings Art 38

Or maybe this one:

photo0021

It was wild outside last night — the rain woke me twice and the rainless wind once — and my morning walk was unusually warm and blustery. I rounded the corner to the Point, where I usually stop to survey the 5-mile arc of Half Moon Bay, when, in a singular moment, a long blast of warm wind hit me head on as the sun cracked the dark shell of the sky wide, and a slice of blue was revealed. It was a consuming, rapturous moment, and I leaned into the wind and let myself fly.

The Greeks called this phenomena physis, that overwhelming surge of energy and emotion we all experience from time to time, if we’re present in our lives. It’s easy to not be present — to focus on yesterday’s argument or tomorrow’s deadline — and I wonder how many such moments I miss when, for example, I’m sitting at this computer.

I’m fascinated with such moments, when something more Real seems to break through the humdrum of life. Some call this Romantic, as in the 18th and 19th century writers and painters (including Turner) who portrayed the grandeur and danger of nature (and, therefore, of God) in contrast to the tiny, quavering existence of man. But that’s not it, because that 200-year-old worldview assumes a creator and created, an I and Thou, a hierarchy of differentiated beings.

For me, these moments are rather a reminder of what I already know, but easily forget. That is, we are all aspects of one thing, one unitary substance which is unknowable and unnameable. This substance is both material (from elephants to atoms) and immaterial (from dreams to philosophies), and it is both uncreated and eternal. It’s more mystical than romantic, it has more to do with Rumi than Goethe. If you want to call this substance God, that’s fine by me, but you could equally call it Nature, and this would be a distinction without a difference.

The world is indeed physical, in the Greek sense. Which is to say, not reducible to constituent parts, but sometimes bigger than what we can know or perceive. Thank God for that.

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