Cosmologist Brian Swimme offers a fascinating perspective on why we human beings have such a strong tendency toward fundamentalism. He says that because we are capable of the widest awareness of any creature, we are thereby sensitized to a broader range of stimuli than any other species. A microscopic paramecium may only be sensitized to its immediate surroundings, but a human can feel events occurring clear across the world. For Swimme, the dominant aspect of the world is its beauty. Human beings, in having the broadest powers of reflection, are thereby sensitized to more beauty than perhaps any other creature. Because of this ability, it is we who are responsible for awakening the universe to its beauty and goodness. And herein lies our problem. Sometimes our awareness of such intense, widespread beauty is more than we can bear.
Since this is the case, Swimme asks, “Can this voluptuousness be contained within the human vessel? Can allurement bear the knowledge of its own essence? Or will the tensions this creates shatter any self?” The purpose of contemplative practice is to expand the self so it can take in ever-increasing amounts of beauty. But in our contracted, unenlightened attitudes, the beauty of the world is almost too much to bear. Therefore, we focus obsessively on just a mere fragment of that beauty, usually on that of our own skin-encased ego, our family, our community, nation and religious group. And this is the source of our fundamentalistic attitude.
Swimme makes this point eloquently when he reminds us that “The paradox is this: the greater your sensitivity, the more unbearable the tension. It is much easier to latch onto just one of these allurements, making it the whole. Anyone who grabs a sliver of beauty and insists it is the whole becomes a fanatic, workaholic, cynic, fundamentalist, or drug addict.” He realizes that “To break the tension of living in a universe rich in allurements is to move toward the needless destruction of pursuing a partial vision. The glory of the human is also the difficulty of the human. Precisely because we are able to feel such beauty, we are simultaneously vulnerable to the addiction of fanaticism in any of a million forms.” What we need is to expand the capacity of the human container to enable us to take in more beauty.
Photo: Ponderosa Pine and ruddy hill, Red Mountain Open Space, Larimer County, CO; October, 2015
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I am available for one-on-one sessions giving instruction in Wilderness Insight Meditation and Wilderness Contemplative Prayer, or for spiritual direction / mentoring via phone or Skype. You can contact me at email@example.com if you are interested. The rate is $65 per hour-long session. You might also want to check out my Spiritual Direction with Stephen Hatch Facebook page.
Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.