The World, the Earth and the Heavens

The socio-cultural world of human intercourse, the world of getting and spending, is too much with us. Or rather, we are too much with it. Why? Because it’s the only world we know. Or rather, it’s the only world we know intimately.

Some people are drawn to the peace of the woods and the mountains. They love to ramble alone, feel the cool air on the face, watch the clouds scud across the sky, the dappled light dance through the leaves. William Wordsworth dedicated his life to expressing the wonder felt by the Soul in Nature. The world of the Lakeland poets was not “the world”, but Nature, “the earth”:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Nature lovers have one foot in the human world and one foot in the natural world. Sitting by a stream, following the eddies of water, they may completely forget their worldly cares and worries and enter a state of quiet contemplation and communion with Nature. Some might make a conscious attempt to still the mind and relax. They might call what they are doing “meditation” or “mindfulness”. What they are really doing is retreating from “the world” and stepping onto “the earth”.

There is a tug-of-war in the human heart between “the world” and “the earth”. For most people, “the earth” is just a holiday from “the world”, a temporary respite from the responsibilities and pressures of work and family life. Mostly they are in the world, but just occasionally, in the woods, by the sea or up a mountain, they find themselves on the earth.

People who feel a strong nostalgia for the earth feel homesick and sad in the world and long to reverse the dominance hierarchy so that the world is on the earth instead of the earth being in the world. Most are also fervent environmentalists, lamenting the destruction of the natural earth by the human world. Some even consider their love of the earth as a religion, as in the Water Protector slogan, The Earth is My Church, Nature is My Religion.

There is “earth religion” and there is “world religion”. We generally think of earth religion as some kind of indigenous shamanism or paganism, “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn”, but it is also at the heart of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Through mindfulness and immersion in Nature, the followers of earth religions free themselves from the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the social world and enter a place of original natural innocence and vitality.

“World religion” is secular humanism. The focus is primarily on the world of human culture and the improvement of society. It generally manifests itself in the guise of politics, whether through an incremental, progressive creed or a utopian, revolutionary one. Environmentalism may play a subsidiary role in the overarching political agenda, but only because “the earth” is seen as an important aspect of “the world”, just one item among the many clambering for “social justice”.

In the psycho-spiritual battle between “the world” and “the earth”, the world generally wins, and the earth devotees end up resentful and depressed. Worldly duties and responsibilities, as well as the incessant psychic attacks from the entertainment media, the news media and social media, make it exceptionally difficult to stay grounded on the earth, as the Huni Kuin tribe from the Brazilian Amazon realised:

“In 2000, Ninawa Pai Da Mata decided to move his village deeper into the jungle, in Acre state, in an attempt to protect and revive traditional life. ‘We had to move to escape many things the westerners brought – alcohol, foreign music – and to embrace our own culture and spirituality again, to listen to the wisdom of nature,’ he says.”

Jane Dunford

Not everyone can move deeper into the jungle though. Or move to the Lake District. And the pull of the city and the internet is strong. Modern trains and broadband are fast. And the pull of work, family and friends is generally stronger than the pull of the trees and rivers. Life is expensive and demanding.

The history of Western Imperialism (as well as Eastern Imperialism) testifies to the victory of “world religion” over “earth religion”, of science and technology over nature and spirituality. But it’s not just indigenous earth religions that have suffered from the spectacular success and dominance of the secular world religions. The “heaven religions” have also suffered.

Modern secular people think that they live in the world, and that part of the world involves going for walks in Nature. There is nothing else. Heaven and hell are just fictions or psychological projections, the figments of a delusional medieval religious imagination. Modern secular people who hanker after a “creed outworn”, neo-shamanism, neo-paganism, neo-“earth religion”, believe in living as close to Nature as possible, with as little Culture as possible, but they don’t usually believe in heaven or hell either. And they certainly don’t like the idea of “our Father, who art in heaven”.

Genuine shamans not only believe in heaven, but they go there all the time, through vision quests and soul flights. Their magical brews take them beyond the world and beyond the earth to another, transcendent reality, sometimes blissful and full of awe, sometimes painful and full of horror. Sometimes “heaven” but sometimes more like “hell”.

Every time I take a strong dose of a psychedelic in a ritual setting, whether ayahuasca, DMT, psilocybin or LSD, I end up in a strange but familiar place I can only describe as heaven. It can get a bit rocky and turbulent at times. Occasionally it can feel as if I am on one of the lower rungs of hell or being dragged backwards through an infinite hedge of purgatorial fire. But it is recognisably a kingdom of heaven.

When I come back down to earth, I invariably find myself on earth and not in the world. I feel compelled to go for a walk in the countryside or in a park. I feel connected to the trees and the water, the earth and the sky. Suddenly, the world is no longer too much with me. It has shrunk in size from that of a giant Empire State Building devouring octopus to that of a tiny gad fly.

Heaven and earth are more than a match for the world. But earth without heaven always seems to lose. Hence the need for something like Shamanic Christian Zen, which puts the world in its place, on the earth and under heaven. The world is too much with us because we have forgotten about the earth and heaven. We have turned from the true Trinitarian God of earth, world and heaven and worshipped a false mono-god, followed false mono-prophets and sold our souls to a false mono-religion: “the world”.

If you treat “the earth” and “heaven” as escapist holidays from “the real world”, you are at heart a devotee of the world, a secular humanist, even if you profess otherwise. You may cultivate mindfulness, go wild swimming or forest bathing for improved physical, mental health and spiritual health; you may even take psychedelics or enjoy religious services (or both at the same time). But, as Thomas Traherne put it centuries ago, “till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars” and “till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table”, in other words, until heaven and earth are more powerful and real, more salient and meaningful, more close and intimate than the human world of getting and spending, “you never enjoy the world aright”.