Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Raw, idiom: 14a. in the natural, uncultivated, or unrefined state: nature in the raw.
I've got a thing for Big Sky.
It's the same reason I can't get enough of cerulean blue sweaters and Van Gogh's Almond Branches and Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue." And it's the same reason I'm a sucker for the long haul from Nebraska to San Francisco through Wyoming and the salt flats on I-80 while the radio scans the entire frequency for a signal and can't pick up anything but audio snow. And why living on the East Coast off that Boston-DC I-95 metropolitan corridor for 5 years always made me feel somehow breathless, vaguely suffocated, tight, clouded over. And why my heart will always rest in the prairie underneath that cool blue shelter that is the rolling Western sky.
Buddhists or yogis might say this is all a reflection of the geography of prana, an intuitive marriage of the notion of spirit (or chi or psyche or soul) and the kind of environmental awareness that inspires much of the work being done right now in progressive eco-theologies. The geography of prana blooms out of the idea that divinity is infused in nature, that the world is the manifest body of God; that our human bodies, made as they are from dust and ash and oxygen and all kinds of messy and mysterious elements, interact organically with the environments around us to either stimulate or drain our bodily energies.
We all do things, consciously and not, in our daily lives to feel more awake (or, in yogic terms, to increase our prana). We sing, or eat well, or work out, or play drums in an 80s band, or hang out with babies, or garden, or bake. And that's a good start, because ultimately, we all want to feel more alive.
But the geography of prana takes us one step further to ask: what setting makes you buzz? What place makes you feel most alive, most humming, most energized? And what can you do to get more of that in your life? Especially if you are currently spending 8 or 10 or 12 hours in front of a computer in a cubicle in some measly office building in some strip mall off a concrete highway?
Buddhists talk about learning to cultivate spaciousness: an internal boundlessness, a softness, a room free of excess thought and clutter that lets the tumbleweeds of changing thoughts and moods blow right by, a certain openness to what is, unreliant upon what was or what is to come. Geographies of prana - be they the big Utah sky over the salt flats, or your backyard garden, or a quiet detour off the Appalachian Trail, or a roadside rest stop off the Great Highway overlooking the Pacific Ocean - cultivate this spaciousness, open it up, crack open our chests and allow room for breath and life and a connection with the buzzing kind of material realness that we can only find in nature.
So we ask ourselves: what can we do to get more regular hits of that drug? We take baby steps, choosing small, ostensibly trivial changes, like deciding to walk to work instead of driving so that we can get a few minutes of air and sun and wind before being trapped inside the rest of the day. Or we plan weekend hikes in the woods nearby instead of spending our Saturday afternoons in the sterile air of the local shopping mall. Or we go for a bike ride with our children instead of sitting inside on a summer afternoon, watching videos and breathing stagnant air-conditioned oxygen.
We need daily doses of this prana, and for reasons beyond Vitamin D or exercise or the easy-to-define benefits of being active and outdoors. We need to breathe that wildness deep into our bones, lest we forget how much a part of it we are, and how we will one day return to it ourselves.
My father is buried in an old rural cemetery on a rolling hill in southeastern Nebraska, miles away from several farm communities that are slowly dying. I'm rarely there these days; it's an hour and a half drive from Lincoln on gravel roads sans stoplights or radio to even get down to that little church tucked on a hill overlooking Elk Creek. But something about the juxtaposition of so much mortality and so much humming life makes my breath easier when I step out of my climate-controlled car and walk through the metal gate and sit there for a few minutes at the foot of my father’s grave. The prairie is inevitably buzzing with crickets and locusts and the wind is fierce and the sky's rolling with clouds and maybe there's the taste of a late-afternoon thunderstorm blowing in, and that vast wide sky is so all-encompassing and there is so much history on that little nondescript hill in southeastern Nebraska that my heart slows its racing and my soul breathes again.
And in that moment, I am reminded that there is so much life thrumming around us at a time when mortality is quite bleakly thrust into my face. And that the geography of prana is once again, and always will be, what steadies us, what sustains us, what feeds us, what makes us more spacious than we know ourselves to be.
(Cliff's Notes version: Get the hell outside.)
And that's Van Gogh's Almond Branches (1890) followed by Warhol, Daisy (Blue on Blue), c. 1982