Monday, March 5, 2018

Spirituality and loss of self

After some discussions with friends over the weekend, I was reminded of very profound events that have occurred during storm chases, and during the pursuit of my scientific understanding of the world.  The essential element in this is what I refer to as "loss of self" that can occur when your ordinary life with its concerns about yourself and your needs or obligations fades away and is replaced by a peaceful surrender to what is happening around you.  Your ego disappears and you experience a feeling of merger with what you are experiencing.

During storm chases, this can happen when you find yourself confronted with something much larger than yourself that's just so awe-inspiring you may be "thunderstruck" (pun intended) - your jaw drops open and you're mesmerized by what you're seeing.  A chaser might well be so absorbed with what she's witnessing that cameras are just hanging in her hand by her side, unraised and unused.  The majesty of what you see can be so overwhelming in its majesty and power, you can become completely absorbed in the event.  The "self" has disappeared, in a flood of astonishment.  Such moments are unpredictable (as are the events that create them) and are always unexpected.  These examples are relatively easy to explain and are understandable to most people.  This part of storm chasing is often described by storm chasers in their accounts of their adventures.  It leads to such adjectives as "incredible", "awesome", "jaw dropping", and so forth - terms that in my opinion are both overused and somewhat misleading.  They seek to describe the triggers for this loss of self.

When Al Moller and I intercepted the 08 June 1995 tornado in Pampa, TX, about halfway through its life cycle, we stopped and got out of our chase vehicle to continue our photography and videography of the tornado.  When the tornado finally dissipated, I discovered that my mouth was completely dry.  Perhaps this was because of adrenaline, or the fact that my jaw had dropped open and stayed that way, or both.  Regardless, it's somewhat amazing I managed to continue operating my video camera during this time of loss of self.  I was transfixed with the spectacle.  It felt like waking up from a dream when the last remnants of the rope-out faded away.

There's another way I've had this loss of self during chasing.  I've developed a serious love affair with the U.S. central and high plains and the people who live there.  In the process of a chase, there can be a certain amount of down time and I often try to use that down time to capture images that convey the emotional content of my feelings toward the plains.  Yes, I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to those oceans of seemingly empty real estate.  What I see clearly is influenced by the light we encounter (photography can be thought of as "capturing the light"), by the dramatics unfolding in the sky, by the flora and fauna of the plains, by the wistful character of weather-beaten human structures and the stories they can tell, and so on.  When we get out of our cars and walk into the landscapes of the plains, I can find myself in a very spiritual state where my self vanishes.  For instance, many of the beautiful wildflowers of the plains are at the end of relatively long stalks, so they're prone to flailing about from the action of the virtually inevitable plains wind.  To capture what we envision, we may have to wait for that brief moment when the wind calms down and we can capture that moment.  Ordinarily, I can be impatient and not want to spend time essentially doing nothing.  But I find I can call upon something in those moments that lets me wait, silent and immobile, for just that brief instant, for many minutes, if need be.  When my self disappears, I'm able to wait, like a spider, to capture my "prey".  I experience in a first hand way something akin to what that spider in her web experiences.

In becoming totally absorbed in doing my science, the effort to concentrate on what I'm doing becomes easy when I'm so wound up in my work that time and seemingly boring, repetitive simple tasks become important only as the means of reaching my goal of following some new insight.  What might look to someone else as a task both tedious and trivial is, for me, a transcendental experience.  The passage of time is not noticeable.  I can immerse myself in this for hours without difficulty, as I'm so fixated on finishing the work.  Most of science seems boring to non-scientists but in my world, it can be transformed into a deeply spiritual adventure with the potential for something really exciting at the end.

I often tell people that the plains can elicit spiritual experiences, but in order to experience them, you have to slow down, go to quiet places in your mind, stop talking, and focus deeply on what's going on around you.  The light, the wind, the sky, the life of the plains can transport you to a world you can experience at the the deepest levels of your conscious mind.  Such moments can't be summoned on command.  You don't reach them simply by willing them to happen (although you can put yourself in situations that might lead you to them).  They come on without you being aware of their approach until you realize you're in them - a timeless state of union with the world around you and the universe.  As Robinson Jeffers wrote:
 
Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken. 


Man, a part of that, not man apart from that.  Your self disappears when you have that deep sense of being a small part of the majesty and glory of the natural world.  The feeling that we dwindle to insignificance is by no means negative when we feel we've somehow merged with those majesties.

4 comments:

Paul Whitworth said...

Well said. I live in the Dallas metroplex and don’t get to experience the open plains enough. One time I really entered “the zone” was at Copper Breaks State Park. I was on a Mesa waiting for the night sky and just listening to the wind and mesmerized by the birds riding the thermals. The god rays appeared as the sun went down and later the Milky Way was in your face.

John Huntington said...

Thanks, this is beautifully written. I would say I have those kind of open space experiences both in the plains and on the ocean.

tornado.specialist said...

Thanks for this post, Chuck. I was glad and grateful to be a part of that wonderful post-TESSA conversation. And yes, this was an aspect of Al's that I admired hugely as well, not only because he also could experience it so fully and immersively, but that he could describe the experience in such a bright-eyed, vivid and intent way, with a remarkable clarity that very nearly brought the listener right into that moment alongside him. That's probably a gift even rarer than the full realization of such events. You were so fortunate to have so many opportunities to experience that in chase trips with him.

Although you and I approach the aspect of spirituality in decidedly different ways, with different attributions, our Venn diagrams for it overlap right here. It's a nontrivial part of what keeps the passion burning for returning onto the Great Plains anew, as every spring dawns, from the first fresh storm inflows of March through the last sunset of the last chase day in June.

===== Roger Edwards =====

Chuck Doswell said...

Rogelio:

That conversation was indeed the inspiration for this blog posting. When Al and I stopped on the road to photograph a non-storm scene, we almost always went our separate ways, and each got into the moment in our own way. I think we knew without ever voicing it that such a transcendental experience would never happen if we were gabbing away. It was particularly enjoyable to compare our images afterward. Yes, I was fortunate, indeed. Our chases together were very special. After 24 years, though, it was time to move on.