It takes me past a long row of tall evergreens, planted next to the sidewalk, which slowly curves, following the road, so the trees progress in a graceful arc.
The sidewalk, and thus the trees, are set back some from the road, which carries little traffic, so while it's hardly a walk in the woods, it feels like I get my green fix. I used to walk this route home from work five days a week, and it was often my favorite part of the day (or evening, depending on the shift). "Hello, Ladies" I said then -- and again today -- when I pass these trees -- they remind me of Grande Dames -- it is a cliche to use the word "stately" to describe them, but it is too apt not to say it anyway.
Today, as I usually do on this walk, I brushed my hand along some of the needles and then raised my palm to my nose and took a good strong hit of the sap scent. Mainlining evergreen. I don't care where you're from or what your associations, there's something about the way that smell hits your olfactory nerve that shouts "Tree! Alive! Tree!" all the way down to your DNA.
It has been my habit to make this bit of path a walking meditation as well. The pine smell makes it easy -- it's like a key which unlocks a different way of thinking for a little bit. Not about God, specifically, but about the connectedness of the natural world. I think of the trees and then with my eye follow their branches all the way up, consider the sunlight as it comes through the needles, how the light dances a bit more, a hundred tiny peek-a-boos, as the needles move in the breeze -- it's sharper than the mellow green glow you get from other, regular leaves filtering the sun. Seems fitting, really.
I imagine the trees drinking in the sunlight, the photosynthesis, the release of oxygen, the roots going down into the earth and drinking water from the soil ... typing it out here makes it sound like either a very bad rough draft by Rod McKuen or the intro to some 7th grader's science presentation, but walking, thinking, smelling ... it has a way of shifting my perspective -- pulling the camera up and back for the big long shot from above.
Before the walk today I came across a great article in "New Scientist." You can read it yourself here, if you like, (it's not very long). It talks about how people tend to ascribe their own bias to whatever their idea of God is. (I made myself laugh, thinking about a magazine called "New Scientist" as if it was in response to a publication called "Traditional Scientist" or "Old Scientist" -- and then I started imagining what kind of articles "Old Scientist" would have listed on it's cover: "Gadget Guide: Six New Must-Have Sextants!" and "Flint is the new Tinder!" or "Bathysphere Babe: Dr. Millicent Farnsworth - Cutting edge research in the controversial new field of submersibles! Don't ask her if she's going down!"
The book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book) talks about how we can pay for the presumption of assuming we know what God is thinking in all sorts of foolish ways (a rough quote, but the spirit is intact) and counsels us to make sure we include other people's input in our considerations before we decide we know what God is "telling us" to do. The real trick might be to make sure I'm not just asking people who all think the same way I do -- then we'll all just have an agreement that our Higher Power agrees with us...
The article also mentions that the part of your brain which lights up when you talk to or about a friend is the same part of your brain that lights up when you talk to God. I like that.
None of the science or brain research troubles me. When it comes to the Big Question (is there or isn't there) I've let all the doubts in and let them chase me around the room. I went toe to toe with the fascinating, witty and insightful reasoning of Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" in which Ms. Sweeney -- who had been a lifelong Catholic, and wrote (very funnily -- which is a word but never sounds like it ought to be) about her brother's terminal illness and how her faith sustained her through his passing in "God Said Ha!" -- describes how she no longer believes in God. She writes a wise and compassionate goodbye to her faith in that piece. Frankly, I loved it, and the way it made me question.
And I'm okay with all of it. That, for me, is the beauty and freedom -- and yes, power -- of what Alcoholics Anonymous has given me in the idea that I can make use of spiritual tools -- first to address my drinking and then to help me live -- via a Higher Power as I understand said Higher Power.
That freedom, and hearing people share in meetings about finding their old conceptions no longer suited them and they needed to get a "bigger" God, leaves me plenty of room to consider that what I believe today, while helpful, may not be right tomorrow. It leaves me with the humility to say, "I don't know everything" which can lead to the wonderful peace of "Oh, I'm never going to know everything!" And when my human foibles step in to taint the process, and I realize "Oh, that's not a spiritual connection, that's my ego talking on that one bit" I can understand that this does not mean I have to lose my entire concept or connection. The open mindedness and its attendant humility allows me to chuck the bits that aren't a fit anymore, but not chuck the whole thing because of it.
In embracing that sometimes I may need to change how I think about God, AA reminds me to leave room to remain always open minded on all things spiritual.
Then, ultimately, it doesn't matter which part of my brain lights up when I talk to God, or if humanity as a whole often makes the same mistakes in whatever our belief systems are.
It doesn't matter because I am seeking -- it's a process -- and all of my "oops!" and "I don't know's" and doubts and conclusions and brainstorms and ideas about God are fine for me at each point along the road, because it works for me at that point, but the "as you understand" part keeps me in check from thinking that just because my conception works for me today then that must mean I've got it, I'm finished and I'm right! -- and ipso facto that means others are wrong. "As I understand" also leaves me room to allow others their understanding -- or lack of.
I walk, I pray, I reflect, my perception changes and I have relief and peace -- the result is my proof for today -- and I will keep seeking and I will remain open minded.
Whatever science discovers is wonderful new information -- sometimes about how humanity approaches religion, which often has nothing to do with my own personal spirituality -- but I can use that information to guard against my ego secretly pulling the strings in my seeking, and to reach for compassion (through understanding) when the belief systems of others seem close minded and a little scary. Religion has not always treated gently the people who arrive new to AA, and it can leave wounds which make any talk of spirituality offputting -- maybe the more I understand about religion and the brain, the better I can open my heart to people who have a negative association between God and prayer and some organized religions.
Regardless, science may be right about some things, I may be right about others ... it is the open mind, the "I don't know" which frees me to keep seeking, to consider without threat or fear all new ideas as they come along, and while doing so keep my spiritual equilibrium -- and thus my sobriety -- since I don't have to "know" for it all to work.