Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Welcome to the jungle and my secular spiritual awakening

This is a tally of all the wild creatures I have run into during the past three weeks. One poisonous centipede. Two dozen monkeys. A handful of mosquitoes. Several hundred frogs. A dozen fireflies. One slug. Two hawks. Half a dozen spiders. A whole bunch of salamanders. Countless butterflies. Two lizards. Three snakes. Four deer. And one leech. (Being attacked by a leech was actually kind of exciting.)

The amazing thing is that I spotted all of these creatures within the Kyoto city limits, either in the mountain behind my apartment or by the river across the street or in the rice fields down the road.

That there can be so much wildlife in such an urban area is a juxtaposition that makes me happy. I mean, happy in the sense that so much wildlife exists outside my door. I'd be much less happy if the centipedes and snakes decided to move into my apartment.

Sometimes Kyoto feels more like a jungle than a city.

Let me give you an example. Two weeks ago, I hiked up the mountain behind my apartment. I was alone on a quiet trail when a stampede of more than 30 monkeys came running through the forest, crossing the path in front of me. Some of the adult monkeys were carrying baby monkeys on their backs and they stopped and looked right at me. It was just me and a bunch of wild monkeys. No fence. No barrier. Just me and my distant relatives hanging out in the forest. The monkeys didn't seem threatened by my presence. Instead, they seemed indifferent to it. They just sat down in front of me and starting picking the bugs off each other's backs. It was an incredibly moving experience. And I don't even like monkeys.

Watching the monkeys watching me, I couldn't help but feel that we were equals. Both of us nothing more than primates living on the land. I felt no greater or less than the monkeys in front of me. I felt no better than the ants underfoot or the leaves overhead. Rather, I just felt that we were equal and connected -- all of us small parts of a greater whole. All of us nothing more than species among other species, the product of billions of years of evolution. I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe and wonder about the beauty of nature and the magnitude of the universe.

I love the way the main character in White Noise describes the way he feels when he watches children sleep ("Watching children sleep makes me feel devout, part of a spiritual system. It is the closest I can come to God. If there is a secular equivalent of standing in a great spired cathedral with marble pillars and streams of mystical light slanting through two-tier Gothic windows, it would be children in their little bedrooms fast asleep"). It's the same way I feel when I spend time in nature. It makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself.

And, dammit, the more time I spend in nature, the more I can feel myself turning into a hardcore tree-hugging hippie. Well, maybe not that hardcore. I still like having stylish clothes, shiny hair and a sense of humor. I'm a hippie on the inside only.

I feel like I'm having some sort of spiritual awakening and I hate that I'm having some sort of spiritual awakening because I hate the word "spiritual" and all of the flaky, new-age shit (crystals and space music and astrology) that goes along with it because that's not what spirituality is for me. It's a word that has no religious meaning. It's simply about feeling a deep connection with nature. It's about feeling a sense of awe and wonder at knowing we live on a tiny planet, in the middle of the Milky Way, surrounded by billions of stars and billions of planets and billions of galaxies in a vast, yawning universe.

Never have I felt this more profoundly than in Kyoto. In the mountains, by the river and in the forest. I am constantly reminded about how small and insignificant we really are. And how, at the same time, we are connected to everything and everyone. It all makes sense in the mountains.

Note: I broke my camera at the end of April (it turns out taking pictures on top of a mountain in typhoon-strength rain wasn't such a good idea) so I've missed out on capturing most of the aforementioned wildlife encounters. My cellphone camera takes crappy pictures. That's a leech on my leg in the last photo. I let it eat until it was full. And then it eventually dropped off on its own. It was kind of exciting to walk around with a leech on my leg. And I kind of missed him when he was gone. (See what I mean? I'm totally turning into some sort of nature freak.)

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