I just returned from a short visit to Northern California. After doing a talk at Sonoma State’s HUB with my partner, Miri, our mutual friend and host Mark Fabionar gave us a tour of the land. Not 15 minutes away, in the rolling hills surrounding Sonoma in Petaluma, was IONS, or the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Founded in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the institute is dedicated to the study and facilitation of “noetic theory” and is an extension of the Human Potential movement. Without knowing more of the back story, I can’t say much about why these hills were chosen for IONS, but I could certainly feel they were an appropriate space.
As we made our way on foot across the property, slipping into the buildings, gift shop, and walking over the labyrinth (I cheated and walked straight to the middle), I had a felt-presence of the land there. The energy of California is dream-like, for those who are sensitive enough to catch it. These hills took it to the next level, positively vibrating with electric-charge. Mark informed me that, long ago, indigenous people used this as a meeting ground for their tribes. To be visited, I supposed, and not lived on. A few deer quietly watched us from the trees as I examined the thoughtful trinkets and stones, necklaces and seashells left behind by previous visitors. A few hundred feet away, near a parking lot, a giant crystal the size of a pumpkin jutted out of the ground. I jested with Mark, quoting Star Trek’s Data about “tactile sensation” as I reached out and laid my hand on its jagged surface. It, too, felt charged with the energy of the land. The hills roused in me a sensory awareness I had almost forgotten in the cold, grey stones of New York City’s mad rush, but with proper time in nature certainly gets roused again.
Is it Chi, or Ki, or even the Chinese art of Feng Shui, in sensing the energy of a land? How often, or not, do we pay attention to the energies that surround us and make us up? And, I find myself, self-conscious now, as I write these words — will my readers find this odd or silly or un-critical? No matter. There is something to those Californian hills that I know to be true, and different from the hills I find here on the East Coast. Returning to New York has been like fluttering down from a dream, and back onto the dirty, subway concrete and the clatter of the D train. I’d like to think that it’s possible that certain unseen ‘energies’ — lacking utterly a more technical or scientific description — are infused with our world and, in reality, make it what it is. More contemporary studies write about “place” and, a little closer to home, new R.S. contributor David Tittering has written about “Landscape Theology.” I find myself drawn to his explanation:
“Space is not homogenous; some spaces are “wiser” and more sacred than others. Theologian Belden Lane (2001) says sacred space is a “storied place” because certain locales come to be recognized as sacred through the stories told about them. However, chthonic forces are also at work in the complex process of sacralization. Geological features inspire specific stories, and only then can the sacred place hold and transmit culture across time. This is one reason why anthropologist Keith Basso(1996) assures us that “wisdom sits in places.”
Since prehistory, humans have had a keen sense for ‘holy sites’ and hallowed grounds. Perhaps California is a kind of epicenter for metaphysical energies to let-loose on the world and realize themselves in communion with mystics and dreamers, materializing the West Coast with Esalens and IONS and Pacifica Institutes, or even the California Institute of Integral Studies. New York may not carry the same kind of vibrations, but I wouldn’t say the California hills are wiser: maybe just a little ethereal, tethered to the world’s denser planes — like New York.
I was truly marveling at San Francisco’s ability to house projects like HUB Oakland, a community center founded on the principles of Integral Theory (a particular spiritual-philosophical framework developed by Ken Wilber, and influenced by the writings of Jean Gebser and Sri Aurobindo). While I’m certainly simplifying the situation, and the lived reality of Oakland’s real-world issues like gentrification, the ‘place’ that is San Francisco seems just a little more open to materializing mystical musings than the denser, harsher New York landscape. If all lands do carry theologies, then New York’s theology is a discursive, beautiful and gritty one. Its stones cognize realisms and its waters trickle with icy elementals. Ahriman is in the air, un-taken by whiffs of California’s astral-ethereal dreamland. While New York is my home, I am developing an acute love of the Western lands without losing my deep appreciation for the East Coast’s grounding energy. I arrived back with Miri in a busy, bustling, over-crowded JFK airport. The sky was overcast. I’ve landed on my feet, but I’m hoping I can sneak a little of that California spirit back into mutually overlapping projects and endeavors, like R.S., Evolver and TEN.
Sacred geometry, and geography for that matter is “the meeting of physical landscape and the human mind and spirit and soul… geographers of the soul if you like. A meeting of those two elements,” Paul Devereux, sacred geographer, tells us.
“What ancient peoples did, they invested in landscape with meaning. People living in different landscapes would gravitate towards particular features in the landscape.. where they would go and get a sense of the numinous. These were the first sacred places.” [See Paul Devereux’s talk: “Sacred Geography and Magical Landscapes.”]
It’s true to me that those rolling Petaluma lands were picked because of what was hidden in those hills. Those hills live and speak, if we can listen and learn the language of the land. I wonder how a gritty New Yorker might negotiate with the theologies of his or her land to cultivate proper markers for the soul? For here the geography speaks, too.
Featured image is “Intercession” by David Titterington. See his website for more.