In Japanese aesthetics, there is a concept called “yūgen” that refers to an awareness of the profound grace and subtlety of the universe — an awareness which evokes feelings that are inexplicably deep and too mysterious for words. Alan Watts once wrote of yūgen, noting that,
“There is no English word for a type of feeling which the Japanese call yūgen, and we can only understand by opening our minds to situations in which Japanese people use the word […] ‘To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest without thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands, to contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.’ (Seami) All these are yugen, but what have they in common?”
I find these to be beautiful examples of situations which might provoke this feeling of yūgen, and upon reading them, I feel that I know exactly what yūgen is, despite there being no English translation. Yūgen is an expansive feeling, a mystical awareness, an almost soaring reverence for existence that is summoned forth by a poignant confrontation with the ineffable details of reality.
This feeling is integral to who I am. It is something I have experienced many times, and it is the essence of my most intimate connection to the universe. Sometimes this mystical, reverent feeling arises when I contemplate life from a macro-perspective, imagining the endless, sprawling sea of the cosmos. Often, though, it is the tiny, transient, unexpected details of day-to-day experience — a flittering hummingbird, a diminishing sunset, a precious song or bit of poetry — that awaken an expansive feeling, humbling me and reminding me that I exist in an enigmatic wonderland about which I know virtually nothing.
A Story of “Reverence”
A little over one year ago, in August of 2014, I arrived in Busan, South Korea, a city of 5 million people — a city where I would live for one year, teaching English to elementary school students.
One night shortly after arriving, I found myself on the roof of my friend Jon’s apartment building. It was a clear, slightly chilly evening, and a number of us were gathered atop this tall structure, gazing out at the city, the ocean, and the surrounding mountains, enjoying friendly conversation and Jon’s strumming of his guitar.
As the night progressed, the large group of us atomized a bit, and I found myself in a one-on-one conversation with Mike, one of numerous new friends and fellow EPIK English teachers. Mike is a brilliant guy from Ireland whose dominant lens for understanding the world tends to be scientific, secular.
Somehow, we got on the topic of spirituality, and at the time I said I was sort of a pantheist, in that I didn’t believe in anything above and beyond nature, but that I thought nature itself was deserving of a kind of religious reverence. The endlessly diverse and sublime forms of nature — not to mention the inarticulable, astonishing, omnipresent mystery of it all — were, for me, so wondrous and incomprehensible that I felt humbled before them. If anything should be called sacred, it was nature itself, I thought.
So, anyway, shortly into our conversation I said something like, “Nature is deserving of reverence.”
And Mike replied, “Why?”
At the time, Mike’s response troubled me. It troubled me because I couldn’t explain to him why, exactly.
His question actually unsettled me to such an extent that I became really self-conscious of my use of terms like “spiritual” or “religious” or “sacred” or “revere.” I started to reframe my deep-down feelings as representative of “secular awe,” rather than “spiritual reverence.” I saw that I had no rational basis for calling existence “sacred.” All I had was a feeling — a qualitative experience of wonder and reverence. All I had was yūgen.
For months, I stuck with the secular mode of describing my relationship to the universe. An almost-mystical wonder and a deep curiosity about existence continued to constitute my most basic orientation toward life, but I imagined that I had reached a more credible viewpoint. I was an agnostic skeptic — a man with no fixed views, a questioner of all things.
And I still am that, I think. At least intellectually.
The Power of Words
But nearly a year after that conversation with Mike, I realized something.
I saw clearly that my deep-down feeling of reverence — my yūgen awareness — had never actually changed. I had just begun using different language to describe it — language that would be more acceptable to the scientific, rational community. By using the vocabulary of “wonder” and “sublimity,” as opposed to “reverence” and “sacredness,” I was eschewing some of the more woo-woo connotations that I saw being associated with the latter terms. I didn’t want to be considered “spiritual” or “New Age” because those words connote a very specific stereotypical person whom many people discredit and view as somewhat kooky.
But ultimately, I was still talking about the same thing. The “wonder” I felt was not categorically different from a “spiritual awe,” which is not categorically different from a “religious reverence,” depending on who you ask.
Regardless of which label the politics of language compelled me to use, this same feeling was still the core, fundamental basis of my relationship to the world. Albert Einstein described the feeling well when he wrote,
“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties — this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”
I love this passage from Einstein because he could have said the same thing in purely secular, safe language, avoiding the use of words like “mystic” and “religious,” but he didn’t. I think on one hand he recognized that the scientist’s wonder and the mystic’s reverence are essentially the same thing. I also suspect that Einstein realized that certain words simply carry more weight — that choosing to view one’s awe as a religious feeling was more significant than simply using different words to describe the same phenomenon. Carl Sagan may have understood the same when he wrote,
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
It seems to me that both Sagan and Einstein understood that there is immense power in the language we opt to use, and that certain words carry layers of cultural and historic significance that charge them with a particular aliveness. One can talk about a secular feeling of wonder while staring at a glowing moon hovering in the night sky, but depending on one’s background, there may be a distinct power, or vitality, in choosing instead to call that moon holy and sacred, and to identify the wonder one feels as a religious, spiritual, or mystical feeling.
In either case, one is talking about the same experience, but if, for example, one grew up immersed in the language of organized religion, then the latter way of speaking about that experience probably holds a significance and a set of powerful connotations that the former simply cannot graze.
To declare that one reveres the universe or sees existence as sacred is not to debase oneself to the status of a lesser, primitive, irrational purveyor of things, as I had nearly convinced myself at one time. It is, rather, to utilize the most powerful language available to oneself to not only more adequately express the soaring feeling that is motivating the statement, but also to solidify and emphasize in one’s own mind the unparalleled importance of the soaring feeling, of yūgen.
If I say that I see God in the night sky, it is a way of validating to myself that the mysterious beauty, sublimity, and majesty I am experiencing is, for me, the highest and most important Something — the thing deserving of being perma-capitalized in written language, the thing carrying a significance for me that is equal to or greater than the significance the word has for many Christians I know, despite the fact that we define the word very differently (for me, “God” just means nature, existence, the mystery of everything).
Of course one runs into problems here because plenty of people would tell me that my choosing to use a language of religiosity to describe the natural world is misleading and renders my actual meaning unclear. My response to those people is that language is fluid and ever-changing and can accommodate new usages. From my perspective, our ability to use the potent language of religiosity/spirituality to celebrate and validate the depth of our experience is more important than maintaining a clear boundary between secular and religious experiences of awe (a distinction which, as I’ve argued, is dubious to begin with).
Religious or spiritual humans who believe in an anthropomorphic deity or supernatural forces should not have a monopoly on many of the most powerful words in human languages. We should be able to reclaim these words — to use them as a means of poetically conveying and affirming the significance of our awe — without being pigeonholed as dupes or construed as making sweeping metaphysical claims about something supernatural.
Even if some detractors agreed with me on this, many would probably still misunderstand precisely why I feel a need to use such language. They would assume that when I bite into a peach and call it “divine,” I’m just being hyperbolic for the sake of emphasizing how good it is. But, actually, the whole point of my using such language is that I don’t think it’s hyperbolic. I think “divine miracle” actually falls short of truly capturing the magic of the fact that a bark-clad nature-claw erupted from beneath the surface of the rock we’re floating on and grew from one of its fingers a juicy morsel of deliciousness that I, a fragile bipedal creature, can pluck and cram into my face for enjoyment and sustenance.
Just the other day I overheard a woman telling some friends that her partner thinks she has magical abilities, but that she doesn’t believe in magic and has never seen evidence of any such thing. And in moments like that I chuckle a bit and also feel kind of troubled, wondering why “magic” is defined as something above and beyond nature itself. Why don’t we consider it “magical” that we emit from our face-holes ridiculously complex noises that can somehow communicate our deepest fears and dreams and ideas and loves and losses?
What I’m driving at is that nature itself is so utterly magnificent that we can use the highest linguistic compliments our species has ever devised — “magical,” “holy,” “divine,” “sacred” — and still totally fail to even come close to expressing just how colossally, inexpressibly profound existence is.
On a most basic level, all language is metaphor, in that every word is a symbol representing some other thing or concept. Surely we can agree, then, that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to flaccid metaphors when more potent ones are available? We should use language to its fullest expressive capacity because even at its best, it remains totally insufficient to fully communicate any experience.
Back to South Korea
And so if I could go back to that night on that rooftop in South Korea, what I would like to say to Mike is that I use the word “revere” because it is the most effective means available to me of expressing an inarticulable soaring feeling that I feel when I encounter certain details of life that awaken me, momentarily, to a greater, wider, fathomless reality. Beyond that, it is also an effective means of validating the significance of that soaring feeling in my life.
I would tell him that I call life itself “holy” and “sacred” sometimes because although those words yet pale before actuality, they nonetheless do the most justice to my visceral experience of this world as something beyond all language and human conception, to my feeling of yūgen.
Maybe that explanation would be too dense and cumbersome, though. Maybe, instead, it would be better to say that I can’t answer that for you. Either you know the answer to that question, or you don’t.
Or, maybe, instead, there would be a more suitable course of action.
Maybe, if I went back to that rooftop in South Korea and were confronted once more with Mike’s question, the appropriate response would be to say nothing at all.
Maybe the best thing to do would be to stare bemusedly into Mike’s eyes for a moment before looking up and pointing a single index finger at the black ocean of the night sky.