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On Ravishment

Photo Credit: The Blue Flower

As a child I lived in tune with sensation. I lived out of my body.  As I became a teenager, I began to move out of my body and into my mind, and I have more or less remained there ever since, a transition that I think is incredibly common.  In contrast to my adult experiences, my childhood memories are about what it felt like to be a child and not at all about what I thought of being a child.  Ice cream-sticky lips, blue tongue tart from lollipops, wind-blustered hair from a bike ride, legs stuck to the faux leather seats of a sedan in summer, falling to the ground with dizziness after intentionally spinning to reach that novel feeling.  The promising crunch of bicycle wheels over gravel, the sight of car lights turning on at twilight and running from them, shrieking, with my friends in the yard, pretending the lights were menacing wolf or fox eyes.  Being out of breath, heart pounding, playing hide n’ seek.  Sprinting as fast as my body could take me away from the tickling fingers of my brother, desperate to avoid his tickle-torture.  Screaming with friends outside with wild abandon and being told off for it by my mother, concerned about it annoying the neighbors.  All of this is corporal.  Very little involves reflection. The thoughts involved were utterly bound up in the moment and fleeting.  There was no over-thinking. There was feeling, sensing.  How did I forget the simple art of being alive?

As an introvert and a thinker, I sometimes pride myself for my intentionality, for the way I weigh and measure my lifestyle, my decisions, my approach to just about everything.  I deem it better than living unthinkingly and letting life happen to me and to my family instead of happening to life.  Yet, my powers of analysis can be a serious downfall.  My mother used to joke that I should be a lawyer, so skillful were my arguments, or at least, and more likely, how intransigent was my position.  On some standardized test, I cannot recall which one, I scored highest, not in English as I expected I would, but on analytical skills.  In college, I discovered an abiding love for literary criticism.  I thrive on analysis.  Give me a film, and let me analyze the fun right out of it.  The result of all of this intentionality and analysis is a too frequent disconnection from my body and from sensation.  It is regrettably rare that I let entirely loose and abandon my brain for even a moment to simply feel and to be.

Is it fear that prevents me from freely pursuing greater adventure and daring strong sensation?  Is it some attempt at wisdom?  Is it only reasonable caution that gets in the way, or have I become dulled and stilted, the light of my soul dimmed?  Here’s what I have learned in recent years.  God, or my Higher Power, or the Creative Force, or the Universe, or however you want to think of it, wants me to live fully and not only out of my head and occasionally arranges opportunities for me to be reminded of that truth.  Can you relate?  Do you sometimes find yourself moving into your body, feeling a rush of stimuli and think, “Where has this been?  How have I been missing this for so long?” And, “How can I get more of this consistently?”  The first time in recent years that I was reminded that I had been living only a half-life, out of touch with my senses and closed off to life’s more magical aspects, occurred while staying at an artist studio that doubled as an Airbnb.  Everything in that artist studio space was colorful, whimsical, and beckoned, “Have fun!  Be child-like!  Play!”  I actually cried before I left with the realization of what I had been missing, of what I had forgotten. I had lost sight of how to live full-hearted and open and how to be my authentic, creative self, the self that still wanted to feel vivid, vibrant feelings and sensations and to express them without reticence.

Photo Credit: Wix Media

Another encounter with physical aliveness occurred at the beach this past summer with my two teenage daughters.  It was late in the season, so the normally numbingly cold waters of the Maine Atlantic coast were refreshingly bearable: still cold, but on that hot day, the temperature was welcome. Both girls had been in and out of the water many times, while I, in typical bookish mom fashion, had read and sunbathed the day away.  I generally need to be scorching hot before I am prepared to dip my toes in those icy waters, and I had to bake for a good part of the day before I would attempt it.  Finally, I was ready to go in, though I was planning on keeping it brief and wasn’t fully convinced I’d even make it all the way in.  I remembered how I loved being in the waves as a child with my friends, swimming over each crest, squealing raucously at the oversized waves coming menacingly and deliciously closer.  It was difficult to get me out of the water in those days.  Now it was a challenge to get me in.  Somewhere inside this realization saddened me, but I did not know any other way to be.  How could I access that water-love when I was always so cold going in?  Nevertheless, I plucked up the nerve to give it a try just as my youngest decided she didn’t really want to go back in.  This surprised me.  She is our “fish,” our “mermaid.”  She never wanted to be out of the water, but then, she had recently turned thirteen.  She was passing that threshold that I too had passed.  Was this transformation inevitable?  

I was determined to get her back in there with me to enjoy one more swim, and in order to get her to do it, I knew I needed to leave aside the usual, tiresome antics of complaining and edging with painful slowness further into the water while threatening to turn around and get out.  I had to be “all in.”  When we reached the shoreline, I grabbed her hand and started running full force into the water shouting, “Come on! I’m running in, and I’m going for that wave. Catch it with me!”  She put on a brief, half-hearted show of protest but quickly became intrigued by this sudden swapping of her mother for someone else.  Apparently, the swap was so compelling that my oldest unexpectedly joined us too, a silly smile on her face as she watched her cautious, analytical and orderly mother appear wild and reckless and ready for anything.  We came alive in the waves that afternoon.  I felt like I had tapped into something animal, something basic and primal but beautiful and true and something I needed more of in my life.  We whooped and screamed, and a gargantuan wave pummeled me under and whipped my prescription sunglasses off my head, and I didn’t even care.  “Oh, well! It was worth it!” I said, reflecting on the lost sunglasses as we eventually headed back to our blankets. “Core memory right there!” declared my oldest with obvious pleasure.  How right she was.  It has become a core memory for me too not only because of the beautiful, free-spirited time I shared with my girls but also because I realized, as I settled back down onto my hot towel that I couldn’t recall when I had last felt that way.  My breathing was so deep.  My skin was tingly with the chill of the waves while it was also smarting from the intensity of the sun.  I was sand-brindled, wind-bedraggled, tired, and exhilarated all at once, and I wanted to feel it all again and soon.  With regularity.  I had been ravished by those waves and by all the sensations of that sun-drenched day, and I knew I was onto something.

…Onto something, but life has a way of keeping us so busy and  distracted that we never uncover what that elusive “something” is.  And we forget how to access it, or in our world-weariness, we lose the will to try.  That’s why I need these occasional God-jolts: these experiences that snap me to fresh attention, that romance and enrapture my senses long enough to give me the measure of what I’ve been missing.  It feels like tapping another dimension or glimpsing a barely explored territory. To be honest, it feels wild and strange and slightly scary. I don’t feel in control.  But I don’t want to abandon it either.  I gather that it’s for my good and that if I really want to live to my potential, I need to seek it out and in abundance.  

As provocative as it may sound, I would argue that the most accurate word to describe this experience is ravishment.  Yes, sexual experience can produce breathless, unfettered abandon and exhilaration, similar to what I have been discussing, and ravishment is most often associated with sex.  But ravishment is a useful word with a potency (pardon the pun) beyond mere sexual application.  I think we’ve been selling the words short by largely consigning “ravish,” “ravished,” “ravishing,” and “ravishment” to physical intimacy.

Merriam Webster offers two definitions for the transitive verb “ravish.”

a: to seize and take away by violence

b: to overcome with emotion (such as joy or delight) “ravished by the scenic beauty”

While there is the brutal and illicit connotation of ravish, meaning “to rape,” there is also the connotation to overcome with delight or with joyful emotion.  My application of “to ravish” is certainly closer to the latter.  For my purposes, “to ravish”  means to overtake, sometimes by surprise, with breathless sensation and emotion: most often joy or delight or awe.

The Collins Dictionary defines the noun “ravishment” with multiple definitions, but the first is the most applicable for our purposes: “rapture or ecstasy.”  “Ravishment,” as I would argue for us to define it, is the state of being arrested by heightened sensation and delight in such a way as we are changed by it, in such a way that life is enhanced by it.  Where have you experienced this non-sexual ravishment?  Mind you, it might even feel akin to intercourse in its impact.  You might feel wrung out with exhilaration and replete. But what brings you to a place of utter ravishment?  I have felt it after a long and hard run, the sweat drying on my skin afterwards, my heart rate slowly coming down, all my cells feeling flushed out and renewing. I often catch a passing wisp of it with a bike ride down a long hill, the speed suggesting danger, the memories of childhood carelessness welling up with each chilly prickle down the hairs of my arms in the breeze, the gentle whoosh in my ears along the descent, all speaking to me of a less troubled time in my life, a time when dangers lurked, but I hardly registered them, and all was “go” and “let’s see,” and “why not?”

Photo Credit: Wix Media

For you, it might be a long, punishing but ultimately rewarding hike or perhaps it is vigorous swimming or sledding or tubing or skiing.  The combined physical effort and bracing cold of trudging back up the sledding hill as snowy gusts pummel my face produces the right conditions for my own ravishment.  

It’s worth noting that though some of these experiences might include other people, the ravishment is individual: singular and solitary.  It is a personal experience.  I might be in the company of others in a moment of ravishing, but my companions are not generally part of the spiritual alchemy.  For me, there is a private feeling of communing, connecting, and registering that produces the magic.  It is a solitary ecstasy.  The ravishment facilitates access to something sublime, and this takes place within the communion of my own heart and mind.  This is the province of hermits, of poets, prophets and mystics.  This is what they know.  If you delve into the writings of ancient poets and mystics, you will find their writing to be brimming with thinly veiled sexual analogy, with charged solitary abandonment and surrender to a divine force.  The biblical Song of Solomon is a sensuous celebration of voluntary sexual surrender intermingled with divine ravishment.  Whether we find the thought comfortable or not, we are designed to frequently experience the feeling of being utterly spent not just in physical terms but emotionally and spiritually as well. 

So, I ask you, what makes you thoroughly spent on the most exquisite level?  What mingles your senses and your spirit into utter absorption, especially with a tinge of holiness about it?  Seek that with reasonable regularity.  Don’t discount it. If it proves elusive, chase it like the will o’the wisp, like some sacred holy grail.  It is a flicker of ineffable and the numinous.  It offers a taste of the Divine.  The more you encounter it, the more fully you will find yourself living, and the more satisfied you will be with your life.  That means the more you can pass on that vitality, that corporal yet mystic spirituality in your interactions with others.  You can teach others how to pursue and access this full living.  And when you die, you can feel that you have truly lived.

I can’t raise this reference to Thoreau without providing the relevant passage from Walden in full.  In explaining his reason for taking to the woods around Walden Pond and living simply out of a cabin there, Thoreau famously wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  Thoreau intuited that in order to live our deepest and truest, and in order to best access the Divine, we need solitude.  We need interactions with nature and to surrender to being transformed by them, even if it means moments of peril or hardship.  Even if, and especially if, it involves coming out from our comfort zones.  To truly live, you have to risk.  There is no way around it.  It’s quoted so often that it sadly is in danger of becoming trite, but Mary Oliver’s initially stunning question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your own wild and precious life?” applies here.  How are you going to pursue vitality with your life?  How are you going to cultivate a beautiful and vast wildness, a wildness that allows you to make the most of each precious day and passing year?  How will you allow yourself to be ravished until you are replete and alive?  

Also popular is the statement attributed to St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  People argue over this particular phrasing, sometimes stating that if you study the statement in context and also the actual phrasing rather than this paraphrase, you will find that St. Irenaeus meant something different to how we generally interpret this statement today.  Rather than quibble over interpretations, I will simply say that when you have experienced a moment in which you feel fully alive, when you experience a ravishing encounter, you often can’t help but intuit that herein lies “the glory of God.”  There is an intrinsic quality of the sacred, often even the holy, when all our senses are awakened, we are fully present, and something spiritual inside us communes and is reinvigorated.  There is a quickening.  I want more of that.  I think somewhere inside we all do.  

Photo Credit: The Blue Flower

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