Pantheist perception: regaining the child's vision.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

Featured, Dec. 12, 1996.

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All children are born pantheists. Pantheism can be a schooling in the child's primal perception: to see things in their vivid reality, unclouded by preconceptions of any kind.

Colour, texture, form: bark of Scots pine.
Photo © Paul Harrison

Losing the child's perception.

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream …

Heaven lies about us in our infancy.
Shades of the prison house begin to close
upon the growing Boy
But he
Beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy.

The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.

William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations of Immortality

Wordsworth imagined that the child's mystical view of the world derived from memories of heaven and God: "Trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God who is our home."

In truth, children who have not yet acquired language see reality as it is for our senses, unshaped by culture or language: light and shade, forms, incomprehensible wonders, filled with mystery and divinity.

Language and concepts are the prison house. As we acquire language, we begin to sort our sense perceptions into fixed categories. Words blind us. We see a tree and say "tree" and think we have dealt with it by assigning it to a category. By habit, we think there's no need to look deeper. We think we know what it is; we know what it's all about, and after a quick glance we move on. But we have missed all its uniqueness, the shock of its presence, the numinous nature of its existence.

Life becomes a succession of quick glances. Perception is reduced to scanning the world for short-cuts, signs and symbols. We develop a sort of cataract over the eye, a fog made of words and concepts and preconceptions. Only the unusual, the shocking, sticks out through the mist and shakes us in our complacency.

Regaining the child's perception.

Children are born pantheists. The whole world seems divine to them, full of mystery and power. They look at each thing and study its form and texture. They smell it, feel it, turn it round, stick it in their mouths.

It's only as they learn language that the cataract of words starts to form. When they lose the sense of mystery about this world, when they are taught that mystery lies only in other worlds, inaccessible to our senses: that's when they cease to be pantheists. That's when the glory, the vision of heaven, fades away. It's still there: we have just grown blind to it.

We can learn to see things as children see them. They see things as if they have never seen them before - because they have never seen them before. We who have seen so many things that we think we know them all, have to learn to look at them with fresh eyes. To do that we have to forget that we have words and concepts for them, forget that we have seen them before, and just look at them, closely, as if for the first time.

Travel is one way of looking at things afresh. When we go to unfamiliar places or landscapes, almost everyone does for a time look at things more closely. But travel shouldn't be necessary: we should be able to look at our garden or local park as naively and attentively as if it were a tropical rainforest or a host of antarctic penguins.

Nature is the best place to see things freshly. Although man-made things also have a great variety of textures and forms, for the most part they are standardized, they change only slowly, and they do not usually evoke feelings of reverence and sheer wonder. Living things are all individualized, all in motion. Every individual natural thing is different from every other. Every natural thing is different from itself a few moments ago.

Go into a garden, park or natural area. Look at small things you may have over-looked before: the rough bark of trees, the grain of rock, the pattern of veins on a leaf, the texture of a squirrel's fur, the sinuous movement of a swan's neck, the sequence of ripples and eddies on a stream. Look at them free of words, look at them for what they are independently of you, look at their reality.

Go out at different times. Get up early once in a while and go out before dawn. Go out in the night if you feel safe doing so.

Listen to the wind in the leaves, listen to the many sounds of water, listen to the songs of birds.

Listen to people. Don't see them as means to your end. Open your ears to what they are saying, open your eyes to how they look, how they are gesturing. People who listen more than they talk, gain. People who talk more than they listen, lose.

Developing the senses

There are many ways we can learn to look at the world with fresh eyes.

The primary way is to develop our senses and our sensuality. Our primary senses are based in organs of astonishing sophistication. They have evolved over millions of years to improve our survival skills - but they are also our channels for connecting with the real world, for making contact with and appreciating the divinity that surrounds us.

We need to develop our powers of seeing. Birdwatchers who are out to identify species from the merest glimpse try to catch what they call the "jizz" of a bird - its special ways of moving or flying. We need to get beyond the "jizz" of things, the quick outline that allows us to pigeonhole them and tick them off on our list. We need to look at surfaces in a different way, at subtleties of colour and texture, at features of form.

Sight dominates and sometimes suppresses the other senses in humans. We must learn to develop our other senses, to liberate them from slavery to sight. There's a simple way to start this process: close your eyes.

Close your eyes and develop your hearing: listen to the wind in the leaves, but listen to the different sound that different trees make, listen to poplar, to willow, to aspen. Listen to birdsong, but listen to the variations in birdsong. Listen to the stream, but listen to the different components in its sounds.

Close your eyes and develop your sense of touch. Feel the bark and leaves of different trees, feel the roughness and smoothness of stones, feel the breeze on your cheeks. Lie in the grass like a lizard on a warm stone and feel the sun on your body.

Recording and treasuring perception.

Another way to develop our perception is to remember and record what we see.

If you go into nature, on a walk, walk through it again before you go to sleep. It's a great way to get to sleep, and rehearsing the memory will preserve it.

Keep a daily diary of what you see. Trace the sequence of the seasons, the budding and blossoming and fruiting of trees, the courtship and nesting and breeding of animals. You will be using words to describe what you see - but use words to describe what is unique about each thing and place and time. Use new words and new metaphors, because old jaded words and cliches are what blind us. The recording will deepen your perception. It might even make a poet or novelist of you.

Draw or paint pictures. Even if you've never done it before, go out with a pad and a soft pencil or water colours and try it. Drawing or painting forces you to study forms, colours and textures very carefully. Start with small things - a rock, a piece of bark, a leaf - and work your way up to whole trees and whole landscapes. Practice, and don't be discouraged if your first efforts look childish.

Take photographs. Don't just snap what's in front of the lens. Don't set out to recreate the visual cliche you saw in a magazine or book. Forget every visual cliche you have ever learned. Look for new angles and new times of day that bring out unusual aspects of colour, texture and form. Although you don't spend as long looking at one thing as with drawing, you will have visual records to keep and study later. A photograph is a very special thing: - photons from the sun, ricocheting off earthly objects, striking the plane of your film and altering molecules there. It is reality's self portrait in light. And for you it is a disciplined exercise in the perception of reality.


is a profound feeling of reverence for Nature and the wider Universe
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

Scientific pantheism: index.
History of pantheism.
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© Paul Harrison 1997.
Posted 15 April, 1997; last updated 15 April, 1997.