Exploration of Nature and Us

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” -T.S. Eliot
Norwich in the Snow from St. James's Hill
Norwich in the Snow from St. James’s Hill (Photo credit: Gerry Balding)

When I was studying in university and discussing poetry with my schoolmates on BBS (bulletin board system), I first came across this quote from a fellow student and I was wondering about its meaning. Years later, the meaning of the quote began to dawn on me, and I now understand it as a neverending, lifelong journey of exploration (about our world, about life, about ourselves, about the mysteries of the universe, and so on), and the goal of the exploring is not so much to reach the destination or come to explain all the mysteries, so to speak, but to arrive where we started and know the place (our starting point) for the first time through new eyes and new understanding. It is perhaps like space exploration – the more astrophysicists and cosmologists seek to understand the furthest reaches of the universe, the more it points back to who we are – that we are all connected to the stars atomically, for example (see here).

I did a google search on the above quote earlier, and I learnt that it came from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets”, which is a series of inter-linked meditations on humanity, time, universe and the divine.

Four Quartets are four interlinked meditations with the common theme being man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. In describing his understanding of the divine within the poems, Eliot blends his Anglo-Catholicism with mystical, philosophical and poetic works from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions, with references to the Bhagavad-Gita and the Pre-Socratics as well as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.

(From Wikipedia)

I find the poem deep and insightful, as follows:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(From “Four Quarters” by T.S. Eliot)

My understanding of the poem by T.S. Eliot is that life could be about self-discovery, and our journey in life is ultimately about knowing ourselves. Perhaps it can be said that our true self is timeless – we are that which who was, who is and who will be.

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.”

(From “Four Quarters” by T.S. Eliot)

I would like to think that we have lived in the past, and we will continue to live in the future. We live in a timeless zone called the present.

“Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.”

(From “Four Quarters” by T.S. Eliot)

In the early 2000s when I was still coming to terms with existential crisis, I would sometimes spend time by myself in Nature places during weekends, trekking along grasslands, through rainforests or along beaches. Many a times I would still feel a sense of emptiness. Perhaps back then, I saw myself as being separate from Nature. In recent years, having come to realise more and more I am one with the Divine, and one with Nature, I am beginning to see myself as part of creation and not so lonely after all. As mentioned in the verse below, our story is interconnected with the story of the Earth.

“The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:”

(From “Four Quarters” by T.S. Eliot)

While I still yearn to travel to new lands and experience new sights and cultures (having a wanderlust spirit in me), wherever I can, I am reminded of this quote.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

Maybe there are no new truths to discover, but old/ancient truths – or rather timeless truths – waiting to be realised and revisited at each stage of one’s journey. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is, and returning to our true self is like coming home. To me, it’s returning to our innocence, or our true identity as beloved children of the Universe/God/Divine Love.

“Step out of the circle of time / And into the circle of love.”


In a sense, the journey of our soul/spirit is like the journey of a water droplet in the ocean – first, we came from the ocean and we rose up into the sky as water vapour and we stayed in the clouds for a time and season, and then we travelled to the peaks of mountains and fell to the Earth’s surface as rain or snow, before joining rivers and streams and flowing through valleys, forests, plains and cities back into the ocean where we came from. (In another sense, there may be no beginning and no end in this water cycle because our starting point can be anywhere within the cycle, whether it is the ocean or the sky or the mountains or the plains or the rivers.)

Water cycle (From teachervision.fen.com)

Vastness and voyage of discovery

Teklanika river valley panorama (Source: Wikipedia)

“Normally, we limit the meaning of perceptions. Food reminds us of eating; dirt reminds us to clean the house; snow reminds us that we have to clean off the car to get to work; a face reminds us of our love or hate. In other words, we fit what we see into a comfortable or familiar scheme. We shut any vastness or possibilities of deeper perception out of our hearts by fixating on our own interpretation of phenomena. But it is possible to go beyond personal interpretation, to let vastness into our hearts through the medium of perception. We always have a choice: we can limit our perception so that we close off vastness, or we can allow vastness to touch us.”

Chogyam Trungpa

It’s true that we live in a multi-dimensional universe in which each phenomenon can have more than one interpretation. Perhaps there is a built-in tendency in the human psyche to simplify and categorise phenomena to standardise meanings for everyone in order to achieve some form of order and understanding for the majority, if not everyone. For example, road signs and traffic lights are designed to communicate only one meaning to everyone – red light means stop, orange light means slow down, and green light means go. In the context of traffic communications, there is not much room for any other interpretation. But the very attempts to simplify the meanings of phenomena in some other contexts can limit people’s perceptions.

Like what the above quote says, we all can allow vastness to touch us even as we recognise we live in a multi-dimensional world. We can see the same phenomena through different eyes and come to a broader understanding of the world we live in. Sometimes, our interpretation goes beyond words because words are only a means to an end, and words can only convey so much meanings to communicate conceptual ideas about something. When that happens, we can turn to art, poetry and music, which transcend language barriers and speak to us in ways that are beyond the literal meanings of words.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

In some other cases, silence is the best way to behold and appreciate the vastness of universe as we meditate or contemplate on the phenomena we encounter. What that happens, traffic and traffic lights can become to us more than what they are supposed to be. We may see beyond the colours, the motion of vehicles, and the seeming routine and humdrum of transport and communications. The buildings and roads in the cities may become no different from mountains and valleys in a countryside: Same structures, different materials but same origin. Both urban and rural landscapes come from distant stars in their atomical composition, which brings us to my next post about iron and stars.

Blurring of lines between Nature and Us: Buildings and roads in a city resemble mountains and valleys in a countryside.
A view of the Bear River near Fielding, Utah (Source: http://www.artbyearthlings.com/blog/)