Since in my own mind many of these posts have been "chapters," I'm splitting some of them out to separate blogs. But also, my audience is divided and quite different, one part from another. Many have dropped out and many have newly arrived. There are recognizable paper "book" versions of some of the posts that fit together.

I find that some people still assume that a blog is a sort of diary. This one is not. It is not for children, either in terms of subject or writing style. It's not written "down." Think academic magazine or column without footnotes.


My name shows up on google+ and twitter, but I only monitor and will not add you. I do NOT do Facebook though someone with the same name does. Please use plain email. My phone landline is in the phone book. I have no cell phone.

Other Blogs by me


Notes from Alvina Krause between 1957-1961 are posted at

Fiction about Indians at
Essays about Indians at

Saturday, October 25, 2014


A one-celled animal

The oldest sense has got to be smell, which is the ability to decipher molecular clues from the environment.  A one-celled animal must know what to go towards and what to avoid, which is at the core of smelling the environment.  It is a sense historically most deeply related to worship as incense, oils, and burnt offerings.  Two of the three natal gifts to the Baby Jesus were sources of scent.  And yet smell is the most problematic of senses to use when designing ceremonies.

When we were operating the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, which was attached to the Scriver Taxidermy Studio, we were careful to make sure there were no offensive smells during tourist season.  (In hunting season there might be bears to skin -- they smelled like wet dogs unless they’d been traveling in conifers, which made them smell like Christmas trees.)  In treating skins we used borax, one of the oldest ingredients of Egyptian mummification recipes.  People who can smell it at all associate it with laundry soap.  Rubber latex, smelling of 1,4-polyisoprene, was one of our usual substances, as was plastilene, clay kneaded into a waxy petroleum base.

We burned “Campfire Memories,” an incense devised by a local biology teacher as a little side business.  By some secret process, he ground up pine needles, got them to stick together in a paste and extruded them into “sticks” which did indeed smell like a campfire when burned.  The Blackfeet, of course, constantly used smudges, especially sources of coumarin like sweetgrass or sweet pine (balsam pine), cedar and sage.  

My time in the ministry was on the prairie in the Eighties when people still related to sweet clover and new-cut alfalfa as good things.  But the last time I visited my home Portland church there was a sign on the door forbidding anyone wearing perfume from entering because of allergies.  (I haven’t been back.  Why would I go to a place that’s allergic to me?)  In fact, close to the end of my circuit-riding there was a parent who asked us not to use smudges because her child was allergic.  This strange chemical asceticism is quite serious and I didn’t fight it.  People die of peanut allergies.  But it’s a loss.  Now we can only name the smells and hope people will be able to summon them up in memory.  

Do not come to my house if you are allergic to any smells.  It’s not just the cats and the cat box that had to come inside because Crackers stopped using it otherwise.  It’s that the earth under the house smells of volcanic clay (I leave the trapdoor open so I can monitor the ancient plumbing) and I smudge sweetgrass.  Rather than using commercial deodorizers, I fling all the doors and windows open as long as the temperature allows.  

I keep oils like sage and hippie mixtures on cotton in dishes.  When I left Portland, a co-worker gave me a little blue bottle of mixed essential oils that she wore as perfume so I wouldn’t forget her.  She bought it in one of the New Age shops on SE Hawthorne but over the years (15 now) the label has soaked up oil that obliterated the label so I can’t order more.  (I never saw her again and she knew I wouldn’t.)  But it’s easy to find sources by mail.  If you like the mystique and have access, you could “wildcraft,” go looking on the land.  Check out the damp places, sniff for mint.

When Leland stops by, he says the house smells like his grandmother.  He means tobacco, strong coffee, cottonwood smoke, and Ben-gay.  Maybe some Vicks Vaporub.  (I put tobacco in with my Bundle Opening clothes to protect them.) I save all the perfume samples that come in magazines to tuck into shirt pockets and the underwear drawer, but the aromas have become insipid, both in the kind of smells and the intensity of the samples, even though the zines come in plastic envelopes to protect the sensitive. 

Oak Moss

In France some powerful ingredients of perfume are now illegal on grounds that they are carcinogenic.  Claims are that the stuff causes sperm damage, hormone disruption (which is linked to some cancers, thyroid disease, obesity, diabetes, and other serious health problems), reproductive toxicity, and allergy problems.  Oak moss is one of the casualties and happens to be in my all-time fav scent (Aliage) as well as Chanel No.5. 

Bleach, ammonia, Lifeboy soap, naptha, lemon oil, Old English polish -- all potent smells but none used in religious ceremonies that I know of.  Nevertheless, they creep into the big empty spaces that are churches and form a felted background to the damp coats and galoshes of worshippers.  Sometimes there is a hint of baby powder.

The neuron olfactory receptors in the nose are projected extensions of the original nose, which is the bulbs deep under the “new” brain, same as the neuron light receptors are eyeballs on the ends of the optic nerves that extend back to the real sight deciphering organs at the back of the head, close to the top of the old brain.  All this description is merely meant to evoke your own associations, especially those that are deep in the old brain, the limbic system, where the real meanings are felt, not just asserted.

This is not a pitch for scented candles in the sanctuary.  Many of them are toxic offenders -- I’ve known them to make people faint -- which is why beeswax is recommended.  It’s a benign sweet smell.  Nor am I saying one should sprinkle cinnamon or mint leaves around or install one of those scent dispensers they use in stores to make you happy enough to fork out money -- though that’s a thought!  Rather this is an invitation to sit in your religious place and "see" what you smell.  Reflect about your own personal smell associations, because they won’t be the same as everyone else’s -- and yet you might share some.  

Aside from the intriguing poetics of smell, it is good to consider the patterns that develop under different contexts.  Right now, disconcertingly, “touch” may be more toxic, allergic and contagious than smell.  Due to fears about Ebola and flu, we are encouraged not to shake hands, but so far as I know no one has invited people to “pass the peace” by the suggested substitute:  bumping elbows.  Kissing and hugging, of course, are out, which does not worry we former stiff Presbyterians who were never into it anyway.

If smell and touch are dangerous, sight and sound must take up the slack unless we begin to eat in church beyond Communion, which has also worried people who fear germs.  But religious institutions have always been good about providing images and music, printed words and spoken words.  It is recovering senses of spiritual individuality and coordinating them into a welcoming and meaningful communal experience that presents the challenge.  The basic forces of life are survival of the individual and survival of the group.  One of the functions of religious institutions is to keep the individual and the group from damaging each other -- helping them reinforce each other.

Friday, October 24, 2014


The structure of the human nose is nicely intricate, bony parts in pairs with fancy names like “the perpendicular plate of the ethmoid bone and the premaxilla bone and the palatine bone, the floor of the nose and the roof of the mouth” . . .  Then the nasal septum is composed of the “quadrangular cartilage; the vomer bone; the perpendicular plate of the ethmoid bone, which is part of the orbit of the eye; aspects of the premaxilla, and the palatine bones. Each lateral nasal wall contains three pairs of nasal conchae, which are small, thin, shell-form bones called 'turbinates'" after the turbulent air of intake and exhale.  If one is punched straight on the end of the nose, there is a danger of those shattered bones piercing the brain and thus killing the person.

“The ethmoid has three parts: cribriform plate, ethmoidal labyrinth, and perpendicular plate. Between the orbital plate and the nasal conchae are the ethmoidal sinuses or ethmoidal air cells, which are a variable number of small cavities in the lateral mass of the ethmoid.  The ethmoid articulates with fifteen bones:  four of the neurocranium and eleven of the viscerocranium—, two nasal bones, two maxillae, two lacrimals, two palatines, two inferior nasal conchae and the vomer.  The nasal bones are two small oblong bones, varying in size and form in different individuals; they are placed side by side at the middle and upper part of the face and form, by their junction, 'the bridge' of the nose." An intact skull has many small fragile bones in the “nose hole,” and these are the ethmoid.  The hole itself is the pyriform (pear-shaped) aperture.

"The Nose", an opera derived from Gogol.

If these intricate little bony passages become infected, the result is what we call a “sinus infection” and can be of disabling intensity. The paired structures grow towards the middle from the sides.  If they fail to join, the result may be various degrees of cleft palate.  Fetal alcohol syndrome may cause them to grow together in a mismatch grotesque enough for people to say “monster.”  Much is made of the size and shapes of noses, so much so that contemporary persons of means will have theirs surgically shaped, even at the risk of losing one of the most valuable of the senses, that of smell.

The fifteen-bone ethmoid contains magnetite which birds and other migratory creatures use as compasses responding to the earth’s magnetic field.  This function was previously thought to be vestigial in humans, but maybe it isn’t.  The ethmoid is directly against the brain and if it breaks or separates enough to let cerebral spinal fluid leak through, an infection can get into the brain.  If the olfactory nerve is severed, the sense of smell will be lost.  Wikipedia understates:  “this is not fatal.”  

But even surgeries meant to relieve the pain of sinus pressure can be delicate and problematic.  “To plan, map, and execute the surgical correction of a nasal defect or deformity, the structure of the external nose is divided into nine aesthetic nasal subunits, and six aesthetic nasal segments, which provide the plastic surgeon with the measures for determining the size, extent, and topographic locale of the nasal defect or deformity.”

Barbra Streisand

“The form of the nasal subunits — the dorsum, the sidewalls, the lobule, the soft triangles, the alae, and the columella — are configured differently, according to the race and the ethnic group of the patient, thus the nasal physiognomies denominated as: African, platyrrhine (flat, wide nose); Asiatic, subplatyrrhine (low, wide nose); Caucasian, leptorrhine (narrow nose); and Hispanic, paraleptorrhine (narrow-sided nose). The respective external valve of each nose is variably dependent upon the size, shape, and strength of the lower lateral cartilage.”  People obsess about their noses because of stigmas attached to these markers.  Only recently, partly because of charismatic and elegant public figures like Barbra Streisand, have “hawk noses” become acceptable, though no one calls them “paraleptorrhine” and wearing a mask with a beak-nose will get a person into trouble with certain populations.  Even Barbra buckled and got a nose job.

"At four weeks of gestational development, the precursors of the nose begin their migration from the posterior towards the midface. Two symmetrical future olfactory epithelium develop inferiorly, which the nasal pits then divide into the medial and the lateral future upper lip and nose). The medial processes then form the septum, the philtrum, and the premaxilla of the nose; the lateral processes form the sides of the nose; and the mouth forms from the the anterior ectodermal portion of the alimentary tract (the mouth) which is inferior to the nasal complex."  We recognize each other by our faces -- our noses and what surrounds them.

“At ten weeks of gestation, the cells differentiate into muscle, cartilage, and bone. If this important, early facial embryogenesis fails, it might result in anomalies such as choanal atresia (absent or closed passage), medial nasal clefts (fissures), or lateral nasal clefts, nasal aplasia (faulty or incomplete development), and polyrrhinia (double nose).”

“This normal, human embryologic development is exceptionally important — because the newborn infant breathes through his or her nose during the first 6 weeks of life — thus, when a child is afflicted with bilateral choanal atresia, the blockage of the posterior nasal passage, either by abnormal bony tissue or by abnormal soft tissue, emergency remedial action is required to ensure that the child can breathe.”  I assume that if the baby arrives with two noses, that's not good either.   This story has surprised many people with hopeful news, because it appears that nerve cells from the olfactory bulb can actually cause a severed spinal cord to regrow, join, and function.

Olfactory bulbs in gold.

"In most vertebrates, the olfactory bulb is the most forward part of the brain. In humans, however, the olfactory bulb is on the bottom side of the brain. The olfactory bulb is supported and protected by the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone.  The bulb is divided into two distinct structures: the main olfactory bulb and the accessory olfactory bulb.  The main olfactory bulb has a multi-layered cellular architecture. In order from surface to the center the layers are:

1.  Glomerular layer In mammals, glomeruli typically range between 50-120 ┬Ám in diameter and number between 1100 and 2400 depending on the species, with roughly between 1100 and 1200 in humans.  The number of glomeruli in a human decreases with age; in humans that are over 80 they are nearly absent.  This is why my aged mother over-salted the food and used so much perfume one did not necessarily enjoy being in a closed automobile with her unless very fond of that scent.

2.   External plexiform layer

3.  Mitral cell layer is connected to the amygdala, a structure with major sensory and emotional function.  “Mitral cell output is not a passive reflection of their input from the olfactory nerve.”  In humans it is related to “tufted cells”, but separate.  In lower animals the mitral and tufted cells are merged, so the separation appears to be an evolution for some reason.  Mitral and tufted cells project to various targets in the brain. “Most importantly, projections target the olfactory cortex, where odor information can be integrated with input from other sensory modalities and used to drive behavior.”  This is part of what we call the connectome or "functional system".

4.  Internal plexiform layer

5.   Granule cell layer

The glomeruli layer of the olfactory bulb is the first level of synaptic processing.  The glomeruli layer represents a spatial odor map organized by chemical structure of odorants like molecular structure and carbon chain length. This spatial map is divided into zones and clusters, which represent similar glomeruli and therefore similar odors. One cluster in particular is associated with rank, spoiled smells which are represented by certain chemical characteristics.” 

The descriptions go on -- a great deal is known, but it is astoundingly new to understand that neurons constantly grow and that injecting neurons from the olfactory bulb can actually make a severed spinal cord regrow and integrate.  I assume that nerves from the olfactory bulb were used because if the bulb were damaged in the process, it would not be fatal.  We are not told if the ability to smell was damaged.  Would you rather walk -- or smell your lover?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"ROUGH RIDERS": Commentary on the mini-series


Since my birthday is the same as Teddy Roosevelt’s and I’m as near-sighted as he was, about as red-headed but in other ways VERY different, I ordered “Rough Riders” from Netflix.  After all, if “The Trail” celebrated the endurance of women on the long journey of life, Teddy had something to say about charging uphill on the side of righteousness.  As it turns out, the film was more about John Milius (b. 1944, roughly the age of my brothers) than Roosevelt, but that’s okay.  Milius is from the generation AFTER WWII and before Vietnam, that great period of the “stand down” veteran when the long quiet stare was considered sadness rather than PTSD.  In those days the big strong silent marshalls and sheriffs tried to avoid shooting people, but usually had to anyway.  Milius loves the B-Western and John Ford.

Milius was born in St. Louis, that great mythic hub of the frontier opened by fur traders.  Of course, he was close to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, California kids but masters of the grand tale full of paraphernalia, choreographed violence, and questions of loyalty.  Male mythology that guides many of us still, esp. in Montana, was served and formed by the same understanding of war and warriors as drives “Star Wars,”  an assortment of characters of every kind, united in brotherhood’s loyalty, and empowered by a nation, which they served by risking death in personal combat.  None of this fancy no-risk flying over with bombs or remote control predator drones.

Recognize Anthony Quinn's son?  These guys had a lot of fun.

This movie is simply another version of what in my childhood we called “playing guns.”  Not war or winning, but enacting the shooting of guns and the dying after being shot.  Some of us were especially good at dramatic death, shouting “aaargh, I’ve been hit” and spinning on one heel, dropping, arching the back, gasping and thrashing, then suddenly going limp.  In a moment one eye opened to see how the performance went over.  Sometimes the hit was contested, but modern paint ball games have taken care of that.  Except they have not preserved the high art of the dramatic death, at least not in the vids I’ve seen.  They just take off their goggles and leave the field as though they’d merely lost at chess.

If Gary Busey's horse wasn't deaf in the beginning, it must have been by the end.

For grown men there is a body of knowledge about guns that’s quite comparable to trivia about athletic games or wine connoisseurship.  Collecting the actual objects is admirable, but even knowing their history and capacities is so important that there is an entire website devoted to the many movies and the weapons in them.   The one for "Rough Riders" is here:  It’s a whole sub-dimension of all the shooting and one that the director must keep in mind, so that there are chances for the viewer to get a good look at what character is shooting which gun.

When we were small, squirt guns were popular but they were nothing compared to modern space age water propel-ers that can nail a cat at twenty feet.  Some are equipped to sound like guns, but they are usually transparent and in day-glo colors, not capable of the light glints and cocking clicks of a real gun, which is irreducibly a machine -- very clever and requiring maintenance.  Real guns today are accessorized with laser sights, scopes, silencers and stabilizers.  They come in a neat bit of luggage with custom-fitted foam interiors.  I once watched a film about the psychological boot camp creation of loyalty of the soldier to his gun:  “Your gun is your lover, your woman!  You love the sight of her, the feel of her, you are never without her!”  Guns are not generic.  

Our best toy -- well, at least for the boys -- was cap guns.  I googled cap guns and fell back in amazement.  “Steampunk” cap guns, “Cyber Gothic” guns, “Civil War Musket, Wood and Steel Frontier Rifle Designed After The Original Rifle, Fires #917 Pull Off Caps”.  The caps themselves come on plastic discs now, instead of the red paper roll of black powder dots we used.   You had to thread them through the feeding mechanism past the hammer that exploded them by impact.  It was like threading movie film into a projector.  I still have the feel of doing that in my hands, managing that red ribbon of paper.  Since no one would buy me a cap gun (we were gender-assigned) and my brothers loved theirs too much to share, I took the paper roll to the front steps and pounded each dot with a rock to make it explode.  The smell of gunpowder, hot concrete, and summer sun mix in my memories.

It was equally important when playing guns to have a persona.  “Rough Riders” supplies famous figures known to be in Cuba: Frederick Remington (shown painting a very un-Remington sort of picture, evidently before he weighed 300#), Stephen Crane (not given much respect), William Randolph Hearst (George Hamilton -- WTF?), Black Jack Pershing and his Buffalo Soldiers, two very noble (and “cruel”) Native Americans, and Sam Elliott who steals the whole movie from Tom Berenger who is supposed to be Teddy Roosevelt.  (We can tell by his teeth.)  Sam is the one who assures us that the Indians are “cruel” and tells us this is a good thing that the men should learn.

Sam’s role is “Bucky O’Neill” who in reality was present at enough key Western historical moments to have deserved a movie of his own.  He really did have a mustache, which is lucky, because I just saw Sam in “The Contender,” a modern political drama in which he had a shaved upper lip, revealing it to be rather strange.  The camera likes to linger on his “cruel” eye.  He’s a very shoulders-back sort of person, but he’s played so many iconic roles that we are convinced that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Chris Noth

Other characters are pretty predictable except for Chris Noth, who is supposed to be a patrician man, well-educated, and able to be slightly more objective or at least philosophical.  We’re used to seeing him as the bold but slightly behind-the-curve hero of “Law and Order.”

Geoffrey Lewis is always good as the “rustic,” a classic comic-relief type used by Shakespeare and going back to Greek comedy.  I just watched an episode of “House, MD” in which he was a defiant old codger who wished to die of cancer without pain relief because it would make him more distinguished.  Not a comic role that time, but a version of the brave eccentric who is often the cook in Westerns, or maybe a sidekick of the hero.

Geoffrey Lewis

This movie has none of the serious, cynical, flesh-exploding, cold-blooded bitterness of more contemporary war stories.  No prosthetic heads rolling around.  Rather it’s a kind of bildungsroman in which Roosevelt and everyone else goes from being adolescent to fully mature.  There’s enough humor and slapstick to make it seem like a frat party that got out of hand, but there are no women except a few accessory hispanics and Teddy’s strange wife,so that pesky political/sexual issue is moot.  Still, guns are phallic.  But the survivors are blameless and even Stephen Crane, who takes some mockery early on, is enlightened.

The real Stephen Crane

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


A Jain text in images

An arguable review of thoughts about what I'm doing.

Art is the expression of a relationship between a human and the universe.  Liturgy is an intense affirmation of this definition that provides a meaningful guide within the specific parameters of survival for either an individual or a group.

"Religion" -- before it is frozen into theology, maybe called spirituality -- is an extension of identity, which is an active relationship between person and situation.  Too much thought about spirituality is just fuzz and custard -- pleasant, but with limited meaning.

Material culture, used to record memory and to create metaphor, is the vocabulary and instrument of arts, including liturgy.  It is useless to argue over whether the images painted long ago in the depths of caves are either "art" or "liturgy" because in those days there was no separation between the two.

The world needs some sort of way of thinking that will bring us together.  Since formal "named" religions are institutional -- ethnically and turf-based, we can't reach unanimity on that level.  But we can go to the universal human experience of spirituality (NOT just emotions of love and all that) which kindles the spark of all religions.  That is, instead of looking at the content, we can look at the structure, not the structure of the outer world but the structure of human experience of it, which has two parts -- cognizant or beneath reflective access -- in the mammalian and even reptilian sub-brains.

Spirituality is an experience of meaning in two ways: it confirms the identity of the person and validates participation in the group.

Spirituality is not verbal.  Therefore it cannot be approached primarily through words but rather through whole-body thinking which precedes, underlies, and expresses thought:  art, dance, music.  It has evolutionary value in that it promotes survival for the individual and the group.

Spirituality is emergent.  When conditions are right, it emerges from the brain/body, called forth by sensory cues, a connectome hippocampus function.

Human development depends first on safety and then on attachment to another human in order for the brain to stay in growth mode.  Otherwise it closes down in hiding and defense, which is a different and higher priority connectome pattern that prevents growth.  The liminality of Victor Turner, et al, provides this safety and attachment necessary for even adults to confirm, re-affirm, or convert their thinking.


What I'm called "liturgy" is an art form.  It's closest relative in theatre in several ways.  Actors study the skills for managing internal consciousness, even in multiple (the character and the actor) and even in what are labeled dissociated states.  Actors learn to modulate emotional responses, to respond to others, to express emotion clearly, to manage their bodies, to use transferences through empathy, not to fear human extremes and excesses.

Liturgy can interact with what we call therapy in various ways.  Liturgy can be a kind of therapy, reducing stress and providing a context for insight.  Likewise, a therapy can become spiritual when people arrive at deep meaning with the support of the therapist or a group.  A therapy group can serve as a congregation, both a "holding community" and witnesses.

a holding community supports you

Liturgy can bind a community together and keep their attention centered on specific acts and events, often those recorded as print of some kind, though there can be great importance given to memorization and to reflection on the meaning of the words and stories.

Most books about liturgy are about institutional, print-based, prescribed events that may be repeated over and over.  The Catholic church is often seen like that, but reading Dom Gregory Dix’s book “The Shape of the Liturgy” taught me a number of things.  The first was that there WAS a shape and that it was not just historical but also evolved:  first came the invention of a “book,” which at that point was a scroll which rabbis gathered to study and reflect upon.  Since this was holy work, it was marked off not in space, but in time, by the saying of prayers.  So the liminal time was closed by another prayer.  So now we have four elements: the prayer of in-coming, the reading of the passage to be studied, the reflection on that passage, and then the outgoing prayer.  

When the Jewish tradition became the foundation of Christian community, the younger groups accepted that Jesus had prescribed to them the ceremony of Communion: the bread and the wine that were normally eaten by a group staying together through mealtime anyway.  These were brought from home and left at the door until the Communion, and that moment of going to get the bread and wine so it could be consecrated for significance, is now in the Mass.  
Togo -- the place, not food "to go"

When the Protestants broke off from Catholic Mass, they kept the basic pattern since it is so natural to humans (the picnic, the potluck, the tailgate party, the hunt breakfast, the pizza party).  Sometimes they simplified.  Then when the Unitarians broke off from the dissenting Protestants, they began to drop out the Communion, the most extreme of them calling it “cannibalism.”  

Part of what makes the Catholics so interesting is that there is always a breaking away but also always a reform from within.  So Schreiter’s book about the problem of explaining bread and wine to people who have never seen either one (Inuit, for instance) is one of the most valuable resources I know for understanding how the deep equivalent human dynamics at the level of the limbic system can be discovered and resolved into new acts that celebrate the same thing.  One must go to the paradoxes of the saints.  The landscape itself becomes the Bible.  The human family remains meaningful.  Death by torturing authorities that turns out to be a release into some kind of transcendence may also be meaningful.  But an institutional religion that formed in one environment will always have to be translated very carefully to keep it from being reduced to toys and magic.  What can the desert say to the jungle?  What can the shepherd say to the keyboard junkie?

I have come late to an appreciation of community, which is partly temperament, partly the times when I was growing up which emphasized individuality and “creativity,” and partly my birth family which was immigrant homesteaders who sequestered the family.   Mathew Lieberman adds to the other specialized cells in the prefrontal cortex the “mirror cells” that support empathy -- the ability to look at another human and understand how they must be feeling.    “We believe that pain and pleasure alone guide our actions.  Yet, new research using fMRI – including a great deal of original research conducted by Lieberman and his UCLA lab -- shows that our brains react to social pain and pleasure in much the same way as they do to physical pain and pleasure.”  

The assertion is made that humans spend a lot of time thinking about their relationships to other people, particularly those towards whom one feels intimacy.  Balancing that, it also appears that we need “out-groups” -- people we disapprove of, whom we shun or even attack.  This mob xenophobia can become destructive, but isolation is equally destructive, and we begin to understand that using it for punishment creates insanity.

Praying for others might be the most common liturgical element for justice, but also imagining a higher power who understands beyond what humans can grasp is often expressed in prayers.  Still, FELT meaning may be different.  Consider ordination of clergy during which the ordained person is not just prayed over and advised, but also is actively leaned on by the hands of those already in ministry, so that the weightiness of the moment is physical and real.  This interaction between words and enacted images is what I’m trying to explore.  


"The Shape of the Mass" by Dom Gregory Dix
"Constructing Local Theologies" by Robert Schreiter

"Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect" by Matthew D. Lieberman

"The Ritual Process" by Victor Turner

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


“The Sacred and the Profane” by Mircea Eliade made the definitive distinction between the two valences of life called rational (secular) and irrational (spiritual).  He attributed the irrational to “another world” : “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world.”  (p. 11)  

The sacred is equivalent to a power, and, in the last analysis to reality.  The sacred is saturated with being.” (p. 12)  He remarks that it is the profane that has been recently invented: to earlier people everything was sacred, full of power.  He's talking about the "invention" of the secular hundreds of years ago in Europe, from which the religious in any sense is excluded.  This had become necessary because religious forces were at war, each claiming their own reality.  It was the invention of a "no religion land."  (This is breaking down now.)

This requires some elucidation.  Eliade constantly refers to the comparative systems of belief that I prefer to call spiritual.  (He says "religious" or at least his translator does.)  He considers that the rational, the secular, and the moralities connected to them (law, dogma, precepts) are destructive of the sacred and therefore disempowering.  But he says the ordinary experiences of contact with nature, eating, sleeping, arranging domestic space, always hold within them the poetic dimensions of sacred meaning which can be released.

For the secular person, space is homogenous, a smooth plane.  But “the religious experience of the nonhomogeneity of space is a primordial experience.”  (p. 20)  For we who wish for both the spiritual experienced sacrality of space AND a truly scientific locating of this ability to feel the discontinuity of the real world, it is a joy -- it proves we are not fantasizing.  It is no surprise that this ability to feel the difference is very old, enacted from the limbic primordial brain, and detected by specialized cells call “grid” cells and “compass” cells.

So I’m claiming that the spiritual/sacred/emotional/felt meaning aspect of life is NOT verbal nor mathematical nor even accessible to cognizing thought.  But it is something real in the brain, felt meaning.

I assert that spiritual experience is real and compelling; that religious institutions try to capture that dimension in their dogmas and ceremonies; and that any institution must return to the spiritual constantly or lose that which gives it power and justification.  Institutions are merely bowls, containers, even if those bowls are chalices or skulls.  It is the spirituality that is the fire within.  Some worry that science will dispel all that, but in the end science confirms it.  (Science IS an institution.)

I find definitions and papers online in places like:   I constantly need  to look up definitions like the following, because it is a whole new language:

“The entorhinal cortex (EC) is located in the medial temporal lobe and functions as a hub in a widespread network for memory and navigation. The EC is the main interface between the hippocampus and neocortex. The EC-hippocampus system plays an important role in autobiographical/declarative/episodic memories and in particular spatial memories including memory formation, memory consolidation, and memory optimization in sleep.”

So therefore, this paper below is about something that happens in the brain to tell the creature where it is going and where it has been, a primordial function found even in one-celled animals despite the lack of brain.  It has persisted as the core of being alive, if only the desire to move over there. . . or there . . . or there.


“Conjunctive Representation of Position, Direction, and Velocity in Entorhinal Cortex”  by Francesca Sargolini, Marianne Fyhn, Torkel Hafting, Bruce L. McNaughton, Menno P. Witter, May-Britt Moser, Edvard I. Moser

Grid cells in the medial entorhinal cortex (MEC) are part of an environment-independent spatial coordinate system. To determine how information about location, direction, and distance is integrated in the grid-cell network, we recorded from each principal cell layer of MEC in rats that explored two-dimensional environments. Whereas layer II was predominated by grid cells, grid cells colocalized with head-direction cells and conjunctive grid �� head-direction cells in the deeper layers.”


This one is easier to read.  Place Cells, Grid Cells, and the Brain’s Spatial Representation System” by  Edvard I. Moser,  Emilio Kropff, and May-Britt Moser

More than three decades of research have demonstrated a role for hippocampal place cells in representation of the spatial environment in the brain. New studies have shown that place cells are part of a broader circuit for dynamic representation of self-location. A key component of this network is the entorhinal grid cells, which, by virtue of their tessellating firing fields, may provide the elements of a path integration–based neural map. Here we review how place cells and grid cells may form the basis for quantitative spatiotemporal representation of places, routes, and associated experiences during behavior and in memory. Because these cell types have some of the most conspicuous behavioral correlates among neurons in nonsensory cortical systems, and because their spatial firing structure reflects computations internally in the system, studies of entorhinal-hippocampal representations may offer considerable insight into general principles of cortical network dynamics.

The introduction of this paper notes that while many out-skin things come into the brain as code from sensory impulses felt at the interface between the body and the environment, there seem also to be some primordial organizing abilities that are pre-existent in the brain and not at all dependent on any senses or even muscle tone or visceral awareness.  “Space” and the perception of it appears to be one of these primordial principles.  They note that Kant believed in “the presence of a preconfigured or semipreconfigured brain system for representation and storage of self- location relative to the external environment.” In agreement with the general ideas of Kant, “place cells and grid cells in the hippocampal and entorhinal cortices may determine how we perceive and remember our position in the environment as well as the events we experience in that environment.”  That is, it’s common to remember exactly where you were at an intense moment like news of the assassination of Kennedy, but how DID you know where you were?  How was it recorded in your brain?

Here’s a quick TED talk version that introduces the grid, the compass, the boundaries, and the landmarks or sensory “snapshot”.  It diagrams the “tesselated” or triangle connections that make up the grid, and shows you how a mouse builds up a “hot spot” in his brain about where something is.

When one is designing worship, trying to create the response of what Eliade calls a “hierophany” -- the feeling of touching transcendence -- is not as much a need to pay attention to the reality of the environmental space as to the “liminality” of the emotional space, which is metaphorical/virtual.  This will feel like locating the “center of the world,” the Axis Mundi.  A place with intense emotional association can easily become that center, even for someone who considers themselves resolutely rational.  The "eureka" moment is a scientist's hierophany.

On page 25 he describes the threshold transition from one state of awareness to another, from the profane street to the sanctified interior of a church; from public space to one’s private home.  He says, “Numerous rites accompany passing the domestic threshold -- a bow, a prostration, a pious touch of the hand, and so on.  The threshold has its guardians -- gods and spirits who forbid entrance both to human enemies and to demons and the powers of pestilence.”  I have blessed houses by touching the lintel with olive oil and poetry.

Consider the protocol of putting on a hazmat barrier suit to protect against ebola, a ritualistic process that takes nearly a half-hour that must be done in a specific order, with such great attention that a second person must stand vigil lest something be overlooked, with extreme accuracy and with deadly consequences if the suit fails.  It is indeed like putting on a spacesuit.  Taking it off is even more important.  It is rational, scientific, tested and proven -- but also it is emotional, accompanied by dedication and compassion, and intended to protect both patient and caregiver.  Bless this hazmat suit.  It is both a ceremony and the creation of a safe space.

Firing patterns of grid cells.  This link is to an Untermeyer poem that has become a beloved UU hymn.

(My paperback copy of “The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion" is copyright 1959, by Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc.”  ISBN 0-15-679201-X.  Page number references correlate to that.)

Monday, October 20, 2014


Sacred and Profane, so often mixed in art.

This blog does not operate as a silo, which disconcerts some people who are used to seeing blogs as focused on a product.  This one is a landscape, a horizon, a broad set of topics for a dozen different communities.  But this particular post IS a silo in spite of approaching one topic through several points of view.  It is an inventory of thought about felt internal sensations that all creatures appear to have, but that have been repeatedly in many ways investigated and reflected upon, put into words and philosophically categorized.  It is the felt difference between two kinds of space which Mircea Eliade famously defined as “sacred” and “profane.”  It is also the difference between what is felt as sacred, as spiritual, as something palpable in the environment, and what is a peneplain, a flat featureless plenum, which could be called the profane, the daily, the quotidian, the ordinary (order-nary).

There are a variety of explanations or explications about this.  They come from many “disciplines” we are used to and challenge boundaries between ways of knowing.  One principle is that this difference is between what is wordlessly felt and therefore in every creature, and what is expressed in language, including the language of mathematics.  To many people language IS thinking -- they cannot conceive of thinking in any other way.  To them, for an animal to be thinking is inconceivable unless the animal can at least imitate language.

Recently, given a lot of ingenious and supersensitive instruments, we have been able to see our brains in operation.  These studies, along with what are called “lesion” studies -- observations of humans whose brains have been damaged some way and animals whose brains have been surgically altered -- tell us One Big Thing.  There are two brains, essentially: the primal brainstem and limbic system which has nerves through the body (the autonomic system) and which also controls the hormone chemicals from organs, rarely conscious except as “feelings,” including emotion.  The other is the cortex and the evolved organelles (hippocampus) and specialized cells that it coordinates into conscious thought, images and language.

This correlates with Freud’s most useful observation: that there is a conscious or cognizant mind and then another which he intuitively described as the “sub” conscious, though he was a good enough neuroscientist to understand that it was primal brain that was the generator of these forces, the drive systems,  Desire.  Survival.  But the survival of the individual can be suppressed or contradicted by a rigid culture; and the survival of a culture can be threatened by maladjustment to the environment which -- in the end -- determines survival.  Darwin called it “fitness.”   I say “fittingness” because it isn’t always a matter of biggest and best.  (Remember the little first mammals running between the toes of the dinosaurs.)

Now the scientists have identified the specialized cells in the cortex that somehow connect to deep primal awareness in the earlier brain:  the “grid” cells that let us feel where in a specific space we are; the “heading” or compass cells that let us sense the directions, the "boundary" cells that tell us where edges are, and the "homunculus" map that allots space to neurons according to their relationship to the body.  Somehow this hooks up with memory, so that an intense experience will call up sense memory of where you were, the smells, the sounds, the temperature, and so on.

From anthropology (van Gennep and Turner) comes the insight that besides physical space there is a psychological “felt” space that uses this associating of the sensory moment to cue something they call “liminal” space.  (The limen is the threshold of a doorway.)  It is a shift from the secular, profane, daily, public space to a sacred, spiritual, protected space that somehow escapes boundaries.  In that space one is psychologically equal to everyone else who is present and one may be able to change deeply felt beliefs.  It might be traditional ceremonial worship but maybe not.

I once was once asked to study the cultural gender assignments of worshipping people. (Post-Christian UU's, therefore Abramic.)  Our contemporary culture assigns men to the profane, mathematical, rule-operated, engineering sort of experience -- theological, hierarchical, empowering.  I called it the glass telephone booth where Superman assumes his powers.  The women are assigned the sacred, messy, emotional, enfolding approach that nurtures from the most basic physical level.  I called it the hot tub in which one almost returns to birth.

Partly this set of metaphors came from watching people attending a retreat.  At the end of a worship service (overgeneralized): the men leapt out to go do something; the women sat smiling and dreaming.  But also partly it came from reading about infant development and the accounts of saints.  The brains of children develop in response to what is happening to them.  Before they are born they move in their mother’s bodies, somersaulting in the womb and creating neurons that are aware of the mother’s body moving through the world -- the grid, the compass.  Their budding brains record the rhythm of heartbeat and the whale-like sounds of digestion.  Their first sensations are smell/taste, the most primordial senses necessary even for a one-celled animal trying to find food.  The cycle of darkness/light is built into the circuits as the baby grows.

What the saints described was paradoxes of the first distinctions, not yet separated, what an infant brain learns both before and after birth.  They said they felt they were falling, but supported in an embrace; there was utter darkness but blinding light; they were burning and freezing at once; they were flying and paralyzed.  These were feelings interpreted as the presence of the Holy which some named God.

People who "do religion" in a dogmatically believing way are “inside the theological (churchly) circle.”  Those who don’t define it -- just feel it -- might be “outside the theological circle” but they sense the primal matrix of spirituality.  The circle itself is defined by community, tilted to male culture:  hierarchical, definitional, historical.  In short, institutional.  Institutions are not spiritual.  Some will actively exclude spirituality and feeling in order to strengthen obedience, consistency, morality and order.  The Old Testament and the letters of Paul tend to be institutional.  The Gospels and Psalms are spiritual.

The politics of theology and institutions can be cruel.  Spirituality, feeling-based, empathetic, can be ineffective.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of the human brain that tries to sort it out.  Gender definitions are as paradoxical as the other basic distinctions.  The extremes interact, the two “long tails” of the gender bell-curves overlapping so that the strongest, tallest, fastest females will surpass the weakest, shortest, slowest males.  Our use of gender hormone ratios to separate male from female doesn’t really work.

Intergenders are far more common than we think because in modern culture people wear clothes which carry the gender clues instead of exposing their bodies.  And the qualities of individuals interact within them, responding to the environment whether it’s chemical or situational.  To some extent an ovum of any creature is always different from a cloud of sperm because it has the directions for the “house” of the body.  But once we get to mammals, gestating, birth, and nursing are not just achieved by the unfolding plan in the DNA of two people, but also are deeply affected by the embracing relationship of the immediate family -- the epigenetics -- and the world situation.  We are just now discovering what war, hardship, or happiness can provide in the continuing gestation we call life, even crossing the generational barrier so that what our grandfathers encoded in their epigenes guides the development of their grandchildren.

The feeling of not being who others say you must be can drive escape from the theological circle into a far more ambiguous spiritual world.  Depending on what the zygote learned, this can be a new birth.