Monday, March 17, 2008


My thesis for Meadville/Lombard Theological Seminary was never finished, partly because I never really thought it through -- probably needed material that didn’t exist yet -- and partly because that campus seminary community (University of Chicago, 1978-82) considered religion to be “theological” -- which is to say “logic about God.” Since I didn’t believe in God and wasn’t particularly logical but far more interested in the experience of what it has become popular to call “spirituality,” I was doomed from the beginning.

BUT just because I believed in “spiritual experience” or what Eliade called “the sacred” as opposed to the profane, I did NOT accept what the campus thought of (pejoratively) as a big wallowing mass of emotion. I didn’t because I started in theatre and I knew (from experience) that people can be “moved” to a different kind of consciousness through shaped and controlled imagery and empathy, especially the kind of sensory imagery that is the source of “The Method,” which is a way for an actor to manage interior experience. (The other objection to my point of view was labeled “phenomenology,” the claim that religious experience was simply a perception not related to any exterior reality, like “God.” This threatens believers.)

Now that brain research has become so much more skillful and subtle, using the functional MRI to “watch” people think and feel, many new ideas have arisen. Instead of thinking of the unitary “mind” or “soul” or “identity,” we’re far more aware of the various sub-organs that are part of the brain and that manage the sensory input of our bodies. When we say “subconscious” in this context, we aren’t talking about a poetic psychoanalytic entity, but about a range of activities in the brain that we can’t access by our own personal reflection, but that a fMRI can see.

The blog called “Watermark , which belongs to a poet in Missoula, recently posted a video from this URL: It took me forty minutes to download it through my dial-up account, but it was worthwhile because it is BOTH very concrete in terms of the brain (a real human brain is presented) and a vivid demonstration of the deep and lasting spiritual consequences to the person having a stroke, even though she was a sophisticated scientific observer of neuroanatomy. “Knowing” logically what happened did NOT take away the intensity or reality of the experience. (You should also know that it is characteristic of stroke victims to weep easily. The first time I preached to a group of stroke victims, I was startled by this. Suddenly everything I said seemed to be incredibly moving!) Anyway, below is the description from, the source of the video.

About this Talk:
Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened -- as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding -- she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story about how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.

About Jill Bolte Taylor:
Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor studied her own stroke as it happened -- and has become a powerful... Read full bio »

I read about Taylor’s experience when it happened, eight years before she managed to get back to her recovered state as you see her in the video, and I was very much impressed. My former husband, my father, my brother, and a cousin have all had brain injuries that changed their personalities. My father and brother were slammed against a hard surface on their foreheads and the result was something like what I call a “trauma lobotomy.” That is, they kept their memory and most of their personality, but they were flattened and lost much of their ability to empathize, sort experience, make moral judgments and decisions or plan. My brother became a fabulist: he could not keep reality from interweaving with TV shows and he told wildly exaggerated tales to try to control situations. My father became temperamental and sank into a state something like Parkinsons where all his reactions were blunted. Bob Scriver couldn’t make good decisions -- or really any decisions at all. He couldn’t accurately judge motives in other people or plan for the future realistically. These were negative consequences, but there have long been suggestions that brain injuries can cause special gifts and awarenesses, maybe create saints and visionaries.

Some visionaries don’t need a stroke. I just watched a video about Carlos Castenada and his claim to have learned magic from Don Juan: the ability to fly, special knowledge about parallel worlds, and so on. His passionate intensity pulled many into his orbit where they became “true believers,” though some left later, disillusioned. He was a master of controlling spiritual consciousness in both himself and others: partly slight of hand, partly theatre, partly the kind of image-shaping a poet knows how to do. He was not above using sexuality.

One of the people who studied Castenada made it his business to read the New Age materials being published in the Seventies and to compare them with Castenada’s work, where he found many echoes and syntheses of the material. It’s just that Carlos could present them so much more vividly and clearly than others. More than a few American religions have been founded by individuals who could do the same thing, like Mary Baker Eddy founding the Christian Science movement. People KNOW they have these experiences that appear in their minds without them understanding where they came from or what they mean -- it is a great relief to find an explanation and even a certain amount of ability to manage them, hopefully without drugs or physical risk, though adrenaline is one of the great consciousness-shifting drugs.

Autochthonous people often greatly value consciousness management and use fasting, dance, song, sleeplessness, and other means -- maybe even pain -- including art forms. They are vulnerable to alcohol and drugs, as are young people. Thus some folks, in reaction, resist and demonize anything other than controlled rationality. This is not value-free thought.

I’ve been calling this line of thought the “poetics of liturgy.” I have no idea what I’ll be calling it by the end of the thesis -- because my intention is to finish what I started twenty-five years ago -- but it is clearly where art (poetics) and religion (liturgy) overlap.


Bitterroot said...

Mary, I never know what I'll find when I come here, and each post never fails to amaze and teach me. You have what I will call a voracious intellect. This is much to the benefit of your readers.

For me personally, it is wonderful that your insights into how Montana works are so penetrating.

DDx:dx said...

In college I read "Two Leggings, The Making of a Crow Warrior". My recollection was that he fasted, exposed himself to the elements,maybe more, I don't recall, but in a desperate attempt to have a guiding vision. And after his days of ordeal he walked back to the village and shrugged. It didn't happen. He still was who he was, just not who he strove to become; powerful, enlightened.
At least that is my memory of the book. I thought of it as you were describing "autochthonous". And the Crow have their share of issues.

prairie mary said...

Thanks, folks. As you know, it's hard to write well without intelligent readers.

ddx:dx, I'll have to start following your blog! A novel!

Prairie Mary