Thursday, November 04, 2010


Time to recapitulate the path I’ve been following about the change of consciousness we all feel sometimes but find it difficult to account for or even manage because it somehow comes out of the UNconscious. This list is not quite chronological.

1. In the Sixties I had been included in Bundle Opening ceremonies as a “Keeper” with old-time Blackfeet born in the 1880’s. These people were believers who lived the material culture of these objects and responded to their imagery.

2. At a Pacific Northwest Unitarian Universalist Leadership School (a week-long training retreat) I had opportunities to experience and to design worship events in experimental ways, followed by close analysis.

3. At seminary I was introduced to a body of theory. This was the period when Abraxas, a group invested in understanding and developing creative worship, was active. One of the members of that group was the minister “kitty-corner” from the seminary and loosely associated with it. That church was built according to the ideas of Van Ogden Vogt, an early Unitarian liturgist. Critically, I thought that they were only putting mixed content into a conventional pattern.

4. Mircea Eliade noted in “The Sacred and the Profane” that we can feel the sacred when we are in a sacred place or time. In some subtle way, we “know.”

5. Victor Turner and Van Gennep, coming from the context of anthropology, suggested a three-step structure of a thing they called “liminality,” which is to say, altered consciousness in the ceremonies of tribes. One goes “over a threshold,” is in a sacred space, and returns back over that threshold or limen.

6. I found a book called “The Study of Liturgy” by Gregory Dix which analyzed the development of the Christian mass from its Jewish beginnings. I also found a book called “The Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries” by Alfred Gell which related their ceremonies to their material culture. “Alive!” the story of the Uruguayan soccer team that survived a plane crash in the Andes through cannibalism, interpreted as Communion, also related survival to culture.

7. Powell’s bookstore was at that time down the street from my seminary. They stocked English “object relations” books by Winnicott, Fowler, Kohut, et al about the formation of early identity, This seemed relevant to an experience-based theory of worship. (Opposed by my faculty, which was focused on theological systematics and history.)

8. Looking for philosophical fortification, I came to the thought of Suzanne Langer, who was interested in “felt concepts,” which is to say, things you have a “gut feeling” about but can’t necessarily put into words. (“Deconstruction” and so on was just heating up in 1978. I couldn’t understand it.)

9. Brain study with fMRI and ingenious experimental technique was also just beginning, so that the scientific evidence of how brains function was in very early stages. Research had depended mostly on the results of trauma, similar to how psychological theories came out of addressing malfunction instead of health.

10. PTSD was becoming a problem, but undefined and poorly understood. I had a few parishioners who struggled with it, one of them having flashbacks to WWII.

11. Terminology depends upon the “discipline” which is part of the difficulty in studying this. Religion’s version is often defined as “visions” as in the lives of saints. For a ministerial study group I did an analysis of those visions which suggested that the saints were accessing the earliest and deepest layers of interpreting the world in terms of dyads: warmth versus temperature extremes; falling versus being securely held; dazzling light versus total darkness; fed versus starving, and so on. These are the perceptions of infants organizing their world, the structure on which all later categories must be built. We know now that humans “create” their brains according to their experiences in the earliest years. Any later experience that reaches so deeply into minds will touch those structures, evoking strong emotional response.

12. One of the most useful of the liturgical concepts (Von Ogden Vogt) was what I called “the dilation of the spirit” which is recognizable in the Mass as “confession” immediately followed by “assurance of pardon.” Done skillfully, this can touch those deep structures of thought. Doing this means management of the entering of safe space (liminal), providing content that might most likely be in terms of the material culture, and returning the communicants to their lives, though possibly changed.

13. Particularly useful in handling material culture was Robert Schreiter, who in “Constructing Local Theologies” warned against over-valuing specific local materials like bread and wine or lambs and fishes, urging the liturgist to find the deepest meanings of those “things” and then to find the real conceptual equivalent in the materials of the new culture. This is not easy, which is why it is not often done. It addressed the problem I had with Abraxas.

13. In drug culture the state of dissociation is directly related to what people report about hallucinogens, in particular LSD. They report a reorganization of thought that is transformative -- not always positive, depending on what the context might be. “Bad trips” are not unknown, maybe because of the lack of a safe "liminal space.”

14. Among hypnotists, esp. those treating distressed patients who present with “dissociation” that is dysfunctional, the state is recognized -- when it is a result of hypnotism -- as a prerequisite for healing through re-framing -- that is, thinking in a new way. Taking the person into a liminal state allows that transformation. Even intense psychotherapy can produce the same results.

15. Among lit crits, it might be more profitable to use the definition of “immersive” experience, in which someone reading “goes into” the writing and loses track of time, is reluctant to come out. This perhaps was my first dissociation experience (mild) of “being someone else.” This immersion is also closely related to “method” acting. I took classes in undergrad years.

16. Dissociation, visions, split personality, hypnotic trance, freaked, etc. are all references to this human phenomenon. Along with the different names for the experience come different judgments from the larger culture: insanity, heresy, therapeutic transformation, PTSD, visionary, spirituality, brain malfunction, supernatural, magic, all depending on how much the contextual culture is threatened.

17. A basic dynamic of nature is that entities exist as centers of identity with peripheral variations, the “growing edge.” Culturally, psychologically, and as species, a main body has adapted to a specific ecology so that it fits well enough to perpetuate itself. But ecologies are subject to larger forces of change in every dimension from cosmic waves to hormonal balances in the brain. If the context shifts enough, the entity will be snuffed unless one or another of those growing edges of nonconformity happens to be equipped to survive the new reality. I am near-sighted: in a hunting culture before spectacles were invented, I would be eaten by the first tiger that came along. In an academic culture, it’s barely a handicap. Oddballs who can find a niche become geniuses. They may be our salvation.

18. Tim Barrus was in his youth what he calls a “sex worker” in San Francisco at a time of enormous cultural ferment and change: partly due to Vietnam, partly due to the opening of ideas about sexuality, and partly due to the new drug culture. (There has always been a drug culture.) When he began to blog about the “play room” he and a partner created by painting a warehouse interior black and equipping it with “toys”; how most of the customers were men, often military or in authority, like cops and CEO’s; how the events often had little to do with sex but a LOT to do with powerlessness (being locked in a box, being tightly bound, being transported over the Golden Gate Bridge with the threat of being thrown off it); and how willingly these men paid a LOT of money for the experience, I recognized this as a kind of dissociation experience of liturgical dimensions: a “dilation of the spirit” in a counter-culture way. (Possibly a kind of healing.) The center always wants to keep its hegemony, but it’s hard on the enforcers. It’s interesting that the people most anxious to label/libel Barrus are old-fashioned sex workers and out-dated porn producers. (They know who they are.)

To summarize, before I ever knew Barrus I came back to this quiet village in order to reflect and study, in large part on this topic. I brought an accumulation of books, have bought more, use the Internet, do NOT stay in one discipline or another but try to stay aware of method, and find it all -- well -- immersive. Transformative. Immanent. And sometimes rather Terrifying. I mean, what IS identity when it is only conventionally unified? How does one know what’s going on in one’s subconscious? Maybe it IS breaking through to an alternative reality. There’s a lot more to ask and sift through.


Whisky Prajer said...

Associative response re: dyads: I'm thinking of My Dinner With Andre, a conversation which encapsulates some of what you cover here. St. John's Revelation also comes to mind: "Because thou art lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee from my mouth."

Art Durkee said...

In terms of terminology, I don't like the term "dissocation," which in psychological contexts is a term of pathology. Brain-oriented and neurochemically-oriented studies few altered states of consciousness as pathological, which is a fundamental assumption bias.

By contrast, Abraham Maslow calls these peak experiences. In George Leonard's book about flow, "The Silent Pulse," many other validating positive terms are used. Stanislav Grof, who was one of the early pioneer researchers into LSD and its potential use for therapy, has written about altered states of consciousness as well, and their reaction of perinatal experiences; he also co-developed Holotropic Breathwork based in part on this research.

What I'm saying here is that the transpersonal and humanistic psychologists have a better grip on the actual liminal experience than do the purely biologically-oriented sciences, which tend to view everything non-normative as inherently pathological. Even when it isn't.