Sunday, January 06, 2013


Clearly, the mind is a process more than a “box.”  Its variations can be seen as vascular dilation, or as electrical activity along axons interchanging across synapses with molecular conversions, or as waves of various kinds.  We know there are “nodes” or matrixes where nerve perceptions from the skin interface with the outside world as well as from inside the body are sorted and edited -- sometimes even augmented with what the brain thinks ought to be there but isn’t.  As individuals we perceive the main management modes of the brain as “moods,” or “attitudes” or “frame of mind” and realize that one can get “in the groove” or be “cookin’” on some occasions, while suffering from brain stutter on others.  

How to manage these moods, unless you are a yogi, is not exactly clear to most people.  But we are aware that with feedback loops enabled by monitors, a person can learn to control aspects of their bodies that they couldn’t before -- like lowering blood pressure or slowing heart rate.  Many of us use little household monitors to keep track of blood sugar or even cholesterol.  Once a person becomes aware, habit patterns form in response, as well as consciousness of mental and emotional change brought on by subtle molecular variation.  So far we have not generally thought of creativity as being manageable in this same way except for actors, artists, and maybe athletes. But the regulation of spiritual connection is possible through the use of liturgies, rituals and ceremonies, whether individual (meditation, prayer) or group.     

Victor Turner’s “liminal place”, which is one of the brain states that supports creativity and change, is reached by getting into the proper “frame of mind,” going “over the limen.”  Partly intentional, partly habitual, partly a matter of preparation, the fulfillment of that place or state depends upon learning how to “cross over the limen or threshold.”  Maybe it’s “warming up,” maybe it’s bathing and changing clothing, maybe it’s being with certain others or in a particular location.  Done well, it can give access to the Holy, as people have known since ancient times.  No religion has a copyright or “lock” on these practices.  They are available to all aware humans, even children -- at least happy and secure children whose natural state is exploration.  No specific institution, leader or vocabulary is necessary.  It is a naturally evolved ability that is shaped by the circumstances of a person’s life.  It CAN be suppressed, neglected or turned to evil uses.

Crossing the limen is entering the altered state necessary for ceremony of a sacred nature.

These steps are by-passed when using drugs or facing circumstances that flood the body with substances that amount to mind-altering drugs:  adrenaline, serotonin, and the like.  In those circumstances, results vary.

Here are the steps:

First, safety.  Sex and sleep are done at night in bed because that is a safe and sequestered place.  Worship doesn’t have to be quite THAT protected!  Still, a certain amount of privacy and protection from interruption is vital.  People in history have built a little “closet” for devotion.  A special building might be available, or perhaps a clearing in a forest, or maybe just a solitary place.  A mantra or chant or gesture like palms together might be a social signal for people to leave one alone. 

Parts of the brain have two states:  open for creativity or closed to shunt off irrelevant thoughts and reflexes in order to immediately flee, fight or freeze in the face of danger.  (One writer likens this to the two states of the sea anemone: open as a flower when it is ready for food but knotted closed if there is danger.  I like sea creature metaphors for human cells living in our briny internal sea of blood and lymph.  Besides, sea anemones are gorgeous.  One can easily imagine a Chihuly glass sea anemone as the focus of an altar.)  

Second, relaxation.  The purpose of safety is to allow dropping the tension of always being prepared -- braced -- which frees energy to be available for thought and feeling.  Tension -- which is a self-imposed version of “stress” from outside -- needs to be loosened enough to let the sea anemone of the brain open.  This doesn’t mean going limp.  It means escaping from “stage fright” -- anticipating, dreading bad outcomes -- into “performance high,” which makes one deeply aware of what is really there and able to generate inspired responses.

Third, confidence.  This is a result of relaxation.  One cannot walk a tightrope with tight muscles and a worried mind. Not that the liminal state is walking a tightrope, but that one must focus in order the muster the skills for achievement. The first steps begin to create the confidence necessary for the rest of the way.

Fourth, focused awareness.  Again, this is a matter of being present in the now, in the reality, with one’s best capacities, meeting the challenges.  This is what is called “flow.”

Fifth, generosity.  Now the anemone opens to the sea and mingles with it, drawing sustenance.  Now the individual becomes aware of others, aware of the world.  This is even called by some writers, “the oceanic feeling.” (Romain Rolland invented the phrase.)  It is about expanding, opening boundaries, which for some means helplessness and for others means willing merger with something eternal and infinite.

This marker distinguishes the kind of religion as something closed, institutional, privileged, and only for the elite, as distinct and apart from sacredness or holiness as something everywhere accessible to anyone.  Religious institutions are vulnerable to a phenomenon called “fencing the communion,” which refers to the historical practice of Christians denying some the right to take communion because of unworthiness or lack of belonging.  This is roughly the same as ex-communication or at least a symbolic version of it, and is occasionally enforced by a little railing along the front of the church that prevents people in the pews from walking up to the altar or communion table.  The priest brings the bread and wine to the communicants as they kneel, often with their elbows on that little railing, unaware of its other purpose.  It’s another power marker.  Holiness or sacredness cannot be separated by a fence for a boundary.  It can be closed out by fear.

We live in a culture dominated by sex and death -- the great fear is that we might not get any sex but might die.  These are the motors in the stories on any television show, including the news and the creatures on National Geographic.  There has never been a time when we needed direct access to the Holy more or had less of a notion of how to get to it.  Too many people are trying to “fence the liminal” so as to charge admission in the name of supporting their own religious institutions.  Sea anemones are immortal.  (You could look it up.)  But they never go to church.

A Chihuly glass chandelier at Mercato del Pesce-di-Rialto1996

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