Sunday, June 29, 2014


The Unitarian Universalist denomination symbol is a flame in a chalice, to show the ambiguous relationship with Christianity, but also to identify with iconoclastic defiance as in when people are burned at the stake for their beliefs.   It turned out to be a very flexible and inventive sort of icon:  a flame in cupped hands, a flame in a tree, a chalice with a tree for a flame and on and on.  So what I was after with my skull chalice was some kind of universality that was a little shocking.  Instead, I seem to have stumbled into a sort of "Goth" context.  But worse, the impression is that I'm only talking about this one denomination.  In a sense, I am, but in a larger sense, I'm not.

The revelation I've finally come to is twofold, based on two different ways of researching the brain.  One is the direct observation of the neurons and their connections by using incredibly sensitive instruments and injecting various tracers.  The most recent is a method of “Comparative Consciousness” that puts light-responsive genes into rat cells and then connects them with very fine fiberoptics.  By manipulating the light the genes that are light-responsive can be turned on and off, so specifically that once the researchers discovered that adjacent cells controlled sex OR violence, they could make a rat attack or fuck or stop doing either unless the sex had gone far enough along the rising stimulation to nearly trigger climax.   They say there are tens of thousands of KINDS of neurons specifically evolved for certain kinds of responsiveness, evidently organized into nodes connected by strands.  (Rhizome patterning.)

The cortex of the cerebrum is in very thin layers.  ( is a terrific resource.) Thought at present is that the body is “mapped” onto one wrinkly layer, with space allocated according to the sources of the sensorium;  most sensitive and often-used parts have more brain space.  The map has great big hands and eyes.

Also there is a connectome related to memories, which are evidently filed according to the compass directions, up/down, in/out, and sensory moments, which is why the memory exercise of imagining a building and pretending to walk through it in your head, noting furnishings as one goes, associating each with a detail of what you're trying to remember, is a trick for remembering long complex narratives. 

This kind of research is on the physical, provable, observable brain as it operates.  It comes from academic research, the field of medicine, and organic chemistry.

The other stream of research I’m rejoicing over is in part derived from above.  George Lakoff calls it “embodiment philosophy.”  That is, understanding how a human becomes a thinker and a self-aware one at that, but by empirical, experimental investigation rather than logic and reflection.  More about this as I understand it better, but Lakoff's view is a confluence of literature, psychological research, art theory, linguistics, semiotics, narrative, method acting, psychotherapy.

Lakoff has a political dimension:  this chapter can be downloaded.  It would please most UU's.

George Lakoff's work has met brain neurology in a remarkable convergence.  It is simpler and more poetic than post-modern theories, but I didn’t really “get it” when I first read “Metaphors We Live By” (by both Lakoff and Mark Johnson) in 1980.  I did not really grasp that if a person’s brain structure has accepted the idea that “life is a journey” and interprets everything as a way station, a rocky road, a new path, a gateway, that person will have a different response to accepting new information than will the person whose life has taught him “life is a trap” so that vigilance, frustration, the impossibility of change are what to expect.

The structure of the brain’s connectome is CREATED by life experiences.  It can change deep metaphors, but not necessarily consciously.  Conversion, transformation, epiphany are religious terms referring to the experience (I will claim) of revising deep brain node filters to allow both new information and new configurations to enter.  I suspect this is what LSD does, and maybe ketamine or ecstasy.  Not the opiods.  But I have no experience or expertise, so I’ll stick to the more literary ideas like insight or inspiration.

What to read?  Or google?  Or YouTube?  (Use recent bibliographies.  This stuff is moving fast.) 

Some books on my shelf:


Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio“Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain” (2010)
Antonio Damasio:   “The Feeling of What Happens:  Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness”  (2000)

Robert OrnsteinThe Roots of the Self: Unraveling the Mystery of Who We Are”  (1995)

Daniel Bor:  “The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains our Insatiable Search for Meaning”  (2012)


Life is a journey.  That's a metaphor that feels like a fact.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson:  “Metaphors We Live By” (1980)
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson:  “Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and It’s Challenge to Western Thought”  (1999)


Roy A. Rappaport:  “Ecology, Meaning and Religion”  (1979)
Robert J. Schreiter:  “Constructing Local Theologies”  (1985)
Richard Kuhns“Structures of Experience:  Essays on the Affinity Between Philosophy and Literature”
Victor Turner“The Ritual Process”

Tentatively, I’m working on the idea that these last four books relate to structure, the chalice, a source of patterns.   This is also a good use of the four brain research books.  But the embodiment books (there are more than what’s here) suggest content, the flame.

Too many UU congregations lose the “flow.”  Flow comes from engaging in something that is just difficult enough to be at your skill level.  It’s too easy to be a UU.  No challenge, nothing hard to think about, repetition of stuff without it having present meaning.  Some don't believe in Evil.  Do any UU questionnaires ask,  “Are you bored?”  Both ministers and congregations get into a groove.  Maybe this is why rivalries and emotional social issues tend to dominate dynamics.  Maybe this explains the liberal fascination with the under-culture.

Few know how to handle spirituality without prescribed liturgies, usually word-based.  Spirituality is defined as individual, unaccountable, with the person having the duty of figuring out the dogmatic framework of the denomination.  The rigidity is that of the magical spell.  It’s exhortational tone is from advertising.  When conforming fails to deliver on its promise, the people leave or get into side issues.  Among UU’s the “social issues” group forms, usually older men, and argues in a tight circle at the same time as worship, which doesn’t touch them.  And everyone loves the experts who do come-and-go workshops.

What’s missing from most of the mainstream denominations is a true dimension of spirituality.  Most of the books out there are either treacle or woo-woo.

The breakthrough when I was writing “Bronze Inside and Out” about Bob Scriver was structuring it around the experience of the materials:  how if feels to hold plastilene and plaster in your hands, not just the dramatic bronze pouring.  I feel as though “The Bone Chalice” is breaking into several books, one of them a “handbook” with steps, examples, and all that. Another one would follow the theory of embodiment philosophy, while recovering some of the principles of Rappaport, Schreiter, Kuhn, Turner.   I think I should begin to design experiences and see if I can find small groups to play them out.  I need feedback.

No comments: