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:  https://www.princeton.edu/~njclub/2007-06-27_papers/Sargolini+etal_2006.pdf   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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4rSAIts3MA  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.)

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