Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Liminal space or dissociation?

Over and over for decades I’ve been rewriting and extending research on the design of liturgy/worship or whatever you personally call your time that is set aside for focus, reflection, awareness of higher powers, or however else you refill the aquifers of your personhood.  The short version of this is what we students asked in seminary:  “Can you call the Holy Spirit?”  The long version was my attempted thesis which I could NOT get past the seminary faculty but could not lay aside either.

When one researches this field, one soon realizes that a person can go to the library and check out an entire worship service printed on paper, even the music written out and when to stand or ring a bell.   (It's not likely to set your hair on fire.) Therefore, an academic sees writing and words (if you allow musical notes to be “words”) as what liturgy “is.”  No shaman ever thinks that.  Likewise, theology is about words and a certain kind of reasoning.  No shaman bothers with those.

Lately researchers for religion have been fussing that people keep searching for “spirituality” and don’t like institutions.  The trouble is that few seminaries really teach “spirituality,” though some of them are liturgical.  The troubles at General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, Manhattan, can easily be interpreted as the upside-down situation of a lawyer/social scrambler president, who thinks theology is like law, colliding with a student body young enough to want the spiritual content of beloved liturgy.  One clue is his tone-deaf decision to reschedule morning worship from 8AM to 10AM.  It’s a way to start the day, dummy!  Not just another class-like gathering.  He has succeeded in converting a dedicated community into a corporation court trial.

New Guinea peoples keep the bodies of their loved ones.

It was clear to me even when I first gathered my bizarre set of thesis examples (cannibalism in the Andes, New Guinea ceremonies, a wedding with a dead groom) that there were certain “givens” to spiritually transforming or supporting events.  The concept of liminality, for instance -- the creation of a sequestered and safe place where normal social constraints had been removed and emotion could erupt or simply well up -- is a solid indicator.  But words or even an authority figure were not necessary.  I saw that “spirituality” was a function of the pre- sub- un- conscious  and that it was more a matter of art than reason.  It is FELT.  But it is full of MEANING, which some conflate with words, forgetting that “a poem must not mean but be.”  More like dreams.  Metaphors.  Psychoanalysis.  Interpretive dance.

So I feel joyfully entitled to claim the little corner of the current tsunami of thought about neuro-research that I now label “neuro-liturgy.”  I’m not claiming to account for mystical experiences, which is the way the subject has been approached in some literature.  (I googled.)  I want to know what we should keep in mind when designing an effective experience in ANY human context.  How do we call the “unconscious” since it is not cognizant in a spoken way but certainly aware (conscious in a felt way) of anything inside the skin, including those anatomical structures meant to reach out to whatever it is “out-skin.”   How do we discover the nature of DESIRE, which Mark Solms tells us is what Freud concluded drives human life, the key life-force that gives rise to everything else, particularly survival?  

Human identity is an emergent phenomenon dependent on the richness of in-skin experience gathered by the entire body in the course of interaction with the “reality” that is “out-skin.”  Human brain anatomy is “cumulative” which means that each evolved or mutated ability must be built on and come to terms with whatever the brain was doing earlier.  The two main divisions are between the autonomic and limbic systems that are shared with all mammals (some parts of the system with all vertebrates) and those abilities acquired in the course of developing the cortex.  This later part is -- beyond everything else -- responsive, always rebuilding itself in terms of actual tissue.

1.  The sensorium

The single simplest and most potent thing a person can do to strengthen spirituality is to expand consciousness, both knowledge of the sights, sounds, tastes, temperatures, textures, smells of the world and awareness of how they interact, what they symbolize, how they are drawn from the natural world -- and awareness of one’s inner world, how one is “feeling,” in terms of affect but also bodily comfort or tension.  

2.  Maps and Metaphors

There is simply no possible way to keep “in mind” everything the body is capable of sensing, so we have evolved ways to sort and bundle information.  On the surface of the cortex there are evidently at least two maps.  One is a grid (supported by specific cells that note where the body is in space -- “out-skin”) and another is the homuncular map of the body that records the amount of neuron space devoted to intake from any specific point “in-skin.”

Memories are filed according to the emotional “vibe” and the sensory records of the moment, but they are not preserved as remembered units.  Rather, when they are called up they are gathered back together from separate records.  The process of memory can go wrong in ways that have not entirely been explained so far.  Suppressed memory, mistaken memories, memories based on erroneous information, and memories that hijack the emotional system are all being investigated.

The brain connectome

3.  The Connectome

Somewhat similarly, at any given moment the brain is connecting clusters of neurons in a kind of “chord” or pattern of interaction.  These patterns shift according to the task being presented, and represent what is felt as meaning as well as awareness of a certain cognizance.  A common transition to use as reference is “going to sleep” which is sort of semi-conscious but can happen without any intention.  Waking up is an opposite but parallel phenomenon -- not consciously intended but easily conditioned.  But so are many of the things that happen in sleep and a high proportion of what happens when awake.

Oh, yeah?

4.  Expression

Voluntary and involuntary kinds of expression include facial cues on up a scale of intention, control and inspiration to fine arts.  Expression in all ways possible are often guided and powered by feeling, the pre- un- sub- functioning of the brain.  This produces meaning as well as expressing it.

This meaning is often recorded "outskin" either purposely or naively as material culture: clothing, instruments, music, architecture, painting, toys, decoration.  These things are “containers” for meaning.

5.  Community

It appears that the brain functions on several distinct levels, one being the thalamic limbic system of animal desire to survive (which, since we are not up-tight Viennese patriarchs, we can consider a GOOD thing), and the other being the cortex, esp. the prefrontal cortex.  In addition to the small structures or organelles of hippocampus and whatever, there are also individual kinds of cells that specialize in specific awareness.  They are a reminder that we are essentially a colony of collaborating one-celled animals united within a skin.

One of these cell specialties is empathy, which is clearly transpersonal and a way to join human awareness into community.  This is the point where private prayer and devotion meets the congregation that sings, prays, orally or physically responds, and listens together.  It remains a function of the individual human mind.  The generous will extend the ability to all mammals.

When the community of “boys at risk” expresses what they most yearn for, what their lifeforce desire might be, they speak of two modes:  one is the “beloved community” that provides shelter and supports identity (they know who you are and will help you), and the other is deep intimacy with another person.  These are “emergentsurvival-based desires that when satisfied create meaning and transcendent experience.  Those of us who try to understand need great attentiveness to persons, the world, and ourselves.


Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me till
I'm half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I'm not too hard persuaded. 
-- Robert Francis

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