Monday, October 20, 2014


Sacred and Profane, so often mixed in art.

This blog does not operate as a silo, which disconcerts some people who are used to seeing blogs as focused on a product.  This one is a landscape, a horizon, a broad set of topics for a dozen different communities.  But this particular post IS a silo in spite of approaching one topic through several points of view.  It is an inventory of thought about felt internal sensations that all creatures appear to have, but that have been repeatedly in many ways investigated and reflected upon, put into words and philosophically categorized.  It is the felt difference between two kinds of space which Mircea Eliade famously defined as “sacred” and “profane.”  It is also the difference between what is felt as sacred, as spiritual, as something palpable in the environment, and what is a peneplain, a flat featureless plenum, which could be called the profane, the daily, the quotidian, the ordinary (order-nary).

There are a variety of explanations or explications about this.  They come from many “disciplines” we are used to and challenge boundaries between ways of knowing.  One principle is that this difference is between what is wordlessly felt and therefore in every creature, and what is expressed in language, including the language of mathematics.  To many people language IS thinking -- they cannot conceive of thinking in any other way.  To them, for an animal to be thinking is inconceivable unless the animal can at least imitate language.

Recently, given a lot of ingenious and supersensitive instruments, we have been able to see our brains in operation.  These studies, along with what are called “lesion” studies -- observations of humans whose brains have been damaged some way and animals whose brains have been surgically altered -- tell us One Big Thing.  There are two brains, essentially: the primal brainstem and limbic system which has nerves through the body (the autonomic system) and which also controls the hormone chemicals from organs, rarely conscious except as “feelings,” including emotion.  The other is the cortex and the evolved organelles (hippocampus) and specialized cells that it coordinates into conscious thought, images and language.

This correlates with Freud’s most useful observation: that there is a conscious or cognizant mind and then another which he intuitively described as the “sub” conscious, though he was a good enough neuroscientist to understand that it was primal brain that was the generator of these forces, the drive systems,  Desire.  Survival.  But the survival of the individual can be suppressed or contradicted by a rigid culture; and the survival of a culture can be threatened by maladjustment to the environment which -- in the end -- determines survival.  Darwin called it “fitness.”   I say “fittingness” because it isn’t always a matter of biggest and best.  (Remember the little first mammals running between the toes of the dinosaurs.)

Now the scientists have identified the specialized cells in the cortex that somehow connect to deep primal awareness in the earlier brain:  the “grid” cells that let us feel where in a specific space we are; the “heading” or compass cells that let us sense the directions, the "boundary" cells that tell us where edges are, and the "homunculus" map that allots space to neurons according to their relationship to the body.  Somehow this hooks up with memory, so that an intense experience will call up sense memory of where you were, the smells, the sounds, the temperature, and so on.

From anthropology (van Gennep and Turner) comes the insight that besides physical space there is a psychological “felt” space that uses this associating of the sensory moment to cue something they call “liminal” space.  (The limen is the threshold of a doorway.)  It is a shift from the secular, profane, daily, public space to a sacred, spiritual, protected space that somehow escapes boundaries.  In that space one is psychologically equal to everyone else who is present and one may be able to change deeply felt beliefs.  It might be traditional ceremonial worship but maybe not.

I once was once asked to study the cultural gender assignments of worshipping people. (Post-Christian UU's, therefore Abramic.)  Our contemporary culture assigns men to the profane, mathematical, rule-operated, engineering sort of experience -- theological, hierarchical, empowering.  I called it the glass telephone booth where Superman assumes his powers.  The women are assigned the sacred, messy, emotional, enfolding approach that nurtures from the most basic physical level.  I called it the hot tub in which one almost returns to birth.

Partly this set of metaphors came from watching people attending a retreat.  At the end of a worship service (overgeneralized): the men leapt out to go do something; the women sat smiling and dreaming.  But also partly it came from reading about infant development and the accounts of saints.  The brains of children develop in response to what is happening to them.  Before they are born they move in their mother’s bodies, somersaulting in the womb and creating neurons that are aware of the mother’s body moving through the world -- the grid, the compass.  Their budding brains record the rhythm of heartbeat and the whale-like sounds of digestion.  Their first sensations are smell/taste, the most primordial senses necessary even for a one-celled animal trying to find food.  The cycle of darkness/light is built into the circuits as the baby grows.

What the saints described was paradoxes of the first distinctions, not yet separated, what an infant brain learns both before and after birth.  They said they felt they were falling, but supported in an embrace; there was utter darkness but blinding light; they were burning and freezing at once; they were flying and paralyzed.  These were feelings interpreted as the presence of the Holy which some named God.

People who "do religion" in a dogmatically believing way are “inside the theological (churchly) circle.”  Those who don’t define it -- just feel it -- might be “outside the theological circle” but they sense the primal matrix of spirituality.  The circle itself is defined by community, tilted to male culture:  hierarchical, definitional, historical.  In short, institutional.  Institutions are not spiritual.  Some will actively exclude spirituality and feeling in order to strengthen obedience, consistency, morality and order.  The Old Testament and the letters of Paul tend to be institutional.  The Gospels and Psalms are spiritual.

The politics of theology and institutions can be cruel.  Spirituality, feeling-based, empathetic, can be ineffective.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of the human brain that tries to sort it out.  Gender definitions are as paradoxical as the other basic distinctions.  The extremes interact, the two “long tails” of the gender bell-curves overlapping so that the strongest, tallest, fastest females will surpass the weakest, shortest, slowest males.  Our use of gender hormone ratios to separate male from female doesn’t really work.

Intergenders are far more common than we think because in modern culture people wear clothes which carry the gender clues instead of exposing their bodies.  And the qualities of individuals interact within them, responding to the environment whether it’s chemical or situational.  To some extent an ovum of any creature is always different from a cloud of sperm because it has the directions for the “house” of the body.  But once we get to mammals, gestating, birth, and nursing are not just achieved by the unfolding plan in the DNA of two people, but also are deeply affected by the embracing relationship of the immediate family -- the epigenetics -- and the world situation.  We are just now discovering what war, hardship, or happiness can provide in the continuing gestation we call life, even crossing the generational barrier so that what our grandfathers encoded in their epigenes guides the development of their grandchildren.

The feeling of not being who others say you must be can drive escape from the theological circle into a far more ambiguous spiritual world.  Depending on what the zygote learned, this can be a new birth.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

What a great bridge of synthesis, comprehending, and understanding. Thanks.