Friday, July 10, 2015


The physiological mechanisms of epiphany, not necessarily religious.”  Catchy little subject, don’t you think?  NOT.

I used to preach about this -- the moments that some of us feel (not everyone) in which we are flooded with awareness of how hot and sweet the world is.  We stand motionless for a moment, not wanting it to end.  It’s real, but we don’t seem to have control over when and how it happens.  What the heck is it?

If you’re a god-believer, you might use the terms “theophany” meaning god (theos) breaking through to you or if not religious, “epiphany” which the anonymous writer at Wikipedia broadens and secularizes as a sudden insight into a problem after a long period of study.  In fact, the entry illustrates our Western cultural tendency to make everything explicable (explainable) and the product of rational thought or else some obscure Christian doctrine.  Those are your choices.  Be a grad student in the sciences or be a learned old guy in a church, both male.  

I’m trying to evade all that.  It’s not easy because the idea is SO deeply embedded in us and anyway it is the product of a lot of underlying ideas that people aren’t even aware that they believe, even after decades of countervailing strategies from feminists, Aquarians, and even psychologists.  Their sorting categories prevent them from having a place to put the knowledge and therefore it evaporates.

I’m saving for reflection an article on fMRI studies in which the experimenters challenged deeply held beliefs of people and actually got them to change their minds, to shift to a new point of view.  You can SEE it on the computer screen.  The experimenters did not record what it felt like, because now the idea is to switch from the logical rationality of people to their computerized brain synapses.  Both logic and neurology neglect “feelings” and yet feeling is our true guide in life.  

Suzanne Langer developed many relevant ideas.

Feeling is the whole-body response to one’s inner metaphors.  All thinking is metaphorical.  Rationality is a particular metaphor system -- it is the SUBset of thinking, which is really feeling.  By over-emphasizing rationality, particularly that which is represented in writing, we have suppressed and denied much of our feeling and therefore distorted our humanity.

We’ve lost our ability to perceive subtlety, what the Japanese used to call “shibui” -- elegance, sensitivity to small nuances.  We commodify everything into the symbolic invention of money and then play with its value by making it “worth” more and less according to mysterious rules about gambling on the stock market.

We help the needy according to symbol systems that render the help useless:  convening to wring our hands, writing poems about the emotion of compassion for others without any sharing of the plight of the objects or translating it into effective help -- turning it all back to ourselves in the Mother Teresa image of self-denial and sadness.  We don't let the needy speak for themselves.  Yet people in the most broken societies of the planet are often joyful, full of song and dance, giving it away.

Of all the most obvious “felt” symbol systems, sex in the most direct sense of body contact
is the feeling most commodified and disconnected from the new reality created by lab technology: petri dish conception, three-parent children from mitochondrial donation or from surrogate gestation, viagra-caused hydraulic responses without eroticism or bonding, deflected paraphilias, dab-on pheromones, transgressions of all kinds.  I was startled that a philosopher seeking a “new religion” would give as an example of degradation the habit of “watching porn.”  How does one tell porn from mainstream programming?  

More than that, how can one seek a new religion without first breaking apart the old ones into the hierarchical, institutional, patriarchal corporations they are.  The word "religion" as we were taught in seminary, is rooted in semantics.  Remember Wikipedia is a collaboration of male grad school students with tenured academic pedants, both types common in the “Western world” still yearning after empires.

The Latin term religiō, origin of the modern lexeme religion (via Old French/Middle Latin) is of ultimately obscure etymology. It is recorded beginning in the 1st century BC, i.e. in Classical Latin at the beginning of the Roman Empire, notably by Cicero, in the sense of "scrupulous or strict observance of the traditional cultus".

The classical explanation of the word, traced to Cicero himself, derives it from re- (again) + lego in the sense of "choose", "go over again" or "consider carefully". Modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell favor the derivation from ligo "bind, connect", probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re- (again) + ligare or "to reconnect," which was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius.”

See?  Everything defined by categories and specific men whose thoughts have been saved in writing and used by ecclesiastical authorities to bind together their constituencies, which are always based on money, more pleasantly called “prosperity.”

I’m thinking that “religion” works best in times of distress, then deteriorates when the crisis is over.  The people who nearly starved in the Great Depression and then desperately fought to save the world from Nazi ideas felt they were honorably religious and that a big entity overhead was therefore supporting them.  The two forces, one-two blows, in spite of being deeply felt, have by now been corrupted and commodified into terrorists and plutocrats.  It’s all forms of blackmail, extortion, and piracy.

Unless you step clear out of that metaphor system. 

Luckily, sort of by accident, I have an alternative.  I did not enter through mathematical logic, but through actor’s training which is about feeling.  (The Method, as taught by Alvina Krause.)  Not one’s endless stream of feeling, the narcissistic pondering of one’s reflection in a puddle, but rather the empathic sharing of experience.  Inhabiting the Other.  Not just humans, not just pets, not just working animals who have been bred to know what you want, but extension into the metaphorical “feelings” of things and their way of fitting into existence.  People love to make fun of trying to become a tree, but it’s less scary than trying to become, for instance, Tim.  Or one of the boys.

They can explain it themselves, but not necessarily in words.  Image, music, and maybe a private language, jargon or slang.  I love it because it makes me feel.  Not from out here, but from inside their desperate lungs, their spasming guts, their stinging feet.  And their seeking hands, their soaring leaps, their nobly shaven skulls.  

My level of success varies.  The effort is always rewarded.

There’s another source of my metaphor system, which is the Blackfeet reservation.  They teach me that what seems solid might be illusion and might disappear, that deceptions can be entrances never suspected, that -- as the Asians teach -- one must pay attention.  Always.  

In the end, it’s geology: watching the mountains being forced up from the depths, feeling the catabatic winds warm your face, walking past a tipi circle of stones, realizing that you’re smelling sweetgrass.  Even as I struggled to grasp theology, I was taking writing classes from Richard Stern.  The class, three women, were all writing fiction, though no one said we had to.  What Stern was urging us to see (urgently -- sometimes impatiently) was how to build a metaphor system, a poetry of living, so often shocking but more dangerous when quiet.

How can anyone devise or discover a theology for boys who have been thrown out on the street, making a living with their bodies, stunning themselves with drugs?  There’s nothing rational about it; nothing is bound together (ligere) for the sake of institutions.  But it can be felt.  If one has the courage.  There’s no reading list.  DO something.  I’ll go on trying to figure out how to trigger an epiphany, hot and sweet -- salvific.

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