Our group met in Humptulips, WA.
The UUMA Humptulips Study Group assigned me to write a paper distinguishing between “feminist” religions and, well, “normal” religions like theirs. (They were male and so far as I know stayed male.) In the process I ended up reading descriptions of medieval visionary saints about how it felt to confront God, the most Sacred. It became clear that they were speaking in paradox, self-contradictory qualities: they wrote in paired extremes they claimed occurred at the same time: hot/cold, falling/being supported, starving/fed, thirsting/drinking, dazzled/totally dark. What th- ?
When I got to these new embodiment concepts about feeling rather than logic as the basis of thought and about the formation of each human mind from the point of fertilization on through gestation, it began to be clear. Brain neurons develop when they detect sensory qualities: recording the qualities is what makes the cells into neurons — literally creates them and the connections among them, the same way that moving one’s body creates muscle cells.
The brain, evolving from a knob at the top of the notochord (primeval spine) that develops into the skull and brain, picks up a lot of awarenesses that it processes without any “self-awareness”. You don’t know you’re doing it. The body goes on ahead of you. It doesn’t necessarily tell you about it, it just embodies it: breathing, heart-beat, secretions of all sorts, adjusting to gravity, filtering blood.
Evolution means that over time the human brain in particular has accumulated a lot of little devices and practices. The rumpled up cortex that is wrapped around all the other stuff in the skull is six layers deep and full of little pillars that join them up and down. This is in addition to the connectome that a computer can make as pretty as a roadmap.
It’s just been announced that a new and much more detailed and clear “map” of the surface of the cortex has been made. But they didn’t say anything about the six layers or how everything plugs together. When they study the amygdala or hippocampus they discover it has little sectors, maybe three areas, front-middle-back, because of what it connects to on both ends.
Because of the “dry eye” thing, I’ve been reading up on tears. The little film of tears over the eyeball has three layers, thinner than is imaginable, each with its own characteristics. All these things become structures inside structures inside structures. And all of them keep changing because all of them are processes, molecules exchanging ions, cells pumped through tubes.
Humans, made of flesh, have limits, but we constantly try to think of things that have NO limits: infinity; eternity; God; an unnamed color that is in an imperceptible part of the range of light vibrations; the sounds a dog can hear but we can’t. Instruments help. Somehow the collision of two impossible-to-reconcile concepts — paradoxes — makes neurons strain to evolve and that may be one of the elements of Sacredness. We become aware of what an unknowable immensity the world is and yet our undoubtable place in it.
This is not mystical magic. It is frank physiology. All the people who want to trick it out with their favorite shrink or literary theory are evading the actual evidence, at least the clues we have so far. The evidence of sensory cells comes from coded waves, vibes, impacts, temperatures, ions. When the neuron signals get to the brain, they are translated into what we “see,” “hear,” “taste” and so on.
But there’s more. “Single cell perception” means that specialized cells like “spindle cells” or VENN cells have special sensitivities to compass directions, edges, spatial transitions like openings. It’s estimated that there are several hundred of these very specific cells. In fact, one layer of the cortex has a map of a human that connects with neurons to the actual places on the body. Another one seems to be laid out in a formal grid.
Some of these cells have been labeled “mirror cells” because if you are looking at someone who does something like throw a ball, your neural network will vaguely register as though you are doing the same thing. This is connected to empathy. Empathy means that you can see how someone else feels by looking at them; it’s wireless communication. You can empathize with any living thing and even a representation of a living thing, like a video. You look at that tiger and feel that you know what it’s feeling.
The pattern of organization when I compose a “worship” service (and I rarely if ever “worship” anything, so I need a better word) is Victor Turner’s three part “room” metaphor: going over a threshold (limen), being in a special “place” that is safe and different in quality than ordinary life, and then returning over that limen. These are sensations, not ideas. I try to capture the sensations, the transitions from outside to inside to outside. Think of theatre. Think of coming home.
Another two-part element seems vital to me. It comes after the people are all together in the space, as much in mind as body, and have established their gathering, their unity. I call it the Dilation of the Spirit. Celebrants in the past have labeled it in dogmatic terms: the Confession of Sins and the Assurance of Pardon, which amount to swearing allegiance and belief in that dogmatic context for the sake of survival.
The way I do it is to bring up images of the most extreme tragedy, suffering and injustice — preferably “ripped from the headlines” or at least the lives of those present. It’s essentially the paradox of theodicy which is “if You’re all-powerful and all-merciful, why don’t You get us out of this mess?” Since I’m not theist, this is not my problem, but it recurs for the Abrahamics. My version comes from those primal first sensations of cold, dark, falling, hungering and thirsting.
Loved ones and innocent beings slaughtered, diseased and crushed should lead to facing the temporariness of all human life, the waste and emptiness of what we do. But THEN must come the images of dearness, delight, and dance — intense and accurate enough to be meaningful. Sacred. Some people will never be convinced or consoled. Some people will be so asocial that they are unmoved any way at all. No empathy. Possibly for physiological reasons. But they can be fed, given water, supported, and protected.
If the group can as a unit feel the bottom and then reach for the top, they will be ready to address issues. It’s a mini-catharsis, clearing the deck. Those opened may be ready to realize and even change what they feel. Or it may be that a connection is confirmed or a passion is renewed. This is not dogma, theory, or logic. Essentially it is felt, sometimes like the tumblers of internal locks shifting and opening.
If a celebrant can do this with metaphors, the moment will be powerful, but it takes close attention to the circumstances of the people and a wide repertoire of metaphors and images. Attunement. Not just words. What works and why is what I’ll try to explore in the third of my three proposed volumes, and it clearly seems to be about Mark Johnson’s “organism-environment coupling” when it is accurate and deep enough to “embody meaning.” This is immanent, emergent, welling up from inside the viscera. An incarnation.