Tuesday, July 19, 2016


Because “psychotherapy” comes from a medical frame based on the scientific method and values of objectivity, it is snarled in many ways.  A counter wave comes from the arts, particularly physical arts like dance, but also music, painting and sculpture, and clever ideas like arranging people in poses that echo their real-life dynamics.  In Western culture the two are gender-assigned and also status-assigned: that is, the women and indigenous are assumed to have access to the “spiritual” and therefore it is assumed to have less value and power than institutionally endorsed empire-builders.

Another distortion is what I call “honey-hunting,” which might more scientifically be called “hooked.”  That is, seeking what is sweet, easy, luxurious, and lights up the addiction-indicator in the brain.  Sex, drugs, and  “spirituality” will do the trick— for an interval, since variety is also needed, which links to seeking.  No sooner did I bring up the subject of what people call “spirituality” — which in my system is NOT the same as sacrality — the honey-hunters were finding me and my number of hits spiked.

To me, the great value of this stream of thought called embodiment is that it’s based on the human capacity to use their senses to access whatever the world “is” through an interpretive system called “metaphor.”  It is an “immanent” system, emerging from the senses, as opposed to the transcendence-based spiritualities that believe they are interacting with what is “above,” “powerful,” and probably explicated and claimed by an institution because it is always framed by the culture and therefore mimics their leaders.

In fact, the problem with honey-hunting is that they are soon evading all the scientific paraphernalia and that becomes the focus, either trying to catch honey in their scientific sieve or discrediting all filters as useless.  There are a number of paper “instruments” that attempt to define spirituality:  The Expressions of Spirituality Inventory, the Spiritual Transcendence Scale, the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality, the Daily Spritual Experiences Scale, the Faith Maturity Scale, and the Religious Coping Questionnaire

Embodiment/sense-based sacrality is something felt when conditions are right.  What those conditions might be is what I’m trying to find out.  But language and even metaphor can never be the same as the original experience, which is far from universal and may, like a frog, be impossible to dissect without killing.  Neither does it have anything to do with virtue, which is bound to dismay some honey-hunters.

Always there is difficult opposition between society and the individual, maybe conflict among multiple social demands (family against profession, military against nonconformity).  The essential difference in this sea change from a surgery model (power, cutting, and transcendence) to a gardening model (nurturing organic unfolding) is that surgery is imposed, dependent on expertise, done by a professional (meaning cultural expert with status); but gardening is natural, and only dependent on nurturing, safety and opportunity.  Well — maybe risk is part of all therapy, simply by being alive and therefore dependent on survival.

For me the key to all “felt” experience goes back to Mircea Eliade’s little book called “The Sacred and the Profane,” which proposes that the sacred can be felt in the world at the extremes and the transitions.  Stand in a doorway or at the top of a staircase or on a mountain summit and you can feel it.  Neurologists today claim that specific cells in the brain are reacting to aspects of the world that have affected life from the beginning as eukaryotic one-celled animals.  Detecting edges, drop-offs, changes in what’s underfoot, altered light, and scores of other physical facts, are crucial to survival if traveling around, which is a definition of creatures.  

So I take an anchored, almost domestic and ordinary attitude towards the sacred — no caps, no status, nothing precious to hoard.  Just watching with awareness the sun come up in the morning.  Just openness to perception — no theory, no “healing”, no honey.

Before I leave today’s post, I want to point out the political dimension of spirituality which is considered — besides sweet to the point of addiction — a source and justification for power.  Before this wave of embodiment theory that seems to have a lot of connections to the U of Chicago, though (alas) not the Div School of my day, there was a set of disciplines developing around language: what it meant, how it was structured, how much it was culture-bound, and a lot of other hard-to-grasp things — though Hayakawa is far easier to understand than Ricoeur.  Some of the thought was coming from philosophy, but also a practical part of it was coming from anthropology which is more open to observation and animal elements of perception.  Barnlund’s class in “Language and Thought” prepared me then (1960) for Lakoff and Johnson in 1980, who were in part prepared by Noam Chomsky.

In the struggle to understand how people think by trying to understand the structure of their grammar, one is soon challenging the idea that language is a superiority, a separation, a rising above animals.  It seems clear that words come out of life in an environment.  Sitting with a chimp, communicating with body language, is a transforming experience.  It teaches us how much we lose if we deny the body to the point of thinking that a computer is human.  Sense-based thought depends upon the body to access the world.  Inability to grasp the world is psychosis.

“Therapy” in terms of human psychology was invented by Freud in the medical model as a way of bringing people in a highly restrictive culture into alignment with what was expected of them.  What he ran into was the limbic animal, which he called the subconscious, the 98% of neurological function that keeps bodies living even during sleep.  His instrument was talking, linguistics, sort of.  He was listening for metaphor, his genre was poetry, but his goal was still to make the client conform.

Bringing person and culture into alignment is a lot easier if the culture is tolerant of difference and resistant to stigma.  Spirituality, when it is co-opted by institutions and honey-hunters, can be as bullying as anything else.  Felt sacredness doesn’t respond to institutions and may not be sweet.  In fact, it might be full of terror or disgust because what counts is what keeps the creature alive.  That’s what pain is for.  Empathy, even with suffering, can keep us alive.

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