Monday, December 17, 2018


On a plain stage in a darkened auditorium, the young woman stood gracefully but electrically, speaking with lyric force and occasional gestures.  The audience was the rest of her acting class as well as some observers who slipped in quietly.  To those few she seemed to be in a garden, wearing something classic.  But she wasn't.  She was just a member of the acting class performing a class assignment, a bit of a play.  The audience was transfixed, her every gesture vaguely echoed in their bodies.  In coming days her words would come back to them and they would think about them.

This was an acting class in 1958 at Northwestern University taught by Alvina Krause, master teacher of "The Method," a way of finding a stage character through sense memories.  In those years I was also taking classes in Philosophy of Religion, World Religions, and Language and Thought.  They seemed relevant.

In 1979 across Chicago, near the campus of the University of Chicago, the small side chapel of a massive stone church was supposed to be divided from the main hall by a fire wall that cranked up and down via some balky mechanism that wouldn't work.  It had been left up but the hall wasn't lit, so the people at vespers in the smaller space were looking at a huge black void where stone echoed dark.  A big mirror was set up in front of the emptiness, reflecting the people.  This vespers was for seminary students at the end of a class week.  They were accustomed to thinking in terms of the Abyss and of self-reflection.  Every word, song, and prayer spoke of these, so that they looked into themselves and saw the Abyss.  A few people wept.

A circle of very old Blackfeet (born in the 1890's) gathered in a house cleared of furniture.  They sat on the floor.  An "orderly" sat by a tub of earth on which a tiny fire was lit, just enough to maintain a smudge and re-light the long-stemmed pipe that traveled the circle.  The door was at the east.  Directly across from the door was a tripod supporting a Bundle of skins that amounted to a hymnal, to be opened as a reminder of songs and dances belonging to each creature.  It was not a quiet nor a solemn occasion, but familiar to these old people who drew great comfort from it.

It's decades since these experiences but I've never stopped thinking about them.  I used to have a "travel sermon" that I presented when invited to preach as a guest.  Called "Honey and Wax," which was the title of an anthology of narratives composed by Richard Stern to be a class text, it talked about moments that were hot and sweet, but came upon us by surprise.  It quoted Heraclitus rather than Plato or Descartes.  The moment that was central was an ordinary moment suddenly struck through by wonder and meaning.  I talked about waiting on the high platform of the elevated train on a sunny afternoon when, unpredicted, it engulfed me.  Nothing remarkable.  Except what I was feeling.  Why?

Every time I gave the sermon, people would come up afterwards and tell me about moments like this.  "What does it mean?" they would ask.  "Were there drugs?  Was it supernatural? Was it God?"  When I told my classmates about it they would ask, "Can a person make such moments happen?  Have you done that?  Can you call the Holy Spirit?"

At the time the Dean of Students just leaving the School of Divinity was opposed to anything that was what he called "phenomenology."  He was devotedly Christian.  That is, he actively suppressed anything that was atheistic, heretical, or secular -- any denial of another world.  What I didn't know and no one told me -- maybe they didn't know either -- was that at the time George Lakoff and Mark Johnson were framing up a new approach to human experience, "The Metaphors We Live By,".which we read but didn't really "get" in terms of implications.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali was doing his research on "flow," which captivated everyone.  Bernie Brown, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, asked us to read Victor Turner's book "The Ritual Process" and think about liminal time and space, though a few others thought it invited chaos and madness.  All these came to be meaningful.

Luckily, this Divinity School was strongly protective of Comparative Religion, which was a way to access my questions.  The shelves at the Seminary Cooperative Bookstore offered Stephen Toulmin who explained what Enlightenment rationality really was -- warrants for reasoning and so on -- so I could pass the U of Chicago classes which were strictly rational.  And also books by Suzanne Langer who was approaching the questions through art and Felt Meaning.  Then there was Carl Rogers whose clinic was there.  He claimed that if he went and sat with a patient considered unreachable, adopting the person's posture and gradually coming into their emotional space, he could reach understanding and communication.  Often mocked, it seemed as effective as "the talking cure."

I remembered from acting that one could achieve a character from the outside in, taking their stance and voice, or from the inside-out, the Method way.  In the next decades I built up theory and example from experience and the research of others, but it wasn't until the recent revelations about how the brain actually works, which teaches us that we think with our whole bodies ("embodied cognition"), that I could pull together something convincing.  In the guise of an outline for a book, here are most of the bases I touched, the people I thought about.


1.  The need to explore alternative ways of thinking besides the "Western" European white male rationality that has been our mainstream since Greek and Roman thought, as follows:
The Enlightenment
Philosophy precedents that support the academy
Rule of law (written) and bookkeeping
Industrial Revolution
Technology leading to quantum theory, outer space and satellites

2.  What is "religion"?  Is it a useful concept?
Converting life to code and data 
Abandoning the "secular" separation
"Social and Affective cognition"

3.  "Embodied Cognition" to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/
understanding through acting classes and Malvina Hoffman time_continue=77&v=COFo_z_x5ZM
Sexual interaction

4.  Framing:  conceptual metaphors that organize everything else
Possibly rooted in dimension/space marked by individual cells
cellular filing of memory using date and place

5.  Sensations held in the body wordlessly as concepts.  Human beings are not paperdolls that remain the same, but interacting processes like flames.
Stages in the process that make lifelong marks:
a.  womb
b.  first years
c.  tension between group and individual
d.  the shape of the world

6.  The brain works by connecting two things, thus figurative metaphor.  The brain can connect any two things without restriction.

7.  Language and grammar as evidence or determining what is known?

8.  Empathy: secondary experience
What actors know about how action interacts with mind

9.  Grounding in liminal time and space.  

10.  Meaning: binding it all together into identity : enacting as liturgy.

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