Sacred Assissi

Having spent some time recently visiting a Christian pilgrimage site of some considerable significance to believers (and history buffs as well), it became apparent to me the penitents amongst the crowds stood out. It was pretty clear there is a deep emotional engagement, a heart-felt belief in the Christian dogma, many of the pilgrims feel and adhere to.

It got me thinking about the sort of commitment other spiritual engagements require of their followers if their followers can be expected to remain followers. Other than Reformed Judaism which appears to be based pretty much on cultural tradition most other religious endeavors expect, if not an emotional commitment, an intellectual discipline whereby the metaphysical can be approached, the value of which for the honest participant is cultivation of a groundedness that is helpful in seeing through and beyond the petty and not so petty distractions life presents with considerable constancy.

Problems tend to arise when differences in doctrinal beliefs lead followers to deny the legitimacy of other traditions. It would be good, I think, if more adherents would focus on the common rather than the different and set aside the arrogance of an assumed superiority.

Mesmerized

I’ve been reading that there was a point in time, mid-nineteenth century, when the best minds, those of a scientific bent anyway, took great credence in the likely existence of an extra-sensory realm. Psychologists used hypnotism to probe peoples’ minds in search of the extra-personal consciousness through which all individuals were connected. A number of important thinkers were contemplating such ideas: Arthur Schopenhauer thought that if indeed an after-life existed it would be as an impersonal consciousness and Karl Jung, a bit later, wrote of a ‘collective unconscious’. I guess most everyone was pretty interested in these ideas because it suggested immortality might be available. An Austrian physician named Franz Mesmer had everyone’s attention engaged as he was in psychic healing and related spiritual phenomena.

Modern science, full of questions though it is, has come to discount the ideas of an extra –sensory realm, despite the fact sub-atomic entities, which are of great concern to contemporary physicists, are beyond anyone’s ability to see, taste, hear or smell. In fact, it can’t even be determined whether these quantum entities are particles, waves or both: the idea of one thing being two would seem to have some sort of super-natural aspects.

Anyway, whether quantum theory leads us back to the extra-sensory conceptions of the 19th century or not we must be, I guess, content to continue to live with uncertainties.

Evolutionary Aesthetics

I’ve been wondering how we’ve come to associate aesthetic values the way we do. I’ve been reading that our human nature, our genetic inheritance, has, over the millennia, found beauty in those things that reflect or resemble qualities necessary for basic survival like verdant planes, water sources, food animals in visual representations, the social bonding realized in sharing structured, repetitive rhythms musically and sculptural representations of fecundity and animal nobility.

I get this, you know, but now I’m reading that the impulse to create art was, and still is I guess, a mating tactic, a way to impress prospective sexual partners with the superior quality of one’s genetic make-up and intelligence. The idea does seem to explain, to some extent the artistic temperament, the volatile and delicate ego that seems characteristic of those engaged in art-making.

Being of a reserved nature myself, I’m good with leaving the romantic intrigues to the more flamboyant among us..

Samadhi

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of Samadhi: the realization of oneness, that through focused attention, subject and object merge, which, I guess, means ‘me’, as subject, losing myself in identification with the object of attention, whatever that may be.

The idea seems appropriate to consider these days with my mind soaring a million miles an hour between thoughts of what just happened as well as those of the more distant past and thoughts of what will soon happen and what I should anticipate occurring in the more distant future, most of which being of a personal nature causing anguish to ‘me’.

So, I think what I need to do is take some time regularly, multiple times a day, to focus my attention on a singularity, breathe deep, let the proliferation of thoughts, which will arrive, pass through until I achieve a sense of a much desired peace. I’m pretty sure I can do this. I just need to find an appropriate object on which to focus.

The Limitations of Language and Memory

I’ve been thinking lately that language is a limiting and essentially inadequate means of describing experience. (As I think about this it occurs to me I’ve probably thought this very thing before; in fact, I doubt I’ve had a truly original thought anytime recently).

Anyway, language may be the only way of describing experience, but the descriptions rendered no matter the mastery one may have of the written word will fall well short of sufficiently describing the color and complexities of sensual experience.

Roland Barthes, The late French literary theorist, apparently said that man does not exist prior to language. If I might be so bold as to contradict such a noted scholar, my experience suggests to me such an idea is nonsense. Such a statement would have to mean my colorful and complex sensual experiences can only occur to my conscious self in the form of language; that until language supervenes upon my colorful and complex sensual experiences that my most wonderful remembrances don’t exist.

But, then, maybe my memory is going, I am aging after all; brain cells are being lost. Still, the visual imagery is there and doesn’t seem to require captions. I’m thinking language is over-rated. It simply is unable to account for the ineffable.

Nature/Nurture

I’ve been reading lately, about the on-going controversy regarding the development of the human persona. There seems to be, among psychologists, a never-ending debate as to whether we inherit, genetically, the intellectual tools to decipher, through our senses, the world around us or whether we arrive on this earth without a clue.

Those on the ‘nurture’ side of the argument tend to view the human intellect as being formed for the most part by the culture in which we grow up. The values we hold dear, our sense of place in the world, our spiritual nature are written on the blank slate of our being by our unifying culture.

The ‘nature’ folks, on the other hand, site the cross-cultural similarities humankind shares. Western cultures, primitive tribal groups and most all cultures between are amazingly similar in how social relationships function, the significance of spirituality, development of art expression and the use of moral taboos. The cultural commonalities would suggest the pre-natal slate was anything but blank.

On the ‘nature’ side I suspect all of human kind views itself as special beings of superior intelligence within our respective worlds which would seem to suggest a potential unifier; something to bring us all together; to encourage cooperation. I guess it must be the ‘nurture’ aspect of our being that creates divisiveness, religious conflicts, ideological differences, a misplaced sense of superiority over those unlike us.

I guess who we are is a bit of both nature and nurture; it would seem to me a push toward the nature side would be beneficial to all.

The Dangers of Religious Fundamentalism

I’ve been reading that one of the primary drivers of religious fundamentalism is the sense of feeling under siege: the opposition, anyone holding a perspective contrary to the orthodox view, is identified not simply as apostate but as the enemy: immoral and evil.

With the firm belief God is on their side, fundamentalists embrace a world view that may include cosmic battle against the forces of evil.  Fundamentalists convince themselves they are the chosen ones of God which sometimes leads to nationalistic fervor and an aggressive political stance and may even include the idea of replacing secular government and constitution with the tenets of their religious beliefs. They evangelize, convinced anyone not a believer is doomed to eternal Hell, which I suppose might be considered somewhat altruistic ( the evangelizing that is), if the rigidity of their demanded beliefs weren’t quite so outrageous and their methods of conversion less oppressive. These folks take their sacred writings literally, a gift from God, inerrant, any metaphorical allusions lost on their determined black/white perspective. So, the fundamentalists flex their muscles in tense confrontation, waiting for the sign from God signaling Armageddon.

Whew! This all might make exciting TV drama if it weren’t so real.

 

 

 

Social Darwinism

I’ve been reading lately about the strange and self-serving developments that followed Charles Darwin’s determinations of biological evolution. There were certain late 19th century thinkers that found it advantageous to apply the evolutionary theory to the social milieu: that the ‘fittest survivors’ referred to those most able to exploit the economic system, that material wealth meant social progress, and unimpeded pursuit of capital gains would lead to a better world, in the interests of which capital would not be wasted to shore up the least able, and, in fact, eugenic cleansing would provide a superior ultimate outcome.

In opposition or at least counter-point to such an hard-hearted position were those who saw man as a social animal, empathetic to his fellows and reliant on community to provide a reasonable, happy and successful life for all. These altruistic sorts saw social solidarity as evolutionary, naturally evolved over millennia, evidenced by primitive, tribal man whose very survival required social care and cooperation.

Anyway, the majority of folks found well-reasoned logic in both of these fairly divergent positions, the result being a populous which has since embraced philosophical contradictions between our natural propensity for empathy toward our fellows, our common humanity, and the conviction we’re not all equal, some of us being morally and intellectually superior.

We can only hope that, at some point in the not too distant future, recognition of our mental incapacities will be realized and we’ll come to our senses.

 

A Richer Existence

I’ve been reading a treatise by the much respected religious historian Mircea Eliade that offers the theory that religious man has a richer existence than someone without religious beliefs.

As Professor Eliade sees it, those who see the physical world as an embodiment of the sacred will more often be able to rise above the profane world to a spiritual plane, basking in and identifying with the sacred. Non-religious man, on the other hand must exist without such a dimension, limited to the hard reality of a profane existence and the anxiety of ultimate mortal extinction.

But, he says, even non-religious man hasn’t completely eliminated the structures of the spiritual from his reality. As religious man may, through ritual passage, be symbolically reborn to greater awareness of the sacred, so too non-religious man will likely transition between life-styles, new living locales and changing occupations, and will experience a sense of newness akin to spiritual rebirth.

I guess we can never completely discount our deeply embedded humanity.

Sacred Gitche Gumee

I have just recently spent some time along the shore of the largest freshwater lake on the Continent.
The experience has me thinking about a poetic comment made by a local resident well familiar with the immense waterbody and its impact on the natural environs: the lake, he said, is God.

I’ve been reading how water functions as religious symbol, you know, as primordial formlessness from which all life emerges and as purifier, cleansing the world of the detritus and accumulating filth that profane existence necessarily produces. The big lake does seem to fit the profile in both cases. As I sat on the shore admiring the pristine beauty and vastness, a certain serenity did seem to subvene upon my restlessness. Maybe the lake is God.