Tag Archives: peak experience

Excerpt: Awe and Presence

Another preview from The Constellation of Man: Part 3 (of 8) from Book I of Volume I. —CPB


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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

Our “reality” is habitually pared-down, less complex, less awe-inducing, less exciting, as an acclimation. We require experiences to open our eyes to the world around us and within us.

The experiences can always be found. In fact there are too many for our attention. But we must cease to be dead to our senses and our callings.

On one occasion we have reason to doubt. On another, we have reason to marvel. From one time to the other, it is, most significantly, we that have become different, whatever else has changed around us.

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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

It is not unusual that one who encounters pain or tedium lives through what seems like too much to bear, and closes. Another can observe this hardened attitude and see nothing but immaturity. They see a stuck, troubled, thoughtless child, crying “I am jaded, and there is nothing left to amaze and delight me.”

It is common to encounter hardening or dulling experiences that strip away the innocence of youth. It is rare to learn what to take from harsh or deficient experience—how to meet experiences, and not only receive them; how to remain sensitive through what could deaden, how to sublimate what could scar, and how to remain open instead of closing.

Disciplined learning about the world yields some resilience, though not the same that comes with practice. At least, learning can supply alternatives to a single way of seeing and experiencing things, or too few.

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Nelumbo nucifera, sacred lotus; umbilical symbol of creation, rebirth, unfolding enlightenment, purity, and more; seat of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas; iconic in myths of Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi; identified with Buddha. In “On the Love of the Lotus,” Chinese sage Zhou Dun Yi observed in poetic allegory that the lotus, both open and straight, grows out of mud, but remains unsullied.

It is necessary to gather perspectives on our own experiences from the breadth and depth of other experiences across time and place. All our lives are local and limited. Greatness can blossom from opening up to just a little more.

Transcending our place to see more, and awakening to the transcendent in us is one purpose of religious mythology.

Scientific knowledge can act as myth just the same; if a child is told the story of how she is made of star-stuff, she learns that her own atoms were once forged within the nuclear cores of stars bright eons before the sun, and by vaster stars that exploded. She learns that life-giving atoms in her and all people were star-sown. The truth of that legend is both incidental to its transcendental power and majesty, and no detraction.

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Light from the edge of a blast wave from a star that exploded approximately 6000 BC, during Neolithic civilization on Earth. The visible supernova remnant is now called the Veil Nebula. This mosaic of Hubble telescope images shows a small section of the distant Nebula, with false colors assigned to emissions from hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

An expansive revelation about our place, and our connections to some mystery we have to struggle to imagine, fills us with awe. Awe is a kind of restorative experience. Awe knocks ennui aside without a thought for the tedium that formerly seemed to pervade life.

In awe, one forgets doubts, and ever feeling that life is insignificant, unimportant, pointless—or miserable, consigned to suffering, or to guilt. One forgets feeling that life itself could be subjected to doubts. Awe induces doubt that life could be known, could be encompassed by our smaller experience.

Simple novelty of experience promotes a modest openness. To pursue novelty is certainly easier and much more common than an awesome, transcendent revelation. Even if novel experiences do not teach, they can achieve some restoration of feeling.

Otherwise, our familiar world seems too small and too usual. That familiar domain occludes the unseen remainder of the world. Life, too familiar, obstructs our participation in all else, diverse as we cannot imagine. Life seems cramped, repetitive, even hopeless. This is our feeling, unfairly attributed to other life without our constraint and beyond our limitations. Our impression of life portrays a distortion of life, conditioned or contained. Escape from noticing life only seems the credible alternative to neurosis and depression.

A routine travesty of living appears ridiculous in the face of further experiences discovered by spontaneity, or created by improvisation. Moments in which we experience different things—or even familiar things, differently—can then become extraordinary to us. These moments deliver us.

It is not too difficult to make extraordinary moments, for those who know they must seek them out. Ordinary moments are not ordinary at all to those who know how to transform them, with observance, into informal rituals. Sense phenomena that others take for granted can attain a phenomenal attention, a spiritual attention, suitable for sacrament.

[To feel] spiritual presence means and requires that you are present. All that becomes banal—an urban skyline view, an alcoholic high, a walk in the woods, rhythm or melody, a sexual touch, an idea written long ago—can be refreshed with spirit.

Spiritual experiences are restorative, as well as extraordinary experiences. They feel special, and make us feel special about ourselves or about living—eternal objects of human desire, taking infinite guises.

Feeling special about ourselves is indistinct from the impression of having purpose, or life having significance or meaning. A “relationship with God” communicates that one is special, that one has purpose, and life has meaning. But this is the same thing that people want most from romantic relationships with other people: the opportunity to feel special about themselves through a sense of connection-to-other. They want transcendence not only from changes in perspective, but manifested in experience made special—spiritual—through renewed attention to the senses, and ensuing intensification. The bond becomes sacred; the sexual rite becomes holy. A deep relationship with one’s work or calling can likewise become sanctified by devotion, attention, and presence.

A sacred or holy experience is not derived from a thing, place, or action called sacred or holy. We must supply preparation for a sense of the sacred or holy, which can be found in almost anything; it is the person who charges the encounter, not whatever seems sacred or holy.

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Lotus Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship, New Delhi

It is a great mystical, esoteric, and at times heretical teaching that the high experiences of religion are open to you. They are allowed. They are already implicit in the living human body, though not well-realized without practice. You can learn to recognize doors and need not depend on formal rituals to unlock them. You need not borrow a set of keys that dogma approves and intercessors must provide.

Even the grandest senses of divinity do not depend upon being seized by powers outside ourselves. The power to have transcendent experiences in the world unfolds from living, open to transcendent experiences.

You must ask yourself if you allow a sense of awe before the majesty of the world, intricate beyond your knowledge, beyond your time.

Can you hear, can you say: “Awake, awake! The world is new from this moment!” This feeling can begin a creation story for a new life.

 

Awe and other concepts that sound religious describe experiences to be realized in actual life. Grace and blessedness, transcendence and revelation, love, joy, passion, ecstasy and rapture are also called religious experiences, but they refer to real experiences of feeling nonetheless.

When religion is made regular, named, and organized, these experiences are exceedingly likely to remain concepts, drafted into rituals or doctrines that may be practiced and followed without those feelings; religion without spirit; religion left with dead metaphors, antique distractions; dogma now without corpus.

Life without the set of spiritual experiences is limited to a subset without sensations of “meaning.”

All the religious concepts—or rather, spiritual feelings behind religious concepts—can be naturalized, made part of our clearer understanding of natural, human life rooted in the body’s nervous system and the dispositions and needs of the mind. Spiritual experiences are special neural experiences, not supernatural or otherworldly experiences. The numinous can be integrated into natural life, and not cast out to the supernatural—nor dismissed along with superstition by the secular-minded.

Awe has become rarer than ever before. That few wonder at the rarity of the experience called awe could almost explain its rarity. The near absence of awe in adulthood seems to go virtually unnoticed and unremarked, though the experience is extraordinary. Awe has become an empty word out of fashion to modern people who cannot relate. Many identify awe with religious devotion, no longer valued, or practiced only as custom. But devotion is a road to awe, to pervasive holiness, to reverence and resonance, and if these things must be lost with secular deliverance from superstition, we should have cause to question whether that is deliverance at all. By all those numb and jaded, awe is missed, and the unshaken soul perceived, if not by words, then deep down instead.

But it is not necessary to lose awe without religion, just as it is not necessary to abandon spirit. Awe before God, or gods, represents awe before the epic of life in the world. It is simply that the origin of mighty experiences was mistaken to be might outside oneself.

Love, also, wells up and flows out from within, not to the credit of objects of fixation: idealized figures of divinity, or erotic attraction. We have in our brains the means for intense alterations of perception and participation. In a sense, as long as we are thus prepared, the triggers are almost incidental, if we know better than to attribute our electrified chemistry to them. We misbelieve in our dependency on others, and outside forces.

Religious experiences can be summoned up from within oneself. This is the “heresy” of personal divinity, that because I can summon up divine feelings, I am God—another untrue metaphor to express a truth.

 

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Excerpt: spirit as metaphor for sex (and vice versa)

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. Some compositions are unrepresentative in style, subject, or themes. All remain under development, subject to change. All selections were written by me since 2010. —CPB


It is too literal to believe that the cilice is worn no longer [by modern and secular people]. It is too literal to believe that penitence, or mortification to suppress the concupiscence to commit acts of sin, are obsoleted when these words are left to grow unfamiliar and antique.

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Die Jungfrauen by Gustav Klimt, 1913

Of all acts of desire formerly proscribed by religious authority, and forms of hedonism still censured in spirit, lust troubles most intimately. Even after the most diligent corruption of the youth to mistrust the body has passed from common instruction, the taboo body lingers, and puberty makes it a stranger. One generation passes shame, secrecy, and silence to another. The next passes awkwardness and avoidance to another. Overcoming schooled inhibition requires touching again and again, talking again and again, practicing again and again.

Some of the most immodest or promiscuous remain firmly in thrall. To want to prove that transgression of a taboo is possible proves also that the taboo holds—at least enough to tempt, and has not been thoroughly overcome. To transgress compulsively, to reduce sex to mere performance of acts, is to forget the tabu indicates sexual physicality is holy, not merely forbidden. Along this line, we can learn more than an error from those who still condemn lust as a sin.

The dangers of leaving desires to seethe unreleased, leading to unintended perversions of libido, have been extensively described. Indeed, religious modesty hides more than flesh. Suppression perpetuates undercurrents of fiendish attention to sexuality, as well as anticipating sin from such preoccupation. It forbids an appetite and fulfills an expectation, a guilty loop.

But more than cultivating obsessive attention, it also encourages another species of attention: a conscientiousness surrounding sexuality, hinted at by the concepts “purity” and “innocence,” an aura easily left behind when sexuality is rendered common and taken for granted. A purely utilitarian, matter-of-fact attitude toward sex would dispense with shame, anxiety, and bashfulness, and Eros too.

To actually encourage being present in the sexual act goes too far for those who worry about participation. Inhibited by shame, they are generally unable to obtain the fruits of such cultivation. These fruits are spiritual in a metaphorical sense of spirit, while the facilitating practice for present sensual, erotic, and ecstatic experience is—outwardly and physically—foreplay, sexual intercourse, and orgasm. They are too timid about that ritual to enter the temple’s Holy of Holies. No one can meet the god from a distance, performing self-conscious sex without abandon. No one honors Eros without fucking.

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Danaë by Gustav Klimt, 1907

Yet religious sanctity is of a kind with presence in the act, and not in total opposition. Those who still identify sex with sin at least intensify attention to sex, even though—and partly because—they are not supposed to. They know at least to impart significance to sex, and not demote a potentially profound neurogenic experience to a material interaction, or a biological drive. Preoccupation or obsession does heighten experience, despite unfortunate condemnation of the means of fruition and deemphasis of method. So do the various, overlaid religious frames treating sex as a profound, spiritual matter and not a mundane one.

Whereas, the alternate error of those called licentious is always to harvest, never to cultivate; that is, not to impart a neurogenic halo to the sexual acts, but to expend these occasions without reverence, and without intent to “set the mood” for any meaning beyond the obvious. This potentially reduces pleasure to expending the heightened senses of physicality, without attuning the senses for a broader neurogenic significance while they are heightened. Opportunities for peak experiences are lost.

That would also be the cost of coming to see sex as “simply biological,” the urgent need which one simply discharges, and gets back to something more important. One forms utilitarian relationships for this purpose, without emotional or spiritual attachments. One is too rarely struck, as by a lightning bolt, by an orgasm with meaning. One is too rarely shocked. Perhaps not at all.

It might be better not to lose the long-taught memory of shame, if this must be the price. Fortunately the price is paid unnecessarily by those who do. The mystique of sexuality need not be lost because the shame is lost, and because the moralizing has been, in its turn, lectured at, judged, and rejected.