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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: The meaning of the “Sacred”

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The meaning of the “Sacred”

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters


The meaning of the “Sacred”


Let us take “the sacred” to be that which is accepted (by an individual, culture, etc.) to provide an ultimate reality, value, and meaning for life (Ludwig 3). Although there are some who believe that life holds no meaning and that nothing can be proved, these same people usually choose to keep living and hold some criteria that serves as their basis for making choices. I would propose that a sense of the sacred is universal among self-reflective beings.

With the above definition, “anything” can be sacred. For instance, for the very secular, scientific truth may be held as sacred. Anything that merits the use of ceremony may also be endowed with sacred attachment. In religion, baptism and weddings may actually be called sacraments. In a wider perspective, life is so remarkable, the unlikely conditions that make our life-supporting environment possible are so precious, and the potential of our creative nature is so inspiring, that everything should be sacred.

An unusual predominance of such feelings of sacred fullness and identification was first associated with epileptics in the late 1800s. Since then, a wide range of scientific experiments
have been conducted to find a “God spot” in the brain. Direct electrical stimulation to certain brain areas have triggered such feelings. Also, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to observe atypical activation of a wide range of brain areas during meditation or other unusual mental states achieved by practitioners ranging from Franciscan nuns to Buddhist adepts. Scientists attributed this as the brain typically mediating human experience while the nuns felt that “it provided confirmation of God’s interactions with them.” (Biello)

The concept of the sacred may also be attached to mental perceptions, particularly those associated with feelings of rapture, detachment from self, or unity with others. Anthropologists have noted that such feelings are not only historically common among humans, but so ubiquitous as to suggest a defining characteristic of humanity.

Other animals are equipped with similar neural machinery such as the limbic system, which mediates emotions. One wonders if lizards, soaking themselves in the sun’s warmth, and whales breaching on the open sea, also experience a similar rapturous satisfaction of being in union with their environment.

Observers (I often refer to the broad context of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory) have noted and characterized many elements of human development. For both individuals and communities, development proceeds from simply meeting personal survival needs to increasingly higher stages. With each new stage achieved, world views change, transcending the no-longer-tenable limitations of earlier views. At any stage, elements of earlier stages are still available and may be expressed regressively under stress. Temporary states of more-advanced attributes may be temporarily experienced until they are successfully incorporated as permanent stages. One might think of this as a mobility-enabled or evolutionary take on the traditional “Great Chain of Being.” It also is consistent with the “Perennial philosophy.”

A child, at first, is self-aware, believing that if she is unhappy, the whole world is unhappy. She discovers her toes as a distinguishable part and her surroundings as distinguishable things apart. During development, she passes through predictable stages of close identification with an immediate group, compliance for award or punishment-avoidance, respectful compliance to established authorities, competing for personal achievement, suppression of self for group unity, fitting to the dynamic flow of life, committing to higher abstract values. Communities, civilizations, and societies also grow through similar stages. Not every entity will progress continuously, but may stall and remain at some level. Each level adapts a different view of what is sacred and thus gives meaning to life.

The concept of religious sacred is intrinsic to the half of Americans who still hold conservative religious faiths. “Modern” Western society abruptly turns its back on the religious sacred in favor of science, achievement and the secular. However our “modern” society is increasingly responding to a level of post-modern thinking, which restores a respect for the very special place of developing life and assigns sacredness to a spirituality that is often non-religious.

I believe that sacredness is a universal felt-sense among sentient beings and it is intrinsic to being human. We never seem to lose sight of something sacred that fills us with awe, from the smile on Mommy’s face, to Santa Clause’s annual visit, to rows of powerful machines at peak production, to a good meeting where everybody gets to express themselves, to Gaia adjusting to everything we throw at her, to the felt-sense of always already being—I am that I am.

References Cited

Ludwig, Theodore. The Sacred Paths of the East 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. Prentice Hall 2006
Biello, David. Searching for God in the Brain, Scientific American Mind. October 3, 2007.