The Evolution of Meaning
This approach to ceremony/ritual/worship assumes some basic premises. The main one is that there is no one true and exclusive system of ultimate meaning, no matter how powerful and numinous it seems, no matter how supernaturally it seems better than all other meanings or the exclusive property of one group.
Thus and nevertheless, there appears to be a basic evolved human access through ceremony to intensely felt meaning. How to activate that and use it without weaponizing it is a vital interest. Practices of groups gathered to celebrate the best way to survive in a specific place/time actually kindle and sustain specific shifts in brain systems. This is not the same as what we call “epiphany”. We might call it “church,” shared community solidarity.
Short visionary episodes don’t seem to be specific to any one culture, place or practice — they can come suddenly when one is unaware or unprepared. But one can create likelihood. Because cultures are so different due to the different places and times where they arose, what seems entirely natural to one might be offensive to another.
One example might be the inclusion of coition in group ceremonies. The old-time Blackfeet ceremony of the Horn Society, meant to encourage bison to be prolific, included a demonstration of “how to do it” by designated people, usually an “old bull” leader with a desirable young woman. Early anthropologists were so embarrassed that they recorded this sex act in Latin. The women also had a ceremony that demonstrated a simulation of birth, but they sequestered their ceremony as they would actual birth, putting up their travois frames to make a screen.
This was only one kind of ceremony, which is well-understood through Victor Turner’s idea of the “liminal” set-apart time/place where a group can share meaning. “Epiphany” is different. Culture-based group worship keeps pulling attention away from the highly intense personal experience that is unaccountable, thought to be supernatural, life-changing. Social culture-based conventional and recurring human gathering for religious purposes is much easier to think about, not so likely to trip over taboos.
Blackfeet did have an equivalent to “Epiphany” that was prepared for, called, and mind-shattering. It’s popularly associated with coming of age and acquiring one’s “spirit animal.” Up a mountainside a low bed-sized encirclement of stones was arranged and small flags marked four directions. The vision-seeker lay down in this marked space, so as not to wander.
Blackfeet did not use drugs or intoxicants to alter their minds but endured pain and hardship, starvation and thirst, along with chanting or drumming, to put their minds into an extreme state that invited visions. They were aware of risking their lives, so a relative checked on them at intervals. It might take several days to “trigger” a vision.
Today someone might use hypnotism or drugs like LSD to access a different “state of mind.” But we are aware that thought and physical change are so tightly connected that some accidental alignment of physical sensations can trigger a mind-blowing event. Blackfeet have not talked about this much, though many are attracted to Pentacostalism that includes extreme mind states. White people have picked up the idea and elaborated on it.
Scientifically, Stephen Porges has explained how the more inexplicable mind works by exploring the third vagal nerve connection that runs directly from the brain stem to the “frame of expression” (my term) that includes the face, the mechanisms of voice and hearing, the breath and heart beat, blood feed to the skin, and organ secretions that support “fight, flight, faint, or fawn” — all strategies for survival. This connection must be very old, preceding the developed brain, and specifically mammalian. We can see each other’s feelings.
This ability of the body to show emotion (which will register on a lie detector and be obvious on a video closeup) is the basis of communication between people who can “read” faces and postures. It may also be the key to a physical state that can access or even create extreme experiences by responding to sensory cues in the environment: a slant of light often represents this on stage or in a movie. Memory pulls up a past moment, emotion responds, the mind interprets. This is the means of “triggering” and “flashbacks,” because emotion is the connection. Our recovery of the emotional dimension of thought has made this abstract understanding perceptible, sensory.
But there seems to be more. We WANT there to be more: the dimension of the supernatural. Recent scientific thought and some philosophy is preoccupied by theories of quantum mechanics so startling that the extraordinary ideas replace what used to be called the supernatural.
In the shortest explanation, quantum mechanics reveal that at the sub-molecular atom level, everything is energy, mostly empty whirling. And yet these almost undetectable bits — quarks and gluons — are the elements of physical life as we know it. Things like entanglement (two particles once connected remain connected over immense space), absence of time, changing by observing, are as hard to comprehend as Olympus, Valhalla or the Christian Heaven. Yet they don’t deny Newtonian laws. They are somehow under them.
The experience of Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans might in fact be an evolving awareness that exceeds empathy for other humans and other sentient life forms, an awareness of either harmony and beauty or of the incredible extent of time and space that reduces us to specks. A pop version might be the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbs” in which the little boy and his tiger are out star-gazing but become so overwhelmed that they hurry back into the house. The sidereal cosmos is beyond human processing.
Some people seem to have little more consciousness than any mammal; some have no awareness of their own selves upon which they reflect; some have no empathy for others; and some are incapable of imagining something not present. I’ve know people in each of those categories and been irritated by their limitations. These might well be different stages of evolution that were not carried in every set of DNA or that were prevented by damage or lack of development.
Dr. Porges’s wife, Sue Carter, serves as the director of the Kinsey Institute that studies how sex fits into the rest of life. It was her team that discovered that mountain voles are not faithful to their sexual partners but meadow voles are. Faithfulness must be a survival value in one place, but not in the other. The difference was apparent in their DNA, another link between physical molecules and creature behavior. Sex is crucial for survival so it is no wonder that it is recorded in the code of the cells.
But possibly the capacity for empathy and certainly the ability to communicate should be perceptible in human DNA if we know where to find it. Likewise, some people may have evolved brief insight and connection to the cosmos through some kind of quantum function. Until now we have really had no context for this kind of thinking that is “spiritual” rather than religious.