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On the Definition of the Sacred
by Tim Maroney

At our present level of psychological understanding, we lack even the basics for a definition of such a vague term as "spirituality", except in terms of equally vague words such as "holy", "sacred", and "numinous". These terms can only be defined in terms of each other, so we have gained no real understanding or clarity with such definitions. We are merely playing shuffleboard with syllables. "Sacred" means "consecrated or holy"; "holy" means "divine or sacred"; "numinous" means "divine"; "divine" means "spiritual".

At some point in the future, our understanding of psychology may be such that we will be able to break these concepts down into genuinely simpler concepts, such as the interrelationship of neural clusters. But for now, they remain irreducible absolutes.

In the face of these circularities, many mystics fall back to the position of no-definition, often expressed in terms of the inherent inadequacy of language to capture the ultimate ground of reality. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao; katz! But the same is equally true of the phenomena we typically consider mundane and non-spiritual. No language can genuinely capture a single red rose, or the sound of jackhammers at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. Language is by nature a scaled-down model of reality which fails to partake of the wholeness of the phenomenon it describes. There is no reason that language should be any less useful in discussing the "numinous" than it is in discussing the rose or the hammer.

The true problem in description of the spiritual is lack of a vocabulary. "Red" as an experience can't really be defined any more than "holy" can. It is just that we all know what the word "red" refers to, having experienced the referent ourselves, and having experienced the word in conjunction with its referent. Those who have experienced sacredness recognize it, and they may be able to suggest to each other a vocabulary for describing its particular manifestations. Those who do not know spirit will see this vocabulary as a meaningless jargon. But even those who know should be aware that they are not explaining spirit with their vocabulary. They are merely labelling it.

And yet, people persist in the silliest attempts to explain the spirit with labels. We are bombarded by totally foolish "definitions" such as "feelings out of the ordinary" (does this include the feeling of being rear-ended by a purple Volkswagen?) and "other dimensions of consciousness" (the term "dimension" is surpassed only by "evolution" in its use as a meaningless buzz-word by the metaphysically inclined). Non-definitions of this sort are in their way as good as any other terminology, because those who have known the spirit will recognize more or less what the speaker is talking about, but they are no more basic -- and a good deal more fuzzy-minded -- than "holy", "sacred", and the rest of the crew.

So let us take sacredness as an indefinable but recognizable absolute, and starting from there try to develop a taxonomy of sacred experiences. Immediately new problems arise. First, religions have long worked to develop these terminologies themselves, yet no two religions can agree on them. Second, being more or less familiar with these religious systems, we may find it difficult to avoid invisible but powerful assumptions built into them -- or, more likely, we will not even try, treating these basic assumptions as unquestioned fact. Third, we may once again fall into nonsense of the "dimensions of consciousness" or "feelings out of the ordinary" kind, imagining that we are analyzing things into more basic concepts when we are only spinning out absurdity.

Probably the most common error is to refer to "states of consciousness". This terminology ignores the fact that there are as many states of consciousness as there are moments in the lives of all sentient beings. It's as if we are imagining the mind to be a car, with first gear the "mundane consciousness", second gear the first stages of "religious illumination", and so on. But the mind is far more complex than a car; it does not have clearly distinct modes of operation. Each of its "states" involves billions of variables. Not only is one person's meditative trance not the same state as another person's, it is not even the same state for the same person from meditation to meditation, or from moment to moment in a single session. We can speak of broad classes of similar experiences, but not of states of consciousness.

"Red" is not a "state of vision"; it is one component of a visual experience which has many other factors and which will never be precisely duplicated in another experience. We do not see vision in terms of "states", but in terms of highly complex, multidimensional phenomena. Is the sacred simpler and more mechanical than the visible?

"States of consciousness" is an example of all three kinds of errors: using the terminology of a single school, not questioning the assumptions underlying a terminology, and mistaking a meaningless label for serious analysis.

Another common error is the confounding of classes. For instance, we might divide spiritual experiences into the immanent and the transcendent. The former sees the unity (or voidness) of all phenomena; the latter sees all phenomena as transcended by some spiritual force or being outside the mundane world. This is a perfect valid measure of spiritual experiences, but it is not the only (or even the primary) measure. Many experiences are more similar to counterparts in the other class than they are to their classmates. Some belong in both classes or neither.

There are any number of spiritual measures, among which are static or dynamic, full or empty, harsh or soothing, personal or impersonal, free or structured, spontaneous or deliberate, passionate or arid, solitary or social, intellectual and emotional, differentiated and uniform, and so forth. We do not impose any useful taxonomy by putting one of these measurements above the others, dividing all spiritual experiences into type 1 and type 2. A static, full, harsh, impersonal, immanent experience is more like a static, full, harsh, impersonal, transcendent experience than it is like a dynamic, empty, soothing, personal immanent experience. But if we were committed to making a basic division between immanent and transcendent experiences, we would have to say that any immanent experience is more like any other immanent experience than it is like any transcendent experience.

In summary, no language is truly adequate to description of spirituality, but some terminologies are less adequate than others. Terminologies which claim to analyze but do not break notions down into more basic notions are nonsense. Terminologies which impose an oversimplified linear structure on the multidimensional nature of spiritual experience are misleading. Terminologies based on unexamined assumptions about the structure of the psyche and the superiority of some experiences to others are worse than useless.

With fractalic greetings and laughter * Fra.: Apfelmann *


Origin: ThelemaNet San Francisco * (415) 751-9308 (Opus 1:161/93)

All work is copyright the listed author.

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