Monday, January 23, 2012
Books that I’ve recently read convey snatches of the lore whereby sacred places may be recognized and visited. I find myself wanting to quote from them. But I must refer only to what I know, sketchy or part-submerged in the subconscious as that may be. David Abram for example speaks of certain peoples, on the fringes of our civilization or beyond, whose languages don’t stretch to distinguishing space and time; or not as definitely as ours. For the Hopi, there is what we would call a “manifest” reality, and another that we might call the “manifesting”, or that which has not yet come to pass: including what we call the future and what we call the human mind, with all its dreams and plans. Whenever we make ourselves think rationally, we in this Western civilization (fast becoming a mono-civilization, such is its all-devouring power) apply the template of Science, mono-science, if you will; which asks us to see space and time as separate dimensions. Abram also examines the phenomenon of synaesthesia, whereby one sense blurs with another. So that for example in our alphabetic written languages, letters strung into words and sentences are read with the eyes yet felt internally as sounds; whereas someone’s spoken words are heard with the ears yet felt internally as spelled a certain way. And in this we see how much our education has shut off our sense of wonder, to the extent that we take for granted vast realms which don’t exist in oral civilizations, those people with vivid traditional culture but no writing. We are not aware of our blinkers (blinders you may call them). We don’t give indigenous peoples, those “primitive savages”, credit for their own forms of science, which enable them to survive in harmony with nature in ways that we might envy. They have their own scholars and adventurers too, those shamans and hunters and guardians of oral lore.
What is a sacred place? Is it mainstream or occult? Both. I like to define it simply as the place where one might go on a pilgrimage, as to Lourdes or Mecca. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, all kinds of person join for the trip to St Thomas’ tomb. Why? Because there you could touch relics of the murdered Thomas à Becket and benefit from their magic healing powers. People, not all Catholics or even Christians, still flock to Lourdes, for the same reasons. Not all do it for self-healing but they get something from it all the same. My ex-wife used to go, taking one of my socks along to dip in the healing spring, to see if it would cure my chronic illness whilst I stayed behind. Did it work? Possibly, if you allow its effect a long germination period; for it is incontestable that ten years later I was instantaneously cured.
It’s easy to be sceptical and to apply prejudice against superstition. I’ve known my neighbour as a man with many worries, money being not the least of them. He went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. It’s not a cheap package! This was a few months ago. He came back so glowing, I felt it strongly myself and the other Muslims in the street visited his house on their own mini-pilgrimage, to get a taste of it. It might have dimmed a little now, but his worries still don’t seem to have returned. I firmly believe the Hajj to be a superstitious ritual, but as to its beneficial effects, I’m a believer.
For me personally, the sacred place is not superstition but empirical fact. I’ve identified many such places at various times over the last twenty years. You may ask what I mean by this. In the course of my wonderings, I would come to a place where it felt good to be. (“Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if you will, let us make here three tabernacles; one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”—Matthew 17:4) Yes, I felt like making a tabernacle there. But the place would remain unmarked, except in my heart. When I visited again, from curiosity, the feeling would be the same, only more so: stronger each time. So I could imagine from this, that the power of a place revered by many people over hundreds of years would be stronger still. And if this sounds bizarre, consider magnetism (more properly ferromagnetism) before it was scientifically understood. Stroke a needle with a lodestone, float it in water and it points North. Magic, surely.
So that’s a kind of introduction to what I have to say. Two weeks ago, I had just finished reading David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous. I knew I could not write a review, anything like that, for its effect in my life was too huge. Some of it was still vividly resonating within me, in a process of absorption that may yet take some time. That morning, I went to a diagnostic centre to have my neck X-rayed. I asked the technician to show me the images and say what they meant. There turned out to be nothing deadly, more of an age-related, wear-and-tear thing. To get to the X-ray place, I’d gone on foot through a self-styled Nature Reserve, a shrubby hillside criss-crossed with footpaths. It’s my standard route for destinations due South, a little muddy sometimes but perfectly navigable. On the way back I took a different route, different hillside. My house, you see, is in the main valley, where a little river winds between the old factories and workers’ cottages. Unless you go due West or East, you have no choice but to climb steep hills or the gentler slopes that separate them. I’m speaking to you as one pedestrian to another. Driving a car, you wouldn’t bother yourself much with the lay of the land. I was wandering randomly because lost in thought (“I wander’d lonely as a cloud ...”). I told my thoughts to the little voice recorder I always carry. I was expressing joy at the sudden realization that reason and science are not my enemy at all. I can use all my intelligence, and even be a scientist, gathering data every day. But it’s a different science, one which has continuity with Abram’s “indigenous oral cultures” as well as the more modern tradition of phenomenology, which could be called the science of subjective experience. I felt I was ready to come in from the cold, no longer alienated from the society all around me. I wasn’t condemned to pointless eccentricity, constantly paddling my boat upstream, against the comfortable flow. I could go on living a half-dream-world existence, but be part of a recognized movement essential to the revitalizing and rebalancing of human society, and therefore the entire ecosphere; for both are going sadly askew. It was a nice feeling.
At the end of my rambling monologue into the little device were these words, more or less transcribed verbatim: “And at this very moment, I am now discovering new footpaths, the most wonderful birdsong, new vistas—and it’s all so near where I live.” So there it was, a newly-discovered secret, a sacred place just half a mile from my house. So much for thinking I knew every footpath for a radius of several miles.
With intent to investigate this wonder, I’ve returned there several times since: to dictate ideas, take photos and record the birdsong. K and I visited it yesterday together. I’ve put together a little YouTube thing—see below; whose main purpose is to show you that a sacred place need be nothing special, just some disregarded part of your neighbourhood. This one for example is a plot for low-rent housing erected by the Council.
Below is an edited version of what I dictated. The words came from my mouth, but it seemed to be the place itself which drew them out. It sounds like a sort of recipe, but it’s not meant that way, more as real-time research into what helps me tune myself to the magical.
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Find a sacred place, enter into its spirit. It doesn’t matter where or what. New spaces can be created where none existed before, as in literature, painting, cyberspace. But your body, your senses, demand to be outdoors, in the great shared space, breathing shared air under the common sky. Obey those senses.
You have to tune yourself to the magical. There are various ways. You have to be directly connected to the space you are travelling through. You cannot be in a car. You could be on a bus, but the space you connect to will be the interior of the bus, with the specimens of Nature it contains at the time. To help tune, try sunrise and sunset; a patch of clear sky; a wall, fence or tree glowing with reflected rays of the sun; a sense of focused expectation, fostered by the performance of ritual, fetish objects, or previous encounters with the place. Fetish objects might be the things you take to the place, such as walking boots, camera, voice recorder, a notebook and pen given by a loved one. For novelist John Cowper Powys, who understood this topic far better than I, it would be a walking stick.
What do you tune to? Lightly banish from your mind all concept of the picturesque, for this can only chain your vision to stereotypical beauty. In some cultures the shaman might use a psychedelic drug, such as peyotl. But these are not necessary, and may coarsen the sensibility. What you are looking for is a crack in the world, through which you can pass, not to escape to a different reality, but to view the same locale in a new, more glowing light. And remember always that you cannot make anything happen. You can only prepare yourself to receive a gift.
Various auspicious signs may occur, which help you tune to the miraculous. I guess they are individual. Their significance arises from your own personal history. The more you cherish them, the more potent they become, just like the sacred place itself. It gathers power with each visit. For me, the following signs are always auspicious: washing hanging out on a line, dogs barking, children playing, bubbles or balloons floating free, a dead-end road which continues in an almost-hidden footpath, the sight and smell of smoke, the loud song of birds especially the European blackbird (turdus merula), the cheeky behaviour of a group of sparrows, mysterious noises from an unseen source. Scents of every kind. Tutelary clouds that hang above the horizon. Mothers with prams. Small black children. Bicycles thrown carelessly down, trustingly left. Unexpected sudden vistas. Being looked at by any animal, whilst it decides if you are too close for its comfort, especially if it is too young or incapacitated to escape; or a rat which regards you without fear. Become aware that your whole life is magical, its preciousness infinite. Reflect that when your time is up, you’ll be ready to leave without a struggle; because you have truly lived, you have eaten the fruit of the tree called Now. Its abundance exceeds all possible appetite. How can you be greedy for more?
The encounter with a stranger: perhaps a dog-walker, perhaps at a bus stop. The eavesdropping of conversations on a bus, perhaps the loud chatter of girls just come out from school. A gathering of sparrows in a hedgerow of thorn-bushes. A growing awareness that everything is significant—everything human and non-human, including the coloration of the clouds. Everything becomes significant, speaks its own meaning. The riches of Now is too much to take in. It becomes silly to photograph everything, describe everything in words. Even if you (Heaven forbid) lost some of your senses, became simultaneously deaf and blind, like Helen Keller, there would still be an overabundance of significance: the scents, the feelings on your skin, the vibrations of things in the wind, the taste of the air. But I have two eyes: I can have my being in this world of perspective, and walk amongst these hills.
Posted by Vincent at 3:23 pm