Towards a Secular Spirituality
…on the commonalities between Beat poetry, Zen buddhism and Christian theology
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
Alan Ginsberg — Footnote to Howl
Alan Ginsberg’s Howl has become a landmark of American poetry, a poem to define the feeling of a whole generation (who has never heard the chilling opening lines “ I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”?).
The Beats surrounding Ginsberg turned into a counter-culture movement of sorts, although they weren’t necessarily politically motivated in their early days. They paved the wave for the San Francisco Hippie movement, which was politicized during the Anti-War movement, and stigmatized in conservative circles (as seen in the repressive, anti-scientific moves against psychedelics, more on which I wrote about here).
But when reading Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs, I don’t get the impression of political/social activist writers, or of writers that write just for the sake of provocation. It’s deeper than that: soul-searching, fun, insane at times. But at the same time a sense of realness and honesty pervades it.
Ginsberg initially wrote Howl mostly for himself, and was only later prodded by his close friends to go out and read it in public. And, following its sucess, to publish it.
Howl was then put up on obscenity trial.
One definition of obscene being: offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.
But how obscene is Howl, and are the lines quoted above, really?
From the perspective of many of the world religions, Ginsberg’s lines can be thought of as a sort of meta-sacrilege (sacrilege as being a “ violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred”). The word holy itself is being misused. Yes, of course, the soul is holy, few would deny that.
But how sure are you about the asshole?
I still think Ginsberg’s far reaching claims about the holiness of everything and everyone are only superficially nothing more than a provocation.
They remind me of a Zen Koan:
“Question: What is Buddha? Answer: Three pounds of flax.”
In a way, Zen Koans are also not much more than provocation, but in the best possible sense: they are meant to drive the reader’s and contemplator’s rationality to its breaking point. Beyond this breaking point awaits Satori, spontaneous enlightenment, spontaneous insight into the true workings of the world that can not be grasped by analytical, linguistic thinking.
But there is more than common ground shared with just Zen buddhism, of which prominent Beat figures like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder were students or even scholars of.
I think there are also significant commonalities between Ginsberg and the world view whose representatives put Ginsberg’s text on obsecenity trial: Christian theology.
In his 1917 book Das Heilige, Rudolf Otto investigates the structure of experiences of the Sacred. He writes:
He finds the feeling of terror before the sacred, before the awe-inspiring mystery (mysterium tremendum), the majesty (majestas) that emanates an overwhelming superiority of power; he finds religious fear before the
fascinating mystery (mysterium fascimms) in which perfect fullness of being flowers.
He characterizes these kinds of experiences as numinous (from Latin numen, god). The experience of something sacred is equated with the numinous. Otto was both a theologian and psychologist, which you can tell by the vocabulary he uses.
The term of the numinous itself is not only limited to Christian theology, and was used prominently in 20th century psychology, for isntance by Jung in Modern Man in Search for Soul or in his Lectures on the Psychology of Religion to describe a wider-ranging experiental dimension that is at the basis of all religious experience.
In his analysis, Jung found this dimension of experience to be unexplored by many members of modern societies, and this much to their own disadvantage. According to Jung, transcendent experiences are one of the cornerstones of the individuation process of each person, and personal developement crucially depends on experience of the numinous.
Similarily, In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, individual realization and transcendence can be found right at the top of the pyramid of developemental psychology.
I think Jung’s claims hold true until this day: many people today are under the impression that their lives have become become unhealthily “profane”.
Mircea Eliade’s puts this “profaneness” as the direct opposite of the sacred in his book The Sacred and the Profane.
What does it mean to experience sacredness?
Eliade calls manifestations of sacredness hierophanies. According to him, the sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from “natural”, everyday-life realities. The sacred is naturally the opposite of the experience of the profane. In hierophanies, this different reality can, somewhat paradoxically, be represented in the most mundane objects, such as in a stone, a tree, or the in the infamous three pounds of flax. Eliade states:
It is impossible to overemphasize the paradox represented by every hierophany, even the most elementary.
This is perhaps why Ginsberg’s lines are so powerful and so easily misunderstood.
His deliberate obscenity becomes much more than obscenity: the sacred is in direct opposition with the profane, and as the profanity of the “asshole” is unmatched, the transformative power of the sacred, otherworldy (divine, numenous) principle manifesting in it becomes ever so much more poignant.
Poets love to play with paradoxes and opposing, rationally irreconcilable principles. In Les fleurs du mal (The flowers of evil), one of the most influential works of modern poetry (about whose influence I wrote about here), Baudelaire make heavy use of this theme.
And while the modern Western analytic mind has a profound dislike for paradoxes (just think of the foundational crisis of mathematics at the beginning of the twentieth century), the friction between opposing principles can also be understood as a driving force behind the flow of the world.
This idea is as old as philosophy itself: Heraklit’s metaphysics are centered around it.
In Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft, the paradoxical tension between opposites relates to the aesthetic moment of the sublime (Erhabenheit), where the observer is being overwhelmed by something larger than himself and at the same time experiences himself as being a part of this something that is so much larger than him.
This shows in the unique character of the aesthetic experience, which is pleasureable and unpleasurable (erzeugt Lust-und Unlust) at the same time.
The inherent tensions in paradoxes and opposites are an important aspect of art, and equally of the experience of the sacred.
While Kant’s analysis is purely secular, and Ginsberg was very obviously not a priest, the chasm between aesthetic and religious experience isn’t necessarily that large, and the similarity in vocabulary used can be pretty striking. For centuries, the this difference did not even really exist: the greatest art was intertwined with religious themes, and meant to reflect the beauty of god’s creation.
Within Christianity, the hierarchy between believer and god makes clear that god as the divine principle is infinitely superior to the believer (as captured in the phrase: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…).
So it is an important aspect of experiencing the nature of the Christian god that a sense of awe and wonder before his/her creation is invoked, similar to the experience of the sacred in Otto. As a good example for how this comes across in art, listen to the beginning of Bach’s Johannes Passion.
And vice versa, when it comes to the great mystic’s accounts of their encounters with the divine/sacred, factual descriptions often give way to wonderfully poetic tales. Meister Eckart’s salmons are so expressive that he can be rightly considered to be one of the most eminent poets of Medieval Germany.
Huxley even complained that Meister Eckart was so obviously verbally gifted that he sometimes went too far in his poetic ventures, in that he couldn’t resist the allure of poetry sometimes unsuited for his circumstance and audience (who knows, perhaps Eckart would have been a beat poet had he lived in a different time and place).
But while the take-home message can somewhat vary, the experience of the sacred not only connects to principles of aesthetics, but to a more general framework for mental states that are in some way related to claims about the deepest layers of reality.
I’ve been thinking about how much the Buddhist states of Satori or Buddhahood match this conception of the experience of the sacred. The paradoxical representation of sacredness is very much aligned with the Zen teachers embracing a paradoxical, rationality-defying true nature of things. This true nature can be realized in very ordinary circumstances. In fact, Zen buddhism teaches that
Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
This is different from the Christian emphasis on the extraordinary and awe-inspiring quality of the divine. Nevertheless I think this difference mainly arises at an interpretational level, and not at the layer of the experience itself.
In Religions, Values and Peak Experiences, Maslow characterizes these profound and shaking experiences as peak experiences, and claims them to be the basis for prophet-myths that lie at the beginnings of all major religions:
The characteristic prophet is a lonely man who has discovered his truth about the world, the cosmos, ethics, God, and his own identity from within, from his own personal experiences, from what he would consider to be a revelation.
Think of the Buddha in Bodghaya, think of Mohammed’s visions in the desert, think of the prophets of the Old Testament, and of the historical Jesus.
Huxley makes the point in his Perennial Philosophy that the experience of this one metaphysical principle is shared across all spiritual traditions, and thus they are all nothing more than different aspects of one universal Perennial Philosophy.
While the nature of peak experiences can vary greatly, they still share a lot of commonalities, some bearing much resemblance to the experiences of the sacred, of the sublime, of the divine, of Satori or of Enlightenment.
Their first and foremost property, according to Maslow, is defined as the perception of a unifying principle behind the world, which manifests in its every atom and fiber, and which, accordingly, shows every fiber to belong to an underlyling, otherworldy principle.
To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.
There is a common thread to all these varying accounts: there is the potential for the world to be perceived as much more than a profane, material, lifeless world. The world can be enchanted, miraculous, holy.
So Ginsberg is very much not preaching sacrilege.
If he exclaims “Everything is holy!”, he is aligned with the sayings of the prophets of the ancient days that laid the foundation for Christianity, maybe even more aligned than a lot of people that go to religious service regularly.
Maslow criticizes that for many, religious service has become stale and habitual, is motivated by fear of the afterlife or by familial obligation.
The dogmatic principles are merely believed instead of felt to be true by personal conviction. Many people are not forced to confront profound experiential layers. This turns out to be a common byproduct of institutionalizing something as personal as the spritual quest each person has to go through individually. Maslow goes as far as saying:
Organized Religion, the churches, finally may become the major enemies of the religious experience and the religious experiencer.
So, in the end, while the term sacredness has a clear connotation with religious practice, sacredness can also be experienced, and for many in our times, primarily so, in a secular context.
Maybe we need the “obscenity” and paradox of an Alan Ginsberg to show us that there is room for a sense of sacredness in the most ordinary circumstances. And that the world is always there to be experienced as something holy.
We don’t really know enough to know what really matters, and being in awe in the face of the world seems to be a sensible thing to do every now and then.
Ginsberg ends his poem with the line:
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!
and who could argue with that?