If you want to enrich your life immeasurably, make friends with the sacred. It is everywhere. You don’t need to travel to Stonehenge or Machu Pichu to discover it. Nor do you need to swallow some consciousness-altering drug. Sacred power continually pours forth from the center of the universe. It is simultaneously here and now, while also everywhere, at any time. Trouble is, most of us have become blinded by the mechanically-oriented worldview that pervades our technologically-driven culture. So we have forgotten how to see it.
Rediscovering the sacred is the simplest thing in the world. It happens through a shift of consciousness—a break in time and space, if you like, through which you can experience the sacred realms come into being. Often this takes place spontaneously. It is given by grace. But anyone can also create structures in their life which invite this to happen. Organize the space you live and work in, for instance, to make a place in your life for rituals which honor the radiance of the world around you and within you. Doing this can be a lot of fun, too. Think of it as an adventure, a game, a childlike exploration into expanded awareness.
A SACRED ADVENTURE
My first experience of the sacred as an adult took place when I was 18 years old—just finishing my second year at Stanford University. Five months earlier, I had fallen in love for the first time with a man three years older. Then I found myself in the unenviable position of having to leave him to live in New York. I knew it would be a long time before we met again—if ever. We had one day to spend together in San Francisco before my plane left. We went for a walk in Golden Gate Park. I had been in the park many times before, visiting the Japanese garden or the museum. But I’d never paid much attention to what was around me, except in the vague way we all appreciate being amidst trees, grass and flowers.
That morning, the realm of the sacred cracked wide open for me. As he and I wandered across grass, through trees, knowing that in a few hours we would no longer be together, it felt as though death were sitting on my shoulder. I had no idea why. The love between us had arisen simultaneously a few months before. From the moment we met, both of us had experienced the sense that it was a bond that had always existed and always would. I loved this man with an intensity I had never dreamed possible. I could hardly bear the fire that burned in me when we touched, let alone the surges of power that happened when he held me in his arms.
CRACK IN THE COSMOS
In the park that morning, we crossed a road and stepped up on to the curb. In front of us a group of old men were bowling on the green. They were dressed in the shabby clothes the old sometimes wear—garments which, like old friends, you have lived with so long you don’t want to be parted from. None of the men paid the least attention to us, absorbed as they were in their game. All at once, the scene before me shifted from that of a pleasant ordinary morning spent in nature—nice trees, green grass, a small knoll behind the old men rising to a copse above—to something at once blissful and completely terrifying.
Space expanded in all directions. A million tiny holes appeared in reality—each emitting light—so that the air and grass, the pavement we had just crossed, the bodies of the men in their shabby clothes, the clouds above us, and the trees around us trembled with a strange radiance. Time burst wide open, breaking in great waves over the lawn. I couldn’t tell if this strange experience lasted for a few moments or for hours. My heart swelled to immense proportions. I had no idea what was happening, since I had never experienced anything like this before. It seemed totally crazy—as though, at the same time, I had been wiped out and brought into being in a brand new form.
When an experience of the sacred arises spontaneously—often at times of great emotional joy or loss—it is both blissful and awe-filled. In whatever guise it shows itself, the sacred is a far cry from any ‘orchestrated’ experience of pink-flowers-and-soft-music which purveyors of false freedom and all their easy answers offer us. It is an experience full of beauty and terror, fascination and majesty. In the presence of such overwhelming wonder, you find yourself standing before a mystery that is wholly other. I knew nothing about what was happening that morning in Golden Gate Park. Only that an epiphany had occurred that day, and that I wanted to live a lot of my life from this level of being in the future.
In 1917, Rudolf Otto published one of the most important books on spirituality ever written, Das Heilige—The Sacred. In it, he describes the awe-inspiring mystery (mysterium tremendum) which we feel in the presence of sacred energy. He characterizes it as a perfect fullness of being, a flowering which dissolves away our conditioned thinking and breaks down all the barriers to being fully present in the moment. Every time we are touched by the sacred, the experience urges each of us to live a little more of our life from the deepest levels of our being. Make room in your life for the sacred, and you can make a quantum leap towards authentic freedom and creative power.
Otto characterizes the qualities of the sacred as numinous—from the Latin numen, meaning god. For they are brought about by the sudden revelation of an aspect of divine power within the paraphernalia of our day-to-day lives. Such is the nature of the sacred when it enters our life. One minute, you’re waiting for a bus or standing beneath a tree you have stood under a hundred times before. The next minute, this tree has suddenly become altogether something else. It has been transmuted in some mysterious way into an expanded, luminous reality. Of course, it is still a tree both to you and to everybody else standing there. In fact, nothing in particular may distinguish this particular tree from all the other trees on the street. Yet because, at that moment, it has chosen to reveal itself more fully to you, your immediate experience of it becomes transfigured. It feels as though the tree has revealed its secret nature to you. It has become a repository of all that is awesome—so much so that, often, experiencing the sacred makes it hard just to catch your breath. For a time, it can even make you wonder who you are and what on earth you are doing there.
JOY IN THE NUMINOUS
Another great philosopher of the sacred is religious philosopher Mircea Eliade. Eliade calls the manifestation of the sacred—during which the numinous realms open to reveal themselves—an hierophany. This is a great word. For it does not imply any religious or philosophical bias that would indicate you need to belong to some in-group to have a right to sacred experience. Hierophanies belong to everyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear.
In early civilizations, hierophanies were common occurrences. In the tribal cultures that still remain, they are to this day—in fact, wherever people live with an awareness of the magnificence hidden within the most ordinary of things. To them, rocks are sacred, as is the wind, stars, earth, animals, the changes of the seasons, the sun and the rain, the birth of a child, the death of an elder. Wherever you discover an awareness of the sacred, you will also find rituals for celebrating it—rituals which set the stage for hierophanies to happen more often.
WE FEAR THE SACRED
Most of the modern world feels profoundly uneasy about such experiences. We are the only known age in history that lives almost entirely in a desacralized culture. Limited worldviews imprison us, forcing us to live an almost totally profane existence. A tree is nothing but a tree. Wind is but movement of air, caused by nothing more than mechanical shifts in currents. As far as rocks are concerned, what could possibly be more mundane? We make fun of “primitive” people and their “quaint” superstitions. We often exploit their land and force the values of our materialistic world on them. What we forget is this: Cultures for whom the sacred appears through ordinary objects know very well that a rock is a rock. They don’t venerate the rock itself, or the wind. They worship the hierophanies which appear as these things to reveal the essential spirit of each—something vast in its beauty. They know that whenever and wherever the sacred erupts into the mundane world, no matter what form it takes, a deeper, wider, richer dimension of reality is inviting them to dance with its power and celebrate its beauty.
EXPAND YOUR REALITY
Most of us have to relearn how. Once we do, we find our lives continually renewed, energized, and ecstatic. It is as though a wild blessing has been given – a blessing which nourishes and heals us. In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade speaks of the basic need we as humans have, ‘to plunge periodically into this sacred and indestructible time…the eternal present.’ It is a need so deeply ingrained in our being that, when we are unable to fulfill it from time to time, we end up living in a nihilistic wasteland. Our lives become narrow, no matter how many fast cars we buy, how many drugs we take, how many lovers we have. Eating, sex, and getting up in the morning become nothing more than physiological events in a mechanical world. Reawakening an awareness of the sacred in your own life and making room for it turns these events into much more than largely mechanical actions. Each can evolve into a ‘sacrament’—the meaning of which is communion with the sacred. Once it does, our capacity for vitality, joy and creativity goes on expanding.
Welcoming the sacred into your life is the first step in opening a door to authentic freedom. It is not hard. All of us knew how as children. Then our educational system with its emphasis on the rational, the abstract and mass conformity has taught us to forget it. It taught us to be ‘serious’, to ‘work hard’, not to ‘daydream’, not to ‘be silly.’ Luckily, like learning to ride a bicycle, you never really lose the skill. To recover your own lost ability to bring hierophanies into your life, you need only remember what you have temporarily forgotten and begin to play again.
Nature is a great carrier of sacred power for us. This is because the energies of nature, in which we have lived as human beings throughout four million years, are our energies. Our bodies and our beings literally communicate through our DNA with those of plants and animals. At a cellular level, our bodies know the familiar taste of herbs and smells of the earth. It’s a knowing built right into our being. When we interact with nature, we align ourselves with her power, coming into harmony with the different directions and the energies she carries, as well as with all the elements—air, fire, water and earth. By making friends with the living world around us, whether this means going out into the fields, by the sea, into the hills, woods or mountains, the sacred opens itself to us. If you are a city dweller, learning to dialogue with any natural object in your environment—a rock, a flower, even the food you eat, opens consciousness to the sacred. The gifts this brings when we do are limitless.