Sunday, January 4, 2009

Horizontal and Vertical Trajectories

I'm just throwing this idea out there. Maybe in comparative religion studies (Joe, you out there?) there's already a term for it.

Back in high school I worked summers at the Princeton University Press. One of my jobs was researching the photo permissions for the paperback edition of Joseph Campbell's The Mythic Image. I got to know the book pretty well. One part that intrigued me particularly was the section on the Kundalini yoga system of chakras (much of the text in question is available starting on page 30 here [typo correction: should be 330] , but almost no illustrations are).

Now anyone who's spent time around New Age groups knows chakras, the light-filled centers of energy based in different parts of the body. Campbell went specifically for the symbolic meaning of them, and included illustrations from a variety of sources that really made the point.

In Kundalini yoga, the object is to train the Kundalini, the snake, to rise up from the root chakra (down by the anus), through the other six chakras and out through the head. The meanings of these chakras have a clear "higher" and "lower" hierarchy: the root chakra is about basic survival, the chakra based in the genitals is about sex, the one based in the belly is about consumption or devouring. The remaining four have more esoteric meanings in Kundalini Yoga, involving increasing levels of connection with the divine: the heart, the throat, the brow, and the crown of the head.

The goal is "up," vertical.

[And I know there's
a lot of philosophical disgreement about what I just wrote, that the Theosophical aproach is a distortion of true teachings, etc etc...]

Freshman year in college, Religion 101, we read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. I had read it once before for religion class in high school, but this time saw the book in a structural way, looking at how the central character goes through a life path of ascetic devotion to prayer, alternating with a life of the flesh, and finally finds himself in a simple, happy life of work as a ferryman, where he truly does achieve a sense of oneness with the universe.

My reading looked at the book from the point of the chakras, seeing the top chakras not so much as steps on a ladder, but (from what I realize now is a western standpoint) as "heady" aspects of self. Where he finds peace is not climbing up the vertical ladder, but in deeply loving his work, in being open to the world before him. In my understanding of the chakras, he had found a sense of balance in the center, at the heart.

In other words, he isn't aiming up, he's aiming among.

I think religious impulses form along both of these basic structural lines. Ecstatic religious experiences look up, meditative ones look across. Philosophies based on judgement tend to look up, while those based on balance tend to look across.

And I think we all have some of both in us. I know I do. Among my peak religious experiences is going to sung services in English high-church centers: Westminster Abbey, Kings College... last year Ingrid and I got to go to evensong at York Minster, and it was really lovely.

Yet, I am philosophically diametrically opposed to high church. I'm with Phillip Pullman in going for the Republic of Heaven. Down with the Priestly caste! Off with his head! Sorry, I get carried away. Taoist ideas of balance and harmony appeal to me. That of God in everyone, that kind of Universalist thing.

My point is, there tends to be an emphasis in the vertical or the horizontal in any given religious community or system or individual, but there may be a strong countervailing tendency elsewhere in the same place. My own take on Friends has been that they are radically horizontal, but it's been interesting and instructive in recent blog discussions to see how this opinion may even be a minority one. Our practice and our social teaching are decisively horizontal, but there is a strong sense of the vertical in the historical sense of seeking for God.

I don't know, is this a reasonable tree to be barking up?


James Riemermann said...

Reasonable tree, I don't know. Interesting one, definitely. Good stuff on your blag lately.

The horizontal axis certainly resonates more for me than the vertical, but there are other ways of looking at a vertical sort of spirituality, too. One thought I have is, maybe the only way someone like me can approach the vertical, is through the horizontal. Goodness to me is meaningless except in my relationship with other beings; I can feel awe before the immense power and mystery of the universe (a power and mystery some equate with God), but I can't love it, exactly. I love the creaturely world I live in, the flawed people I live with. I don't love God, or at least not my understanding of what God might me.

I wonder why vertical is always thought of as going up, not down. I don't have a lot of interest in transcending the world, or transcending myself, but I am very interested in going deeper into these, to connect with what is hidden beneath the surface. Is that horizontal, or just vertical in a different direction?

Maybe I'm just making a virtue of necessity here; maybe I don't care about transcendence because I don't think it's possible for me. But I've been obsessed with depth--psychological, emotional, intellectual--for as long as I can remember. (I'd add spiritual to that list, but to be honest I don't know how to distinguish my spirituality from the way my mind and heart play together).

Tom Smith said...

Prayer is reaching up
With open mind and reaching
Out with an open heart

natcase said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
natcase said...

"I love the creaturely world I live in, the flawed people I live with." You speak my mind.

I think vertical is up because power is up. Lordship is up. Kings sit on daises and litters and thrones. What is beneath us appears to be under our control, while what comes down from above is a constant threat.

This has a lot of bearing on modern cartography, in which maps are from above at all places: they are an omniscient view.

Prayer is honestly a hard concept for me. You put it beautifully though. I need to sit with that one a while

James Riemermann said...

What is beneath us appears to be under our control, while what comes down from above is a constant threat.

With your emphasis on *appears to be*, this is intriguing, and seems to be the cause of much of our suffering, and of the havoc we wreak. We cannot control the kind of underneath I am speaking of--that which is hidden from us, either within us or in the world around us. We control the unconscious, the fundamental processes of life, the atomic and subatomic world, no more than we control a beehive by poking a stick in it. And we're poking sticks in it all the time.

I don't mean we shouldn't probe to try to understand these mysteries--we should, that is our work, to seek a deeper understanding. But we should do so only with humility and caution. What is hidden and beneath us is immensely powerful.

It also occurs to me that the difficulty in telling what is hidden beneath our consciousness, from what is transcendent and above us, is the source of much confusion. Where does the voice of God come from?

natcase said...

James: Yes. Exactly. Really well put. You speak my mind.

Liz Opp said...


I've also been intrigued by the up-down use of our language, especially among Quakers. For example, as Friends we are given the Advice by Penington to "sink down into the Seed..." And when I'm am struggling to settle into worship, I tell myself to "go deep" and not "go high."

But one of my biggest A-ha's! in life, as someone who believes in God, was when a friend of a friend challenged me to think of God as one who walks WITH me, not one who is "over" me.

That has changed my relationship to that Divine Principle in ways that I cannot put words to.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

P.S. Hmmm, "the good raised UP." Not my words, just my blog title. smile

Mark Wutka said...

My understanding has been that it is important to have both trajectories - going back to Jesus saying the two great commandments are "Love God" and "Love your neighbor". Within my heart, I find that those two trajectories build off of each other. (That's really just a winded way of saying the same thing as Tom's lovely almost-haiku).

On the "sinking down", I was in a care committee meeting where I felt like I was "all up in my head" and I just felt my consciousness drop from my head to around my heart and I became inwardly very still. Since then, I find I can make myself drop like that to become more centered. Ceal and I went to a retreat on Contemplative Prayer at the Trappist monastery near here, and one of the monks described a technique he uses that is basically the same thing I have experienced. In a way, perhaps that the problem isn't in thinking God is over us, but in not thinking we are over God - to come down out of our heads and not insist on dictating everything.

With love,

Joe Banks said...

Great stuff here.

When you're introducing terms like up/down into the discourse of the spiritual, you're necessarily trying to model something spatially. Not a bad thing, and you're certainly somebody who's really good at modelling things spatially -- just a reminder, in keeping with a running theme in this blog, that the act of modelling things creates (in our minds) divisions that probably aren't really there. I loved the article you posted a while back highlighting the falicy of male/female genders, by the way.

Kaballa, in the probably twisted version of I know best, also spatializes spiritual experience, in the form of a map. The map consists of various locations/places and certain paths that connect them, each with an individual character, with a host of specific color, smell, numerical and other correlations.

Initially, one expects that this map is to move oneself from the basest "place," Tiphereth to the Highest (Kether), but that's a very naive understanding of the map. The purpose of the map is simply to be able to map certain spiritual experiences, locate them, if you will, such that they can be attained more readily in the future, their raltionship to other experneces explored, etc.

There is a vertical path through the kabalistic map, but most teaching talk about the Higher self descending through the map to meet the human soul who is ascending through it. The place to be is in the middle, where the upper and lower mix.

The nice thing about the tree of life map is that it's also a map of the human body, similar to the Kundalini chakras Nat started these posts with. And just like the esoteric teaching of Kabala, the "body" teaching is about the movement of energy up AND down through those body centers, the cycling of energy in grand circles.

Lastly, I'm reminded of the written work of a guy i knew in Seattle, Antero Alli. He talked often about the horizontal and vertical orientation of human energy, about how one kind of energy tended to preclude and obscure the other.

Horizontal energy generally manifests as social energy, which is great if you're building a community. Horizontal orientation cares less about the mammal/political/social stuff whizzing though our brains.

All that being said, maybe trying to spatialize spiritual experience creates more divisions than utility.