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  • Annette Dunlop

The Sacred - Reflections on Mircea Eliade

April 1, 2022

I am going to start sharing pieces of my favourite books and the journeys they take me on. And I am beginning with Mercia Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane.

Amongst his many talents, he was a historian of Religion. He was fascinated by and drawn to and uniquely able to hold and describe our primordial need for the Sacred. (Which I believe has something to do with his Pluto in Gemini in the 4th conjunct Jupiter)

In this book he begins by describing the term numinosity, coined by Ruldolf Otto

For Otto, the numen was a feeling of terror and awe before the sacred. Upon encountering the mystery and overwhelming superiority of power of this sacred, this other. It is this otherness that differentiates something as sacred and not belonging to this world or merely profane, mundane.

Jung later appropriated this term the numinous to describe a feeling quality inherent in encountering the archetypes themselves, these feelings arise when we meet and work with the personal and collective complexes which belong to our inner world.

Fear and awe is a sign that we are stirring up the gods within.

It is such a beautiful way to reframe our anxieties and our relationship to our inner world. That fear, that awe might lead us to what is sacred.

I was reading the chapter this morning on Space and Hierophany. Eliade is known for creating the concept of Hierophany which is basically a manifestation of the sacred. A rock may be a hierophany, it may be a portal or a manifestation of the sacred to us. Or it may merely be a rock, it belongs to the profane world as an object. One can imagine that the men and women who created Stonehenge would have felt a sacred connection to these massive rocks they erected. They tower over us, evoking a feeling of awe. I imagine the monolith in 2001 a space odyssey. The numinosity evoked by the whole film, the strangeness, the holiness, the beauty of the images, the space Kubrick was able to create visually and the mythos Arthur C Clarke envisioned, the fear evoked by that soundtrack. All of this contributed to our capacity to relate to the monolith as heirophany. It clearly does not belong to the profane world.

In this chapter on Space and Heirophany Eliade is describing Sacred Space. Our physical world is not homogenous, we experience some aspects of it as holy and sacred, and others as profane. And it is in great part through the feeling function, to connection to our inner worlds, our souls speaking to us, that we locate ourselves within the sacred or the profane.

I was imagining, as I walked to the cafe this morning, which is a sacred space for me. I was imagining a platform or a corral that was the normal range of human emotion, within which our psyche wanders. It has a typical path and normally avoids the edges. Like a tiger in a cage there is a well worn path. We march, our conscious self, the tiger, we march in a circular pattern, over and over and over again carving a groove into the ground. But there isn’t a cage keeping us in. We aren’t sure why we march in a circle, but we do. The more we develop the capacity to witness the movement of our consciousness, we can see its patterns, and it is a circle.

We march at a constant speed around the edge of this circle, which means that we are actually accelerating towards the centre. This amazed and bewildered me when I learned this in physics, it feels like it should be the opposite. But if you calculate the acceleration, the changing velocity over time, it points to the centre. If you had a string and were swinging an object around you and you released it, yes it would follow its momentum away from you. But you, you holding the string as you spin the object around you, the force applied there causes the mass on the end of the string to remain in the air. It’s a balance of inertia, its momentum, and the force tugging on the string.

Just like a rocket entering orbit finds a sweet spot between gravity, pulling it back towards earth and its forward momentum.

So we, consciousness, our tiger. Has this flow state at a particular speed, walking in a circle, hence this groove in the ground. But to wander in a circle actually implies that we are being pulled towards the center. THere’s no cage, but the tiger continues to wander in a circle. This is its groove of consciousness, beingness. It circumambulates the centre. It is always moving towards the centre but never getting there. The centre, thus, becomes sacred. We are, in effect, worshipping it.

This wandering is a ritual. It is the shape which contains and provides structure for the movement of energy or consciousness. The path, the groove in the ground belies how deeply established this rhythm has been imprinted. No wonder music is so healing, no wonder rhythm is such a deep and grounding part of our experience. To find our own rhythm is to connect to our sacred.

So careful what you dance around, you might say. For you are worshiping it. Notice your thought patterns, for our tigers are carving a path in the ground. You may be secretly honouring rage, fear.

It’s quite common, actually. We accidentally sacralize our fears. But one way to think about that , say from a CBT Cognitive Behavioural Therapy perspective, is that we need to learn to control our thoughts. Stop thinking those thoughts.

Another perspective entirely is let us explore this sacred. There might be some gold in there.

Depth Psychology does this one way, we watch our dreams we see and understand our complexes, watching them. Body psychotherapy does it another way, we use our own rhythm, our own groove, our own sense of flow to build up the container to approach the hot spot, this danger, this fear, this explosive anger. We touch it and see if it shifts, if we shift. Sometimes we do too much and we collapse or we dissociate; we lose our natural rhythm. But we rest, pick it up again and try. Other times we avoid the centre, we avoid the fear and anxiety, we think of it as a sickness, but we lose our sense of connection to the sacred.

Back to Eliade. We’re talking about Holy Ground.

He is quoting Exodus.

Drawn not nigh hither, says the Lord to Moses, put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

So you can’t stand on Holy ground in your shoes.

The ground is holy. Sacred.

When do we take off our shoes - when we come home. When we enter a space that we don’t want to make unclean with the dirt of the mundane world. When we become intimate. When we want to show respect.

When do we put on shoes?

When we go out into the world. It’s armouring, it’s protection. It’s required in certain climates. We need to protect our feet because they are sensitive. They are where we connect to the ground.

In body psychotherapy, every session I do brings consciousness to the feet. Often beginning and ending sessions here. It immediately changes our tiger path. Not in a dangerous way, for most of us. Most of us find access to a deeper space of grounding, of connection with our self, our bodies, the earth, this physical reality, just by feeling our feet on the ground we become more present.

This is a Taurean gift of revelling in the sensuous, the now. There is a power of presence, of heightened awareness.

“Take off your shoes”.

“This is Holy Ground”.

This is a space to be present. To come home. You are preparing to enter the Sacred.

Curiously, a lot of people begin to take care of their body, and their home when they do psychotherapy. They begin to honour their sacred spaces. Not intellectually. New rituals are created that honor these heirophanies. The sacred is revealed within. Holy experiences that were previously overridden.

Back to Eliade. Page 20.

It must be said at once that the religious experience of the nonhomogeneity of space is a primordial experience. Homologizable to a founding of the world.

It is not a matter of theoretical speculation but of primary religious experience that preceeds all reflection on the world. For it is the break effected in space that allows the world to be constellated, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”

So where we take off our shoes, where we bring our presence, is our sacred. Is the central axis for all future orientation.

Think how painful it is to go through existential disorientation. To not feel connected to what you value. For old value systems to die. We are left in limbo, in purgatory. In a sorting process without a connection to reality.

Eliade p 21.

When the sacred manifests itself in nay hierophany, there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also a revelation of absolute reality, opposed to the non-reality of the vast surrounding expanse. The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world.

…In the homogenous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center.


I imagine, when I am depressed, that I am locating a new centre. That my center is so deep that my current conscious orientation ant even feel its pull. That I am lost, but that something bigger than me is doing the work. I have learned, in these times we I feel disoriented, to take off my shoes, be gentle, be present, in as much as we can tolerate.

This, what Eliade describes as the primordial experience of the sacred, is the moment of our own consciousness. The need to feel an ontological centre, aka beingness aka participating in reality, is so obvious to me, to palpable, that it seems difficult to try to argue for.

When I hear people scoff at the religious needs of others, when they conflate the failures of a social political economic structure with a fundamental right to feel connected to one’s own sacred, to feel a living part of this reality, well, it saddens me mostly.

It implies, at worst a lack of connection to sacred in their lives. But more likely, suggests that the connection is unconscious.. That their conscious intellectual position denies their religious behaviour. That we are not aware of what we are worshiping, of what we are circumambulating.

Mmm. Such a good book. More from here soon.

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