The values we choose for ourselves provide an anchor to hold fast to, and a filter to help us making meaning. It is important to enshrine those values with a conscious recognition of what they provide for us. We must also be constantly paying attention, because the elements of our life that can provide value and perspective are often not the headlining titles or the exciting events that take place. Our shrines are the everyday elements that we return to, and would do well to approach with the respect they deserve.
My life as a tween changed in the 90’s when I discovered Saturday Morning Anime on Cartoon Network. I had always like cartoon shows and comics, but never had I seen anything like this. It was a first step to opening my perception to another culture. Though presented in a highly stylized way and told through wildly fantastic narratives, there were some aspects of real world culture which seeped out through the cracks.
It was in the unique tolerance for open spaces, quiet scenes without subject or action, and heavy openness within the story-telling that I came to feel that one’s perception of life could be significantly different than what I found myself surrounded by.
Of all the unique bits of scenery that seem to have settled in my subconscious, I think distinctly of a lone figure, dilligently sweeping fallen leaves from the ancient stone steps of an equally ancient shrine in some remote area of the city, nestled at the foot of the mountains, removed from society. The person taking care of the shrine was depicted as serene, dilligent and single-minded in the work, though relaxed and at peace with the world around.
Such a peace with myself and my surroundings was something I did not feel growing up, and perhaps that is why I took hold of this image and kept it with me. It was a taste, a fragrance on the wind, a clue that things could be otherwise, even if it did not provide any direction to turn in which to seek it out.
In more recent searches for that same space of peace with the world by consciously following the threads of my own curiosity, I have circled back around to learn a bit more about Shinto spirituality.
I will not claim any significant knowledge or education about Shinto. The following context and historical notes come from the wonderful Encyclopedia Of Shinto available online for those who wish to dig deeper.
Shinto is the worship of Kami. There is much to be said about this term, but it was this quote from the resource linked above the caught my imagination. It describes Kami as encompassing the pantheon of popular folk and historical deities in literature and culture, but also…
…refers to all other aweinspiring things—people of course, but also birds, beasts, grass and trees, even the ocean and mountains—which possess superlative power not normally found in this world. “Superlative” here means not only superlative in nobility, goodness, or virility, since things which are evil and weird as well, if they inspire unusual awe, are also called kami.EOS, Kami – Concepts of Kami – “Definitions and Typology”
When people encountered these awe-inspiring aspects of their world, they felt the need to venerate them somehow. That has developed into a complicated system of national shrines as well as a myriad of less official, or personal shrines, dedicated to a vast array of different kinds of Kami.
Though physical shrine buildings have been in use for more than a thousand years, the earliest expression of worship took place outdoors, at places thought to be sacred. Instead of the spirits inhabiting the place permanently, they were thought to roam, and visit these sacred locations only at certain points of the year when a ceremony would be held to honor them.
The use of the word “Awe” took hold of my imagination when I encountered that quote. For even though we have watered it down in the daily use of the word “awesome”, the core of that word is directly tied to an experience that by definition should be powerful enough to cause us to stop in our tracks.
How pure and simple, that one should feel the need to pay respect to whatever has caused such a feeling?
Is this the common beginning for all forms of religion? Did each of our great monoliths of relic and ritual come from such knees-to-the-dirt beginnings? One can draw the line convincingly through to Pagan ritual and poly-theistic system, but I must admit it seems a likely beginning for any line of thought in which we begin to try and form a relationship with something greater than ourselves. It seems a likely primal beginning to any such seeking.
Psychologists who are working to tease out the mechanisms underlying emotional states, have come to some general agreement about how we can define the word
When experiencing Awe, one is encountering something novel, something that is outside of expected experience of the world. Beyond this violation of expectation, there is also a necessary awareness that there is a gap in one’s knowledge about the world. This experience doesn’t fit in the box according to what we think we know of how things work.
Awe is an experience so outside of your experience and expectation, that you cannot easily assimilate it into your view of the world. It is a challenge to what you understand, and cannot be easily put aside without some kind of cognitive reckoning within our own mental map of the world.
Because of these factors, Awe also seems to bring a self-transcending quality, a sense that we are smaller in relation to the world around us, a reduction of the ego.Paraphrased from a panel discussion available at this YouTube link: “Beyond Oneself: The Ethics and Psychology of Awe“
Awe, as a dramatic revelation that the world around us is not the world we tell ourselves it is, relates directly into my interest in curiosity. Awe, when someone is in the right mindset, can be the spark to light the fires of curiosity, the signpost pointing out a new direction of exploration.
Curiosity itself is the pursuit of new knowledge in order to fill in gaps within our mental maps of the world.
As a child my life was about trying to fit in with others. I was constantly on the look out for signs that I was violating a social norm, or other unwritten code of conduct. I do not know where this sense of fear came from, but it led me to live for the acceptance of others rather than following any internal guidance. I spent all of my school years, not in a state of trying to ingratiate myself to others, but in a more passive state of simply working to avoid a faux pas. The aim was to maintain any connections I had. My sense of self was not strong.
I remember working at my the clothing store which was owned and operated by my grandfather. He had me working at the age of 14, doing odd tasks as they came up.
One evening, after the store was closed, I was tasked with sweeping the wooden floors before we could go home. Being impatient I set about completing the task as quickly as I could. He stepped in right away to correct my technique.
Sweeping, he instructed, cannot be rushed. If you flick the broom too quickly it just send dirt and dust into the air, into the clothing, and ultimately back down onto the floor you just swept. The only proper way to do it was methodically, slowly, patiently, so as to make sure everything could be gathered and disposed of at the end.
For me, this was a chastisement, a wrong step the I desperately wanted to avoid, but it also became a touchstone in my life that has carried through. It was a first lesson in respect for one’s work, and self-discipline. It was a test of my character.
My last decade of life, at least, has been dedicated to more consicously following the internal tug of curiosity. It has led me through art, to spirituality, to entrepreneurship and now psychology. I have come to respect the process.
Following the threads of things which are at the edge of my understanding has allowed me to broaden my mental map. Along the way, it has given me chances to define and exercise aspects of myself that I value and use as guide posts. It has allowed me to discover the person who spent years trying to be nothing in order not to do wrong.
Curiosity has helped me expand the map, but true understanding of myself comes from self-reflection on my own journey. It is through looking back on the patterns of my life that I am able to piece together the person that I am. So when something repeats I try and pay attention to what it is telling me.
The act of sweeping itself, has come to hold unique significance to me, and I find that I must pay it the due respect that it demands.
When I take part in the weekly ritual of sweeping the floors in my home, it always becomes more than the broom in my hands. It becomes the experiences with my grandfather, who turned out to be a significant role model in the years after he taught me how to properly sweep the floors. It becomes a connection to the romantic vision I had linking the act of sweeping to an act of meditation and being in the moment that I had observed in anime shows in another context of my childhood.
Sweeping forces me to slow down, and allows me a chance to feel my body in motion. It is easy to be more aware of my physical self. I notice whether I am stiff, or lethargic or fluid.
Without conscious effort, my mind drifts to the current focus of my curiosity. Many of the times I have spent sweeping the floor I have been at work pulling together threads for concepts about purpose in life, and blog posts like these. It is as if sweeping and curiosity, self-knowledge and universal questions are all bundled up together for me somehow.
I have learned to respect the repetition. I see now that sweeping, for whatever reason, is a unique physical manifestation of meaning in my life.
Shinto describes the natural reaction to such a discovery. Now that I have discovered something that links me to deep purpose and mystery, the only reasonable way to honor it is to build it a shrine. Not a physical one, but a honorific space in my awareness.
The words Reverence and Veneration come to mind.
I believe that there is some kind of difference between merely being aware of what drives value, and treating that awareness as veneration.
Both of these terms come with ideas of respect and deference, but also with concepts related to “paying” respect, honoring in a more proactive way.
For me it will perhaps be to approach the task more mindfully, before I pick up the broom. An act of clearing my mind in respect so that I can more fully embrace the way in which the activity links together these running threads of my imagination, my upbringing, my physical body and my creative pursuits.
What might it mean if more of us took the time to venerate the aspects of our life that resonate most deeply? I wonder how the human conversation might change if reverence pooled naturally where it connected most deeply, like rainwater, rather than being bestowed upon things that have been agreed upon.