Practical Mysticism #004: Holy Shit!

Concerning the move from ‘religious experience’ to religion.

Milky Way Galaxy with pointer to our Sun: "you are here"
Image: NASA – public domain – we don’t seem central to pretty much anything

Emergent properties

An ’emergent property’ is something appearing in a system that was not predictable from looking at the individual parts alone. Examples? One could argue that studying oxygen and hydrogen separately would not let you predict the behavior of water. Similarly, it would be hard to predict cellular life from the set of elements created by the Big Bang.

I’m suspicious of how often the term is used, however. It seems, in many cases, to simply be the limit of the predictor’s imagination. “I didn’t see that coming! Ah, emergent property.”

Planning depth

I do, however, have a clear example relevant to this series.

It’s easiest to explain in terms of planning depth.

We think about the consequences of our actions continually. Some of the most complex planning involves our interaction with other people. Social species (elephants, killer whales, ravens, people) typically have bigger brains than other comparable species. This is because social interactions demand some of our highest cognitive capacity.

One way to analyze social interaction is by abstracting it out into a game theory framework of initial action, response, counter-response, etc. and consider each action as a game move. This makes it easier to think through. Planning depth is the number of moves ahead you can think, making assumptions about what your opponent will choose or be forced to do. 

Let’s simplify and say it’s two players in a zero-sum game like chess. Grandmaster chess players have claimed to think 15+ moves ahead. They’ve been accused of lying:-) But certainly, good players can think 3-5 moves ahead. Planning out 5 of your moves in addition to your opponent’s 5 responses and you have a planning depth of 10.

Tools such as calculating calendars (Stonehenge?) and sketches in clay or dirt can extend planning depth beyond what can simply be held in one’s head. All that applies.

Planning depth evolving

At some point during the last .5M years, our evolving planning depth capacity generated a whopper of an emergent property. To see it, we need to back up through the phylogenetic tree to a proto-chimp/human and then move forward. (Genetically, we’re the third chimpanzee, so we can see three divergent evolutionary paths.)

Image: Dave Huth, Creative Commons.

Our close cousins, pan troglodytes, use tools and have a troop structure. They don’t use stone weapons or fire…both things that a proto-human species developed with a brain 2/3rds the size of ours. I think they can be imagined as a reasonable starting point. Chimps can set up ambushes. Let’s call that a planning depth of three: 1) you stomp around over there; 2) our target will bolt from the bushes in the direction of where I’m hiding; 3) I’ll grab ‘em.  And maybe 4): then we eat it.

Holy shit

The point of all this planning is to keep us and our offspring alive and fed. The deeper the planning depth, the more successful we’d be.

An analysis like “We need to gather acorns in the high country, process them, and carry them out of the hills before it gets too cold. But the weather looks like the pattern of a dry year, so we need to head to the last place trees thrived in a drought rather than somewhere closer!” shows deep planning. (It also demonstrates a good reason to keep old people who remember long patterns around as humans have evolved to do.)

There’s a huge gotcha, however. Somewhere on the path from proto-chimp/human to homo sapiens, we hit the point where the deeping planning depth, evolving to keep us alive and thriving, hits the “Oh shit; we’re all going to die anyway” realization. It’s not a matter of what, just a matter of when.

At that point, we’ve stepped outside the bounds of the survival-based impetus provided by our species’ evolution. We’re now in a conceptual space with no given answers and a brain big enough to worry about such things.

Planning has suddenly become mind-blowing–perhaps even paralyzing–and something new emerges.


There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.
– Gertude Stein
(Image: public domain)

I think this is where religions started to evolve…their job is to calm the existential freakout and get us refocused.

Not all approaches are adaptive. There are cults in India that pray to Shiva to open his third eye and destroy the universe. Some Christians hope for an immediate apocalypse (that, hopefully, they’ll refrain from imposing on the rest of us) rather than material thriving.

A recent, highly effective exploration of the problem is found in the work of Nietzsche, who sees meaning as something we posit as an act of will in the face of an uncaring and often cruel universe. He may not have generated the best answer, but he certainly away most of the cruft from the question.

So what

What has this to do with a series on practical mysticism?

Mystical experiences are mind-blowing: at best, transcendent; at worst, shattering (and typically a bit of both.) Religion tries to contain the damage. Religion can support the mystic by providing a framework. It can also try to suppress it as a challenge to its power. Either way, it’s important not to confuse the two.

Next up: I’m going to try and put the pieces explored so far into a general theory of ‘non-ordinary experience’ as a feature of our evolved species.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts.

Contemplating a Winter Ritual on New Year’s Eve


“Qarrtsiluni means something like sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Inuit word.

I stumbled on the above somewhere on the internet and copied it down. Today, I did a search on the quote so I could give proper attribution. Well, wherever I stole it, I wasn’t alone. Lots of sources used the same wording without attribution.

Perhaps it emerged spontaneously from the darkness in multiple locations.

It resonated in a particular way. What is that about? It sounded like something I’d like to try. Particularly during the deep dark of winter…solstice, new years, somewhen around then. (Interested in trying it?)

Every year in late fall, when things start to get cold, I’m suddenly hungry all the time and simultaneously lethargic. It’s a Norwegian thing, I think. Conserve calories! Plump up! You’re about to spend the next 4 or 5 months holed up in a long house and want to survive the winter. The skinny are doomed!

I think it’s like that. I had a mental image of 8000 generations of ancestors looking up through the trees at cold solstice skies and, over time, assembling rituals and earthworks inspired by the seasons. By doing something similar, I could tap into a tradition stretching back to the beginning of our species. Climate, terrain, cultures, and polities have come and gone, but the night sky has presided over it all. And we must always have looked up in awe.

Stonehenge at sunset by Mastiello, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License


However, being the type of nerd I am, my first question is this: if I’m experiencing some sort of midwinter preset vibe, can I plumb the resonating depth?

My starting point is pretty much always a long view of us as embodied members of a species with an evolutionary history. Our emotions, perceptions, and cognition are not wholly idiosyncratic but of a kind.

We’ve spent most of our quarter of a million years as homo sapiens near the equator. Now that I think of it, a dark, cold solstice mojo would have to have started building when the ice retreated enough to let us move on north into dark, cold winter nights. So it’s really a function of 1) how far north in latitude it’s dark much of a 24-hour cycle, 2) long wave climate cycles, and 3) human migration out of Africa.

First, long nights

Here’s the table.

Latitude (Degrees)Night Length at
Solstice (Hours)
4017.33San Franciso = 38d, NYC = 40d
4518.00Lascaux Cave, France. Cities in N. America:
5018.67Stonehedge, Warsaw
6020.00Oslo, southern most border of
Nunavut, Canada’s Inuit Province
8523.33Northern reach of Nunavut
Northern Latitude, Hours of Darkness, Notes – table by me

The 17.33 hours of darkness here in San Francisco seems plenty long enough, but my relatively recent ancestors lived in even longer darkness.

Second, climate

We are in the Quaternary Glaciation starting 2.5M years ago, in a period commonly called the Ice Age (formally the Last Glacial Period) starting 155k years ago, and having a recent maxima called the Last Glacial Maximum starting 26k years ago and continued until 13k years ago. Ice sheets extended to about the 45th parallel north with ice 2-2.5 miles thick. Miles!.

For reference, homo sapiens, i.e., us, are 250k years old. Ice, we’ve seen it come, and we’ve seen it go.

Fun fact: the weight of all that ice is still felt. Every year some land in coastal Alaska rises over an inch, springing back from being compressed for so long under so much ice. It’s called isostatic rebound.

Third, out of Africa

While it does appear that members of our species migrated out of Africa prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, they didn’t persist. Genetic analysis, particularly of our mitochondria, shows that current human populations all result from the most recent migration out of Africa 70k years ago, perhaps following the retreating ice. This was the wave that survived, mingling with Neadrathals on the way out. We show up in Southern Europe 40k years ago, Denmark 30k years ago, and entered the Americas from the north 20k years ago. All these numbers are estimates and under constant revision as our analytic tools become better and better.

Fun fact. A number of species, including probably a homo species, including possibly homo sapiens, lived through the Last Glacial Maximum in sheltered areas termed Refugia, plural Refugum. I like the word. We may need it again soon. It’s possible that this happened in North America, as well. Give research another 30 years, and we’ll have a much better picture. Lidar and improved methods of genetic analysis are in the process of totally rearranging our view of what’s happened over the last 100,000 years.


But bummer. I was hoping for resonance a couple of hundred thousand years deep. It appears I have to settle for only fifty thousand or so! No imagining a great^8000th grandmother looking with awe at the winter night sky through conifers just as I have.

Still, that’s a lot of dark, cold, Solstice nights.

If a generation is 20-30 years in length, then my great^2000th grandparents might have started the process after generations of migration: wondering when it’s going to stop being dark for so long, and, btw, why is it so cold up here?…surviving long winter nights, perhaps popping out from a smoky shelter for a look at the winter sky alight with the aurora borealis, perhaps marking the seasons with wood and stone and starting to use earthworks to chronicle the cycles written in the sky.

Image creative commons from the Store Norske Leksikon

Qarrtsiluni redux

While trying to find the source of my opening quotation, I found the below. It’s the definition of quarrtsiluni I like best. The author doesn’t seem to have any particular qualifications, doesn’t cite any sources, and she could just be making this up. That’s good enough for me.

Qarrtsiluni. Inuit, Iñupiaq / v. / kʌːrʒ.sɪ.luːnɪ / kartz-sih-loo-nih –  Sitting together in the darkness, perhaps expectantly (e.g., waiting for something to happen or to ‘burst forth’); the strange quiet before a momentous event.

The Inuits initially used this to describe their ritual of finding new songs to honor a whale each year. The hunters would go to a special house where no lamps were lit, and would sit there in silence as a group, thinking of beautiful things, anticipating the inspiration which was about to stream into their collective consciousness. And then they made their songs.

Thanks for reading.

I Want to Testify: Science and Religion are Incompatible. I Believe Them Both

Science and Religion. You can apply one, the other, or both to guide action. But as views of the universe, they contradict.

Someone created the universe. Or Someone didn’t.

How to resolve the contradiction?

I don’t. Continue reading I Want to Testify: Science and Religion are Incompatible. I Believe Them Both

Divine Retribution

21 Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Matthew 7:21-23 (King James Version)

Having been alerted by Pat Robertson that hurricanes and other natural disasters are communications from God, I couldn’t help but notice that what my parents and grandparents termed the Bible Belt seems to take an inordinate number of hard shots. Katrina, for example, hit Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana (disasters from which they’ve yet to recover) as have frequent subsequent hurricanes. If you look at the map of the BP oil spill, notice it angled in toward Mississippi and Florida.

My hypothesis is that contemporary Christians have changed the religion into a ‘divine’ justification for their petty hatreds, angers, and judgments (encroaching on God’s explicitly claimed prerogative on that last point.) This combination of spiritual arrogance and conscious or unconscious hypocrisy is starting to make God a little testy.

Here’s some good evidence from last week’s San Francisco Chronicle.


Associate Pastors Chris Nunn and Steve Messick from Imperial County featured in a SF Chronicle article “County leads battle against gay weddings.”

photo credit: Brant Ward / The Chronicle

Pictured are Associate Pastors Chris Nunn and Steve Messick from Imperial County featured in an article “County leads battle against gay weddings.

Notice the background. They are posing in their church which is under repair…after being damaged….in an earthquake….on Easter!

My theory? God loves these people but hates what they do. He’s trying to give them a wakeup call. Will they get it in time?

Yours in faith,

Rev Al

“Many are called but fewer are called Al”

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