The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Worship the Place Where You Live

October 11th, 2005 · No Comments · Illuminations, ritual

I © Austin

I moved to Austin nearly twenty years ago because I had fallen in love with the city. I loved the river, the trees, the humidity, and the way the place is with dense with life without being too thick with people. Many residents I have met feel this way: I certainly understand how people get passionate about their home towns.

This feeling of love for a place was a phenomenon recognized long ago. Where ever ancient women and men discovered that a place inspired feelings of joy and peace, they would build temples there as expressions of awe and tribute to the grandeur of nature or the genius of their city. These temples were places of sincere worship and heartfelt spirituality where each person could meditate or pray near a river, a tree, a mountain, a scenic vista, or an ancient lake.

We do a similar thing today, in a more secular way. We create city agencies to regulate and maintain parkland and greenbelts so that anyone can enjoy those feelings of joy and peace. We build structures and maintain gardens, and we put parks in every neighborhood. What our ancestors had, and what we generally lack culture-wide, is a means to acknowledge our individual spirituality or an understanding of how a location can ignite the spirit.

Local Spiritual Focus

In our culture, discussions of religion, theology, and spirituality typically center on universal themes: a universal god, and brand-name, mass-market rituals. While this may be convenient or useful in some political sense, the biggest problem with a universal god is that such a thing is just too big by a lot: the enormous scale makes it too easy to overlook an individual’s needs or experiences. Too often, those who seek their own spiritual fulfillment within a universal faith are dismissed as naïve or dangerously ill-directed and counseled to work harder to accommodate themselves to the participation offered to them.

One powerful compliment to a universal faith is thus the ability to localize the focus of one’s spirituality. If one believes in a universal deity, how could it be that such a deity could be more present in some place other than inside one’s own self? Why would it be surprising to find a universal deity present within one’s own home? It makes little sense that anyone would need to leave their own home and enter a special building as the singular means of encountering a universal deity!

Experience suggests that it makes sense to set aside a physical location in your home that is reserved for sacred meditation and spiritual exercise. It’s an obvious extension to have a surface nearby with fragrant candles, flowers, pictures of loved ones, and symbols of ones highest aspirations. A comfortable place to sit isn’t a requirement, but can greatly increase one’s endurance during lengthy meditations. When one sets aside a place inside the home as sacred, this helps to put spiritual focus on one’s own self, as well as on one’s home. It makes sense to put some spiritual focus in the home: it gives the heart and mind a place to recover from the stresses of the day.

The natural progression from bringing a spiritual focus to one’s house is to widen that view to encompass neighbors, then wider to take in the block, then several blocks, and out again to the neighborhood, and further out, and out yet again… But before the city limits are reached, and long before the urban boundaries are touched, it all quickly becomes overwhelming, and the sense of connection dissipates. There clearly exists a kind of standing need to belong within a geographically coherent region; it just needs to be bigger than a neighborhood and smaller than a city.

Every spot of land on the surface of the earth drains rainfall into the stream or basin nearest to it. The total land area that drains into a particular stream or basin is called a watershed. Every watershed has similar qualities: high points along the top edges, a series of low points along the stream, and a basin or stream into which water flows out of the watershed. The watershed boundary is not determined by politics or income levels of the residents. The boundaries of a watershed are determined by nature and are even occasionally changed by nature. (In Austin, look here to find your watershed.)

Watershed Cults

A watershed is a logical geographic boundary for one type of locally focused spirituality. Any location within a watershed can be described in terms of its orientation with respect to the stream. The stream is the natural gathering point for the energy of a place. It’s easy to see a creek or river as a sacred place. The spark of life that we share emanates from the stream out to the edges of the watershed. The simple act of acknowledging that sacred connection is itself a reliably rewarding and fulfilling act.

The parkland in Austin is generally located along or near streams, which isn’t to say that every park has a stream, but rather that every stream has a park. Spending time relaxing in a park near the stream of one’s watershed has, among many other, obvious, advantages, the benefit of building an emotional and spiritual bond to the place where one lives. Gathering together with friends in that same park brings a third dimension to that bond.

To be overtly religious, we could choose to worship something tangible, like the creek, or something intangible, like the genius of the watershed. An anthropomorphized genius provides a clear and obvious focus for everyone to share (and it makes for nice statuary). A gathering of neighbors in the park, chanting the name of their collective genius, and sharing each other’s joy at being in that place together: this is the essence of any religious observance.

Another key observance is that of boundaries. When traveling along roads or paths that lead across the stream or the edges of the watershed, one should be conscious of crossing into and out of the watershed. Try calling out the name of the watershed genius when crossing the stream, or simply shout out, “Hello!” Choose to do things within your own watershed: arrange your nightly walks within its boundaries; frequent its businesses; make friends with your neighbors.

Bring the magic of the stream and the park into the home: find or make a statue or picture of a figure or creature that represents, for you, the genius of your watershed. This statue or picture could then be placed in whatever sacred space you have already set up in your home – if it’s not the centerpiece for an entirely new altar! Another way to bring the magic of the stream inside is to put about a cup of gravel from the stream bed into a bowl and keep the bowl partially filled with stream water. (If your stream goes dry, you can let the bowl go dry. Alternatively, rainwater can make a good substitute.)

Be Where You Are

Since few of us work in the same place that we live, there is another watershed that many of us should be concerned with – this is the one within which are jobs or schools are located. It makes a lot of sense to be keyed into any watershed that you spend a lot of time in. My recommendation would thus be to find and worship with your “job watershed” or you “school watershed” along with your “home watershed”. At this time, I know of no existing watershed cults or temples, so you’re on your own unless you can round up a few neighborhood devotees. Do what work when you can, and always look to join others in your joy.

It makes a lot of sense to leverage the love and joy one develops naturally for the place that one lives. It’s a rewarding and satisfying thing to take the time to recognize the power of a place within one’s own spirit. This is a new way to think about our neighborhoods and our cities and our connections to each other. This is a new way to think about spirituality that adds new dimensions to faith and culture without taking anything away. Recognize the unique and immediate sacredness beneath your feet. Worship the place where you live.

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