– Rabbi Heschel
“Our ego so voraciously grasps at whatever it can get for itself; typically, it does not have what it needs, which is connection with something holy . . . rather, the ego needs to be given a sacred task.”
– Robert Sardello, The Power of Soul, 13.
“Enchantment is the natural state of children. It is common among the aboriginal people of the world and also among religious mystics. Alas, among Western adults, enchantment is all too rare. Insulated from nature, bombarded by technology, compulsively busy, and accustomed to noise, we leave precious little space for wonder. If here is a universal criticism of the Western world, it is that ‘we have lost our awe.'”
Dave Pruett, From Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit, p. ix.
Darting right onto a side road towards another series of temples, I ride past a parked bike, run into a dead end of a thatched roof home, and swing back around. A middle-aged woman with mostly black hair has now appeared next to her bike.
“Yes, they are wonderful,” she replies in a French accent.
“How long are you in Bagan?”
“15 days,” she replies.
“Wow – that’s quite a long time.”
“You know us French – we have to know it all!” she smiles. Showing me a map, she says, “Yesterday I was riding down in this area, all alone, no one trying to sell me anything, and I came across the most beautiful frescoes of Buddha.”
Her appreciation for Buddhist temples prompts memories of the UNESCO World Heritage gem in central Laos. “Have you been to Luang Prabang?”
“Oh, yes! The monks on the streets, so many temples . . . ” She trails off, breathes in, lifts her shoulders, and smiles.
Seeking Moral Elevation on Vacation
Returning to Hong Kong and feeling mentally and spiritually refreshed by our family trip to Burma, I thought about other vacations that my wife and I (before kids) and our family (after kids) have enjoyed over the years. Nineteen years ago we chose to spend our honeymoon at the temple ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. When we went to Europe, we thoroughly enjoyed two quiet days in the small town of Chartres where the famous Gothic cathedral still stands in all its glory. Even more fondly we spent a weekend in Assisi, Italy, where the shutters to our hotel opened to the basilica dedicated to St. Francis. Our favorite vacation in Asia was the week we spent in Luang Prabang, Laos, even if the two kids were less than enthralled by a small town of temples.
Returning home, I wondered why was it that we seem to seek out similar kinds of vacation spots? What was the common thread of these experiences? As I reflected, the image of the French woman’s simple response kept returning to me. Then it clicked: something in her breath and the lifting of her shoulders reminded me of something I had read in a book called The Happiness Hypothesis.
University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt writes that all human cultures have three dimensions of social space, which he displays as x, y, and z axes on a graph. The horizontal dimension, or x axis, is relational closeness and distance. All people in a given community have a range of family, friend, acquaintance, and distant relationships. The vertical dimension, or y axis, is hierarchy. All community members have a certain social status and recognized social power. The x and y axes are common experiences in modern society.
However, ancient societies had another dimension, or z axis, that Haidt calls moral elevation. Traditional cultures had spaces and activities that provided a sense of moral uplift, such as temples, community rituals, and greeting customs. There were also negative z axis values that Haidt labels as “disgust”: blood, feet, and deformities are examples of pollutants capable of contaminating positive z values. Haidt’s (2001) table below summarizes the positive and negative aspects of the moral elevation dimension:
|Elicitor||People moving up, blurring human/god divide||People moving down, blurring human/animal divide|
|Motivational Tendency||Merge, open up, help others||Separate, close off|
|Affective phenomenology||Feel lifted up, optimistic about humanity||Feel dragged down, cynical about humanity|
|Physical changes||Chest (warm glow)||Gut (nausea)|
Table: Diametrically opposed features of elevation and social disgust
While this sacred and profane distinction was a mark of traditional societies, modern secular society views this dimension with suspicion. Yet Haidt notes that such moral sentiments were a part of European and American scholarly, even scientific, discourse until World War I. Referring to philosopher of religion Mircia Eliade, Haidt (2006) writes:
The modern West is the first culture in human history that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world . . . Eliade’s most compelling point, for me, is that sacredness is so irrepressible that it intrudes repeatedly into the modern profane world . . . [through] “privileged places, qualitatively different from all others – a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth . . . : they are ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life” (p. 193).
Re-reading Haidt’s work, the image of the French woman’s deep breath, lifting of her shoulders, and the sense of peace that she exuded seemed to embody Haidt’s concept of moral elevation, and confirmed for me why my wife and I frequently choose to visit temples on vacations. Borrowing Eliade’s language, the profane world wears us down, and we intuitively seek out energizing sacred spaces in search of restoration and well-being.
Two Moments of Elevation
During the trip, I wrote about a couple of experiences of what Haidt calls elevation while visiting Buddhist temples. The first one comes from our visit to Schwedagon, a Buddhist temple complex in central Yangon, that our guidebook suggested would be the highlight of any trip to Burma.
“My family and take off our shoes and socks and store them at the entrance of a long entrance way. The ascending passageway is distinctly dark and surprisingly cool in contrast to the blazing tropical heat that we left just moments ago. We make our way past shops that support the needs and interests of pilgrims and tourists: wooden Buddhas, incense, prayer bells, and other momentos of a visit to Schwedagon. We slowly walk up towards the mouth of the corridor, buy our foreign visitor’s tickets, and then step into the temple sanctuary.
The first steps back into the brilliant light are disorienting, for in front of us is the largest golden stupa any of us have ever seen. It distinctive and graceful bell-shape design is only appreciated once one has recovered from its nearly overpowering golden splendor. Beneath one’s feet is cool, smooth white marble that grounds this site in extra- ordinariness. The tinkling of traditional Buddhist wind chimes descends upon us from atop stupas and spires. A Burmese woman sitting at the entrance strikes a small gong-like symbol that produces a medium-pitch sound. To our left, pilgrims strike a large metal bell, rippling the space with deeper resonances. Other visitors sit in front of various shrines and sites praying, chanting, or moving their thumb and forefinger along prayer beads. Families repeatedly wash a Buddha figure with water. A mother in a bright pink blouse lights candles with her young children.
Despite more mundane scenes on display in front of us – two young people that are enjoying magical moments of intimacy, picture-taking in front of shrines, story-telling among friends, or even some taking a nap inside quieter worship areas – the kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, smells, and various ritual actions maintain an aura of sacredness, and even a heightened sense of possibility for the human condition. Walking clockwise around the central stupa, the burning afternoon sun increases the sense that spiritual energy is abundant in this space.”
A second such moment came a few days later. We had flown an hour and a half north to Bagan, an area in central Burma, that has the most spectacular display of temples anywhere in Asia. At the end of our first day, my family and I crossed the street from the hotel and followed a dirt path towards a few local restaurants:
“We have just ordered food at a vegetarian restaurant that sits only 200 yards from the famous Ananda Temple in Old Bagan. While the family is looking at paintings by a local artist, I sneak away towards Ananda’s golden dome. It is 6:30 PM and the sun will be setting in the next few minutes. I enter a dark corridor that reminds me of Schwedagon. The contrast between dark and light, I understand, is not happenstance; it is symbolic of the spiritual journey.
Three rake-thin dogs race past in front of me across the passageway and into an adjacent, dimly lit courtyard. Another dog barks at me as I walk in. Walking through the closed shops selling Buddhist statues and lacquer ware, I see a young Burmese soldier sitting at the end of this tunnel-like entrance, holding a rifle. This young man was not here just two hours ago when I first visited Ananda. Being my first encounter with the Burmese military, I walk gingerly towards him with my camera held away from my body, as if to say I have nothing to hide. He stares at me, and then motions for me to take off my shoes, which I do with some relief. I enter the temple.
I walk into another darkened corridor, but a minute’s slow walk reveals a brilliant 50-foot high golden Buddha. Two young Burmese men sit in front of the statue in their longyi. Approaching the Buddha, I hear what sounds like girls’ voices. I turn right into a connecting corridor and walk towards the growing chorus of voices echoing through the temple. Then into view appears more than 50 Burmese women sitting and chanting in front of another large golden Buddha. Many of these women are dressed in colorful, but formal attire. I listen for a few minutes to their chanting, and then head back out into the near darkness, towards the restaurant.
I pause for a moment. Standing in the courtyard of a thousand-year old temple at dusk listening to the on-going chants of pilgrims, I think of Medieval cathedrals that I used to teach about. How poorly we modern people understand the beauty that comes from being in an ancient sacred place.”
Now as I return to the normal world of preparing to teach another school year, I am pleased that we chose to travel to Burma this summer. I am reminded that the word “holiday” originated from “holy day.” While most of us today don’t link the two, our trip to Burma has shown my wife and me that a holiday that doesn’t contain a “holy” dimension doesn’t really provide the renewal that we seek. As we experience the wear and tear of modern society on our souls, we seek out vacations that provide us with moral elevation to sustain our spirits. In both the ancient and modern sense, a week in Burma provided us with a calming and restorative holiday.
Haidt, J. (2001). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. Accessed July 27 from http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/articles/haidt.2003.elevation-and-positive-psychology.pub026.html
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic.
Pruett, D. (2012). From reason and wonder: A Copernican revolution in science and spirit. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Articles of Related Interest
- Jennifer Aaker: How to Feel Like You Have More Time, Stanford Business, July 13, 2012
- Gateway to Myanmar’s Past, and Its Future, NY Times, July 9, 2012
- The Most Inspiring Way to be Happier, Time, March 29, 2016
- See this highly engaging video by Jason deSilva on awe.
- A talk and a TEDx talk on a Museum of Awe by David Delgado.
- Strong talk by researcher Paul Piff on the effect of law on generosity, compassion, and kindness.