January 4, 2011

Defining and Connecting with the “Sacred”

What is really sacred to you in your life? What does “sacred” mean to you?

I told some friends the other day about one of my New Year’s aspirations, which is to make more time to connect with all that is sacred in my life. Since I live in Sweden, we were speaking in Swedish and I asked them how to translate the word “sacred.” They said, “helig,” which also means “holy.” They noted that there really isn’t a good Swedish translation for the “sacred.”

When I got home, I looked up the word “sacred” and found the following definition in my computer’s dictionary: “connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.” I thought to myself that there must be something more to it than that. What does “sacred” mean for the non-religious and those practicing non-theistic religions? If one is agnostic or atheist, can one still connect with the sacred?

To me, the sacred is anything that I do, see, hear, touch or taste with full awareness. Appreciating the beauty of a fiery sunset is a sacred act. Walking silently amongst towering snow-covered pines in the forest is as sacred to me as meditation. As a deeply spiritual agnostic, I think that it is time to expand the definition of the term “sacred.”

I chose Buddhism for its capacity to help me develop compassion, awareness and to awaken my heart. My practice of mindfulness has provided me with countless opportunities to create a sense of meaning in my life. And for me, connecting with what is meaningful in my life is also connecting with the sacred.

When I’ve asked atheists how they find meaning in life, they often have told me that it is through connections to people and nature. Some have said it is through making art. You don’t need to be a theist to find meaning in life. If we expand the definition of sacred to include experiences of connecting with what is meaningful in our lives, the sacred becomes accessible to everyone.

American society tends to load the word “sacred” with Judeo-Christian notions of what the sacred should be. When we shake off the shoulds, we might find that what is left is the raw experience of the sacred. Perhaps it is a sense of feeling part of something larger than oneself. Perhaps it is a radiant smile to life and death. It could be a simple sense of awe at the wonder of life. We have the opportunity every moment to connect with the sacred, however we define it. How often do we make the effort to do so?

Here are some suggestions for non-religious people and non-theists who are interested in connecting with the sacred in everyday life:

  1. When you wake up, before you roll out of bed, take a moment to feel gratitude for another day in which to live.
  2. Before you eat anything, pause, look at your food, contemplate its origins and all that came together for you to be able to eat it. Try to eat mindfully or at least take a breath between bites to help you come back to the present moment.
  3. Before you check your email, seek out a beautiful image on the Internet (perhaps not one that will get you in trouble at work!) and treasure it for at least a few seconds. Better yet, if you live somewhere with beautiful scenery, take a few seconds on your way to work to pause and enjoy the beauty.
  4. When you greet someone in person, really acknowledge that person. Look at him or her in the eye, feel his or her hand or take the time to sink into a hug. Life is short and you never know how long you will have to be with this other person or to be here on Earth.
  5. While you are hiking, stop every so often and notice everything that is happening in nature around you. Walk silently and really feel the ground underneath your feet. Each step on Earth can be sacred.
  6. Create your own rituals and meditations if you do not have a daily spiritual practice (e.g., meditation, yoga, etc.). Read Jack Kornfield’s book “A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life” for examples of healing meditations.
  7. Talk with others about what is sacred and spend time with people who share similar notions about what is sacred. Do whatever gives you the freedom to enter sacred space. It could be making art or music together. It could be eating a meal together. Give yourselves space for silence. You don’t need to fill the space with words all the time. Silence can open the space for connection with the sacred.
  8. At the end of the day, as you are lying in bed, take a few moments to feel your whole being and focus on reconnecting with yourself.

Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again. ~Joseph Campbell

These are just suggestions and they are meant only to be a starting point for reflection. What else is sacred to you throughout the course of a day? How do you make space to connect with it?

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