Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 35 — The Symbol, Sacredness, and the Sacred (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
6 min readFeb 28, 2022

“ What if sacredness is not about finding the completion — the essence, the stabilized final form. What is sacredness is actually an experience of the inexhaustibleness of reality and the inexhaustibleness of the relevance realization machinery in its coupled response to that reality?”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 34:

Ep. 35— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis —The Symbol, Sacredness, and the Sacred [55:44]

  • Quick, without thinking: which one of these is booba and which one is kiki?
  • Overwhelmingly (this has been studied) the one on the right is booba and the one on the left is kiki. You’ve never heard these words before and they don’t mean anything to you, yet most people still agree. Why? Some people will say “well, the one on the left is sharp and spikey and so is ‘kiki’” but that doesn’t really make sense. How is it sharp, you can’t cut yourself on it. And how is the word ‘kiki’ sharp and spikey? There’s a lot of bridging between concepts going on, subconsciously and almost instantaneously.
  • A symbol transforms you in a powerful way. It is reactivating — reconfiguring — your machinery so that you become capable of interacting with the world so that you become able to see through (i.e. both beyond and by means of) the symbol.
  • In Vipassana meditation you focus on your breath and scale down your attention, and in doing so become more aware of how your brain is processing things. You start to realize it’s less of a ‘container’ that has things in it, and much more like a fine-grained process. “Even something like pain isn’t a thing. There’s pain-ing.” It’s really not a noun, it’s much more like a verb. Not something you possess but something that you participate in.
  • You can also then scale up from the breath, and see how all of reality is impermanent and interconnected.
  • This brings us to work by Polanyi. He says when you’re looking at a flag (say, the American flag) all your subsidiary awareness is being brought together to your focal awareness. This is because you’re interested in you are focally aware of, but sometimes we play with this. We look at the flag not because we are intrinsically interested in using the flag as a thing, but rather we’re using it symbolically to integrate aspects of ourselves together. By contemplating the flag, though we’re focused on a thing what we’re actually interested in is the process. We’re actually participating in patriotism.
  • You can actually resonate between these two things. Using the meditative breath focus as an example: You look at your breath and become more integrated, and because you’re now more integrated your processing becomes more powerful and then you see something in your breath — you have a realization — and the world is disclosed to you which opens you up in powerful ways. Then, as you focus on the breath again, you’re re-integrating all of that, allowing you to more deeply see into what the reality of your breath is disclosing to you, and so on. Symbols are, in this sense, able to afford you anagoge.
  • Let’s look at another example that’s more purely symbolic: music. You listen to the music not as a thing but because the way in which you are integrated together onto the music in listening to it is crucial, but then aspects to the music are disclosed to you which then changes and alters how you can understand and listen to the music, so you get drawn in further, etc.
  • Symbols can put you in confrontation with things that are potentially mysterious. In this sense they are deeply ecstatic. (ek-stasis; to stand beyond yourself)
  • Symbols are also participatory and integrative, in the anagogic sense; sensibility transcendence. “They’re integrating you together, they’re integrating the whole world together, and they’re integrating a new world together as they’re integrating you together in an integrated fashion.”
  • Finally, symbols are complex; multi-faceted. Going back to the scales as symbols of justice: scales aren’t just a single thing. A breath isn’t a single thing. These are complex, unfolding realities. e.g. Athena is the symbol of wisdom but she’s also the symbol of weaving and of warfare. “Symbols connect things that you don’t normally connect together such that you might have an insight into reality.”
  • In doing all this, symbols are trying to set you in motion to transcend. To draw you into something epic (Ecstatic, Participatory, Integrative, Complex) Symbols are inherently transjective because they are between two worlds. Also transgressive and transformative.
  • Vervaeke proposes that we can use the term ‘mythos’ as something that is always deeply connected to ritual (“enactive anagoge” i.e. the processes by which we try to activate the machinery of transformation) So when you hear the term “mythos” don’t just think of patterns of representation think also of patterns of action. You can also combine these with symbol + story. So these four traits taken together — mythos, ritual, symbol, and story — can be collected and understood as ‘mythos.’
  • “When you have a mythos about religio such that it activates religio so that we can seriously play with it in order to enhance its capacities for meta-assimilation and meta-accommodation, that’s sacredness.”
  • “Our relationship to religio is one that can only be born symbolically, because of the primordial, participatory nature of religio.”
  • One thing relevance realization is intrinsically interested in is itself. “It is a self-organizing, self-transcending, self-correcting process.” And because this is all so fundamental to the actual process, we subjectively find all of this deeply valuable and deeply meaningful.
  • “Religio is the machinery of meaning-making, and we use mythos to celebrate it and trigger the fact that relevance-realization is constituted to finding itself interesting.”
  • We now have a way to talk about the various aspects of sacredness. The essence of sacredness is in the sacred, and it takes us back to the metaphysical proposal: that what ultimately generates the experience of sacredness is something that has an absolute value because it has a particular metaphysical status. i.e. that is is super-natural — it is above nature. It’s above-ness means that it is always inherently valuable to us.
  • This suggests there is an essence to relevance, and this essence inheres to some particular thing/object (absolute value), but Vervaeke thinks this is a mistake and that there can be no essence to relevance. There is only the ongoing process of relevance realization. “There is nothing other than itself that is intrinsically interesting to relevance realization.”
  • The notion of sacredness here appears to be a category mistake. It confuses the products of RR with the process of RR.
  • Let’s go back to the gnostics. They were constantly inventing new myths. They saw the relationship to sacredness as an evolving one. So maybe there’s another way of understanding sacredness that can respect sacred texts but that doesn’t require the need for the supernatural as a category (or at least a significant transformation of what we mean by that term)
  • Reality is combinatorially explosive, and there’s an inexhaustibility to the process of RR. Not in the sense that we are infinite, but that the process is constantly evolving. “What if sacredness is not about finding the completion — the essence, the stabilized final form. What is sacredness is actually an experience of the inexhaustibleness of reality and the inexhaustibleness of the relevance realization machinery in its coupled response to that reality?”
  • Here’s an example: For me, Plato is sacred. This doesn’t mean he has some supernatural value or unquestionable authority, or that my understanding of Plato should be stabilized or finished or complete. Instead it’s the opposite. I read Plato, I have an insight, then I go out in the world, and that understanding in the perspectival sense transforms me. I engage, and I become, and the world discloses in a certain way. And after that process I return to Plato, and then I can see — I can realize things — in Plato what I did not see before, and those realizations reach deeply into me, leading to more engagement, transformation, etc. “It’s filled with a kind of developmental wonder for me.”

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 36 — Religio/Perennial Problems/Reverse Eng. Enlightenment (Summary & Notes)



Mark Mulvey

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