I read a book on the anthropology of religion and it introduced a concept that was at once obvious, but seemed to fly past the heads of every atheist or religious person I've heard discussing it.


Totems are things which stand for other things, in a symbolic sense.  The important thing about totems is that they involve no supernatural claims, but can still be the basis of spiritual rituals.  The point of totems is to draw a poetic allusion between two concepts.  Instead of being argued for the connection is engrained through ritual acts.

The example the text gave was communion, Christians don't actually believe they are eating a dead guy when they partake of bread and wine, it's an act which stands for something else.  Just as what is eaten will be digested and then constitute the body, the teachings of Christ will be digested and constitute the body of the follower (ergo, salvation).

This act draws upon Jesus Christ: the totem, not as the supernatural son of God or a historical figure, simply as a symbol.  What I noticed more and more as I reflected on religious ritual was how crucial the totem was in each case.  Rituals are powerful, symbolic acts and totems are the symbols the practitioner is trying to understand.  Rather than a mental act like contemplation, however, rituals rely on physical acts to create understanding.

Mythology is always the context in which these rituals take place, but they are not the immediate foundation.  Consequently, there is nothing to be believed or doubted in a pure ritual, an atheist can do it as well as anyone, all that is required is the intention to have the relevant insight unveiled.

This to me is the essence of spirituality: a physical act used to create a mental state, or a mental act used to create a physical state, each reinforcing the connection between mind and body.  For a culture which often views mind and body as inevitably divorced, this is tremendously useful.

Honir Honir
26-30, M
5 Responses Oct 26, 2009

Oh! Thank you!

I usually search "Mandala" and stare at the resulting images. I try to silence my mind so I can fully appreciate the effect the image has on my consciousness. Some of them are very trance-inducing and fun to meditate on. Some of them can be very subtle, and you have to concentrate quite hard to realize the intended effect. In any case, even attempting to use a mandala leaves me with a feeling of great calm, and that I truly appreciate.

I'm trying to work on creating my own mandala. But I need ideas first. This may take years. Lol.<br />
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How do you personally use mandalas?

A Mandala can be a totem. In most instances I would say it is simply a ritual focus (that's how I use mandalas, in any case). However, many mandalas depict dimensions of reality, and show how the analogy of the wheel orders that slice of the multiverse, which itself reflects a particular shade of our own existence. In Tibetan communities where mandalas are meticulously studied and painted, as in the sand art rituals, this is certainly the case. In that sense, where the mandala is used to grasp the world-wheel analogy, it is most definitely a totem.

Excellent story! I especially like how you defined our culture as the body and mind being "divorced;" ritual VS mental contemplation. This concept is also found in some Eastern communities in which they believe the mortal physical body is served as limitations or like a prison for the spiritual body. But isn't it interesting how some people use the same "rituals" and/ or "mental understanding" emerge from these same communities, believe that we should not only embrace our bodies but to also mend and develop them?<br />
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Would a mandala be considered a totem?