Long before there were computers, Twitter or Facebook, and back before cell phones, TVs and radios – way back to the earliest of times, humans were connected. Not to a global world made small by technology, but to a small world made global through its connections to the heavens and the earth – all one, great, mystical world to our early ancestors.
They sensed the energies that surrounded them, and knew the power of the celestial bodies in the skies above. They erected monuments of stone, set in a circle and strategically placed to align with the heavenly orbs that revolved around their world.
Within the safety of that circle, on consecrated ground they performed rituals and ceremonies. Though we may never know the words they spoke, or the actions performed, the sacredness of their intentions remain embedded within the confines of those circles. They are sacred spaces, and their sacred energy remains present even today.
Chuck Pettis, author of The Secrets of Sacred Space, believes the world needs more sacred places. “We get more than enough negativity on TV and in the news…Anything any of us can do to facilitate, encourage and create environments and spaces that make it a little easier for people to do prayer or meditation… is something that’s very good for us to do as human beings.”
To that end in 2000, Pettis purchased 72 acres on Whidbey Island near Seattle, Washington, and founded Earth Sanctuary, a sculpture garden of sacred spaces that he builds.
“This is a place where people have special, spiritual experiences,” he says of the meditation parkland that houses two stone circles, a labyrinth, a dolmen, an American Indian Medicine Wheel and two Tibetan prayer wheels.
There is also a retreat house on the property along with an abundance of wildlife.
“It’s important that we surround ourselves with an environment that is safe, peaceful, uplifting, and spiritual,” he continues. “I do that with stone circles and labyrinths, but it can be done just as nicely with plants, gardens, flowers in your home, creating an orderly environment…One can even create a little altar or shrine, or a shelf that is your personal sacred space.”
Pettis became involved with sacred spaces in the 1970s while attending college, where his interest was twofold – non-verbal communication and the effects of environment on one’s consciousness. He earned a psychology degree at Carnegie Mellon University, and then studied design at futurist Buckminster Fuller’s design department at Southern Illinois University. He helped build geodesic domes, inflatables and other unique, non-rectangular spaces, and observed that when people entered these structures they acted differently and to relate to one another differently. He concluded that space does affect a person’s consciousness, feelings and emotions.
This was also confirmed on a trip to England when he first toured several ancient stone circles. “These places had power to them. I can remember going into the Rollright Stone Circle near Oxford and feeling my consciousness change. I could feel the difference. From a spiritual standpoint, I could meditate better and go deeper, faster and more clearly.”
Intrigued, he began to study the design elements of these ancient monuments, and was curious to discover whether one could build a stone circle in modern times and generate the same powerful effect as the monuments of old.
In 1977 Pettis led the design and construction of the Ellis Hollow Stone Circle in Ithaca, New York. It was the first energetically and astronomically aligned stone circle constructed in the United States in modern times. “It worked, and it’s still working,” says Pettis, of the small stone circle with one tall standing stone and one recumbent stone surrounded by an ellipse of small boulders.
Spiritual Practices Become Part of the Landscape
Though no one knows the story behind those circles built thousands of years ago, Pettis offers his theory. “People in those times were more connected to the earth…There was no Disneyland, or tourist places, but there was a lot of reverence for the land. People built earth or stone monuments to create marked, distinct places. Then they did spiritual or religious ceremonies there.”
These places of power hold the feelings and emotions of the activities done above them, he explains. “Spiritual practices become a part of the landscape, so that when other people come to visit, they are uplifted by them. That feeling can last for quite a long time which is why many of the ancient monuments still have the power to evoke emotions and feelings of sacredness for people that visit them.”
When you build a stone circle, you create an “inside” space that is consecrated, holy, and set apart, he says. In creating the circle, that person selects the stones carefully, deciding how many stones there should be, and what shape they should be in – those decisions are part of the process of putting one’s own intention and personal spirituality into that space.
“It’s not the things that matter so much as the consciousness of the person or the people who are building and creating the space,” Pettis adds. “If the people who are building the space are just workers, then it’s not going to have much of a feeling. If the people building the space are doing it with a sense of mindfulness, or with prayer and with anticipation of a very sacred spiritual place…then all those feelings start to become a part of that distinctive circular space and those feelings grow as more and more people have those feelings, or go to that place and pray or meditate.”
The sense of spirituality grows over time. “It’s like having a relationship – you have to build it; you have to work at it. You want to be careful and conscious, and build it with grace and love and joy.”
Bringing More Sacredness Into Our Lives
A Tibetan Buddhist, Pettis believes that meditation is an important means of bringing the sacred into one’s life, but also realizes that not everyone can start with meditation. He notes, though, that most people are seeing, hearing, feeling or touching something. “People perceive reality through their senses,” he explains. What we see, feel, hear or smell registers first with the amygdala, the emotional center in our brain. It evaluates what it is that we’re sensing and determines its emotional relevance to us, then sends the signal on to the cortex brain; our so called “rational brain.”
But how we perceive the world and react to it is emotional, based on the feelings that the senses generate. So, he says, we should surround ourselves with sensory stimuli that evoke the emotions we’d like to feel – stimuli in the form of pictures, incense, and music that generate feelings of sacredness and spirituality.
One can begin creating personal sacred space by asking, “How do these objects that I’ve surrounded myself with make me feel? If I wanted to feel more peaceful, more spiritual, what could I take down and what could I put up in its place?” If an object does not make you feel good and uplifted, get rid of it, he advises. Either leave a blank wall, or put something there that reflects what or how you want to become.
Think of your body as sacred space, too. “This is about being nice to yourself,” he says. “If you truly love yourself, you will do everything you can to make yourself feel better, and to be kind to yourself and to honor your body and keep it healthy.”
That includes what you do in your spare time. Where can you go to enhance feelings of sacredness? “Certainly one of those is to go to a beautiful park, or forest or a natural place. Walk around or just sit,” he says. “Enjoy the “being-ness” of being in nature.” Or, you can choose to go to a church, or a temple or a spiritual center, he adds.
The path to sacredness begins with people making conscious choices not only about what they look at and listen to, but also about what they do in their spare time. TV, the Internet and the malls are too often what we choose. We forget that even in a city as big and as urban as Houston there are sacred spaces and sacred places to be found.
While many of us look to our houses of worship, the truth is, the sacred is not isolated in designated spots. We live in a sacred world. It surrounds us everywhere, at every second. While some locations contain the power of collective energy, we need only to raise our awareness of the wondrous world that envelops us to connect to the sacred, as our ancestors did so many centuries ago.
Author’s Note: This appeared in the 2009 issue of Change Magazine.