BUILDING WITH THE BREATH OF LIFE - Tom Bender - revised draft text 8 Jan.1999



Sacredness is essential to our everyday world. It is not a once-a-week kind of thing, but something which must permeate our entire lives. It underlies, but is distinct from, the religious expressions of the sacred which often tend to separate us from others with different traditions of the sacred.

Whenever we allow ourselves to know a place, person, or thing intimately, we come to love them. We see among their inevitable warts and wrinkles the special and wonderful things that they are, and their existence becomes as precious to us as our own. Loving them, we come to hold their existence inviolate - or sacred - and any action which would harm them becomes inconceivable. Openness, intimacy, knowledge, and love are the essential foundations upon which any healthy existence and any true sustainability must be built.

To many, the sacred seems "optional" and nonessential to our surroundings. We find it difficult to conceive of the value to our communities of creating sacred places and holding them inviolate. We seem puzzled as to what would be gained by spending money to enrich our homes, public buildings, and community places with hand-crafted work. We seem confused as to what we would personally gain from changing our work and our workplaces to enrich skills and embody supportive values rather than minimizing the use of skill and seeking minimal costs for our surroundings.

Only because we fail to see the commonness in the many symptoms of illness that arise from its absence is the sacred ignored today. We don't understand how the sacred affects and nurtures our lives and our health. We see ourselves surrounded by apparently intractable social problems - violence, alcoholism, drug use, crime, child abuse, apathy, failing schools. All are reaching epidemic proportions. All seem resistant to resolving.

These are not, however, separate problems. They are all symptoms of disease - not in our bodies -but in our psychic "immune systems" which keep endemic situations from escalating into epidemic problems. These social problems all arise out of the same lack of self-worth, lack of re spect by and for others, or lack of opportunity to be of use and value to family and society. These problems are all a single disease of the spirit.

This disease of the spirit is what we see in the eyes of people who have been defeated - individually or as a society - and who have seen what they love and value destroyed, lost, or taken away. It is what occurs when wealth and comfort make us too self-satisfied to reach out for the vital nourishment and understanding arising from work, community, and giving to others. It is the result where we lack the nurture of meaningful and honored goals, roles, responsibilities and power. It is what is produced by a culture that doesn't honor individual gifts, purposes, skills and differences.

Restoring the place of the sacred in our lives is essential to healing this disease of the spirit, because it nurtures these very aspects of our relationships whose diminishment has resulted in these seemingly separate problems. In its nurturing of our souls, the sacred is central to sustainability of society and preservation of the ecological health of our planet. And it is the core of a meaningful existence.


The sacred in our surroundings is essential for our well-being. We cannot have strong and clear intention that leads to real success in our lives unless all parts of our lives have coherence and resonate with the same core values. As our surroundings concretely reflect the values which were inherent in their making, it is essential that we bring both our places and our values into coherence as they reflect back into our lives.

The true role and importance of the sacred in our lives is very different from our customary beliefs. A piece of it can be glimpsed in the words of Malidoma Somé concerning the nature of work in a Dagara community:

....Our vision is the starting point of a primal technological power, which is the ability to manifest, to make Spirit real in material form....Spirit and work are linked among indigenous people because human work is viewed as an intensification of the work that Spirit does in nature.

In the spirit world lies the root of our existence, our purposes, our nurture, and our potentials. Restoring communion between the material and the spirit worlds is vital to the outcome and rightness of all our actions. Sourced in communion with the spirit world, our surroundings and the product of all our actions are permeated with the vital energy and rightness of spirit.


Simply put, the sacred deals with "honoring". It deals with respect and reciprocity - with what the Christian Golden Rule distilled into, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Honoring the sacred restores us to the wholeness needed to reconnect with our own hearts, our neighbors and the world around us. It give us the strength to summon our vital inner resources and to guide the powerful tools of our technology into right paths.

It helps us see the importance of community- and ecologically-based economics, and of not excluding from our decisions costs passed on to others. It helps us understand the importance of "fair trade", rather than "free trade" whose only freedom is that of exploiting the less powerful. It gives us also the basis for transforming and creating institutions which work to support rather than deplete the lasting supply of world resources, biosystem health, and the capabilities of human and global systems that constitute our real wealth.

And finally, we have a need for the sacred in our surroundings because it is an inherent aspect of how our universe operates. New things rooted only in the material world lack connection with other life, and are inherently destructive. In contrast, something new manifesting from rootedness in the spirit world maintains its wholeness with all Creation, and creates a new, non- destructive balance
. Evolution (and life) requires a dynamic balance and tension between harmony and stasis on one hand, and emergence of new possibilities on the other. Love, giving, and holding sacred are the glue which maintains and holds together this churning, chaotic dance.

Sustainability requires a true transformation of our basic values, the development of a spiritual core to our lives and society, and a building of institutions that direct our actions in harmony with these values.

Like a garden, our lives need to be weeded if they are to produce a good crop. Spiritual values are excellent cultivating tools. With them we become clearly aware how our conventional world splits us through the heart. We divide our time and lives between work and leisure. But rarely do we allow our work the leisure to be enriching. And rarely do we allow our leisure the purpose and reward of doing things of value and benefit. In a world of such contradictory values, wholeness is not possible.

How do we honor each other, ourselves, and the world which surrounds us? How do we honor old people, children, the sick or dy ing? How do we honor workers and those outside the workplace? How do we honor life's changes? How do we honor our neighbors, our past, our communities, or our adversaries? How do we honor plants and animals; the earth, air and waters; our planet and the stars from which we are de scended? And how do we honor all these things in how we make and use our surroundings? Expressing a sense of honoring in our surroundings is but a small piece of a sacred world, but one which permeates and connects to everything. And it is one which constantly surrounds us with concrete images of what we value.

All economics, and all cultures and communities derive from distinctive assertions of value. If the values chosen reflect consumption, greed, and violence, they create a far different world than if those values derive from the sacred. E.F. Schumacher, in his path-breaking "Buddhist Economics"
2 remarked on the characteristic kind of economics which arises from the values of Buddhism - on the role and importance of enriching work, of obtaining the maximum well-being from minimum consumption, and of the importance of non-attachment to wealth. He has shown also its effectiveness in creating successful life, culture, and tools.

Reestablishing a value base to our communities involves discovery of the real meaning of a whole range of sustainable values tied to the sacred. Austerity, for example, is important. But it does not, as we might think, exclude richness or enjoyment. What it does do is help us be aware of things which distract us from our real goals in life.

When we understand austerity, we see that affluence has a great hid den cost. Its possibilities demand impossible commitments of time and energy. It fails to discriminate between what is wise and useful and what is merely possible. We end up foregoing things necessary for a truly satisfying life to make time and space for trivia. As we relearn the value of austerity, along with stewardship, permanence, responsibility, enoughness, work, and interdependence, we create a new and enduring kind of community.


The pathways by which the sacred affects our lives are many, varied and sometimes unfamiliar. The sacred affects our bodies in giving us the security of support and nurture by others and obviating need for continuous tension of solitary responsibility. It affects our hearts by balancing the ever-present negative emotions of life with the healing and supportive emotions of love, caring, and being of value. It affects our minds through making visible the positive interactive pathways through which all life cares for us. And it affects our souls through direct connection with the spirits of all Creation.

* One of the least familiar but most important mechanisms by which our health is affected is through the vehicle of chi energy, which provides generative and nurturing energy to our lives. Chi is just becoming understood and acknowledged by our culture, but has been central to the philosophical, healing, and cultural traditions of virtually all other cultures. Our internal "chi" energy impacts and al ters the energy of the places we inhabit, and in much the same way, the energy of the places themselves affects us.

We are clearly not distinct and separated from the world within which we move. Influence and awareness move both ways across our skins and entwine us and the rest of the universe into a single organism. Harm we cause to our surroundings returns to cripple and diminish our own lives. In this kind of world, there is no excuse for taking from our neighbors and surroundings. There is only reason upon reason for giving and enriching life on both sides of our skin. The implications for how we shape and use our surroundings and our lives are immense.

Giving, as a basis of action towards our surroundings, opens immense new possibilities. When we as designers or clients stop saying only what "I want..." in a project and start asking, "What can this give?", we begin to find exciting new opportunities to strengthen the web of community in our cities. Planting street trees gives pedestrian shelter and lessens summer heat for the whole community. Building placement can create useful outside public spaces. An inexpensive public walkway or bridge may create pedestrian connections between parts of a city. Proper juxtaposition of uses can encourage community and 24-hour life in our cities.

Our surroundings themselves are worthy of honoring. They give vital support to our lives, can give us joy and beauty, and have lives and souls in their own right. They also express our values and convey to others our inner strengths and fears, pride and hungers. They speak of our relation with nature. They reflect our patterns of work and what we do or don't gain from that work. They show our relations with others, and what paths we take to self-respect, balance, and growth.

They reflect our goals as a society. They tell how we build, live and love. They show whether we know ourselves as part of the great and all-en compassing drama and adventure of our universe, or if we see ourselves apart from it all. What they reflect back to us today is not inspiring.

The shaping of our surroundings can be a tool for healing ourselves and our relations to others. In a sacred society our surroundings become a source of meaning, power and strength which we lack today. To make our surroundings better, our hearts need to be in a better place - which we are learning step by step. If our surroundings are better, they make us better. Strength leads to vitality, just as weakness leads to impotence.

Sacred places and sacred building are vital to a healthy society. We all know of places with such power, that should be held sacred. What is enshrined in such places is not necessarily something inherent in the places themselves, but, most potently, our act of holding something sacred. Sacred places boil down, again, to honoring. And that is key to healing a whole complex of social diseases.


The first step to both sound community and sound design is to reaffirm the sacredness of our world and establish that value as a touchstone of our society.

Life in a sacred society is difficult for many to comprehend, for we now have few remaining comparisons to the kind of support, strength, free dom, meaning, and confidence - and therefor health - that arise from being part of a community of respect.

One dimension of it can be seen in a Quaker or Japanese community, where consensus and shared decision-making, shared responsibility, and respect for others is still a central strength. Other dimensions can be seen in indigenous communities throughout the world which still maintain fragments of ancient ties to land, spirit, and wholeness, and in the surroundings and patterns of life which were shaped by such traditions. This different world comes into being as ripples outward from even the simplest act of bringing the sacred into our lives and our surroundings.

There is opportunity in every act of building to honor and show reverence. A spiritual base brings often subtle, but powerful, changes. A window can greet us in the morning with sunlight or a view into a garden rather than a dark or dreary room. Natural materials can honor their sources. Putting a "1% for heart" clause in construction contracts for ideas from the builders to enhance the environmental, esthetic and spiritual quality of a project can end up making all of the project better while simultaneously enriching workers' skills and self-esteem. Creating peaceful silence and shadow can give breathing room for users and space for new creation to occur.

Our places need to convey a spirit of greatness in our hearts, of celebration of the universe we inhabit and of our connection with it. We need to create homes for our spirits as well as our activities. We need to express the special spirit of every place and our own unique time in our surroundings - and to celebrate the rain, the winter, the night, the heat - and find ways to live comfortably in harmony with them.

The power of place has always been in the realm of its meaning, and its ability to align and marshal the invisible inner forces of our spirits with the invisible forces of nature. Spirit and sacredness are the root of that power; and place, not space, its manifestation.

Sometimes we may stumble onto one of those rare places that bring us into powerful contact with the primal forces of our world - a remote farmhouse, a forgotten temple garden, a simple barn, or possibly a famous cathedral. They make our hearts overflow in the same way as does a grove of ancient redwoods or a mountain top sunrise. We know then with certainty that the surroundings we create can and should power fully move our hearts. They can give deep nourishment to our lives and provide us with concrete visions of what is needed and possible in all our actions. We can, without question, create places with a soul.

It is time to put heart back into our places.


Communities, too, have personalities and reflect their makers. Present efforts to improve the sustainability of our urban and cultural patterns have so far ignored the vital human and spiritual components of enduring patterns. A city can have the best conceivable design of green space, homes, neighborhoods, efficient transportation, and material- and en ergy-efficient construction. That does not make it capable of moving our hearts.

It is our dreams, our passions, our distinctive cultures and ways of life that give shape to our cities and give them the power to move our hearts and affect our lives. We can live without wealth, but not without love and meaning.

We need places we can love, and enjoy, and about which we can be fervent. We need to rediscover how to make the communities where we live able to raise our passions and move our hearts.

Part of the specialness of places that touch our hearts are those unique qualities - climate, geology, history and community of inhabitants that make a place distinctively different from others and which gives root to a unique personality and spirit in its inhabitants.

The "Paradise Gardens" of Isfahan give a unique sense of its desert world. The incredible water and temple systems of the Khmers harnessed river floods to supply water for a sustainable agriculture, tie it into the cosmology of their beliefs and provided for the distribution of chi throughout the kingdom. The Winter Cities of Canada have grasped the power of imagery, meaning and emotion of winter living and transformed their communities into wonderful celebrations of winter with ice skating, winter festivals, skiing, snowmobiling and sled dog races.

An enduring wonder graces a village like Amien or Mt. St. Michael in France, or places like Giza in Egypt, or Chichen Itza in Mexico, where a quest for expression of the exultation of life and creation has transformed an entire community into a magical manifestation of that power. That wonder is possible in our communities also

Power of place can arise from layer after layer of the simple everyday acts of everyday people, as well as from great inspiration. Love of a place can even evolve invisibly out of our simple but fundamental act of belonging to it. When founding a new village, Native Americans bury a rock during their ceremonies of founding. The rock is not necessarily be in the middle of the planned village, or a special rock, or prominently visible. It is important, however, as marking an action establishing commitment and relationship.

It says, "In this place we will live. Our lives will be centered here, and we will see the universe and our surroundings from this point. Our lives here are a connection with this place." And out of that kind of commitment arises a sense of connection with a meaningful, valued and loved place. In a related way, the great cities of China, India, Egypt, or Mesoamerica have been built upon an image of the cosmos, the nation, nature, and our place within it, which gives unique and potent meaning to the lives of their inhabitants.

Our lives are sustained through our hearts being moved by the places where we live and visit. The power of those places evokes a similar will to self-esteem, to dreaming great dreams, and to the will to achieve them. We can transform our communities into something which draws forth the love of residents and visitors alike - in the physical fabric of the city, in the celebrations it supports and nurtures, and the way of life it empowers.

It is human passions and failings, dreams and hardship, that dominate the spirit of place of communities and give them the power to arouse our feelings and our will to maintain, refine, and enrich them, and to ensure their life into the future.

Make our communities places to love. That is the sustaining force of life. When we have communities we are passionate about and which nurture our souls, we will want them to endure. With that love, we will seek and assure the changes in infrastructure, land use, building practices and patterns of living essential to that survival.

38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© 8 Jan. 1999

1 Malidoma Somé, THE HEALING WISDOM OF AFRICA, Tarcher/Putnam, 1998 .

2 E.F. Schumacher, SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, reprinted Hartley & Marks, 1999 .

3 Malidoma Somé's writings give a good sense of this in African tribal culture .