Friday, December 30, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Mad Wisdom

I learned early on to listen to my inner voice, and not the cacophony of foolishness that is conventional "wisdom." I recognized that the experience some call "psychosis" was for me an attempt at spiritual transformation, and I sought out wise teachers who could help me. I was fortunate to find this help within Tibetan Buddhism, where the lamas taught me the spiritual nature of my mental states and instructed me in yogic disciplines to stabilize mind within body.

My experience with altered states of mind prepared me for the mental and physical changes of death and dying, which other people fear so much. For example, many people begin to experience depression as they grow older. But I have already, by necessity, learned to deal with depression. Over time, I learned to recognize depression as a kind of prayer. For me, it has become a stabilizing energy that enables me to absorb and accept the vicissitudes of life with calmness and patience.
Sally Clay, who spent over 30 years in the American psychiatric system

Historical evidence suggests an encounter with the Gods is often more frightening than enjoyable. The mind-shattering terror one felt in the presence of Pan inspired our English word "panic." "Holy fools," adepts driven mad by their close relationship with the Divine, can be found in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Sufism, Tantra and Russian Orthodox Christianity, among other traditions. But today those experiencing "mad wisdom" are more likely to find themselves institutionalized than lauded as saints.

The very idea of personal gnosis is controversial enough in many quarters. Personal gnosis involving intense, disabling visions is often rejected out of hand. If the Gods want only the best for Their followers, why would They inflict schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or crippling psychosis on a devotee? Instead of dealing with this disquieting theological issue, it is easier to discredit the message and messenger. This is especially easy because of the stigma attached to mental illness. Revelations that fall outside your comfort zones can be safely ignored if they come from a "crazy" person.

This can be a difficult issue. We should not dismiss all bizarre behavior as "insanity" but neither should we pretend that insanity does not exist. Many mental illnesses can mimic the effects of a mystical experience. It can be difficult to distinguish between a psychological disorder and an encounter with the Gods – especially when you take into account that the two are not mutually exclusive. The Gods often find cracked or even broken vessels to be the most useful. But just as not every mystic is mentally ill, not every mentally ill person is a mystic. Joan of Arc and Francis of Assisi heard voices: so did Charles Manson and John Hinckley.
Mentally ill shamans know that our brains aren't entirely reliable. We know we can't always rely on what we believe to be "reality." This gives us a certain advantage over spirit-workers who have never had to question the evidence of their senses or their logic. For them getting a message wrong can be embarrassing. For us it can mean a trip back to the hospital. We tend to be more careful about our revelations and treat them with a healthy skepticism that is often lacking in the Neopagan community.

Having a spiritual contact (what Spiritualists called a "fetch") to sort out the real voices from the subconscious sock-monkeys is very useful. Finding that contact can be the first step to recovery, or at least to making peace with your sickness. But taking that leap of faith and trusting one voice amidst the many can be a terrifying step, with huge consequences if you are mistaken. If at all possible you should get assistance from a qualified spirit-worker who has experience dealing with mentally ill clients. And you should be ready to listen if that spirit-worker tells you "I don't think that message comes from the Gods." A valid contact can help: a sock-monkey will only lead you further into delusion and dysfunction.
– Kohinoor Setora, spirit-worker living with mental illness
We are not obligated to reinforce a sick person's delusions, no matter how much they might want us to do so. But we do have a moral responsibility to treat them with kindness and respect. Mental illness can be a tremendously lonely and isolating disease. Reaching out to a sick person with understanding – even if you must let them know that their "revelation" is just another symptom of their condition – can go a long way toward easing their suffering. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Study as Prayer

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe — that unless I believed, I should not understand. – St. Anselm of Canterbury

Intellectual knowledge is the foundation - but not the entire edifice - of our relationship with God. The Torah is not telling us to reduce this vibrant connection to a sterile equation. Once a rational foundation is in place, the Torah says to "return it to your heart." We must then work on creating an intimate, deeply personal and satisfying relationship with God, assimilating what we know in our minds into our feelings. We need to use our intellect to guide our emotions. Emotions are powerful tools, but when they are in the driver's seat, we are taken into dangerous territory. Feelings can sweep us off our feet and carry us to a world of illusion - Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Mystics in various traditions draw a distinction between intellectual knowledge and the deep insight of spiritual awakening. But this does not mean that they have minimized the importance of study and scholarship. Without a firm intellectual foundation, mysticism can degenerate into escapism and self-deception. Unable to distinguish between the Divine Light and material bubbling forth from their subconscious, untrained mystics can find themselves entranced like Narcissus at various pretty images. Instead of bringing them closer to the Gods, these visions only send them wandering down blind alleys of delusion that draw them away from practical spiritual or material work.

The better you understand your patron Deity through study of the best available sources, the easier it will be for you to distinguish between divine contact and wish-fulfillment. When you have internalized Their tales, you will be better able to recognize Their presence. You will be able to recognize Them by their behavior and demeanor and to spot an imposter spirit or a dream which originates within your mind rather than outside it. Exploring the primary sources, or academic works on the culture in question, can teach you a great deal about the role your patron Deity played in the past and can be expected to play in the present.

It will also be easier for you to identify Them by name. Instead of a vague "sun god" you will be able to distinguish between Sol Invictus, Ameratsu and Apollo – or, for that matter, between Apollo and Helios, two distinct Gods whose stories are often conflated by people with a cursory knowledge of Hellenic mythology. Many popular books present sanitized and homogenized versions of a few well-known stories. With more research, you may discover little-known roles and images that will help you put a name on your spirit-contact and get some idea of appropriate offerings.

Research can help you verify your UPG. Let's say you get a strong feeling that the pomegranate Persephone ate in the underworld was somehow connected to sterility and barrenness. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Today most people associate the pomegranate with fertility: its round shape resembles the swollen belly of a pregnant woman, and when it is opened it is filled with seeds. But a closer study reveals that pomegranate was frequently prescribed in classical and medieval medicine as an abortifacient and contraceptive. Modern tests on rats and guinea pigs have found that adding pomegranate to the diet of female rats and guinea pigs results in a measurable decrease in pregnancies. Armed with this information, you would have evidence that your hunch was indeed the product of divine inspiration.

Study can facilitate a religious experience. The very act of compiling information about your Deity can be its own prayer. It is a meditation constrained by facts and hard data, one which is less likely to go drifting off into flights of fantasy. And if finding information can be a form of prayer, making that information available to other worshippers can be a powerful offering. Artisans and religious writers throughout history have taken difficult concepts and put them in forms which laity can understand. By digging out material from primary sources and dry academic texts and bringing them to a wider audience, you follow in their footsteps.

Like any spiritual technique, this approach can have its pitfalls. It is possible to use your learning and research to construct elaborately crafted, historically accurate delusions. As we discussed in Chapter 4, some people make a fetish of research and scholarship: their path becomes less a direct encounter with Divinity than an effort at recreating an ancient faith down to the smallest details. We will also need to keep in mind that scholarship is not a static discipline. Egyptology as it was practiced in Victorian times bears little resemblance to today's academic discipline: this century's brilliant professor may well be the next century's quaint curiosity. If our visions don't jibe with contemporary academic thought, it could be that they are wrong or it could be that our scholars are in error.

If we wish to reforge the old connections with the Gods, we will do well to understand the ways They were honored in the past. But we also need to understand that the world has changed, for better and for worse, in the long centuries since They were last honored. The trick is to create ways of veneration that are appropriate for our society and which meet the needs of both Gods and worshippers. An exclusive focus on Their ancient glories runs the risk of placing Them safely in a Golden Age and making Them irrelevant to the here and now. Ultimately we may do best to follow the lead of Reconstructionist Judaism and give the past a vote but not a veto.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits:" Circles of Worship

Many different practices are lumped together under the rubric of “worship.” If we are going to understand the way spiritual practices help us relate to and understand the Divine, we may do well to examine those various layers and the ways in which they influence each other. “There are many different pathways to God” is a common truism. But few realize that every individual simultaneously walks on several of these pathways at any given time.

The core of this spiritual onion is the relationship between Deity and the individual. Since the Protestant Reformation and its focus on a personal relationship with Christ, this layer has received the lion’s share of attention. Interactions at this level are personal and intimate. They may resemble the relationship between a king and his subject, between a mother and her child, between a lover and the beloved, between old friends exchanging helpful suggestions and entertaining anecdotes – the possibilities are endless.

From there we have the relationship between Deity and the family. Today we rail against efforts to “indoctrinate” children. For most of history indoctrination was seen as a good and a necessary thing. Parents were expected to pass down their religious teachings to their offspring. Spirituality provided children with role models to follow and provided a moral and ethical foundation that would help them become strong and productive adults. Much as children might learn the family trade, so too would they learn the family prayers and become acquainted with the family spirits.

Still other layers of worship were placed atop these. The family participated in the spiritual life of their village. Depending on the village’s ethnic or cultural makeup, those rites might establish them as part of the greater community or set them apart. Sometimes it would do both. In the Classical world different communities might serve the same God using different rites and representations. This did not give rise to war and to calls of blasphemy but to pilgrimages. A merchant who wanted to repay a debt to Zeus might visit His temples in several different cities. There he might be regaled with different stories of the Sky-Father’s origin: he might hear of Zeus the wolf-father, the Cthonic Zeus who lived underground, or the ram-horned Zeus Ammon honored in the Egyptian deserts. All these different tales of Zeus were proof of His glory and majesty: instead of focusing on their contradictions, devotees saw them as part of a greater whole, a Mystery that could not be summed up in a single book or a single legend.

A vision or a visitation might result in changes to the practices within an area, or they might result in visionaries setting up temples elsewhere and putting their gnosis to practical use. This was not seen as irreverence but as the highest form of devotion. Be it a small roadside shrine or a massive marble temple about which a city formed, gnosis led to the creation of another sacred place and gave us another myth by which we might come closer to the Gods. Worship was inclusive rather than exclusive: as the worlds of their devotees changed and grew, so too did the worlds of their Gods. As time went on new stories were added to the canon: once-important and widely known tales faded in importance and were lost.

(Indeed, many would argue that changes in the world of humanity were spurred by changes in the world of the Divine. Where many today believe the sacred world is a pale reflection of mundane reality, many historical intellectuals believed our reality was but shadows cast by the Divine Light – see Plato’s thoughts on the “Forms” for one particularly influential version of this theory).

This is not to say that the liturgies and rituals of the Gods were completely flexible, or that arbitrary changes were acceptable to the clergy or the congregations. Cities maintained their religious rites as diligently as their walls and defenses: families protected their patron spirits as fiercely as their treasure. Traditions were not altered without very good reason: it typically required some combination of gnosis, charisma and armed force to make changes in the way a city honored its Gods. Those who were unsuccessful in their campaigns were often invited to leave or even jailed or killed for blasphemy.

Religious controversies did not begin with the rise of monotheism. The Romans were horrified by the Carthaginian practice of infant sacrifice. (They also feared Carthage as a competitor, proving that the use of religious grudges for political ends has an equally long history). There were certainly doctrinal disputes and disagreements that might disrupt a community: the Bacchanals frequently attracted negative attention for their frenzied rites. But by and large there was a great deal of flexibility in the ancient world. Groups were allowed to believe and worship as they saw fit, so long as their members functioned as peaceful and productive citizens.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From "Talking With the Spirits" - Doctrinal Disagreements: the Right Way(s) of Approaching Deity

Within modern Paganism we frequently find that theological discourse begins from one of two extreme positions. The most common is the idea that there is no “right” or “wrong” when serving the Gods. The only sin is intolerance: the only blasphemy is to accuse another of blaspheming. If someone wants to serve hamburgers to a Hindu deity or dedicate their mixed martial arts training studio to a peace-loving God like Kwan Yin, it is not our place to criticize them. So long as nobody gets hurt, anything goes. (This, of course, leads to the thorny question of “what constitutes ‘gets hurt’” – but frequently that issue is ducked altogether, or answered with platitudes about how everyone has life lessons to learn and we shouldn’t interfere with someone else’s path).

Often this approach is rooted in a belief that the Gods are merely symbols or tools by which we may better understand ourselves. Abstractions cannot be offended or take umbrage at blasphemers: if rituals are merely psychodrama, their value lies solely in what they can do for the participants, not what they offer to the Divine. When the question is not “how can we serve the Gods?” but “how can the Gods serve us?” there is little need for doctrinal purity or ritual protocol. There is also in many cases a conscious rejection of rigid doctrines that assign unbelievers to eternal torment and damnation. If we are going to reject our natal religion and create a new one, we might as well start by jettisoning the most problematic issues with our old faith. There have certainly been many atrocities committed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s will. And to outsiders (and many insiders) the motivations for spiritual conflict can seem trivial and even silly.

But while this approach may be useful for conflict avoidance, it can be unsatisfying for those seeking a greater rigor in their spiritual life. If your present spiritual path is no better than any other and no more likely to bring you closer to the Divine, then why waste time traveling on it? Some have sought and found structure in living faiths. They become initiates in African Traditional Religions and master every detail of their tradition’s practices; they memorize pages of Sanskrit and do pujas that would impress a Mumbai Brahmin; they become Thelemites who can tell you what Aleister Crowley had for supper the evening he wrote a poem that sheds light on an obscure line in one of his Class B publications. Others collect volumes of scholarly texts on history, archaeology and related disciplines in an effort to recreate the religion of their ancestors with the most painstaking accuracy possible.

This kind of dedication is laudable and can definitely help a seeker to better understand their Gods and their faith. But it can also become an end in itself rather than a means toward developing a deeper spiritual relationship with the Divine. Those who take a more casual approach to their faith are scorned as “fluffy bunnies” or “culture vultures” who are merely playacting. Devotion is measured not by how much an adherent loves the Gods, or how important a role They play in the worshipper’s life, but by how much knowledge devotees accrue concerning the traditional ways They were served, and how slavishly they recreate ancient rituals.

The possibility of a middle path is all too often minimized or ignored altogether. What if we accepted that the Gods are real and that They can be offended by our actions? But what if we also accepted that the rules of Divine/human engagement are written and enacted not as universal Truths but as individual and community guidelines? We stumble when we say that all spiritual paths are equal and any convenient way of approaching the Divine is as good as any other. But we also stumble when we attempt to create overarching “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” which apply beyond our immediate circles.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Gnosis and Accusations

Controversies frequently arise when gnosis moves from a personal encounter with the Gods and becomes a divine engagement with a community of believers. One person's prophet is another's insane cult leader: one group's holy scriptures are another group's collection of incoherent rants. Disagreement and disbelief often lead to accusations of unsavory and even criminal behavior.

Determining whether or not these claims have any merit can be a difficult task. Witch wars and theological disputes have historically led to allegations of  devil worship, human sacrifice and all sorts of luridly titillating details intended to show that the opposing party isn't just doctrinally questionable but outright evil. When we are dealing with gnosis and personal interactions with the Gods, it is important to distinguish between doctrinal differences and actual criminal activity. We may disagree in good faith about how a Deity should be served. There should be universal agreement that abuse and exploitation are unacceptable no matter what religious justifications the abuser puts forth.

Annamaria Filan (age 12 days):
not on topic but awfully cute.
To sort out idle gossip from serious issues, it may help to apply the old journalistic "Five Ws."

Who? Who committed these alleged crimes? Who are the victims of these nefarious schemes? Who are the witnesses?  Some of the people involved may wish to remain anonymous for one reason or another but  there should be at least a couple of verifiable names to be found somewhere in the tale.

What? What are the specific offenses? Instead of nebulous comments about "brainwashing" look for detailed descriptions of actual incidents wherein the alleged perpetrator abused hir power. When you hear someone is a "pervert," find out what the claimant means by those terms. Is the critic talking about consensual or nonconsensual activity: what specific behaviors does sie find offensive?

When and Where? When and where did these events take place? Abuses don't happen in a vacuum. If someone remembered them well enough to share with a third party, they most likely remembered the approximate date and location as well.

Never mind the crucifix:
she did #2 in that diaper!!!! 
Why? Why would the offender do such a terrible thing? Christopher Lee and Vincent Price made careers out of playing villains who were evil for the sake of evil. Just about everyone else is convinced they are doing the right thing, and feel their motivations are perfectly reasonable and sane.  And while we're asking the question: what are the motivations of the person or persons bringing this information forward?

An inability or unwillingness to provide specifics is a huge red flag. It suggests your source is mindlessly parroting gossip at best, or engaging in an active campaign of smears and whispered innuendo at worst.  If you can get a few clear data points, you're in a much better position to corroborate or refute claims.  If it turns out the alleged perpetrator was in a different country on the day the "atrocity" took place, or that the "victims" were actually willing participants who found the experience enlightening or even enjoyable, that's one thing. If a little bit of digging reveals a large number of disparate people telling very similar horror stories, that is quite another.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From the Upcoming "Talking with the Spirits" - Preserving the Lore, Transmitting the Lore

In discussions of religions of antiquity, “reconstruction” refers to the process of building a model of previous historic and pre-historic traditions, and then examining that model for ideas of how to implement those traditions in a modern, practical sense. The specific definition of “reconstruction” which fits our usage best is, “an interpretation formed by piecing together bits of evidence”.

In the case of [Celtic Reconstructionism], what we are attempting to model are the various forms of pre-Christian Celtic spirituality. We do this in order to create a modern spiritual practice that retains as much authentic older material as possible while also being workable in the modern world. We do this because we feel called to Celtic Deities and a Celtic worldview, and we wish to help preserve modern Celtic languages, music, and cultures
  Kathryn Price NicDhàna, Erynn Rowan Laurie. C. Lee Vermeers and Kym Lambert ní Dhoireann
Because we are a highly literate culture, we tend to learn things from text. Books (and now e-readers, tablets and the Internet) are our preferred medium for the storage and transmission of information. Our religious beliefs were shaped by the Reformation, when the printing press took Scripture and its interpretation from the hands of an educated clergy and turned it over to the individual.  Given that, it’s not surprising that we equate “lore” with stories we can read. Nor is this entirely a modern phenomenon. Many religions have holy books, not just the big Monotheist faiths: consider the Rig Vedas, the Zoroastrian Avestas and similar texts.

Sacred books can preserve a great deal of ancient knowledge, and provide a framework upon which we can build sociocultural institutions and identities. After the Temple's destruction, the Rabbis preserved Jewish identity and culture through their veneration of Torah and Talmud: they allowed the Jews to survive as a people when many peoples were consigned to the dustbins of history.  We cannot minimize the value of the written word.  But neither should we minimize other ways of preserving information which are perfectly functional and which even have advantages over the literary approach.

Songs and Recitations: Singers and bards have long memorized lengthy passages. The Iliad and Odyssey were transmitted orally before being preserved in writing.  Even today the Kirghiz preserve their ancestral history in the Manas saga, an epic of over 236,000 lines - almost nine times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined! (And yes, there are manaschi – trained performers of the saga - who know every line).  These songs and stories are more flexible than the written word. The poet/singer is given room to improvise, to alter the text to address contemporary problems.  Current events can be incorporated into the tribe's collective memory and become a part of their mythology. 

Oral epics grow within a well-established culture, yet are less subject to official censorship and control.  Controlling printing presses and libraries is one thing: controlling the songs the grandparents sing to the children at night is a far more difficult matter. The chante lwa (lwa songs) of Haitian Vodou come out of a society where dictatorial government by force has been the rule. They feature many double entendres, allusions and sly winks which are clear to the poor peasant singers but which a wealthy spectator would likely miss.  In a land where expressing one’s grievances can be fatal, the chante lwa allow believers to communicate safely with their fellows and with their spirits.

And while the written word can convey information with great accuracy, there are emotional nuances that can better be transmitted by music. Rhythms can induce altered states of consciousness and even full-on trance possessions. Marching songs can gear an army up for war: love songs can put an audience in a romantic mood.  Sufi mystic Syed Mumtaz Ali said their devotional Sama songs were
… a means of increasing the brightening light of the burning flame of the love of Allah and it has a tremendous spiritual effect on the listeners. Many a Sufi undergoes a state of unveiling of spiritual divine mysteries. When such states coming from the world of the unseen thus become overwhelming, the Sufis experience a particular kind of spiritual state of transformation which is called 'wajd' or spiritual ecstasy. 
… Sama which moves and activates this mystical element in man in such a way that it makes the listener totally unaware of his surroundings in this phenomenal world to some other reality. The man thus becomes completely unaware of this world, its surroundings and the effects of the corporeal universe. Sometimes the effect of Sama becomes so intense and severe that all the energy and strength of the listener's limbs becomes suspended and he loses his consciousness. One who remains intact and manages to stay on his original position even after passing through such a state of deep ecstasy reaches and attains to very high spiritual positions indeed!
Art: In cultures where only a privileged few are literate – that is to say, most cultures throughout history – the masses must get their religious education through other means.  The decorations in temples and cathedrals were not just for show. They were also a means by which stories could be passed down to spectators. Murals told the story of a people’s noble triumphs and heroic defeats. Statues gave concrete form to abstract ideas and provided a tangible representation of intangible beings.  By meditating upon those images, the postulant could gain an understanding beyond a merely intellectual apprehension. Standing before an enormous marble sculpture of Poseidon, they could feel both the sea king’s enormity and His personality.   The Netjer (Egyptian deities) could be symbolized with hieroglyphs but came to vivid life in wall paintings and brightly colored statues.

Idols were a nexus between the sacred and mundane worlds, a literal embodiment of Spirit. In creating images of the Gods, craftsmen brought Them into their place and their time.  The Renaissance artists who painted saints in contemporary clothing and who surrounded Jesus with European shopkeepers and peasants were bringing His mystery into their era. They were focusing on the Crucifixion and Resurrection not as historical curiosities but as eternally recurring Mysteries.

Monotheists condemned idolatry because they felt that it limited the infinity of the One God, that it focused on the creation rather than the Creator. But few who venerated idols were so foolish as to believe that their God could only be found in a particular image. Rather, they recognized that their shrines were both wholly statue and wholly God: the Divine was infinite yet also present within the confines of the sacred image. (Christianity preserved some of this line of thought in their Mysteries of the Incarnation and the Transubstantiation of the Eucharist).  Hindu scholar Shukavak N. Dasa explains:
Hindus worship specific images that are described in scripture (shastra). The technical name for these sacred images of God is arcya-vigraha. Arcya means 'worship-able' and vigraha means "form" and so arcya-vigraha is the "form to be worshipped." We can also say that God agrees to appear in these special forms that can be understood by human beings in order to allow Himself to be worshipped.
Drama:  Greek drama began as rituals to Dionysus. Comedies celebrated joyous stories during the green spring and summer: tragedies honored sad events in His mythos during the cold fall and winter months when nature mourned. Through watching the downfall of heroes audiences could experience pity and terror, resulting in a catharsis (purification) of negative emotions. The broadly drawn burlesques of comedies allowed them to laugh at human frailties: often these “satyr plays” were ribald observations on love and lust wherein even the Gods could be subjected to gentle lampooning.
Ritual drama was hardly confined to the Pagan world. Medieval mystery plays like Everyman provided moral guidance and edifying allegory to the peasant crowds. Passion plays brought the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus to vivid life. (Alas, the audiences frequently became so engrossed in the action that they later took to the streets en masse to punish any “Christ-killing” Jews they could find). On the Day of Ashura, Shi’ite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali with parades of flagellants lamenting his death and wounding themselves to bleed as he bled. And Yiddish theater, which influenced American dramatic forms from Vaudeville to Hollywood, has roots in Purimshpil, comedic improvisations performed in synagogues during the Feast of Purim.

Although it sometimes results in possession, dramatic reenactments need not draw down the Gods directly. More often they bring the audience to the Gods or to the events being celebrated. Whether as spectators or participants, they experience the past as present. This can become a powerful means by which community is created – especially when these dramas are performed for a strictly limited audience and serve as initiation ceremonies.  Then they can serve both to enlighten and to mark the participants as a people set apart.