December 11, 2016
Dancing on the edges of mundane reality is often what we—as Pagans and practitioners of alternative spirituality—are all about. But this is a fact that I have let slide at various points along my spiritual path. Being a pantheist who is largely immersed in scientific-rational discourse in my daily life, I often get in my own way in this regard. It’s all too easy for the ecstatic, experiential side of things to slide down my list of priorities; because with every lag in my practice, the doubting part of me steps in and questions the validity of spiritual experiences.
As part of my PhD research, I sat down today with a book by Sabina Magliocco, called Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. While many Pagan scholars are themselves in some way personally affiliated with Paganism, few are as open or explorative as Magliocco about the experiential aspects of engaging in this kind of ritual practice. This may be in part because she approached the Pagan community not from personal interest, but as a researcher; her deepening involvement and personal investment grew out of her initial stance as an outsider. Thus, she had to renegotiate her scholarly position as she underwent her research, rather than having considered her position before getting into it.
While her book is largely sociologically descriptive (and thus lighter on theory than I would have liked for my own research purposes), what caught my interest was the focus she developed, as a result of this deep personal involvement, on the experience of ‘religious ecstasy’ at the heart of Pagan ritual.
‘Pathworking’—a term I wasn’t particularly happy with but used in lieu of a better one—became central to my ritual experience in 2013; I’ve talked about this a bit, here and in videos. As with so many such skills in altering states of consciousness, it was an ability and a practice I took for granted, until I lost it. In the last few months, I started to realise how valuable it was to me and my practice; and reading Magliocco’s work really sparked something in me too. It reminded me just how important such practices are to my sense of connection to divinity, to the numinous.
Strangely, I dropped my pathworking practice not so much out of lack of time, but out of apathy. I began to question it as a practice—I felt as though I was just ‘talking to myself’, or making things up in my head, rather than experiencing something real. I also questioned to what extent this practice was really related to my religiosity, my sense of reverence, rather than just a form of convoluted self-help or naval-gazing.
What I’ve come back to realising is that it doesn’t really matter on what level any of this is really real—not from my perspective as a religious practitioner. What matters are the feelings it evokes, and whether it works as a tool to expand my sense of reverence, expand my understanding of divinity, and break out of the confines of consensus reality. I have great respect for what the scientific paradigm can achieve in terms of knowledge expansion and conceptual creativity. But feelings of awe, reverence, beauty, and connectedness are not conducive to scientific inquiry. Thinking about things from a scientific-sociological perspective doesn’t help me experience divine awe. And whether or not these things have any basis in material reality, these experiences have formed some of the most important moments, decisions, and focuses of my life. They have made me happier and more creative than the scientific-rational paradigm ever will.
So I’m going to open myself up to those experiences again. I want to build back up my skills for entering trance and experiencing visionary states. I want to delve deep into the murky world of creative consciousness, get lost in the symbolic richness my unleashed mind can offer. Because the experiences created by our own minds are all we have in this life; and those which are inspired by something other than direct, material sensory input can be just as transformational, and just as profound.